And Should You Go?

Before we dive right in, “should” stepmothers do anything is really a question for the stepmother herself.

A role without a definition is just that – there are no rules and no one should be telling you otherwise.

But are you welcome at the handover of your stepchildren? It seems that in the vast majority, stepmothers tend to feel less than cherished when going along to their stepchildren’s Other House – at best a tagalong, and at worst worth less attention than the horse crap they drove through to get there.

Here we look at the many reasons a stepmother might feel obliged, or driven (if you’d excuse the flagrant pun-nage), to go along to the pick up/drop off anyway, and when it might no longer be a good idea.

This is really an opinion piece rather than a research led piece, so please do enjoy as I drop the proverbial trousers on my otherwise internalised insecurities.

What’s So Difficult About the Pick Up and Drop Off?

The question of whether or not you go along to pick up/drop off your stepchildren might seem, to any well meaning third party, like a completely ridiculous quandary. People who aren’t in a stepfamily themselves can often see these events as mundane necessities, rather than the diary-defining calendar block-out that we often do.

Our own underlying issues are just itching to come to the surface during these events, which are fraught with micro-decisions on the part of the stepparent.

Do I say “hi” or will a polite nod be more appropriate?

Hand shake…? [Not in the “new normal” you don’t!]

Do I hug the child? Or would that appear domineering…

What if they start talking shop, do I stand awkwardly to the side? Slink back to the car…? Or do I just go all in with my colour coded diary sync idea? “Super, let’s all three of us make a plan.”

The first time I went along I spent the entire evening before painting my nails, planning my outfit, and setting my alarm to make sure I had enough time to shape my eyebrows in the morning (I was planning a coquettish, nonchalant arch). I did this weird, two-tone nail colour, which I haven’t done since, because my stepdaughter’s mother was a nail technician. Not sure whether I was trying to impress or intimidate – probably both.

The most ridiculous thing about it, aside from the fact that I’d blowed-dried my hair so thoroughly that I looked like a lion (not a lioness, alas) whose style icons existed in the ’80s, was that I didn’t even get out of the bloody car.

Why are you going along?

I had been with my partner for nearly two years before the circumstances aligned such that it made sense for me to be there. Prior to that, in the handful of visits there had been, there had been far, far too much tension, and my appearance would likely have resulted in my stepdaughter being unable to leave with us.

I also hadn’t been living in the area, and as much as I kept insisting that I could make the trip down especially, my partner knew full well that it wouldn’t be worth it. And indeed, that first time proved him right.

I know full well why I went along, and I asked this question on the old ‘Gram last week because I was interested in whether my stepmother sisterhood had felt the same.

It was amazing to hear from some outwardly very well held together women, who had all felt exactly the same pressure and anxiety when first faced with the pick up/drop off quagmire. Here’s what they said.

“To mark my territory”

Well, who can very well blame you?

stepmother applying lipstick in the car

To lay it all bare to you (we’re all friends here), this was my main motivation for the two years I was nagging my partner about it. I was worrying about everything; from what was being said between them, to the idea that if I wasn’t there then maybe she thought we weren’t all that serious after all.

We had been faced with the “other woman” narrative when we first got together, and it was made clear to me by my stepdaughter’s mother that were I not in the picture, my stepdaughter’s mother would still be with my partner. Of course it wasn’t true, but it added (what was for me) a rather tricky dimension to the dynamic I imagined between them in my absence.

I felt intensely that I needed to be involved by simply being there. I was so sure that all my problems would melt away if I could look her in the eye, and make her understand that I was present, I was real, and we were completely in love.

An overwhelming majority of the stepmothers who responded to my questions admitted to wanting to mark their territory in the same way.

I used to say all the time “it’s not you, I just don’t trust her” to my partner. It took me longer than I care to admit to realise that I didn’t need to trust her, I just needed to trust him.

I would argue that it’s an entirely natural emotional response to the inner struggle of finding your place in a pre-existing situation.

Some stepmothers are faced with their stepchildren’s mother writing public treatises about how she misses the family she has, and wants her ex back. Some are just dealing with an underlying unease about the relationship their partner has with her – maybe because they feel deliberately kept from the details of what is said, or perhaps previous relationships have taught them to be wary. It doesn’t matter why you feel that way, you feel it for a reason and the feeling itself is not really the issue.

Indeed, there are infinite examples of people who are not in a stepfamily doing exactly the same thing when it comes to their partner’s ex – turning up to the party they’d otherwise avoid just because they know they’re there, or kissing their other half purposefully knowing that the ex is within eyesight. It’s not just us, and you are not alone.

What is the issue is not being able to deal with it head on. Actually, being at the pick up/drop off won’t help you. What will help you is consistently showing up in your relationship, supporting and being supported by your partner, and time.

I used to say all the time “it’s not you, I just don’t trust her” to my partner. It took me longer than I care to admit to realise that I didn’t need to trust her, I just needed to trust him.

“I don’t trust my partner”

Which leads us neatly onto reason #2.

It can be really tough, when you’re thrown into a high conflict stepfamily dynamic, to relax into trusting your other half. The fight or flight response is strong in a stepmother who is dealing with animosity, and her survival instinct can manifest itself in a mistrust of the person she’s doing it all for in the first place.

There is no secret overnight cure for this, but the good news is that it is something you can work on just between the two of you. It’s a relationship issue, rather than a stepmother issue, which means that the ball is in your couple court.

The bad news is that attaching pre-requisites to the rebuilding of your trust such as “I must go along to all pick ups so that I can see you two together” is pretty unlikely to work. Instead (knowing how this would have gone down in our situation), it’s probably just going to cause tension if you’re there during important one-on-one discussions about their child, and your partner may well feel watched and judged beyond how they already feel with their ex.

We all know in our guts that to be truly happy in our relationships, they should be a sanctuary from the grief, not an incubator of it.

Easier said than managed perhaps, but this is where you look at your relationship through the same lens as any other and ask yourself – do I love this person? Do I see a future with them? And is it worth it?

“I’m curious about her”

It’s actually never been a comfort to me to hear “well if they’d wanted her, they would still be together”, because people change and so do their minds.

Of course you are! There’s a morbid curiosity driving the desire to know the person your partner had a child with.

What does she look like? How does she hold herself? What does she sound like? Can you see what your partner saw in her?

Is she anything like you…?

Down this road, madness lies. “Comparison is the killer of joy”, and it could not be truer when it comes to your stepmother peace.

I’m going to make a bold claim and say that the reason you’re curious is because you want to know that you win: that you’re different enough for the choice to be completely clear cut; that there is absolutely no way that the person you know and love now would go back to that; that you’re prettier, smarter, more successful; and that you’re better.

My partner’s ex and I are very different people. You certainly wouldn’t put us together in a crowded room, and you couldn’t discern his ‘type’ (if there is such a thing) by looking for similarities between us – because there are none.

In spite of this, however, it’s actually never been a comfort to me to hear “if he’d wanted what she has to offer over what you have to offer, they would still be together”, because people change and so do their minds. What is a comfort to me, however, is that it’s something which is completely outside of my control, and it’s therefore not up to me to prevent it.

It is completely freeing, and a real mind-shift hack if you can manage to truly get your head around it; we should not worry about what we simply cannot change. If your partner and their ex are really destined to be together (which they really probably aren’t), they will find a way with or without you being in the picture.

[I hasten to add, before anyone panics, that it would take a monumental change of heart for your partner to go backwards, because children really do make you think twice before ending a relationship. The decision wasn’t taken lightly, and we should all learn to respect it for what it was!]

Need more persuasion? I love this article by Linda Black in Stepparent Magazine, telling you why you should stop comparing yourself with the ex. Go take a look.

“It will help me to bond with my stepchild”

This is one I can really get behind, actually.

There’s something complete and wholesome about being able to finish a lovely time with your stepchild by saying goodbye at the door; even if that door is the car door on the street outside. It’s my motivation to go along these days; something about it solidifies the feeling of family for me, and other stepmothers have said the same.

However, the fact that I tend not to get out of the car means there’s still a disconnect there. Relations with her mother remain less than tip top, and her father will walk my stepdaughter to the door and have the talk with her mother about how it went at ours. Sometimes I do feel quite silly, the inexplicable spare screw at the end of the flat pack, just sitting there in the passenger seat. It goes against how I usually conduct myself socially, and somehow I always feel that it reflects badly on me.

What I hold onto, and which may help you if you’re in a similar situation, is that simply by being there I’m sending a message to my stepdaughter; that I care, and I’m available for her, and we’re a natural part of each other’s lives.

it Makes sense for our plans

And of course, the most practical and level-headed of all responses – “because it makes sense for my plans, you absolute numpty.”

  1. Does it make sense for my plans?
  2. No.
  3. Then I shall not go.
  1. Does is make sense for my plans?
  2. Yes.
  3. Then I shall go.

Well that was easy. Might draw myself a decision tree though, just in case…

So to summarise, are you welcome, and should you go along?

I think it’s safe to say that most of us have felt unwelcome at the Other House at one point or another. Even if you’re one of the lucky few with a positive relationship with your stepchildren’s mother, chances are that you’ve felt the odd twinge of awkwardness around a family dynamic that pre-exists you.

The best response I received was the final one above – if it makes sense for what you have planned that day, and you’re happy to go along, then why not? You don’t have to get out of the car if you don’t want to (as I would testify), and actually your stepchildren may well appreciate you being there.

You also shouldn’t have to excuse your existence just because their mother doesn’t want to accept your existence – it’s really not up to her, and the decision to have you around full stop was your partner’s to make. The simple fact that she doesn’t like that you exist shouldn’t inconvenience you to the point that your basic day-to-day plans become a complete logistical nightmare.

However, if it’s really your anxiety that is pushing you to put yourself in a difficult handover position, trust me when I say that it’s probably going to exacerbate rather than alleviate any anxiety you’re already feeling. There are much better ways to deal with it than forcing your presence (for example, see my article in Stepparent Magazine for some suggestions in managing your own wellbeing during high conflict). This is beyond the scope of this article, but more on that to follow.

Naturally, organically, and only with the help of your other half will you find your place in your family. Luckily for us, that’s not something that your stepchildren’s mother can or should help you with – hallelujah and thank god for that!

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