Stumbling Through Step-parenting: Navigating Mom Limbo With Grace & Humor

The role of stepmom can be challenging, heartbreaking – and very rewarding.  The hardest part – it’s a role that comes without a road map. Sometimes the smallest gesture makes all the difference. 

Years ago, newly married and in search of holiday gifts for my family, I stopped into a lovely little jewelry shop in Palo Alto.  I wanted to find something special for each of my stepdaughters, unique gifts that would appeal to their distinctive personalities, and the woman who owned the store helped me.  As we browsed we made small talk, and quickly discovered we were both stepmoms, although it was clear the owner had far more years of experience than I did.

After I'd completed my purchase, she held out a container of tiny marble hearts that sat next to the cash register and said, "Choose a heart for yourself, my treat." As I was searching for one, she added, "You know, it's not always easy being a stepmom. Remember to be kind to yourself, and give yourself a break now and then, too."

A seemingly small moment, but one that stayed with me.  Over the years, I've come to realize what she was oh-so-gently trying to tell me.  I was still in the starry-eyed honeymoon phase, both with my husband and his daughters.  She didn't want to spoil that idyll, but still found a way to share some words of wisdom for when the inevitable challenges began to emerge. 

Step-parenting can be difficult to navigate, with few role models and no roadmaps to guide the way.  Stepmothers don't hold a position of significance, affection or respect in our culture.  Just think of all of those fairy tales we read as children!  We may know that our lives don't map to the stereotype.  But the outsider status inherent in a role that essentially intrudes on a pre-existing family unit is unavoidable.  It just goes with the territory.

Two key challenges define my step-parenting life.  First, I am a fulltime stepmom.  And second, I am exclusively a stepmom.  I didn't have children "of my own", so my role is defined solely as a ‘bonus' parent, albeit one who is actively engaged 24/7. 

I call it ‘Mom Limbo,' the ‘no man's land' of motherhood. No matter how significant a part you play, there will always be only one Mother in every child's life.  If you are a stepmom, it's not you, and understandably so.  That is how it should be.

But you're not not a mother, either (I know, grammatically incorrect, but ‘not not' is a perfect expression of that awkward state of limbo that I'm talking about).  

I do all of the things that "real Moms" do. I attend Back to School Nights and school plays, nag about homework and chores, hover when they get sick and obsess over college applications. My heart breaks when either girl faces a crushing disappointment, and soars when they're joyful. But for the most part, my participation feels like it happens from the sidelines of life.

My older stepdaughter is 25 now.  As she entered her 20's, I think she started to realize how it felt to be in my shoes. On a recent Mother's Day, she surprised me with a card that acknowledged that in a funny and touching way. 

The card has an image on the front of a happy, smiling family circa 1970's, posing for an official family portrait.  You know, the kind of photo you see in your Facebook feed on #throwbackThursdays. Over the Mother's head is a thought bubble that says, "Who ARE these people?"  Inside, the message reads, "Thanks for claiming us as your own."

It generated a genuine laugh out loud moment.  Another seemingly small gesture, yet it too has stuck with me.  The card was moving and  meaningful because it said, 'I get it.'   The perfect Mother's Day sentiment for someone struggling to navigate the stepparent's no man's land of ‘Mom limbo'.  I keep it in a memento box, along with a small blue marble heart from that little jewelry shop in Palo Alto. 

Join the Conversation

Are you a stepparent (or bonus parent, as I sometimes prefer to call it)?  

Have you sometimes looked around and thought, "Who are these people?"  

What advice would you offer to others?