My personal approach to the role of stepmother is to avoid behaving like a “mom”. There could be good reasons to do otherwise, but for most of us I think this is the best policy and here is why:
- I’m pretty sure that females of all species are hardwired to scratch out the eyeballs of any creature who tries to mother our babies. You don’t need to wake this sleeping monster! Despite the rare and welcome cases where bi0 mom and stepmom become friends and cheerfully co-parent a child, 99% of perfectly reasonable women will become completely enraged if they hear their child call another woman “mom”. I know I would!
- It’s confusing for the kids. We’re simply not hard-wired to belong to two mothers (unless they are your only two parents and love each other). The “Loyalty Bind” isn’t really about a conscious decision of how to treat a mom or stepmom, it’s a completely unconscious drive deep inside a child’s heart to punish themself for loving two moms. We can spare them this suffering by being clever about how we approach our relationship with them.
- You can easily get burned out from overdoing and over-giving when you act like a mom. Many stepmoms feel resentful and unappreciated for all the mothering they do. It’s much healthier for you to let dad be dad, and to play more of a supporting role in the family dynamic.
Here are 6 types of persona or “alter-ego” that you can choose from in how you relate to your partner’s kids:
- Camp counselor
- Den mother
- A Friend’s Mom
- Fairy Godmother
THE CAMP COUNSELLOR
Did you ever go to sleep-over camp? If so, you might still fondly remember your favorite camp counsellor. A counsellor is a kind of teacher, but since they live with you right in the tent or cabin, you develop a closer bond. They are close in age, but different than a peer because they are older and wiser. They’re responsible for keeping you safe and for dishing out a certain amount of discipline. They can be a confidante who will listen with a caring ear to your troubles, especially if those problems involve your relationship with your parents.
A camp counsellor encourages you to get out of your comfort zone and try new, sometimes scary things. They oversee a wonderful time of growth and maturity.
If you are a high energy, fun loving type of person, this persona might be a natural fit.
THE DEN MOTHER
A den mother or dorm mother is a little bit more subdued in their energy than the camp counsellor.She might be like a Boy Scout or Girl Guide leader who provides a structured framework for adventures. She doesn’t make up the rules, she just enforces them while teaching life skills and other useful things. If she’s more like the kind of dorm mother at a boarding school or college, she’s probably not so actively involved in taking the kids out of their comfort zone. Instead, she provides a feeling of security they can rely on when they come in from the outside. She takes care of their practical needs and makes herself available for many kinds of problem-solving.
She can give affection when it seems appropriate but nobody would ever mistake her for the actual mother of any of her charges. There can be plenty of warm feelings between the den mother and the kids which might last a lifetime.
A FRIEND’S MOM
Think about what it was like to visit with your friends when you were a kid. That mom could keep you in line without ever acting as though she were your own mother.
In the role of Friend’s Mom, you can be authoritative, but in that “I know all about being a mom even if I am not your mom” kind of way. There’s always the idea that your friend’s mom will totally tell your own mom on you if you get out of line. Sometimes she lets you get away with things you are not allowed to do at home, but you also respect the rules at her house. If nothing else, you respect her when she tells you that you can’t do that at her house.
Sometimes you wish your own mom could be more like your friend’s mom. Sometimes you are glad your mom is not like her!
Remember that movie The Karate Kid? A quiet middle-aged man teaches karate to a bullied teenager and helps him regain his self-respect. He teaches him that the secret to success in karate lies in the heart and the mind, not just in the hands. He mentors the boy by passing on some important values and life lessons.
Yoda from Star Wars is another example of a mentor. He keeps the hero on the path toward victory and stands behind him giving support during the trials he has to face along the way.
If you’re someone who feels connected to your own important values, it can be very meaningful to mentor a young person and see them blossom and become a good human being. You can model behaviors for them as well as helping them solve problems with patience and creativity. Everyone should have a mentor in their life to help lift them up to a higher level of personal growth and achievement.
This could be a combination of den mother and camp counsellor, but with the added element of “family member” thrown in. The auntie might secretly spoil her niece or nephew (I know mine did!) but she can be trusted to have their best interests at heart. Because she belongs to the extended family, a higher degree of physical affection seems acceptable.
An auntie can be a good intermediary between mom and dad and can sometimes recognize qualities in the child that the parents don’t notice. She can encourage the child in pursuits like drama or theatre that their parents might not approve of and make them feel that someone important believes in them.
She is a more long-term influence than the previous three personas because she is there from the child’s birth and presumably, for as long as she lives. She might keep in close contact with the child even if she lives far away or if the child moves to a distant place. She often embodies qualities that are lacking in the parents such as spontaneity, resourcefulness or independence.
THE FAIRY GODMOTHER
This is my personal favorite; I guess it just matches the energy I like to feel around my step kids. She combines wisdom with a certain magical playfulness. The Fairy Godmother understands their needs and provides just what is needed to solve their problems and propel them forward in their lives. She’s a good listener and can be relied upon to give sound advice.
The magical element is especially fun here; the Fairy Godmother is always ready to pull a rabbit out of a hat, whether it’s creating an adventure on the spur of the moment, making a nice meal from random leftovers in the fridge or knowing enough about home healing traditions to be able to take away a headache or relieve period cramps. She keeps a calm view of the future and can reassure them that everything is going to work out in the end.
There is a lovely saying that comes from ancient commentaries on the Old Testament: “Every blade of grass has its angel that bends over it and whispers “grow, grow”. The Fairy Godmother works quietly, even invisibly in the background, encouraging growth and propelling these young people forward into their adult lives. She works magic; some that they see and some that they don’t even know about. She loves the chance to do good in the world, and they are grateful to have her in their lives.
If you are not already a member of my Facebook group, The Spectacular Stepmom, click on the link to join. You might also enjoy my weekly Essential Stepmom podcast. Come explore the pages of the stepmom’s playbook with us!