The ups and downs of step-and-biological parenting in tandem

July 28 2011 | Guest post by Michelle
All photos by Michelle.

Eight years ago I became a stepmother to two kids. We share their care with their biological mother — they're half with us, half with her. At the time, my step-son was eight and my step-daughter was four.

My husband and I got married in 2006, and one of the main reasons we both decided to get formally married was the kids. It meant a lot to both of us that they know we were committed to each other as a family. While we both firmly believe that being married isn't the only way to show commitment, it's what we wanted to do. I made vows to the children, to always respect them and love them, and I gave the kids a special necklace each as part of the ceremony. For our "honeymoon" we took the kids to Sydney (Australia) and went to the zoo. I gave birth to our daughter in 2008.

Step-parenting has by turns been the most awesome and the hardest shit I've done in my life — it is second only to having my "own" child. Here are a few of my positive (and negative) experiences:

Why step-parenting can be hard

  • You are there for an awful lot of firsts, lasts, and emergencies, but aren't high on anyone's list to congratulate, feel for, or generally admire as awesome.
  • Sometimes, people can be unkind.
  • You're in-between all the time. It is a liminal state, both being a "step" and not a "real" parent, and only having the kids half or most of the time. We are always waiting — waiting for the kids to arrive, to leave, to be told things, to get informed, to get on with it. And I will forever be waiting to transition from "just" being their stepmother.
  • You don't get as much say, or, as we call it round our place, "hand." The real parents have the hand. You have maybe a couple of fingers. Maybe. This isn't a power struggle thing, or a "real" parents are arseholes thing. It is what it is. The longer I'm with the family, the less this is an issue (my theory is that I am gradually growing more hand), but it hurt a few times in the early years. And your hand will never be as definitive as the real parent's hand. Or recognised at all, legally speaking.

You will probably never be totally and completely comfortable calling your stepchildren "my kids" or "my daughter" or "my son."

  • No one, and no institution, will EVER ask you to something, have a "day" for you, send you shit in the mail, inform you of things, or, on occasion, be entirely sure you are allowed to pick up the kids from school. When your stepdaughter's teachers are just wonderful, they will get her to make you a mother's day card, which makes you cry.
  • You will probably never be totally and completely comfortable calling your stepchildren "my kids" or "my daughter" or "my son." No matter how okay they may be with that, or who you are talking to, you may always feel a twinge of dishonesty about it.
  • The word "stepchildren" is insufficient. For example, I had a stepmother for a time, when my biological father married a third time, who I scarcely even knew! She could call me her "stepdaughter." Referring to my husband's daughter as my "stepdaughter" is several degrees of magnitude more my "daughter" than I even was to this woman. I know, this is the case with just regular old "mother" and "father" too, but that added step… some days it chaps my hide.
  • You always and forever have to live with your partner's history — and their ex. This is especially the case when your stepdaughter is high needs disabled and will never be independent. Just think on that for a moment. That is a shitload of time to be handling your partner's ex. Their life "before." In our case, it affects where we live (schools), what work we can take (no interstate or overseas — custody issues), our travel (see above), our money (don't ask), our time, our plans. Everything. Forever.
My step-daughter and daughter bonding over bath time.

…but here's why step-parenting is awesome

  • You get kids. For free!
  • You generally miss a whole lotta hard years, though of course this isn't the case for some. But generally, you get to miss the sleep deprived newborn and interesting toddler phases. Which of course does make me sad sometimes, but also… once has frankly been quite enough, thank you!
  • Again: you get kids! You get a part in a whole person's life, being there for them, being a part of who they become. Anytime you get an opportunity to do that for a person, it's a privilege.
  • You get love. Sometimes it's teenaged monosyllabic love, but sometimes it's squeal with delight on seeing you love.
  • You get a family. There are no real words for that kind of awesome.
  • Your kids get a family. The relationship my step-children and our daughter, Lolly, share has been a joy to me, and to her. It's very, very special.

I have, as you can tell, a lot to say about this stuff. I know my "hard" list is longer than my "awesome" list. But the awesome stuff is just qualitatively more excellent, and outweighs the negatives — what it comes down to is this is your family. Full stop.

  1. Thank you for being an awesome step-mom! My step-mother and I had a rocky relationship when I was a teenage, but it has blossomed over the years. Now I talk to her more often than I talk to my dad! I always send her a mother's day card and tell her how glad I am to have her in my life. Hooray for step-moms (and step-families!)!

  2. While you make good points I'd like to say that my 'step mom' is my whole world. She is more like a mom to me than my real mom and I love her for being who she is and while there isn't a 'step parent' holiday when mother's day rolls around it's her I spend 5 minutes in the card isle trying to find something that says just the right thing. I have known her nearly my whole life but have only lived with her twice [she and my dad split up when I was 7] and through some miracle she managed to be such a big part of my life that I couldn't imagine life without her. We had our rough years and I'm sure I went down the 'you aren't my real mom' road at least once but she hung in there and to this day when I'm 21 and have 2 kids of my own she has much more than just a hand. I guess what I'm trying to say is hang in there and you'll get it all. Maybe not quite like my relationship but when there are handing out dances at their weddings I'm sure theyll share one with you.

  3. This is a really wonderful article. I'm not sure why but I read it and burst into tears. I have a wonderful almost 9 year old stepson and an almost 3 year old biological daughter. I have it pretty good compared to a lot of other families/stepfamilies, but it is still hard. You totally captured what is great about it and what totally sucks. Thank you!

  4. LOVE this so hard. I'm mom to a 9yo and step-mom to an 11yo and 13yo and I can't imagine my life without the chaos!

  5. Thank you thank you THANK YOU for this article. Your assessment of the difficulties and joys of this crazy gig is spot on.

    "•You will probably never be totally and completely comfortable calling your stepchildren "my kids" or "my daughter" or "my son." No matter how okay they may be with that, or who you are talking to, you may always feel a twinge of dishonesty about it."

    THIS. 100% THIS. So true and there is no solution… it's just how it is. When people ask if I have children, I usually say that I've aquired them. 🙂 I hate saying "my husband's kids"… they're mine too! I've been to the soccer games, man…

    Hooray once again to OBM for presenting another picture of step-parenting that is real and positive.

    • i feel this so much! i live with my boyfriend and his 4 year old daughter, who i've been raising since she was 2 and barely talking and she now calls me mom. i don't want to say 'boyfriends daughter' because it sounds cold. i don't want to say 'stepdaughter' because it's not technically true.

      my 'step' dad adopted me when i was 7 and i only consider him/call him my dad now. i can't wait for the day that her biological mom (who has seen her once in 2 years) will give up rights so i can do it. someday someday sigh

  6. Thanks for this article… I'm a stepmom (full-time) to an almost 14 year old boy and (part-time) to a 7 year old boy. And I'm expecting my first biological child in January. I have to say, one of the things I'm looking forward to about having my own biological child is the (biological) link that will be formed through the baby to my stepsons…

  7. Thanks for sharing! I find the point about never being fully comfortable calling the kids yours interesting, from the perspective of a step-child. My mother and stepfather have been married since '98, when I was 11. While our situation is a bit different — my dad died in '94, while my stepdad's ex-wife is still alive — there is a lot of truth to that now, even as all but one of the kids are adults.

    I know my mother isn't as close to my older brothers, who never lacked a mother, though she still thinks of the eldests children as her grandkids; and in his speech at my wedding, my stepdad commented about my 'real' dad and how happy he would have been. The sentiment was sweet, but I don't know if I told him he was all the father I could have asked for.

    Rambling comment aside, I just mean to say that it's something I hadn't thought of from the other side of the fence. I'd say my siblings and I have all blended comfortably by now, but I never considered if our parents ever struggle with, "These are my kids and those ones are my stepkids."

  8. You are SO right about 'the waiting'. I am not a step-mother–my partner is. We have the kiddos (my biological children) part time, and their Dad has them part time. We are always waiting for pick-ups, arrivals, check-ins when communication is required. The transition each week is difficult. It always feels like a storm pushing it's way through our house, only to have the boys leave again as soon as we're all settled.
    I know that my wife has always felt a little 'less than' in her step-parent role. It doesn't matter how great of a relationship she has with each of the boys, or that they wouldn't know what to do without her. She is still the other parent–outside of the bio-parents. I definitely think it's much more difficult for step-parents in a family where both of the bio-parents are completely involved. There's always that other person that comes along with the partner and children you love.
    My wife and I just learned, yesterday, that we are having a baby together! Because we are both women, this was obviously a very intentional pregnancy. I know that one layer of this new baby joy is that my wife knows she will get to be a full parent with full say. Any parenting choices will be made between the two of us. The world will know this is her child!

    • That is just totally what it's like some weeks, hey, we just all get settled in, then bam, they're off again. This really effects my daughter, too. It's improved a fair bit now my step-son lives majority with us (he does every other weekend with his mother, now).

      And congratulations to you and your wife!!

  9. Great post! I have an amazing step-mom who my dad married after my mom died (I was 19). My step-mom was with me in the delivery room when both my kids were born.

    Your family looks adorable and you're so obviously in love with all of them!

  10. awesome post! I really relate to the naming of the relationship part. My Dad started a relationship with the most awesome woman when I was already an adult, but I love her so much I would love to refer to her as my mum. Then again it seems a litle wrong and raises questions from other people. I mean she never got to take care of me as a child. So "Stepmum" feels weird, "Mum" feels weird and even "Friend" doesnt really cut it. I imagine this must be totally amplified when everyone is growing up together.

    • I totally agree, I starting calling my step-dad, "Dad" in my twenties, and it was hard to get used to even then. Lots of layers of meaning to those words, even if we have (like in my case) a bio-dad who just wasn't there.

      Neither of my step-kiddo's call me "mum", and that's ok, too.

    • The parenting situation when I was growing up was really complicated (four dads – one bio, one foster, one dad-like priest, and one step; and two moms – one bio, one foster). I didn't call my step-father "dad" until I was in my 30's, mainly because I'd grown up calling my foster father "Dad" and I couldn't make that change-over until several years after he died.

      But I ALWAYS felt like his little girl 🙂

  11. Wow, thanks everyone! It's an amazing feeling to know you're speaking your own truth, that speaks to other people's truth's as well. So thank you.

  12. my situation is much the same. I have 6 year old step-TWINS! talk about a handful. Their Bio-mom has absolutely no rights where their concerned so they're mine 100% of the time. I prefer it that way actually. I AM the mom. The only mom. And even though they call her "mommy" and me "Angela", my name has never sounded sweeter. Its ME who they run to when they scrape a knee. Even if "mommy" is around.

    People often ask about how my pregnancy was with them…being twins and all. Instead of going into detail about it, I just say "i wouldn't know. I adopted them" and leave it there.

    Back in Feb I gave birth to my daughter. I was afraid of what it would do to our dynamic as a family. But honestly, not a thing is different. I don't love anyone more than the other. Its amazing how God created moms to love the kids they care for, regardless of genetics.

    Thank you for sharing your story. Its good to see the community of step-mamas out there. <3 you all sisters.

  13. This is a great article and your family look awsome! Reading all these articles on step-parenting are starting to make me feel like a bad person, though. I know I could never be with someone with kids, the idea of being involved with children just doesn't work for me. I admire all of you so much for doing this, I know I'm a selfish person but I could never deal with being a parent without choosing it (and in my case I think it's a choice I'll never make).

    • V, I was so totally not going to have kids. Never something I wanted, never something I considered. But I met this person who I KNEW would be a partner for life… and he came with children. So, off we go! I had no idea I would be a mom. And I'm not. Sort of. 🙂

      It isn't always easy, but in some ways I get to do all the fun parts of parenting and not much of the hard stuff. They have 2 parents who mostly agree on the child-raising stuff and do the heavy lifting… much of our early relationship was similar to that of a cool aunt or hip friend of dad's. Our situation is a little atypical (they live at Mom's, Dad is over there every day after school to hang/drive/cheer at games, we set our weekends as we go…) but their great relationship with their Mom makes it easy for me to just be an adult who cares about them. And over time it evolves into something more parental, but not the same.

      Each situation is different… I'm lucky and they're great kids. It could easily be very different, but I wouldn't change it now.

      • I am happy to read you are happy and found a way to deal with both your and the children's needs! It's true that when real love happens you just go with it, I guess, but I'll keep avoiding parents. As you say, it may have been very different, and I am not ready for that challenge 😉 Take care and thanks for the reply, it made me more hopeful 🙂

      • Wow, it is almost like you read my mail, Amy. I (also an Amy) was never having kids and I was very happy with my decision. I wound up divorced from my husband and very thankful we chose not to have children. But, then, I fell in love with a handsome Marine vet with a daughter. So, now we have a family. We do family hugs before bed and play cards or a board game at least once a week. She's with us two weekdays and every other weekend and my heart just about burst recently when, at the spa party I was throwing for her (that her mother did not contribute to in any way), she walked Mommy over to the whiteboard and showed Mommy her drawing. That drawing was of Daddy, Miss Amy, and Me (her) and she wrote the words 'Family3, love, peace, and hope' around it. Mommy didn't look very pleased, but she was polite and said it was nice. I will never be Mommy, but I will be there for our girl.

  14. Thank you for posting a stepmom post! I became a full-time stepmother of a monster girl in her early teens when I was just 21. It was the hardest thing I have ever done and was a huge shock. Some years later, she is an extremely well-adjusted 17 year old who I generally enjoy spending time with. It's extremely hard work, but it's so worth it! That and I don't have to have babies of my own. I'm so set!

  15. This gives me hope! I have been a step mom for 6 difficult years. I love the kids and I hope eventually they'll understand that I only have their best interest at heart. Even if it does make me the evil stepmother for a while.

    • I hear ya! I love hearing all the uplifting stories, because it gives me hope that one day my situation will be similar.

      I've been a "step-mom" for 3 years to two precious little boys. 4 and 7.

      When I first started dating my now Fiance, things with their bio-mom were really rough. To the point that I was scared of her. I heard a lot of things from the boys like "My mommy says you're bad", "Daddy, you should marry mommy". Which was all fed to them by her. It was hard to hear but I'm dealing.

      Things seem to be getting better and she's been a lot more reasonable lately. Although, we'll see what happens when the next major life shift happens. (ie. we get married in October, and/if we have a child of our own).

  16. Nice to be reminded I am "not alone" after a week of crazy with my pre-teen stepdaughter! I have three; 10, 8, 6, one bio-daughter and one on the way. Also a stepmum I don't know and a stepdad I don't get along with, so all facets of these relationships. 🙂

  17. Wow – this really hit home. I am a step-mom to 2 girls I have been with since they were 2 and 4 and are now 9 and 11, and share custody with their bi-mom 50/50. I am considered "mom 2" even by bio-mom's standards but when it really comes down to it, I feel I have limited say in the parenting department, which is most difficult because I probably spend the most time with them out of all of us. Don't get me wrong, we always talk about how lucky we are to have "extra" people to share all this love with and try to co-parent as one big family. I truly consider the "ex" as a family member and we have worked very hard over the years to be a parenting unit as much as possible.
    With that said – this is by far the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. And of course there are MAJOR rewards but one of the hardest things for me that I don't think was mentioned too much is the difference in parenting styles and how that negatively affects (more and more the older they get) the relationship I have with my stepdaughters, mostly the older one. I have always been the "disciplinarian" in that I want them to get enough rest and go to bed at a reasonable time, I want to protect them by monitoring their Netflix usage and text messages (this is with the 11 year old and in my opinion for good reason) and want them to eat healthy, limit their screen time, make sure they read as it is part of their homework, etc. – all things that are a product of how much I CARE about them… the HARD part of my life is when they come home exhausted and miserable because mom doesn't have a bedtime at her house… or they have a stomach ache because all they ate at mom's was sugar or fried food – literally ZERO veggies or fruit… or I find out the 11 year old has spent SO much time playing video games at her mom's and is so obsessed with it that she peed herself because she wouldn't get up to go to the bathroom… or they burst out crying and throw a tantrum because I ask them to read (which again is part of their homework) but they are mad at me because mom doesn't make them do it… these things KILL me a little inside every single time. And now we are becoming the "NOT FUN" house and the 11 year old prefers to be at her mom's because she literally has no rules there. And I am worried. Worried about their future. About how they are going to turn out having no structure and no real "parenting" at their other house. The worst part is that their dad, although he cares and loves those girls fiercely, leans more toward the "no structure" and "no rules" style of parenting, leaving me as the bad guy time and time again. In my mind I am fighting for those girls and their safety and well-being, but I guess what I'm really wondering is… AM I DOING THE WRONG THING? Just stressing myself out, potentially giving myself ulcers with worry and anxiety over something I can not and will never be able to control? Someone just tell me to let it be and I will… :-/

    • You live in your house. You are one of two adults there. You have a right to be part of the decision-making process and to speak up about your own values and opinions, and to have them be respected. That isn’t trying to be a parent to stepchildren. It’s standing up for your own rights, in your own home. I have been a stepmother for more than 30 years and while I agree that stepparents need to be very careful about trying to parent their steps, they also need to be sure they aren’t setting up a situation where children have more power than adults. There’s a lot of opportunity for manipulation and inappropriate behavior once that kind of dysfunctional model is created. Your ideas about how children should behave should be part of the discussion- you may not be their biological parent, but they live at your house!

  18. Thank you! This nailed everything right on the head. Most step parenting stories on the internet are so fear inducing, this one is so real and true to my family. I feel so alone in step parenting. I have an awesome partner but all of my friends have biological kids and refuse to acknowledge me as any kind of parent. It’s lonely and difficult to navigate these very new waters. We are discussing having a kid of our own and I would like to get reasonable advice from someone on how that will change things. I’m terrified of the boys feeling left out or of being resented for wanting another kid.

  19. Finding this has really helped brighten my week, I became a step mum 1 year ago to a gorgeous 7 year old girl and I have found myself stuck in the 'Super StepMum' trap – trying so hard to do everything and feeling rejected when it is always Daddy SD wants.

    Feeling like this breeds negativity and resentment and it has really helped to have a reminder of all of the positives! They sure do out-weigh the negatives!!

    Thank you for sharing xxx

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