The Story Of A Stepmonster

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Disclaimer: I’ve been encouraged to write about what it’s really like to be a stepmother. This is from my experience, from the forums I’m a part of, and talks about what it’s like to be a stepmother while the mother is still around, without any children of your own.

Writing this has been hard for me, putting down in words the way I feel about being a stepmother. I have never spoken to a stepmother who has been in a similar position to me who hasn’t felt the same way I do, which is why I have chosen to publish this.

This isn’t about being politically correct or saying the things you’re meant to say. It’s my opinion from my experience. Please remain respectful.

Part 1: The Stepmonster

Think about word association.

When I say ‘Mother’ you might say: Caring, loving, nurturing, helpful…

Good things, right? Your mother is a really important person in your life. The one who brought you into the world, who is always there for you no matter what. Who picks you up when you fall. The one person who loves you unconditionally.

Now, when I say ‘Stepmother’ you might say: Cold, distant, uncomfortable; or if you’ve seen any Disney movies; evil, wicked, jealous, manipulative, murderous…

Think about all the movies you’ve seen that include a stepmother, the books, the fairytales. The stepmother is the evil one. When there’s a happy ending, the stepmother ends up defeated, dead, or cast aside as the parents, who always loved each other really they just didn’t know it, get back together.

Ahh, the fairytale! The fairytale ending never includes the stepmother.

Let’s be honest here for a minute. Stepmothers aren’t exactly a mother’s favourite addition to a child’s life. You can pretend you don’t mind, but think about it, how would you react to another woman trying to raise your children? What do you really think of how they contribute to that child’s life? There’s a voice, in the back of your head, isn’t there? It accuses them, it condemns them, it utters the words no stepmother wants to hear “you’re not a real mum”.

You want them away from your child. You might really like them, you might really appreciate what they can bring to your child’s life. Maybe you really like seeing your ex happy. But still, it’s there, in the back of your mind. It’s your child.

We’re wicked, we’re evil, haven’t you heard the stories? We have warts and moles, or if we don’t we’re nasty on the inside and out to split up the child’s relationship with their father, out to take all his money and ruin his life.

Well, I like to think I’m not wicked and I’m not evil. My stepdaughter likes me, as does her mother for that matter. I’m certainly not out to ruin Husband’s life or take his money.

But every day, that’s the stereotype you’re up against. That’s how you’re viewed. You can’t win. Either you’re an interfering person who wants to take over the role of mother, or you’re cold and uncaring, not mothering material.

Part 2: You’re Not a Real Mum

Being a stepmother is not easy. A colleague of mine once said something that hit the nail right on the head:

“Having stepchildren is an absence in your life”

You have emotional and financial responsibilities, like any parent. You have the responsibility to teach, to nurture, and help your stepchild grow. There is a member of your family, of your home, who you want to do the best by. But your hands are tied.

You can’t raise them how you would your own, even though everyone says “treat them like they’re your own child”. You can’t. You have to treat them like their mother would want you to. You have to raise them not how you would, but how she would.

You have to uphold what their mother would want you to do, to say. You can’t be a part of the major decisions that affect their life.

There’s someone in your life, but you have no control over them. It’s different to having a niece, or someone else’s kid, because you want to raise them as yours. You’re expected to. But at the same time, you’re meant to raise them as yours in the same way their mother would.

So you do the best you can. You try to do things as their mother would want you to. You hold back your opinions and you stand in the background. You support their parents, back them up, defend them, whether or not you agree. You present a united front at all times and put aside what you think.

All the time a small voice, sometimes outside your head, reminding you “you’re not a real mum”.

You aren’t. You can’t be.

Part 3: The Child

It doesn’t matter how good your stepchild is. It doesn’t matter how much they want their parent to be happy. It will be hard for them to accept you and equally hard for you to accept them.

Many of the people in the forums I frequent experience the most issues with the child. This is tough, because you’re an outsider and you can see things the parents can’t. Or maybe they can, but they don’t want to. And you can’t say anything.

Sometimes you can be filled with so much love for your stepchild you want to burst. Like the time my stepdaughter wrote me a little book called “That’s the why I love you” with drawings of the two of us, and she’d written a whole story for me, even though she was having trouble with her reading and writing at the time.

Like when she had a nightmare and Husband was right in the middle of a meeting, so she said that was OK, she was fine with me. She curled up on the couch with me. We ate ice cream & she said she loved me.

But sometimes you listen to the things people say about your stepchild, and you want to yell “They’re not perfect!” because you can see their flaws. You don’t see them the way parents do. But you’re the last person in the world anyone wants to hear that from.

They have had to adjust to you, and in doing so, they have done things to you, said things to you that can be hard for you to forget. They’ve hurt you and they don’t apologise.

Sometimes they don’t even mean to, like telling your husband that they wish their mum & dad would get back together. It isn’t meant to be hurtful, it’s not intended that way, but you can’t help but think they wish you weren’t there.

Accepting, forgetting and forgiving is required for you to adjust to them.

But your biggest fear is that they won’t like you. Won’t love you. Won’t accept you. So you get nervous, and you stuff up. And every criticism anyone has of what you’re doing is magnified a thousand times.

All you can do is the best you can.

Part 4: Jealousy

This is the part that’s the hardest of all to write.

As a parent, who is the most important person in your life? It’s your child, right? So, what if it’s not your child. What if the most important person in your partner’s life is their child, but the most important person in your life is your partner? Do you think you could deal with that?

Sure, easy, no problem. It’s a child, how can you possibly be jealous of a child? They’re just a child. You expect your partner to love them more than you.

Really? Really? Think about it. The person you love most in the whole world loves someone else more. Come to Sophie’s choice and without hesitating, they won’t choose you.

Hurts, doesn’t it? But it shouldn’t! Because that’s awful! What a horrible thing to say. What kind of uncaring, disgusting, selfish human being would want you to love them over your own child? How dare you.

You’re caught. You love them most, they love someone else most, and you can’t feel bad about it because it’s their child. So you keep it inside, your guilty little secret. Your private shame. Because to admit it would be to become the stepmonster.

So you put them before yourself. And sometimes, you lose yourself in the process. One day you wake up and you realise, your stepchild has no idea who you are because in your attempt at being second, you’ve forgotten to put yourself first.

Ironically, all the advice I’ve ever read on how to be a good stepmother actually says to do the opposite. The best way to be a good stepmother is to put your relationship with your husband first, and ask them to do the same. To ensure your relationship is upheld and kept important no matter what. To present a united front.

Because the most important thing you can do for your stepchild is provide them with a stable, loving home.

Eventually, when they grow up, you will no longer be a stepmonster. And maybe, if you’re really lucky, you’ll get to be their friend.

T.

  • Whippersnapper

    Such an honest and endearing post, love. I would find number 4 the most difficult to deal with if my partner/husband had a child already. You are so resilient xxx

  • Monique Fischle

    This is such a fantastic post and I’m so proud of you for publishing it! Number 4 is something that I’ve never thought about, but now that you’ve mentioned it, I don’t know how I hadn’t thought of it before, it must be incredibly difficult. I think you’re a great stepmother and I think you’re stepdaughter would agree with me! Love you for writing this :)

  • http://music.johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

    It’s funny, and I’m probably showing my age, but in my head the first image I get of a “step-mother” is of Carol Brady on the Brady Bunch…so I’ve always had a really positive image of step-mothers…

    The truth, as T so elegantly describes in this wonderful post, is obviously so different..

    Great Post T xx

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      The reality for her would be different again – she had children of her own first. That’s a whole different ballgame… 😉

  • Bek M

    Beautiful post T.
    If my ex ever decides to move back to Australia and get involved in my boys lives, I hope his new wife is as lovely and gracious as you. xx

  • Melissa Savage

    Well done on finally posting this. On marriage at the end: putting each other first is surely good advice for all couples, whatever configuration of children you do or do not have. A bit like putting on your oxygen mask before your (step)child’s.

  • Karen

    I saw a tweet of yours last night and it made me wonder if you’d finally written about this. And you did! And you did it beautifully!

    Such a courageous post and so well written. I think you’ve done yourself and other stepmums justice.

    As for the jealousy … T I hope you realise there are many ‘intact’ families that suffer from the same dilemma. Mothers being jealous of their husband’s love for the kids, and fathers being jealous of their wive’s love for the kids. I think it’s a very natural feeling to have, and as long as you acknowledge it, put it in perspective, and don’t allow it to define you then you’ll be fine.

    Putting your marriage first is absolutely the right thing to do. It doesn’t impose on the relationship your stepdaughter has with her dad, but rather it provides that sure and steady foundation on which their relationship will continue to flourish.

    Much love to you and your beautiful stepdaughter xx

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      I really want to know what the tweet was now!

      That post on MM talking about Keith Urban saying he loves his wife, then his children, is the first time I ever heard of a biological parent loving their partner more. It’s partly what gave me the strength to post this. To think maybe there were some biological parents who knew what it felt like too.

      • Melissa Savage

        There’s another famous quote like that from Ayelet Waldman, who is a mother of four with her husband Michael Chabon (they are both writers). As the mother, she was hounded about saying she loved her husband more than her kids.

  • http://www.kylieladd.com.au Kylie L

    “You have to treat them like their mother would want you to. You have to raise them not how you would, but how she would.”

    I have never thought of it like that (I haven’t had to). I cannot imagine how tough that would be. You are an amazing person, and I bet you are a fabulous stepmother. xx

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      It was difficult to put that one into words, and even more difficult to put it into practice.

      Thank you.

  • Linzi

    Congratulations on finally posting this! When you first shared it with me I honestly had not given ‘step-mother-hood’ a second thought, but you opened my eyes. Putting myself in your shoes…I don’t think I’d be so mature and gracious. It’s hard enough being a mother and having the insecurity of everyone else being ‘better’ at it than you, so it makes sense that step-mother’s have a really tough and complicated time dealing with so much.

    Interesting how the myth of the stepmother is portrayed, yet I cannot think of any examples of stepfathers in popular culture (except Mr Brady as JJ mentioned the Brady Bunch). Goes to show, yet again, how misogynistic our culture is. Shame on us.

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      For some reason, it’s so different for a stepfather.

    • Kate

      Not sure that’s the case. True, their aren’t Disney movies featuring an evil step-father, but there are a ton of films that feature violent, horrible step-father’s/new boyfriends. I know I’ve seen dozens, but off the top of my head This Boys Life, Sucker Punch, The Stepfather and Disturbance. There’s also a whole slew of crappy Lifetime/midday movie type of films where a new boyfriend turns out to be a paedophile or a serial killer or something else awful and the kid is the only one who sees the guy for what he is.

      There’s also Claudius from Hamlet and Murdstone from David Copperfield.

      I think step-mothers actually have it better than step-fathers in the movies. Step-mothers are often portrayed as evil, but in a fun campy way, whereas stepfather’s are often portrayed as abusive husbands, sexual predators and the like.

      • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

        Husband said that same thing to me today! I haven’t seen any of those movies (and sounds like I don’t want to!)

  • Detachable Princess

    Alright, this is the 5th time I’ve tried to put my thoughts in some form of cohesive structure…

    1) From all accounts, you are doing a bloody brilliant job at stepmothering. This post shows that you recognise the difficulties, and your own possible failings, which is a HUGE step towards dealing with them and overcoming them. May we all have stepmothers with your level of insight.

    2) My relationship with my own stepmother is different to what might be the ‘norm’. She and my dad first got together when I was 16 and my sister 12, so she was never really a mother-figure to us. More of a big-sister-aunty-type-thing. She is much closer to my own age than to my dad, so for her to step into a mother role would have been ridiculous.

    Having said that, I honestly don’t know what I would do without her. Never will you find a woman more willing to take up a fight on my behalf, who wouldn’t drop EVERYTHING she is doing to run and help if I or my sister need it. She is a great friend, and an important force in my life.

    3) My own mother’s relationship with my stepmother is hilarious. Mum, dad and stepmum all get on like a house on fire. All family functions include the 3 of them – recently at a wedding they were seated together at a different table from sister and I. All 3 parents are seen as one ‘unit’.

    I guess the whole point I’m trying to make is that, done right, stepmothering can be a wonderful thing. And it really sounds like you’re doing it right!

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      I think it’s rare that a stepmother really is seen as a mother, not when the mother is still around.

      Being Stepdaughter’s friend, her knowing she can trust me and I have her back, is what I aim for. I encourage her to talk to me about everything, and I don’t hide the truth from her. Your story is perfection.

      • Detachable Princess

        Thank you.

  • Rose Russo

    Beautiful post T and so honest. I really admire you putting this out there. Step mothers get a bad wrap and if anything I think you’ve helped bring down that barrier of all the things you’re not supposed to say.

    I’ve been with men who have children and yes I have felt that pinch of jealousy as they say we can’t see each other because they need to do something with their kids. Ridiculous? Yes. But that’s just how I felt at the time.

    I’ve never had a step mother but I have plenty of women in my life who are my ‘mother’. I have a fabulous mum who is my everything – we haven’t always had a great relationship but over the past couple of years it has blossomed.

    During that dark time with her I developed some fantastic relationships with other older women – aunts, friends etc that fulfilled that mother role to me.

    Of course kids will only ever have one mum but never underestimate the special place you hold in your step daughter’s heart xxxx

  • http://www.alibibyally.com Alyssa Robinson

    I loved reading this T. I can’t really think of much more to say, except that it opened my eyes to something I’d never really given much thought to before. And I think your stepdaughter is very lucky to have more than one mother figure in her life, and especially to have one as wonderful and brave as you.

  • Lady Lizard

    I think this post is really important in the modern world where blended families are becoming the norm rather than the exception. I too had never really thought about it before.

    One point that hasn’t been made yet is that I think the father and step mother need to prioritize their relationship as part of raising children is showing them how to have healthy relationships and the most visible ones to the are those of their parents. So it’s important to have the kind of relationship you hope for them when the grow up. Loving, caring, respectful and happy :)

  • Nicole

    You just explained how I feel, especially point 4. It is a deep dark secret that you hold within. You can understand it, rationalise it and even acknowledge that if the roles were reversed you would be exactly the same…still hurts though.

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      Yep. It does. xx

  • SD

    Beautifully written and thoughtful piece Tamsin. Thank you so much for giving stepmothers a voice and putting into words what others (including me) may find difficult to articulate.

    You are simply wonderful and I appreciate it so much :)

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      Thank you for giving me a final push to publish it!

  • ozlicious

    Hi Tamsin,

    I’ve jumped over from Mamamia and I have to say I just love it here! I can see myself becoming an addict!

    I’m a stepmum (well…soon-to-be stepmum. We’re engaged but have lived together for three years and my husband shares 50/50 custody of his kids) and, like you, I don’t really have any friends or contemporaries who are in the same boat. I sometimes obsess over the “proper” way to be a stepmother, obsess about the problems, obsess about the million shades of grey. Or maybe the insatiable need to digest “stepparenting” literature of all kinds comes from a desire to normalise my situation, who knows?

    I loved everything that you had to say, and I would add a point of my own. This might fall under “You’re Not A Real Mum”, but to me it sometimes takes on an importance all its own. As a stepmum you must pretty much accept being taken for granted most of the time, if not all of the time. As a live-in stepmum (and a helpful and co-operative partner to your fiance/boyfriend/husband), often you naturally take on those jobs that need to be done when kids are in the house – dinner, washing, homework, school run, extracurriculars, scrounging around your purse for the eight dollars for today’s field trip (or scrounging around your bank account to find the $800 for soccer season). Of course, none of this is our *obligation*, but what can you do? Sit on your butt and paint your nails while your husband takes on everything by himself? No, of course not. You help him, knowing that he would do the same for you if the roles were reversed.

    But you don’t get thanks for any of it, at least not from the kids. If you have a lovely man like I do, he will thank you (not every day – but occasionally). But kids are, pardon my language, generally pretty thankless little turds. They don’t “see” all of the minutiae, all of the day-to-day things you do, the daily grind you undergo in order for their lives to function. And I don’t mean that in a cruel sense — they act the same thankless way to their own parents (ask most parents of teenagers!). But the difference is, with parents they love them. With parents there is that biological bond. Stepparents are not so lucky all the time.

    I personally have hit the jackpot I think. I have three stepkids who seem to love me most of the time. The youngest will still come to me for a cuddle when he’s scared in a movie (he’s 11, so it’s starting to be a bit uncool to be scared, so I’m milking it for all it’s worth!). But even I have my down days when I cannot believe how much of a doormat I feel.

    So yeah, just wanted to put my two cents’ worth in. :)

    • http://tamsinhowse.com/blog Tamsin Howse

      I know what you mean. I felt a lot like that at first, that it was my job to be a fill in mum and do all the things I thought mums should do. And I started to get a bit resentful of it as, like you say, you get no thanks. And it occurred to me – who was asking me to do these things? No one. So why was I doing them if it was only harming the way felt about my stepchild?

      So I stopped caring so much about being a fill-in mother, and just tried to be who I was. Stepmother warts and all. And no, I don’t advocate sitting on your bum and painting your nails while lumping their father with all the work, but don’t do anything you wouldn’t do for your own kids either. There were a few times I caught myself doing things I would never do for my kids, like when SD was 9 and would say she was thirsty I’d go get her a drink… What was that? Any kid of mine would be told to get one themselves. So from then on, that’s what I did.

      My point is yes, it’s a thankless job, but you have to stay true to you too.

      PS: Welcome! We’d love to have you stay :)

  • Ardelle Dickinson

    Great post!!! People really do not understand unless they have had this experience. It can be really difficult….

  • http://www.cupofteaandablog.com Catherine Rodie Blagg (Cup of Tea and a Blog)

    Really admire the honesty of this post. I have some experience of this from the perspective of the child as both my parents re married after divorcing. The jealousy that you spoke of is why my dads second marriage didn’t work out, my step mother couldn’t cope with the fact that my dad put me and my sister first. When he died suddenly years after they separated she took us to court to fight for his money.
    Things were tough with my step dad for a while, especially when I was a teenager. But we are really close now. He walked me down the aisle on my wedding day and made everyone cry with the best father of the bride speech I’ve ever heard.

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  • Gabrielle Troyes

    Hi!

    This may be quite – very – late… but I really need help.

    I am far from being a stepmother, but would really love your advice on this. I am a stepchild, though a seventeen year old one… so I guess I am quite old in the sense that my stepmother won’t really see me ‘grow’…

    Your post was very brave and a really interesting read. I have a twelve year old sister and our parents divorced a couple of months ago. It was not an amicable divorce and my mom has gained most of the custodial rights, so seeing my father is a rare occasion, but we still keep in touch.

    My new stepmother is amazing. She is kind and funny, a really clever, brilliant woman. She makes my father very happy and though we do not really know her yet, my sister and I really love her. I am so worried that she doesn’t feel at ease. I know that this will take some time to adjust to and especially as we see our father so rarely and our mom can’t stand him, I don’t know how long it will take for the situation to feel completely ‘normal’. Our stepmother is great but I don’t want her to feel that my father loves my sister and I ‘more’. It’s a different love.

    My father loves my stepmom the most in the world, in the way that he should love her, as a man loves as a woman, as soul mates. My sister and I are blood relatives of my father, he can’t help but love us because we are an extension of him. My stepmom is his soulmate – it’s a different part that she ‘has’. She is a reflection of his soul, a mirror image. My sister and I are like an extra part of him. Another smaller (female) version of him. Whilst we are copies, she is what makes him complete. We don’t make him ‘complete’ we just are made of him, we are an extra addition, not a perfect fit. A special addition as we come from him, but not what my stepmom is to him. The love he bears for her and for us are two completely different things, so different they should be separate words. It would be weird for him to love us ‘more’ than our stepmother because it would imply it was in the same way, when it isn’t.

    That said she is amazing and makes my dad really happy. I don’t want her to feel uncomfortable around us, or dislike us. I don’t want her to feel that we’re in the way of her and my dad. Is there anything I can do to make her more comfortable? For she is loved. Not only by my father but by my sister and I.

    I really want her to know that she is loved by my dad and by us.

    • http://kikiandtea.com/ Tamsin Howse

      Tell her exactly what you just told me. You have brought me to tears. You are a beautiful beautiful woman, and she is so lucky to have you. Your father must be so proud.
      xx T.

    • Carissa

      WOW! As someone who is slowly getting adjusted to the idea of even becoming a stepmom (hence the late response and reading blogs from year ago) this post absolutely brought tears to my eyes! It’s rare to hear it from the perspective from the child, especially one as well written and thoughtful as this. Your dad, indeed, must be very proud. :)