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Being a Stepparent: What You Need to Know to Make It Work

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Being a Stepparent: What you Need to Know To Make Them Work

I’ve done a lot of hard things. I’ve run a marathon (well, technically a ‘fun run’ but it did require running shorts, running and sweat so I stand firm on ‘marathon’); I’ve given up sugar (not gonna lie – worst 2 hours of my life) and I’ve travelled (‘Middle East, solo, broke with a backpack’ travelled, not ‘may I take your bags madam? The lift to the 34th floor is just past the atrium’ travelled).

Being a step-parent is up there with the hardest. My stepchildren are adults now and even though the fog has cleared, I still claim that it’s one of the most difficult things I’ve done.

From the outset, there are things about a stepfamily that would likely hint at trouble if they happened in a biological family:

  • Another person (the other biological parent) has a hand in some of the big decisions that affect your family – the way the kids are raised (which will always have an impact on your home), weekends, holidays, family rituals, rules. Though you will have a say, there’s a third person with an investment who will potentially want to interfere be heard.
  • The alliance between the parent and child in a biological family is potentially stronger (understandably) than the couple. In a biological family, both parents have an equal say and big decisions are made by the couple. In a stepfamily, matters to do with the child will often be between the biological parents, or the biological parent and child. Potentially, the step-parent will have less influence in decisions that impact the family and the individuals in it.
  • The step-parent is an outsider. There are years of shared history, memories, connection and experiences between members of the biological family that the step-parent will never be a part of. Of course in time the stepfamily will grow into something new and wonderful, but first there will be a bit of compromise.

Being the second wife/husband/important person does have benefits, the main one of which is that your partner already has a realistic idea of the work that’s required to make a marriage work. There are no illusions the second time around in relation to the marriage, though there may be a few in relation to the family. 

The good news is that there are things that can be done to smooth the bumps along the way, even if you can’t completely disappear them:

  1. Let go of the fantasy.

    It sounds simple enough (it’s not!) but it could be the difference between your relationship working or not. That’s not overstating it. It really is that important.

    An abundance of research has confirmed that unhappiness is caused by the distance between expectations and reality. It’s not so much the situation that causes distress but that the situation is different to what’s expected. 

    In a stepfamily, everyone comes with their own fantasy. It’s completely normal and inevitable – but if you hang on to the fantasy too tightly, it could very well fall you. Most couples come into a stepfamily thinking that the family will immediately gel, the relationships will be tight, everyone will feel the love and the family will be a happy one. But it really doesn’t work like that.

    In a biological family, there would be problems if there was no expectation that you will love your children, they’ll love you back and all will be close. In a stepfamily though, these fantasies set up the potential for profound disappointment. Why? Because all family members come with their own fantasy, some of which are completely incompatible.

    Patricia Papernow is a leader in the field of stepfamilies. Her book, Being a Stepfamily, is the best I’ve read. (Juuuust in cast you were wondering, this is not an affiliate link – I just love the book. It was a game-changer for me in my own experience as a step-parent.) She identified the following fantasies which are typical in a stepfamily:

    •  Step-parent: ‘We’ll be one big happy family. The kids will love me. I’ll love them back. My relationship will be solid. I can’t wait for us all to be a family.’

    •  Biological Parent: ‘My partner will love the kids as much as I do and the kids will love him/her back. The kids will be so grateful for everything he/she gives this family. I just can’t wait to show everyone how happy we can be as a family.’

    •  The kids: ‘It’s only a matter of time before mum and dad get back together. They actually love each other a lot and as soon as they realise that we can be a family again.’

    Letting go of the fantasy allows for greater acceptance of the reality, more respect for what ‘is’ and more of the flexibility that’s needed to get to wherever you’re going as a family. A stepfamily can be as happy and successful as any other, but it will be different. It’s important to let go of the fantasy gently though, because your imaginings of what things would be like would have been a big part of the reason you decided to do this. And don’t worry, let go of the fantasy and reality will see to it that eventually something at least as good will take its place.

  2. See the rough patches for what they are – a progression not a fall.

    There are going to be rough patches and that’s okay. Accept them as a sign of progression towards a new kind of family – one with you in it. Your experience of the stepfamily might be different to what you expected but it doesn’t mean a happy ending isn’t coming.

    It’s likely that at some point you will feel like an outsider, as well as jealous, lonely, resentful, confused and inadequate. You’ll probably experience hostility, indifference or rejection from your stepkids and more than likely you’ll fight with your partner more than you expected. This is normal. Accept it, let it unfold and most importantly don’t take it personally, though I know that’s easier said than done.

    It feels like a shake up, and it is, but it’s all part of the adjustment the family has to go through to get to something better.  The family is recalibrating and changing shape to make way for you. That sort of adjustment was never going to be easy. Sometimes things have to fall apart a little so they can come back together in a different way. See the rough patches for what they are – a remaking, a realignment, a progression towards something new, rather than a threat.

  3. Understand and respond to the loyalty bind.

    It’s normal for children to worry that their acceptance of a step-parent might betray their biological parent. They might worry that if they like you, accept you or love you, their biological parent will be hurt or angry. This may increase their need to show loyalty to the biological parent by rejecting you or being hostile to you to ‘prove’ their love and loyalty to their parent. 

    If you suspect a loyalty bind might be at play, see it for what it is and don’t take it personally. Let your stepchild know that you aren’t trying to replace his or her biological parent and that you know nobody could ever do that. Let them know it’s okay to feel as they do and that you will work through it together.

    Next, gently put the idea out there that they can care about you and love their other parent at the same time. Acknowledge that you know that their relationship with their biological parent will always be special and different to anything else. Let them know you would like to try to have a relationship that is good for both you and the child, and that you’ll follow their lead as to what that looks like.

  4. When your stepchild is ready, work on creating the new relationship.

    Don’t try to replicate the relationship your child has with their biological parent. This runs the risk of inflaming the loyalty bind but it also takes away the opportunity for you to create something new. You have qualities, wisdom and experience that will be different to those of the other adults in the child’s life. It may take a while for your stepchild to appreciate that, but be patient. Find new things to share that are different to what the child has with his or her biological parent. 

  5. Decide on what’s important. And let the rest go.

    There will be plenty to argue about. The fact that a stepfamily is in the making means that nobody’s story has ended the way they thought it would. Nobody goes into marriage anticipating divorce and children don’t look forward to the day their parents live in separate houses. There’s a lot going on – broken hearts, endings and angry people. People won’t always be on their best behaviour.

    Decide on the things that are important to you and let the rest go. Push gently for the change that needs to happen but at the same time, respect the rest of the family’s need for stability.

    The balance will get precarious at times but it’s an important part of getting to where you need to be. You won’t be able to function as a new family until differences are worked through and people have enough of what they need to not feel compromised. Without a doubt, your new family can be phenomenal but it will take time.

  6. Appreciate the small stuff.

    Understand that it may be difficult for your stepchild to accept you or show affection for so many reasons, none of which will have anything to do with how they feel about you. The upheaval, their own grief and loyalty binds all make for shaky ground. Appreciate the small moments of contact. It’s easy to overlook them but when they happen, know that it’s big.

  7. Respect that it will take time.

    In her extensive work, Papernow has found that stepfamilies take about 7-12 years to adjust and to exist as a healthy, well-functioning system. Quicker families might do it in four but some families never really get there. I wonder how much of the time frame has to do with the stepchildren reaching independence and establishing a relationship with their step-parents as adults, rather than children.

  8. Be open to letting go.

    Be open to the possibility that you may never be close to all or any of your stepchildren. One may have less need for another adult in their lives or may feel the conflict of a loyalty bind more than the others. You might also just be too different from each other to make it work. The most important thing is that when they are younger, you are committed to making it work, but that doesn’t mean it will work out as planned. There is enormous grace and courage in being able to let go, which is different to giving up.

All stepfamilies are different but they share common vulnerabilities. They can be as rich, warm, loving and wonderful as any other family. No family is smooth sailing all the time but the dynamics of a stepfamily present challenges at the start that are unique. Within that is the potential to rise to the challenge and come out with something extraordinary.

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74 Comments

Emma

Firstly, thank you for writing this article as it has some key points that have been a bit of a light bulb moment for me. As I write this today, I have had a very difficult morning and have some challenging thoughts surrounding being a step parent (or blended family as I like to think of it!). I am in a same sex relationship with no children of my own. My partner is Mum of a 6 year old girl. We all live together half of the time and half of the time her daughter lives with her Dad. In my situation I am not emulating being a ‘Step Mum’ as there is already a Mum and Dad in the equation. I like to think that I don’t ‘parent’ as such, but I am a responsible adult who can sometimes lay down house boundaries but not really anything else. I find it so hard. I am not naturally authoritarian and I struggle with how my partner parents her daughter, as we have different views sometimes. However, we talk regularly and come up with ways to help each other which is so important. It certainly is a learning curve that I expect will be there forever! Today I feel downbeat and flattened by the challenges, but I know tomorrow I will feel differently. Thanks for your article!x

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Karen Young

You’re very welcome Emma. I hear you. Step-parenting can be difficult for the even most loving, open hearted people. It sounds as though you and your partner are working through the challenges of stepparenting well. Know that it will get better. It might take a while, but the challenges won’t always be so tough. Hang in there and keep doing what you’re doing x

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Charlie

I can relate to a lot of what you wrote here. I’m looking for other LGBTQ step parents to form a sort of online support group. Any interest?

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Alice

Thank you for your article, it’s a refreshing read and takes the pressure off a little.

I think I’ve clung on to a fantasy for long enough, my husband has a 7yr old son a although he was 3 when we first got together and I met him when he was 4. Trouble is he lives about 3hrs away so whilst my husband sees him every other weekend due to financial reasons I don’t see him as often only when he comes to stay a couple of weeks a year or we have him for the weekend. I think because of the infrequency of spending time with him there’s now friction when we do see each other. He understandably just wants to see his dad and I think sees me as getting in the way of that. So there have been times where he’s told me I don’t need to be there on days out etc.
I’ve become very much an outsider for which I blame myself for not making a more active role for myself. In addition to this I feel like a nag because my husband’s parenting is very much live and let live whereas I’m a bit stricter. I think it’s a sense that he obviously loves him regardless and so doesn’t mind if he wrecks the house whereas I’m learning to love him and so do care if he wrecks it because the knock on effect is me liking him less. I have tried to set boundaries but I think there’s a case of I’m not a parent so he won’t listen to me.

Now I’m pregnant (40weeks today as I write this) and I worry that this is going to drive a further wedge between us. Plus he gets away with alot more than I expected to let our new addition to.

Just feeling very lost and confused. It really is one of the hardest things I’ve done.

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Doreen

I find it difficult that my husband (who has custody) thinks that he is the only one that can ask anything of his child, or provide guidance. Does this now teach him that he only has to be told by his father? Doesn’t that then lead to the slippery slope of not having to listen to anyone but his farther?

Some days are better than others and at times I want to throw my hands in the air and just accept that this is the way it’s going to be so I’m turn don’t ask me to be responsible. Then I remember that this is my home and I am an adult and I make rules that guide the betterment of all of us.

That said I just want to wish all the step moms a happy Mother’s Day.

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Lori

Love the points brought up in this article, so here’s a scenario, married for #3, my son is from #1, he was primarily raised by me and my 2nd spouse, who met him at 4yo and we were married 10 years. We fought a lot about parenting, I always felt bullied so I would undermine her quite a bit and call the Mom card frequently. Now in marriage 3, my son was 14 at its inception, he is almost 17, my wife and I had twins, she wants to have a say or decision with items such as his car privileges as well as household chores, I don’t mind the weight in on house stuff, but things like taking the car to a sleepover just isn’t something I feel she need to “help” me decide on…? She feels disconnected, I feel loss of control and my son is indifferent and wants nothing to do with ANOTEHR stepparent.. HELP!!!

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A

Wow. That was a real eye opener for me. My husband and I married and he had a three-year-old stepdaughter. I raised her until she was 18. We have done many many things to help her throughout the years. With no show of gratitude or even a thank you. She was not raised to be like this. It is just who she is as an adult, and I’ve always had the expectation that we could possibly have a relationship because we have a grandchild. But I believe that we are just too different. Our values and beliefs system are so very different that even though I love her I don’t necessarily like her. I’ve actually always thought that we were so very different people. Just reading it in print from someone else’s opinion has given me a sense of relief that it is OK. Thank you for your article it actually gave me some hope. I think my expectations were too high from the beginning, and I didn’t stop to consider how she might’ve felt and listening to what her biological mom was telling her throughout the years. So sad. But I think I can move on and have a different type a relationship with her and my grandchild.

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Laura

I can relate to what you’re saying although I’m only a part time stepmother as my stepdaughter doesn’t actually live with us. She’s only 10 but has been in my life 5 years and I have always tried to build a sort of motherly relationship with her but her lack of gratitude and selfish attitude in general upsets me. I have had to step back and detach myself from the maternal position I felt I was in to avoid upsetting myself in future. It’s very difficult being a stepmother and would advise anyone looking to enter a relationship with someone who has a child to think long and hard as I’m only 5 years in and struggling!

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Dana

I have recently fallen completely in love with a guy who has a 3 year old son from his previous relationship. He and the mother also share custody, we only have him every other weekend and two days during the week. At first I guess I had that fantasy expectations as well, but it gets harder at times. Currently this is still new to me regarding what my position and authority is towards the little boy, causing some hick ups. But, I agree with just facing the reality and taking it as it comes. I love his dad above all the hard times. And as soon as he is old enough, he will have to accept that I am a part of their lives, whilst I will give him all the love and attention that is needed.

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Richard

Great article. Im a stepdad of an 18 yr. We are having a graduation party for him soon. I married his mom when he was 4. And after 14 yrs i still feel uncomfortable being at a gathering with the biological father. I hate the fact that im going to take pictures with him and even worse i have to take pics of him and my wife. I know im being petty but i cant help my feelings. I do recognize that my struggle with low self esteem are at play here. The biological parent and i have always gotten along, and ive stayed in the background and never interfered. The problem is me and i wish i were different.

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Karen Young

Richard everything you are describing makes so much sense and is completely understandable! It is NOT petty – not at all! It sounds as though you and the biological parent have done a great job of making things work as best as they can, and that you have put the needs of your stepson above your own. This isn’t easy, which is why step-parenting can be such a tough gig. Be kind to yourself and give yourself permission to feel a bit ‘off’ about it all. There is absolutely nothing wrong with wishing it could be different. It doesn’t make you any less of a husband, co-parent or step-parent. It makes you wonderfully, imperfectly, human.

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James

My wife to be and I have been together three years. I have two children that she is the stepmother to. She does great with one and a strong bond is there. However, my younger son and her do not get along. To the point I fear for our family lasting. They resent each other. She isn’t responding to any of the reading I’ve done about this and has given up. I just want a happy family, but I fear of being forced to make a choice between the woman I love and my son. And it will always be my son.

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Kathy B.

Hi! I’ve known my stepdaughter since she was 8 and she is now 23. We are much alike and have gotten along pretty well. Her teenage years were especially tough since she lived with us every other week and her mom and dad do and did not get along at all. My husband and I have been married for 11 years now and due to issues with his divorce and extreme animosity between him and his ex, we lost our house for financial reasons, my husband declared bankruptcy, and he was involved in divorce proceeding for almost 10 years during our marriage. I always struggled with feeling like my husband’s past made it difficult for us to focus on us. The final straw happened when his difficult ex dropped a cat she didn’t want anymore at our house when we were not at home. She thought it was time for my husband to deal with it! I was flabbergasted that this occurred, but my husband and his two kids 2 older sons and his daughter) acted like it was just something that their mom would do. I felt like I was in the twilight zone and felt like st this point I distanced myself from my husband and his kids and some of the craziness. This past year, we were finally were able to move and buy a new house after many years of struggle. I thought we were finally getting a fresh start and was looking forward to our own place full of peace, joy and fun! After a month, my stepdaughter mentioned she needed a place to live. We worked to remodel a room for her. Then she informed us that she had signed a lengthier lease with her mom’s help and didn’t need to move in with us after all. I was very hurt. I was also mad that we had spent so much effort on her room when she knew she really didn’t need one yet. We told her that if she needed a place to live in the future, we needed to talk with her before moving in with us. One weekend in May, we came home from a trip and all her belongings were dumped in our basement. She did not leave a note or text or call to let us know what she was doing. She told us she didn’t know what else to do. I was angry and felt taken advantage of. She had now been living with us for three months. She runs with friends and works almost all the time. She is never at home and there are days go by and we don’t see her. Her room is a mess, laundry is never done, etc. etc. I am having a really hard time with this situation. I feel like my house is not the way I want it to be and because we never know when she is coming or going, my life feels unsettled and as though we are a storage facility. This is creating stress between my husband and me. He thinks I am too hard on my stepdaughter. I don’t know what to do. If I try to communicate how I feel to her, she gets very defensive or my husband asks what I’m writing. I feel stifled. Any ideas of how I can handle this all better? I sure would applreciate it! I love my stepdaughter, but have distanced myself from her because I don’t feel close to her or like we are really part of her life at all. Thank you!!!

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Karen Young

I completely understand why you’re so frustrated with this situation. One of the biggest difficulties with stepfamilies is the conflict between the different needs of the adults in the family. The way to deal with this is the same way in any family. Decide what is important to you, listen to what’s important to everyone else and work together to come up with something that everyone can live with. I wish there was an easier, more definite way to deal with this. When you have the conversation, begin by letting everyone know that you are interested in working out a way for everyone to walk away happier. Ask what they need from you, or from the family, and focus on the specific behaviours you would like to see changed. I wish you all the best and hope you are able to find a compromise that works for you.

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Anonmumofthree

Hi there, thank you so much for this very helpful and insightful article. I’m hoping you can advise on my situation please. I have a SS who is 3 and I have been with his father since he was nearly 2. I have a 3 yo daughter who my partner has adopted (not legally) as his own since she has no contact with her bio father. My SS lives almost 100 miles away and we see him every week. Shortly after I met my SS I fell pregnant, and during these 9 months as my partner worked so many hours I offered to pick up my SS each week whilst my partner worked in order to see my partner more outside of work and so that he was not driving after a 10 hr shift. The problem was I suffered a lot more with my second pregnancy and found the driving very stressful and tiring…I didn’t want to tell my partner as I knew how much seeing him so often meant to him. He was always grateful. His ex on the other hand helped in no way at all, no driving. Would ask my to pick him up at certain times to suit, and ask us to have him longer than agreed some weeks meaning I had him whilst my partner worked. I also because I am self enployed was expected to move my jobs to suit my partner and his ex. Anyway to cut a long story short, I struggled with all of the driving and SS behaviour became very challenging to say the least. I wasn’t physically able to pick him off the floor of every supermarket when he refused to get up, nor put his very easy velcro shoes on so heavily pregnant. It was clear at the point he had had very little discipline up to yet, from either bio parent. This was affecting how my daughter behaved. The attention, good or bad was mainly on my SS. I felt bitter, I still do. We drive 10 hours a week, spend a lot of money (which of course is not SS fault at all nor should he feel that) yet he constantly refuses to do things asked of him, throws tantrums and gets angry. He can be spiteful and unkind to my daughter who generally waits all week to have his company. Don’t get me wrong, she has her moments too and I am firm with her but her reactions are not extreme like with my SS. I’ve parented her differently. I love him, and just want to have a loving bond towards him but everything he does at the moment seems to grate on me and make me not want him here. I never want to upset my partner as he’s taken my little girl on and now their bond is flourishing. I just wish mine and my SS’s could too. P.S. he is also upsetting my partner too with his lack of wanting to enjoy anything, lashing out and general disrespect but the love is obviously built in for them) Help : ( I feel like an awful human being.

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Karen Young

It sounds as though you are working so hard to be a wonderful presence in your stepson’s life. His behaviour doesn’t sound too unusual for a 3 year old. He’s at an age where he trying to experiment with his independence and this will mean tantrums and limit-testing. Add to this the big changes that your stepson has experienced in the last little while, and his behaviour becomes really understandable. Even if he adores you and your daughter, the changes to his family and his routine are massive. At such a young age, it might take a little while for him to make sense of this, and as frustrating and as difficult as this can be to deal with, it’s something that will take patience and time. Keep doing what you’re doing – it sounds as though you are a strong, steady presence in his life, which is exactly what he needs. Here is an article that might help in th meantime http://www.heysigmund.com/empathetic-listening/

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Alicia Loomis

Great article! I’m in a situation where I’ve been with my boyfriend for almost a year he has a 12 and 16 year both boys and I have a 5 and 6 year old both boys too. We were going to all live in together and a few months ago his boys were excited but last minute his 12 year old told his dad he wasn’t ready so we aren’t moving in but I feel that his dad should have talk with him more as now I feel we don’t do any activities together since the news about 3 weeks ago. I feel like my BF is pulling back because of his sons feelings. He’s been divorced from his mom for about 7 years I just don’t know what else I can do then be patient but I feel my BF is noting telling me all his son feels and may end our relationship because of his sons as he has pretty much sole custody so they are always with dad and busy with sports, ect.

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Ximena

I have been living with my boyfriend now for almost 10 months, we have “known” each other for 5 years because we used to be neighbors. He then bought a home in November of last year. He has 3 daughters (19, 16, 12) and I have a son (13). His oldest is in college now so she comes home during her school breaks. The other two go back and forth between our home and their moms. They share custody, so every other week they are here with us. My son is here with us full time. The oldest is respectful, and the youngest daughter and I get along great. My son gets along also with my boyfriend.

The major problem has been the 16 year old daughter., who’s very much like her father. She seems very defensive, and hasn’t let me in at all. I have tried to be pleasant, to be cordial, I have even taken her to swim practice, I buy food for her that she likes, I bought her a birthday card, etc. I have tried to start conversations but she puts up a wall of defense. She can be very rude at times, and at times she pretty much ignores me even when I say hi to her.

She was also very disrespectful to one of my cousins who stayed with us for a few days this summer.

Her father has talked to her but nothing seems to work.

She doesn’t have a great relationship with her biological mother. Her mom has never gone to any of her swim meets. So she’s extremely close to her father.

My boyfriend and I love each other and want to be together. We have already spoken about getting married. I recently met my boyfriend’s mom, who adores me and thinks I am the best thing that has happened to her son.

Please help! I don’t know what else to to…

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Charlie

Thanks for this article. It’s always helpful to read of others’ experiences. I’m in a queer/LGBTQ relationship with my awesome partner and her two sons, who we have every other week. They are 15 and 13 and I’ve known them since they were 11 and 9. We all live together and actually all get along well. I’m not having the typical step parent issues, but I’m still not particularly enjoying my role as a parent. It is truly a thankless job, involves lots of conflict, rule-setting, rule-breaking, constantly having to negotiate and lay down consequences, then follow through with those. I just don’t feel like I get the inherent satisfaction that my partner does with the kids. It is so much work and I often just feel dread when they are about to come over. Ugh.

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Mary

This article is a good read. I’m a stepmom and have been in it 8 years. It has been so hard having a blended family. My stepdaughter barely talks to me and only wants to spend time with her dad. I have gone out of my way to take her to her sports, give money for clothes, her own room and help out whenever her dad needs me to. I even pick her up from school a lot as we have shared custody. However her mother calls multiple times a day and if SD does not answer she gets angry and starts screaming at her. We could be having dinner, at a movie, at the opera, it doesn’t matter. If she does not answer her moms multiple calls she will be grounded, lose her phone and have to deal with her psycho mom at home. Her mom even calls SD and if weather is snowing or anything tells her it is not safe to be out and that I need to take her home. That is why I think that we have not bonded very well. Her mom obviously does not want us to. Not to mention she barely hugs me, kind of a half shoulder hug and will sit in complete silence. I try to talk to her and she gives me one word answers. I feel uncomfortable in my home. I know why she acts this way as she feels that she is betraying her mom and wants her parents to get back together. I just wish she could be happy, so that our family could be happy.

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