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Swim at your Own Risk, Stepmom.

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I’ve been a stepmom for nearly 5 years. Although, if we take a step back, nothing in that sentence is entirely true. I met my partner in 2014. I met his four kids, slowly and sporadically, over the next six months. 

I moved in to their house two years later, in 2016. We are not married, so I am stepmom by role alone, and not by marriage.  So, to start again…

I’ve been an adult responsible for children who are not my own for some portion of the past 4 years. 

And over that period, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about what that means, for us as a family, for me as a person, and more generally in the larger picture of our community and society. 

It feels like it has passed in the blink of an eye, and yet, I can’t quite remember a time when these people weren’t my family. 

I know that every family is different, and every journey is different, so I don’t intend for this to be a how-to manual for anyone else. It is more a reflection on how things happened for me.

Hopefully, you can recognize some of the feelings and know that others have blazed a similar path before you! 

I envision my journey as a stepmom in different (and somewhat distinct) phases. A few years back, while trying to describe one of these phases, I used a swimming pool metaphor—and well, it stuck!

Phase 1: Sunbathing and Observing

In the first phase, I was an observer. It’s like I walked into a crowded swimming pool, and I tried to find a quiet seat at the edge. I dipped my toes in to see what the water was like, and then I pulled them back. 

I sat, and I watched. I watched everyone playing and swimming with ease, floating from group to group, playing games, or lounging in a chair. 

But, I just sat. And watched. 

If someone came up to me, I said hi. If someone asked to play, I did. I didn’t initiate any games, or ask people to move to make room for me. I just sat, dipping my toes in, to see what the water was like. 

I was lonely. It turns out, sitting on the edge watching people have fun and never really being included is miserable. Trying to tip toe around everyone, in your own home (or pool) is exhausting.

But, who can blame them for not wanting to include the weirdo who just sits around and watches. I realized that I was spending a lot of time feeling bad.

I have learned now that when the phase I’m in is starting to feel bad, it’s probably because it’s time to change phases!

Phase 2: The Lifeguard

In the second phase, I was the lifeguard. It felt almost like I found a spot, whose role I understood, and I jumped into it. All pools need lifeguards, and here I came.

I was organizing things, I was spouting out “rules“, and I was “in charge.” I was watching the 2 other lifeguards (the kids’ mom and dad), and I was trying to follow suit. 

At first I felt like I was totally on top of things. I had it all running smoothly. I was soon to earn everyone’s respect and admiration. 

Except, the kids really didn’t like having an extra lifeguard; there were already plenty of lifeguards at this pool. And, trying to be the BEST LIFEGUARD EVER was exhausting, and not at all fulfilling. 

Now, I had a pool full of rowdy kids, none of whom wanted to listen to me. I felt like the bad cop, all of the time. And, if you can guess, it felt bad.

One of the things that sticks out in my mind about these first two phases is that I often felt lonely, and like an outsider in my own home. 

I also often felt like I led two lives. One when the kids were in our house, and one when they weren’t. It felt like I had to hang my needs and emotions on a hook for a week, like a wet towel, and could address them once the house was quiet again.

I was still hiding a lot of who I was, and what I wanted, and it kept me at a bit of an arm’s length from everyone (not my partner, of course, but everyone else).

Phase 3: Camp Counselor

In the third phase, I was the camp counselor. I tried to focus only on the fun things. Of course, I tried to make sure that the kids were safe and supervised and happy, but I didn’t want to lifeguard. 

I tried to keep them following the rules, to an extent, but I ultimately relied on someone else to really keep an eye out. I wanted to play the games. I wanted to be the fun cop! 

I wanted to be exciting, and, more importantly, I wanted credit for being exciting. My partner is fantastic, and he was amenable to this phase, even without me verbalizing that this is what I was doing. 

I wasn’t even entirely aware that I was doing it. What was great about this phase is that I did a lot more of what I wanted to do. 

But, eventually, I realized that the kids were still thanking their dad for all of the fun things *I* was doing. And, then, I started to feel resentment, and very unappreciated. 

Here I was, spending all my time and effort to do nice things, and even still it felt like no one noticed. Or, if they did, they assumed that someone else was really the brains behind it all. 

I remember one day thinking in my head (thankfully not saying it out loud) that they were all so ungrateful, because I’d done this thing and no one even seemed to care. 

And, as I thought about it, I realized that I was my own problem. No one ASKED for me to do that thing. Is it their fault if I did a thing that no one really wanted? Am I always grateful for the efforts of others, that don’t align well with my wants and needs? Of course not. 

And, this was when the third phase came to a close.

Phase 4: Put Me in Coach

I think I’m here in my fourth phase (I guess someone should tell me now if I’m the only one going through these wildly different phases, maybe I’m doing it all wrong). And, I feel like I’ve hit my stride, like we’ve hit our stride. 

I think of this as my flexible phase. I’ve spent A LOT of time observing how this pool works—who comes and goes, who likes the diving board and who wants to get a suntan. And, I’ve spent a lot of time looking (and trying) all the roles here. 

There are lifeguards, and camp counselors, and swimmers, and people behind the scenes who come to clean up and cook food. And, in this phase, I’m all of those people. 

Not all at once; I’d die. I change roles, and I’ve learned to communicate that change (sometimes subtly, sometimes directly) with my partner, with the kids, and with the other house. 

Some days, I’m the lifeguard, and I coordinate with my partner, and the kids, to let them know, “I’m going to keep us sticking to the rules right now”.

Sometimes, I really don’t have it in me to lifeguard, but I know that someone needs to, and that’s when I tag my partner in, “Could you please go tell him to put all this stuff up in his room, so that I don’t lose it?” 

Occasionally, I’m the camp counselor, and I have found a fun activity for us to do, but I’ve learned to prepare myself, for the times when I want the activity to be a surprise, that they may not be grateful, and I can’t be doing this for “credit”.

What I really enjoy about this phase, is it allows me to be me more often, and it has helped me to really feel like a part of this family. It allows me to take a break from always lifeguarding, or always cleaning, or always planning activities. 

What is challenging about this phase, is that it also requires me to be ready when someone else asks me to fill in a certain role that I wasn’t wanting to play—sometimes without warning.

There are other times when no one asks me, but I see that there is a role being left unfilled. 

If I could go back…

I don’t think I could have walked in on Day 1 and jumped right into Phase 4.  I needed all of these other phases to get myself to the place I am now. So, I don’t regret the process.

This process has shown to me that sometimes, when things get hard and I’m feeling bad, I need to re-evaluate my role. 

In the course of my first three phases, I also was able to carve out a little spot for me in everyone’s lives. I don’t have to tip toe around anymore, looking for an opening. 

Today, it doesn’t feel so devastatingly awful if I’m not initially included or thought of. I’m able to yell from the other side of the pool, “Hold on, wait for me!” And, they’re accepting enough to wait, and make space for me. 

These initial phases also helped me to observe my own communications and actions. What’s really crucial for the flexibility phase, is being more intentional and transparent in your words and actions. 

I am a planner, and I can’t turn that part of my brain off. Logistics are my love language. But, I’ve learned to be more clear about that process. 

Instead of just saying NO to something quickly, I will instead describe my reasoning, or my concerns, and have the other person come to the conclusion with me.

Or, they can offer a solution that I wasn’t able to see.  I’ve taken this newfound skill and used it in other aspects of my life, and it’s been amazingly helpful!

A Look Ahead

Blended families require flexibility, communication, and patience.  A lot of those. It often feels like a game, where the rules change on you just as you begin to feel comfortable.

Because of this, I know that Phase 4 is not my last phase! I know it will switch again. I’m hopeful that Phase 4 will help all of us (kids, parents, stepparents, etc.) be a little more aware of our changing roles, and how to jump in and out of them, so that we can work together for whatever comes next.

This morning as I walked our youngest, a 4th grader, to the bus stop, I was struck by the comforts of this “new” role in my life.

In the course of 5 minutes I waved to neighbors out walking their dogs, spoke quickly to parents about after school club schedules for the week, shouted down the street to some girls who were a little late to the bus which had already arrived, and griped with some of the moms about the inconsistency of the bus this year.

I wished my stepdaughter a good day, and she leaned over for a hug and a kiss on the head. I waved goodbye to her as she walked onto the bus, already chatting with some of her friends.

And, then I walked home, wondering how I got here. To a place where I am connected to my neighbors in a way I never have been before, connected to our community and the goings on locally in a way that is bigger than anything I’ve experienced before, and connected to a family that was already so full of people and love. 

The truth is, I got here slowly. By brute force, at times. Rewriting my expectations and goals continuously along the way.

Wherever you are in your journey, just know that with each changing phase you become a little bit more capable of holding things together. The lonely, left-out, bad feelings are not permanent, and can actually help you figure out when and what to change.

Know that you are strong for even considering this role, and you are doing an amazing job with it!

P.S. There are so many things that surprised me when I became a stepmom. Maybe they surprised you too?

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