I don't love my stepkids...
Updated: Apr 6, 2021
I'm sure a number of stepmoms would give you raw truth if they weren't scared of judgment. Click bait title, but take a moment to set aside your defenses.
There are 14 million steps moms in the US and 99% of them are attacked for sharing their raw feelings. Anything close to expressing anything but absolute adoration for their step children creates labels. And you've heard these labels before i.e. The Wicked Stepmom, The Evil Stepmother, etc. Just watch any movie, Stepmom with Julia Roberts for example, and the stepmom is often betrayed as the woman who destroys the family unit. And even when that isn't the case (like in my particular instance) you're still highly scrutinized, seen as offensively insufficient, and not up to the biological mom's standards. It's a losing battle. I heard someone describe being a stepmom is like you're working the hardest, most stressful, emotionally draining job, but you're not getting paid and you're not even sure if your co-workers like you sometimes despite all you do to make their lives easier. And no one wants to hear about all the behind the scenes work you've done regardless of the emotional battles you've overcome to do it; they just expect it from you because you have a title and you should own it. But you're constantly told your title isn't quite real, but you should want to show up and do all the same work the title has anyway. Then you're sitting at the company recognition ceremony and your co-worker keeps getting 100% of the pay/credit for your work because they started the project even though you're now doing the same amount of work. And then inevitably someone needs to be bailed out and you grab your wallet. Sheesh.
Adding love and expectation to the role only further complicates things.Whoever you are and whatever your circumstances, LOVE IS COMPLEX! Within stepfamilies however, love can be very complex. Whatever you might or might not be feeling towards your stepchild, the reality is that love really only evolves after time. Love isn’t something that generally happens instantly or automatically in any relationship. Love is ultimately a decision, followed by a series of actions. The expectation of love between a stepparent and stepchild can be, well, unrealistic. Forcing love can create resistance in both stepparents and children, which can create problems. There's a double standard that exists that also creates problems: It’s not only okay for the stepchildren to hate their stepmom, but it’s also to be expected! Step kids can say they hate their stepparents (stepmoms mostly), and all is “normal”. But if a stepmom doesn’t like their step kids, others think the stepmom should be crucified and sterilized. It's an interesting dynamic. And of course, we've all heard bio-moms who say things like, "My kids come with the package," or "I'd never date someone who didn't love my kids." Sorry to say, but it's easier for a bio-mom to feel that way because stepdads have a very different relationship than stepmoms. Stepdads are likely to live with women who have custody of their children, facilitating daily interaction and a relationship that develops over time rather than in rushed weekends or potentially stressful holiday "visits."
My blend or lack thereof
Some stepmoms are lucky. They are the custodial parent, they co-parent well, they've been in the step kids life since they were a wittle tot, and they walk hand-in-hand with the bio-mom when the kid gets married. Awesome, but quite rare (numbers don't lie--the success rate (28%) for blended families would be much higher otherwise). My marriage made me a spouse, but only time, trust and years of respect can anoint a matriarch. And time is not my friend. I'm 16 years/5749 days in; albeit, I have not spent anywhere close to 365 days with any of my step kids. In fact, in the last five years, I have not spent more than thirty days with any one of them. Never spent one holiday with any of them, ever. No family photos to include the five kids, nine adults, ten sets of grandparents, and the host of other siblings they have. I used to own the guilt associated with being a 'lazy' or 'absentee' parent because my husband didn't do things the way EYE thought he should do them. I quickly handed that guilt back to him. He's the parent. I am not. [Side-note: In my husband's defense, a ton of the lapse in time was due to a lack of compromise--I recall a major incident happening between my stepdaughters where their mothers collectively thought it would be best not to send them to our home--as a result, he didn't see one of his daughters for 8 months, sadly. And each time he tried, it was hell on earth.]
In the beginning, I was gung-ho about being super involved. I love kids and really didn't want any of my own. My husband's situation was perfect. I could be his helpmate and not
own the responsibility. My stepchildren didn’t come running to me for comfort. I really tried to be a good friend who loved them and was also fun to have around. I sometimes failed. I didn’t want to be the wicked witch of the west. Sometimes I was anyway. The more involved I became, the less involved my husband became. Soon, being a stepmom became the biggest stressor in my life. So,I disengaged. I still treated my step kids kindly, but caring for them was my husband's sole responsibility. And weirdly, even when I did this, I was still seen as a witch. YEARS were spent making sure I understood the boundaries of stepmom-ing and when I lived within those boundaries, it was a problem. Catch 22. I read Stepmonster and The Disengaged Stepmom essay and told my husband I was shifting 100% of my focus to myself.
I stopped viewing myself as being in the middle of situations, because even though it directly affected me, it’s about the history between my husband and their moms. It’s not about me. I stopped inserting myself into situations. I stopped writing checks. And I stopped addressing any of his exes directly. I started Nachoing. Best decision ever!
Parenting someone else’s kid is a tough, tough road. At times you feel like you’ll never count as a “real” parent. You always have to pay attention to the kid’s shifting feelings about you and respect the kid’s space, more than you would with your own kid. And it's can be especially tense with stepdaughters because there's this battle for dad's attention, which is too painful to admit so it just festers in the background. You also have to be realistic about how a stepchild’s love and adoration can turn into resentment overnight. Sometimes you’re seen as the most fun and the easiest to talk to, but other times you’re seen as the cause of every problem.
“Disengaging isn’t some nasty, hostile tit-for-tat. It isn’t, “You let your kids treat me badly, eff you, I’m not doing anything for you or your kids anymore.” Disengaging is a thoughtful, planned strategy in which a woman who is partnered with a man with kids hands parenting and caretaking responsibilities back to him in an attempt to improve herself, her partnership and her relationship with his kids.” –Wednesday Martin, PhD
It is definitely encouraged and OK for stepparents to want, and to aim for, establishing a loving, close relationship with their stepchild(ren). But lofty expectations that you will love one another or that your relationship with your stepchild will be the same as your relationship with your biological child or as your stepchild’s relationship with their biological parents, can lead to frustration, disappointment, conflict and more often than not failure.
The natural bond that parents form with their kids, cannot be completely replicated. It is one of, if not the strongest bond one will ever have with another. Their biological kids are half of them! Your step children are NOT! The step children are half of a person the stepparent loves and half this person’s ex, whom you most likely don’t care for. My son grew inside me and I nourished him for almost two years at my breast. He reaches for me when he's sick. Ignoring these differences don't change the inner feeling that there is a clear distinction.
I think it's an immature way of thinking to assume everyone's going to have this magical bond with their step children. Let's normalize not putting these ridiculous expectations on step parents. As long as you treat your step kids right, that's all that matters. Positive relationships are built brick by brick with daily acts of kindness. So shoot for like. Aim for respect. Go for compassion and understanding. Love, if it happens, is just the icing on the cake.