Stepmothers and their stepdaughters can be faced with unique challenges. There is an interesting dynamic that happens when a woman is tasked with “mothering” a child that she did not bear. In the case of the stepmother, this new ‘mother-daughter’ dynamic can exist because of divorce. In some instances, a biological mother is disinterested or unable to care for her children. Perhaps a biological mother has passed away.
The stepmother-stepdaughter bond does not occur through natural means; in fact, a stepmother is a part of her stepdaughter’s life because something unexpected has happened. This woman’s presence was paved by some sort of devastation. Initially, a stepmother’s mere existence may serve as a reminder that something came undone. Unfortunately, most stepmother-stepdaughter relationships never mature into a genuine love bond.
Stepparents are expected to step into a ready-made family, one that never anticipated their presence and one that may not (happily) welcome them. As a stepmom myself, I can personally attest to the sheer awkward nature of this role. It feels like the first day at a new school where you’re the only new person!
I met my Husband’s daughter about a year into our relationship. I met them at the park so there would be plenty of distractions. I remember being excited but super nervous. I gave her a little doll as a gift and she loved it. When the play date was over, she gave the doll back because she knew her mother would throw it away because it was from me. It’s been 6 years since I’ve been in her life and she barely interacts with me.
It is uncomfortable to step into someone’s role and make it your own. Think about how you would feel taking over the President’s position at Company A because the owner has moved on. That person ran the company, so she set the culture of the environment. She took care of her workers, they confided in her. Over the years, many of her employees became like family to her. She left a legacy. Then comes YOU.
The employees have a loyalty to their President and many will refuse to accept or acknowledge you as “their” new boss. Those that can manage to show an affinity toward you feel guilty because of their allegiance to the former President. As the new Boss, you have many of your own ideas on how the company should be run. You may be met with contempt while transitioning your team away from the old way of doing things to a better way, your way. When you inevitably make mistakes, they will be exacerbated because you have not gained the trust or acceptance from your new team. Ultimately, despite your good intentions for the company, you and your employees may end up frustrated because nobody likes change. The same thing happens when Susie Stepmom walks through the door.
When a stepmother enters her stepdaughter’s life, she’s probably a nervous wreck. This woman has been told that she should love this child like her own, but she is reminded to stay in her lane. It’s like she’s already set up for failure because the expectations and boundaries cancel one another out. The stepdaughter may feel an allegiance to her biological mother and this new woman is impeding on her territory. Women, whether fully grown or not, can be terribly territorial.
The man in the middle can do wonders to ease the delicate dynamic for his wife and his daughter. When men properly facilitate a relationship between his new partner and his child, it takes a lot of the skepticism away and sets the tone for a natural friendship to happen. When the man in the middle fails, which many do, an unspoken tension between the women in his life sprouts and grows out of control.
My own stepmothering experience has been shaped because I am fortunate enough to have access to O.G. stepmoms, women that are adult stepdaughters, and some experienced biological mothers. Professionally and personally, I take what I know of human nature and I combine that with the nuggets I learn in my Coaching practice and apply them. One of my favorite questions to ask any stepdaughter is, “What was your first impression of your stepmom?”
Most will share that they do not view the woman as a stepmother. Many prefer to call their stepmothers “my dad’s wife”. This speaks volumes to the discomfort that exists among the stepmother-stepdaughter duo. While an adult stepdaughter may acknowledge the existence of her father’s partner, she may not feel good about addressing anyone besides her biological mother with such esteem. Many stepdaughters have not been given permission to love or show affinity for their stepmothers from their own biological mothers. Sure, they are taught to respect her as an adult, but they must essentially be given permission to allow “Dad’s Wife” into their lives.
Ideally, a stepmom would be ushered into her stepdaughter’s life by both of her biological parents. The child would be able to see that all the adults in her life are united by their love for her. Imagine the immense amount of self-esteem this girl would have!? Sadly, this almost never happens and the child is forced to reject their stepmother or love her discreetly. All children deserve an entire tribe of well-meaning adults surrounding them. Sadly, ego and old feelings prevent adults from forming a cohesive love bond around the child. Not only is this harmful for the grownups, it is detrimental for the child’s development. The child is tasked with forming their own presumptions on forgiveness, conflict resolution, and grace from the examples their biological and stepparents set. No wonder today’s youth suffer failed relationships, entitled arrogance, and not knowing how to effectively handle vulnerability. It’s not because of society; it is because of what they see in their very own homes. It starts with the family.
I wish my Dad’s Wife would have just been cool. She was nice at first but then she insisted on being called Mom. When my brother and I got old enough, we decided to stop visiting my Dad’s house. To this day our relationship with him is strained. Oddly enough, his Wife insists that my kids call her Grandma. After all these years, she is still clueless.
Stepmoms are given less wiggle room than stepdads. We don’t have the luxury to mess up. The stepparent bond differs from the biological parent bond because the relationship is based on conditions. The love bond of a biological parent is unparalleled and a stepparent should not try to compete; that would prove futile. A healthy stepmom accepts this and forms her relationship with her stepdaughter based on mutual love for “Dad,” respect, kindness and common interests. That is all. When you come on too strong, it frightens kids. Heck, I get scared of adults that overdo it! Act natural and do not feel the need to assert your position to your man’s children. Remember, it is their father that has fallen in love with you, not the children. At first, they do not and may never grow to love you. And that is totally okay. It is always safest to treat your stepkids like you’re the Cool Aunt. They recognize that there are boundaries with their expectations. Your stepdaughters should understand that you do things for them because you want to, not out of parental obligation.
An effective stepmother understands her role. She finds herself a lane and she comfortably takes her throne there. In an everchanging stepfamily, transition is constant, so it is important to protect personal boundaries.
Teach your stepchildren how you should be treated by being an example of kindness toward them. They will understand that you are not obligated to spoil them or shower them with extras in exchange for their obedience. Reinforce that their parents have your back so they are to respect you as an authority figure. There is also plenty of room to customize the exact type of relationship you see fit. Some stepkids will immediately fall for you and some will remain standoffish. As a stepmom, always be inviting and open but set and maintain your boundaries. Your stepchildren should recognize that your relationship with them is a major responsibility that you both should handle with care. What you water, shall grow. What you neglect, shall wither.
Build trust with them and understand that your stepdaughters are watching how you love their dad as an example of romantic love. They may resist, but they are extensions of your husband. No matter what twists and turns your stepmothering journey takes, navigate with love.
If you’re reading this, YOU are a part of the B&B community. I’d love to hear about your experience as a stepmother or as a stepdaughter. What do you wish could have happened differently? Do you want a better relationship with your stepmom or stepdaughter or have you given up?
Check out my workbook for women that are looking for a little relief in their stepfamilies!
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