My partner went away for three nights for work the other week. For me, as a childfree woman, that should normally mean a few uninterrupted nights’ sleep, some much-needed self-care and full control of the remote. The spanner in the works? My partner is not childfree, and his work trip fell on a week we had his children, so rather than falling asleep in my facemask, I was up at 10pm panicking having just caught his 16-year-old son driving off in our car after sneaking out the house while I was upstairs. His 16-year-old son who doesn’t know how to drive, should I add.
“I promise, they’ll be no trouble,” said my partner as he walked out the door. “Call me if there are any issues.” Well there are issues, but you’re 40,000ft in the air. Luckily the evening didn’t end up with anyone arrested or worse – I called my stepson and he came back two minutes later when he heard the tone of my voice. “I didn’t even leave the road,” he argued.
This is just one of many stories I could tell you about where my limits (and relationship) have been tested by a child which didn’t come from my womb. Sure, I can tell you a similar amount of stories that would warm your heart, but there’s no denying it can be a tough gig, no matter how many times someone so helpfully tells you that “you knew you what you were getting yourself in for.”
Disclaimer: you definitely didn’t know what you were getting yourself in for.
Blame movies like The Parent Trap and Cinderella, but the ‘evil stepmother’ stereotype is still alive and well even though, as far as I’m aware, I don’t have a huge wart growing from the end of my nose and I’ve never once asked my stepchildren to scrub the floor. However sometimes the love of your life comes as a package deal, and at the end of the day, you’re doing the best you can.
Becoming part of a blended family due to a break-up, fostering, adopting or loss can bring much happiness and joy, but it can also be extremely difficult and emotional to navigate unknown territory, especially when you feel alone. Here are a few tips I’ve learnt along the way in the hope that it makes it that little bit easier.
Don’t be afraid to set boundaries
Firstly, and most importantly, boundaries are your lifeline. They are the limits you place on what you’re willing to accept in order to protect your mental health, and they will make or break your relationship. Whether that’s saying no kids in the bedroom, no texting a high-conflict bio mum in the middle of date night, or even if you just want to spend your only day off on the sofa rather than at soft play, set your boundaries, communicate them, enforce them and make sure your partner is on board. Standing up for yourself doesn’t make you wicked.
Make time for yourself and for your partner
Whilst kids should always come first (unless you’ve just been hit by a bus or stepped on a Lego), carving out time for both yourself and your partner is vital for a healthy relationship. Schedule in regular date nights without the children or the odd weekend away with your friends, and make sure your partner steps up. In this family dynamic, it’s more important than ever that you feel appreciated.
If your partners’ first marriage broke down, the children already have an example of a failed marriage. What they need now is an example of a happy marriage, a successful marriage, a belief that marriage can go the distance.
There are times when being a stepmother can feel like the loneliest gig in the world. None of my friends are in the same situation, meaning there are very few people I know who understand what it’s really like. I’ve discovered so many amazing forums and social media accounts through the journey, and I believe my relationship wouldn’t have succeeded without them. Be it for advice, to listen, or just a good rant, those women are your tribe.
It can feel like a thankless job, but you’ll do it anyway.
Last year, a conversation around my dinner table with my then 15-year-old stepson went a little something like this.
Me: “What would you all do if you won the lottery?”
SS: “House, car, the usual stuff. I’d give some money to my dad and some to my mum too, but not to you as they are the only people I owe anything to.” At this point in our relationship, we looked after the children five nights a week, and in my new stepmum brain I was outraged: “well you’re not getting anymore home-cooked dinners from me,” it whispered angrily to itself.
There will be a lot of times when you feel like you’re not getting the recognition you deserve, and that’s because, quite frankly, you’re not. But the times that you do, they’ll be all the more special.
Don’t beat yourself up
No matter how hard you try to feel a part of your partner and their children’s lives, there will still be times when you feel like an outsider. That’s because, biologically-speaking, you are. So many memories were made before you became a part of their new chapter, and while they may be your whole life, for them they had one without and before you. It can be hard to get your head around. If you’re ever feeling down, let yourself. Have a good cry, pick yourself up from the floor, grab a vino and know that while tomorrow might not necessarily be better, one day it will be.