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. oh my goodness. thank you so much for writing this. i have been in almost the identical situation with my step daughter. i too am a practicing buddhist, and my step daughter’s bio mum is raising her a christian. she too loves to find all the buddahs in the house and touch my alter (she once asked me “Buddha, you like that guy?) it had no impact on my life until now (she’s just about to turn 3), and she prays, and sings songs from church, etc. and seems confused as to why my husband and i dont.

    my husband and i both have faith that if we keep our hearts and ears open and provide a house thats safe to ask questions in, she’ll make up her own mind when she’s older, and we hope we can support her journey through finding her own spirituality.

    it is that defining moment (or one of what i’m sure will be a lifetime full)that sort of makes you realize you, as you say
    “The obligations are the same, but the liberties aren’t”

    also, i wanted to thank everyone who posted positive messages about still having an impact (positive one) on step children. sometimes its hard to keep going knowing you aren’t involved in making decisions on how they are raised, and trusting that you can still be shaping them just by being your loving self.

    many many thanks for this blog Lily

  2. I am a step mother of seven. Thank you for writing my struggle. I am "allowed" in to feed, house, clothe, drive and re-arrange my schedule, but not allowed anything else. If I want to spend time with these children, I have to spend time with their birth mother as well. If I am good, and they all feel generous, I get to grandmother when other sitters are unavailable. It is far more complicated than this, but I want to say thank you. ~Kelly

  3. Reading your post was really helpful to me today. Having yet another encounter with my fiance’s ex, about her desired limitation on my step-parenting left me feeling quite raw. Your post reminds me that I’m not alone in this struggle. Thank you.

  4. I get the added difficulty of being a step-parent and step-GRANDparent. (And I’m only 26!) The step-kid with the kid is only 21 and single; the baby is 3. There are so many times that the kid doesn’t seem to act like an adult and I have to try to parent her and parent the baby all while trying to not over-step anything or having anyone resent me. And my man? He doesn’t help by just telling his kids that they have to “do what Am says”. He wants it to be my job to parent his (supposedly) grown children. Makes for an interesting life sometimes. O_O

  5. Thank all of you for your comments and stories. I am still battling my step daughters bio mother on a daily basis. I am constantly being told that I dont “really understand” because I dont have any children of my own. I was unaware that rational reasonable thinking was dependent on whether or not my uterus had ever been distended. I am beginning to believe that being a step parent may actually be harder than being a bio parent. I believe that if a lot of the people out there had to go through what I do, in order to raise a child there would be a lot less parents in the world.

    • why the bullying?

      is bio mom envious? angry? been undermined by anything you do/have done?

      i agree that you dont need your own kids to be a good parent and i suspect this is just an excuse to get at you because if you had kids, the excuse might then be: you have your own kids so ‘you dont understand mine’

      get your partner in a room and talk through this. if you have a supportive mom/friend, get their take on the matter.

      i find that sometimes i do things unknowingly that may have upset someone and i just need a pair of eyes outside the circumstances to point me in the right direction; other times its a genuinely irrational individual who’s stirring the pot and generating politics and rifts. either way, talk it out.

      dont let this simmer since it seems like its becoming a habit for bio mom to belittle you in such an unfair (and ludicrous) manner

      • So good to read this.

        I’m a stepmom to a beautiful 5-year old who accepted me from day 1. She knew me as a friend of her dad’s and when we announced we were in love, her reaction was “yes!!! kiss, kiss, kiss!!!”. So now we’re 10 months later and everything has been wonderful with her, except… the bio mom. She can’t cope with the fact that her daughter has a connection with her stepmom and tries to talk her out of it. She is with us every other week, but bio mom is making sure she still sees her dad’s place as “sleeping over”. She literally said she won’t give me permission to see her daughter when dad is not around (he sometimes has to travel for work), and snapped “if she wants kids so badly, she should make her own”. This was talking on the phone to my partner, she would never talk about it to my face.

        I have done everything possible, sent her an e-mail in the beginning telling her that I understood it must be hard for her to see that her daughter is connecting to me, but that I would never try to be her mom in any way. I told her that I respect her a lot and would really like to talk to her about it. She just said she understands and is perfectly clear with my role. It has left me wondering what she thinks my role is…

        Reading this has confirmed my worst suspicion, it is harder to be a stepmom than a mom. There’s really nothing I can do right. Definitely need to find people in the same boat to gather up some strength to confront bio mom.

        The worst thing is, her daughter is the victim, she is being manipulated and told a hundred times over that I’m not her mother. Up until now she has taken it quite well but I’m worried what it’ll do to her in the long term.

    • I can say with absolute certainty that being a step parent is eons harder than being a bio parent. As a new mom to a six month old, and a stepmom to a 6-year-old little girl, the intricacies and delicate nature of walking the rope between being an overall parent, and then recognizing your boundaries with the individual child, are daunting and exhausting at times. I love my six year old, she’s a sweetheart. But because I’m ‘not the parent’ (although my spouse is 100% supportive), sometimes I feel it is not my place to implement certain values that I have – that I certainly will raise my six month old with. But this is a very long conversation for another day. Now to get back to my original comment!

    • I am very late in here, but I am also a step-mom in all but name. I wonder, does your stepdaughter’s bio mom also feel that women who have adopted children don’t ‘really understand’ because they didn’t give birth? Being a Mom is in action and deed; it’s in how you address their very real concerns when they ask you the hard questions; it’s letting them into your Master Bath at 3am to wash the spaghetti barf out of their hair while poor Daddy cleans up the other bathroom (even though you have a massive vomit-phobia); it’s making sure that Mommy gets a card on Mother’s Day from the kiddo even if you don’t get one; it’s making sure Daddy has a present from her to open because Mommy might forget and our girl would be so upset if she didn’t have one to give. Just know that bio-mom is wrong about that. We’re in a silent battle with bio-mom about discussing puberty and how life changes. Our girl is big for her age and is somewhat heavy, so she’s developing early. I feel that she needs to learn what is going to happen before it does happen and she is terrified. But, bio-mom doesn’t want to admit or deal with the fact that baby girl is growing up, so she is refusing to allow a discussion. I am so worried that our girl is going to have her first period at school or somewhere away and not have any idea what’s going on. But, I have stayed quiet other than voicing my thoughts to my beloved. But, if our kiddo asks me a question, I will respond honestly. I owe her that. Good luck, dear! Just keep swimming!

  6. This is so interesting…I am a new stepmom, and my stepson is Jewish, whereas I am agnostic, and my husband is an atheist.

    I have no problems with my SS’s choice of religion (as long as it remains HIS choice) but when talking of arranging time for him to go to shabbat this summer, I made it clear that I would not lie to him about what I believed.

    Then again, I am a very relaxed agnostic, and am more concerned with him developing critical thinking skills and reaching his own conclusions. I am more concerned with pressures dealing with his bar mitzvah in 5 years, as the ex has, I think, different ideas of what an appropriate budget for that will be.

    I am dreading the inevitable argument about the financial obligations she feels we should have towards it vs. what we think is slightly ridiculous amount of money to pay towards something, when we would rather be saving for college. Or even a guitar or robot parts, or something. (Yes, we are big geeks.)

    The whole idea of obligations vs. liberties is something I think I will continue to struggle with. I have no desire to “take the place” of his mom — nor can I! — but as a responsible person, and as a stepparent who has a genuine love and concern for this child, I don’t feel that I need to put my beliefs on the back-burner because I am a step.

    And I think I would be doing a disservicesto him, as an adult role model, if I did so.

    Then again, I am an educator, so I am pretty comfortable with the practice of saying to kids that there’s room in the world for lots of different beliefs, and that my main concern is not really what he chooses to believe, but that he learns to make intelligent, informed decisions.

    And I may disagree with his mom on some things, but I think that this is something we both agree on.

    It’s a learning curve.

  7. Everyone chooses to handle situations different I suppose. While I do feel like my role as a step-mother is leaps and bounds different from being a biomom there are some things that I do take responsibility for with my step-children. I don’t believe I should be expected to worry about their health, safety, etc.. But keep my nose out of what they learn and the people they grow up to be. I’m quite proud to say that three years ago I was the first person either of my step-children had seen with facial peircings, visible arm tattoos, or wild colored hair. Today, they just know this as being part of who their step-mom is. I know that when my step-kids grow up they will know that some people just look different, and while I can’t control weather they judge people on their looks, I think knowing, loving, and caring about someoone who looks different is starting them on a good path to being accepting adults. I feel the same way about religion, despite both being raised as Christians, they know that their father and I are not Christians and while we love to go to church when the kids are in plays, we don’t participate in prayer or go for the purpose of any faith, we only go because we love them and they wanted us to see them do something they were proud of.

  8. “limitations to [your] love”. i would have said the opposite.

    you love her so much, you would allow her to be whom she wanted to without compromising her, your relationship with her mom, yourself as a parent, step-parent and your integrity as an individual.

    your strength (because i can’t imagine it was easy to hold back your opinion/judgement) is invaluable. something i’m sure she will grow to acknowledge and appreciate.

    glad your partner was understanding and supportive, but it definitely sounds like something you as a family need to talk about so all adults are on the same page

  9. I would hesitate to label anyone’s religious beliefs as “wrong”, even to myself in my head, because this effects how you act and react to situations containing these beliefs.

    “Different” is a much more inclusive and less judgmental way to approach such beliefs. There are many paths and they all offer something of worth. In my family (my immediate nuclear family, parents and siblings and siblings’ partners) there is a Mormon,a Catholic, 2 types of Christian, 2 Jews, and 2 Pagans. I don’t agree with all the beliefs of all of my family members, but I respect and acknowledge them.

    I use “that’s not how/what I believe but I respect your way” a lot, in both my internal and external dialog.

      • You don’t have to believe in another faith to respect it and its practitioners.

        I respect the beliefs of my spouse, my parents and my siblings even though I do not share them and they are in some ways diametrically opposed to my own.

        My mother respects my beliefs despite them being very different than her own and those I was raised with. Neither of us believes in the others’ religion, neither of us is threatened by the other’s choices.

  10. Thank you thank you thank you for this post! I have been struggling lately with this new role as a stepmom.

    My situation is also quite complicated – I had just gotten out of a 5+ year relationship, was with my new spouse (wanting to ‘take things slow’ – oh Universe, you are a silly one!) for exactly one month before we found out we were expecting our little girl, despite using protection.

    As the past year has culminated and we have moved in together, I have become not only a mom, but a stepmom — our baby is now six months old and we have my stepdaughter every weekend.
    As much as I love her and want to be an influence in her life, sometimes I find I just need to ‘disengage’. My partner is an amazing father but tends to overcompensate and allows his daughter to control him and make decisions that I feel adults should be making. She regresses and he can sometimes baby her. I have been able to step in and do the best I can, but even then — sometimes I find resentment and frustration building. Sometimes I don’t know if I’m really strong enough to do this. I hate the feelings of disgust I feel growing within. It worries me to no end =(
    If I can be brutally honest, there are times I wish I wasn’t a stepparent. It is just so damn hard. It creates such complications. I love both of my girls but feel the family dynamic completely change once Friday hits. Suddenly it’s a big fiasco, running around, the house is a mess and come Monday.. I can breathe again. I know this is just a taste of the coming years with my six-month-old…but at least I will have time to adjust as opposed to experience the whirlwind.

    I’m sorry to unload all of this. It has just been in the forefront of my brain for the past couple of weeks, and I have been struggling with how to cope. I’ve found a few stepparent forums/message boards and am dismayed that most of them are stepparents saying how much they hate their stepkids, how they are entitled, spoiled brats (which my stepdaughter has tendencies of), how they get these angry, resentful feelings…and I hate that I can relate. That I feel that way.
    And it’s funny, because I’ve thought to myself “I’d love to read an article from offbeat families about their take on this. They would be so balanced. So honest, and yet mature.”
    And you touched base on many of the same things I feel.

    Okay, I will finish up this little novella I’ve written!
    Thank you for the post and I hope to read more, and to find more positive and yet honest connections with other stepparents like this. Thank you Lily! (And I agree, you did amazing with your stepdaughter, and she is lucky to have you!)

    • The reason so many step kids act poorly around step parents is because they get to. You are the person who is not allowed to genuinely punish them. You might be able to send them to their room but you arent able to make them feel bad. As step parents we also have the tendency to want to make our step kids “like” us which changes the hand we use with them. Parents KNOW their kids love them. We dont have that security. We have to work harder.

    • I can understand – I came into my relationship and our girl was just seven. She is Daddy’s Girl and, as an only child and only grandchild, she was spoiled. It was an unusual dichotomy, a very polite and kind girl who was very used to getting her own way. She opened a birthday card from a friend of her father’s and shook it, looking at me and my Mom to ask, “Where’s the money?” But, it turns out, she had never received a card without a check or money in it. She also had her Daddy wrapped around her finger. Thankfully, he was willing to listen to me and I tried to present it objectively….’I’ve noticed that, when you begin to scold or correct her, she comes over and headbutts your belly until you cuddle her and stop scolding. It seems like she isn’t benefiting from the correction because she can immediately negate it.’ He didn’t believe me, but agreed to keep an eye out for the next time. When she did exactly what I said she would, he did open his eyes a little at a time. She’s still Daddy’s Girl, but he’s not letting her run the show. I wish you good luck!

  11. It’s always hard when your belief system butts up against that of somebody you love, especially a young child. I don’t claim to know much about Buddhism, however, I don’t think the divide needs to be a wedge between you and your step daughter. You both revere the creator universe in your own way. I’m actually amazed that she invited you in. (Most kids wouldn’t think of it really.)

    Perhaps let her know that you “pray in your own way”, but that she is free to be who she feels she ought to. As long as she is growing up in a healthy way, and harming no one, she should be free to express her love of her creator as she sees fit.

    I applaud you for realizing that it isn’t really your place to shape her faith. In the long run, it isn’t her biological mother’s either. One day, she will have to find her own route. Be open about yours without being judgmental about others, and the Universe will take care of everything else.

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