The challenges of being in a stepfamily

Most people have one mother but I have had two. My mother (mom) Lydia died when she was 33  and was the inspiration behind this blog as she sadly was never able to appreciate her 50’s. My second mother (mum) is my stepmother. She came into my life when I was 9 and she was only 26. An incredible undertaking for someone so young. However, she was only married to my father for 4 years because he then died. The reason I am telling you this is because I want to celebrate the role of stepmothers.

My mum literally saved me. I was orphaned at 13, terrified, alone and living in another country. Such a young woman was thrown into bringing up someone else’s child (and for her in another country too). She could have sent me to a relative and continued to live her life, but she didn’t. And I am deeply grateful to her for guiding and supporting me to become the woman I am.

In the USA 1,300 new stepfamilies are created every day, and over 50% of the total number of families are remarried/re-coupled. Being in a stepfamily is now part of every day life. But the statistic that worries me is that of those remarriages where children are involved, 66% break up. (Source

Being a stepmother must be a very difficult role. You chose the man you love for everything that he is. But if there are children involved from his side, it is likely there is an ex wife/mother too. So you probably have walked into a very challenging situation where emotions run high and you only have a bit part.

Not every stepmother is from Cinderella

I know several stepmothers who are anything but the one famed by Cinderella. One I will call Susie (not her real name). She endures an irrational, anger-fuelled ex wife who has lost sight of her own role as a mother. On the weekends the children go to dad and Susie she will send them literally with no overnight clothes, school books or details about their planned matches or parties. And when they go on holiday, they need to build in an extra day to go shopping because they arrive literally in the clothes they are wearing and nothing else. Susie has no real say in their education, that space is already taken. But she has carved a role for herself with her two step children which is almost like a kind aunt, and it works – her step children adore her. They give her mother’s day cards with thoughtful messages and confide in her on matters of the heart. She has been clever. She has not tried to be their mother, she has not tried to tell them what to do, but rather she has shown a genuine interest in them as people, listened and gently guided them and her husband/their father. She has eagerly sought out strategies from other parents and as a result, the boys feel loved by her and not threatened. Importantly, she has never ever passed judgement on their mother to them, and has kept a respectful distance from their mother.

But of course every situation is different. The children themselves can be challenging. I for one was. I look back with deep regret as my father used to plead with me to be nice to my stepmother. I hope he would be proud of me now as I changed my tune, but only after he died when I realised the true person my stepmother was. What I do know is that from my experience, children can lash out and be truly vile as I was because they feel insecure, threatened or frightened. We as adults probably just see them as obnoxious and difficult, blocking our own happiness. But if we take a leaf out of Susie’s book and try and understand them and see life from their perspective, a very special relationship different to a parent can potentially flourish. The Australian Bureau of Statistics has identified that 25% of children living in step families only see the other natural parent fortnightly or monthly. It is therefore no surprise that they might be feeling insecure and vulnerable and show some challenging behaviours.

Then there is the blended family where both adults bring children of their own to the relationship. 16% of children in the UK live in such a family. While you both might be keen on each other, it doesn’t mean the children will follow suit. Counselling rooms across the globe are filled with step families (in fact my mum actually became a step family counsellor as a result of her experiences bringing me up). One friend, Anne, has addressed this really well I think. When she and her partner came together they brought with them 5 children of different ages. His were smarting from their parents’ divorce and were sceptical about this new ‘mother’. They made it clear they were thrown off balance by his affections to her and were often rude to her. Her approach was to share how she felt with her partner in a measured way so that he could understand all perspectives. Clearly his children were very important to him, and post divorce he was tending to over compensate with them and behave a bit like ‘uncle dad’. This wasn’t helping anyone. Anne was determined this family would work, but she knew she couldn’t force it. So, she embarked on a secret strategy to pull everyone together. She started with their new environment, hers and her new partner’s home – something that was easy for everyone to see. She made sure all children were able to choose and decorate their rooms (or shared rooms) in their new house. She helped them to fill it with things that made them feel comfortable and that they had specifically chosen. She gave them all personal space and didn’t try to make them get along. She tried to learn about what they liked and would casually include them into everyday life, like cooking foods she knew they liked, or putting on their favourite film. And she created a family WhatsApp group where they could chat and banter among themselves. It didn’t work immediately as I am sure you get, but she laid the foundations to help them feel secure and then over time they started to give more without really realising it. And for the record, she still has to work at it, but I guess that is the same for every family.

I imagine while such an approach worked for this blended family, it won’t necessarily work for others, particularly ones where there are older/adult children involved. Feelings of jealousy, awkwardness at adjusting to new living arrangements and routines, and confusion as to who is in charge of them can all manifest in more challenge. We never said it would be easy.

Help is on hand!

But help is on hand, the internet is literally bursting with organisations who can help to address the very complicated issues step families face. Here are a few to get you started: and a rather interesting article on mixed race blended families

And let’s not forget our local libraries where there will be a number of useful books, after all the issues we are facing have not really changed. If young children are involved, a book you can read with them addressing the implications of their new families can be invaluable.

A step family can be more like a family forest than a family tree

One thing is for sure, a stepfamily can be very large and complex, more like a family forest than a family tree.

My mum in her professional capacity yet grounded in personal experience, believes new stepfamilies need to take time in the beginning to discuss with their children what to expect, what are their expectations, needs, wants and anxieties. All work together to address them. There are counselling groups where you can go together to make sure you start as you mean to go on.

It is not just challenging for the stepparent, the natural parent may struggle too. Not only might they have issues with their ex, but they might feel torn between their new partner and their children. If pulled into a disagreement, whose side should they take? How would that look to the other party? Will blood be thicker than water? As the step parent, it is a difficult balance to see things from everyone’s view and not feel deflated if things don’t go the way you hope.

In my situation, where my parents had both died, there is a tendency to idealise them as perfect people when they were alive, when the reality as we all know, is that they just weren’t as great as I thought. All that said, and with our natural tendency to never speak ill of the dead, this perception does little to help a stepfamily where a parent is deceased. My mum’s way of dealing with this was to outwardly agree (so we were on the same page) and then try and guide me to the here and now. Obviously much easier said than done, and by all accounts I have never shed that idealistic view of my father in particular.

According to the Stepfamily Association of Victoria (Australia) most stepfamilies go through stages which can include:
  • Fantasy: there is an expectation that this stepfamily will be one big happy family. Parents are looking to the future while children wish their parents were re-united.
  • Confusion: this begins when family members sense that something is wrong. The stepparent is often the first to notice.
  • Crazy time: there may be highly emotional times when the stepfamily is divided and family members take sides. Issues are out in the open but not resolved.
  • Stability: the stepfamily begins to stabilise and there is a sense of us or our family. The stepparent has a clearly established role.
  • Commitment: there is an ongoing commitment to making sure this family continues to work, an acceptance of the past and of the rhythms of change.

If you can see the lifecycle then perhaps you can prepare for it.

And if we have been the product of a stepparent ourselves, they may not have had the support, experience or understanding to deal with us, and we may therefore not have appropriate role models on which to base ourselves. Or of course, they just could have been truly revolting people!

For those of you who are stepmothers, I salute you. To be thrown into what can be a perfect storm with no experience of how to deal with challenging children, aggressive ex wives, or a seemingly weak husband can be disheartening. They can eat away at a beautiful romance stifling it from blossoming. But please know for what it’s worth, that I think you are amazing. One day hopefully they will all understand things from your side, just as I have with my mum.

Leave a Reply