Taking on your partner’s children is never going to be easy. You don’t want to replace their mum, but similarly you want to play a role in their lives.
With fictional stepmothers like Cinderella’s, it’s no wonder women feel concerned about becoming a part of a child’s, or adult’s, life.
So how do you run the stepmother gauntlet and emerge with your family – and sanity – unscathed? Here’s some sage advice on from women who have been there, done that.
1. Don’t try to be your stepchild’s friend
“I was always stepmum,” says Anissa Cantell, who became a stepmother 13 years ago when she married her husband David. The couple have since set up a property business.
“Not quite Mum, but hopefully firm but fair and a bit of a go-between for my stepson and his dad. He showed me the utmost respect.
“I was also there for grown-up advice, perhaps like an auntie. I think as a result, I got all of the awkward questions like ‘what is the difference between a transsexual and a transvestite?’.
“I like to think I hold balanced and informed views so it was a pleasure to be asked.
“Everyone who met us in public thought we were mother and son and neither of us corrected them (unless really needed) so I think that helped him feel that I wished he was my son – which I certainly did.”
2. Don’t feel you need to replace your stepchild’s mother
Stephanie Carey has three stepchildren aged between 10 and 21. She advises stepmums to be aware of what they say about their stepchild’s mother. “I think you should never ever speak poorly of the child’s birth mother,” she says.
“I have always been very intent on making sure they know I love them but not replace their mother.
“However, with my youngest stepchild I wish I would have shown her more affection equivalent to the affection I show my biological daughter.”
Speaking of which….
3. Try to make friends with your stepchild’s mother
Look, this one just isn’t always going to pan out, but try for civility at the very least.
“If at all possible, make friends or at least acquaintances with your stepchild’s biological mum,” says Libby Webber. “I’ve always got on well with my husband’s ex-wife.
“I can’t tell you the number of times I rang her and had a conversation that clarified what was going on with my stepson. We’d liaise on homework, what he was or wasn’t eating, Christmas and birthday presents etc.
“It totally nips in the bud any of that ‘playing one off against the other’ malarkey.”
4. Don’t give up
At times, things between you and your stepchild may feel fractious, but most things are recoverable.
“Remember that once you take on the role of stepmum and enter a relationship with someone who already has kids you have to treat those kids as your own,” says Tracy Pittman, stepmum of four children between the ages of six and 15. “By getting in the relationship, you’re accepting that role.
“Those kids didn’t choose to have you in their lives; you chose to be there, so act like it.
“Stepkids are usually not fond of new stepparents at first, so it takes work and you have to not give up.”
5. Establish a support network
“At times I felt utterly adrift and powerless, and completely out of my depth,” says Libby. “I had no experience of motherhood and my default ideas of ‘how to bring up a child’ were based on my own upbringing and they didn’t fit with what my stepson was used to.
“My greatest comfort at times like that, aside from a moan at hubby, was other female friends – some of whom were other stepmums.
“Honestly, get a good support network of other stepmums, maybe a mix of those with their own kids and those without. It’s a lifeline!”
6. Put on a united front
“Be clear what your own standards are and don’t bend too far in accommodating your new family,” says Kathryn Minchew.
“I told my husband that I believed parents (biological and step) needed to present a unified front and while I expected him to always put his kids first, I also expected him to back me up in front of them.
“I apply this same rule to myself, and their mother is spoken about with respect in my home. As a result my stepkids show me the same respect they do their parents.”
7. Have fun!
Whether your stepkids are 12 or 32, it’s important to try to have fun and create memories together.
“Some of my happiest memories with my stepson are of us playing a sci-fi version of cowboys and Indians in the local park with invisible aliens lurking in every tree,” says Libby.
“Playing is such a powerful bonding activity.”
8. Go slowly
This is a period when everyone is adjusting, so don’t feel like everything should be perfect right away.
“Don’t try to take over and do everything,” says Jesse Tennyson, a stepmum of four years. “Find a place in the family that’s good for your relationship and for the kids.
“Sometimes kids need reassurance that their other parent is not being replaced, so offer them that comfort by saying, ‘No-one can replace your mommy. Your mum is always your mom. I am another grown-up who loves you though’.”
This advice is not set in stone. Every relationship is different and you’ll find joys and challenges to being a stepparent that are unique to you. Good luck!