I greeted my fiancé's ex-wife at the door with a smile and good intentions of blessing her and her children. She also greeted me with a smile, but then with a tearful retreat.
I'd been in her shoes a couple years prior, meeting a stranger who would spend family time with my children—and I had no right to veto my ex-husband's choice. It can be a frightening moment for any mother.
Seeing the tears in her eyes tore at my heart. I didn't want to compete with her role; she was their mother, and I wished she could trust that I would never intentionally harm her children. With God's help, I knew I needed to be gentle with everyone concerned, no matter what. Looking back, over the past 14 years of being a stepmother, here are 5 tips I've learned to ease the journey of becoming a blended family.
1. Dump shame
At first I was ashamed of my title as a stepmother. I worried I wasn't good enough. I re-punished myself for my failed first marriage repeatedly. I didn't understand how God could give me another chance at marriage and double the number of children I would help raise.
I didn't suspect how painful being a stepmother could be. I didn't imagine feeling jealous of the strong influence my stepchildren's mother had on her kids in my home. I sometimes felt powerless. I assumed I wouldn't act self-righteously, and yet I was absolutely convinced I knew what was best for my stepchildren, who I'd grown to love. I didn't foresee the many potholes on the stepfamily journey.
God continually revealed love and forgiveness in response to my fears until I grew to believe that being a stepmother could be, and would be, a journey made in Christ Jesus. Frequently, I casted all my stepmothering cares on God and experienced his support and lordship over our family. I learned to be honest and open with girlfriends and other stepcouples about my struggles, giving others the opportunity to be supportive as well.
2. Exercise patience with relationship building
While I was engaged, I found myself fixing coffee in my future home while my fiancé and his former wife talked about the trauma going on with one of their kids—my future stepchildren. I felt awkward and ignored. Neither parent sought my input. I critically reminded myself I was just the unimportant future stepmom. In truth, I was a less-involved party, but I still had valid observations. I wish I'd shared my insecurity with God immediately.
It stung whenever my husband reminded me I wasn't his children's mother. I knew I wasn't, but I felt devalued by comments like this. I wanted my husband (and his former wife) to trust my parenting ideas. I had to continually accept that I was the newcomer—my husband, his children, and his ex-wife had known each other much longer than I'd known any of them. Misunderstandings happened easily.
I learned to give us all a break. A newly formed stepfamily is a hotbed of emotion and stress; I had to stop expecting instant family relationships. It actually took several years to build good relationships. Each step-relationship grew at its own rate and could not be rushed in the process.
3. Accept your imperfect family
I wanted to be a fantastic stepmother, but I couldn't seem to get there. Whenever my stepchildren started liking me they felt conflicted because they didn't want to hurt their mom's feelings. I became conflicted too. When my stepkids drew closer, I felt great—and when they pushed away from me again, I felt discouraged.
One time, my eldest stepchild and I chatted in the kitchen while waiting for her mother to pick her up. Our conversation flowed and I felt closer to her than I had in awhile. Her mother phoned to say she was running late. My stepdaughter looked disappointed. Wanting to extend the bonding time with my stepdaughter, I suggested we eat together. She looked excited—then immediately phoned her mother saying I'd make them lunch. When her mother arrived, my stepdaughter seated her at our table saying, "It's probably dirty, Mom. It always is."
I blushed, and then prayed. God showed me that my stepchild was telling the truth and that God didn't expect me to be perfect. I learned to focus on building a loving, grace-filled environment, instead of obsessing about what my stepkids and their mother might think of me.
4. Celebrate your growth as a stepmother
Other times being a stepmom felt comfortable. Sometimes I knew my husband's trust in my parenting skills was growing. Sometimes my stepchildren admitted they liked me or appreciated my help. Sometimes their mother would thank me for something I'd done.
Most importantly, I was growing. I learned more about loving without expecting specific results. I learned about respectfully communicating with my stepchildren and their mother, even when I felt misunderstood. I learned to see the best in others and to encourage positive interactions. I learned more about my own fallibility and my need for God's grace. I found myself extending more grace to others than ever before.
I celebrated step-mothering successes with my husband, friends, and other stepmothers. Our blended family has fun together most of the time now, whether or not our formers are at an event or not. Whether or not you can tell we're a stepfamily, we accept it and feel grateful for what we have.
5. Create healthy community
My husband and I benefitted from a church stepfamily support group. We read books on the stepfamily experience and visited stepfamily websites. We also honestly told others about our experiences and invited both step and non-step families over to our home. It helped us to cope during the first few years together.
Stepmother stories can be quite amusing in hindsight. Talking to other stepmothers about my struggles helped me regain perspective when I was feeling frustrated. When another stepmother and I laugh at our common experiences and encourage one another to hang in there, it drains away any anger or self-pity I may have been indulging in. It reminds me that I'm a normal woman with normal stepparenting issues.
After 14 years of stepparenting, I still don't always know where I stand with my stepchildren's mother. But I do know I respect her and I am grateful to have a role in her children's lives. I have learned things about myself and have become closer to God along the way. Stepparenting has its challenges, but with friends and God supporting us, we're blending into something beautiful.
Tanya T. Warrington is a freelance writer and the blessed mother of three biological and three bio children. Visit her blog: http://DazzlingWings.blogspot.com