Difficult Beginnings: Moving Forward as a Stepmother Outsider

“Don’t measure how valuable you are by the way you are treated”

The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse – Charlie Mackesy

Feeling like an outsider is a theme which comes up again and again across all writing aimed at stepparents.

For a stepmother this topic is particularly insidious and it lingers over all aspects of her life and happiness. Whether or not a stepmum feels accepted and/or part of the family has been shown to have a huge impact on her mental wellbeing.

Dr Lisa Doodson is a psychologist specialising in stepfamilies, and her research uncovered some of the main causes of stepmother dissatisfaction within their family unit. Resentment, unsurprisingly, is high on the list, and a major cause of this is being treated like an outsider despite the effort and affection a stepmother brings to her role.

How and Why Do Stepmothers Get Pushed to the Outskirts?

Some women are made to feel like they’re a floating member of the family through the actions of The Ex, their partner’s family, or even through the judgement of people in their own life.

Some might feel that way because of the general animosity thrown their way due to the suspect beginnings of their relationship (see “Your First Steps as The Other Woman” on coming to terms with this).

I have heard stories of people who have never met their in-laws, or their stepchildren’s other parent.

Of teenage stepchildren running the house with “you’re not my mother” (“thank god”, you might reply…).

Of suffering as collateral damage through parental alienation (“you have no idea how I’m feeling”, your partner might lament).

“It sucks being a stepmom. At best, you’re always going to be a third – or fourth-class citizen.”

The Stepmoms’ Club – Kendall Rose

More often than not, derision towards a stepmum is down to the realisation that her existence is the final nail in the coffin of a past family unit, and that finality can bring out some interesting behaviour in the people involved.

How Do I Cope With All This Animosity?

As dire as it all sounds, there is hope fore you yet!

The following concepts are brought to you by someone who has been there. For me it wasn’t just The Ex that screamed that I’d stolen her happiness, it was my partner’s family too, with no consideration as to whether or not this was actually true. Being told that you’re not welcome is a real blow and to be honest, even when things inevitably change, it can still be tough to truly get over it. These steps however, in the words of Julie Andrews, are a very good place to start.

1. Accept that you may have to keep your narrative to yourself for a while.

Yes, your narrative is yours and yours alone, but in the hubbub of the noise surrounding the end of a relationship (much of which is probably aimed towards you) it’s unlikely that anyone is going to want to hear it.

At best you’re in danger of saying something you regret in anger, and at worst you’ll tie yourself so badly in knots that you’ll come across as being without any moral code whatsoever. Trust that your time will come, and be it through your persistently dignified actions within your new family, or eventually actually being allowed the floor to set out your side of the story, public opinion will one day soften on the ho-bag temptress/wicked stepmother front.

This isn’t to say that you can’t defend yourself if something being said about you is entirely inaccurate, but bear in mind that it may take time for what you say to be taken seriously. Keep your head high and don’t allow yourself to descend into the shouting match you’re being invited into.

If the ones inviting you into that shouting match are your stepchildren, Flora McEvedy’s The Stepparents’ Parachute sets out a comprehensive way of coping with hurt feelings without letting rip. 

High profile examples of this include Princey Charlesy-boy and Camilla, and of course Brad and Angelina (absolutely still relevant despite divorce). 

2. In this, as in life in general, it’s highly probable that not everyone will like you.  

And that’s okay! Eventually it might not even be for the reasons you expect.

I know for a fact that my mother in law and I are very different people, and there’s probably too much water under the bridge for us to ever be close. However the reasons I feel that way now are very different to the reasons I felt that to begin with, and although it might feel unbearable that people you’re supposed to consider family don’t seem to like you, sometimes you have to step back and ask yourself why it matters. 

Of course, this is a damn sight easier if you have a partner who supports you when you’re in danger of locking horns with someone. Without this, acceptance of this fact can be very difficult to manage. This is a topic in and of its self however, more on this to follow. 

3. You can’t please everyone.

More importantly, nor should that be your aim. The people on your priority list right now are your partner, their children, and any children of your own. Anyone who doesn’t fall into one of those categories has no right to impact on the inner workings of your family. This also applies to The Ex; you can respect her opinion without needing to comply with it.

4. Do your part to keep the children out of it.

This is so very important and cannot be stressed enough. The kids cannot be used in any way to directly further your agenda of clearing your name or becoming accepted (e.g. by forcing them to hear your side of the story, or badmouthing their other parent or family members – however deserved you think it might be and no matter what they might be saying about you). The only way to do this is by being consistent, being present and maintaining a loving relationship with your partner.

That’s not to say that you should let them behave in any way they please towards you, and it’s your partner’s job to enforce respectful behaviour. The right approach very much depends on the temperament of the children, and your preferences as a couple however. Make sure you talk this through together and set boundaries which can be communicated clearly to the children.

Some stepmothers prefer to leave discipline to their partners to start with, allowing their relationship with their stepchildren to grow organically. It’s certainly an approach to consider, but if the thought of not being able to enforce the rules fills you with more outsider dread, then it may not be the right approach for you.

Also bear in mind that even those relationships with a completely clean beginning encounter hiccups, cold war and drama between stepchildren and their stepmothers – you’re going to come across it, but that’s why I’m here! Read everything you can get your hands on, talk to other stepmothers if possible, and hang on in there.

An example, if I may…

I attended a wedding of a dear friend recently. He was his stepchildrens’ swimming instructor at the time his now wife left her husband and started a relationship with him. It wasn’t exactly plain sailing for him with two teenage stepchildren and himself in his twenties, even without the highly suspicious circumstances in which his new relationship came about. However, relations were positive enough by the day of his wedding for his stepdaughter to give a speech at the breakfast; “I always enjoyed my swimming lessons with Dan. Turns out my mother enjoyed them more…”. The booze helped to soften the cringes under our crying laughter, and it was genuinely meant with no malice.

And although yes, he’s a man and the rules as yet remain different for them, it still serves as an example of how keeping the children away from the drama following murky beginnings can result in positive step-relations.

5. Be kind to yourself and your partner.

It’s highly likely that any discomfort you’re feeling, your partner is feeling just as acutely but with the added stress of potentially losing access to their children.

There is great potential for high conflict and drama at the beginning of a relationship that suffers from external negativity, and you’re going to be in the middle of a very emotional time for both of you. The chances of a blow-up between you are high, so allow yourself time to look after yourself and your mental well being. See people you love, call up that bitchy friend who always has your back, eat your weight in chocolate at strange times of day… and then talk with the purpose of listening to your new partner in crime, keeping at the front of your mind that even if it doesn’t feel like it right now, you’re on the same side. 

If insecurities aren’t dealt with at the beginning of a relationship, resentment is next, and you may find yourselves bringing these up years later. You’re in this relationship for a reason, so give each other the benefit of the doubt and try your best to hear you other half’s worries.

Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster contains a whole chapter on ‘Him’ (although the advice can mostly be applied to same-sex couples too), which is useful for gaining some much needed perspective.  

Of course if you discover that actually, you can’t trust or rely on your other half no matter what you try, or you find yourself in an emotionally abusive or gas-lighting situation (which is never okay), do not be afraid to seek assistance with extracting yourself. See this great article on Net Doctor for more details, which includes a list of help and support for UK readers (Relate and Women’s Aid included). 

The beginning can be rough, we’ve all been there! Other times can be rough too, but in my experience the beginning can be the most chaotic. Finding your feet takes time, so whatever you do just make sure you cut yourself some slack. And know that through it all, Stepmum In Stilettos knows how you feel, and has your back.

Visit the Resources section for more stepmothers who have seen it all.