17 things I wish I knew before becoming a stepmom

When things get tough, focus on your relationship. It'll get better.

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By Laura T. Coffey

Being a stepmother isn’t even a little bit easy — but of course, if you’re a stepmom, you already know that.

On Mother’s Day, being a stepmom takes on a whole new meaning. Here's what stepmoms told TODAY Parents what their lives are really like. Their insights are honest, illuminating and more important to appreciate than ever before: More than 4.2 million children in the United States live in stepfamilies, and that number is on the rise.

1. Before you become a stepmom, make sure you can handle this unavoidable truth.

“Ask yourself: Can you handle not being the priority in the relationship and number one to that partner? ... Are you OK with not being the priority because they have children?” — Kendall Rose, author of “The Stepmoms’ Club: How to Be a Stepmom without Losing Your Money, Your Mind, and Your Marriage”

“Understand that your role is transitional. ... Some days you're going to be the leading lady. Some days you're just going to be a stagehand. And some days you're not going to be in the scene at all. The quicker you realize that, the better off you'll be.” — Naja Hall, founder of the community Blended & Black

2. If you’re new to motherhood, brace for impact.

“I don't think I had any idea of what I was really getting into, in terms of the harder, everyday parenting role: buying groceries, making dinner, after-school activities, parent-teacher interviews. ... I didn't really know how hard it would be.” — Jasjit Sangha, author of “Stepmothering: A Spiritual Journey.”

“All of a sudden you're thrown into doing motherly duties. And I call that the stepmom vortex. You just get pulled in. You're making lunches. You're making dinners. You're going to practices. ... Nobody tells you.” — Kendall Rose

3. Anger, resentment and jealousy are normal.

“I'll see a lot of stepmothers feel feelings of anger and resentment, but if we drill down to what those feelings really mean, it means they're insecure. They don't know their place. ... There are intense feelings that you just can't really compartmentalize, and so they come out as anger.” — Naja Hall

Naja Hall is a family life coach and the founder of a community of stepparents who help and support each other.TODAY

“You're second in line to your husband's kids because the kids should come first, right? ... Logically speaking, that sounds fantastic. Of course! Always put the kids first! But your heart … feels like, oh, like, I'm not significant and I don't matter. ... You have hurt feelings, and you don’t really understand how to say that.” — Jasjit Sangha

4. Reconnect with your partner whenever you can.

“When things get tough, I really focus on our relationship and I remember the reasons I fell in love with him. And I relive our first date. And I really focus on all the things I love about him because that brings me joy and that'll knock me out of any bad mood. ... What gets me through the bad times is remembering the great times.” — Kristen Skiles, founder of Stepmomming.com.

Stepmomming.com founder Kristen Skiles is pictured with her husband and stepdaughter. "I'm proud to be her stepmom," Skiles said.Tammy Hunt

“You need to reconnect with the person that you fell in love with, just the two of you, one day a week. No talking about the ex. No talking about the stepchildren. No talking about the chaos. Just remind yourself why you fell in love in the first place, and have fun.” — Kendall Rose

5. Know where to go for support — and where not to go.

“When you are completely overwhelmed, I don't think it's a good idea to go to your loved ones. They love you, and in their mind the first thing they're gonna tell you to do is just to leave.” — Naja Hall

“I think often if a stepmother talks to somebody about their problem, 90% of the time the person's going to say, ‘Well, what did you think you were getting into? What did you expect? Why did you marry him?’ And it's kind of like, well, that's not what I need right now. ... I was lucky that I did meet other stepmothers.” — Jasjit Sangha

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Author Jasjit Sangha said being a stepmother is so much more challenging than she ever imagined it could be. "I don't think I had any idea of what I was really getting into," she said.TODAY

6. Read the divorce decree and parenting plan before you meet the kids.

“First and foremost, read the divorce decree. I know it's not sexy ... ‘Hey, babe, can I read your parenting plan?’ But you know what? All the information is there in black and white. ... It talks about childcare, talks about alimony, talks about child support, talks about the schedule, pick-up, drop-off. What are vacations like? Who pays for Johnny's dentist appointment? ... If it's in the parenting plan or it's in the divorce decree, there is not one thing you can do about it. You just have to accept it.” — Kendall Rose

7. Talk honestly about money.

“Do the math. Take a pen and paper out and start to see where the money is within your family. Because sometimes the net — not the gross (but) the actual take-home pay — might not be what you thought.” — Kendall Rose

8. When you do meet the kids, take it VERY slowly.

“About two months into dating ... we went out to a little trampoline park and we played, and she just thought I was daddy's friend. It was very casual. We were on neutral ground. She didn't feel any sort of loyalty to her mom and then resentment or hesitation toward me because I wasn't a girlfriend. ... I let her take the lead and go at a pace that she felt comfortable with instead of trying to push myself on her.” — Kristen Skiles

Kristen Skiles let her stepdaughter set the pace as their relationship developed. Today their relationship is close and comfortable.Courtesy Kristen Skiles

“I met my stepkids probably about a year and a half to two years after my husband and I had begun dating. And it was something very simple. ... We met at the bowling alley. My husband had the kids for the weekend, and I drove over and he was like, ‘Hey, this is my friend Naja.’ ... I would tell any parent, don't just bombard the kids with: ‘Oh, this is my new partner. This is happening.’ You want to ease them into it too and make them feel like they kind of had a role in choosing this person. ... This affects their life too.” — Naja Hall

9. In the beginning, be a friend to the kids.

“Be a cool auntie. ... Give 'em candy. Give 'em money. Let 'em go play outside. Let 'em stay up extra. Leave the disciplining to their parents until they've established a relationship built on respect and boundaries with you.” — Naja Hall

“I have to say I wish I had followed that rule of not disciplining stepchildren. I really wish I had known that it can cause a rift in the relationship really early. If you can hold off for a couple years on not doing any discipline, you're more likely to gain their trust and develop that sense of closeness.” — Jasjit Sangha

10. Remember that these kids are grieving.

“Their parents aren’t together anymore. They didn't ask for this. They're grieving in their own way, and grieving is powerful. You don't know how they're going to react. And maybe they're projecting a certain way on you that really has nothing to do with you.” — Kendall Rose

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11. Remember that these kids are scared.

“Our relationship and our romance was really solid by the time we brought our children into the picture. And then when we did bring them into the picture, they ... freaked out, and ran from the room in tears. ... I say this all the time: Our children do not care if we are happy. Get that through your noggin. They don't care if their parents are happy. They care if they are happy. ... Many children of single parents have been through divorce. Their loyalties are completely divided. They sometimes have been traumatized by the breakup of their parents' marriage. ... Especially when parents are in love, I think our kids look at us and say, ‘You are the most selfish nincompoops.’” Nationally syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson

Nationally syndicated advice columnist Amy Dickinson is pictured with her husband, Bruno Schickel, and their blended family. Courtesy of Amy Dickinson

12. Avoid unnecessary drama with your partner’s ex.

“Learning good conflict resolution skills is going to get you a long way. And by that I mean you don't have to respond to every text message. You don't have to be in the email chain. You don't have to respond to anything that (throws) you off balance.” — Naja Hall

“A really good rule of thumb when you share custody is to always assume positive intent. ... Try to understand your co-parent's perspective.” — Kristen Skiles

“Don't trash the ex. If you feel that you need to have (a) conversation with your partner, make sure the children aren't in earshot.” — Kendall Rose

13. If possible, don’t attend court appearances.

“I know you want to stand by your man, but ... don't get yourself wrapped up in what happened in your partner's previous relationship. ... New relationships can crack under the pressure of watching the drudgery of a previous relationship.” — Naja Hall

14. The ‘evil stepmother’ trope is hurtful and unfair — so dismantle it.

“In our current society, there are so many stepfamilies and blended families ... and there are so many happy kids who are part of these families. So, maybe they can be changing the stereotypes for the future in the sense of … ‘I was raised by a stepmother and I turned out great. She loved me and cared about me, and she was a stable adult in my life, and she's somebody I could turn to as an adult and have a relationship with.’” — Jasjit Sangha

“I have met very few wicked stepparents. I have met thousands of incredible stepparents who are trying so hard to help raise children the best they can — to help them not be broken by a divorced family, but to instead be blended or raised in a really incredible environment and to just live their best lives.” Kristen Skiles

15. Show the kids how much you care — even if they don’t seem to appreciate it.

“Compliment them. Pour into them. ... Be kind. Invest in them. Learn their interests. ... Kids like to be made to feel important. They want to know that you care. ... I (still) remember every adult in my life that made me feel good.” — Naja Hall

“One of the ways I coped ... was to love these girls that had come into my life — to love them pretty fiercely. ... I am completely crazy about all of them. They're amazing women. ” Amy Dickinson

16. Make time for self-care.

“Go take a spa day while the kids are there for the weekend. They will appreciate it too because it goes twofold: While you're over here getting pampered, the kids have alone time with their father ... and you're not an over-imposing figure. I'm not saying to make yourself scarce and run away, but turn it into a dual thing. ... Have Dad take the kids out and do something, and then you guys structure a family activity together (after that).” — Naja Hall

“Here's what I did self-care-wise: It's called ‘Dunkin' Donuts drive-thru.’ ... I would get in my car and drive away and go through Dunkin' Donuts and sit by the lake and drink a cup of coffee and look at the water. And I didn't come back until I was feeling better.” Amy Dickinson

Author Kendall Rose has been careful to maintain her personal interests and passions since becoming a stepmother. She encourages other stepmoms to do the same.Courtesy of Kendall Rose

17. Realize that rewards will come later in life.

“You may not always get the hugs and kisses and you may not always feel like … you're so loved by your stepchildren. But over time, you definitely do start to feel that relationship has really been built, and ... they will come to you for life advice.” — Jasjit Sangha