There have been many times as a stepmom when I (Laura) felt like running away from home. The loneliness and frustration often felt overwhelming, and no one seemed to understand. In the earlier years of my second marriage I’d stomp around like a 3-year-old demanding that God do something. I wanted a “normal” marriage, with “normal” problems. Then shame and guilt would consume me for my immaturity, and I’d emotionally pummel myself for being self-centered. It was a never-ending battle. I hated what I was becoming. Crumpling into a chair I’d pray, Lord, I need you to teach me how to survive this marriage and love my stepkids, because left to my own devices, it’s going to get ugly around here. Fortunately, He loves honesty.
For many stepmoms the pain of feeling like an outsider goes soul deep. When we asked a group of stepmoms why they wanted to run away from home, four responses came back repeatedly:
“I feel like a stranger in my own home.”
“I live in constant fear, and the only place I feel safe is in my bedroom.”
“A sense of dread fills me when I come home.”
“I am a nobody in this house.”
Are there ways a stepmom can overcome those feelings? The most successful stories of victory result when the dad recognizes the situation and the two of you conquer the problems together.
Here are some suggestions for what you can do to move forward.
Change the nest. To help you feel more at home, consider making changes. It’s amazing how making the slightest changes to “his” home can help some stepmoms feel like it’s “ours.” If either your husband or the kids are resistant, begin gradually. Your own bedroom is a great place to begin, and then expand from there as able.
Encourage Dad to have alone time with his kids. After my parents divorced and my dad remarried, the only time I had him to myself was the 30-minute ride from my house to his. Once we arrived at his house he was busy doing other things. Now that I’m a stepmother myself, logic would say my childhood experience would have taught me to encourage my husband to have alone time with his sons, but somehow I missed it. One of the biggest mistakes I made as a stepmom was to underestimate the importance of his kids having their dad all to themselves. If I had it to do over again this would be the first item on the list.
The goal for providing exclusive time together is to make your time with them feel less intrusive. It also nurtures the bruised hearts of stepchildren who have lost their family, contact with both parents, and a sense of stability in their lives. These losses likely make them feel anxious about sharing their dad with you because it feels like yet another loss. Giving them time alone with their father often helps to soothe their fearful hearts.
Develop friendships with women. A big mistake women often make after finding the man of their dreams is to eliminate girlfriends. This is not just a stepmom issue. God is my provider, and He is the strong tower to which we run when life becomes frazzled and complicated (Proverbs 18:10); however, He often provides laughter, comfort, advice, and a hot fudge sundae to ease the pain through a much-needed girlfriend.
Stepmoms are frequently ambushed by foreign emotions causing them to wonder, Who is this woman in the mirror? Time laughing or crying with girlfriends can help to restore the inner person that still exists. A few hours with people who know me as “Laura” rather than “the wicked stepmother” helps to restore my personality.
Take baby steps. You may be like me. I was raised to be polite to adults regardless of the circumstances. If my mother detected even a hint of cockiness in my tone of voice, much less body language, there was a severe consequence. Therefore, it is extremely hard for me to fathom a child ignoring or talking back to an adult. In my home this was absolutely forbidden. But times are different.
Many of the isolation issues stepmoms face are due to the fact that the children refuse to speak directly to her. They desire conversation with Dad—only Dad. She is left to ponder, How do you build a relationship with someone who has no desire to converse? How do you hug a porcupine? This is how one woman tackled the issue.
My counselor suggested that I start out small. At first my goal was to have one good interaction with them a day. I began by asking a question or giving a compliment. After I was successful with one per day, I moved it up to two and so on. They finally began to respond to my interest in them. It’s not perfect, but it has gotten better.
Her solution may rub you like sandpaper. My initial reaction was, “That’s ridiculous. Why should an adult need to tiptoe around kids that way?” However, ask yourself this question: Do I want a harmonious home, or do I want to be right? Am I willing to take baby steps toward building a relationship with these kids, or am I going to be sequestered in my bedroom forever? Hiding is easier—that’s for certain—but it doesn’t solve the issues.
Start new traditions. This is not something that will work overnight, but it’s a great place to start. As a stepmom of 23 years, I now share a history of people, places, and things I can laugh about with my stepsons.
But remember, give your stepkids permission to have a past that doesn’t include you. If you wish to join the conversation when your husband or stepkids mention a past memory, instead of retreating and allowing it to ostracize you, share something similar that you remember. It helps them to recognize that you had another life too.
Manage your emotions and fears. When the tender feelings of rejection, estrangement, or isolation become overwhelming, most people respond with the more crass emotions of anger, bitterness, or resentment. These strong negative emotions usually express themselves as criticism, attacking words, or emotional distancing. The problem with this type of response is that it gives the very ones with whom you are trying to connect further reason to withhold themselves from you. The result is increased polarization and loneliness in your home, with both sides feeling justified in blaming the other.
So what can you do? Begin by finding the best time to work through difficult emotions with your husband. If your stepchildren, for example, spent time in another home, wait to discuss emotional issues until his kids are gone. This might make the conversation less reactive since the children aren’t front and center. It also gives you uninterrupted time to have a focused conversation and resolve any issues.
Next, manage your negative emotions and fears so you can speak out of a desire for increased relationship and trust with your husband and stepchildren instead of speaking out of your hurt or resentment.
Finally, seek help. Some of what you are coping with isn’t fair, and you didn’t bring it on yourself. But you do have to deal with it. If problems persist despite your efforts to change your circumstances, it’s time to seek professional help. There are many things you can learn that will help your family through a challenging season of life. It’s best if your husband attends with you, but if he won’t, attend by yourself.
Another option is to join or start a support group for stepmoms or stepfamily couples. Many of the local stepfamily ministries in America were started by someone like you. Find other stepmoms who need a friend. You don’t have to struggle through this alone.
Excerpted from The Smart Stepmom by Ron L. Deal and Laura Petherbridge. © 2009 Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group. Used by permission.