Dear New Stepmom… advice for getting started

Dear New Stepmom,

Congratulations! You just got married to the man of your dreams and in an instant, you became a mom. Of course it wasn’t really an instant. You probably started to get into the groove of family life while you were dating, so pat yourself on the back for doing the work to catch up on how to handle bedtimes, homework, vacations with children, school drop offs and special events with multiple families without previous experience—and all while navigating a budding romance.

Welcome to the very special and very complicated role that is being someone’s extra mom. I’ll say this: there is nothing like it. It’s at times very difficult to co-parent with two or three other people, but it also brings great joy and its own type of reward.

Here are a few things I wish other people had told me going in:

First, people who have not been stepparents are going to offer you advice and make well-meaning comments intended to give you perspective. They won’t know that the rules for regular parents don’t always translate to the stepparent role. It may not register with them that what they’re saying is hurtful or insensitive. Don’t blame them too much. They don’t realize it, but they have no clue what they’re talking about. Take it with a grain of salt, or better yet, forget it altogether.

The best thing I did for myself while getting into the stepmom role was to find another stepmom who I could vent with and vice versa.

In our cases, our frustrations and concerns had nothing to do with our stepchildren, and more to do with the relationship of the ex-wife to our husbands, ourselves and the new family dynamic. In my case, I suspect that very little of what concerned me back then actually had anything to do with me, even though you couldn’t have convinced me otherwise at the time. If you’re married to a good man who is attempting to build a cordial, working relationship with his ex for the good of their child, it’s usually counterproductive for him to hear what you find difficult about being around her or coordinating with her, even (and maybe especially) at the beginning. Having someone to talk to who’s been there helps tremendously.

You might be surprised to find that other adults may be reluctant to accept you and your role with your stepkid. It may come in the form of a teacher who doesn’t once acknowledge you during a parent teacher conference, even if you took off of work to be there, or other parents at a birthday party who don’t bother to catch your name or make chit chat, even if you’re the one who organized the shindig. But it doesn’t make you any less of a parent.

This is relatively uncharted territory for most folks and they’re probably unsure what to do. Am I betraying the mom by making friends with the stepmom? they wonder.

They might speculate, Is her relationship with the dad going to last long enough for her to be around for the next birthday party?

As a stepmom, you just have to stick it out in this phase and show them what you and your stepkid(s) already know—that you’re in it for the long haul. Be yourself, and if they’re still hesitant, you can feel better about moving on and finding other parent friends. They’ll either see that you’re good for your kid or they won’t.

On that note: Worrying how other people view you is natural, but counterproductive.

When I got into the role, I was worried about a lot of things but this one was pretty high on the list. Whether you’re thinking of the ex-wife, the former couple’s old set of friends, doctors, teachers, extended families, you might initially have an audience for your still-developing step-parenting style and the relationship you have with your stepkid.

First I was worried that being so completely different from his mother would count against me. Logically I knew I didn’t have to be like her, but I wondered whether I’d be so unfamiliar that my stepson wouldn’t like me at all. Thankfully, through the way that my then-boyfriend, now-husband introduced us, he got to know me without thinking of me as a motherly presence. I think it allowed him to come to appreciate me for my own personality traits and quirks.

Then I worried that his mom, along with her family and friends, would critique my every word or action with him and be wary of our relationship, even if it was a good one. Once it was clear that it was a good relationship, I sensed some worry that I might overstep my bounds and try to replace her or undermine her in some way.

Over time, though, they saw a pattern of him coming back well fed, and generally happy and relaxed from our times together. They saw me consistently defer to her at appropriate times. And in turn, I felt less and less pressure to prove myself to them and could just focus on the actual relationship with my stepson.

Once I got pregnant with my own son, I worried that having a boy would make it easier for all those people to compare my parenting with the ex-wife’s parenting. But as far as I can tell, I was the only one who thought about that.

The bottom line is that no matter what, you’ll be different from all the other people in your stepkid’s life. As long as you have a good rapport with him (and with your husband, of course) that’s really all that matters.

Becoming friends or friendly acquaintances with your stepkid’s mom can change your life for good

This is a universally tough one, and because of that, I can’t give any advice for it except to say that your life will likely be easier if the two of you can work together without a third party. Not surprisingly, it may take time (a lot of time, perhaps) before you get to know each other well enough to come by it honestly. In my case, it took a lot of practice being around each other and plenty of misunderstandings before we figured things out.

My husband taking a job that required him to travel every other week forced me to start communicating with her more intentionally since I knew we would be coordinating my stepson’s schedule together more. Something about exchanging phone numbers was magic. Being able to talk to each other directly was less stressful for my husband, who had until then been the go-between, and it was easier for the two of us, too. It also allowed us to get to know each other better. To my shock, we were able to get things done more efficiently and even joke around sometimes.

Knowing how to handle conflict and discipline without your husband is a must

This is one that I recommend getting comfortable with when you can. As budding stepmoms, it’s tempting (and easier) to act as an older friend or cool aunt (Julia Roberts movie, anyone?) to jumpstart a good bond between you two. But things can’t stay that way forever if you’re planning on living under the same roof and marrying his dad.

Making this transition does change the dynamic a bit—things may not be as carefree and fun all the time—but it’s a necessary one. You may be the only parent around at times, after all, and by now you care so much for this kid that you, too, are invested in how he turns out.

The trouble is that it’s uncomfortable and can be messy. “You’re not my mom!” you might hear more times than you can count. But deferring to his dad or mom each time will do nothing but solidify your place as a doormat. So, sure. You might be less cool, but deep down there will be more respect and in the end you’ll have more influence on his life.

You’ll find your own stepparenting style, of course, but I’ll tell you one of my habits. Each time we face a conflict, I make a point to show my stepson that I love him and it doesn’t change our relationship—just like I would with any of my children.

April Wallace is a stepmom to one smart, funny teenager, mama to two beautiful and curious baby boys and wife to a very kind and generous man. This post was published in 2019. She now works for the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.