***This article comes with a health warning this time. Losing child access is an enormously traumatic thing to go through. If you need support with coping, there are some links at the bottom of this article. And if you’ve been through it yourself and have something to say – please get in touch.***
“I don’t have access to my stepchildren. Am I still a stepmother?”
The trauma of losing access to a child who is still living is a unique kind of pain that very few people talk about, and for which there is very little support.
You can’t liken it to anything else, and people find it difficult to empathise or to know what to say.
Furthermore, there is an inherent assumption that the parent who has lost their access somehow deserves it, or must at the very least have done something to warrant it.
Apply this to stepparents, who generally suffer from a lack of support across the board, and you’re left with the perfect storm of “floating out to sea during a squall” – not sure whether you’re a victim, perhaps the problem yourself, or even if you’re important enough to have any part to play full stop.
I’m here to tell you that your access rights make you no more or no less a stepparent, that you’re still a stepmother if you don’t see your stepchildren, and that you’re also not alone no matter how desperately lonely you feel.
The circumstances affecting stepparent access are nuanced.
I find myself rolling my eyes at this. We’re always being told that each stepfamily is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all golden approach. However, it’s entirely true.
I think this is where much of our insecurity as a stepparent comes from; it’s almost impossible to find another stepmother with exactly the same dynamic as yourself, and this can have you doubting your decisions and behaviour at pretty much every turn.
To help you feel a bit more seen, here are the dynamics I’ve come across in just my short time writing this blog. If any of these fit you, then I can categorically confirm that you’re not alone (hooray!) because these are real life, baby, and your stepmother soulmate must therefore be out there.
Five real life circumstances I’ve come across.
1. The “who even are these children?” stepmother
This woman has been with her partner for years, and has never met her stepchildren as her partner lost access before their relationship started. She worries that she’ll never meet them at this rate, and wonders about the legitimacy of her relationship if she’s never witnessed her partner as a parent. They argue about her not having access to an entire area of his life, and she’s at the point of needing to remind herself that he didn’t choose this either. This reminder doesn’t help.
2. The “support for the wounded” stepmother
This stepmother had a stonkingly good relationship with her stepson for a couple of years, but both she and her partner have been prevented from seeing him now for a year. She supports her partner through the devastation of missed Christmasses and birthdays, whilst also nursing her own trauma at losing a relationship which meant so much to her.
3. The “what about me, please” stepmother
Here this stepmother’s partner still sees his children, but the stepmother has recently been prevented from seeing them too because their other parent won’t allow it. Her partner is too scared of losing his own access to argue, and it drives the stepmother completely nuts that the importance of her relationship with her stepchildren isn’t recognised – by anyone. She feels that she is unfairly scapegoated for issues which have absolutely nothing to do with her.
4. The “fighting it out, but it stinks in the meantime” stepmother
This woman’s partner is going through the ordeal of accompanied visits, and she is unable to see her stepchildren regardless of how her other half feels. This has arisen as a result of some accusations thrown about by the other parent, which are being fought in Court. In the meantime, her partner can only see his children in a set location, accompanied by another adult. She feels helpless on the sidelines, and as if her life is permanently on hold.
5. The “surely they’re old enough to know better” stepmother
Last but by no means least, here is a stepmother whose grown up stepchildren refuse to acknowledge or spend any time around her. She knows this will impact her relationship with her step-grandbabies one day, and it’s utterly heartbreaking. This rejection has always been the case, and she doesn’t know what she did wrong.
What do all of these have in common?
- None of these women have any control over the situations that they find themselves in. They’re all a result of external factors and, whilst they can control their own reactions, they cannot control the other people involved.
- You can pretty much guarantee that these situations are a result of dynamics that pre-existed the stepmother entering the scenario. Even if she’s the “reason” that the marriage ended (heavy eye rolls), a lack of respect felt towards a coparent does not just materialise out of thin air. It will be the result of a build up of tension between parents over a period of time, making it very difficult for the stepparent to have a positive impact when first bursting forth upon the scene.
- None of these women felt fully able to share their struggles with the people in their lives. Which leads me onto why I’m so passionate about talking around this subject.
The hands-down, biggest issue we face here is loneliness
Stepparents tend to hide in the far corners of the internet, lurking around parenting sites whilst feeling like a fraud, or killing themselves with social media stalking that they could well do without.
The trauma that stepparents face when closed off from members of their own family is persistent, and achey. It has the ability to force a stepmother to question her likability, and everything she thought she knew about parenting and womanhood.
There’s the fear that if you talk to your family about your ordeals, they’ll no longer welcome your other half with the open arms you both so desperately need. Likewise, if you keep going back to the same friends when things are really bad, they might ask you what you’re doing it all for. (You know very well what you’re doing it all for, but you also know it’s not something that is easily explainable or understood.)
And finally, there’s the chasm which can exist between a stepmother and her partner. You’re going through the same things, but your trauma is different, and whilst in some cases it brings people together, in others it can catapult them apart.
I didn’t find another stepmother in my situation until the worst of it was over…
… and I regret that immensely. I know how much it would have helped me at the time, just to know that someone else was going through the same thing. I felt like a fraud of a stepmother, and as if I was somehow failing as a woman because I felt so despised.
The truth is, if you’ve let your stepchild into your mind and your heart, or you have a place for them in your home (even if they never actually fill it), you are no less of a stepmother than the woman you’ve found online who seems to have it all together. Speaking to other stepmothers who are going through the same thing will solidify this for you, if nothing else.[If you need further convincing, my post “When Do I Become a Stepmother” might help you.]
It feels like a mountain, both during and after
The repercussions of that lost time are felt even beyond any reinstatement of access, and parents and stepparents often find themselves caught off guard by the resulting effects they hadn’t even contemplated when fighting tooth and nail to get their access back.
For us, it was how unsure my stepdaughter was around us for those first few months that really shocked and saddened me. It somehow brought home to me quite how horrendous the two year separation had been.
But, as my lovely fiancé keeps telling me, every time she’s with us it gets a little bit better. There is hope for the future, and I’ve got to say that this in itself is a bloody miracle.
Life will be good again, stepmumma, one way or the other. Even if (heaven forbid) the time away from your stepchildren never fully rights itself, you will feel OK again. And in the meantime, I’m here with my hard-won tips on coping with conflict, tissues in one hand, and a jolly great big bucket of wine in the other.
Take a look at these family-support based support services if you find yourself struggling. What you’re going through is not straightforward, pleasant, or easy, and you don’t need to deal with it alone.
Remember that stepmothers “display significantly higher depression and anxiety than biological mothers together with lower perceived social support when compared with biological mothers.” (Dr Lisa Doodson)
- The Spark (throughout Scotland)
- Parents Plus! (Ireland)
- Family Lives (UK) – includes a free live chat service
- Mind – mental health charity
Coming up on the blog – I speak to another stepmother who is currently going through a period of separation. Don’t want to miss it? Sign up for notifications!