Step Mothering For Dummies: Ten Tips To Keep Your Cool

Coping with the stress of being a stepmother is not for sissies. Don't just survive, but thrive in your instant motherhood!
step mothering your child while keeping calm

No one really knows what they're in for when they decide to marry a man with children. "How hard could it be", I thought. "I only have them for the summer, it will be fun," I assumed.  Finding the love of your life is exhausting, and you're so deliriously happy at finally being able to buy Bride's Magazine, you skip over thoughtful contemplation of whether instant motherhood is for you.

1. Stop blaming yourself for not being perfect

Television and movies do a number on our self-esteem, especially women. Carol Brady always looks beautiful, her house and morals are spotless, and her kids and stepchildren adore her.

Yet for most of us mortals, we're in the trenches every day: working, cleaning, and cooking with no net (or housekeeper!)  And if the kids are unhappy, your husband thinks it’s somehow your fault.

Accept that real life is messy, and no one is perfect. Find a support system (not your spouse, but a good friend or therapist) to help you through- you don't have to do it alone. Never underestimate the power of a good bitch session! Speaking of support…

 2. Locate a Support Group

If you google support groups for stepparents, hopefully, you'll find a meeting or two in your area. These people will be your tribe, your lifeline when things go south.

Sharing and laughing about the trials and tribulations of step-parenting is a healing balm for the soul. No one can really understand your plight unless they've also been fighting the good fight. This kind of support will lessen your stress levels exponentially. 

For those unable or unwilling to attend in person, Facebook has many groups for stepparents that offer counseling, support, and coaching. Just scrolling through the comments and suggestions is a great way to calm down in the middle of kiddie mayhem.

3. Think of yourself as the "fun" Aunt

The word mother comes with a lot of baggage. The pressure to be a replacement for their real mom is intense. Throw away your unrealistic expectations and think about how much easier it will be on your psyche to reframe the relationship.

Aunts care and love for their nieces and nephews but aren't trying to replace the parent. This leaves much-needed breathing room and an opening to relax and have some cool adventures!

Having stepchildren lets you do stuff you'd never usually do on your own or with your spouse. Going to children’s theater, wolf sanctuaries, or SeaWorld are just a few of the road trips we would go on to bond and have a good time.

4. When you lose your cool (and you will!) calmly go to the bathroom, close the door and scream into a towel

Did I mention step mothering is hard?  It's also really hard for the kids as well, and they will act out in all sorts of alarming ways. Be proactive instead of reactive. This would also be a good time to reach out to someone in your support network. Taking out your frustration on the children might feel good at the moment, but take my word for it, the remorse you'll feel later isn't worth it. 

Be creative and find other outlets for your stress: I used to drive miles out of the way to take my stepkids with me to a gym (that had childcare.) Dropping them off at the movies also gave me time for a stroll around the mall while they were enjoying themselves. 

5. Make time for self-care

This is non-negotiable. Don't let your husband guilt you out of this one. Lay down the law, ladies! Mani-pedis, massages, girl's day out, shopping, or even just catching up on your favorite tv shows. Your husband needs some bonding time with his children, and you deserve a respite from the madness.

Help him out with ideas- tickets to the zoo, hiking trails, miniature golf. Tell him you will return the favor and let him retreat to his manly pursuits when he needs some downtime. This was really hard for me, I thought I was being selfish. But think of it this way: you can't pour from an empty cup. 

6. Never, ever, dis their mother, no matter how tempting

My stepkids would get in the car at the airport and tell me, “Mom says you don’t want us here.” What on earth was she thinking? Holding back choice words for what I thought was an outrageous lack of decency for her children and me, I told them that their father and I loved having them. They would jeer in disbelief, but that is all I would say on the subject.

Although I was new to the whole stepmother scene, one thing was glaringly obvious to me. The first unwritten rule is making the children feel welcome. In our uncertainty and fear, we often overlook that this is traumatic for the kids as well. Making them feel wanted and loved was always job numero uno for me.

7. Always present a united front

If one parent is strict and the other is lax, you’re opening yourself up to a whole world of chaos and manipulation. As with all things in marriage, comprise is key. Laying down house rules that have consequences if they’re not followed is paramount. A way to foster goodwill is to have a family meeting, assigning chores and letting them know exactly what will happen if they are not taken care of (time out from video games and loss of cell phone privileges were my favorites.) 

Invite your children to have a say in this discussion, making it more of a conversation than laying down the law.  If they have a part in crafting the rules, they will not be so resentful. I would often ask my stepkids what their opinion on a subject was and by their startled glances, I knew it was not something that happened often, if ever. Let them know that what they think matters.

8. Know that your partner feels guilty for not being a full-time parent, and act accordingly

I know this won’t apply to everyone, but I still think it’s an important point to cover. My husband’s discipline skills are very lax because he isn’t a full-time parent. That means it often falls to me to lay down the law. I wasn’t even mad at him for this, I just let him know that he had to back me in my decisions if he was leaving this to me.

Occasionally, it might get dicey, but for the most part, it works out if your punishments are not harsh or excessive. You must follow through for it to be effective. You can’t make a pronouncement you don't mean to carry out, even if it would be easier to drop them off at their grandparents' for playtime. It won’t work unless they know you mean business.

 9. Blending a family is not going to happen overnight 

Bonding with children who are not your own will take months, if not years. The children have their guard up, and their resentment over their parent’s divorce makes you an easy target for their turbulent feelings. Don’t expect miracles. Let the kids take the lead in establishing the relationship. 

Age plays a major factor in determining how much time it will take parents and children to adjust, generally it is much harder with teenagers. Yet I find treating children with love and respect usually gets through to them, if you are consistent with your caring behavior. 

10. Look for the silver lining

Don't you hate it when people say that? During one of my bitch sessions, my friend told me she wished she had stepchildren, because she couldn’t conceive and wanted the experience of having children.

MIND BLOWN. I don't have biological children, and thus lacked the loving bond that is formed between mother and child. But even if you don't love them at first, if you make the effort, you can build a bond almost as special. 

Accepting them and making them feel welcome goes a long way toward putting you on the right track. Remember what was missing in your childhood and give it to them. These little urchins will grow up someday and having them look back fondly on their time with you is the reward of a job well done. When I received flowers this past Mother's Day from my stepson, tears pricked my eyes. Yeah, it was all worth it.

Sheila is an LA-based writer and actress working in the Television industry.

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