How to Begin a Marriage As a New Stepmother
Stepmothers can have a hard time of settling into a ready-made family when the routines are new, the children are harboring mixed feelings, and the future expectations are unclear. It's a good idea to think ahead as to how you'd like things to be, as well as being prepared to be flexible and open-minded in order to achieve total family buy-in.
- Make a plan for how you'd like things to be. Write this down on paper and list your own wants, needs, and goals. Consider which of these might coincide with how things are already running in the family you have married into, and those things that will be completely novel for them. Know which items are non-negotiable, either for you or your husband, and where there is more flexibility.
- Discuss this plan with your new husband and come to joint arrangements on how the two of you expect things to play out. At all times, show a united front; don't create the good cop, bad cop routine as this is unfair to both parents, and creates schisms in the family. It is also important to discuss discipline and the beliefs surrounding this, as well as how the step-parent will handle particular situations in which the biological parent may be seen as the more appropriate discipline giver.
- Talk with the family. Depending on the ages of the children, there will need to be different approaches taken. Talk to teens as if they were young adults and ask them what they expect; respect their wishes to the extent that these can be accommodated and consider ways that everyone can compromise where their wishes clash with yours. For younger kids, it is also important to let them talk about what they'd like to happen and to see how some of their wishes can be included in the future arrangements. In both cases, it is important to listen for things that are not being said, as much as for the things that are said.
- Trial-run new routines. Let everyone know the importance of assuming new routines as quickly as possible but also explain that there is a great deal of flexibility in suggested routines until everyone feels settled into the new family. This permits changes of direction as needed and reduces the potential for conflict when children realize that if a suggestion doesn't work, it is not set in concrete unless it is an issue of personal safety or health.
- Always be an active listener and be available to talk. Being there for the kids will impress them from the moment they get to know you; they will feel happier and more comfortable around you, and come to you. With teens, don't try and act smarter than they are, or know-all, or even too friendly – just be a friend, a listener, and don't judge them.
- Avoid giving off the impression that you don't want to mother the new children. If you married into a new family with the hope that the children might just "go away", then you married for the wrong reasons. Your husband's first responsibility is to his children, and his second is to you. If your new marriage responsibilities mean new children, you have no choice but to make the most of the situation. If the children sense your reticence, this will create a lot of resentfulness and challenges for you.
- Avoid being too motherly. First and foremost, remember that you are not the mother of these children - no matter how much you, your husband or the children might wish it were so. Things will go much smoother and easier for all of you if you keep in mind that you will need (at least in the beginning) to walk a fine line between being the kind, caring and loving parental figure, and a good and trusted friend. If you attempt to be too motherly, the children may perceive that you are attempting to "replace" their mother, and this may engender hostility or resentment toward you.
- Avoid being the disciplinarian. If you are the stepmother, it is wisest to allow your husband to discipline his own children. You are free to tell the kids that any behaviors that need addressing will be discussed with their father, and then to do so. Sometimes, (especially) older kids and teens will push envelopes, either consciously or subconsciously. In those cases, you'll have to decide whether to take it up with their father or not. Whether you do or not, insist that your husband be the one to mete out punishments and or rewards - if he does it, the children will not hold it against him. If you do it, you risk being seen as the harpy who stole their father from them. His children are ultimately his responsibility. Don't get between your husband and his kids.
- Show your love openly for their father. This will always win over kids' hearts.
- Be compassionate and fair. If you have children of your own coming into the marriage, be sure to treat all the children fairly and as evenly as you can. Talk to your own children in advance about the importance of fitting in to the new family and extol the benefits of their being a part of this new family. Don't threaten them and don't deny them access to their real father unless there are valid legal reasons for doing so. Remember that if one set of children visits, rather than living with you, make them feel as much at home as possible without favoring them overly. But do make sure they feel welcome, no matter what. Making the visitors feel like intruders is a sure way to set them against the children who live with you, and/or against you or your husband, or both.
- Create new family traditions without forgetting the old. If your husband's children are used to having Thanksgiving dinner with their mother, encourage them to continue that tradition without feeling guilty. But then, invite them to come to dinner another day of the long weekend (unless they are going out of town). Instead of having turkey, make spaghetti, or another favorite dish - make this your annual Thanksgiving dinner at dad's.
- Give the children some time alone with their father from time to time. Suggest that your husband take the kids off to the beach or to an amusement park for the day. Even a few hours of alone time with Dad can let the kids know that they haven't "lost" him to you and any kids you brought to the new family. Rather than complaining or being bitter about being left alone, create a fun family dinner for when they return, or if they won't be home for dinner, make it breakfast, assuming they're coming home to spend the night (rather than Dad taking them straight to their mom's) - or just make it a game or movie night, this time including you in the fun. The important thing, regardless of your living arrangements, is not to monopolize the children's father every second of their lives. Encouraging them to spend time together without you is generous and will strengthen your marriage, the children's perception that you are not a threat, and the children's relationship with their father - it's a win all the way around.
- Don't attempt to discipline children that are not your own. Except for the very mildest things ("Please don't touch those," or "It's time to turn off the TV now.") you should insist your husband deal with issues concerning his children.
- Don't make the mistake of thinking that all decisions regarding discipline need to be made at the instant a problem is discovered. No decision (except to put a stop to the behavior or issue) is best served by reacting. Talk with your husband about steps you will take to resolve any issues that arise - this includes disrespect toward you by the children, such as backtalking. Instead of going off and pronouncing sentence on the kids (which may not stick, later, and will only contribute to the problems), just say, "Okay, that's enough of that for now - I'll talk to your dad and we'll decide if it's okay for you to do that. I'll have Dad let you know. But for now, I would want you to stop." It's simple, it's not screaming or flying off the handle, and it stops the behavior without a fight. You and your husband can discuss it later - out of earshot of the offending child. Then your husband can go and approach the child about it - know that your husband will now hear the child's version of what happened, so it's best if your version is not overly hysterical or embellished. Try to recount the situation as factually and objectively as possible. Then explain why it bothers you. Let your husband decide what the next step will be - but make sure he clues you in before he talks to the kid. Ask him to debrief you after, as well. This way, you have good communication with your husband, and you are both aware of what will happen next. You may not agree, but you need to let your husband decide, and abide by his decision.