Let’s Talk About Step-Parenting

Top lifestyle blogger, Design Mom, shares her thoughts on step-parenting: picture of a family going up some stairs in a public garden

Top lifestyle blogger, Design Mom, shares her thoughts on step-parenting: picture of a family going up some stairs in a public garden

The other day I was chatting with a friend about step-parents, and step-siblings, and step-grandparents. I noticed my brain does such an odd thing when the topic of step-pareting comes up. I immediately think: I don’t know anything about step-relationships; they’re unfamiliar to me, not really part of my life. And then there’s a follow-up thought: What are you even talking about? You grew up with step-grandparents, you have a step-dad right this minute, and you have TEN step-siblings.

So weird, right? Not sure where it comes from, but clearly there’s a part of my brain that really wants nothing to do with step-parenting. And it’s extra weird, because the step-relationships in my life have only been positive.

My dad’s parents were divorced, and both remarried. So I grew up with three sets of grandparents. I never thought of Grandma Daisy or Grandpa Charlie as step-grandparents, they were just grandparents.

After my own father passed away (21 years ago), my mother remarried. Her husband’s name is Roger and he’s terrific. They have a sweet story. Mom and Rog knew each other in high school — they even have prom pictures. Both went off to college and married other people. Then, twenty-five years later, both of them suffered a huge loss when their spouses died — diabetes and cancer. They reconnected as singles and have now been married almost 20 years.

I love Roger and am so glad he’s in our family — he’s kind and helpful and calm and fun to talk to and a good sport and really dependable. Interestingly, I’ve never thought of him as my step-dad. I suppose because I was already grown and gone by the time he joined our crew. I think of him as my Mom’s husband, and my kids’ grandpa (he’s such a good grandpa!). He’s definitely a father-figure to me — someone I would go to for advice or assistance, but I don’t think of him as my dad.

Roger has 10 kids. My mom has 8 kids. So together they have a pretty epic crew. I think when they first married there was an idea that perhaps both families would get together as one big group from time to time, but that hasn’t happened. Since everyone in both families was mostly grown when Mom and Rog married, both families have pretty much kept their own family cultures. Which means I have 10 step-siblings (plus their spouses and kids), but I don’t know them very well. 

My personal observations on step-parenting:

– It seems like step-dads are more accepted than step-moms. I think we have a strong anti-step-mom streak in our culture, going back to fairy tales like Cinderella. At the same time, I think that in my lifetime, the idea of step-moms has become more comfortable for people. So that seems like good news — maybe we’re overcoming our step-mom prejudice.

– I don’t know anyone who refers to their step-grandparents as step-grandparents. The step seems to drop off and disappear for grandparents. They’re just grandparents no matter what the actual relationship to the grandkids are. That’s been true in my life, and true in my kids’ lives, and I would hope it’s true for everyone. I like the idea of the grandparent-grandkid relationship getting a clean slate with no baggage.

– It seems like step-relationships look very different if you’ve lived with each other in the same house for many years. Which makes sense. If a step-sibling or step-parent comes into your life when you’re already an adult who has moved out of your childhood home, the relationship might not play an impactful role in your life.

– The step-parent relationship seems more fraught to me if the first spouse is still living. For example, I don’t have to think about how my relationship with Roger might affect my relationship with my father. 

How about you? Do you have step-relationships in your life? What is step-parenting like in your home? Do any of my observations ring true for you? Or have your experiences been totally different? I’m especially curious about the step-grandparent observation — do you drop the ‘step’ for your grandparents too?

P.S. — Still processing thoughts about election results — and then saw that Sessions was fired! What a week.

86 thoughts on “Let’s Talk About Step-Parenting”

  1. I have no “step” relations in my life, but I find the “step” title a bit off-putting for some reason, especially when it comes to young children having it and most especially when a blended family has his, hers, and ours children. If there must be a distinction at all in that case, can we use “bonus” instead? Bonus-daughter or bonus-son? (I feel like I’m going to get walloped on this one. . .)

    1. I like the idea of “bonus” instead as a more positive spin, but as someone who does have a “step” relationship, I’ll say that people’s experiences of those relationships can vary so widely! To some, they are getting a “bonus” mom or daughter or son. But other people carry a lot of pain behind those new relationships if their “step” came from a divorce. There may have been infidelity, court-room battles, abuse, or other factors that make getting that ‘step’ quite traumatic. (Hope you don’t feel walloped! :)

    2. I once read that “Step-parents step up when the real parent steps down.” I absolutely love that. It’s so true for me. My dad hasn’t always been there for me and when he wasn’t there, my step-dad stepped up <3

      1. Jacqueline Kearney

        Currently, there is a Swedish show on Netflix called “Bonus Family”. The show is terrific. I would highly recommend it. It accurately depicts the bonus family situation. It’s a dramedy.

  2. I know nothing about step relationships, but assume, like any relationship, they are complex and unique. As always, I appreciate you striking up the conversation.
    That said- I can’t wait to hear your thoughts on the election! After CNN, you were my internet stop!

  3. Really interesting thoughts on step-relationships. My parents divorced only 9 years ago, and my dad remarried 7 years ago to a woman who doesn’t have kids of her own. The dynamic of being older definitely held true for my sister and me–we never felt that she was a “mom” in any sense of the word. That has recently changed, though.

    My dad died in June, and we have connected pretty deeply to my stepmother through the process of him dying (we call cared for him physically together) and the aftermath (including her needing help with the funeral, moving, and going through his stuff). I have started calling her my “step mother” quite naturally now (I NEVER even used that word before).

    For myself, I have become more comfortable with “step mom” but I am still not comfortable with her as “grandmother” or even “step grandma” to my kids. I think it comes from a desire to protect my kids from any of the drama of my parents’ divorce. Also, having no kids of her own, she doesn’t relate to them particularly well (she’s not mean–just doesn’t know what to do with them). I don’t think she would see herself in the role of “grandma” either.

  4. I have soooo many thoughts on this subject, as I became a step mom a few years ago. It is such a fraught topic with a historic stigma that might be less today, but is still very much alive. The mother figure is a powerful archetype, and someone who is seen as stepping into that role isn’t always regarded positively. And it’s not always intentional, I think it’s based on unexamined predispositions. I married in my early 40s and didn’t have any children of my own, which adds another layer of complication – like, who is this woman who doesn’t have her own children (just a person who decided not to have children)? Is she trying to steal someone else’s family (Like, totally no.)? I love my step sons, who live with us 50% of the week, and have grown to love them. I would not say that I love them like my own children because I don’t have my own children. I love them like people, like people who are very dear to me. My younger step son has told me that he thinks of me as a person who is a mother (it was an adorable moment), and I think to the older one, I’m a trusted adult who he loves. I also take very seriously that I’m with their dad, who they adore, and they’re watching us be a couple, and they’ll learn from that.

    In terms of having the other biological parent around, I have heard a lot of accounts of people being amicable or friendly with each other, which is so heartening, and some that aren’t so great. My step son’s mother doesn’t acknowledge me, and that’s ok. Even though she’s remarried, I image that m presence might be hard for her. I welcome when the boys talk about her.

    I have read so many accounts of parenthood that say that there is no road map in motherhood, but there really is no road map in step motherhood. It has been a process of slowly letting things unfold and having patience in that.

    1. Meg – I appreciate your thoughts on this as my circumstances are nearly identical. I met my partner when I was 40 with no children (an intentional choice) and, at 41, moved him with him and his two boys (ages 5 & 8) a few months ago. The boys live with him full-time and see their mom who lives out of state 1-2 weekends a months. It’s been surprising how many people – even ones who KNEW I didn’t want children – ask me excitedly about whether my ‘mothering instincts’ have now come out, as if I didn’t ever truly know that I did actually want children. The boys are very sweet and have accepted me into the fold, though my desire/need for structure and organization has been interesting to experience as it interacts with their significantly less structured home before I entered it. I wrestle with the reality that they already have two parents who love them and who have parented them in ways I may not necessarily have done myself, and yet I’m an adult in our shared home who is affected by their behavior. It’s can be so, so tricky, at times, to navigate that strange role. There really is no road map, though at times I wish there were.

    2. Thank you for the post and these comments!

      Meg, you and I are in similar circumstances. I married my husband when I was 38, had no kids but he had 2. I do love them so much. One boy, one girl. Not easy at all. All of the challenges you stated above, I shared.

      One other thing I’ve really noticed is many of my friends (and even family) don’t consider that I have children.Their mother is still their mother and their father is still their father but I consider them my children as well. They both know that I’m another mother in their life (3 parents to love and support them is the way we say it) but many people I know don’t think of me that way. Overall, that’s fine, it’s what is best for our family that matters but I’d be lying if I didn’t say it hurts when outsiders don’t acknowledge them as being part of my family.

  5. I had a step-grandma. Although we occasionally referred to her as our “step” grandma, she was truly our grandma. As in your family, she married my grandpa after their kids had all grown up and following my biological grandma’s death before most of us grandkids were old enough to remember any of that. Since my other grandma was never in my life, Grandma Jeri has just always grandma and we cherished her as a part of our family. We know some of her kids and their families well, less so others. Grandma Jeri passed away a month ago, and many people commented on how wonderful it was that both sides of the family came together to remember her. Our two combined families filled the first 4 pews (on both sides!) in the church at her funeral. We are determined to keep the relationship between the two families going, and have already set up a family reunion between the two sides next year. We may not be related to blood, but Grandma Jeri brought us all together, and we’re very thankful for that.

  6. We have a his/mine/ours family with 6 kids and 13 grands. In our family sometimes the kids include the step prefix with us parents and sometimes not- it really depends on who they are talking to. If it’s a person that knows their other parent, I think they use it to differentiate us from their other parent. If it’s with people that are close to us and don’t know the other parent they usually don’t. None of our kids use step or half prefix with each other, which fills my heart with joy. They are all loving and supportive of each other. None of the grands use the step prefix, to them we are just grandma and grandpa <3

  7. I grew up with a “step-grandfather,” but I was well into adolescence before I really understood that he wasn’t my mom’s father. As you describe, he was just “Grandpa” to us.

    My parents divorced when I was 9, and both later remarried. My mom remarried when I was 10, less than a year after the divorce, and we had a pretty good relationship with my stepfather. (Our father had primary custody of us, and we only saw my mom and stepdad for periodic visitation; we didn’t live with them.) He had his own daughters from a previous marriage and was always clear that he didn’t want to try and be a second father to us.

    My dad remarried when I was 18 and already in college. My relationship with his wife/my stepmother has been challenging, to put it mildly. They have been married for over 25 years, and my relationship with her has not improved over time, for reasons WAY too long to go into in a blog comment.

    My sons (age 6) never knew my stepfather — he died before they were born — but we have never referred to my stepmother as their “step-grandmother.” She’s just Nana. Although one of my sons must have heard that term from a peer because he mentioned to me several months ago that Nana is his “step-grandmother” and Bubbe (my mom) and Grandma (my MIL) are his “real” grandmas.

    1. It’s so good to hear about your sons’ relationship with their grandparents. My relationship with my dad’s wife is complicated but has gotten a lot better over time. Neither my sister nor I have kids yet but my goal is for our kids to just have three grandparents and not the somewhat awkward relationship that I have.

  8. My mom married several times; our bio-dad was husband #2, whom she divorced literally before i was born. She had relationships and marriages after and in between, so my childhood was full of ‘step’ or other titles for new people in the house. when she married a new man we immediately took his last name without regard to legalities. We never called anyone “step…..” just “dad”.

    When she married the last one he also was just “dad” and he never used “step” to introduce us to anyone.

    A few years ago, I came home to a voicemail… “Hi my name is …. and I think we have the same biological father….” We talked and yes, her dad is my bio-dad and now I have an extra set of twin sisters! The one who called is happy to know me and wants a relationship with myself and my siblings; her twin is still not fully on board.

    To me, more is always more. In Christmas decorations or family. I am glad my dad “stepped” in when the biological father was absent (I never knew him at all), and I am happy to know I have 2 more sisters!

  9. And for another discussion perhaps—- half-brothers and sisters. Are they to be considered “half” forever even if only a few years apart—-grew up together? (Can you sense that this is an issue in our family?!)

    1. Oh, Mary! I halted my comment reading to say that I would love more discussion of this.

      I am a daughter to a couple who met while enlisted and who chose not to marry. My mom married my dad in my first year of life and we have a beautiful and traditional family that includes my (forever and always) “baby” sister who is seven years younger than me.

      We are perfection on paper and pretty close to perfection in reality. But I know my bio father as an adult and I don’t carry my mom’s hurt, just the recognition that he did hurt her. He’s pretty great, though.

      And I have a half brother. I don’t know him well- really, at all. But I want to. Who is he to me? My brother, as my sister is? In a moment of honesty, my sister begged me not to call him brother because she has lived and grown with me and she feels that we deserve a distinction. But I don’t think that our absence of choice should make us half people to one another? It’s so complicated.

      Perhaps the context of my “half” makes this more loaded than typical, but I struggle with it. Love is a whole concept and I’ve loved him since knowing he existed. He’s part of me and I am part of him. Why does that have to be defined differently?

    2. Mary I grew up with a half sister and brother and in my case, no there is absolutely no differentiation.

      It might be partly because my mum married my stepdad when I was 2 and there’s an age gap of less than 4 years between my sister and I. Or because I call my stepdad ‘Dad’ and always have – he’s my father in all true senses and I changed my name to his.

      But in adulthood we view each other as siblings and I doubt most of my friends or acquaintances would remember we’re not full siblings.

    3. Oh yes. Half-siblings! I would say they are very much a part of this step-relationships conversation.

      My father had a half sibling from his dad, and 3 half siblings from his mom — from two different men. He grew up mostly in his dad’s house and was very close to his half-brother that also grew up in the same house. I think he only thought of him as a brother, not a half-brother. He spent less time with his 3 half-siblings that grew up in his mom’s house, and I’m not sure if he thought of them as full siblings or half siblings. Interestingly, all 4 of his half siblings act to me and my siblings and full aunts and uncles. We adore all of them. I forget sometimes they are technically half siblings to my father because they were never really introduced that way to us.

  10. I really enjoyed this post! My parents married when my mom was 24 and my dad was a 35 year old widower wth two daughters. The girls came to live with my mom as soon as they married and my parents went on to have three girls together. We are all in our 50’s and 60’s and none of us have ever thought of or referred to each other as step sisters, and my mother always says she has 5 daughters and 8 grandchildren never differentiating.

  11. This is a topic with so much angst for me. My mom is recently on marriage number 3, but married someone it’s thought she was unfaithful with. To say we’re having a hard time accepting him is an understatement. They have visions of all of their (adult) kids being together. We have no interest. Being around him is difficult enough. We don’t have a lot of interest in our kids spending time with him either. A bad marriage number two plus the circumstances surrounding the most recent marriage has created some pretty strong boundaries. My dad remarried for a time to a woman who had children close in age to my own, but she wanted to try to mother me and my adult brothers. It was also a horrible experience. I’m glad to know there can be good step relationships, because my experiences prove the opposite and probably help perpetuate the stereotypes.

  12. I love this topic!

    My family has “steps” of all sorts. My parents divorced when I was very young, and both remarried before my 6th birthday.

    My mother’s next marriage lasted 25 years, and I grew up primarily with my mother and stepfather. My stepfather is a dad equally to my father – he raised me, supported me, and provided for me daily. Though he and my mother have divorced, he remains a dad to me. My stepdad’s family of origin is quite complex as well – kids coming in from adoptions, fostering, births, marriages and remarriages. We joke that it’s a one-way door into stepdad’s extended family – you can get in (through birth, marriage, or luck), but once you’re in we’re keeping you for good! As a kid, that was an incredible thing – to have confidence that no matter what happened among the adults, the extended family network was YOURS, for good, and no ranking of belonging-ness.

    My father remains married to my stepmother, and they are coming up on their 35th wedding anniversary. I have a stepbrother and stepsister through this relationship – and they have steps and halfs on the other side, through their father’s later partnerships. We’re a giant web of a family! While I grew up spending only summers with them, we really care for each other. However, I have no full or half siblings, and therefore have no sense of how to compare step-sibling relationships to other sibling relationships. My stepmother and I had a hard time when I was a kid – mostly because we’re just very, very different people. But she’s an absolutely amazing mother to me as an adult – she believes that parenting an adult means being happy that they’re happy, and that as long as her “kids” are healthy and independent and happy she has no need to judge what kind of life leads them to their happiness.

    My surviving parents get along quite well. My dad is so thankful to my stepdad for being a good father to me, and being able to be there for me. It’s bittersweet, because I grew up physically far from my dad, but we’re beyond the point of regret – the current relationship is the one that matters.

    All of these step-relationships, in the end, are just like every other relationship in my life – they’re all about the long game. No matter how difficult the moments, if we’re lucky, all relationships are built from moments that accumulate into years, and into trust.

    1. Oh! And I have an adulthood-acquired “stepmother” in my stepfather’s new partner. She’s lovely, and I’m so glad she’s joined the family. She doesn’t feel like a “mother,” and I do think that’s related to my age (mid-30s) when she arrived on the scene (and the fact that we live 2,000 miles apart). But what a blessing, to have another person to love arrive on the scene.

  13. I don’t have any “steps” but my husband does, and I know others who do. I think so much depends on the circumstances leading to the remarriage (as someone else mentioned above–e.g., a fraught divorce, infidelity, a traumatic death, etc.) but also, if the step and the bio parent end up having a family of their own, it can end up seeming to the kids–especially if they’re young–like a new, replacement family. That’s pretty tough. And parenting among the three or four people responsible for those kids can be really awkward, especially as the kids learn to play them off one another. I’m really curious if anyone is able to do it well!

  14. Hoo boy. First of all, I want to say that you are always so open and intelligent when you begin a discussion such as this one, and I really appreciate the way you approach and moderate subjects that hold a great deal of complexity.

    And now for the story that no one wants to hear, but about which everyone is always curious. I have posted a comment here before which alluded to all of this, but I will give more backstory, since the topic is what I live with every single day. I apologize in advance for the length of this.

    My husband and I have known one another for years, and were friends long before we were married to one another. We have been married for two and a half years, and we have been in a relationship for five years. Our children, ages 12-15, have known one another since they were very little. I have one son, my husband has two sons. I had an extremely low-conflict divorce, my husband had an outrageously high-conflict divorce. This is obvious by how our sons have taken to their respective step-parents.

    I have never led my son to believe anything terrible about his father. His father and I are friendly with one another, we meet up at school events, we chat and joke around with one another during pick ups and drop offs, and we never bad mouth one another. My son is a happy, laid-back kid, and he has a great relationship with both his father and his step-father, because he has never been led to believe that he had to choose one over the other, or that feeling affectionate and comfortable with his step-father was somehow a blow towards his relationship with his dad.

    My two step-sons have been emotionally abused by their mother since birth. My husband divorced their mother because of her emotional abuse, and she, obviously, used the divorce to punish everyone around her as much as possible. My husband is the recipient of, and I am not exaggerating here, DAILY text messages and phone calls from his ex-wife, wherein she screams at him, accuses him of being abusive, and threatens him with various lawsuits. My husband has been to court twice to fight for custody and time with his sons, and we now have them 50% of the time, but my husband does not have legal custody of them. The second time my husband went to court for his children, it was due to a letter that his older son, who was 12 at the time, wrote to the State, requesting his own lawyer to represent him because he did not feel safe at his mother’s house and wanted to live with us instead. My husband was STILL not allowed legal custody, or even joint custody, of his children (the state where we live has extremely outdated views on parenting, and never awards men custody of their children).

    When we got married, all our children were excited and encouraged. We take trips together, we make a point to eat dinner together as a family, and my husband and I make sure that we support each child’s interests and feelings. My husband and I make every effort possible to make certain that all of our children are living in a safe environment when in our home. Over time, as my step-sons have been more and more emotionally manipulated and abused by their mother, our efforts have become futile.

    My older step-son used used to come to me for advice, and he and I had a very close and trusting relationship. Close to a year ago, he started withdrawing, but was still asking for my support and help with things. About six months ago, he stopped saying as much as “hello” to me, and he has informed both me and his father that it was, in fact, me who ruined his childhood, because his mother has blamed their divorce on me, and told him that their “perfect marriage” was ruined by an affair (it seems obvious but important to point out that this is a lie). When my older step-son is not refusing to speak to me or acknowledge me, he is instead making a point to tell me that whatever I am saying is wrong. Literally, anything at all: music, geography, the weather–anything. Though my step-son has seen firsthand his mother’s rage, anger, abuse, and lies, he has now told us that he doesn’t remember a time when she was ever mean to him, and that any instances of abuse simply never happened. He has decided to ignore the reality of his own life. Whether this is because of self preservation, survival, or being a 15-year-old, it is still what is happening.

    My younger step-son has the same anger as his mother, and, as a result of that same narcissistic gene, he is not able to see his own anger, but acknowledges that his mother is a very angry and dangerous person, and tells his dad that he is very unhappy at his mother’s house. It is nearly crippling to see how sad and hurt my younger step-son is by his mother, while also knowing that, in just two years time, he will most likely take the same path as his older brother and take all of his mother’s gas lighting in exchange for the money and gifts she gives them as bribes to forget her behavior (for instance, she just gave my younger step-son $100 for losing one of his molars. He then asked us what we were going to give him, and blanched when we said that the days of tooth fairy money were long gone. He is twelve).

    My son adores my husband. My husband adores my son. I adore my husband. I used to feel quite close to my step-sons, but now I feel very hesitant to establish an emotional relationship with them. Seeing how a lifetime of abuse has turned them into willing manipulators has made me feel completely helpless, as well as extremely wary of developing any sort of emotional attachment to them. I now feel like I have to exist in survival mode, rather than in a mind frame of being part of a family. I have always known that the step-mother relationship is an uphill battle, since one is always accused of either doing too much (“How dare you act like their mother!”) or too little (“How dare you not treat those children like family!”), but I never thought that it would be so wounding and hurtful.

    My husband and I see a family counselor, to help us work through the challenges that come from co-parenting with an ex who has obvious, untreated mental illness. Our counselor is very supportive and insists that we are doing the right thing by continuing to be supportive of our children and showing them what a stable, kind, relationship looks like, but, to be honest, I am feeling a level of burn out that is worrisome. Being under constant attack, by an ex-wife, by a step-son, is slowly eating away at my soul and ever so steadily hollowing me out inside. I feel like Sisyphus, only the rock is crushing me.

    1. Elizabeth, I am so sorry you are living with this on a daily basis. I have a few friends/relatives dealing with spousal exes who sound very similar to your husband’s ex and even from afar it’s clear how exhausting and terribly unjust the situation is – particularly, as you mention, when there are outdated parental custody attitudes and policies at play! Praying for you to find what you need to be whole and healthy in this situation.

    2. Oh Elizabeth. It sounds like the situation is understandably exhausting. I’m so sorry you’re having to endure this. I hope your step sons can come out of their teens with a different perspective.

    3. Please don’t withdraw. Please keep showing up in the most positive and loving way you can- even if that means biting your tongue until it bleeds and being the recipient of a lot of anger/hurt.

      As the adult child of a high conflict divorce, I can tell you they will eventually grow up, and look back on all of this and have to wrestle with the reality of it. Loving a parent who is toxic to your life is so, so hard. You can’t wrap your head around them as the “bad” parent for a variety of reasons, but at the most fundamental level, it is because you will always love them no matter what they have done. Loving them, and knowing they are not great people causes so much internal conflict and anger, which it sounds like your stepsons are beginning to process (in addition to being teenagers, this is not easy).

      I am in my 30’s and still working through these issues so I do not pass them onto my own children. As an adult, I am reprocessing most of my childhood through a new lens and it is hard to dig into the trauma inflicting by the adults in your life who were supposed to love unconditionally, you more than anything else. Accepting that my parents love me, but they hated each other more is an everyday process.

      Just keep showing up. Don’t make them identify mom as bad/dad as good even in subtle ways by discussing the past behavior. Give them space to be angry that this is the reality of their life, and love them anyway.

  15. The acceptance of the step-parent roughly follows gender, I think. About 75% of step-dads are accepted. “He’s not bad. An OK dude.” But less than 25% feel good about step-moms. “She’s a gold-digger. Too strict. A witch. Comes between me and my dad.”

    A mother’s place is so intimate and so powerful that any sort of substitute is intolerable–for any of us.

  16. You’re right about the stigma. I mean, what starry eyed little girl says wistfully, “I hope I grow up to be a step-mother!”

  17. I met my husband when his children were 7 and 9. I refer to myself as their step mum, and them as my step kids partly because I am not their Mum but also because it’s the correct term that people understand (I’m not a bonus Mum for example). My parents refer to the kids as their grandchildren and don’t differentiate between bio and step grandkids, but the bio grandkids call my parents Grandma and Grandpa, and the step grandkids call my parents by their first names – it was how they were introduced when my now husband and I were first dating, but I’m sure my parents would love to be called Grandma and Grandpa by all their grandchildren! Thanks for the topic. I hope to read more on the experience of being part of a step family. It’s tough work and there are so many feelings and tough situations to navigate.

  18. Interesting to read your thoughts on this! My parents divorced when I was 5 years old and both remarried (and my mom has since divorced again). My relationship with my stepmom was always easier than the one with my stepdad – as she was more maternal and easier to relate to – so I never felt any prejudice towards her as a stepmother. The hardest part about living with stepparents was the lack of choice in the matter, no matter their good intentions. And its just a different dynamic – I never felt I could be as open or as direct with my stepparents and it felt stifling and uncomfortable at times (especially in the hormonal years ;). One time I accidentally called my dad by my stepdads name and THAT was very awkward.

    I have 3 half brothers but I just think of them as my brothers – I only occasionally use the “half” term to explain the circumstances. I don’t have step-grandparents, but I do have the parents of my step-parents… I just call them by their names :) When I think about my future children, I definitely foresee my kids having a special relationship with both my dad and stepmom, but I do see a difference between her role and my mom’s. I think it would be nice for my stepmom to have a special name of some sort, but not grandma.

  19. My mother died when I was an adult and my Dad remarried a wonderful lady. I never call her my step-mom but I do call them “my parents” in general conversation to those who didn’t know my mom.
    She has adult children my age and as we began to have children the naming of relationships became tricky. My sister and I don’t view our step-siblings as Aunty or Uncle to our children. My mom would have been called Grandma, so I balked when my step-mom wanted to be called that. My step-mom is generous in her naming and delighted to add to her family. So this summer we had an awkward conversation where I had to tell her we didn’t want to call her children Aunty and Uncle or be called that by her biological grandchildren. They are good people, but we see them once a year and I don’t even know their children’s birthdates.
    So, as happy as I am for my Dad, it’s hard.

    1. My Mom’s Mom died when my Mom was in her 20s and her Dad remarried when I was around 5 and like you, my Mom didn’t want us to call her Grandma. So we’ve called her “Grandma Ginny” for 30 years. Somehow that was easier for my Mom and her sister to handle than just plain “Grandma”. (Though had she been alive, my Mom’s Mom would have been called MomMom as many Grandma’s are called in their area). We do not really interact with Ginny’s children and grandchildren and do not call them Aunt/Uncle. It’s strange but I still feel like Ginny is a new addition to our family while she has now been married to PopPop longer than my MomMom.

  20. My mom died suddenly when I was 25, and my dad got remarried 7 months later to one of her best friends. It was fast! I’ve never felt comfortable calling her step mom, but soon after they were married I had my first daughter so we’ve just called her grandma ever since – sometimes I’ll say my dad’s wife. It’s a unique circumstance because she knew my mom longer than my dad did, so she tells my kids all about my mom which is cool in a way.
    Also, my grandma remarried after years of being a widow so we got step-grandpa Ray. Then my grandma died, and Ray got remarried, so we got step-step grandma Joan! Ray has since passed away, but Joan is still close by so we like to say step-step-great-grandma Joan. What a title!

  21. What an interesting discussion! I grew up with a stepmom and two step-siblings, and love them all dearly. My parents divorced when I was about 3 and my sister 1–too young to remember them together (it seems really odd to me that they were ever married in the first place, having grown up knowing them separately). My dad remarried when I was 5, and my stepmom came into the marriage with 2 kids of her own who were in high school, over 10 years older than my sister and I. I always remember loving her, and loving my step sister and step brother. They babysat us sometimes, but being so far apart in age we didn’t necessarily grow super close. I wasn’t really old enough to know much about the relationship between my step mom and my mom, but I do know there was tension between all 3 of my parents (for the most part they were fairly good at keeping us kids out of it).

    My dad and stepmom have been married now for over 30 years, and I can’t imagine my family or my life without her. She’s been such an important part of it, I 100% consider her family and value her as another mother figure. My mom died about 5 years ago, and having her in my life during that time and since has been such a gift. Although I don’t see my stepsiblings as much as I’d like to, now that we’re all grown with kids of our own it’s so fun when we do get together to see my kids get to know them as an aunt and uncle, and their kids as my kids’ cousins. Back when I was in college and my stepsiblings were just starting their own families I got to babysit their kids before I had my own–it was wonderful and seemed somehow just perfect, considering how they’d babysat me so long ago. My dad often drops the ‘step’ when referring to my stepsiblings, calling them just my ‘sister’ or my ‘brother,’ which I find sweet.

    Sidenote: my stepmom’s dad was alive until I was in college, and although I occasionally referred to him as my step-grandpa when mentioning him to friends (to explain our relationship), to my sister and I he was just ‘Bumpa.’ The name was given to him by my stepsiblings when they were little, so it’s all we ever knew him as once we were added to the family :)

  22. My parents separated when I was five years old, and both remarried when I was in middle school. My dad has since divorced and remarried again, but my mother & stepfather have been happily married for almost 15 years now. Growing up with step-parents, I viewed them as bonus people who were always rooting for me. They were supportive figures, but they left most of the actual parenting to my mom & dad. Which was honestly kind of awesome – I knew they cared about me and were there for me. There were several times I’d seek their advice as a teen because I knew I could confide in them. My dad split from my stepmom when I was in college and it was definitely tough to lose her since she was a big part of my family. In his most recent marriage, I didn’t view his wife as anything but his wife – it was nice that we got along, but she was his partner, not necessarily my “family”. She also came with six kids of her own, and we kept those family units separate.

  23. My parents divorced when I was 4. My mom almost immediately remarried (she left my dad for my stepdad), and my stepdad has always treated me like his daughter. My dad started dating my stepmom when I was 5. They broke up and got back together and married when I was 10. She has never been nice to me. She’s always been very jealous of my close relationship with my dad, and I think she sees me as the literal embodiment of my mom and dad’s former love. There were times when she would say something really mean to me and then tell me that if I told my dad, she would leave him and it would be all my fault.

    I’ve always called my stepdad dad, and I’ve always called my stepmom Chris. My kids call my stepdad papa and my stepmom Chris. One night at dinner, one of my younger kids asked who Chris was (as in, how does she fit into the family). I neutrally explained that she was grandpa’s wife, but inside I was cheering. I’ve always put up with Chris for my dad’s sake, but as I get older, I see that he’s partly to blame. He could have put his foot down (like when she suggested and he agreed to give me a used electric blanket for my 11th birthday).

    Now, I avoid her at all costs and try to get together with my dad alone. Recently, my dad gave me a moderate cash gift and explained that he was giving it to me because if he died before my stepmom, I wouldn’t get anything. The money doesn’t matter, but who would be married to someone who would treat their child like that?

    My husband and I have a solid marriage, and we’re both in our early 40s, but we’ve agreed that if we ever divorced or remarried after the other’s death and the new spouse didn’t treat our children well, that would be a total deal breaker.

  24. Two of my children married spouses with children which made me a step-grandma. One son has always lived close by so this step grandchild received lots of my attention and care. My daughter has always lived far from home. I have visited and during those visits I have made an effort to get to know these four children by my son in law’s first marriage.

    One truth I own as a grandmother. The relationship to my grandchildren is highly affected by the relationship I have with their parents. My daughter and I are often at odds and I armor up when I’m around her family. This makes me seem less relaxed and open to her children. If we lived closer maybe we could work through those issues, but…..it is not so. My daughter’s accusation that her children get less connection to me is true. Parents beware….the attitude you have about your parents and parents-in-law is picked up by your children.

    1. So true! I already think about that. If my future sons-in-law or daughters-in-law don’t like me and Ben Blair, I imagine we’ll rarely get to see our kids or grandkids. Sad to think of that.

  25. Thank you so much for starting a conversation about this. It is so good to read others’ comments! I am involved in a variety of ‘step’ and ‘half’ relationships. My parents’ marriage was my mom’s second, and I have two half brothers and one full sister. However, I never think or refer to my brothers as ‘half’, and I don’t think of them any differently than I do my sister–they’re all equally my siblings.

    My parents divorced when we were all adults, and recently my dad got remarried. I refer to his wife as just that–‘my dad’s wife’. Some people I’ve talked to about her will insist that I recognize that she’s my stepmother, but it’s clear to me that I will never think of her as any sort of mother and neither will my siblings. This has a lot to do with the fact that we were all already grown up when she came into our lives. That being said, we have a very amicable, if not close, relationship with her.

    Finally, most close to my heart and on my mind these days, I am in a relationship with someone who has two little boys (3 1/2 and 5). He and his ex split up before the younger of the two boys was born, and not on good terms. We started dating less than a year later, and have been together for nearly three years now. It has been such a tough journey for me, figuring out my place in the boys’ lives and my role alongside their father, and navigating the reality of being in a relationship where my partner’s ex is a permanent feature of our lives because of the boys.

    Interestingly, most people who I tell about our relationship and the boys assume that it has been relatively easy because the boys are so little. In a way that is probably true, and when I am feeling particularly insecure I tell myself that the boys will literally never remember a time in their lives without me, and that they also will never remember their parents having been together. But there are a lot of feelings to navigate and I have felt awkward and out of place many, many times already.

    Until recently the boys have been too little to really understand who I am in relation to their mom and dad, but they easily see me as an adult who loves and cares about them and is partially responsible for their well being. I cringe at the term ‘stepmother’, perhaps because of the stereotypes Gabby mentions. Honestly, it has also felt to me that the titles ‘stepmother’/’stepmom’ and ‘stepdaughter’/’stepson’ should not be used immediately–it takes time to build the trust, closeness, and love that are necessary for these relationships. I want the boys to come to think of me as a secondary mother (though I would never expect them to love me the way that they love their biological mom, which is just a completely different world in my opinion), and I know that it will take time and patience.

    The boys and I are getting to know each other as time goes on and getting closer. The biggest revelation for me has been that, in contrast to biological parenting, when you’re a secondary parent, there is no love that feels automatic–or instinctive to put it a less mechanical-sounding way–the way that biological parents describe. You have to get to know the kids, and them you, and you have to choose to love each other.

    I have tried to be gentle with myself about this process and not force anything. I know that there will be ups and downs, but I am hopeful for the future, and my commitment to my partner and his boys fuels that hope. We plan to try to get pregnant within the next year, and I know that it will add another layer of complication but I hope also another layer of togetherness and connection for our evolving family.

  26. My mother (a widow) has been in a common law relationship for over 20 years with her partner, Fred. I guess that makes him a step father? Of sorts? He is a very nice man and we enjoy him. My siblings and I were all adults (as were his children) when they met so we’ve never met Fred’s children or grandchildren. My kids have known him their whole life as a sort-of grandfather (they live in another state and we do not see them often). It works fine for everyone.

  27. I’m not 100% sure if I’m asking this correctly, but I’m going to try (and hopefully not sound insensitive)…

    From what I understand, in the Mormon faith, you rejoin your family in heaven once everyone has passed away. How does that concept handle remarrying? What does your celestial family look like?

    I’m curious. Thank you for writing this thoughtful piece!

    1. I’d say it’s one of those sweet but confusing beliefs, and I tend to roll my eyes if I hear a Mormon speaking about family relationships in the after-life as if they confidently know how it will all work.

      In our temples we have a religious ceremony where you can be “sealed” to your spouse, or kids can be sealed to their parents. I think the original idea behind it was a wide-web of interconnectedness among people everywhere, that lasts through the eternities. Which can be a very sweet concept. But in practical terms it can get confusing fast because divorces don’t equal broken-sealings, and because as an unhealthy holdover from polygamy, men can be sealed to multiple women (but women can’t be sealed to multiple men).

      Though it’s generally taught and assumed everything will work out in Heaven, and that it wouldn’t be Heaven if you’re stuck with someone you don’t want to be stuck with, there are many church members who have a sealed relationship that really stresses them out.

      My take is that over the years, the original vision for sealings has been misinterpreted. I essentially reject out of hand any church belief that makes life harder for women. How sealings are practiced currently, definitely makes things harder for women.

      P.S. — If you’re interested, Carol Lynn Pearson wrote a book last year that explores the damage of still allowing polygamous sealings.

  28. Families are so hard. And complicated. And so good. I want to say more the merrier, but I know that’s not always possible. I really appreciate this conversation here.

    Reading this it occurred to me I do have a step experience. My dad is 15 years remarried to a woman who is the mother of his third daughter. (He and my mom divorced 25 years ago.) Because I was an adult when they met and married, and I live across the country from them, I don’t think of his wife as step. I barely think of their daughter as my sister. His wife is my children’s grandma though. But my sister is not their aunt, mostly because she’s an immature 15 year old and so different from my other sister, who we do think of as their aunt. Yes. Families are complicated.

  29. My husband’s parents divorced when he was in college, and his father immediately remarried to someone who none of us were close to (that’s putting it in a nice light.) She had children of her own who are much younger than my husband and his brother, and because they never all lived in the same house, (and their mom was challenging), they didn’t feel like siblings of any stripe. Once his father passed away, we gradually ceased contact with his wife and her kids (none of us have ever lived in the same area so no accidentally, awkwardly, running into them.) We never referred to her a step mother or step-MIL, but as my father in law’s wife. My MIL was single for many years, but ended up meeting the love of her life at 72. He’s a very nice man who never had children of his own-but has really taken to being a grandfather. My oldest calls him by his first name (she was a teenager when he came into the picture and it felt weird to her to suddenly gain a grandparent), but my younger kids call him Grandpa or Grandpa Fred.

  30. I have to agree with the growing-up together makes a difference for step-siblings. I have a step-brother I have never even met! For no reason other than my father is horrible at making family connections (eg. his mother would be in town visiting him and he’d tell me after the fact, instead of inviting me for a visit). So weird! Anyway, my father and step-mom married when I was at University, my step-brother couldn’t make their very small wedding and twenty years later we’ve never met. I also wouldn’t consider my step-mom’s extended family my family – except for her sister who was married to my father’s uncle – talk about a twisted family tree! ha!

  31. My husband’s mom died unexpectedly when I was seven months pregnant. It was a tremendous shock. His dad remarried within a couple years, to someone my husband has known his whole life. So our daughter has grown up with her and adores her…but she doesn’t call herself grandma and we don’t refer to her that way. It’s Papa + Her First Name.
    In fact, Her First Name just recently referred to our daughter on social media as her step-grand and it was the first time it was referred to in that way, I’ve always been grateful about how she embraces our family without trying to replace and how she’s kept room for my husband’s mom, who we call Grandma First Name when talking about her to our daughter.

    I deferred to my husband on what his stepmom would be called, I think he needed to bury the term grandma with his mother…she was so very excited for her first grandchild. I imagine it would’ve stung every time he heard our daughter call her by that title, though he loves my mother and our daughter’s close relationship with her (who she does call grandma).

  32. I am in the midst of coping with my feelings regarding this topic. I resent how MIA my husbands parents are as grandparents and parents. They are missing out on my awesome kids. It seems like when they divorced, they went back to only thinking of themselves. I like my father-in-law and his third wife, but I resent how much he invests in only her children and grandchildren. I passionately hate divorce after what my husband went through as a child and what I went through as a grown adult when my parents split after 32 years of marriage (both have not remarried). All I have seen from the aftermath is abandonment of parental responsibility on my husband’s side of the family and devastation on my side of the family financially and emotionally. You can see all the dysfunction and it is discouraging, I see life through different lenses and I resent my parents for taking away the happy outlook I had previously when we were an intact family. I had always thought it would be fun to be in a big family and now I resent being part of a big family because you just feel ignored. I have noticed parents seem to only focus on the problem children and because We are doing well we don’t have any parents help or attention. I am grateful for my husband who is a wonderful partner to me and makes up for his and mine’s dysfunctional families. We just pray we can change course for the next generation, I am grateful my kids have my Mom, she is the only present and functioning grandparent who has invested in showing them love and support. Though all her attention is on my brother’s family right now because of his poor choices, she feels she has to spend all her energy on his family. Another loss and disappointment. I also have a close Aunt who has stepped into my children’s lives and loved them dearly like a grandparent, I wish she lived by me. She is my favorite person in the planet from my parents generation. I am sorry if I come across negative, I am just processing through these feelings, I do feel blessed to have awesome children, a great husband and a few really close friends who feel like the best adopted family you could ask for. They just moved, so I am coping with that loss too. May we all be kind to others and those who hurt us! I am trying to move forward and let go of these feelings and accepting others agency while establishing my own boundaries.

    1. Ugh, it sounds like you’re going through a really rough time right now. I hope that you are able to find a path forward, keeping your connection with your close friends even if they are physically further away, finding new friends locally who help fill the void, and navigating your way past all the disruption in your extended family into a better place.

    2. Hugs to you. I also struggle with feelings of resentment towards my parents because of their divorce & the difficult relationships that have come of it. Dysfunctional families are HARD! Sending prayers to you & yours.

  33. My mom passed away a few years ago and my dad eventually remarried. I always refer to them as “my parents” or “my dad and his wife.” We’re not very close and she doesn’t have any of her own kids. I’ve always wondered what our relationship will look like when my dad dies.

  34. I’m very much at the beginning of my own ‘step’ experience, which is definitely giving me pause for thought re my pre-conceived ideas, personal biases and issues in this space.

    My partner was married with 2 boys, aged 8 and 9. The marriage broke down and his decision to leave was based on his desire to not repeat the same patterns of his own childhood. He’s brilliant Father and bloke by all accounts. We met fairly soon following his separation and a wonderful relationship has unfolded, somewhat a surprise to us both. For him – timeline driven. And for me, because I have been (happily) single for many years. We’ve spent the last 12 months, slowly introducing me in informal settings to his children at their pace. As I don’t have kids (though hope to one day) this is a journey in itself, which I am trying to approach in an open-minded, open-hearted and loving way.

    However I’d being lying if I didn’t say that it’s definitely raised a plethora of thoughts, feelings and is pushing me into some uncomfortable spaces as I navigate forward. Both as an individual and as a partner. Including;
    – Will I continue accept and love someone else’s children, when I may not be able to have my own. Time is against me – I’m 39.
    – What will it be like to build a rapport and relationship with children, when the primary parent is set on presenting me as a negative presence in their life. The terrifying Cinderella stereotype looms large in my mind.
    – How have I behaved in my own family and what learned behaviours and myths am I going to have to address as we move forward. I grew up with a fantastic Stepfather from age 4 who went on to have two children with my Mother. Whilst I accepted my stepfather and my parents vehemently reaffirmed my brother and sister as just that (never halfs!) I always felt like an island on the periphery of my family unit. Meanwhile I absolutely rejected any woman (there goes that evil stepmother stereotype again…) in my biological Father’s life.

    Gosh. Feelings are hard. All I can hope is that I act with grace and understanding and keep those lovely kids first and foremost in my mind. More people, means more love in my mind :)

    PS. Gabrielle – I’m the random lady who accosted you last Sunday morning last week in Bondi before you guys hit Sculptures. Hope you had an amazing trip!!

  35. My experiences have been mixed. Like yours, my father’s parents were divorced, so I have been blessed with extra grandparents. But my father married his mistress (a cause of great distress to my mother for many years), who seemed to think that adult children should just disappear. She’s better now that her son is getting older, but it’s hard to forgive.

    My children’s stepmother was also the result of an affair. This is the second time she has moved in with a married man with whom she had an affair. Unfortunately, she pushes her harmful pseudo-medical practices onto my children, constantly telling my 7 year old that there’s something wrong with him and that if she massages him a certain way, she can fix it. She is also anti vaccine and my ex has withdrawn his consent to the children’s vaccination schedule.

  36. Grew up with a step-grandmother. She was not a mean woman, but didn’t give a crap about any of us. She always talked about her daughter/son and her granddaughter. She was a unique person who was very miserly and loved to dominate all conversations. My grandfather had done well and you would have thought they were dirt poor by the way they lived. As a result, her offspring inherited a good chunk of change. There is a reason steps have a bad wrap. It is a VERY hard relationship. My friend has been that to her husband’s children. They have sabotaged her in sneaky little ways. My friend is no saint either. My friend’s children were very beautiful which would have been a bit like a Cinderella story to some far less attractive step sisters.

  37. Both of my grandfathers are technically step-grandfathers, but my neither of my parents ever had a relationship with their biological father’s and their step-fathers were huge blessings in each of their lives. The only time we’ve ever really acknowledged that they are technically “step” relatives is when it comes to family medical history and the need to explain why we don’t know much. Not only have/did both my grandfathers treat all the grandchildren on both sides as their own, one of my grandfather’s set up college accounts for all the grandchildren, on both sides of the family, which was an unbelievably kind and life changing gesture.

  38. I became a stepmom 3 years ago when I married for the first time at 34, and my perspective on this has entirely shifted, obviously. Whenever I meet someone who is a stepmom, I immediately hug them because I know that they need it. My relationship with each of my stepkids is different and some of them are easy and accepting and some are…not. Before becoming a stepparent I had no experience with it at all. And while my friends are understanding and nice to me about the problems I face, I long for friends who have similar challenges so that we can hug each other as necessary. It is hard and lonely and isolating.

  39. A question…if there is a loving and participatory parent in the child’s life, do the children call the step-parent Mom or Dad, anyway? I can hear tiny but fierce explosions all over the Universe if that ever happened in most families.

    If the answer is no, then why is it ok to call the parents of that step-parent Grandma and Grandpa?
    Food for thought…

  40. Oh my word, this is THE MOST LOADED topic of my life! I’m sorry, this is a novel, but I would truly appreciate honest feedback from anyone willing to read my comment.

    When I was about 15 my mom had an affair. I barely spoke to her for something like 2 years because I was so angry. She went on to marry this man some 8 or 9 years later, and well before they married I had forgiven and accepted their relationship and I really love my stepdad now.

    Easy, right… except my Dad started a relationship with the woman who was married (and also had kids with) to my mom’s affair…. they swapped spouses.

    My dad was/is a lonely man and I believe he was hurting and he fell into the relationship out of convenience. He eventually married this woman (a year after my mom married my stepdad), however without any ounce of blessing from my two brothers or myself. My step mom did some awful things (recorded phone conversations at our house w/o anyone’s knowledge, forced my uncle/mom’s brother to “come out of the closet” to his parents so that they wouldn’t hear it from her – this was a way to hurt my mom’s whole family). There is a laundry list of things. In the end my Dad said “God told him he was supposed to marry her”. Blech, whatever.

    The divorces (of my parents and my now step-parents) happened over 20 years ago and, no kidding, I’m contemplating seeking professional therapy right now over the angst ridden relationship I have with my dad (who I was quite close with as a teen) and my stepmom. When my dad recently turned 60 my brothers and I planned a gathering of our immediate families and we intended to surprise my Dad (simply asked my stepmom if they were available and if they would come to my brother’s home so we could surprise him with a small celebration – my hubby & kids and my two brothers & their families). We (my bros & me) have had a strained/force relationship with my Dad & stepmom forever (mainly due to the things my stepmom did early on in their relationship) and we’ve never really had a relationship with the two step sisters we gained. When my stepmom realized we weren’t planning to invite our step sisters (one of them said some pretty unpleasant things about my brothers directly to me years ago) to this gathering, she flipped a lid and said “I’m done” to us all. I of course called my dad immediately and told him EVERYTHING and here we are two months later, my step mom still pointing the finger at us. We never intended to exclude anyone, we simply planned to keep it small and easy and comfortable (like, no need to deep clean the house, just my siblings/parents coming over).

    There are SOOOO many more details to the situation that I obv can’t list all here, but if there’s anyone on this feed who could help me understand where I went wrong – simply asking for my dad to have a day with his biological kids and grandkids – please do respond.

    I am struggling SO DEEPLY with this right now.

    1. Jen! What a fraught situation!
      You are being treated unfairly. Your idea to seek therapy is a great one. Talking these issues out with a professional listener will REALLY help, in my experience! Big hug to you and kudos for all your efforts with your family.

  41. Suggestion on Names:
    Anyone new to step-parenting would be wise to come up with a NEW NAME. It may feel silly and contrived to give yourself a name, but it can really help avoid awkwardness, especially if your new step-children are older.

    Typically they don’t want to call you mom or grandma, important names reserved for their natural mother. You can help by telling them to call you Noni, or Mimi or Nana or whatever. When children call you by your first name it seems inappropriate. The new name covers lots of situations and will age nicely with you.

    1. I think it’s something that can and should naturally evolve. My step sons call me by my first name. We had a conversation about it early on, and that’s what we settled on, and I told them I’m very happy that I can be their Megan. It works for us.

  42. I’m a stepmom to a lovely 9-year-old, and have been since she was a wee toddler. My husband and his ex share 50/50 custody and by far the hardest piece of it has been my (lack of) relationship with his ex. She really doesn’t acknowledge me and there is something painful about it that’s hard to put my finger on. Gabrielle, if you ever wrote a post from the perspective of divorced moms (their thoughts on their kids’ stepmoms, etc) I would be all ears/eyeballs!

    I am now 5 months pregnant with my first ‘bio’ kid. My stepdaughter is DYING with excitement. I remember feeling nervous that once I had my ‘own’, I wouldn’t love them the same (mostly because that is classic stepparent rhetoric, I suppose), but I feel more and more confident all the time that’s baloney. (Still a TWINGE of worry and guilt, of course…)

    I feel REALLY grateful that I’ve known my stepdaughter since before she even had memories! I’m a foregone conclusion in her life. Initially bonding was still so hard, and so is every friggin’ mothers’ day… fully engaging in parenting 50% of the time and having no special acknowledgement (and looking at a sea of mom-aggrandizing social media posts with nary a stepmom in sight) is painful in a way that surprises me every year, and makes me feel so petty, jealous and embarrassed.

    Big hugs to all the stepmoms reading here. There are so many challenging things about being a stepmom, the feelings that come with it are so complicated, and NOBODY seems to want to talk about it! Online forums and opening up to the few other stepmoms I know has felt so good in the past.

    1. It sounds like you have a wonderfully special relationship with your stepdaughter. She will appreciate that especially as she gets older.

      I am very close to my stepmom and can’t imagine life without her. I give her a mother’s day card every year (once in a blue moon I can even find a stepmom card!). Your SO should have her recognize your special role in her life an y’all should have your own celebration. That would be lovely!

      1. Mother’s Day has been unexpectedly difficult. Even though I intellectually feel very strongly that my step sons have a mother and father who parent them exquisitely, Mother’s Day highlights how painful the gap can be between being a biological parent and an adult who is helping to parent. It’s a major ego check day for me while still acknowledging that it’s painful.

        (thank you for hosting this conversation, Gabrielle)

    2. I can understand and relate to so much of what you say. My 9-year old step-daughter (which I hate that term so much) has been in my life since she was 2.5 years old. She doesn’t remember a time when I wasn’t there. I’ve always been a second mom – becoming Mommy-Alicia when her dad and I got married and she often now drops the “Alicia” and will call me Mom and Mommy consistently.

      Divorce is hard. We just went through a really ugly custody evaluation as we sought for more time and my husband’s ex is very controlling and manipulative. She’s been that way since the divorce but now that my husband has his self-esteem back and knows and understands his rights he stands his ground. This drives the ex bonkers because she doesn’t always get her way.

      Our sweet daughter just wants everyone to be friends. We’ve tried really hard to not use the “step” term. My parents welcomed their new granddaughter in with open arms and definitely don’t use the step terminology. We’re just all family. Our dear daughter is slowly figuring out that she has a lot of family that loves her and navigating life and events moving forward is always going to be a challenge for her.

  43. My parents are together (as are everyone on my side), but my husband has step-family of two different sorts!

    His parents divorced when he was quite young (6 or 7) and his older sisters in their late teens. His dad remarried fairly quickly to a woman who had kids from her previous marriage. Her kids were very close in age to my husband, and my husband, as he often says, went from being his big sister’s baby doll to his step-brothers’ punching bag. My husband spent his time between his dad’s house and his mom’s, and his step-family was really just another family. But I don’t think his sisters ever grew quite as close to them.

    His mom remarried some twenty years later to a man who was also divorced and who had kids. But because they were married when my husband and those children were all in their twenties, they never really felt as much like a family.

    I loved that this conversation drew attention to the names/labels we use and how they represent the relationships. We use “step-mom” to refer to my father-in-law’s wife, because she really was a mom to my husband. He often calls his step-siblings on that side his brothers and sisters, although if questioned he will clarify the relationship. But we don’t call his mom’s husband his step-dad. We use “mom’s husband”! And we don’t really call his kids step-siblings – unless we’re thinking about it. We just call them his kids.

    As grandparents, each of them has their own name. My nieces and nephews figured out a special name for their grandma’s new husband (the older ones remember when they got married). They call him Tompa = Tom + Grandpa. I love it.

    Family dynamics are so interesting to observe!

  44. My step-mom has been a part of my life for 20 years now.

    I was mostly grown by the time my father started seeing her. And my mother is living. But I challenge the idea of step-moms not being accepted. Maybe societally, yes. But not the case in my family

    My mother and her siblings suffered a lot of abuse at the hands of her alcoholic parents. It resulted in her becoming a very toxic abusive (physically, emotionally, sexually) person herself and to her children.

    My step-mom has been more a mother to me than my own mother ever was capable of being. And I did not make it easy to love me when I was younger. My experience of maternal figures had been extremely negative for most of my life so I tended to push people away at times. My step-mom never gave up on loving me though.

    I tried for years to help my biological mother. Tried to rebuild a relationship with her and get her help. But someone needs to be in a place to receive help and she is not.

    My step-mom helped me plan my wedding, listens to me when I need a shoulder to cry on, and tells everyone that we’re all her children.

    Having her in my life filled a hole I thought I could live without being filled.

    She had two children of her own when she married my dad and we’ve all become close as well and consider each other siblings.

    The only odd thing for me is using the word “step” when explaining my family to someone else. Because it doesn’t really fit the way I feel about my stepmom and stepsisters. They are 100% my family.

  45. Late to this conversation, but I just wanted to observe that the stigma around “step” is such a strange thing. When I was living in Spain, I had to look up the word “stepmother” to describe my own stepmother, with whom I’ve always gotten along. When I used the word, people cringed and told me that “madrastra” was a terrible word, and that if I wanted to describe my stepmother positively, I should call her “my father’s wife.” Which to me sounds so much more grudging in English–as though we have no relationship of our own at all!

  46. I have a very different take on all of this… my husband left me when I was 5 months pregnant for a younger woman. They married shortly before my son turned 3. The affair, divorce, etc., was not left up to my son and I, so I really have no intention of ever acknowledging it. Their marriage is not legit, and will not last, as they are both, very publicly, cheaters. I believe they are harming my son by playing “fake family” with him, and getting him attached to the same pillars of society who turned a blind eye during their affair. He has come home calling her “mommy,” saying she told him she’s some kind of “boss,” when at the end of the day she’ll only ever be “daddy’s whore.” He even came back this weekend calling someone in her family “grandma.” I have tried to redirect my little one, but my ex, in his narcissistic, delusions of grandeur, lets it go on, thinking “they just love each other to death.” It’s ridiculous and abusive to some point. Very Maddening.

  47. When I was in college I went to the mall with one of my best friends and we ran into this lady I knew and her daughter. We said hi and exchanged pleasantries and chit chatted for a minute. When we walked away I turned to my friend and said something like, “If I told you that woman has been my step-mom for the past 20 years of my life would you believe me?” (Her daughter of course is my half-sister.) She was pretty shocked as you would have thought the woman and I were distant acquaintances.

    My parents divorced when I was very young (2-ish?) and both remarried people who didn’t actually seem to like my brother and I very much. There was a lot of turbulence in both households and it seems like the cross-gender step-relationships were the most problematic–my step-mom and brother really butted heads, while my step-father and I really butted heads. (Fun fact: my step parents share the same first name too–not common, spelled the same, pronounced differently.)

    When my parents got divorced, back in the day, my mom moved out of state (I guess you could do that without checking with anyone) and so we spent 9 months out of the year with her (and our grandparents whom we lived with for 5 blessed years thank goodness) and the other 3 months with our dad and step mom (and eventual half siblings) in the summer. I can’t tell you how effed up it was to not see a parent for 9 months of the year and then to suddenly transition to a new home, new rules, new everything for 3 months every summer. And when my mom eventually remarried the cycle continued.

    My parents are still married to my step parents, and for my older brother and I (the only ones from the original marriage) we don’t have great relationships with either of our parents/step-parents. When our parents remarried and each side had kids with their new spouses my brother and I were sorta left out to dry on each end. How do you marry someone, and stay married to them, when they openly treat your kids so terribly? I know that being a step parent is very, very difficult–I have no doubt–but at the end of the day they had a choice. Additionally, being an adult allows you a lot of perspective and emotional clarity, or at least the language to understand the feelings you are going through. As kids, we didn’t have a choice on either end and for years not having a deep understanding that what we were experiencing was wrong and not having words to put to our feelings or anyway to untangle the emotions is pretty rough.

    I have told my husband more than once that if he dies I would never remarry until our kids are grown because I just could never put my kids through that.

    Also, while I get the whole step-mom narrative being fraught, I think the thing with step-dads is the high amount of sexual abuse you hear about in these relationships. And if nothing else, I think the power dynamic of a grown man that children might not have a good relationship with vs. a grown woman has a whole different set of fears attached to it. While step-moms might have more stigma, it can be pretty scary to have a grown man in your life who you don’t trust and there are some pretty iffy boundaries in place.

    Oh and yes I had 4 full sets of grandparents and never referred to my step-grandparents as “step-grandparents.” Those were much more pleasant relationships all around. Though some much closer than others.

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