If you were to have looked up my name and number in my youngest step-daughter’s cell phone, you wouldn’t have found it. Why? Because she had my number filed under “[Expletive-y] Step-Mom.” Who caught a photo of me cooking with a scowl that brought out all my wrinkles (and posted it on Instagram, of course)? One of my step-kids.
I have three step-kids and one of my own. And you know where this is going, right? Either the kids were hard on me, but it all worked out, and everything is fine. Or, have I been heard to advise, “If anyone you know is thinking of marrying a guy with kids, tell them to run away. Run away fast.”
But if you are reading this, it is probably too late for you to run away, so let me offer some pointers for step-moms, if only to allow you to learn from my major, colossal mistakes:
Some important tips for step-parents
1. Don’t correct their table manners (or, in other words, don’t sweat the small stuff). When I enlisted for the step-mom job, the kids were young and messy. In retrospect though, how would I feel about some strange woman entering my life and commenting on the placement of my elbow at the dinner table? (I would have filed her under “[Expletive-y] Dinner Guest.”) It came to the point where one step-kid would pointedly put her elbows on the table, then look at me and wait for my ire.
2. Their mother is worthy of respect, even if she’s not. Seriously. If you’re a kid with divorced parents, it’s hard enough that your dad is not with your mom; now your step-mom is “dissing” her? Not okay. My husband’s ex lies. She cheats. She probably forgets to feed her dog. But every time her name came up, I tried to find something positive to say. It is the one kindness I could do.
3. Accept. Accept. Accept. One day I walked into the kitchen and the step-kids (including the 8-year-old) were watching the Ke$ha video (and yes, as you know, that IS a dollar sign in lieu of an “s” in her name). You know the one: “Before I leave, brush my teeth with a bottle of Jack. ‘Cause when I leave for the night, I ain’t coming back.” So catchy. Such bad messaging.
And there was MY then 9-year old watching it too. I had brought my child into the world of inappropriate videos, high fructose corn syrup, and, yes, expletives. What was I to do? Shut down all Ke$ha content? Banish all Fruit Loops? Ultimately, I found that obstacle insurmountable. I had to compromise.
4. Celebrate small victories. I once (okay, basically every day) reached my boiling point. On this particular day, my tirade focused on the issue of positivity, or lack thereof. The never-ending complaining and put-downs at the dinner table must have shorted a circuit somewhere deep within, and I found myself ranting about negativity. To be honest, I told them they were “breathing toxic air.” I declared the dinner table a “put-down free zone.” Several months later, I heard one of my step-kids state over dinner “This is a put-down free zone.” It did my heart glad.
5. Don’t worry. Be happy. When I was falling in love and then getting engaged, I didn’t stop to do the math, but it turns out that our two youngest (though 11 months apart) would be applying for college at the same time. Had I stopped to be wise, I would have thought that having two step-siblings “competing” for the same colleges might be sub-optimal (as any parent of twins can tell you). Not so.
One wanted sunshine (think California) while the other wanted tradition (think pea coats and, well, ivy). So the drama of having the two of them applying at the same time was not sufficient basis for me to call off the wedding.
I could go on. I once started to read a book called Step Monster, by Wednesday Martin Ph.D. You should read it. I never finished it. Dr. Martin referred to the positive relationship she had with her step-daughter. I thought that would never be me. But, in fact, with two steps in college and one applying now, I am no longer the “[expletive-y] step-mom.” Indeed, one step-kid “face-timed” me from her college dorm yesterday to discuss her sore throat. Signing off, she gave me her signature “horizontal V pointing toward her” symbol (which I just googled—it’s attributed to Winston Churchill but I think I’m missing something).
I gave her a thumbs up in response. And, signing off, she said “love you.” I love her too.
Bex Grant is a working mother of four children and she writes under a pseudonym.
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