If someone’s never experienced life in a stepfamily, it’s hard to comprehend the vast complexities in the stepfamily structure, the difficulties of parenting between two homes, and the time it takes for the newly formed family to bond. A person may assume she understands stepfamily living because she read an article or a stepfamily lives next door, so she makes a foolish comment out of ignorance. Or some well-meaning person assumes a stepmom should love her husband’s kids exactly the same way she does her own. The unrealistic thinking that a stepmom automatically and fervently loves a child she barely knows, who often dislikes her, and who came from another woman’s body, is ridiculous.

How should you respond to family and friends who inadvertently make insensitive comments on what it’s like to be a stepmom? Here are some suggestions

A Different Kind of Affection

I’ve stopped counting the number of stepmoms who tell me, “I finally got the courage to be honest and speak what I feel as a stepmom. But then my sister (aunt, mother-in-law, pastor’s wife, pick one) said I should be ashamed of myself for saying I love my children more than I do my husband’s. I feel terrible. I do love my stepkids and I grow to love them more as times goes by, but I guess it’s not enough. I’ve often wondered if I really am the wicked stepmom. Now I know for sure – this proves it.”

The mantle of shame this woman unnecessarily carries grows heavier with each comment. She eventually tells no one how she really feels, thinking she is the worst stepmom on the planet.

A better response is to someone who tries to make you feel shame is, “Fortunately, I’ve been educating myself on stepfamilies. And a common thread in each resource is that it’s unrealistic for a stepmom to love her husband’s kids exactly the same way she loves her own biological children. I work very hard to build a bridge with his kids, and I choose to care deeply about them. A chosen love is still love. Maybe even better, because it takes more work.”

You Simply Fell in Love with a Man Who Has Kids

“You must be crazy to take on someone else’s kids. I’d never do that,” is a recurring expression heard by stepmoms. I understand why it’s popular. We live in a self-centered world and walking into a situation that requires a lot of hard work is undesirable.

A way to shut down further discussion is by sharing, “I fell in love with a man with children. I am shocked by the complexities but my husband is such a great guy that he’s worth it. My role as a stepmom is really hard, and I need support. I know you mean well, but I need encouragement, not negativity.”

You Can’t Fix Stupid

Probably one of the most hurtful statements said to the childless stepmom is, <class=”pull-quote”>“You aren’t a real mom. You wouldn’t understand.” I’ve watched stepmoms cry a river of tears over this statement. It’s the motherhood version of “mean girls.” And if I’m honest, I don’t really get why one woman feels the need to attack and emotionally crush another woman. It’s beyond me.

I recently read how this cattiness between women is birthed in young girls. Authors Degler and Coughlin share that the relational aggression between girls, such as spreading rumors, teasing, threatening to exclude someone, and shunning, is used to bully other girls. They add, “Physical punches may not be thrown, but the emotional pain is devastating and, over time, can lead girls and women to believe females, by nature, are untrustworthy, devious, and manipulative – in other words, catty.”

The act of emotionally bashing another person in an attempt to feel superior is sad, painful, and unproductive. But there are women who do it all the time.

My suggestion is a simple response: “I may not have given birth to a child, but that doesn’t mean I don’t play a mom-like role in the lives of my stepkids. I carpool, cook meals, wash laundry, place Band-Aids on their cuts, and help with homework the same way any mom does. I play a significant role in their lives, and I work at doing it well.”

You Didn’t Know What You Were Getting Into

A person better be ready to duck if she chooses to tell a stepmom, “You knew what you were getting into when you married a man with kids.” To a stepmom, “Them is fightin’ words!

Before the wedding most stepmoms are unaware of how challenging the journey will be. They know at the altar they are saying “I do” to a new merging family. But a new stepmom is usually either in denial or uninformed of how she automatically inherited a whole host of people and things over which she has no control, such as a former spouse, the former spouse’s husband (stepdad), the stepdad’s family, ex-in-laws, the friends her hubby jointly has with his ex-wife, and grieving kids.

It throws salt into the wound when people assume she should have know all this beforehand. The truth is we don’t know what we don’t know. A good response for this comment is, “Even though I read books and attended a stepfamily seminar before the wedding, I could never have imagined or predicted the number of things involved in blending two homes. I had no idea how complicated it would be to keep this marriage alive and thriving. My husband and I have been ambushed by stepfamily complexities, but we are committed to make it work.”

Listen to Wise Words

Sometimes the questions or remarks made to a stepmom are from women who genuinely care and desire a deeper understanding of stepfamily life. This comes in the form of statements such as, “Too bad his kids don’t live with you full time. It would be so much easier for everyone, including the kids, if they didn’t have to juggle two homes.”

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This well-meaning observation appears logical and practical. That’s when it’s a stepmom’s job to kindly educate others on kids and divorce. Explain that the children who do the best after divorce are the ones who have an ongoing relationship with both parents. And although it is hard on everyone to shuffle between two homes, with two different sets of rules and discipline styles, it’s crucial for the children to maintain a good, steady relationship with both the mom and the dad. This is true even if one parent surpasses the other in parenting.

Usually the conversation is beneficial and instructional, which offers the person who made the comment the opportunity to be educated on the subject of kids and divorce as well as stepfamilies.

Stop Attempting to Explain

I have several girlfriends who long to have children but are unable to conceive. These friendships provide me with a deeper understanding and sensitivity into their world of grief, pain, loss, and frustration. Therefore, I’m taken aback when I meet a women for the first time and her immediate question to me is, “How many children do you have?” It’s not a difficult situation for me, but my mind automatically travels to my infertile friends. I think about how this simple, mundane question must stab them in the heart – and the womb – every time it’s asked.

That’s why, when meeting a new woman, I never bring up children. I stay under the mommy radar as much as possible. If I’m having a conversation with a woman who has children, she normally will bring the subject up eventually. When I am posed with the “kid question,” I reply, “My husband, Steve, has two children from his first marriage. They are grown now with kids of their own, so we have grandkids.” This typically satisfies the curiosity and takes the conversation in another direction.

Some people don’t want to know how hard it is being a stepmom. And if they were against your husband’s remarriage, they may assume you got what you deserved. In either case it’s best to know when to stop trying to explain.

Are you Teachable?

It’s possible a friend might say something to a stepmom that she doesn’t want to hear. I’m not talking about the people who intentionally make hurtful comments. I’m referring to the true friend who desires our well-being and can see the things we cannot.

In my own life, I have a few women that I trust to tell me the truth about myself. I know they love me; therefore, when they speak something into my life that is unpleasant, I listen. That doesn’t mean it’s easy, or that I don’t desire to reject their advice, but deep inside I know they wouldn’t say it to me if they didn’t view it as important.

Do you have a trusted female friend who can be honest? Can she tell you when you’re wrong? Are you willing to listen and consider that she might be right? I’ve discovered that if I surrender my preconceived thoughts and become teachable, this type of friendship can enhance my life immensely. It helps to prune the dead branches that don’t produce anything fruitful in my stepmom journey. The Bible agrees and calls it iron sharpening iron.

Your Situation Is Unique

Although stepmoms have a lot in common, each stepmom marches to a different drumbeat of life. Her unique background, circumstances, and family setting make her extraordinary. A stepmom must learn that what works in one stepfamily situation might not work in hers.

There is a priceless treasure in finding a community of positive-thinking stepmom sisters. Many times they will be the only way to keep your sanity. Friends and family mean well, but unless they have walked the stepfamily journey, they usually won’t get it!

When I get discouraged and feel like I can’t do one thing right, that’s when it’s time to take a moment of silence and solitude. In prayer I choose to leap into my heavenly Father’s arms, lay my head against his chest, and hear his heartbeat that rhythmically whispers to this weary child, “Laura, I love you. I’m right here. I’ll teach you how to be a smart stepmom. Your methods aren’t always perfect, but your heart is right. My love is not based on performance. I love you just because I created you. Lift up your head, Laura, and embrace the truth.”

When I spend time with Jesus and allow him to whisper words of affirmation, truth, and hope, I can feel the tension, frustration, despair, and anger over what others might say melt away.

Adapted from 101 Tips for the Smart Stepmom by Laura Petherbridge. Used with permission of Bethany House Publishers.

Copyright © 2014  Laura Petherbridge, Used with permission, all rights reserved.

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