Peer Support Is Great, But Where Is Your Stepmom Advice Coming From?

Scrolling through my social media feed one day recently, one particular post caught my eye. It wasn’t in a stepmom group, but a regular parenting forum for women trying to learn how to parent in a kinder, gentler, more enlightened way than the way they might have been raised themselves.

I think it’s awesome that we have so many resources at our disposal nowadays to help us learn to do better. Sadly, most moms and stepmoms don’t have the kind of “village” around us that we used to have to support us in raising kids. We used to share tips and seek advice from people we knew personally; their either had helped raise us themselves or we knew their families, their partners and kids. We knew what others had to say about them, good and bad.

Peer support is awesome but one thing about hanging out on social media is definitely true: when you’re dealing with strangers, you have to be careful who you get your advice from, especially stepmom advice.

When you consider that almost 3/4 of stepmoms are headed for the ditch (sad, but true statistic), you can safely assume that the advice most stepmoms are giving out is sketchy at best, and dangerous at worst!

When you’re right inside a situation, it’s really hard to see it with any perspective. More often than not, we make things way more complicated than they need to be and this can be true for biological parents as much as step-parents.

Here’s what prompted this particular mom to seek advice from her parenting group. She and her 3 year old were having milk and cookies. She put out 4 cookies, and her son put two on his plate and 2 on hers. He ate his cookies in the blink of an eye, before she had even started in on her own. Then, he wanted her to share her cookies with him. And she said, “No, I don’t want to share”.

She described his meltdown and how she handled it, but she felt confused and guilty for how it all played out, given that she didn’t really want the cookies. She wanted to teach him that it’s OK if someone doesn’t want to share, that you don’t always have to share.

There followed a robust online dialogue; more than 200 mothers of young children contributed their thoughts. I read them all, anxious to see who had already said what was on the tip of my tongue. Admittedly, my preschooler days are more than 20 years behind me but to my surprise, I only found a small handful of responses that had anything to do with what I wanted to say.

I felt like a total outlier. The point of confusion seemed so clear to me; how could there be all of these differing opinions about what this mom needed to hear? For sure, there were half a dozen moms among the crowd who wrote something that made me immediately want to invite them over for a quiet coffee. All the rest, it seemed to me, were jumping around together in a giant mom-sized bouncy-castle of parenting conundrums.

I read comments from mothers about the virtue of sharing even your last morsel of food with your children, and a side-thread about whether or not it was mean to withhold cookies she admits she didn’t really even want.

Many of the moms chimed in about whether the child was too young to learn this more subtle concept about personal boundaries while others voiced their opinions about how best to handle a meltdown over wanting more cookies.

One mom insisted that the boy had simply eaten his own portion, while “sharing” would involve giving away some of your own portion.

Who has the right answer here? They all sound right depending on where you’re coming from.

When you take your most difficult challenges to peer groups for advice, do you really have to read through hundreds of comments and look for the ones with the most “likes” so you know which advice to follow? And, how brave do you have to be to even ask the question?

I feel so badly for women seeking help to cope with complex and distressing situations in their lives, bravely laying their necks on the chopping block, with the phrase “no bashing, please”.  What often follows is a chorus of replies offering variations on a theme or two:

“RUN!”

“You knew what you were signing up for.”

“Faith first, marriage second, children third.”

“They can do what I tell them or leave. It’s my house, my rules.”

“You should love your step kids as your own.”

When you ask for help from a group of women who are statistically headed for disaster, you have to be really prudent about who to listen to! I would suggest that comments like the ones above are at best not helpful, even if well-intentioned.

If you’re looking for advice, you want to hear from someone who’s been in a similar situation, willing to share what they did and how that worked out for them. You don’t want to give a forum to people who just want to theorize about what they would do in your place. You need news from those who have already been down that road and can describe the landscape over the next hill.

I’m not the only experienced stepmom online who takes pleasure in doing that for others. I know lots of them. This feels like important work to us. I feel proud to be among them.

BTW, here’s what I finally wrote:

“I think you did share. He got two and you got two. I’m not sure why you said you didn’t want to share instead of explaining that his two cookies were now inside his tummy and your two cookies were still outside your tummy. The sharing already happened.”

I had to share this little cookie story because it totally relates to “sharing” the parenting of your partner’s kids. If they have a living mother, the sharing has already happened. None of that responsibility belongs to you simply by virtue of your relationship with him.  It was all his before you got together, probably even before you knew him. His kids don’t want you to take any of it from him anyway. Whatever you choose to do to help him with the hard work of caring for kids is your gift, it’s not your job. If he thinks it’s your job, you need to share a plate of cookies and have a talk.

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