Becoming a new stepmom can be a daunting task. The rewards can also be amazing. But as you step into your new duties, despite all your good intentions, expect a bumpy road. To go into it believing otherwise will be your first mistake. Know that, likely, his children may not be nearly as excited and optimistic as you are. You may very well be stepping into a much more chaotic, painful and volatile environment than you (or he) realize. Caution is key, as is a lot of patience, love, kindness and forgiveness.
I’ve known lots of stepmoms, and stepmonsters. I’ve been there myself. And over the years, as I’ve talked and listened, there are some key facts learned in the trenches from those of us who have been there. Here are my top 10:
1. There may be no winning
You and your guy may be thinking that this whole blended family-thing will be easy-peasy. Careful! You are not the Brady Bunch and this is the real world. Simply put, know that even if you do everything right, his children may not like you very much, and they kind of deserve a big huge pass. As hard as it is to want (and expect) respect from his kids, you may not even get that. Likely, the children, regardless of age, are in a world of hurt and adding yourself to the mix may be most unwelcomed.
My biggest advice is to smile a lot. Love his children. Talk to them. Spend time with them. One-on-one “experiences” doing fun things (movies, pedis, walks around the neighborhood, a bike ride) will help. Keep an open line of communication– let them know you are willing to talk about anything when they’re ready or need you. Keep their confidences (unless they are a danger to themselves or others). When all else fails, tell them that you struggle, too, and you have no idea how to behave. We moms are not perfect and it’s ok to stop pretending that we are. Be honest. And when you need a “time out,” go for a nice long walk alone.
Oftentimes things work themselves out over a period of time but it rarely happens instantly. Be patient. Take it one step at a time, one day at a time.
2. Remember, they are children (and they were there first)
His children were in the picture before you were. And his primary obligation is to his minor children. If this sounds sucky to you, you should find another guy. As a stepmom, acknowledge that they should come first (especially the younger they are). He has a financial, legal and moral obligation to the children he helped bring into the world. You should do nothing to undermine that.
3. Stay out of their drama
If your husband encourages you to parent his children, you need to re-think going along with it. If you are left enforcing rules, they’ll often resent you for it. Do not get in the midst of the arguments between your guy and his children. When they fight, go take a hot bath or, better yet, leave the house. Stay out of it.
Insist that he parent (and punish) his children, not you, especially if they are older children. To the best of your ability, keep your arguments with them to an absolute minimum. When you have concerns, voice them privately and let him deal with it.
4. Be nice to their mom
One of the biggest mistakes you can ever make is to badmouth their mom. Even if you hate her, keep your mouth shut. (Odds are, she might not be as bad as your husband has lead you to believe.) If you don’t, it will build contempt and distrust (two emotions you must avoid at all cost).
5. Accept their pets
If your guy has pets, you need to accept them. Snakes, lizards, dogs… Whatever the animal (or rodent), never insist that the pets go.
6. Don’t attempt to change them (or the rules)
Blending families is hard, even under the best of circumstances. When there are different sets of rules and expectations, especially for his kids versus yours, it will be even harder. And you cannot expect for his kids to all of a sudden get (and thrive under) a whole new set of (your) rules.
The reality is that you may not get (or even deserve) much of a say on how his kids are raised. Prior to moving in together, make sure you have a frank discussion and agreement on how you two will handle the big things—curfews, borrowing family cars, chores, school expectations, and establishing set boundaries. Each of you share those expectations with your children privately so they feel comfortable voicing their opinions about them. Afterwards, a family meeting about rules and expectations may be appropriate. Then he, not you, must enforce them for his children.
7. Don’t thrust new expectations on them
When you both have your own set of children, the odds are that they have been raised differently. This may be hard and confusing, but you may need to let him raise his kids and you raise yours. To an extent, blending some household rules into one is necessary. But there may also be times when the two sets of kids just may just get two different parenting styles. I’m in a blended family now and I sometimes need to tell my children that life isn’t fair and that my step-kids aren’t them. That message is getting (slightly) easier as time passes. But that’s our reality.
8. NEVER try to replace (or compete with) their mom
Do not try to take the place of your stepchildren’s mother. Your role is to support and love them. If that doesn’t sound like your thing, then you should not be in a relationship with their dad. Bond as best you can. Set good examples. And when you disagree with something, have a discussion with your husband in private.
9. Be friendly
The best scenario for your life with his children is to become their friend and mentor, to earn and deserve their trust and respect. To foster that happening, spend time with them. Forge the best relationship with them as possible. This rarely happens overnight—it takes time and a lot of work. Be patient. Be flexible in your home. Get therapy if you must. Know that relationships change. Be forgiving, and keep your sense of humor and honor. It matters.
10. Respect their space
In a perfect world, everyone will have their own space in the home. Do not violate theirs without permission. If you suspect there may be something dangerous in their bedrooms (weapons, drugs, and the like), talk to their dad about it. Knock on their door before entering. Respect their privacy.