When I saw the uncontrollably shaking shoulders of my stepdaughter-in-law as she wept at our wedding, I knew the stepmom life was going to be harder than I thought.
Since both my husband and I were widowed, I thought our situation would be less complicated, and perhaps it is in some ways. But in general, stepfamilies are hard no matter what your circumstances were before remarriage.
As a stepmom, you start off in the negative, thanks to Hollywood stereotypes and just the general sensitive nature of blended families. If you’re likeable, then loyalty is an issue; if your ways are different (and they are), then tradition is an issue; if you’re not perfect (and you’re not), all your flaws are scrutinized. Fact is, you are between a rock and a hard place, no matter what.
But the good news is that plants, flowers, and even trees thrive between the crevices of rocky mountain tops all over the world. One is left to wonder how the roots of a giant tree find the room and nutrients to grow in such places. Whether we can explain it or not, they do.
So don’t despair. It is possible to be a healthy stepmom, no matter how hard the ground is.
There are some basic bits of advice that can help stepmoms in any situation. But first, take your expectations off the table, put your OCD in a drawer, and get ready for guidelines, not magic potions. Give yourself some room for error, and learn to pick yourself up and try again. Here are seven of the rules that I’m living by. Hopefully they will help you right where you are.
1. Know your place, but demand respect. My stepson, Seth, was 14 when my husband and I married. From the beginning he said he liked me better than his dad’s other girlfriends. When I asked him why, he said, “Because you didn’t try to be my mother.” Most stepmoms have a hard time finding this balance. They either try to be a second mother to their stepkids, or else they push them away and have no relationship. But there is a place in between.
You are not your stepchildren’s mother. They have a mother, and you are not it. Even when the mother is deceased, those children still love their mother, and you will never be able to replace her, so don’t try.
That does not mean, however, that you don’t deserve respect and even love. Think of yourself like a teacher or mentor. You can be a godly female influence in their lives, especially if their biological mother is not a Christian. Titus 2:7-8 says, “Show yourself in all respects to be a model of good works, and in your teaching show integrity, dignity, and sound speech that cannot be condemned, so that an opponent may be put to shame, having nothing evil to say about us.” Don’t try to force that love and relationship, but grow into it just like you would with any stranger.
That does not mean that the children can run over you and treat you with disrespect. They don’t have to feel close to you, but they do have to respect your position, just like a teacher or parent of a friend.
2. Show love to your stepchildren even when it’s not returned. Matthew 5:44 says, “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…” The hardest action in the world is to love someone who consistently disrespects you or ignores your gestures of kindness. But that’s why we have the Holy Spirit living in us—to give us this supernatural power!
As a stepmom, you have the opportunity to practice living in the spirit more than the flesh. There will be days when this is harder than others, and on those days, pray. Think about your family in the future, and consider the love you are giving now—with no return—as seeds for the future. One day it will pay off.
3. Accept the ex-wife as a family member.For those in a divorce situation, you might have figured out by now that an active ex-spouse is like an in-law. Because you share kids, your husband’s ex-wife is a permanent part of your family. If you want to have a less complicated life, it is wise to make peace with your “ex-spouse-in-law,” a term coined by Ron Deal, founder of FamilyLife Blended® and author of The Smart Stepfamily.
Be the light of Christ in your situation. You can’t help the way the ex treats you, but you can choose how to treat her. Proverbs 11:30 says, “The fruit of the righteous is a tree of life.” The way you act directly affects the quality of your life. Let the consequences of your right actions bring life to your family.
4. Cultivate your marriage. Read books, go to marriage conferences. My husband and I have a regular date night set for every Friday, and we make it a priority. You might think a regular babysitter is costly, but divorce and emotional trauma is a lot more expensive.
You can also find reasonable ways to cut back on babysitting costs. Use resources at your church or trade babysitting with another couple. One thing to avoid: Don’t make the oldest child babysit unless they are all biological siblings. You don’t want your time together as a couple interpreted by your family as a sour event.
5. Even when being a stepmom is a thankless job, God sees you. Do your work for Him. Your husband won’t appreciate everything you do the way you want him to. Your stepchildren may never thank you or value all you do for them. But God remembers every good deed you’ve done. First Corinthians 15:58 says, “Therefore, my bellowed brothers, be steadfast, immovable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”
Be the kind of stepmom to those kids that you would want for your kids. When I get really irritated with my teenager and feel a root of bitterness setting in, I ask myself how his mother, Kari, would want me to treat him. And I ask myself, If Kari were in my place and I in hers, what would I want for my children?
6. Show grace, grace, grace in your stepfamily.The people in your stepfamily are imperfect people, just like you. They get their feelings hurt; they misinterpret things; they miscommunicate. Sometimes, they simply disagree because they’ve come from a different family culture and worldview.
Expect there to be some problems. And expect those problems to last a while. According to Ron Deal, it takes seven years for a blended family to bond—seven years! That means some of your children will be teenagers or even grown adults by the time you start to see each other as “family.”
Second Corinthians 8:7 says, “But as you excel in everything—in faith, in speech, in knowledge, in all earnestness, and in our love for you—see to it that you excel in this act of grace also.” It’s great to read all the books on being a good stepmom and work on all the issues that a blended family faces, but as you do all of that, don’t forget to live in grace. None of those other things will work without the balm of grace poured over all of it.
7. Finally, grow a garden. Let’s face it, sometimes life gives you, well (if you’ll pardon me), crap. But when that happens, you have a choice to make. You can wallow in it, spread it around, and wipe it on everyone around you. Or you can gather it up and put it in a garden, where it will grow wonderful produce and make everything in your life really healthy. You just can’t have a really great garden without a whole lot of crap.
The issues you’re going through are just a part of your testimony, and that testimony will produce peace, joy, and lead people closer to Christ if you don’t waste the value of it. Take all the lessons that you’ve learned and do something with them. Help others through their problems, write your testimony, speak for your women’s Bible study group. Take the problems and use them for God’s glory.
None of these steps are easy. They take discipline. They take working hard to hold your tongue and think before you react. They take a lot of selflessness, and that’s been hard for everyone in the history of mankind. But the more you work at it, the better you’ll be.
One thing is certain: If you give up, then nothing is going to grow between the rock and the hard place. But if you sow the seeds and wait on God, you will be amazed at what He can do through you.