I could feel the tears welling behind my eyes. I distracted myself by unloading toilet paper in the bathroom cabinet. I sensed my husband, Guy, was trying to make eye contact with me, but I just couldn’t or the dam would burst.
He sat down and patted his leg, an invitation for me to come sit. So, I did. Here it comes, I thought.
As soon as I sat, two tears rolled silently down my cheek.
“Is life hard today? You’ve been quiet all afternoon,” he said. I nodded. “What’s hard?”
“Being a stepmom,” I replied, wishing that it weren’t true.
“Tell me how.”
“I don’t know what’s worth sharing and what I should just get over,” I said.
“Tell me,” he repeated gently.
It took courage for me to let the words pass through my lips. I didn’t want to hurt him with something I would say.
Finally, I mustered the truth.
“Sometimes I feel like an outsider in my own home,” I said as the tears fell harder.
I have run marathons and half marathons. I’ve taught classrooms full of squirrely children. I’ve buried my mom and my oldest son. I’ve weathered the storm of an unwanted divorce. I’ve moved from a city in one state to a small town in another.
But nothing has challenged me as much as being a stepmom for one single reason – nothing has required more sacrifice coupled with less control.
His daughters were 8 and 11 when I married their dad, and they are two of the most incredible people on the planet! At the time, I lived alone with a dog and cat, so stepping into their home as a stepmom meant tremendous change for my daily life.
In my conversations with my husband, he openly admits that he does not know what my experience is like since I did not bring children into our marriage. He tells me that he wants to know, and I imagine there are other husbands who might want to know what it’s like for their wives.
So, here are 10 things to remember as you support your wife as stepmom:
- The fact that you want to know what it’s like for her is the biggest gift. When my husband invites me to share what is hard, it removes much of the weight. I no longer feel that I have to carry it alone. His questions, as a way of gaining understanding, make us partners and debunk the lie that I need to hide my emotions and protect myself. It shows me how much he cares about me.
- She wants to be good stepmom. Fairy tales, like Cinderella, depict step-mothers as evil and unloving. But the step-moms I know are the exact opposite of that. The stepmoms I know are kind, sacrificial, and loving probably because they are kind, sacrificial, and loving people to begin with. This is a new role to me. I didn’t know how to be a stepmom to them, but I am learning, because I want to be a great one, as do the step-moms I encounter.
- Your love for your biological children is an innate feeling; hers is an action by choice. My love for all of my children is equal but different. I’ve borne two sons myself, and there is an inherent love for the child whom you carried, who shares your DNA. Loving everyone else on the planet is a choice. I am aware that I am not as naturally patient or generous toward people who did not grow in my womb or vice versa. But I want to love my step-kids deeply, and we are growing in love for one another. But I know that they don’t love me the same inherent way they love their dad and their mom. I know these relationships will take time to grow, and I appreciate it when my husband points out the ways he sees me love the kids and the ways he sees them love me back.
- She needs your patience as you listen to her disappointments. I had no idea what I was actually signing up for when I said yes to being a stepmom, because it’s so much more than making extra food at dinner and going to their sporting events. I think Mike Jantzen worded it perfectly when he said, “She is always settling for less than she hoped for. You may have been a great catch, but what tagged along shattered some of her dreams. No woman dreams of sharing finances between two households, or of always having another woman’s schedule and decisions affect her life. Her romantic ideals did not include having dates with you interrupted by text messages from your ex.” These instances, and countless others, are daily reminders that this is not the life we dreamt about, and sometimes we need to express it, be understood, and then we can move on.
- One-on-one time with you is a necessity. Most couples get a few years, at least, of just the two of them. You did not get that. “I do” meant “I do their spelling words with them starting now.” She is happy to help. But she married you for YOU. A regular date night will do wonders for the connection, trust, and fun in your relationship. Get it on the calendar and guard it. Put your phones down and only respond to emergency texts that need to be dealt with immediately. Two hours away is enough to recharge for a week.
- She needs a place of her own. When the kids are at our place, their stuff finds its way to every room in the house. I was not prepared for the take-over that happens when they walk in the door, and she may not be used to the chaos that comes with kids either. But even a seasoned mom needs a place to catch her breath. Maybe it’s a room, maybe it’s a chair in a corner of your bedroom. Just make sure there’s a door. Retreating for a little while produces energy she’ll need later.
- She needs you to notice her efforts. All parents need affirmation, but for stepmoms, it’s even more important. She may not receive the hugs and “I love you”s that Dad receives, despite doing as much for them as he does. Model the “Thanks for making dinner for us” and encourage the kids to say a simple “thank you” when she does something special for them. Then, when you have a moment just the two of you, point out the ways she’s sacrificed or the things you admire about her parenting. You will be her most important cheerleader, and your praise will make a huge difference.
- It’s really hard having another woman influence her home. This was perhaps the most shocking part for me at first. The kids’ mom has not been inside our house since I’ve been living in it, yet, her presence is everywhere. I hear the kids talking to her on the phone every night. Her decisions affect our schedule – like when the kids will be at our house or not, what activities they do, how we spend our money, etc. She’s not cruel about it; I just wasn’t prepared to not be the sole woman who runs my home, and it is really hard for me. I (and even our infant son) sometimes take a backseat to what she decides for the sake of her kids, and that is something I have to constantly surrender. Again, she’s not being mean, and I think she’s a great mom. And yet, her decisions affect us. When I dreamt of being a mother, this was not how I pictured my family’s home would be.
- She wants to be a decision maker. When there are decisions to be made, the results will impact me and affect our home, so I want my husband to include me on the decisions as much as possible. When I talk with moms of nuclear families, they are the decision makers for almost everything – dinners, schedules, activities— and get to run their family life how they want with the partnership of their husband. My husband and his kids were used to making decisions without me for years, so it was a shift for all of us. The kids will get to run their own home and make all the decisions when they’re adults someday. Today, they are kids, and we are the adults. I appreciate when my husband pulls me aside and asks for my input before asking the kids. It’s another (huge) gesture that makes me feel that we’re a team.
- She wants to build a “we”. Despite all of these difficulties and challenges, I would still choose him. His eyes still make my heart race and his smile makes me giddy. I love watching him as a dad, and I grow more madly in love with him every day. I think we make the best team, and there’s no one I’d rather wrangle all this craziness with than him.
So, there on my husband’s leg, I told him all the ways I feel like an outsider in my own home (as listed above).
“Dad, Daaad?” a child yelled as she came around the corner.
“Hold on, Honey,” he said. “I’ll be there in a second.” But she kept coming until she saw my back to her, and I didn’t turn around. “I’ll be right there,” he said again.
“Oh,” she replied when she saw me wiping tears. She walked away quietly.
I continued to cry, and my husband continued to listen, acknowledging my feelings and difficulties. When I had said all I needed to say, he said, “Well, I can’t pretend that I know how you feel, but I will listen…and cry with you.”
I looked up and into his eyes for the first time since the conversation started. I saw his tears.
And that was really all I needed.
Because, husbands, what it really boils down to is a step-mom just needs to know she’s not alone.
She has you.
Molly Huffman – http://www.mollyhuffman.com