Respecting myself and my step-daughter’s mother

Guest post by Lily

parent and child
Photo by Flickr user skyseeker
We live in a world where being raised in a home with both of your parents is becoming a fairy tale. I am one of a rare breed whose parents are happily married and after thirty years are still very much in love. When I was a precocious teenager and acting out in school I found it funny to justify my actions with sarcastic coos of “I’m sorry, I’m having a difficult time right now. I’m coming to terms with coming from a two parent household.”

We as a society have taken to condemning step parents who have chosen to take a step back and treat their spouse’s children as just that… their spouse’s children. We expect all step parents to come in and command the role of parent as readily as if they had spawned the children themselves. But is it that easy? Is that really a reasonable expectation?

After meeting the little girl who was destined to be my future step daughter, it took me seconds to fall just as in love with her as I had her father. In those first days when we would take her to parks and playgrounds, I never imagined how complicated the role of Step Mother would become. In the beginning, the decisions were obvious. No candy before meals, change the diapers, she gets time out when she won’t eat at dinner. There are just some things you know as an adult. It wasn’t until almost a year later that I found myself pinned helplessly between the walls of parenting and step parenting.

I’ve been a practicing Buddhist for most of my life and my step daughter Isabel has always loved looking at and touching the figurines and small statues on my prayer alter. She’s never asked what they were for and I never tried to explain. Concepts as magnanimous as the vast universe, karma, and right contemplation are not meant for a three year old. I assumed that since neither of her parents were church-goers, the subject of a god and religion would be side stepped until she was old enough to pose her own questions.

You can imagine my surprise when one evening as I am putting her to bed she pulled the covers back and kneeled on the floor, her tiny hands folded, ready to say her goodnight prayers. This was the first time that I had ever seen her do this, but the unfortunate “time sharing” schedule of two evenings a week and every other weekend left us constantly unaware of her day to day developments … and at three years old there wasn’t a day that went by that she wasn’t changing.

As aghast as her tiny blessings had made me, I just stood there quietly, eyes wide watching this child barely more than a baby address a god she couldn’t name. My heart nearly stopped when Isabel realized I was kneeling beside her as I suspect her mother must have done, and her little voice rang out to me “Lily… Pray…”

I opened my mouth to respond but no words came. As the seconds drifted she remained on the floor hands folded, waiting for me to sit beside her but still none of the responses flying through my head seemed appropriate. My first impulses were towards what ever actions would be least offensive to her mother, but these all felt too dishonest and almost unfair. Could I really be expected to bow my head and sing a chorus of Amen that contradicted every belief I had about the universe and the human path? I felt guilty enough just standing there silently allowing this child’s mind to be corrupted with what I thought were unhealthy delusions and a morality intuned for every wrong reason.

No… I certainly couldn’t encourage or participate in such games no matter who it may offend. At the same time I couldn’t rationalize explaining to her that I believed god to be a fallacy. The subject had already been breached, I would only be confusing her. As much as I wanted to pick her up, sit her on my lap and explain to her that “God” was a choice. Some people {like me} didn’t believe that he existed. That someday when she was a big girl it would be her responsibility to explore the world and the reasonings of faith, but not now. It just wasn’t my place.

Who was I to contradict the ideas of her mother? To outlaw the religious practice of anyone. To insinuate to any degree that what her mother told her, is wrong. I know that if I were her mother and someone tried to implant doubt in her, or even worse confuse her about matters that I had already addressed with her, I would wage a war against them that they would never survive. The last thing I wanted to do was create turmoil between my home and her mother’s.

I stayed standing there a few moments more, mouth open but no answers to provide. I did the only thing that seemed reasonable. I turned tail and ran. I left the room, Isabel still sitting beside her bed wanting to finish her prayers and be tucked in. I went into the kitchen and told my husband that his daughter would like someone to say her prayers with. He paused for a moment but then seemed to understand and he went to finish what I couldn’t.

That was when I realized the difference between a step parent and a parent. The obligations are the same, but the liberties aren’t. Clothing her, feeding her, bathing her, these tasks were mine to accomplish. I was allowed to hold her when she cried, and I was even awarded the smiles that came with her. Birthdays. Summers at the beach. Baking cookies. But the molding of her as a person wasn’t mine to touch. There were boundaries and I was expected to maintain them even if it meant contradicting what I thought was right for her or any child. What I think is best is immaterial.

I love my step daughter. I maintain my relationship with her to the best of my ability with out violating the sanctity of a daughter’s relationship with her birth mother … but I often find myself pulling back from her. Wanting to become one of those step parents that remains cold and mute. It would be so much easier to be unattached. How do you face a child when there are limitations on your love?

Comments on Respecting myself and my step-daughter’s mother

  1. In a bit of the same vein I understand but with my nieces. I am also a practicing Buddhist and they are Mormom. My sister and I came from a Catholic home but went different ways. My sister has been in trouble with her bishop when one of her toddlers was holding one of my Buddhist texts in a picture that he saw, I have made sure not to read them that kind of material when they are little ever again. If they get curious as teenagers then I share or usually give them a copy of Siddhartha by Hesse since it is considered Literature in most curriculum and more info they still want it.
    But as for my nieces when they are young (there are 5 of these Mormon ones so 3 are still young) I don't fake it but I enforce the rules. They need to be respectful and pray before meals like they do at home. When they learn to read I will work with them reading their scripture based books if that is what they pick. I even attend some "family/indoctrination" events if they want me there.
    They know I am not Mormon and get wide-eyed if they ever see me in a skirt wondering if I converted, but I am honest with them. I am Buddhist, they are Mormon, we can respect each other.

  2. We have maintained the "this is what we do in this house, but you can follow the rules of whoever's house you're in." You are right that it is not easy. Because my exhusband isn't around much, it is easier for their step father to step in. Thank you for your post.

  3. I am glad for the comments I have gotten so far. The intention of the piece was to make people look at step parenting differently. If as a step mom I am distant from my step daughter I am accused of not loving her and wanting her out of my family. If I am too involved with her I get accused of trying to be her mother. There is little way to win with her. Most people try to tell me to just "Do what you think is best for you" and that no one would fault me for trying to do whats best. But there are a lot of circumstances where what I think her mother is doing is not best but its also not immediately harmful there for I have no right to intervene. These subjects are not even limited to things as major as religion. Some time its as simple as an appropriate punishment or how to best educate her. I am still learning how to be a baby sitter in my own home.

    • Is it possible to open up dialogue with her mother and your husband? I know as a birth mom (My comment below as AccidentallyMommy before I realized I wasn't using my name here like I normally do,) I would have welcomed the chance to confer and air out/entertain suggestions on a neutral ground without my daughter present, so we could all look at the suggestions/concerns as adults. Her mom may not feel the same way, but I always acknowledge that I'm human and don't always know best, and if we don't accept suggestions and entertain change, then we're not just limiting ourselves, we're limiting our children as well.

    • I want to thank you for this story. As a step-mother myself, this story hit home with me in a very powerful and emotional way. I understand the struggle you are going through all too well. In my situation, my husband and I had been dating a month when we found out that someone he had dated off and on in the past and had a one night fling with around the time we met was pregnant. Learning your role when you are involved from the first trimester is a tough situation and it has been so hard to figure out how I fit into the puzzle that this situation created. It is so nice to hear a story and emotions that resonate with your own, to be reminded that you are not alone. Again, thank you so much for sharing.

    • Its not a matter of being hard on myself. Its a matter of finding an appropriate place for silence. I am trying to create a congruence between my home and her mothers where as her mother feels more like our home is a regular babysitter that she is forced to use. And honestly…. I cant say that I blame her. I would be greatly uncomfortable with someone raising my child….

      • Lilly thank you for this article. I am step-mom in nearly every way, except officially. Even though my guy and I both try to come up with ways to teach the kiddo our own offbeat values, I still feel that there is only so much I can do because she isn’t mine. And I have to acknowledge that she has a mother(difficult as she can be) that has her own opinions on how to raise the kiddo.
        As for the recommendation to try to talk to the kiddo’s mom – we’ve tried that ourselves but there too many ill-feelings between the Mom and my guy that things didn’t work out. Now we just try to keep the peace as much as possible. We both hope that someday kiddo will see her mom for who she is and realize what we have tried to do for her. I just have nightmares that won’t ever happen and the kiddo will just make the same choices. And I mean that in the least judgy way possible.

  4. This is a great article! It really hit home with me. Though in a very different way. I'm dealing with a very christian Mother-In-Law while I'm more of a student of religious studies. She doesn't respect my spiritual beliefs at all, since they are not orthodox.

    I think it's great that you respect the beliefs of you're step daughters mother, instead of trying to force you're own beliefs onto your stepdaughter. And at the same time, I can see that you will probably be very open in discussing religious/spiritual matters with your step daughter once she starts asking them. I see this as a great opportunity for your step daughter to further explore spirituality. She's lucky to have different people to talk to when she gets to that stage in her life.

  5. I think it takes all kinds. I cherish my husband (who is not my children's biological father) to jump in 100% with the kids. I love his values, his beliefs and I want him to feel free to impart them to my children. They know Mom is different from him, is different from Dad. My husband is very NOT the African American, smooth, athletic, charismatic guy their father is. He is the extremely quiet, reserved, data-loving, geek-tastic white guy from Cleveland. I understood that by marrying him, and placing him in my children's lives, he would shape their individual characters forever. I wanted that for him, and for them because I treasure his perspective and want for them expanded horizons.

    I think "the molding of her as a person wasn't mine to touch" is overly simplistic. You are quite obviously molding her as a person every day. Your very decision to walk away and not discuss religion is molding her as a person. Your influence on her father will mold her in many ways. Your choice to distance yourself from her, or maybe on another day not to be distant. All of those things will have a profound effect. Silence is a powerful thing, regarding religion as well as many other things. And reservedness is not always bad – it can also be a strong message. But you are very obviously shaping a child's character if you are in a parenting role.

    My parents are still married also – 42 years.

    • Yes I understand that my mere existence in her life is going to change her. But the problem lies in what I see being best for her and how that would contradict her mothers. I am sure when she is older there will be more middle ground but as of now I stand as the women with the towel after a bath, and pancakes in the morning.

      • It’s thrit karma to get you in to their lives. And vice versa. Teach them virtues no matter what someone else thinks. I guess when you say you would find it hard if someone would raise your child, that is what brings doubt in you. Why? Every person can influence our kids in many good ways and they do; teachers, people around, even bloody TV.

  6. thanks for this! i'm just beginning to get to know my step son- he is 9, I've been with his dad for 7 years but circumstances have kept us all apart. I do not parent like his mother does- sometimes that is ok and sometimes it isn't- i just wish the communication between the adults in this relationship were stronger :sigh:

  7. I really love all the different perspective I get to read on offbeat mama! Thank you for yours! It was very thoughful and thought provoking. Perhaps it will get easier as your step daughter gets older and more able to understand your perspectives versus those of her biological mom.

  8. "That was when I realized the difference between a step parent and a parent. The obligations are the same, but the liberties aren’t."
    How perfectly stated. I wish there were a way to explain this to my daughter's about-to-be-stepmother.

    • Talk to the about-to-be step mom. Send her a link to this article. Trust me, I only wish DH’s Ex was nice enough to even think of doing something like that for me.

  9. I think you handled it as well as you could and that going to her father was the right thing to do. I had a stepmother that was very involved in our lives from the getgo, and I have a pretty good relationship with her but my sisters don't, probably the boundaries were blurred a little too much sometimes.

    So, I think you can find a balance and at the very least, you've recognized the major difference between a parent and a step-parent. Your stepdaughter is lucky to have such an insightful and sensitive stepmom.

  10. Lily, first off I want to thank you. As a birth mother, my daughter's step mother is more of a step monster, with incidents of severe emotional abuse and physical abuse in the name of "love" and "raising her right" having ruined what had the potential to be a loving relationship with my daughter. She is no longer allowed to communicate with my child in any way. The thank you is for being a decent human being, and for being a good mother, step or otherwise.

    Secondly, I'd like to offer you this perspective: don't think of it as loving with limitations. While there are limitations on the amount of core shaping you are required or even expected to do, that has the potential to free you up to shape in other ways. Don't look at the differences in religious philosophy as something that will hinder your relationship with your step daughter. Instead, look at it as a way for you to teach her the things you value most in conjunction with the religion her birth parents are choosing to instill in her. Find the points that intersect and emphasize those. Teach her how to love fully and how to be kind. Consider yourself the sprinkles on top of the ice cream, since both are equally as important. 🙂

    Lastly, if none of that works, just remember that a child can never have too much love, and simply showing her how deeply you care for her is more than enough.

    • I understand that the principle of love is still there, but its not as easy to love someone who is starting to reflect decisions and things that I am vehemently opposed too. Its really not as easy as it seems. It leashes the extent at which you can reach them.

      • I understand this and I am my son's birth mom. My son was curious about church so I had asked my ex's christian wife (step-mom) to take him and show him, and all of a sudden I had a very very different little boy. Not to mention the army toys my son plays with while there (his bio father agreed to not allowing him to play with such toys…so you can imagine my dismay!) And as hard as it is there are certain things we as parents (both step and bio) that we have to just let go. Now that my son is old enough I tell him exactly why I don't believe in God, and why I'm abhorrently against those types of toys. It's especially hard when they're little, but little people grow into rational big people. I feel that same leash sometimes, and he's my kid. You're not alone in feeling that way, but you are just as important to her, but that won't be apparent until she's much older

  11. I would just like to say thank you to everyone who read and commented. Especially those of you who really understood that my point was not about religious parenting or religion at all. That is just the example that I used. It is about the restrictions of teaching, and raising that are put on a step parent while all the while still expected to take care of and protect like your own.

  12. Thanks for this very thoughtful article. I am not a step parent but I have two step parents and its interesting to read the sort of issues they would have come accross raising us. My parents also had different religious beleifs and the beauty was that they all stood back and said "this is what we believe, you can believe whatever works for you".
    I think anything other than that approach (specifically raising the child one religion where the other parents dont have the same faith) could be very damaging and confusing to the child.

    • I really appreciated your article and I totally realize that it not about religion, but since it is the example you used, and particularly in response to this comment, I have to ask: Isn't Buddhism a religion? And, aren't there many more than two different ways to believe? I guess I'm just thinking that these are issues that may come up with your step-daughter in the future, when she is old enough to ask such questions.

      • Of course Buddhism is a religion. But I didnt want to teach her about such things until she was old enough to comprehend them and feel like her mother should have done the same thing. She did not. There are lots of ways to believe. I dont think that a three year old is capable of making her own decisions about which of them is right for her.

  13. Also I do realise this post was not just about the religious aspect. It must be very hard and I'm sure there will be issues like that raised often. I hope you are able to talk openly with the birth mom and step dad on most issues and come to compromises that work for everyone, and obviously best for your little girl.

  14. thank you for this, lots of food for thought!
    we're just starting out as separated parents, but i'm very aware that there will certainly be a step mother (soon) and possibly a step father at some point for my daughter. we've started out with putting her needs first, and plenty of communication (possibly something that 12 months ago could have saved our marriage, but thats neither here nor there!)
    its intersting to see where pitfalls can occur, especially with young children and religious beliefs since i'm a committed christian personally, and while my daughter comes to church its very informal and playgroup based for the children, as i'd rather she comes to her own decision, like i did!

    • Good luck to you. I often think that if I were to ever have a child of my own the most ideal situation would be for me to be an entirely single parent. I think I would find it difficult to relax my views on what is best even with my partner. I do understand where bio mom is coming from, it just makes my position in her life very awkward. There is always the mantra of "she is not my child". As uncomfortable as that is I dont think it is wrong. I wouldnt want someone else influencing my child in an opposing way either.

  15. I am such a fan of the Offbeat Mama posts on step-parenting, and I think this piece is really fantastic, Lily, both in terms of your honesty and your perspective on the matter. I am not a parent but I am a high school teacher who teaches teens of all types of family backgrounds: I am aware of the possibilities as well as limitations of my role in students' lives, but mostly I'm just honored that I can be part of their lives. In any case, I had heard many students' accounts of life with step-parents, and while it all depends on the people and the situation, I do believe that the students with step-parents who take on a role like the one you describe find the most harmonious relationships by the time the children have become teens. That's a pretty sweeping statement on my part but that's based on my experiences, and I understand that each person brings a lot of good points to the table; for example, it's obviously a different scenario when either home situation is abusive.

    This is just such a great quote: "That was when I realized the difference between a step parent and a parent. The obligations are the same, but the liberties aren’t." I am sure that, with time, your step-daughter will take interest in and appreciate your beliefs and traditions and probably even participate one day– and your not pressuring her and respecting boundaries is the very thing that makes that happen. 🙂 And all these experiences and perspectives will help her become an empathetic and open-minded person as she grows up.

    • I hope so. My fear is that because I am being respectful and staying quiet that my step daughter will start to mirror her mother, in the belief that there is only one way. I know that there a lot of those people out there, of all faiths. People who belief that it is impossible to be wrong. Sadly this doesnt just apply to bio moms religion, its more a complete statement of her parenting. Impossible to be wrong.

  16. Thank you for this post. I don't have much experience with step-families – my parents are still married going on thirty years this year, and my husband and I have a wonderful marriage. I guess I've never really thought about these challenges and how difficult it must be to have all that responsibility, while still maintaining the boundaries that are not even clearly laid out, but must be found. Kudos to you for not only accepting that difficult situation, but working with it and not being cold.

  17. As a stepchild to two very different stepparents, I really appreciated this article. My stepdad was very much like you. He was always aware, that, yes I had a dad and it was not his place to try to be that for me. He was there, just like you said – for softball games, birthdays, smiles, to listen when stuff went horribly wrong but he never tried to force his ideals on me. In fact, the first time I ever heard his ideas of God was when I was sixteen, and I brought it up to him.
    My stepmother on the other hand, was there to tell me exactly how I needed to live my life and to tell me that at eleven I needed to get baptized in her church because I lived with her and all the other eleven-year-olds were getting confirmed. And it was a nightmare. It just bred resentment as she tried to tell me how horrible my mother was and exactly what my mother was doing wrong.
    So good for you for realizing when to step back and know that it's not your place! And look forward to the day when your stepdaughter comes to you on her own and says "I really want to know more about all of this stuff you do." Best of luck to you!

  18. This really reasonated with me as I was in the car with my two step-daughters (10 and 6) and my husband earlier this week and the eldest asked me what church I went to. She is being rasied catholic by her mother (where she spends the vast majority of her time). This is an arrangement her father agreed to although it doesn't extend to our home as well. We mostly try not to interfere. Anyway, when faced with a direct question I responded with the truth, but it definitely caught me off guard.

    Regardless of the specifics, I completely understand the dillema you feel. I struggle every day with how to be a positive influence to these two amazing girls and understanding my position/place in their lives.

  19. lily – i really think the best thing you can do is show her your own example. she sees your altar, and as she gets older you can explain how you use it. children do choose belief systems; they aren't just little robots being programmed by their evil christian parents. i know many people raised christian for whom it just didn't "stick." i, on the other hand, was the first born-again in my birth family (and the first to jump ship from that religion once i got in my teens).

    i have a stepdaughter in her teens now. it looks like she is needing to heavily reject both me and her biomom, but some stepkids will rebel more against their same-gender bioparent at some point. (it makes sense, psychologically, with differentiation and individuation and etc etc.) it could be so valuable for your stepdaughter to have an example of non-judgemental, mellow spiritual practice if she goes through a rabidly anti-religion phase in response to her mother's rigid beliefs.

    • You are probably right, and as she gets older and is capable of posing her own questions I will be more than happy to explain to her. But at her age there is no way for me to bring up the possibility of something other than what she has already been told. Telling her that what her mother said is in my opinion wrong, would do worse than just disrespect her mother. It would confuse her.

  20. Thanks for posting this. I have a step-daughter (well, my boyfriend's daughter) who lives out of state, so although we see her often for the circumstances, it only for a weekend or a week every month or two. I struggle with how involved to be or not to be all the time, not just when she is here. It seems that you always hear these stories of a new step parent falling in love with a stepchild and having it all be perfect immediately, but I can't imagine that is the reality for most people; it certainly isn't for me!

    • Well, I have had experiences with friends of my husbands, that are just a little traumatizing. One time a female friend gave her a tiny little lolli pop on our way to a barbeque. I wasnt opposed to the lollipop just her eating it while we were driving. It was easily small enough for her to fit into her mouth. How many times have you needed to slam on your brakes because of someone else, or magic traffic lights or things like that? A million? So the last thing we needed was her having a lollipop slammed down her throat. I took it from her and told her she could have it later. My husbands friend, I am sure felt slightly embarrassed and probably as if I was accusing her of being immature in some way, although I said nothing to her. Later that evening I heard her say to her boyfriend something along the lines of "She thinks shes her mother"…. I certainly know that I am not her mother. But I am still responsible for her… It gets aggravating. There is no way to win.

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