What makes a good step parent?
Don’t try to be an extra parent – create a unique and positive roll for yourself.
I became a stepmother to two girls when they were 12 and 14. I have now been a mother for 36 years and a stepmother for 25, so I have a long perspective on motherhood and stepmotherhood. Here are my tips on being a stepmother (though I think they apply to stepfathers too).
Don’t ask your stepchildren to call you mum
You have married their father without their permission. They already have a mother and – even if she has died – you cannot simply replace her. Ask your stepchildren to call you by your Christian name. This shows respect for their mother and allows you to carve out a role for yourself as an independent spirit.
Never, ever criticise their mother.
In fact, I went even further than this. As their mother had left and returned only very sporadically over the next 20-plus years, I apologised to my stepdaughters for the cataclysmic changes they had endured and for which I was partly responsible. Luckily for me I was not the cause of their parents’ divorce but I was involved with the changes that followed, notably their father’s remarriage, moving house, acquiring stepbrothers, etc. I was careful never to express any opinion of their mother’s departure but facilitated lots of contact with her by letter, phone, with parcels and so on (this was before the age of Skype, the internet and mobiles!). And in case you think I am an angel, let me remind you that young children turn into adults and see the truth of things for themselves eventually.
Don’t “lovebomb” your stepchildren and expect them to respond accordingly
Because they won’t. They don’t really know you and they didn’t want you in their lives. What you should be aiming for is the gradual building of a trusting friendship which can grow over the years. Note – when my stepdaughters’ mother returned to the UK after more than 20 years away, bringing with her a new husband whom they had met only once before, this man expected a Father’s Day card from them and complained angrily when he didn’t get one. The girls were then in their 30s – big mistake by him! Good stepparent relationships have to be earned – unlike parenthood when the bond is naturally there.
Don’t kid yourself that you love your stepchildren as much as your own children
The umbilical cord pulls too tightly for that, although I wonder if it might be different if you inherited a baby rather than a child and a teenager as I did. Usually you haven’t bonded with them as babies, there has been no developing mother/baby attachment and I don’t think it helps to pretend that this makes no difference. Again, my best advice is to remind you that your goal is to become a good stepmother, not a good mother. Note – would it be a good idea if we had another word for “stepmother” which did not contain the emotionally-laden word “mother”?
However, despite the lack of the emotional bond when you first all get together, you have to plunge in and look after them as if you were their mother. This is the crux of being a step parent. Because in my case, they weren’t weekend visitors, they lived in my house full-time and their own mother was not around. So who was going to look after them if I didn’t? I was lucky in having total support from my husband – himself embarking on being a stepfather to my three very young sons – but gosh it was hard! We cemented our family together by having one more child – our youngest son and to this day known by the others as the Little Emperor!
Be fair and even-handed to all
The accusation of unfairness is common to all families, I imagine, but has particular venom in a stepfamily. It was probably our single biggest problem after utter penury and crippling tiredness! We struggled to both be – and appear to be – fair and not to show bias or favouritism. But there were sometimes howls of protest from my stepdaughters, who were a little older than the boys, more sophisticated and more able to milk the politics of any situation. But we stuck to our guns as well as we could. My tip – if you buy your toddler a Milky Way, get one for everyone. And if one of them does need something specifically (like a car) explain to all the others why this is happening and that their turn will come at the appropriate time.
Let the natural parent discipline their own child
If there is real trouble and discipline needs to be meted out, let the natural parent do it. We were never hot on discipline and it’s still not our thing, but should it be required it’s a lot easier to take from a father rather than endure the chastisement from your stepmother. I can only remember one occasion in a quarter of a century when I got really angry with one of my stepdaughters and that was under severe teenage-fuelled provocation! Least said, soonest mended works well for the aspirational stepmother. Oh and of course I’m talking about a verbal ticking-off here – we were never smackers.
Take the plunge
This tip came from my eldest son, now a father and a stepparent himself. Despite the modern neuroses around political correctness and the suspicions surrounding almost every unrelated adult who comes into contact with children, don’t be afraid to play and have fun as you would with your own small kids. Pizza nights, sleepovers, fishing trips and camping in the garden are all as much fun as they ever were and will help to establish you as a cool stepparent. When they are older, offer your services as a taxi driver. Another tip about this – it’s sometimes easier for teenagers to ask a non-parent about sensitive issues as they feel that you are more likely to take an objective and non-judgmental stand – and many conversations of this type take place while driving somewhere.
Be prepared to take a step back (when required) on important occasions
Despite having done the school runs, the homework, the dental appointments, the GCSE revision, the playdates, the housework, the sleepovers, the teenage angst, the driving lessons, the music lessons, the hamster cleaning, the lifts into town and most of the washing-up, when the natural mother turns up for Christmas, a wedding or a milestone birthday, be prepared to graciously stand back. This avoids conflict and we all know the real truth of things anyway, don’t we? This willingness to step back has worked really well for me, with my adult stepdaughters actually thanking me for my tact on big occasions. And it takes no particular effort – I’m not a limelight lover anyway.
Cultivate a slightly dark sense of humour
After all, this started as a love affair with their father, didn’t it? Not a masterclass in family politics! But as I am younger than him, I expect I’ll still be stepmother to his daughters even after he’s gone. There is much unintentional humour in family life and I still rib my stepdaughters even although they are now aged 38 and 40. My main joke is that I have always wanted to be a wicked stepmother but have found myself far too small to stand up to them – they tower over me!
A personal footnote
My main hope is that all six of them will maintain good relationships and good lines of communication permanently. Not without frequent disagreements I’m sure, but as strong adults in the years to come.
So – how to be a success as a stepmother? Fairness, determination to make the marriage to their father work, a sense of humour and a willingness to live with a bit of heart.