Every relationship is complicated in a stepfamily. The ones with the kids, the ones with the in-laws, the one with the, ahem, ex-wife. Even relationships with your family are affected as your parents and siblings try to figure out what their role is to be with your instant family. The stepmothers I know are highly successful, intelligent women who have conquered previous challenges, if not with ease, than with dedication and perseverance. And they had no reason to believe they wouldn't be able to do this.
A difficult ex-wife? Ha! You handled the last project meeting with the misogynistic team leader so well that he thought he had come up with your ideas.
Adolescent stepkids? No problem! You organized the last Youth Group ski trip at your parish and those kids LOVED you.
Stepmoms get blindsided when their efforts don't create the scenarios they had envisioned. You didn't expect it to be easy. You did expect it to be possible. It can feel like giving up if you don't continue to redouble your efforts to be the best stepmom ever. That's why it's really hard to put your effort in where it ultimately counts the most, and where the rewards are most tangible. You need to focus on being a WIFE.
Your goal is to be with your spouse for the rest of your life, not win parent of the year.
Keep in mind that you didn't get married because you couldn't wait to be a step-parent, and your spouse probably didn't use the kids to entice you into that second date. Marriages have shared goals, visions, in common. Some of those will have to do with the kids and the family you are building, but others will have to do with dream vacations, creating a home, working towards living out your old age together.
Stepfamily life evolves.
It may not seem like it now, but there are often stages ahead that aren't as difficult as the one you're in right now. Focusing on your marriage ensures that your relationship is strong enough to endure the current struggles, and long-lasting enough to reap eventual rewards. It also helps you better enjoy the opportunities you have to spend time together without the kids, even if it is only for an evening or a weekend.
Time away from the kids helps you remember why you're together in the first place.
If they are with you all the time, use a babysitter so that you can have couple time. If they visit on weekends, be sure to schedule time after they leave. If they live with you but have visitation, be sure that becomes a date night, even if you stay home. DON'T use all the time away from the kids to discuss the kids, or the ex, or the ex-induced money problems. Make rules about off-limit topics and stick to them.
Sex is a good thing.
Create space in your marriage that doesn't include the kids, even when they're around. Making your bedroom a kid-free haven is a good idea. (They can watch TV somewhere else!) This boundary allows you and your spouse to have a space where you are ONLY husband and wife. Sex is one form of intimacy, and when a couple pays attention to that aspect of their relationship, other forms become more habitual. That closeness bodes well for couples who have stress (read stepchildren, an ex-wife/ex-husband) in their lives.
Make sure you connect with your spouse EVERY day.
An affectionate greeting when you've been apart all day, time together after the kids are in bed, or phone calls at work or during lunch breaks are some examples of how your marriage can be stronger with minimal effort. Once my stepkids were high school age, we had a rule that the kids had to be in their bedrooms with their doors shut (bathroom rituals completed, snacks eaten, belongings collected) by 10:00pm. It was often the only time we could count on having each other to ourselves.
Make your own choices; resent no one for them.
If you really don't want to attend the 318th softball game of your stepdarling's season on the hottest day of the summer, but are doing so because you want to prove what a great stepmom you are, then don't. You are not the mom, and you don't need an excuse. Be polite, ask about the game, express interest later. If what you really want to do is head to your family's annual boating party, you're going to be the angriest fan in the bleachers anyway. Just grab your suit and go. Stepmoms make decisions way too often about what they think they SHOULD do, when in reality, they are holding themselves to a higher standard than anyone else in the family is. Be true to yourself, and don't care about your presence at the game more than anyone else does.
Don't underestimate the power of girlfriend time to enhance sanity.
You can't expect your husband to hear every negative feeling you have about his children any more than you can expect to not have those feelings....at least occasionally. Healthy women vent to people who are supportive of the marriage, but are understanding about the difficulties you encounter. Pick your poison. A cup of coffee, a margarita, or a 5-mile run in tandem with the BFF who goes exactly your pace and pour your heart out regularly. You will be a new woman for it.
While statistics don't lie, I guess, I am a strong believer in second marriages. My family doesn't fit the statistical norm: each of my parents has been remarried for over 20 years, my husband and I have been married for over 15 years, and we have multiple family friends who are happily remarried.
Believe it or not, marriage can sometimes be like golf. You get a "mulligan" under certain rules and get to rehit the shot. When you take the time to line it up better, use a practiced swing, and try with all your might, you get better results on your "do-over". You'll probably still hit the rough or a water hazard and it's unlikely that you will get a hole-in-one but experience and focus will help you know what to do, and eventually find success.
*This article first appeared in Stepmom Magazine.
Brenda Synder, LCSW is located in Peoria, Illinois and offers a multifaceted therapeutic approach to psychotherapy for individuals, teenagers and couples for anxiety, mood disorders, depression, crisis management, grief and loss, and for self-improvement or growth. Brenda also specializes in family, relationship issues, pre-marital, and marital counseling/coaching to those in blended family situations. She also provide services in coaching stepmoms and their families in her office and remotely on the web. View her Profile for more information about her counseling and coaching services.