Being a mom is not easy, whether you’re the parent of one child or a few, a mother figure stepping in the gap, or anyone in between. But one of the most complex roles a woman can have of all that fall under the umbrella of motherhood is that of a stepmother. These women love their partners, and because of that, find themselves tasked with showing love to that partner’s child, or children, from a previous relationship. In most cases, this child already has a mother they are closely bonded to, but not making an effort, even when the child doesn’t seem interested, would either create issues, or come off as indifference, and both can be a problem.
There have been enough headlines lately that detail the complexity of this role. We watched Adiz “Bambi” Benson go viral for tussling online with her 18-year-old stepdaughter over a perceived slight, and as a response, virtually fight with the girl’s mother, Erica Dixon, seeking to publicly tarnish her reputation. Then there was Steve Harvey, who admitted his blended family didn’t start out the best because his daughters, along with wife Marjorie’s girls, didn’t want them to get married. This type of conflict is, for some, a reason to not entertain someone with children when looking for a compatible partner. For those who choose to though, experts say it’s a brave undertaking — whether the situation is a healthy one or in tatters due to conflict or loss.
“In general, the transition to parenthood is a complex process,” says Heather Lofton, PhD, a licensed marriage and family therapist with the Family Institute at Northwestern University. “More specifically, for a stepmom, the experience can inherently be disjointed. Birth parents, initial guardians, are primary attachment figures for a child. When a stepmom is introduced into a family system, there is essentially no attachment and therefore one needs to be developed.”
There may already be some sore feelings once a stepmother figure is brought into the equation, but what can certainly send things into a tailspin is if this new addition finds themselves trying to compete with a parental figure already in place.
“Step-mothering for Black women has a unique history, stemming from collectivist and community-based parenting practices. However, it can often become a competition among parents, creating a need to replace parent figures instead of joining forces in collaboration,” Lofton says. “The stress of competing parenting systems has statistically contributed to Black step-mothering experience reporting greater mental health stress than compared to the biological mother’s experience.”
Understanding what role to play can be difficult, particularly in situations where the biological parents are at odds, there is limited external support and/or poor communication to deal with. Stepmothers who have the best outcomes, according to Lofton, make an effort to clearly outline the role they will play, understand and respect the roles of all parties involved, and seek guidance.
“Designing a stepmom lane, with clear roles and boundaries is critical for the future of the family functioning but also the health and wellbeing of the new stepmom,” she says. “Being a stepmom can be considered as a ‘bonus parent,’ which can be a gift if developed with care. When transitioning into stepmotherhood, seeking guidance and support from an individual and family therapist are both necessities.”
And just as important as it is to build a healthy relationship with the child or children, it can also go a long way when there’s an understanding with the biological mother. This is especially important if a woman’s partner and the child’s mother don’t communicate well.
“As a new stepmom, taking the time to review (individually and with your partner) your intentions and goals (make a list) for your relationship with the children’s biological mother can set the tone for the brave conversations that will need to take place in effort to build a sustainable relationship,” Lofton says.
In moments where things with the biological parent are fine, but the child isn’t fond of you, Lofton says stepmothers must take things slow to build trust and be understanding with them as well, considering the fact that they’re dealing with a major adjustment as well.
“Remember, children have their own internal narrative and experience of separations and family disintegration. Taking it slow and selecting three to five behaviors you want to consistently stick with to verbally and physically communicate to the children that you ‘come in peace’ can be a helpful tool for creating a stable base to build on,” she says.
The marriage and family therapist says that can be sending them a message every day to communicate and show that you care about their wellbeing (“Have a great day!” for example). Volunteering to pick the child up from school once a week to show you want to be of service is also helpful. In addition to that, letting them know that you’re available to them whenever they want to talk about anything, also lets the children, at whatever age they are, know you are open to communicating with them in a way that falls within their comfortable boundaries.
While from the outside looking in, we may have a way we tend to look at the roles of stepmothers (popular movies and old children’s fairytales certainly haven’t helped, i.e., Cinderella and Snow White), when you truly consider what it takes to be a good one, it’s a really big deal — and responsibility. As outlined by Lofton, there’s a lot to consider when choosing to take on this role (and there are people who will be with, for example, a man with kids but avoid connecting with them to sidestep these difficulties). Those who make a true effort to build a relationship with a child not their own, who nurture them and are there as support (sometimes stepping in more than the biological parent), deserve more respect. At the least, they deserve their flowers this Mother’s Day, and every holiday celebrating motherhood and the maternal bonds that are so important to us all.