I am not your typical stepmom. I have lived with my significant other, Michael, for 3 years. We are not married. I am widowed and just don’t feel the need to remarry again at this time in my life, I was never one for tradition. He has two children who are now teenagers, a daughter (16) and a son (13). They were 9 and 12 when we met. I have spent the last 4 years of our relationship trying to figure out where I belong and becoming part of the social dynamic of a step family. In the end, I realized I don’t need to fit in nor do I want to.
I certainly don’t want to start this off with you thinking this will end badly or that it was all one big mistake. It isn’t and it hasn’t, so far. I’m happily pregnant now with my first child. Michael is excited, although it took him some time to come to terms with the fact that if this relationship were to continue, we would be having a child together. I was never going to compromise on this. There are many men who, after divorce, feel that “those” children should be the only that he has and to have another child with someone else later would be an insult to them. I can understand this line of thinking, but I don’t think its right. This is the mentality of a guilty father. Its call the guilty daddy syndrome. He is and has been a guilty disney dad since the divorce. Fun time for the kids when they come for weekend and school break visits. Entertainment is key. Never a chore, never a bedtime, never did he sit down to do homework.
Why am I not the typical stepmom? Aside from not being recognized as such by the public because of my marital status, I have chosen not to be a typical stepmom. It was not always like this. In the beginning, I had an image of a “family” of all of us. Excitement of caring for his children, playing a significant role in their upbringing. I was not pushy at first. I let them take time to warm up to me, I didn’t interfere with his parenting, nor did I direct our activities. I did the opposite. I told myself he is such a great and loving dad, he does everything he should. So, I just basically followed his lead and their hectic weekends. In the meantime, I lost myself. I kept my mouth shut about allowing them to have no bedtime, watching R rated movies, having too many material things too young. Then when it came time and we moved in together, I suddenly had an opinion. That would be hard for anyone to adjust to. I changed the rules. I became very resentful, bitter, and frustrated by his constant entertainment and catering to his children. He never had to do the hard part that their mother had to and that I wanted to. Suddenly, his daughter and I were at odds for his attention. She would push to compete with me in sitting next to him, getting him to compliment her looks, and getting snotty with me for having any opinion about what goes on in my own home. Even walking around a store, she would ease her way into walking right next to him, while pushing me away. Challenging me with her words in front of him and he allowed it by saying nothing to her.
I felt constantly undermined by him in regards to the children and what goes on in our home. For example, we finally agreed that the kids would not watch adult sexually explicit comedies. A few weeks later, I find him sneaking a movie to her behind my back! I was appalled, insulted, and hurt. I felt my status in the home challenged. Was she the girlfriend, or was I? He actually felt it was acceptable to sneak and lie to me. Does this man not realize I know everything that goes on in my house? What else has he lied about? I finally learned to disengage, that was my final straw. It wasn’t easy. I am a fixer, a co-dependent, and I want to control everything around me. It took a lot of focusing on myself to learn how to do this. I only began to truly follow through when I found myself underweight, anxious, and having panic attacks about where my life was headed. Once I got myself together, my confidence back I took control again. I took a different kind of control. I can’t help what others do, but I can help what I do.
Disengaging can be a dirty word for some. You are chastised that you shouldn’t get involved with a man who has children if you aren’t going to be involved with the children yourself. You have no rights, but you are supposed to deal with all of the grunt work. I say bullshit. I remained silent on any topic involving the children. I had no opinion. I listen empathically and supported Michael, but I did not offer advice or an opinion. You learn quickly that your advice is completely disregarded or used against you as evidence that ‘you just don’t like my kids’. When the kids ask you for something, you refer them respectfully and pleasantly to their father. You don’t correct them, you don’t engage with them. You simply treat them as guests. Small talk, answering questions and such, but nothing that involves real effort from you.
When you have spent 2 years being treated badly with eye rolling, dirty looks, and outright negative comments from a daughter who is completing for dad’s attention you learn one thing, take yourself out of the game. Competing with a biological child gets you no where, but looking like the bad guy. I realized I became the scapegoat for all that was wrong with his daughter. Her bad grades her attitude, her spoiled behavior. This was always turned around on me and how I was mean to her or picking on her. Once I took myself out of the target range, dad had to own up to her true personality. Once I took myself out of her reach, she turned her sights to her little brother. Everything became his fault. Dad didn’t buy in to that one so easily. Slowly but surely, dad see’s. However, that wasn’t the goal for me. Some people never see and you can’t make them.
The true goal of disengagement is selfish. Its to keep your own sanity, to keep your frustration levels low, and to stop letting people treat you as a doormat. I’m never mean or disrespectful to the children, never. However, I am not their biological parent and thus they are not my priority. My priorities are me, my relationship with Michael, and now our son who will be here soon. I don’t involve myself in duties that are not my responsibility. I don’t have to taxi the children everywhere. There are things I need to take care of on the weekends. That is my time to get our home in order, run errands, and exercise. This was always Michael’s time to entertain and spend money on the children and I was expected to follow along with no say so. Something I never could enjoy. I don’t have to help the kids with homework. I will, but only if I choose to and only if I see that it is beneficial.
Unfortunately, his daughter gets none of my help anymore. No matter what the punishment, encouragement, or help, she brings home F’s for no good reason beyond laziness. I used to feel so responsible for this. As if I needed to step in and intervene. What I found is anger and frustration for wasting my time. Not anymore. I have learned a valuable lesson in this situation, you don’t control everything and you aren’t responsible for others’ actions. There is no reason to feel guilty for doing for yourself first and allowing the children’s parents to own up to their own responsibility. When you don’t, you lose yourself and that leads to a very scary place.
An interesting side affect to all of this is that dad has actually become more involved in the “hard stuff” of parenting. He isn’t where he should be and he certainly still spoils and coddles, but he is a bit better. As for me, I love this dynamic. I haven’t been so comfortable in our relationship as I am right now.