Sally Bjornsen is a stepparenting veteran. She’s the author of The Single Girl’s Guide to Marrying a Man, His Kids, and His Ex-Wife. Her web site Sassystepmother.com offers informative tips on stepparenting written in Bjornsen’s humorous style. She speaks from experience. She has two stepsons and one biological son and knows what it takes to succeed as a stepparent. Here, she shares her experience of becoming a stepmother and talks about the challenges of stepparenting.
A sassy stepmother is someone who embraces the stepmother role with gusto, someone who takes the role seriously without giving up her own identity, who makes her needs known and who takes care of herself first while helping her husband to raise his children.
I believed that once my husband and I were married, his ex-wife would somehow disappear. She would simply vanish from our lives. In our case, she not only didn’t leave, but she was disappointed that she wasn’t invited to the wedding. In fact, my husband had to call her several times during our honeymoon to check on the kids. And since they are friendly with one another, each conversation included some personal information about our trip too, such as which cities we were visiting, our thoughts, etc. I felt that my space was being invaded, but the truth was, this was someone who was going to be in my life, affecting my day-to-day life, for a long, long time.
Having never been married before, I had a preconceived idea of how my wedding should have been—being whisked away by my knight in shining armor. But the reality was that on the night of our wedding my knight whisked his slumbering seven-year-old over our threshold and I piggybacked the three-year-old into his bunk bed. It dawned on me then that my knight came with an entire kingdom and I had married a whole slew of people, not just my husband.
My husband’s children were three and seven when we got married. I think that it really hit them after the wedding that their parents were never going to be together again. And, in their minds, it was because of me. The older one punished me in small ways. For example, he suddenly wouldn’t eat the nachos that I made him even though he always loved them before his father and I got married. But their little standoff was very temporary. Taking on the job of parenting children whom you haven’t known since birth is extremely challenging. It’s just that much harder to bond.
Many stepmothers report feeling petty, jealous, immature and needy during the first few years of being a stepparent. I remember really beating myself up because even though I didn’t want to feel like that, I just couldn’t help myself. It felt so junior high school to think of my husband, “he doesn’t love her anymore. He loves me.” It was almost as if I were another sibling competing for attention. I didn’t like that identity at all. I hardly recognized myself. The thing to keep in mind, however, is that these types of emotions are normal. They can rise up when you least expect it. And, you need to be prepared for how you are going to feel. It’s very difficult to know for sure how you will react until you have been through it.
Some stepparents initially work overtime to be the best spouses and parental figures they can possibly be in order to win over their new family members. It’s as if they’re constantly auditioning for the role of stepparent. In doing that, they can wind up sacrificing pursuits in their own life. This may lead to resentment and quite possibly an identity crisis. You do not need to cut out all things familiar and comforting in your effort to become Super Stepmom.
I encourage stepparents to ease into the role of stepparenting slowly. Continue to do the things you loved doing before you were married. For instance, if you liked to workout or cook or spend time going to the movies, don’t suddenly stop doing those things because your life now includes other people. If you do, you will become resentful. Remember, giving yourself time alone does not make you selfish. It allows you much needed space to recharge your batteries so that you can be a supportive family member.
Manage your expectations. Marrying a man with kids and an ex-wife will not fit the all-American-family stereotype that you see in commercials, sitcoms or in the movies. For starters, erase your vision of what you think marriage and parenting is supposed to be. If you model your role and your vision of “family” and “marriage” after a traditional/biological family, your expectations will always fall short. This doesn’t mean that being a stepfamily is anything “less” than a traditional family. It just means that it looks different, feels different and has very different challenges. It’s called creating a new paradigm for what a stepmother is.
Choose a style of parenting that works for you. Some stepparents get very involved in the lives of their stepchildren. They cook them meals, help with homework and accompany the biological parent to the parent-teacher conferences. Others leave the day-to-day operation to the biological parent but are still supportive. Discuss which role you feel comfortable in with your partner so that everyone’s expectations can be met.
The first month may still feel like a honeymoon. The “what have I done?” stage, however, will quickly follow. This is the period of time when you need to adjust to sharing your life with other people, which isn’t so easy for those who are used to living on their own.
Next comes the identity crisis when you may ask yourself, “who am I?” Once you hit rock bottom, the dust will begin to clear. On a spiritual level, you may come to believe that joining your family was meant to be. The process may not have been pretty, but you will be richer because of it in the end.
Having the support of your spouse is key. In the first few years of being a stepparent, I was highly reactive to human transgression. In times like that my husband would remind me that marriage was a long road and if I continued to overreact the way that I was, that road was going to start to feel really bumpy. This gave me some perspective. I also believe that therapy and time spent with certain friends were valuable. You just need to understand that not every friend is going to understand your situation. I had some say, “what do you care? They aren’t your kids. It’s not your responsibility.” But, of course, they were my responsibility and I did care.
Time really is your friend when you are a stepparent and getting used to a new life takes time. Looking back I realize that things didn’t really gel until close to two years into the marriage. That may feel like an eternity when you are starting out, but in retrospect it wasn’t really that long.
Change is temporary. When you are in it, the process isn’t always fun, but it will make you so much stronger.
Deciding that I didn’t want to live this life by myself. So, when I was 35, I decided to get married for the first time and have a child of my own.
For more information on Sally Bjornsen, visit www.sassystepmother.com.
A funny, honest, and empathetic resource for the novice stepmother, which includes advice on the kids, the ex-wife, the holidays and sex. Plus an invaluable list of resources, web sites, publications, and organizations for the new stepmother....