Why Some Stepmoms Have Trouble Nurturing Their Stepchildren

Stepfamily unfairDo you find yourself up against a mental block when it comes to cleaning up after your stepchild or nurturing her? Many stepmoms will gladly make their husband an afternoon snack or pick up his socks, but when they see their stepchild’s dirty dishes stacking up, or when they’re asked to make them a special snack, some experience a triggered reaction that feels something like “What am I, her maid?”

If this sounds like you, then you might also feel shame about this automatic resistance, thinking how can I be so nurturing with my husband but then feel a complete block with my stepchild? 

Well, it may all come down to reciprocity, or lack of.

One definition of reciprocity is: “The practice of exchanging things with others for mutual benefit.”

Did you catch the phrase mutual benefit?

If you’re in a happy, healthy relationship, then you know that reciprocity is a vital part of that. You’re happy nurturing your husband because he may support you emotionally, provide a good home, make you laugh, fix things, etc… Maybe he’s the one staying home with the kids while you’re working. Whatever the situation may be, reciprocity is at play.

But this is often missing in the relationship between stepmom and stepchild, simply because that’s the nature of a child/adult relationship.  Even though we know intellectually that we can’t expect a “mutually beneficial” relationship with a child, that knowledge doesn’t make it any easier for stepmoms to feel like we’re giving our all and receiving nothing in return. Many stepmoms don’t even receive a “please” or “thank you” from their stepchild.

Now, a parent might say, “So what? As parents we don’t receive a please or thank you either.” The difference is, as Jeanette Lofas has said, the child is an extension of the parent, thereby making it easier for a parent to give selflessly.

And although it’s often said that parenting is a thankless job,  I would argue this point because parents do receive something: love. Unconditional love and a biological bond that can’t be broken.  Granted, they don’t receive these things because they do for their children, but they still receive them. Sort of like an unintentional reciprocity.

This is why basic manners, such as please and thank you, from a stepchild, can mean the world to a stepmom. It can make the difference between feeling resentful and feeling good about helping.

What to do?

  • Let your husband and your stepchild (if age appropriate) know how far please and thank you would go. Request to incorporate these manners into your house rules.
  • Adjust your expectations: don’t always expect appreciation from your stepchild, but do expect it from your partner. Let him know that you need him to acknowledge your efforts with his child. Frequently.
  • Have compassion for yourself. You’re not evil and there’s nothing wrong with you. This is just one of those challenges that being a stepmom brings with it.
  • Try to look at nurturing as an investment. Even if your stepchild has two involved parents, your influence will still help shape the person he will become. And when he is an adult, he will likely look back and be thankful that you treated him with such kindness.
  • Ask your partner to step up in the parenting department so you can step back. The best parenting books all say “don’t do for kids what they can do for themselves.” Wouldn’t it be nice if the parents took that advice to heart, so every once in a while you got to spoil your stepchild without feeling like she’s missing out on some life lesson or that you’re going to ruin her chances of becoming a responsible adult?

© 2013 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Would you like extra support? Click here to see how I can help you.

You may also enjoy:



Everyday Voices: It’s Not Just About the Kids

Guest post: by Jennifer Shepherd

I have been a stepmother to two amazing teenage boys for the past 23.5 months. Having had a stepmother of my own for the past 20 years, I already knew that it was a thankless, terrible job with few to no benefits and a lot of stress. Although my stepsons and I had a great relationship before my husband and I got married, I still worried that something might change once I married their dad. The chances of their parents getting back together, for example, would diminish even further once he had a new wife.

As it turned out, I had nothing to worry about with the kids. They have been a parent’s, much less stepparent’s, dream. My son and I moved from our home into theirs, and he had to transition to sharing a room for the first time.  Likewise, my younger stepson had to go from having his own room to sharing with someone else. I worried about the adjustment, but the boys made it work without fuss. I was so proud of all three of them.

My stepsons live with my husband and I full-time. A little over three years ago, he was awarded custody in his divorce, and the boys’ mother declined her visitation time with them (every other weekend and every Wednesday). The boys were crushed by the abandonment, and it got worse when she and her boyfriend announced that she was pregnant. They felt as though she had chosen her new family over them.

She did come to sporting events (as long as they took place in our town). Aside from that, however, the boys didn’t see her. They told us it was what they wanted, and that they were happier this way, but I knew they still loved their mom.

Again and again throughout that time, the boys amazed me with their resiliency. It was a tough spot as a stepmother to be in, but they were so easy to love I just tried to do the best I could to make sure they realized that they would always have a stable home environment with me and their dad.

Then I wrote the paper.

For a Communication Research course I was taking in college, our project was to research a topic and write a 20-30 page paper about it. Because the topic was near and dear to my heart, I chose stepmothers. It was a great choice, because it led me to several stepmother support groups online. Reading their stories, and subsequently interviewing them, led me to realize all over again how blessed my family was. But one topic that came up time and time again was the relationship with the biological mother.

I completed the paper three months later and, at the urging of my new stepmother friends, posted it online in my Facebook notes to avoid the hassle of emailing it to so many different people (I had surveyed 100 stepmothers). I wasn’t worried about the boys’ mother at this point for two reasons: first, other than a couple of sentences in the intro identifying my situation as a stepmother, she was not a part of the paper. Second, she had told the boys time and time again that she had blocked me on Facebook, in her phone, and in her email so that she would never have to communicate with me in any way.

I was wrong to have believed that. She did block me, yes, but then accessed my account through other means. She read the paper, and everything changed.

She reacted badly, and said a lot of negative things to all of us.

All of that was standard with her personality type. But then something unexpected happened: she actually started trying to be involved with the boys’ lives. 

She started traveling to out of town games and tournaments. She stopped cropping them out of her Facebook pictures. She started contacting them and actually talking to them. They started to rekindle their relationship. They became more receptive to her. They actually started seeing her for an hour or two here and there.

At first, my younger stepson didn’t know how to handle it. He felt that he had to hate one of us at all times.

Once I sat him down and explained to him that we would both love him no matter what, and that he could love both of us without upsetting us (I hoped I was speaking for her, too), he got better.

My purpose in writing this is because I know there are so many more stepmothers like me out there: stepmothers whose major obstacle in their journey isn’t their relationship with their stepchildren, but instead dealing with the biological mother of those stepchildren.

While it is still a long road ahead of us, the important thing, to me, is that she has a relationship with the boys again. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes I want to scream, but I keep reminding myself to breathe and let it go.

Maybe someday she will, too.

© 2012 Jennifer Shepherd    All Rights Reserved
(photo credit:FreeDigitalPhotos.net)
Jennifer Shepherd is a lifelong Midwesterner, though if asked she can’t say how this happened.  She has a great son, two amazing stepsons and an awesome husband. She loves to read, write, and laugh at everyday craziness. She also likes to laugh at pretty much everything else. She got married in 2010, got cancer the same year, beat it the next year, and finally got her bachelor’s degree the year after that. Master’s in progress!

Acknowledging Loss and Embracing Your Life As a Stepmom

Embracing stepmom roleAlthough being a stepmom can be awesome, you’ve probably experienced some losses along the way. And although the losses are a result of your choice to be with the man you love, that doesn’t make them any less valid or painful.

Most losses need to be mourned in order to properly move on from them, so they don’t keep creeping up causing you emotional distress and inner conflict.

People often associate the act of mourning with extreme tragedy, like the loss of a loved one. But there are many other situations where grief is appropriate and mourning is necessary.

Let’s be honest, no eight year old plays dress up pretending to be a stepmom. Our life is not what we expected it to be. And often there is something getting in our way of completely embracing this life we’ve chosen.

Some losses that stepmoms may initially experience are:

  • Inability to have your own children if your husband has had a vasectomy or if finances for his children make it impossible
  • Experience of “firsts” with your husband – marriage, children, buying a house, etc…
  •  The phase of falling in love and the growing of a relationship without interference from anyone (ex-wife and kids)
  • Control over every aspect of your life

Losses along the way may include:

  • Having a healthy relationship with your stepchild’s mom
  • Having a mutual, loving relationship with your stepchildren
  • The planned future or your children’s future due to financial obligations of your husband to his children and/or ex-wife
  • A child-free future
  • Being stuck geographically

It’s difficult to move forward into the present if you’re still holding onto the past. You’re always going to be resisting what IS at the same time you’re trying to move forward; like trying to walk into the ocean against 12-foot waves.

Mourning your loss, whatever it may be, gives you a chance to look honestly at your thoughts and feelings about the situation. You must move into the pain (as uncomfortable as it is) in order to move through it and come out the other side.

Once you shine a light on something, it’s not nearly as scary as what’s lurking in the dark. 

My Mourning…

For me, the loss I needed to mourn was the future I had always pictured for myself, which didn’t include kids.

I never wanted my own children. It was just something that never appealed to me. I loved my “me” time. I always envisioned my future traveling with my husband, wherever and whenever we wanted. My life, my dreams, goals and plans never involved kids.

But once I met my husband all that went out the window. I was trying to embrace this new lifestyle I had chosen and couldn’t figure out why I was having so much trouble adjusting.

With my husband’s encouragement, I attended a personal retreat to recharge. After a few days of being alone and contemplating my situation, it hit me.

I was still holding onto my dream of a childless future even though there was no possibility of it. I was subconsciously resisting what my life had become.

All those plans and dreams needed to be put to rest and replaced with new ones, but that couldn’t happen until I acknowledged that I was still holding on to them.  In that moment of realization, the flood gates opened, and all this pent up emotion came spilling out.

But I didn’t just have to acknowledge my grief in order to let it go, I needed to mourn the loss. I had to face what giving up that future meant to me. A lifelong collection of plans and dreams gone. I had to face, head on, all the painful emotions that I was feeling as a result of the choice I made to be with my husband.

After I experienced the grieving process, it felt like a huge weight was lifted off my chest, that I didn’t even know was there. I was healing. And with it came a new excitement.

I was finally able to look at my new future and be excited about the possibilities it brought. 

That was the turning point for me in my stepfamily. That’s when I started to relax around the kids and actually enjoy them. And they in turn did the same.

How to Mourn

Mourning takes different shapes. It is a very personal and individual process and there’s no set timetable for it. Some ways to mourn include: journaling about your losses and the emotions you’re experiencing, joining a support group, turning to your spirituality or religion, etc…

After you’ve gotten really clear on what you’re mourning and have felt all the feelings that come up, it’s time to start looking ahead. It’s time to start looking at the potential in your future; who you might become, the strengths you might gain, what you might learn, and most importantly, the whole reason you’re here in the first place – your hopes and vision for your relationship with your partner.

Even though the process is painful, it’s also cathartic. The outcome is a healed part of yourself and the ability to fully embrace what IS instead of being stuck in the “what is NOT.”

Also, don’t let anyone tell you what is okay to feel grief about and what is not. Your pain and what you perceive as a loss is not up for discussion or judgement. Whatever you feel is valid.

What have your experiences been in regards to loss? Are you holding on to something that’s preventing you from embracing your life?

© 2012 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Having trouble navigating your role? Click here to join us for the 2-week, online Intensive: Role Clarity.  
You might also enjoy:

Put Down Your Good Intentions and Step Away From the Ex-Wife


step away from ex-wife


Unsure of where you fit in? Join us for the upcoming online Intensive, Role Clarity.

We often talk about stepmoms overdoing it and needing to step back from all their responsibilities; needing to take a break from taking care of everything and everyone.

But sometimes it’s not the stepchildren they need to back off from.

Sometimes it’s the ex-wife.

Stepmoms usually start out innocently communicating with mom around things like schedules and logistics. If that goes well, she starts thinking “Great, mom is receptive to me. She’s accepting of me.”

She then takes mom’s receptiveness as an invitation to move into position and start taking the reigns around other aspects of co-parenting.

She also starts to think she can heal the relationship between her husband and his ex. Oops…

What starts out with good intentions on the stepmom’s part, often turns into an ugly power struggle or war between mom and stepmom.

Before she knows it, she’s crossed a boundary she couldn’t see and mom is up in arms accusing her of overstepping and trying to take over.  (Cue the barrage of nasty text messages from mom)

The stepmom is often an easy scapegoat. We’re the new kid on the block (even if we’ve been around for years). And it’s so much easier to point the finger at someone else and tell them what they’re doing wrong, than trying to see how their presence could benefit the family and wanting to find solutions.

Stepmoms, when you start getting frustrated about this, remember these four words: YOU CAN’T FIX IT.

It was broken long before you showed up.  And as much as you might love your husband and want to make things better for him, you can only do that in your household. When it comes to his ex, it’s HIS job to handle her.

There are some moms who do communicate better with their child’s stepmom and choose to deal with her rather than her ex. For those of you who can make that work, I commend you!

But for all the others…

Your husband has a choice. He either chooses to lay down some ground rules with her or he chooses to continue letting the dynamic be as it is.

Either way it’s his choice.

So what do you get for  “getting out of the way”? You get to improve your marriage. What your husband wants is to feel supported by you. By letting him deal with his ex and NOT harassing him about his decisions, or hers, you allow the space to simply support him.

And you get to go about your business focusing on all the things that bring you joy, knowing that whatever stress she brings, you’re more protected from it than you would be if you were right in the line of fire.

This will be a challenge for those of you who define yourselves as control freaks. You might feel like bursting at the seam every time something happens, but eventually you learn to enjoy not having the pressure of needing to know every gory detail of the interaction.

And you might need to fake it ’till you make it. Put notes around the house reminding you to bite your tongue.

Your husband is a big boy, let him handle things in his own way (which I guarantee will be different than the way YOU would handle them).

If it’s something that affects you, then have that conversation with him. Otherwise, learn to let go.

You’re making room for more peace in your life and at the same time showing your husband “ I trust you, I believe in you.” And more than anything, that’s what our husbands want to feel from us.

So stepmoms, do your best to remove yourself from fights that aren’t yours.

Your marriage will thank you for it!

© 2012 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Looking for a private, judgement-free community where you receive support and ongoing coaching that will transform your family dynamics? Then join the Stepmom Revolution Community!

Five Ways to Make Your Marriage a Priority

Learn how to transform your relationship in the upcoming Relationship Improvement 2-week Intensive.

It’s not just a myth that in a stepfamily the marriage needs to be the number one priority. It’s what has been proven to work hundreds of times over. Otherwise, there ends up being a second divorce, or just two miserable people tolerating each other.

Either way, it sucks for you and it sucks for the kids.

The couple is the pillar of the family unit, holding the family together. But when the children’s wants are made to be more important than the adult’s needs, chaos ensues.

Kids need structure in order to feel safe. As Ben Garber says in his book Keeping Kids Out of the Middle, think of the marriage as their safety net; something they can rely on.

Be prepared. They’re going to test that net to see how far they can stretch it. They need to know it will stretch without breaking. They need to know they can count on it to be there, to catch them when they fall.

Here are 5 practices that will help ensure you’re making your marriage the priority!

1. Explain the new “structure” of the family to the kids.

The kids are often in pain from divorce and the loss of their family, resulting in misplaced anger (usually aimed at the stepmom). It’s up to the biological father to listen to his children, empathize with them about their pain, but remind them that the new structure of the family includes the stepmom.

Let them know they’re loved and find out what needs of theirs are possibly not being met.

Make sure to have some alone time with them at every visit. And talk to them about possible solutions for what’s ailing them.

2. Stepmoms, your spouse must defend you to the kids.

The children will take their cues from dad, so he needs to be your biggest advocate. He needs to let them know that he loves you and that although they don’t have to love you, or even like you, they must behave in a respectful manner to you, as his wife.

Referring to you as his wife, as opposed to their stepmom, may be less threatening and easier for the kids to digest.

3. Be affectionate in front of the kids.

It’s healthy to hold hands, give a peck on the cheek, etc… If the previous marriage was volatile, this might be the first time they’ve ever witnessed love and affection between two healthy adults.

This is your opportunity to model a loving relationship so they have a better chance of experiencing one for themselves in the future.

And give yourselves some alone time! Do your best to create a date night (or at least a date hour). The adults in a marriage need to experience each other without the children around. It’s important to keep up the “R-rated” aspect of your relationship, so you continue to see each other as more than “parents.”

4. The couple should never undermine each other in front of the children.

Stepmoms, if your partner doesn’t agrees with something you’ve done or said to the kids, he needs to support you in front of the kids and then discuss it behind closed doors.

Otherwise, the child may see the stepparent as insignificant, and feel a sense of power over the family. He may believe he’s found a way to drive a wedge between the couple, thinking this might be his opportunity to get his parents back together. And he may think he can dictate how the family runs.

I don’t actually need to describe the hell it would be to have a child running the household, do I??

As Foster Cline recommends from the book Parenting teens with love and logic, “A good relationship between child and stepparent is healthy and worth striving for. But when disputes arise, the birth parent must unequivocally back up the stepparent as an authority in the home.”

And stepmoms, you’re not off the hook here. This rule goes both ways.

5. The child won’t respect the stepparent if the biological parent doesn’t insist on it.

By “respect” I’m referring to listening to the stepparent when she’s directing the child, not insulting or badmouthing the stepparent; showing basic manners.

If this isn’t occurring, the biological parent needs to step in. It can’t come from the stepparent, because the child most likely does not feel any loyalty or responsibility to the stepparent.

The results of a child not respecting a stepparent can be enough to damage the marriage. A stepmom may feel powerless in her own home. She will come to dread the children’s visits.

She will feel she is cooking, cleaning, nurturing this child, only to be completely disrespected. If this goes on for too long, the stepmom ends up feeling used and abused, instead of loved and supported.

She will also be angry with her husband for not protecting her or listening to her needs. She may feel so beaten down that she doesn’t think it’s worth it to stay in the marriage.

After all, the marriage is the reason she’s here!

As you can see, the dad holds a lot of responsibility for keeping the stepfamily intact. That’a pretty big burden and it’s a difficult job. But with his wife’s support he can succeed. And with her husband’s support, the stepmom will know that her marriage is strong. She will know that her efforts are worthwhile and her emotional cup will be filled.

And the whole family will benefit!

© 2012 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

Would you like some extra support? Click here to see how I can help you.

(Photo credit: photostock)

You may also enjoy: