Forging a relationship with my new step-daughter

May 26 | Guest post by Kate Proctor
Lego Family Portrait
Photo by Malte Sörensen, used with Creative Commons license.
I am engaged to and living with a man who has a child, and I find myself in this funny state of limbo. We haven't yet set our wedding date, but we are planning to get married in the near future. Since we live together, and his daughter, Sophia, lives with us half the time, I am with her the exact same amount of time as her father is. This ends up being a bit complicated to explain to other people.

She's technically not my step-daughter yet, and if I stick with just the off-hand comment of how my fiance has a child, it sounds like I'm not involved in her life. I don't want to ignore her presence either, because obviously she is a big part of my life. "Soon-to-be step-mom" is awkward and clunky, and referring to her as a room mate is clearly not an option.

I suppose part of my hesitation to label the relationship I have with Sophia is related to my hesitation surrounding our relationship. After all, I am in her life half the time, helping to make sure she gets to bed on time or that her room is clean. I know my actions and moods are going to effect Sophia whether I am super involved or not. I hope that one day she will feel comfortable coming to me with boy troubles, or questions about girl stuff, if said stuff happens when she's at her father's.

I also am a little lost in the many myths and expectations of what step-motherhood is and who step-mothers are or should be. The term step-mom makes me feel like I should be older or more mature or better equipped to do this job. I'm only 24, and sometimes I barely feel able to take care of myself, let alone another person! I am not sure if I deserve the moniker of "step-mom" quite yet. I don't feel very parental (though I don't necessarily know what constitutes feeling parental, either) and sometimes I'm not even sure what to say to Sophia. Nine-year-old conversation can be very confusing to somebody who is not a nine-year-old.

In any situation, one of the most important things I try to remember is that I am the adult, and I need to act like it. Whatever I want our relationship to be, I need to be the one who nurtures it and steers it in the right direction.

Sophia and I seem to be working it out though. We take it one day at a time. I indulge in the opportunity to buy every children's book I loved when I was in elementary school for her, and she indulges in the opportunity to look at me like I am crazy when I give them to her (she is not a big reader). I have started to appreciate that she's a girl who likes a good skull and crossbones design more than she likes hearts or flowers, and am buying her clothing accordingly. I have played Guess Who Extra a few more times than I would like to (though I put the kibosh on that after an argument about whether or not a caterpillar was a house pet). I am basically doing the best I can.

In any situation, one of the most important things I try to remember is that I am the adult, and I need to act like it. Whatever I want our relationship to be, I need to be the one who nurtures it and steers it in the right direction. I'm the one who needs to put myself out there! If I want Sophia to come to me with those boy troubles in a few years, I have to make sure she knows that I am there for her in any kind of situation.

So, while I can never make up for the fact that I missed out on the first seven years of her life, I feel like we can have a wonderful, close relationship regardless. I'm not going to tell you it's easy, or that I never get frustrated with her or with myself, or that we have this picture-perfect little family. That would be a lie. But if you think about it, any kind of relationship in your life requires time, patience, and effort to make them into a worthwhile and productive association. The boss in this case just happens to be a little younger and more prone to eating PB and J for every meal.

At a doctor's appointment the other day, the doctor asked when I was planning on having children. "Never," I replied, "I'm almost a step-mom, though." I went on to explain about how my fiance has a nine-year-old daughter and how she lives with us half the time. "Oh honey," the doctor said, "there is definitely no 'almost' about your situation."

I suppose that's true. Regardless of what I tell other people, or what they assume about me, Sophia and I have the relationship that we have. Though I haven't yet found the words to describe it, it's working for us. Even though some days I am really confused about what to do or say, I'm still here, and trying my best.

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  1. It sounds like you're doing an awesome job, Kate! I was the kid in a story like yours–when I was about nine, my dad moved in with a woman who was, I think, in her late twenties. In retrospect, she must have been overwhelmed by suddenly having a half-time kid, but I have only the fondest memories of her. She never tried to be a substitute mom to me, but she was definitely an authority figure and someone I admired. I think it helped that I had one-on-one outings with both her and my dad, so we weren't constantly trying to navigate a three-person relationship.

  2. Your doing just fine darling. I was in the SAME exact position as you. I met my husband when his son was 2, he came to live with my husband full time at and we got engaged when he was 3, and I married him AND had his little brother when he was 5. Being or becoming a stepmom is always an akward process, at least for me it was. But it gets easier with time and practice. All the best of luck to you!

  3. I am going through the exact same thing, I'm 24 and I am a soon-to-be-step-mom to a 3 year old. I notice especially with older people, there's a lot of confusion with the situation, and a lot of misjudgment – either that I must be raising my incompetent man's child or that I am butting in to already established family roles.
    When obviously neither is true – my fiance – and more importantly, his son- treat me like a co-parent.
    It amazes me with all of the progressive, "offbeat" families out there, that a situation like ours raises so many eyebrows.

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    • I forgot to add the more positive end of it! Soontobestepson is a joy and watching him develop into a kid from a baby has been amazing! As Kira said, the one on one trips have been super beneficial to our relationship, as has knowing when to step up and when to defer. I never wanted the kiddo to look at me as an outsider, but I also didn't want to be evil stepmom – and I think we've established a good balance.
      I don't feel less loved when he runs to dad with a boo-boo, and I don't feel like I'm over-stepping by being in charge of assorted parent tasks from nail-clipping to clothes shopping to potty training.
      Patience, gratitude, and a lot of empathy have been key.

  4. It sounds like you really are doing the best you can. I have been dating my partner for a year and 4 months. We live together with his 5 year old daughter. I have learned so much about myself through learning about her. It is not easy. Sometimes I need to walk away and sit in my own "time out" area because things she does are trying on the patience. In the end, I love her like my own. I know I never could or even want to replace her birth mother. She calls me mom :) (or by my first name…depends on her mood haha)

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  5. Like many others, this is my exact situation. My partner and I have a few extra stresses, namely his daughter's mother, who believes I have no place in this family. But we are slowly working through it, and realizing that no matter what the mother throws at us, my partner, his daughter and myself have and will continue to foster amazing connections with one another.

    Now here's the kicker – I'm 12 weeks along with my first (and probably only) kiddo. How do I express to my 8-yo step-daughter that even though her father and I are having a baby, she will still be just as loved and important to us?

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    • This is similar to the question I asked a little while back. In this case, she most certainly is going to be a big sister, even if partial custody means that she won't be around all the time. Emphasize how you're looking forward to her helping with the baby, teaching it to play with certain toys, etc. Make having the new baby something that the three of you are doing together, not something you are doing with out her.

    • I'm an almost step-mom to my fiance's 2 boys (age 5 and 7) and I'm pregnant with our first child. I had the same issues with their mother wanting me out of the picture from the get go, but it's taken 2 years (and her realizing I wasn't trying to take over her role as their mother) for all of us to co-parent effectively as a team. We were very nervous to tell her and the boys that we were expecting a baby, but we chose to tell them as soon as the pregnancy was confirmed by a doctor so that we could start working through any issues anyone had right away. We told their mother first and to our surprise she was supportive and even said that she'd keep the secret so we could tell the boys ourselves. We told the boys and Aden, our 5 year old, didn't really make the connection that the baby is his sibling–he refers to it as "your baby" (meaning my baby). Our older son Sean is totally excited. We talk about how big the baby is eat week and how they can help when the baby comes and this week when we go to the sonogram appointment to find out the sex we're taking them with. We think it will reinforce that we're all a family and that it's not just mine and my fiance's baby, it's their brother or sister too. It's EXTREMELY hard being a step-mom sometimes because I routinely feel like I'm an evil step-mom because I'm demand respect and rules whereas my fiance is more free spirited and likes his boys to be his pals. It's been a long hard road. I think it's harder when you walk into an established family unit and are expected to just dive in head first. Other then being raised in a huge family myself, I had no rules to go by and a lot of the time I felt like a glorified babysitter. But time goes on and everyone in the home finds their groove and life starts to make sense. Hang in their step-moms and soon-to-be step-moms and co-parent's. It isn't easy, but it gets better.

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    • I think I'd approach this in the same way I did with my daughter when her brother was born – let her know that when each new baby joins the family, your heart grows to give more love. This may have been a little easier for me because my two have the same father, but when my gorgeous FH are married we want to have kids together as well.

      This book is a gorgeous way to let the bigger kids know that you love them just as much as the new baby –

    • We are in the same position – I am now 33 weeks with my first child, and am co-parent/would-be step parent to my partner's three kids (8, 6 and 4). On the recommendation of a close family friend who is a child psychologist, we told the kids about the new baby in much the same way that we would if they were full siblings – you will have a new baby brother or sister. They have had some confusion about the relationship, and the youngest took a while to really "get" the idea that he would get to be a big brother finally, but we answered all their questions as openly and positively as we could. We're not married, but I do call the kids my step children, since it's simpler and (as you found) more descriptive of my actual role in their lives. :)

      Good luck with everything!

  6. I love this article. :) It's sweet and well-written. I believe that Kate has been a wonderful addition and a blessing to our weird little circle.

    For the record, I am still very close with my stepmother. She's an amazing woman and had a huge influence on me growing up. That relationship shouldn't be underestimated.

    To the mom who is pregnant with a stepchild in the house, my husband and I are experiencing the same thing. He is understandably excited about his baby son, and Sophia is a fabulous big sister. We just do the best we can, making sure to balance our attention and praise and ensuring that she has quality alone time with us when possible, which she really enjoys.

    -Alana (Sophia's mom)

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  7. I'm a full-time stepmommy and have been for 6 years and it's tough, I'm not going to lie. But it's also a wonderful opportunity.

  8. Great post! I'm a stepmom too and it has it's up and downs and can feel akward (like explaining who you are to people), but it can be incredibly rewarding too.

    Keep up the good job!

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  9. I was the child in a similar situation, I was about 9 or 10 when I met my now-stepmom (wow, writing it like that, I've known her forever! lol) Thinking about it now, she must have been a bit overwhelmed, especially considering that my dad also had another child, so she got 2 stepkids in one shot. Of course, as a kid, you don't think about your stepmom being overwhelmed, so thank you for writing this b/c it gave me some possible insight into how my stepmom felt when she met my brother and me.

    It sounds like you're doing great, I just have one suggestion but it's for when she's older. Tell her that part about wishing you could've known her for the first 7 years of her life as well. That was the sweetest thing to read. Again, as the stepkid you don't really think about whether or not your stepmom wishes she could've been there for those first few years. I think hearing that would mean a lot to her. My stepmom once told me that my brother and I changed her mind about not wanting to have kids. I'm not at all saying your stepdaughter will change your mind about that, I'm just saying getting a compliment like that really felt good to hear :)

    • Thank you so much Stephanie! I appreciate the input of somebody who's been on the other end. :)

  10. i am currently in this situation. my bf moved in when his daughter was 2 and she's turning 4 this summer. she calls me mom and calls her birth mother 'mommy XXX'. but when we're out and about i still sometimes struggle with how to answer 'and who's this?!?!' especially if i run into someone i haven't seen in a few years. 'my boyfriends daughter' is awkward and 'my stepdaughter' sounds mean/harsh and isn't technically true.

    at least i have some familiartiy with the subject. when i was 4 my stepfather came into my life and later adopted me. he ended up being a much, much more important person to me than my biological father. i hope i can do the same for my little girl (see? that sounds weird).

  11. I'm in a somewhat unique situation where I WISH I was a step-mother…
    My partner had a son when he was 19 and raised him with his ex for five years. The relationship didn't work out, largely due to conflict of religious beliefs (she has them and he doesn't), and after a few years of visits and regular phone contact, he now hasn't seen in his son in over three years, or spoken to him in almost two. His ex married a very Christian man and they had a baby a month before we did – they're a family now and though my partner was the one his first son called 'Dad' for more than half of his 9 years, he is reluctant to initiate contact again and disrupt their perfect nuclear family. As far as I know, his ex's husband is now 'Dad', and his son's last name has been changed. And that hurts, especially since the break-up wasn't nasty – it just didn't work out. He stopped contact because he felt he was being pushed away, which I can see was quite the truth.
    It all makes me quite melancholy, so I can only imagine how he feels. I'm only 23, so having a nine-year-old stepson would be a learning curve but, despite the emotional and logistical challenges, I can't help but wish that he and I had the opportunity to be a part of his first son's life. And that our son could know his half-brother.

  12. Wow, reading this I thought maybe I had actually written it and just changed the names… I also have a soon-to-be 9-year-old stepdaughter and know just what you mean. Glad to see this lovely post.

  13. I love this article. My boyfriend (we're planning on getting engaged soon) has 4 step children from a previous marriage that he is very close to. I love the kids as well, they are remarkably well behaved, calm, respectful kids. His 18 year old step daughter is currently living with us, because her mother has had some hard times. This puts me in the position of being the ex-stepdad's girlfriend, who is only 26. We're also living in the house they lived in when my boyfriend was married to her mom. We have the 2 youngest boys over on a regular basis too, they are 14 and 12. Luckily my boyfriend is very understanding and lets me vent, and listens to me when I say that something isn't working. I've also managed to build a fairly good relationship with the children's mother in the last few months, and I know that I have her support as well. But it's very difficult living with someone who I know recently told her mother "I don't like it when she try's to be the adult". (BTW her mother's responce was "well she is an adult, and you need to respect her".)

  14. As a step-daughter myself I know how complicated it can become when talking to people about your family. When I was about your Sophia's age I called my step-dad "dad" which confused everyone from classmates to parents. I quickly started calling him "Larry" again, if only to stop having to explain my whole life story to people! Now that I'm much older I realize that it doesn't matter how one labels their relationship with their family. What matters is the love that we share and that he was the one I called when I got dumped and the one who got me to become obsessed with Knots Landing when I was stuck at home with my leg in a cast. :)

    I know it's hard, but try to remember that this is about you and your daughter(yes, YOUR daughter) and not about anyone else. If you need a word then just use family, to me that's a big enough descriptive word to explain the bond that you're forming, whether it be to Sophia or others. And enjoy your adventure!

  15. The problem with describing these relationships extends far past childhood. I'm 28 and my parents divorced when I was 18. My dad met my step-mom when I was about 20 and they're getting married this fall, but have been living together for years. I also now have a step-sister, but we didn't grow up together so it's kind of odd to explain. I keep having to remind myself that no one needs to know my whole life's story. I can refer to Sally as my step-sister, or even my sister, to people I'm not close to and leave it at that. They don't actually care if our parents are married, if we used to steal each other's barbies or if we just meet up for coffee every now and a again as adults. Oddly, I feel like this will get easier as I get older and have my own kids. The thing is that it just takes time. Lots of time to bond, and lots of love to bond over. And preferably reasonable adults involved :)

    I always find myself thinking back to this old episode of friends where Ross is fighting with his ex wife's wife over parental roles and Phoebe breaks in to say that this kid is so lucky because there are people fighting over who gets to love it more. That combined with Ariel's statement that "love is not a zero sum game" (sorry for butchering your awesome statement) and I am 100% convinced that extended/blended families like this have a lot more benefits that are widely recognized.

  16. Step is such a weird word, I would hate for a child to feel less special by adding the word "step", so I call mine- " my BONUS kids".

  17. Semi-step daughter?

    I describe Rezmi as my semi-step-son as his adoptive father passed away before we could marry. In terms of working out how to relate to your step-daughter, all I can suggest is be there, be stable and if you have to say "no" to any of her big plans, take time to also explain why whatever isn't possible. Direct parents (whoever is always called Mum or Dad) seem to have it easier in that they don't seem to have to explain why they're saying "no".

    Good luck! It's absolutely awesome when you find the relationship is working properly (although I did end up horribly conflicted when hearing about life in the children's home for the first time at 1am on a work night ;o) "Wow, he trusts me enough to tell me about running away from home when still very young and being homeless and stuff" was slightly tinged with "in 6 hours, I have to leave for work"

  18. I was in the same boat. Mid-twenties and finding myself some sort of mother figure to a 7 y/o boy and a 9 y/o girl. It is an awkward thing to label that relationship. When I would go to school conferences and what not, teachers would often call me "mom". That of course would lead to a confusing conversation of "Oh, actually, well I'm their dad's girlfriend. Not their mom." You don't want the kids in ear shot hearing you claim to be their mom, but you also don't want them to think you don't want to be anything to them.

    And mother's days can be the worst. You help with homework, clean up puke and put them to bed too. But often you get overlooked. Well, one mother's day the 9y/o handed me a card that said "Happy PFSM Day!" At the bottom of the card she wrote out what PFSM stood for: Possible Future Step-Mom. :)Those four letters changed my world! And we would kid around with the title all the time. From that moment on, I knew they considered me a step-mom even without the exact title.

    Later when they came to live with us close to full time, I was going to teacher conferences more and running into awkward conversations. Finally I asked the kids, what should I call myself? They said step-mom was fine even if technically it wasn't true. Perhaps you should ask your step-daughter what she calls you to her friends? Or what she'd like you to refer to yourself as? Kids are kids and parents are parents. Kids don't usually get hung up on the legalities of marriage. If you are there for them, you are a parent. That's been my experience at least.

    And it sounds like you are doing a fabulous job!

  19. I too, am an "almost step mom" but to a six year old boy. It's… confusing to say the least. I helped raise my siblings, so what to do is not an issue, but instead, how far to go. I have rules of course, and they never change, but at the same time, Daddy is the first and last say on everything. So I've started just backing him up. It's difficult, because I know he needs discipline, which is not something he gets from mom, but I don't want to confuse him. At the same time, he needs to learn that you cannot survive off of pizza rolls and apple juice.

    I guess.. Well, from what I've seen, I'm like every other parent out there, Fumbling along as best I can, and trying to not do too much damage.

  20. Thanks for your article! I can definitely relate. I am a 25-year-old step mamma and was, for four years, in your exact same position of an awkwardly titled "step-mamma-to-be." My step daughter and my relationship has evolved over the years and it definitely hasn't been without its challenges… but like you say, what relationship is? I still struggle to find the right place in her life: not quite a mom, not just a friend, but somewhere all mixed up and in between. Somewhere along the line, though, we've managed to forge a very special and unique relationship that I think we both cherish. As for what to call her- after her dad and I got married last year, I introduced her to a friend as my "step daughter" at which point she thoughtfully replied "I'm your only daughter." From then on out, I dropped the "step", which I think has somehow made her more comfortable with our relationship.

  21. It sounds like you're doing a fantastic job, don't be so hard on yourself! I was the kid in this situation; my stepmom was in her mid 20's when she came into our lives. I was seven and my sister was 2. I imagine it was a very hard adjustment for her, but I can't remember any bad times. She was loud and fun and would put her foot down when she needed to. As years went by I did confide in her about boys and puberty (I waited on pins and needles for my dad to leave the house before I told her I needed pads). When my dad caught me wearing mascara, it was my stepmom who told him to lay off (her exact words were "If you haven't noticed, you had daughters, and they're going to act like girls sometimes"). We found out later that she couldn't have kids, and by that time my sister and I were very aware of what an impact she has had on our lives and we did our best to step up as daughters. I couldn't imagine a life without her. I'm very fortunate that my parents were kind enough to see the benefits of step parents and have never tried to take them away from my sister and I. I'm getting married next fall, and I've already started asking my step mom's advice on dresses, venues, cakes, and more. She's an integral part of my life, and I'm sure you will be the same to your step daugher.

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  22. I, too, am in the "almost stepmom" position. I'm also 24, my boyfriend's daughter is 12. She's a very atypical girl; a bookworm through and through, quiet, but a chatterbox, polite, but very hard to read. She's more than happy spending the whole day down on the couch with a fantasy novel. We don't talk much, but that's because I've never been much of a talker myself. I have a hard time reaching out to her, not that I haven't tried. Perhaps not hard enough. She's going through a rough time in her life right now–new baby and step siblings on her mom's side, she just started menstruating, and is about to become a teenager soon. I wish I could be more outgoing and prove that I want to be there for her, but she's very emotionally distant from me. Through talking with her father about it, I realized that my biggest fear is being rejected by a 12 year old. I've sort of always struggled with fear of rejection from others since childhood without knowing it. Now is the time to start facing that fear through her, because if I don't, I will never be 100% fulfilled when I decide to one day have children with her father. You can't start a new family with your partner without cementing the relationship with his kid(s) from a previous marriage first (Something her mom didn't understand) It'll take time, patience, and effort, but it has to happen.
    It's the little things that really count; asking if she wants to play frisbee at the park, or needs help with homework, making little gift gestures etc. Always make eye contact, smile, and listen when she speaks. That's how trust builds. Don't be afraid to show your sensitivity!

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