How, in all that is holy, do I succeed in finding happiness as a new stepparent?
Hey brand spanking new stepparent, pull up a pew. The stepparent community is a supportive bunch, and with their help I’ve put together the 6 commandments for a happy and successful life as a new stepparent – however that might look for your situation.
wife stepmum, happy everyone. (T-shirts incoming.)
1. Thou Shall Decide on One’s Boundaries and Stick To Them Like Rubber to Glue
There is plenty of feeling your way in the early days. Missteps and falling over. Mostly we can shamefacedly / angrily haul ourselves back up again, but sometimes a knock back can knock our confidence to the point that we’re lying face down with absolutely no intention of ever moving again.
You are very rarely in control of the situation you find yourself in – the dynamics, the quirks, the heavy emotions which can blow up in your used and bemused face. Confidence knocks are part and parcel of the stepparenting gig though, and believe me when I say you’re in excellent company.
As much as it’s a cliché, and I’m therefore almost loathe to say it, what seems to help the Stilettos community when faced with awful, stressful or bemusing situations is remembering that you are in control of your reaction to those external events, and what you will and will not tolerate inviting yourself into.
Boundaries are essential
Absolutely and unequivocally. And this goes for all areas of life.
Psychology Today defines boundaries as:
“…the limits we set with other people, which indicate what we find acceptable and unacceptable in their behavior towards us.” (Mariana Bockarova PHD – Psychology Today)
PsychCentral cites five types of boundaries: physical, sexual, intellectual, emotional and financial.
The stepparenting role straddles all of these five. Personal space, intimacy, your thoughts and beliefs [about parenting], how comfortable you are with sharing your emotions about your new role, and even how your family’s pot of money is spent can all be heavily influenced by the situation your family finds itself in at any one time.
To deal with this, experts recommend setting your boundaries early. And, in fact, so does the Stilettos community.
“Set boundaries EARLY and stick to them.”
“Create some clear boundaries around the type of step parent you feel comfortable with [being].”@stepmuminstilettos followers
You don’t have to go to that pick up if you’re only met with derision or drama.
You don’t have to speak to the other parent if it’s making your stomach flip in on itself.
And you certainly don’t have to put with disrespectful or downright rude behaviour from anyone.
Figure out what makes you happy, and what you absolutely will not tolerate being a part of your life going forwards – maybe write a list if you’re that way inclined (I am, yes indeed). Communicate them with your partner and protect them with your life.
2. Thou Shall Not Be Made to Feel Like a Nobody
You may be in sweet-smelling-bed-of-roses new love bliss, feeling tip top about pretty much everything, or you may have had a really rough time from the very get go.
Either way, there is simply bound to be a time when this applies to you. Even if it’s just a perfectly timed complaint about the comforts of the home you’ve worked so hard to create. Or when you jump up, stumbling and heart pounding, in the middle of the night to comfort a crying child who only cries harder because you’re not their parent (more than one stepparent put that one forwards, believe me).
This was one of the most popular suggestions from the Stilettos community. Don’t be diminished by the drama you find yourself embroiled in, and don’t be defined by what people expect of you.
“You may be made to feel like you are ‘nobody’ to the children. But you absolutely are important to the children and their development.”@stepmuminstilettos follower
The Stepparenting Role is Ambiguous
A lack of clarity about what the stepparenting role entails makes it very difficult for stepparents (stepmothers in particular, it seems) to understand when they are succeeding. Dr Lisa Doodson’s research back in 2009 recognised this as a significant cause of anxiety in stepmothers. And for good reason – without knowing what’s expected of you it’s entirely impossible to benchmark how you’re doing.
You do not need to be a parental figure in order to have a fantastically positive, important impact on the children. Role models arise in all areas of a child’s life, and I’ve yet to see the argument that a parent can be the only one succeed.
Where stepparents seem to stumble is the assumption that if we’re not acting as a pseudo-parent, we’re somehow falling short.
I argue often that the beauty of existing within an undefined role is that you get to define it for yourself. Yes, the other parent may try to undermine you, and society may grant you zero official responsibility for the children you care so hard for, but ultimately your relationship with the children belongs to you and them.
And remember, your consistency is going to be the one thing that your stepchildren will look back on later in life. Were you there, and did you turn up in the way they expected you to? This matters – and you matter.
So how can new stepparents succeed in this?
“Be a friendly, helpful adult in your stepchild’s life and let them tell you what they need.”
“Make sure you take time for YOU! Don’t become all consumed by your new role. See friends, go out, be you.”@stepmuminstilettos followers
- Keep doing the things which mean something to you. Becoming a new stepparent can be completely all-consuming, and maybe it means a relocation or a redefinition of what you previously considered to be important. Bachelor/bachelorette life versus parent-adjacent. Change is great, but don’t stop seeing those friends, attacking that hobby, generally being all those things your other half fell in love with. You can share stepparenthood with the millions of other facets of yourself.
3. Thou Shall Not Need to Impress The Ex
Being a successful stepparent does not mean befriending the ex. And if you don’t quite trust me on this one just yet, oh how you will.
Searching for stepparents on Instagram you would be forgiven for assuming that the only way to succeed as a stepparent (whatever indeed that means) requires all three / four of you holding hands, going on holiday together, wearing matching t-shirts and having weekly strategy catch ups about the kids.
I sound like I’m criticising this – it’s absolutely incredible if your relationships work in this way and I wholeheartedly salute you (genuinely no gritted teeth). The truth is though, for every one unicorn stepfamily there are 10,000 others with parents who are struggling to see eye to eye on even the most basic of parenting decisions. And if the damn parents’ eyes aren’t even aligned, how on earth is the stepparent supposed to get a look in? To finish this poor analogy, crossed eyes all round.
“Don’t try and impress / befriend bio mum. It won’t (or will rarely) be good enough.”@stepmuminstilettos follower
I have watched stepparents start out as best buddy-bud-buds with the other parent, just for it to explode cataclysmically a few months or years down the line. There are many reasons for this, but rather than go into it now just know that you’re not a failure if you’re not even acknowledged at pick up, let alone invited over for scones and story-swapping.
See here for commiserations on any Ex-friendship failures you might be faced with.
4. Thou Shall Take It Slow
Be as slow as a snail on a sleeping sloth.
I’d BET YOU ANYTHING that the main pressure for you to hit certain milestones or deadlines is coming from you.
“I’ve got to meet the kids whilst they’re still small”, “I don’t want to miss out on any more events,” “at this stage in the last relationship he was already married with a second on the way…”.
Happiness as a stepparent doesn’t come from “having it all” from the day you pushed the trigger. The impatience, anxiety and deep need for your family to fall into place is natural and understandable, but stepfamilies just don’t work like that and the disappointment on realising that has crippled many an otherwise unbelievably fantastic stepparent.
“Take things slowly. It’s not a competition. Keep communicating!”
“Take each day as it comes and try not to put yourself under too much pressure.”@stepmuminstilettos followers
Just as each stepfamily is different, so are the pitfalls. You have no idea how your wins will manifest, or what the difficulties will be at this stage. It’s a surprise for all of us, believe me… and the best thing to do is to take one day at a time.
Research shows that it takes upwards of 5 years for a “blended” family to really settle into being “blended”. 5 years! That’s not to say it will be like this the entire time, but you’re going to go through some real shifts in that time.
Mindfulness and (dare I say it) gratitude play a massive part in coping with this. I’ve already linked to it, but I can’t recommend my 8 resolutions for the anxious stepmother article enough on this subject.
And if you’re a stepparent without access to your stepchildren (the greatest step-parenting milestone of all, perhaps?) – I also wrote this for you.
5. Thou Shall Be Selfish When Required
It’s not just happiness as a stepparent that this applies to, of course. We are in the age of “self care”, but we’re now faced with more stimulation, competing priorities and noise than humanity has ever faced before.
Maybe it’s already taken you three attempts to even get to this part of the article… (top tip from me, do your reading on the toilet).
Michael Acton Smith, the creator and CEO of Calm, the mindfulness app, has openly discussed his struggles with modern bombardment and ambition. We are in the middle of a mental health crisis, and not taking the time to look after ourselves is making the issue worse.
This links, of course, with your importance as a person and a key enabler of the wellbeing of your household – your needs matter too, and you can’t take it all on by yourself.
“You can’t fix every situation. It’s not your job to take on everyone else’s feelings either.”
“It’s OK to be selfish and to put yourself first.”@stepmuminstilettos followers
I’ve heard stories of stepmothers left to babysit their stepchildren for endless weekends at a time while their partner completes rounds of golf, amateur badminton tournaments, or takes off on lads weekends away. Obviously if you’re happy with that, then fair dos to you all, but if you’re not then neither are we.
You don’t need to fix it
One of the most common pitfalls of new stepparents is the misconception that you’re there to fix the ills of the past, and usher in a new golden stepfamily dawn.
The pain from the past never magically disappears, and it is not your job to make it so. You didn’t create the situation that pre-dates you, and so you cannot fix it. However your role, should you wish to accept it, is to help people into the new life you are helping to create; with your glorious presence and unlimited optimism.
For more on the stepparent’s role, see my ever-developing blog series on the subject here.
6. Thou Shall Remember that the Parents Are Winging It Too
This one made me laugh out loud when I saw it because of COURSE, it’s absolutely true. In fact, as a mother myself these days, a truer statement I never did see.
“Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. The mums and dads are winging it too!”@stepmuminstilettos follower
No more need be said really. You’ve got this – but even if you don’t, neither do they.
So to summarise…
The six commandments for happiness as a new stepparent are:
- decide on your boundaries and stick to them;
- believe in your importance and do not allow anyone or anything to make you feel like a nobody;
- do not feel the need to impress the ex;
- take it slow;
- be selfish when required; and
- remember that the parents are winging it too.
I am ever grateful to the Stilettos community for putting these forward in so eloquent, forgiving and genuinely helpful a fashion. If you’re not already part of the conversation, come and join us on Instagram. We would love to have you!
And please, please, share this with a stepparent in need.