When Being a Bonus Mom Doesn’t Always Feel Like A Bonus: The Challenges & Lessons of Step Parenting
I met my husband when he was childless. Life had taken us in separate directions and when we finally reconnected years later, we picked up where we left off; the only difference being (and it was a big one), he was now a father to a one-year old baby girl. And I was scared.
The thing is, it wasn’t by happenstance that I hadn’t yet had a child of my own. On the contrary, it was by design. I didn’t have kids on purpose. I took my birth control faithfully, never missing a dose. I liked kids but what I liked more was sleep and the option of returning them back to their parents. So becoming a party of 3 made me a bit nervous, but I jumped in head first, completely naive to the challenges that lay ahead of me.
And baybeee! There have been some challenges.
Challenge #1: The Relationship, Or Lack Thereof, Between My Stepchild’s Mother and I
Despite having a child together, my husband and my stepchild’s mother were never in a serious relationship and by the time I re-entered my husband’s life, they were living in different cities and working on establishing a healthy co-partnership. So it never occurred to me that at the very least, she and I could not be cordial. Yet, that has proven to be much more difficult than I anticipated.
My requests for all of us to meet up and have meaningful conversation regarding the rearing of my stepdaughter have always been declined. She typically ignores me at my stepdaughter’s recitals, awards ceremonies, school programs and really any other event I’m at. We’ve only spoken once during a brief introduction years ago, so I can’t imagine that I’ve done something to offend or upset her. I also know that I’m not privy to all of the things that may have transpired between she and my husband; there are of course, two sides to every story. But at this point, I’m not sure I believe any potential ill will or fall out between the two is cause for her behavior. Perhaps the issue is more than just the bitter baby mama narrative. Maybe, to befriend me or to have a healthy co-parenting relationship with my husband and I would be counterintuitive to her self-identification as a single mother and the praise, empathy, applaud, and admiration she receives as a result.
I can’t imagine anything more difficult than being a single parent. I watched my mother, a single mother of four, bust her ass day in and day out to provide for us. I’ve watched some of my friends defer their dreams to take on jobs they hate just to pay the bills. They wake up at 6am, prepare breakfast, drop the kids off at school, work a full day, pick the kids up, make dinner, help with homework, give baths, put the kids to bed, do their own school work, get a few hours of sleep and do the same exact thing the next day and the day after and so on. The heroics of single parents make Wonder Woman and Superman look like a bunch of suckas. They deserve all the recognition in the world.
However, when your child’s other parent is present in the same ways you are, financially, emotionally and physically, I’m not sure you get to call yourself a single parent, at least not in the way society tends to define the term. I think the more accurate description is that you are a parent that just happens to be single. There is a difference. And when you come across people who are intent on being perceived as the victim, you must be prepared that they will manipulate reality to feed their perception, in spite of the truth. These realizations have helped me come to terms that my stepdaughter’s mother’s behavior really has little to do with me and as a result, there’s not much that I can do to change it.
My priority is my stepdaughter, so if and when her mother ever comes around, I’ll be here.
Challenge #2: The Dismissal of My Role As Stepmom
Being a stepmother, much like being any other type of parent-biological or otherwise, is a thankless job. But there is a certain level of dismissal and overlook by others of the very important role that we play in our stepchildren’s lives that is especially frustrating. For example, when our family and friends comment on how wonderful my stepdaughter is (and she is pretty great) it usually includes something like, “He’s doing a great job with her” or “He’s such an amazing dad” or “She’s so lucky to have him.” And they’re right. My husband does do a great job and he is an amazing dad but he’s not alone in this. I’ve been in my stepdaughter’s life since she was one. I am equal part caretaker when she is with her father and I. I love her deeply and make sacrifices for her as well. Yet, I can’t recall the last time my role or efforts were recognized by our family and friends.
And this failure to acknowledge comes from within the home too. Early on in our marriage my husband expressed that he’d like me to help out more when it came to her bedtime routine. She’d always preferred for her father to help her get ready for bed and read her a bedtime story, so I assumed that it was time they both enjoyed spending together. I was caught off guard and to be honest, a little offended but I agreed and took on some of the responsibilities. Months later, when Mother’s Day rolled around, I received nothing. I received no gift, no card, not even a “Thank you”. I watched him make Happy Mother’s Day calls and texts to his mother and my mother, his sister, and our friends. I sulked and had an attitude until I could no longer bite my tongue. “So is Mother’s Day only for biological mothers orrrrrr,” I asked. He immediately got it and apologized. I knew he understood the level of hurt I felt by his selfishness and failure to acknowledge the sacrifices I had made.
Additionally, the expectation of me to blindly implement rules and go along with choices regarding my stepchild, rules and choices that were made without consideration of my opinion and may be unaligned with my beliefs and the way I would raise my own biological children, has presented its own set of issues. What often happens is that when I in any way deviate from the things she’s used to at her mother’s home, including but not limited to, her diet, bedtime, the amount of time she’s allowed to watch television, her chores, the music she’s allowed to listen to, and so on, I’m the hater. I’m the wicked witch, the Big Bad Wolf, Cruella de Vil, and any other villain you can think of. It puts me in an unfair position of having to reap the consequences of decisions I had no part in.
Challenge #3: The Effects of Co-Parenting on My Marriage
From the very beginning, I’ve watched my husband bend over backwards to make concessions and appease his child’s mother for fear that she may threaten his access to his daughter. I’ve watched him become a shell of his assertive, out-spoken self in her presence because of the power she holds over him. I’ve seen him breakdown and break things out of overwhelming frustration and feelings of hopelessness. In those moments, my inability to help or change things has made me feel powerless and heartbroken.
And while I’ve felt deep sadness for him, I’ve also felt moments of great resentment. It is the resentment that arises out of his acquiescence to the wishes of his baby’s mother, at the expense of his wife’s feelings. And I get it; I understand that the only reason for the last minute cancellations and the entertaining of unreasonable requests is to maintain as peaceful of a co-parenting relationship as possible. But it is hurtful nonetheless. I remember when we were dating feeling completely heartbroken after not being invited to his daughter’s birthday party at his parents’ home because he did not want his daughter’s mother, who would be in attendance, to be upset or uncomfortable. I worried then that my feelings would always come last and made it a point to let him know that moving forward, that would be unacceptable. And while we’ve stumbled a few times since, I know that he’s made every effort to consider me in that regard.
Challenge #4: The Relationship Between My Stepdaughter and I
I’ve been in my stepdaughter’s life since she was a baby but seven years later, we still have our moments. I’ve always done my best to make it clear that I was not trying to take her mother’s place. I followed her lead and let her set the pace. However, I quickly realized that my relaxed approach and reluctance to discipline, steeped in my deep desire for her to like and trust me, was being taken advantage of. These kids are smart! I needed her to understand that I was not just her adult sized playmate. I began to set healthy boundaries and I was encouraged by the progress we were making.
However, the ride isn’t always smooth and even when it feels like you’re making some headway, a setback may be right around the corner. My stepdaughter is young enough for me to know that she’s not intentionally trying to hurt or disrespect me. But I’d be lying if I said my feelings aren’t hurt each time she rebukes a stranger’s innocent mistake that she’s my daughter with an emphatic (and very loud), “She’s not my mommy!” Or that I’m not irritated when after I’ve asked her to stop doing something she retorts, “Mommy said I only have to listen to her, daddy and granny.” Though I immediately let her know that when she’s in my home she needs to add me to that list, and I’m grateful for my husband’s support in those moments, the feeling of rejection can be devastating.
Nevertheless, I persist. Honestly, what other choice is there. I love her and my husband. I know she’s not trying to break my heart or be disrespectful; she’s simply stating facts and relaying what she’s been taught. Now, I’m not suggesting that her mother has actively encouraged her to be rude or disrespect me. I don’t believe that to be true. I do believe however, that if her mother were to actively support the relationship between her daughter and I, things might be smoother. But at this point, that’s just wishful thinking.
First of all, keep going.
Though immediate results of your investment and efforts may not be seen, keep going. Though you may be exhausted by having to constantly bite your tongue and be the bigger person, keep going. Though you may feel rejected and unacknowledged, keep going.
If possible, heal the relationship between you and your stepchild’s mother. Always maintain open, frequent and honest conversation with your partner about the ways in which he can better support you and you support him. But most importantly, stay consistent and present in the life of your stepchild. I know it’s hard. I know it sometimes feels like your fighting a losing battle and your efforts go unnoticed but trust me, you’re getting through and they will always remember the ways in which you loved and cared for them.
In the moments I feel like giving up, in the moments I’m tired of being pushed to the back, in the moments I feel rejected, I remember the laughs my stepdaughter and I share, the secrets we tell one another, the memories we’ve made, and her sweet little voiced, I love yous.
Those alone, are enough to keep me going.
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