Overstepping Is The Name Of The Game for a Stepmom
Dating or marrying a man with kids is a constant dance between feeling like you’re not doing enough and doing too much; we’re constantly on edge about stepping over some kind of imaginary boundary that’s both hard to see and constantly changing. I’ve been a stepmom for 14 years now and my life is still fraught with opportunities for overstepping.
Dating or marrying a man with kids is a constant dance between feeling like you’re not doing enough and doing too much
I guess it shouldn’t really be surprising. The stepmom “gig” is really a brand new social construct. In all of human history, there has never been a time when tens of millions of children lived between two homes with two sets of parents. No wonder we’re still figuring this out!
The “evil stepmother” archetype of fairy tales and Disney movies is more about the woman who comes into your life after your own mother dies, not the one your dad dates after your parents split up. It’s only in the last 40 years or so that the family court system has been awarding joint physical custody to both moms and dads. Divorce used to result in the kids staying in one home (usually mom’s) and just visiting with the other parent. There wasn’t another “mom figure” in another household who was expected to play some kind of significant role in the life of her partner’s kids.
It can feel disorienting and even frightening to not know where the boundaries are in your home, and how to avoid them or even when to challenge them.
How can you tell if you’ve overstepped a boundary?
Usually there’s a clear sign, but it never comes from friends, neighbours or extended family members – it doesn’t matter what others think about what you’re doing. The sign comes from the people right inside your stepfamily dynamic.
There are 3 main areas we find ourselves overstepping:
- With the kids
- With the bio-mom
- With your partner
With the kids
When you overstep with the kids, you might hear the words “You’re not my mother!” Older kids don’t often say those exact words but you’ll see them pull away, withdraw or become sensitive and irritable. If you’ve been taking over some of your partner’s parenting responsibilities such as discipline or handing out consequences, you have my permission to give them back – those duties don’t belong to you! Your job is to help your spouse to be the best parent he or she can be, not to do any of their parenting for them. In real life, it’s very hard to see this boundary, especially if you offer a lot of childcare when your partner isn’t around.
Your job is to help your spouse to be the best parent he or she can be, not to do any of their parenting for them.
If you were doing something nice, or kind or loving, for example, saying that you’re proud of the kids, it can set up a loyalty bind situation for the child. We are not wired as human mammals to have 2 mothers (unless both of them encourage the kids to love the other mom). Kids only have room for one mother inside their heart; loving another mother figure makes them feel uncomfortable and they don’t know what to do. The loyalty crisis often busts out right when you’re all having a good time – suddenly it all hits the fan and you don’t even know what happened!
Stepping around this problem is a complex dance but one thing you can do is to wear another kind of “persona” in order to relate to the kids in a different way – one in which they can allow themselves to love you because you’re not like a mother. I’ve written about how to be “not a mom” in another blog post.
With the bio-mom
If you overstep with the bio-mom, you might hear her say something like “Stop acting like you’re my kid’s mother!”. You’ve probably heard the advice about what to do if you come across a bear in the wild. Whatever happens, you have to make sure not to get between a mama bear and her cubs or you’re in big trouble!
So, what qualifies as acting like their mom? Posting pictures of yourself out having fun with her kids while she’s feeling the aching void of their absence. Using the hashtag “mylittleprincess” under a photo of her daughter on Instagram. Showing up with a tray of cookies for parent-teacher night. If you’re a full-time stepmom you’ll likely be doing a lot of motherly things, but it’s still a good idea to find some small ways to keep bio-mom happy. You’d be surprised how many times the absent or un-involved mom becomes glorified and idolized by her child at some point, even years down the road. Make space for her in your home and in your step child’s heart.
With your partner
If you’re overstepping with your partner, you’re likely to hear “Stay out of it, they’re my kids”. I’m still doing a dance of “2 steps forward and one step back”, even after 14 years because, I’ll admit it, I can be a kind of bulldozer at times. I have to constantly remind myself that my husband deserves the opportunity to make mistakes and to fix them – without me breathing down his neck about it!
I know, it’s hard when you think you can see what your partner is doing wrong as a parent, but remember this: the breakup of a family changes everything about the family dynamic. Maybe he was used to playing the good cop to BM’s bad cop – it might take him a long time to change roles and learn to be the main disciplinarian. Perhaps he grew up in a family where his mom was the more active parent and dad was less present but it’s not right for you to help him recreate that kind of family dynamic. This is not the family he grew up in and his kids have different needs than the ones he had.
Your job is to support your partner in being the best dad he can be, not to do any part of the parenting in his place. You can be helpful in a thousand different ways without doing the actual “heavy lifting” of parenthood.
I don’t think there’s any way to completely avoid stubbing your toe on that invisible curb between you and your step kids, their mom or your partner. It comes with the territory but as time goes by, you just get to remember where that curb is hiding and learn how to stay on your side of it!
Tracy Poizner is the host of the weekly Essential Stepmom podcast, now being heard in 51 countries worldwide where she offers unconventional advice and inspiration for The Womanly Art of Raising Someone Else’s Kids. Having been a stepmom for 14 years and an alternative healthcare professional for over 20 years, she has a special perspective on emotional healing and how to balance our personal needs as stepmoms with the requirements of this challenging lifestyle. Tracy’s website is essentialstepmom.com.