Stepmom Burnout: What to do about it

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Stepmom Burnout StressBurnout is unfortunately very common among stepmoms. It happens when your emotional (and sometimes physical) tank is on empty and you just have nothing left to give, which is why the littlest things are suddenly enough to set you off.

You know you’re burned out when you’re snarling about things that typically wouldn’t bother you—the kitchen cabinet left ajar, the lone sock in the hallway, the stepchild innocently asking you what’s for dinner. You feel more sensitive than usual and get upset at the drop of a hat. You feel like you are doing everything. You’re shuttling the kids to and from school, helping with homework and after-school activities, preparing dinner, keeping the house in order and working a full-time job. Things are feeling very unfair.

When you get to this point, the scales of responsibility are usually heavily imbalanced. You feel angry, resentful, hurt and exhausted. You’re mad at everyone. In addition, your self-confidence may have plummeted because you’ve put all of your needs aside in order to meet everyone else’s.

Most women are pretty bad at saying no because of the fear associated with it. We’re afraid our partners will be mad at us for placing more responsibility on their shoulders. We’re afraid of alienating the kids. We fear that our families will look down on us and that society will judge us. And on top of that, we have this false belief that other women are handling everything perfectly. We may feel like we’re failing but what we really need is a break.

Most men, on the other hand, are really good at taking time for themselves. Have you noticed they make time for their hobbies and projects? And they do it without the guilt! It usually pisses us off because we don’t understand the concept of putting our needs first— we call it selfish. But in reality, we could take a lesson from them in this department.

The fact is, the more you do, the less everyone else does. So, if you think you’re burned out or are on the verge of burnout, here are some steps to help you recharge.

1. Stop. The bottom line is you’ve taken on too much responsibility. It’s time to give some of that up. Start with choosing one thing (or more if you’re feeling daring) that could easily be handed over to someone else and then let your partner know you need that to happen.

2. Delegate. Take an inventory of all the household chores and who actually does them. Then reassign the chores so they’re more evenly distributed. Kids of all ages can take on varying levels of responsibility, so don’t let their young ages deter you from this. At the same time, be prepared for things not to get done exactly as you would do them— and learn to be OK with that. If you live by the saying, “If you want something done right, do it yourself,” you’ll never recover from burnout.

A lot of stepmoms get frustrated at this point because the kids and partners don’t always step up. It can take patience and a lot of self-control to not fall back into old patterns, but that’s how you reached the burnout phase in the first place, so stand your ground and find a way to be comfortable with stepping away even if others are refusing to be responsible for themselves. The house may be messier, but the world won’t stop spinning.

3. Communicate. Let your partner know you’ve reached your limit and need a break. Explain that in order to be a better wife and stepmom, you need to start taking better care of yourself and that this might mean stepping away for a bit. Reach out to friends, family, the daycare center and carpool groups for help. Start thinking outside the box in order to find help if it’s not readily available to you.

4. Rediscover your passions. Everyone needs something stress free and fun to focus on. Start thinking about activities that nourish your soul and energize you. What brings you joy? What activity captivates you and brings a smile to your face? Now commit to that activity at least once a week!

5. Let go of guilt. Self-care is as important as breathing, so stop feeling guilty about making yourself a priority. Understand that, when you agree (or insist) on doing everything for everyone else, you are doing them a great disservice. You’re robbing your partner of the chance to step up and be a better father, and you’re robbing the kids of the pride that comes with responsibility.

The happiest women are those who make time for themselves. They value themselves enough to put their well-being at the top of their priority list, knowing that it will result in them ultimately being happier wives, moms and stepmoms. They have a circle of friends with whom they communicate on a regular basis. They feel entitled to take care of themselves and engage in activities they love, so they’re in the best possible shape—physically and mentally—to be positive, loving and willing participants in their families.

 © 2014 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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This article first appeared in the September 2014 issue of Sm Magazine.

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18 thoughts on “Stepmom Burnout: What to do about it

  1. Thank you for this article. I needed this especially as the holiday season is here and the guilt of neglecting my own side of the family or not doing enough for my step kids weighs heavy on me especially when custody arrangements and travel needs are huge issues.

    Thank you.

  2. Thank you for this message, Jenna. My mom stayed at home for us, but she was also very involved at church in charge of the choir, the Christmas program, the talent shows… I think creative expression was her form of self-care. I always knew that my mom was important to others, which gave me a sense of pride for her. I also felt valuable myself as we become old enough (which was about age 6) to help her. We saw how hard she worked and how she juggled that with grocery shopping and vacuuming, etc. By high school I wrote songs with her, accompanied the choir as she led, looked at fabric with her for costumes…

    My mom also made games of folding clothes and all kinds of chores. When we were young it was fun and as we got older we came to naturally jump in to help. It took consistent training on her part and I’m sure she was often pooped! Now, I relish in the sweet helpfulness we all instinctively offer to each other and our friends and families. From mashing potatoes at the family gathering to picking up crying babies, we all jump in. That feeling is so good.

    My sweetheart and I are both artists and love working on projects together. His kids seem very separate from that part of his life. I crave engaging his kids the way my mother engaged me because I know the rewards. I’m working on opening his mind to requiring the help from his kids for all kinds of activities because I totally agree with you about giving them the “pride that comes with responsibility.”

    Being in this relationship has made me even more grateful for my mom and the values she taught me without ever talking about it. For me, self-care is less about going out for a manicure and more about maintaining my pursuits as a creative person and valuable woman. I love engaging others in my work to share the challenges and the rewards. Being with my partner and his kids gives me an opportunity to pass that on. Thank you for reminding me that what I have to offer runs much deeper than taking on chores and enduring inconveniences.

  3. Thank you so much for posting this! I have had more burnout days than I care to admit to myself even, so it’s nice to see that it’s not just me and to get some tips on how to better manage it. I’m horrible at delegating so it’s hard for me to assign chores to anyone else, but I think I need to start trying harder with it!

  4. I never had anyone to turn to when I first became a Stepmom. I bent over backwards to please the kids, to please my husband, to please the ex. I gave it my all in a good way. When my husband’s ex start getting mean & nasty-mouthing us on the phone, we were totally confused & blown away. My husband shoulda put a stop to it right then & there. But he would only take his conversation with his ex in another room or he would call his sister (who also had an ex). I had no-one to talk to. No one in my family was a stepmom. If anyone was, they had nothing to offer me, because their stepfamily worked. I feel like a failure now because ours didn’t work. We know now 30 years later – this stepfamily had issues and it was called Parental Alienation, which my husband’s ex did with a flourish!! She relished each & every time she swore at us. All I can say is, don’t ever become a Stepmom – save yourselves!! Don’t ever take on another man’s kids!!!

    • I agree. Loyalties are difficult yo deal with. Especially if your childless. I’ve advised others to not marry someone with kids. I don’t understand why some step families work and flourish. Ours has been shriveling and dying. I’ve tried so hard. I’m empty and can’t give anymore. No matter what I do, or don’t do it’s not right. I wish I had a support system too.

  5. Thanks Jenna,
    Unfortunately some of us like me learn the hard way. I’m burned out. I just can’t give anymore. I’m very emotional and am struggling with all of the rejection, work, expectations. I just can’t give.

    • Carol, it sounds like you need a good long break from things. You need a chance to recharge – which can take some time. I hope you’re able to do that. 🙂

  6. Well, I can truly say I understand. I’m engaged to a wonderful man. His 2 x teenage boys stays with us permanently and visits their bio mom every 2nd weekend. She is a terribly person, extremely destructive and nasty. I share custody with my 2 x bio boys’ dad, therefore every second week, I’m full time mom to my fiance’s boys, but not my own. Was very hard to adapt to, felt like I was betraying my boys.
    Nevertheless, I’m also at the point of absolute burn-out, emptiness and tired beyond description. Feel like I just can’t do this anymore. I’ve become a slave in my own house to these 2 x stepsons. Dad has the occasional speech sessions, but nothing further, so there’s no real threat to them, so nothing ever improves. All my income goes into the household which these 2 x thoroughly take advantage of. I don’t even have money to myself for a haircut or facial or handbag. I just give and give and give. I am dangerously tired of this. And the bad part is that I don’t foresee it becoming better at all, not until they leave home……. and they’re not the type who would WANT to start their own future, would rather hang around waiting for charity hand outs.

    • Hi Suzanne, unfortunately you can’t make your husband step up in the parenting department and you can’t make your stepsons be different people, but you can start saying NO. You can start changing things that are in your power, and what’s in your power is the ability to choose how much you help out, how much you give and when you’re going to start taking better care of yourself. 😉

  7. Great article, Jenna! I just woke a story for my blog about needing a break, and then, subsequently, feeing guilty for needing that break… 🙂 We have to understand that everyone needs time off to re-energize, whether we are stepmoms or bio moms. However, I think stepmoms tend to feel guilty or unloving when they need some space. We tend to doubt our love for our step-kids. Crazy, I know, but that’s where my brain went when this happened to me recently…

  8. Jenna,
    Thank you for all of these articles! It is giving me a small sense of release just to read someone else writing the exact things that I think/feel on a daily basis!
    It is also scary to see how many people feel that it is hopeless, and that things can’t get better.
    I often fear that things truly can’t get better.
    I have two step children and my fiancée and I have our own child together. My oldest step child is 16 and her mother passed away recently. She seems to be dealing with it worse and worse, not better. That and school are the biggest struggles we have with her, but overall we have a great relationship.
    My step son is 6 and is the huge issue for me. I have been in his life since right before he turned two, yet he still treats me like an outsider, like I don’t matter. His mother is crazy (truly crazy, not saying that to be mean) and makes it her business to ensure him that I am not family, that she and his dad are his family (they have been apart over 5 years now and as long as my step son can remember). My fiancée and I have him every other week and he does nothing but favor him and baby him the whole time he is there. I try so hard to make us all function as a family, but end up angry and upset every time because my fiancée only focuses on his step son.
    It is all so much harder because I have our son that I am trying to allow to have a normal life in the mix of all this. He is two, almost three. He is too young to see how bad things are but I know he will catch on soon. I don’t want the negativity or my fiancée’s favoritism to negatively affect my son.
    And it also affects my ability to take a step back, do things on my own, recharge, because I don’t want to have to miss out on time with my child to get a break from my step child!
    And I feel things between my step son and I have gotten worse and worse since my son was born. Maybe he feels I don’t love him anymore? I try to show that I do but he frustrates me so much that maybe he thinks I don’t care.
    Sometimes I feel the only way to be able to be happy is to give up. I don’t want to, but feel like what other choice do I have? My step son is only getting worse, his mother is getting worse, and my fiancée does nothing to remedy it.
    Thanks for the articles to read, it does help, and for a place to vent with women who understand.

    • Before you give up, Barbara, make sure you’ve done everything in your power to change and improve things. You need to take control of what’s in your control (YOU) and focus on that. There are likely things you can be doing differently that will help improve your how you’re feeling about your situation. It’s true that your partner’s actions play a big part in how much marital satisfaction you have, and if he’s unwilling to do his part than you may be left with limited options, but before that, make sure you’ve done all you can on your part.

  9. First off, thank you so much for the articles. They truly hit home and make me feel so much better knowing that I am not alone, and what’s more that I am not crazy! I have been with my husband for 5 years, married for 2, we are expecting a baby this November, my first child, his third. He has custody of his two daughters ages 10 and 13 and has had full custody of them all along. His ex lives in another state so they see her during some school vacations but nothing outside of that. His mother has been the main “female/mother” figure in their life.

    Since I came in to the relationship I have done all I know to do to have some type of relationship with them. Not to be a replacement mom, but a friend and even a positive female figure in their life. Even though I do not have my own children, I knew that his kids would and should be his priority and always tried to make sure he never chose me over them. I never wanted them to think I was trying to come between him and them. However, he has never, even in the beginning of our relationship, made me feel special or like I am some priority in his life at all. My husband comes from a divorced family, so I try and get insight from him on what it is to live apart from a parent so I can better understand them. My own parents have been together for over 35 years. My husband offers no insight. The girls for the most part treat me ok, although they will seek him out for any and everything even if I am right there and have the answers they seek, but I am still definitely an outsider. His mother has treated me as an outsider always and no matter what I do, she goes behind my back and changes things. I took the girls to a nice salon to get their haircut the way they wanted for school one year and she took them the next day to another one to have it cut differently. I kid you not. I am feeling the effects of burnout here a lot more lately and I am starting to feel that my husband’s saying “I love you” is just not enough to keep me happy in this relationship. It has gotten to the point where I no longer have a desire to do anything with or for him or his kids and I am so scared for my child to come along and it seem like I am favoring my own child over them. We constantly argue because he feels I do not do enough, meanwhile, I work full time, do all the cooking and cleaning everyday/night and take care of everyone’s needs, even now at 8 months pregnant. If I try and do something on my own or with my siblings he asks if I can bring the girls along with me. If I say no, it becomes an argument between him and I. Yet, he can go off and entertain his own hobbies for hours on any given weekend without children. I have told him that I am unhappy and what I need him to do to help me make it better and nothing changes. He allows them to do whatever they want no matter what I say and whenever I offer input he gets defensive, but then if I say nothing he gets upset. I feel like I am trapped between a rock and a hard place and history tells me there will be no real change if I bring up again how unhappy I feel. Divorce is definitely an option I am looking into.

  10. Totally need this now!!! thank you very very much for this! I’m so tired and angry all day. Really helpful thaks again!

  11. Great site, great advice! I too really need help in the stepmom area…… I am overlooked all the time and I feel extremely used by these kids.
    Thank you!!!

  12. I’m a stepmom (to 1 preteen) and biomom (to 2 teens from my previous marriage) and I’ve tried and tried and tried, through the last 6 years, to get along with DH exwife. There were long stretches where she and I would get along pretty well and there were stretches where she’d completely start fights with DH about me and lie about me. I’m burnt out and I just want to give up on her. Unfortunately, my personality is the kind that always strives for the better in any situation. For my SK, whom I love very much with love from SK being given back, I’m at a loss of what to do. Should I finally just step back and completely remove the exwife and stop trying? Or do I just be nice as I’ve always been and try to fake a smile as she does to me? I think I’ve finally come to the drawing line with the ex and she’s possibly stretching one leg over the line with me. Ugh.

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