It is difficult to define my role as a stepmom as it could all change tomorrow, next week, or next month. This gig is as nonlinear as it gets, with the highs and lows depending on several factors that are well outside the realm of things I can control.
Even major life decisions like where we live, who lives with us, and when, was all predetermined for me. I joined a family very much already in progress with ups and downs of their own.
Jumping in at the young age of 23, I did my best to blend in for years. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers or damage the children in any way; I just wanted to be part of it! Until I didn’t anymore, and I had to redefine what my version of stepmotherhood looked like.
Adjusting To Being A Stepmom
With four step kids from two exes, it’s fairly easy to see where problems could arise, so I won’t go into the gory details here. Throw in a 26-year age gap between my husband and myself, and a high-conflict ex who can’t get over it even seven years in, and you’ve got trouble.
Over the years, the verbal and psychological abuse we’ve all endured has paved the way for the dysfunctional dynamic we’re in today. There was nothing a stepmom could do to fix it.
The older set of stepkids and I are relatively close in age, so they were out of the house or nearly there by the time I came on the scene. Being 17 and 22 at our first introduction, these two have never needed or wanted me in a mother-figure role of any kind. They had a mother (not high-conflict, yet not without her own demons), a father, and a stepmom already!
In fact, it was my eldest stepson who casually tossed out the phrase ‘stepmama’ that I use as my social media handle today. It instantly resonated with me. ‘Stepmom’ felt so formal, but ‘stepmama’ gave me permission to relax into my own version of what a stepparent could be.
Just like with my eldest stepdaughter, the friendly relationship I once had with my youngest stepson has suffered. We used to play outside or go eat pancakes together. He used to laugh and play games with me. These days, he can barely stand to be in the same room as me.
He claims there is no reason for it, but we recently took a break from one another and our reunion was painfully uncomfortable for everyone. My husband and stepdaughter could clearly see the difference when I was around. It broke everyone’s heart to see it so clearly.
He might not be able to put words to what he’s feeling, but I sure can: loyalty binds. The hate he has heard spew from her like lava has had an effect over time. The message is that it is not safe to have a relationship with me. He’s seen the effects of that route through his younger sister.
Bonding With My Stepdaughter
Which brings me to the only one who seems to be able to make up her own mind about me: my youngest stepdaughter. A tiny little thing at only 6-years old, she crawled into my lap immediately upon meeting me. Within six months, that little girl and I were deeply bonded, much to her mother’s chagrin.
She has punished us for caring for each other over the years by banning us from doing certain activities together or bashing what we do, saying nasty things to anyone who will listen, most often, my stepdaughter herself. Through it all, she doesn’t waver in her love for me, and we’ve had many conversations boosting each other up as we get through it together. It simply brings us closer each time.
When she was little, she used to tell me we looked so much alike. We could not look more different but I knew what she meant. Our insides were all sorts of aligned.
When they talk about unconditional love between a parent and their child, I glow because I know that feeling, and with a stepchild no less! I know I’m lucky and I hold onto that knowledge every day.
I recently asked my youngest stepdaughter for her perspective in my role as her stepmom. She barely thought for a minute before answering, ‘For us to feel happy and safe. Which I do! I mean, I tell you everything!’ I must be doing something right.
Finding Peace In My Role
For five of the last seven years of this gig, I have let the expectations and opinions of others have an inordinate amount of power over me. I gradually lost myself in the process of trying to define one singular role as a stepmom. The stepmom, the younger woman… the new person entering the picture is the easiest scapegoat, but I took the high-conflict behavior extremely personally for years.
I reasoned that since she was a stepmom herself and she couldn’t have compassion for me, I must genuinely be doing something wrong to give her a reason to complain. To this day, I am damned if I do, damned if I don’t. I am either overstepping by wanting to attend an event or do something with the kids on my own, or I’m to blame for the kids’ behavior because stepmom isn’t putting in enough effort.
I let her make me feel inferior for way too long. It was around year five that it finally clicked with me that if she was this way before I came along, then it had nothing to do with me. I could be anyone and this woman would find a reason to be a thorn in their paw.
The timing of this realization was 2020, which of course became a time of introspection for many due to the pandemic that isolated us for months. In 2020, as her aggressive cyberstalking peaked, I instead chose peace. I chose to ignore anything that wasn’t bringing me the utmost joy.
I shoved my fingers in my ears and turned inwards, focusing only on what made me happy. I had forgotten who I was before I was sucked into the ‘stepmomosphere’ and it took some time to find her again. It was a time of survival mode at its finest.
This phase lasted about a year. I had several gratitude journals, I worked on my marriage and remembered that my husband was my ‘why,’ I cultivated deeper relationships with some and for others, I put up boundaries where they were needed.
Tapping into my joy revealed a confidence I didn’t know I had and I realized I was onto something. When I was living from a place of alignment, I could express myself without fear of repercussions. I had the strength to tell my husband some of the ugly truths about how I felt and what I needed and he… continued to love me.
I had hidden myself within this complicated family dynamic for long enough. I wanted to come out of the shadows and enjoy who I was as a human being again without fear of repercussions from someone who is determined not to like me. I am more than a stepmom. I am more than whatever my role is in this family, at this moment.
Stepmoms are made out to be evil villains or, at the very least, people to be wary of. But I don’t know a single stepmom who entered the picture wanting to disrupt and do harm. Everyone I know had nothing but the best of intentions, the happiest of pictures in their minds of what could be. We’re out here wishing for Brady Bunch moments, meanwhile the rest of the family sees us as Meredith from The Parent Trap.
When we’re managing the expectations of others, we often lose sight of ourselves in the process. That’s the best advice I can give to anyone entering the ring: remember who you are, who you were before this gig sucked the life out of you. Hold on tight to that person, and when you start to forget who she is, fall back on self-care to remind yourself.
Some time with girlfriends who get me and really know me is like hitting a reset button on my hard drive. That’s right, I do love to get down and dirty with some good rap. That’s right, I am funny when I’m not worried about the ‘right’ words coming out of my mouth. That’s right, my deep feelings are important enough to share with others.
With so many factors at play that are out of my control, I have had to whittle down my expectations of myself when it comes to my stepmom role. I’ve disengaged from the parenting aspects as the kids have gotten older and their mother has gotten more hostile, leaning hard into a ‘fun auntie’ mentality. I have stepped into a supportive space for my husband and whichever kids are open to receiving me at the time.
Looking To The Future
As I write this in 2022, my biggest goals are to radiate joy and stability. I strive to be the safe space for my family to land, inviting them to me simply by being my most authentic self. Joy and security start within me before they can be extended out to others.
When I am who I am and I do what I do, the results are what they are. I cannot control or fix an environment that was already broken before I came along and it is not my place to try. It is my desire to be a lighthouse in the storm, to be the solace the ships seek out when the waters get rough. The taller I can stand in my own authenticity, the stronger I can show up for my family.
My stepmom story is not linear and it’s certainly not cute or wrapped up in a happily-ever-after bow. I am, however, a success story. I continue to show up and put in the work, even on the days I want to run away.
I am hopeful for the future, I am open to what could be, and I embrace that what we go through today prepares us for what’s to come tomorrow. As a stepmom, I am the leading lady in my own life, the villain in someone else’s, and simply a background character for some.
Luckily, I’m someone who thrives on change, so I guess that makes me a good fit for this ever-evolving role. Bring it on, stepmotherhood, bring it on.”
This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Katie DeShane. You can follow her journey on Instagram. Join the Love What Matters family and subscribe to our newsletter.
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