I met my now-stepdaughter well before her father and I became romantically involved, and before I ever became pregnant. Having the chance to get to know her and become friends with her, before I became part of the family, turned out to be a huge advantage when I did, eventually, join the family. I think that is partially why I was so stunned and, honestly, so unprepared to deal with the barrage of ignorant, annoying, and often hurtful things people say to stepmoms. We have our challenges, just like any other family, and have to adjust and re-adjust when our living situations change. However, our stepfamily is quite fortunate to have been built on an amicable foundation, so I often feel blindsided by acquaintances, friends, and family members who subtly (and sometimes not-so-subtly) suggest we were or are anything less than a “real” family.
When things get hard, I often have to stop and remind myself that it’s inherently demanding to cultivate and maintain relationships with anyone. That’s especially true when we don’t have the hormonal and biological boost our bodies tend to provide us with when we meet romantic partners or biological children, and when we don’t get to spend as much time together as we’d like. It really shouldn’t surprise anyone that being in a stepfamily can be uniquely challenging.
However, and most importantly, many of the challenges of stepfamily life come from misunderstandings and a lack of support from people outside the family. It's not that being in a stepfamily is more or less inherently harder than being a part of any other family, it's that being a part of a stepfamily leaves you (arguably) more vulnerable to scrutiny and disregard than any other families. If you know and/or love anyone who’s part of a stepfamily (and we’re very common, so you probably do) please do us, and especially the kids, a favor by actively avoiding (or just refusing) to say the following. We're tired of it, you guys.
“Oh, That’s Nice! It's Like Practice For When You Start Your Real Family!"
If I had a dollar for every person who spoke to me as though my stepdaughter was a "crash test dummy" while I test-drove family life, I’d have a solid down payment on a Mercedes. Reality check: my stepdaughter is a real person whom I love, who is part of our already real family. She is not a doll for me to learn motherhood on. Don’t disrespect her by discussing her like that. Also, and in many ways, being a stepmom is often harder than being a biological mom, so that’s a pretty bad plan as far as “practice” goes.
“Do You Love Them Equally And Like They Were Your Own?"
Fun fact: It is highly inappropriate to ask anyone to clarify or rank how they feel about their family members. Asking non-biological parents (stepparents, adoptive parents, and so forth) to prove we feel a certain way about the children in our lives is intrusive and rude. Furthermore and arguably most importantly, if you ask this highly inappropriate question in front of the child in question, you are not only making everyone involved uncomfortable, you’re reinforcing the idea that they are "the other" in their own families, a misperception we’re all working really hard to overcome. Not helping.
"You Shouldn't Call Them 'Step' Child Or Identify As A 'Stepmom'"
Yeah, no. If the child in question has two living, loving, still-involved parents, that means there’s someone out there who would be rightly outraged at even the appearance that someone is trying to replace them. Also, there’s nothing wrong with being a stepfamily, so there’s nothing wrong with being a "step" of any kind. The bonds between stepparents and stepchildren often do differ from the bonds between those children and their biological parents, whom they’ve known much longer and under different circumstances. Indeed, the bonds between parents and each of their biological children often differ, too. But “different” does not equal “deficient.”
“You Wouldn't Get It, You're Not A Real Parent"
There are plenty of things that are different in a biological parenting relationship compared to a stepparenting relationship, but those difference do not bear on the “realness” of said relationship. Stepmoms often take on a lot of parenting responsibilities and expenses, to say nothing of our significant emotional investment. That’s especially true if our partner’s children are still young when they remarry or when we enter their lives and, essentially and eventually, assert ourselves into the lives of their children. Often, the only thing that’s not “real” about being a stepmom, is the respect that usually accompanies making these kinds of sacrifices.
“Well, At Least They're Not Your Real Kid, Right?"
That dreaded "r" word again! There are only two reasons to use the word “real” to distinguish families or family members. Either you’re well-meaning but unaware of how hurtful and ignorant it is to do that, or you’re actively trying to undermine that family’s happiness and sense of cohesion. Seriously, unless you’re talking about families in fiction books or on a television show or something, the family you're discussing and everyone in it is real. Please treat us accordingly.
“So Are You The Wicked Stepmother?"
Oh, aren’t you clever? I’ve never heard that before, nope, never, not even once, and I also find sexist stereotypes super amusing.
“You Knew You Had Kids Before You Married Him..."
I often had people say this to me like a shocked question, like people were so surprised that I, as a then-childless woman, would choose a partner who has a child. I mean, I must have been tricked, right? (Never mind that I was at one point a teacher, and clearly love children.) Sadly, however, a lot of stepmoms I know are told this as an admonition on the rare occasions they actually dare to share a struggle they’re having with someone else.
Choosing to be part of a family, in any capacity, doesn’t change the fact that family life is hard sometimes, no matter what kind of family it is. Saying the aforementioned to a friend in need just silences her and tells her that you’re not someone she can trust enough to talk to.
“Just Be Really Nice And Everything Will Be Great"
Fun fact: contrary to “wicked” stereotypes, most stepmoms already try to be nice people, because we are people and being nice is a thing most people try to do. Furthermore, of all the grown-ups in this situation, stepmoms have pretty much the least say in how anything goes down. Thanks for holding us solely responsible for our family’s success or failure, though. That's always fun.