Step-Parents Need A Tribe, Too

I understand that she is not my biological child, but we are family, and I've invested so much in this relationship. It really matters to me, but people don't seem interested in hearing about my experience.

I have been a step-mother for three years. Three glorious, challenging years.

I love my step-daughter very much and did so from the beginning. She was part of the deal of going out with my now-husband. I not only embraced it, but was grateful for the opportunity to become part of their family.

Thankfully, my husband has always been understanding of what a massive undertaking it is to become a step-parent. But in spite of this — and a wonderfully friendly, fun, accepting step-daughter — it has been a steep learning curve. Part of that has been about finding the right people to share the experience with.

I got married and gained a teenager at the same time — while most of my friends were having babies. My husband and I have chosen not to have any children of our own and we are confident in our choice. But my lack of desire to have my own child doesn’t mean that I don’t want to be the best person I can be in my step-daughter’s life (as some people assume), and we got off to a great start.

She was the closest thing to a child I was ever going to have, and while I never tried to be her second mom, she was now my family.

Over the years, I’ve dealt with some classic step-parenting issues, like having to bite my tongue in my own home. The reality of being a step-parent means that you are often sharing your home in an intimate way with this unfamiliar child, while taking on the parental labor of pick-ups, lunch prep and homework, and sometimes contributing financially. But the minute you offer an opinion, or apply pressure to a situation, the rebuff of “You’re not my parent!” is readily doled out.

But recently, we’ve had a few family challenges. My husband’s ex-wife makes co-parenting very difficult, and my husband and I disagree on how to handle things with her. Since I can’t talk to him about it, I could really use some friends to listen. Friends who get it.

Sadly, the majority of my friends with their own kids dismiss or minimize my challenges with my step-daughter. I understand that she is not my biological child, but we are family, and I’ve invested so much in this relationship. It really matters to me, but people don’t seem interested in hearing about my experience.

I’ve seen their disinterest before. For example, when their children have birthdays, I buy them gifts. They’ve never given my step-daughter a gift. We would spend hours discussing the various small details of their children’s lives, while my step-daughter would maybe get a small mention, and sometimes people forgot her name. Their children were invited to every event. My step-daughter wasn’t included.

Thankfully, I do have two friends who I can talk to in a meaningful way about my situation. One is a friend I have known for many years, who happens to be a step-mother on her second marriage. The other is a colleague I bonded with once we realized we were both step-parents to teenage girls.

We don’t get a chance to talk very often in a busy work week, but as soon as we do, we swap stories, often starting with: “You’ll never guess what’s happened now…” Our rush to talk to each other, almost tripping over ourselves to share things, is because we both recognize that no one else really gets it. Saying anything even slightly negative about a step-child in the wrong crowd can earn you the “evil step-mother” title. We’ve learned that the hard way.

We step-mothers have to look harder to find our tribe, those people who understand our unique parenting experience, and I’m lucky that I found these two special friends — without them I would feel very isolated. Mine is not a big tribe and I will continue to grow it, as unfortunately our family troubles are not quite over. The Internet can be a great resource, but nothing beats having a chat with someone in person, and seeing the sympathy and understanding in their eyes.

If you are a step-parent, when you find your tribe, no matter the size, hold on to them, support them and reach out to them, too, when you need it. There may not be as many ready-made friends as you would hope, but it is quality, not quantity, that counts.

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