I was a child of divorce. Two divorces actually. And I lived in three families: my biological parents, my dad and step-mom, and later, my mom and step-dad. By the time I married my now ex-husband, I was pretty convinced I’d be a great step-mom, having had such a thorough and varied experience living in step-families.
I was therefore shocked to discover I had feelings of true animosity when our new family was first formed. Jealousy, insecurity, ineptitude and competitiveness just to name a few. I was ashamed to have these feelings because I loved my step-daughter very much. Ellie was an angel, just 6 years old, and she adored me. Why was I being so immature?
Granted, I was literally immature. I was only in my early twenties, barely legal to drink in public. But where were these awful feelings coming from?
Forming a step-family requires a lot of emotional maturity. And a lot of emotional growth. There is the ever-present reality that your partner loved someone before you. And he loved her a lot. He married her. And they shared something you never will. That first time down the aisle. That first time getting a positive pregnancy test back. And that first time holding a first baby. A lot of firsts. You can never share that with him and you can never compete with those memories. And there is a constant reminder of that. There is a child.
Then, there is the formidable task of defining your role. This is often the most difficult issue in step-families. Who am I to this child? How do I behave? Am I doing too much? Too little?
I have some firm beliefs on roles in the step-family and they differ from a lot of mainstream advice. But my beliefs come from having lived in step-families and remembering quite clearly what it felt like to be a step-child and how I viewed my step-parents.
As a step-child, I viewed my step-parents as parents. You read that right. Parents. But they were a different kind of parent. This was a parent that I desperately wanted to love me, just like they loved their own kids, but I was always a little (sometimes a lot) uncertain if they really did love me, would keep loving me, were faking, or would abandon me. Nevertheless, my expectation toward them was that their role in my life was that of a parent. But without the benefit of biology, the question always remained, how loyal and dedicated were these people? It always will.
Knowing that, I worked through my shocking and negative feelings toward my little Ellie and I loved her as a mother. It was my responsibility as the adult in her life to get over myself, grow up, and be there for her. I know for a fact a child cannot have too many people in their lives loving them. I know for a fact that adding a mother does not, and cannot, replace the original mother. I’ve lived it as a child. So I practiced it as a new step-mom.
But, something happened I didn’t appreciate. While I treated her with all the love and respect as a child of my own, there were many times she did not treat me with the love and respect of a mother. She appreciated everything I did for her. In fact, she expected me to take care of her. But I was getting stuck in a “friend” role. And I didn’t like it.
Any mother will tell you that being a mother is a lot of work. Getting up in the middle of the night to clean up vomit, bandaging bloody wounds, cooking dinner, planning birthday parties, buying clothes, hosting sleepovers–we do not do these things for our own amusement. We sacrifice our own sleep, time, money and fun for the sake of our children. But we do get something in return. We get, at the very least, public acknowledgment of being mom. That’s something.
I wasn’t getting that. I was being taken for granted.
So, one night, as I was tucking her into bed, I had a little talk with her. I explained to her that the two of us needed to decide together what kind of relationship we were going to have. She was about 8 years old at the time. I explained that I enjoyed mothering her but if I was going be a mother to her, I expected her to act like a daughter toward me. If she didn’t want that type of relationship, then I would stop the mother activities, and we would be friends. She could continue to treat me as a friend, but then I would also treat her as a friend (still be loving, of course), but mother behaviors and activities would cease.
She thought about it a moment and made her decision. She liked having her extra mom. She didn’t realize that her mom also wanted her to be a daughter.
After the two of us negotiated our relationship, I was happier than ever mothering her. The resentment I had felt being overlooked or treated like a second-class citizen evaporated. She and I decided together what we wanted and we both gave each other the respect we each deserved.
I think what happens in a lot of step-families is a lack of definition in the roles that each person will play. This is particularly true for the step-parents. Most step-parents are expected to play a parent role, shuffling children to activities, making meals, doing laundry, etc., but the children are not expected to treat their step-parents as parents. The children are allowed to disregard them as merely “friends”. If the family makes the conscious decision that the step-parent’s role is that of a “friend”, that is fine. But then the step-parent MUST be relieved of all parenting duties. Otherwise, it is wildly unfair to expect these step-parents to do all the work of parenting with none of the rewards.
Ellie and I have been in each other’s lives now for 16 years. She is my daughter. I am her mom. And we wouldn’t have it any other way. The only downside to it all? She keeps stealing all my clothes.