It’s been said that parenting is the toughest job in the world. Wrong! It’s the second toughest. Step parenting wins hands down. A step mom is rarely welcomed with love and joy. It must be most difficult to rebuild a family in the wake of so much hurt, confusion, and resentment.
What exactly is a stepmom? Can she step into my mom’s shoes? Can she step on my rights? Can I step on her dignity? The Filipino word madrasta connotes the very wickedness of the wicked stepmother in all the fairy tales. So that doesn’t help her with a loving image at all. There must be a reason why stepmothers are always wicked in fairy tales. She is almost always welcomed into the family with suspicion and jealousy. The children blame her for breaking up the family (or at least, killing any chances that dad and mom will eventually get back together). Note that in the fairy tales (my favorite is Hansel and Gretel), the children are always the good ones, the underdogs. (Hooray!)
A stepmom is your father’s second wife – that’s all. She is not your mother, she will never be. She should not even try to be because that’s where all the trouble starts. If dad and stepmom can respect that, it may be much easier on the kids. Your mother (wherever she may be) is your mother – the only one. Whoa to the dads who say “From now on, she will be your mother…” He just set off into a bad start.
I referred to my dad’s second wife as, well, that: “my dad’s second wife,” whenever people called her my stepmom. And I was diligent in correcting the terminology because there is a big difference. Many will find that disrespectful. But I am only truthful. Many step kids grimace when they call their dad’s second wife “my step mom.” It’s just too overwhelming a term, like tectonic plates shifting inside you. “Mom” is such a big word. You don’t bestow it to anyone. The mom should be scrapped from the step. I called mine tita.
I gave her a hard time during their marriage. That’s because I was the only daughter, I was confused, hurt – and I was still hopelessly rooting for my mom then. Unfortunately, (and I am really sad) my dad’s marriage to her did not work out. Ironically, though, my tita and I have become friends. And most surprising is that she and my mom have become real close friends.
In fairness to my tita, I have realized that we have become friends because, though I perceived her to have taken my dad away, (a perception of every stepchild, which eventually fades), she never acted like I should acknowledge her as my mom. She was a patient friend all throughout. And she never said:
1. “It’s okay, I will be your mom from now on” or “It’s okay, you can call me mom.”
This is where many problems start. To all budding stepmoms, your stepchildren have a mom. She is their one and only – and probably romanticized as the best mom by now. It may not be wise to compete with her at any point. Know that no one can take her place. Don’t even try.
And very importantly, whether their mom was a good mom or otherwise, never undermine her to her children. Even if you think you could have done a better job, “Don’t worry, I will be a better mom than your mom was” – in word or action – is absolutely not for you to say to them.
2. “Why don’t/can’t you like me?”
Do not ask what is obvious. Their family is dead. Respect their grief. Unlike orphans, they are not looking for another mother. They’re conflicted enough, and pushing them to accept you quickly will only confuse them more. My tita asked me this once. But I did not answer, lest she freaked out. Don’t call attention to their sorrow if you can’t handle their reasons behind it.
3. “Your dad and I always…”
Don’t allude to the great times you have with their father when they’re not around. Know that they already feel left out, and probably imagine the two of you laughing (because they aren’t around), spending wads of money on yourselves, while putting them on a tight allowance. If you want to give them a positive image of a loving couple, just be a loving couple. Don’t flaunt spending time with their dad as your trophy that signifies their defeat.
4. “I do everything for you and you’re not even grateful!”
Do not make them feel they owe you anything if you are nice to them. You don’t have to be nice to them for show. They can tell, you know. If you really want to break the ice, then be nice to them and be patient because it is very hard for them to acknowledge you as it will mean the end of their grief and the acceptance of their loss.
So if you drive them to gym class, buy them thoughtful stuff, or even send them to school – don’t expect them to love you overnight. Their pain is way deeper than what you can give them materially. While you shouldn’t tolerate rudeness, choose your battles carefully. Kids generally don’t have the best manners; they get preoccupied and forego social niceties. Don’t be petulant; you’re the grown-up. In time, though, if you are consistent and sincere, they will warm to you. Studies show that it may take three years before they crack open.
5. “It’s them or me.”
It will always have to be them. Dad and kids are bound by blood – very painful but true. And even if their dad chooses you, you just proved their theory in the first place – that you would take their dad away from them. It’s a constant tug-of-war that you might not want to win because no one really wins in this kind of situation. Your stepchildren are jealous of you. But admit it, you’re jealous of them, too. If you make it a battlefield, this is a battle where everyone will lose.
Rather than enduring the time you spend with his kids, enjoy it. They’re never really going to go away, so don’t wish them away. Again, they will feel it and undermine you in their clever ways and you will still look like the wicked one. Intimacy may be a long time coming, but, like so many other situations in life, you’ve just got to put in the time. Granted, it’s a complicated dynamic, but the Beatles were right: “The love you make is equal to the love you take.”
The road to becoming an effective stepmom is paved with difficulties and rejection. There are many things you should not say to your stepchildren but there are also many things, with effort and sincerity, you can say to them. Just be thoughtful and tactful and don’t try too hard. Since you love their father, maybe it might help to treat them as children of your best friend. You are concerned with their well-being but you would not step on your friend’s rights as a parent, would you? A successful stepmom could very well be a great and hip unjealous tita, open to possibilities and different parameters of new family dynamics.
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