Parents

A stepmother's guide to Mother's Day

First, a confession: Stepmothers don’t like Mother’s Day. Some non-stepmothers also don’t like Mother’s Day, but I reckon that all stepmothers privately face the day with dread.

Mother’s Day is the annual day of reckoning, when children in blended families get anxiety rashes from trying to figure out how to celebrate all of their mothers, and stepmothers try to prepare for the moment when they will be reminded of their legendary status as fairy-tale villains and the not quite “real” mothers to the children in their lives.

I have been a stepmother to four daughters for nine years. My Cinderella back story goes like this: After raising my daughter, Emily, as a single mother for the entirety of her childhood, I moved back to my hometown of Freeville, New York when she went to college. Deep in my own middle age, my parenting days were decidedly over. But then I reconnected with Bruno, a hometown guy I had known since childhood (we grew up on neighboring dairy farms). Bruno was the very involved single father of four adolescent daughters, three of which lived with him full time. (His oldest, like mine, had just started college.)

Bruno and I fell instantly and madly in love. Ours was a passionate, lovely and crazy high school love. It was fairy-tale love, Hallmark Channel love. A lively, lumpy, middle-aged wonderment. Less than a year after our first date, Bruno and I got married. I moved into his household, and I became a full-time stepmother to three daughters I didn’t know all that well.

Author Amy Dickinson is pictured with her family on her wedding day. From left to right: Emily, Angela, Avila, Bruno, Amy, Michaela and Caitlin

By every conceivable metric, being a stepparent is the most challenging form of parenting there is. And yet, stepparenting is seldom openly discussed. Honestly, it is a relationship so loaded, complicated — and sometimes fraught — that it can’t be described in any one way, except to say that it is... hard.

The stepparent relationship may be born through love between two adults, but to be a stepparent is to step into a family system that has already seen pain, dislocation and, at its toughest, abandonment and trauma. For me, being a stepmother has involved near constant calibration, adjustment, many moments of white-hot frustration, and other moments that feel real and triumphant.

Because I am a professional advice-giver (I write the syndicated advice column “Ask Amy”), I’ve decided to celebrate this Mother’s Day by dedicating the day to stepmothers, and by passing along some of the lessons I’ve learned over my years of being a stepmother.

1. Marry the right person. To be a truly successful stepparent, you need to be in a strong and functioning marriage, ideally with someone who was a good and dedicated parent before you came along. Stepparenting will test a marriage more than any other family relationship. Partners need to be able to communicate well through the good (but especially through the tough) times.

Courtesy of Amy Dickinson
Amy Dickinson with her husband Bruno on their wedding day

2. Befriend your stepchildren. Being a “friend” to your children may fly in the face of some parenting wisdom, but true friendship involves patience, respect, understanding, honesty, listening, affection and forgiveness. Treat your stepchildren the way you would treat someone whom you are trying to befriend: i.e., be the best version of yourself. Understand that your stepchildren are as afraid of the evil stepmother trope as you are of becoming one.

3. The primary parent should remain the primary parent. My husband had been alone with his daughters for almost five years when we got married. He seemed to want an instant blending when I moved into the household. He wanted me to act like a mother and for the children to treat me like a mother. My own instinct was to take the first year simply getting to know one another. I let the kids see my antic attempts to put dinner on the table; I exposed my goofy side, my accident-prone and slapstick side. I let them see that I don’t always know what I’m doing. I let them guide me and show me how their household worked. I took them places. I met (and liked) their friends. I listened to them when they wanted to talk. Sometimes, we just shared space, circling one another but not quite intersecting.

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4. Give yourself time. Be patient with your stepchildren. And be patient with yourself. As a stepparent, your humanity and frailty is often on display. The same goes for your kids. Be patient and forgiving. Sometimes I self-medicated through my frustration with donuts, wine or solitary walks in the woods. That helped.

5. Do not punish. I never, ever disciplined my stepdaughters (that was their father’s job). If they approached me with a tough request that I didn’t want to grant, or if they behaved in a way I knew needed correction, I answered, “Well, let’s talk to your father and see what he thinks.” If I didn’t like something, I tried to be honest about it. But I resisted the impulse to act. It’s almost always best to wait, even when you know you’re being tested. You can always act later. It’s much harder to reverse the impact of your words or actions after the fact.

6. Do your work. It is important for stepparents to have useful and fulfilling work, interests and relationships outside the family circle. It is vital for children to see their stepparent as a functioning adult, with outside interests. This takes the pressure off of the children — and the stepparent.

7. Honor the child’s relationships. One of the biggest challenges of being a stepmother is the sure knowledge that you are building a relationship with children who were not born to you. This becomes especially potent and poignant once you develop a closer relationship to your stepchildren — it can be genuinely painful to even acknowledge that they’re not always “yours.” Early on, I told my stepdaughters, “I want to give you what you want to have.” I encouraged their relationship with their mother.

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8. Hold hands with your partner. My husband and I faced challenges during the first five years of marriage that I thought would break us, including illnesses, tragic deaths in the family, extreme job stress and the births of two grandchildren to one of our daughters. (The first child was born during our first year of marriage, while my stepdaughter was in high school.) The wisest thing Bruno and I have done is to place our relationship, and our marriage, at the center of our family’s life. Of course, as parents we often put our children’s needs first, but our marriage remains central to the entire family. Our kids know that we are together and that we make all major decisions as a team. We keep our disagreements and conflict regarding our children off-stage.

9. Refer to all of your children as “our children.” It’s important for all of your kids to be all of your kids. For me, blending our family has taken years. We’ve faced challenges and triumphs together. Sometimes, our daughters will cut through the logjam of introducing us as “This is my father and stepmother,” and will simply say, “These are my parents.”

That’s the only Mother’s Day bouquet I need.

Amy Dickinson is the author of the widely syndicated “Ask Amy” advice column. She is also a regular panelist on NPR’s popular comedy quiz show “Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!” and author of the new memoir "Strangers Tend to Tell Me Things: A Memoir of Love, Loss, and Coming Home."

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