Becoming a step parent can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. It can also be one of the most difficult roles an adult will ever assume. In May, my friend, Ashley, officially became the stepmom of three dynamic children aged 11, 10 and 6. This month, I’m sharing pieces of her journey, which provide an honest, unfiltered look at what it feels like to become a stepmother.
In her words:
No one grows up dreaming of raising someone else’s kids.
I am not a biological mom, but I have three kids. I do everything a mom does. I cook, clean, help with homework, read bedtime stories, plan vacations, drive kids to school. I treat these three children just like they are my own. Sometimes that is easier said than done.
I wanted children of my own. I wanted them to grow inside me. To be in awe of them at their birth. To feel that overpowering love that parents talk about; to burst into tears of joy because this beautiful little creature was mine. I wanted to watch my children as they grew and see parts of me in them. My fiancé tells me that there is no difference between having my own children and having his half of the time. He is wrong.
Parents get to bond with their children from the day they are born. I want to feel that. I am a childless stepmother, which means I don’t have kids of my own. Every once in a while I get a little glimmer of what that parent/child bond feels like but often, what it feels like I get is a lot of responsibility.
Compromising for three kids I didn’t bring into this world isn’t easy.
The kids call me Ash. I sometimes call them my kids. After all, they are the children in my life. They live with their father and me 50 percent of the time. When I go to a school or sporting event and someone asks me “Which child is yours?” I don’t say, “None of them.” I say, “That one.” Sometimes I explain that I am the stepmom, sometimes I don’t.
I do all the things a mom does. I go to little league games and soccer practice. I leave work early so my fiancé can coach the boys’ teams. I cook healthy meals plus a simplified version for the kids to eat. I plan birthday parties and I genuinely am invested in the children. I want and try to be the best “mom” possible when the kids are with me, but sometimes it hurts.
The kids sing the mommy song and do the mommy dance when it is time to go back to their mom’s house.
My partner celebrates me on Mother’s Day for being such a wonderful mother figure to his children. He appreciates me and everything I do, but despite it all, sometimes I still feel that empty spot in my heart.
When I fell in love with my boyfriend I knew I was stepping into a much larger role than girlfriend. I understood that I was stepping into the mother role in the home the children have when they are with their father. I never mistake that role as actually being their mother, but I also never minimize the importance of the role I am playing in their lives.
These are unfiltered excerpts from your blog, Go Ashley Go. It looks like it’s been a hard but rewarding journey. Was becoming a stepmom harder than you expected?
Being a stepmom is a lot harder than I thought it would be. I actually think I could rephrase that to being a mom is a lot harder than I thought it would be. I have a whole new respect for parents, mothers in particular, because, let’s face it the dad can be just as much work as the kids!
What are some challenges that you think step-parents face that are different from what biological or adopted parents face?
It’s hard to figure out what exactly your role is and how you actually fit into an already existing family. If there is an ex-spouse still in the mix, like in my case, you can find yourself facing some pretty stressful situations.
Blending a family sounds like it could be complicated, especially when custody is split between biological parents. How long do you think it takes to blend a family?
Bonding with step kids does not happen overnight. It’s an ongoing process. According to everything I have read, and our therapist agrees, blending a family takes an average of 5-7 years.
It sounds like bonding isn’t impossible. Tell us a little about how you’ve created a bond with your stepchildren.
I realized early on that my relationship with my step children will be what I make of it. If I do nothing and offer nothing, I will likely get nothing. So I offer myself. I make sure I am available. I listen to them even when they ramble on about kid things that I know nothing about. I ask them questions about school and activities.
While all of those things matter, there are three specific things I do with my step children that I know are the keys to our bonding: I do crafts with them; they help me cook; and we have a special television show we watch together – just the four of us, without their Dad.
I look for activities that I consider “safe” because I don’t want to create loyalty issues for the kids. I try not to do the same things that their mother does with them. The last thing I want to do is create a situation that feels to them like I am competing with their mother. Neither of my kids’ biological parents can cook or turn a bottle cap into a necklace which is why those are considered safe activities in my mind.
Stepfamilies are filled with complex dynamics that take most adults by surprise. What took you by surprise?
I’m amazed that the kids’ biological mother wants absolutely nothing to do with me. In three years, their mother and I have only had one conversation that wasn’t uncomfortable. I assumed that a mother would want to know more about the woman who spends half of the time with her children.
The excerpts above were taken from a series of blog posts you wrote over the last several years. It’s been a while. How have things evolved over time?
The biggest change in the last year or so has been integrating my immediate family with my extended family. My stepdaughter asked my parents to go with her to Grandparents Day at school, and they were happy to do so. We’ve also been on a few family vacations with my parents, brother, sister, and niece. Everyone in my family has embraced the kids and the kids have embraced them, which has been really nice.
As you’ve blended your family, have you realized anything about yourself?
I’ve realized some of my shortcomings. Really opening up has been hard but it’s important because it helps our family grow closer. In the beginning, I used to say that I was “letting the kids set the pace for our relationships to grow.” Now I recognize that, for a while, I had a wall up. Letting my guard down meant that there was the possibility that the kids would reject me. No one wants to open their heart only to have it be broken.
In your role as a stepmom, what is one thing you’d say is still evolving?
I think sometimes it’s easier for stepparents to see the practical aspects of situations and not the emotional side. This is something I’m currently trying to wrap my head around.
What has been the most rewarding part of your journey?
I have wonderful husband and a home that is filled with love and family. I love the kids and I know the kids love me, and accept me as their stepmom and as a true parent.
What advice would you give someone who is a new step-parent?
Find other stepparents to talk to; in my journey, my stepmom friends have been and still are so valuable. No one understands as well as another stepparent what you are going through. Stepmom Magazine (online only) is another must for stepparents. I cried all the way through the first issue I read because I realized I wasn’t alone – my feelings and struggles were not uncommon or unique to me.
Ashley Jack graduated from the University of Nevada, Reno with a B.A. in Speech Communications and Journalism. After college, with a crazy idea that she was ‘totally boring’, she took off on a 10-year adventure around the world teaching people how to ski before settling down. Today, she spends her days being a stepmom, blogger, advocate, and eco-friendly crafter.