(**Caveat: I know that some divorce cases are highly extreme and certain factors simply do not allow for a relationship. In that case, refer to #7 & #9.)
1. Redefine the word “fairytale”
The only way you become a step mother is to be a second wife. That can feel a little different than you imagined it would. You can feel very...second. But if the guy is marrying you, it means he wants to. He doesn’t have to marry again. So if you have any issues with ‘second,’ don’t let that poison trickle out and drip on anyone else. He put a ring on it, girl. Just go with it.
2. The most important person in your marriage is your stepchild.
For starters, it’s definitely not YOU, and get this: it’s not even your husband. Before you start listing the Bible passages and psychology references about putting your spouse first - remember that step-parenting is a unique relationship. Your man’s child is an integral part of him, his heart, his life. Honoring his child is honoring him. And guess what? That child was there before you, and was loved before you were part of the story. You joined a story in progress. Integrate yourself seamlessly, don’t be a plot distractor.
3. You are NOT the mama.
If you want to avoid drama (I’m looking at you, Leanne Rimes Cibrian) don’t act like you're the mama. Nothing can be more hurtful to a mother than watching another woman try to steal her child’s heart. And for the love of all that is holy, don’t dig the knife in deeper with petty games designed to cause pain. If you want to see a mama bear come to life (case in point: Brandi Glanville) - just try and overstep your boundaries and infringe on a role that is not yours. Know your place, and live graciously and gracefully within it. Honor the unique and singular role of the mother.
4. But LOVE like a mama.
Your stepchild should feel loved, embraced and accepted completely. This is especially important if more children are in the picture, either new children born or those grafted in by marriage. It goes without saying (right? right?) that a child should never be made to feel less important or loved than the others. You can do this without trying to usurp the mother’s role. I promise. And they will love you back. But I will tell you this right now, they’re never going to love you like they love their mama. And that’s exactly how it should be.
5. Divorce makes a lot of people very sad.
But here’s the thing, the one crying is probably not (newly in love with the perfect man) you. What happened before you entered the picture was some hard stuff (side note: if the divorce happened BECAUSE you entered the picture, you might deserve what you get. Sorry.) Of course the children are the main focus. But the mommies that have to be separated from their kids due to custody arrangements, especially ones that involve 50/50 splits as in our case - that can be particularly heartbreaking. Now I know the dads aren’t any less sad - but sorry boys, it’s DIFFERENT for women. These are our babies.
6. When people are sad, life is harder.
When I had my firstborn son, I “got it” so BIG. How could I bear to be apart from him for even one moment, let alone every other week. (Ok sometimes when he was crying nonstop, I could bear it. But you get the point). From then on, I intentionally tried to find ways to alleviate the pain of separation for my stepson’s mother. It’s hard to know what will hurt and what won’t - but when in doubt, ask! “Do you want to see pictures of him learning to waterski? Will it make you feel worse that he wasn't with you, or better that you didn’t miss it?” Be flexible with schedules to make sure the mother always has the kids on her birthday, mother’s day, days when your husband is traveling. Send email updates of funny things they say. Tell her when they are sick and that you held the bucket when they threw up, but they’re resting now and the fever’s gone. Remind the kids to call their mom to say hi. Take them to buy her flowers. Proactively stomp out any flickers of sadness and pain that you see.
7. First, do no harm
At this point in the story, you might be ready for my version of Pollyanna to just fall out the tree already. Some of you are thinking, “Look lady - you don’t get it. This situation is too bad for me to do any of this. Trust me.” I trust you. I’ve seen ugly angry battles that dear friends and family have faced, and recognize the best thing you can and should do is sometimes NOTHING. If there’s conflict between the two parents, this is not your battle. And everyone knows this one, but still. It must be said. Never, EVER (nevereverneverever) speak negatively about the other in front of the kids unless you want to make them feel anxious, ashamed and like they’ve been punched in the stomach. Remember there’s only one person in the whole messy situation you can control: your husband. Yeah right. It’s yourself. You can only control yourself. So zip it, and go clean something. Google something. Or do your nails. Whatever. Just stay out of it.
8. We are (aren’t?) (are we?) Family
Nothing will ever be more important to achieving the balance and happiness you crave than creating a positive relationship with other family. In other totally obvious news, the earth is round. Back to the beginning of the list: who’s the most important person in this particular dynamic? The child.
Imagine this: he’s a cute little kid up to bat at T-ball. He gets a home run! (Is this even possible in T-ball? I digress again). He screams the first two words that come to mind, “MOM! DAD!” as he crosses home plate. He looks up and sees his two favorite people in the whole wide world at opposite ends of the bleachers, who barely speak to each other, cheering separately. And this happens again on birthdays, at the school play, when he wins the game ball.
First things first: develop the kind of relationship that AT LEAST has you saying a pleasant hello and not falling off the end of the bleachers because you’re sitting so far away. Then over time, go big. Find ways to celebrate special occasions together. You will never give a bigger gift to your step child than to stand beside their mother at a ball game, or heck, even invite their mom to the hospital to meet your step kid’s newest baby brother and compare notes on who he looks like. (Too far? Too wildly unrealistic? Yes, I totally agree. Except it’s a true story.)
9. Pray, baby. Pray.
That’s all. Just pray for your step kids mom, pray that she has a happy life, pray for her marriage, job, health, pray that she’s not too sad when she’s separated from her kids. Do this every day.
10. It’s not (remotely) all about you
My stepson’s mom is awesome. Seriously. I’m sure I’ve said done some (many) stupid things out of ignorance, zeal, confusion - and she has forgiven me my missteps and worked together with me to build a camaraderie that is a true blessing in my life. Did it start out this way? Well, of course not! It starts off really weird and uncomfortable and heart-poundingly nerve-wracking. You’re going to say the wrong thing sometimes, unintentionally hurt each other’s feelings or cause a misunderstanding. But take the risk and reach out. Don’t force things, but look for opportunities to connect, and understand that this takes time time time. More than anything, I believe your stepchild’s mother wants to know 1.) her child is safe with you 2.) and loved by you 3.) and that you would never ever try to take her place.
Life’s no fairytale ladies, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be actively involved in the happy of ever after for the special step-children that have been entrusted into your care.
Imagine this: The T-ball field is far behind him and it’s the biggest day of his life so far. He’s getting married. After the “I do’s” and the walk back down the aisle, he looks for the other two people he loves most in the whole wide world. “MOM!” “DAD!” And there they are. His whole beautifully messy and multi layered-family is there too, all together in the same cheering section.