(Step)motherwork: Why You and the Ex Can't Get Along
Okay, that title is a little dramatic.
In some cases, stepmom and mom get along just fine.
But according to the research, the stepmom-mom relationship as the most challenging dynamic in a stepfamily (Martin, 2009; Korf & Newcomb Marine, 2013). There are many nuanced reasons behind this, and each family has their own unique dynamics, but here I’ll talk about the main reason I believe stepmoms and moms struggle to get along, and what you as a stepmom can do about it.
From birth, many of us are taught that, as women, the work of raising and caring for children is primarily our responsibility. More than ever before, fathers are increasingly involved in the day-to-day care of their children (my husband is on parental leave as I write this), but the scales are not balanced just yet.
From playing with dolls, to babysitting as teens, to being asked constantly by our Aunt Carol “when you’re going to hurry up and have little ones?” (hold your horses Carol!)… the message we receive as girls and women is pretty clear: “Women are mothers and mothers know best”.
This work of raising children – the physical, mental, emotional, spiritual labour of childrearing – is termed Motherwork by theorist Mechthild Hart. And it is so intimately entwined in our identities as women, because we are taught that it is OUR work. So from the biological mom’s perspective, you can imagine when another woman, who she did NOT choose, starts engaging in this most personal, intimate work that is hers.
I don’t say this to excuse or to validate narcissistic, high-conflict behaviours. Nope. Not one bit.
I say this to highlight how incredibly difficult it is for stepmoms to navigate this push and pull around motherwork. On the one hand, mom sees stepmom as treading on her toes. On the other, you may want to build a bond with your stepchildren by caring for them. Or maybe your partner wants you to fill this gap in the family unit by being the “mom” in your household, but YOU DON’T ACTUALLY WANT TO, or don’t feel comfortable doing so, or you’re sick of the backlash from the ex.
Now that you’re feeling like this is a hopeless situation (sorry about that!), let me assure you that it isn’t. Here’s what you can do…
1. Block, ignore, delete.
You can’t possibly figure out your role in your new family if you’re exposed to someone else’s insecurity and venom. If the mom is acting in ways that are damaging to you, block out the noise. Don’t give her the airtime. Let your partner deal with her completely, and focus on yourself and your little family unit.
2. Write your own script.
The mom doesn’t dictate the role you play in your family. Neither does your partner, your in-laws, your friends who have kids, or society in general. YOU DO. You decide what “fits”, how engaged you want to be, and what level of motherwork you engage in. This is life, so chances are things will shift over time. I jumped right in with both feet, only to step back a couple of years down the road. But for now, do what feels right for you, and calmly convey to your partner that your focus is on supporting him or her in their own parenting.
3. Live with empathy.
Extending empathy is like the ultimate “pulling up my big girl pants”. It is not about saying, “Oh it’s okay for you to treat me like crap”… on the contrary, it is about trying to understand the root of their behaviour.
Since having my own children, I’ve been able to hold a space of empathy for my partner’s ex. I’m not perfect. I still feel jealous over ridiculous things (“You’ve been to France already? With her??”), and am sometimes too quick to roll my eyes or scoff under my breath. I mean come on, I’m only human. But with time, I have been able to find my place as a stepmom, and develop a unique bond with the kids that is nothing like their relationship with their mom. I’m not replacing her, I’m being myself.
So I guess the title of this shouldn’t be “why you can’t get along”, but “what you need to understand to find peace”. Here’s to you, to stepmoms, and to empathy.