The evolution of being a stepmother.


For me, being a parent was incredibly easy, whereas being a stepparent challenged me to grow in ways I didn’t anticipate. My stepchildren demanded that I ‘step’ up and become a better person.

The old adage about being a stepparent is, ”You have all the responsibility and none of the authority.” It was hard!

I could see why so many blended families failed. It was so easy to retreat to one’s respective battling camps –  ‘Me and my kids’ versus ‘Him and his kids’!

When I disciplined my biological daughter, I had and ease and a confidence in my parenting skills. We had established a precedent of unconditional love and within that safety net, we had room to play. We understood each other and she trusted that I had her best interest at heart.

When I disciplined my stepkids, there was always someone standing over my shoulder, questioning my motives, judging me, criticizing me. Including myself. Nothing came naturally.

If they ignored me, answered me back, or defied me, it hurt in way that I had never experienced with my own kids. I took it personally.

It was so easy to fall into the stereotypic role of evil stepmother.

Casper’s children called me “Mom” from the get go. I had many conversations with my husband about whether or not this was a good idea. It even became a point of discussion in therapy. I had been in their lives for 12 years and we had sole custody for the past 9 years.

Casper would say, “How can you tell them NOT to call you MOM?” He was right. That sounded awful. I was the day-to-day mom in their lives. Casper reminded me that I was the mom who cooked for them and drove them to school and bought them clothes and put them to bed and made them clean up their rooms and made them pick up dog poop.

I always referred to them as my stepchildren. In my mind, they had a mother, and I never wanted to be accused of usurping her position. I was a mother and I was sensitive to how it would feel if another woman stepped in and tried to take my place. I knew that it had upset her in the past and I tried to respect her wishes.

I didn’t want to admit it, but if I were to be completely honest with myself, this was my excuse and my justification. It kept me safe – safe from making her angry- but also – safe from opening my heart. The truth was that this mindset provided me with an emotional distance. Calling myself a stepparent allowed me to keep them at an arm’s length, a ‘step’ away.

Recently, 2 friends of mine, Michal and Jonathan, called me on my behavior. They both cringed when I used the term “my stepchildren”. Jonathan said, “Don’t call them that. I was a stepchild and I always felt a separation. I always felt like a second-class citizen, an outsider. Stop differentiating.” I tried to defend myself, “I don’t differentiate inside. It’s just that I don’t want to tread on their mother’s toes.” But I knew they were right. It sounded so hollow. I was better than that.

From that moment on, I made a decision to step up. They would all be my children. That was that.

It was no longer relevant that I was differentiating whose children were whose,  in order to honor their mother’s needs. I needed to honor their needs. She wasn’t in my life, she wasn’t even in their lives. They were in my life and they were my responsibility. Making them feel completely loved was my responsibility.

They needed a mother to claim them on a daily basis. I couldn’t stall another day, hoping that their biological mother would finally show up at our front door, with her arms wide open, ready to claim her children. They needed to know what it felt to be claimed right now, before it was too late. And, even if I were just a substitute, I would have to do.

So I posted a photograph of Grace and India on Facebook last week with the quotation, “My lovely girls.”

When I showed Grace the caption, I saw a smile spread across her lovely face. A smile that broadcast, “I belong!” And I knew that I had done the right thing.

This is what it means to be a mother. It means to respond to one children’s needs. My claiming them as my children does not mean that I am excluding their biological mother. It means that I am adding myself to a pool of mothers who are at their disposal.

I hope that one day, their birth mother will be able to look deep into her heart, and see that her children needed a mother who was there for her children on a daily basis, a mother who was willing to provide their daily basic needs.

In Cappy and Grace’s case, two mothers are better than one!

By always calling me “Mom”, Casper’s children opened their hearts to me and gave me an invitation to live by a philosophy of inclusion. They always knew what they needed from me and they patiently waited until I was ready to embrace them. My only regret is that it took me so many years to respond as lovingly.

© 2011


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34 thoughts on “The evolution of being a stepmother.

  1. Catherine, I love you! How wonderful that you not only made the change, but are able to bravely share that you needed to! I miss you all, by the way!

  2. Amazing. We all want to be validated, but most profoundly by our parents especially in childhood. Your last blog resonated with a situation close to home (marriage disintegrating). This recent blog has also started a very important dialogue. I wonder if you knew that your words would shine a light across an ocean. Thank you.

  3. That was a great blog. My wife and I became legal guardians of our 2 nephews and niece back in 1998, we had children of our own and it was difficult integrating every without jealousy between the children. Unless you have been in that spot it is hard to understand. Your writing about it in such a clear on open way is refreshing. Thank you 🙂

  4. Thank you for sharing your love and wisdom with us, Catherine. This is a beautiful story of the power of love. May you and Casper and all of your lovely children be blessed always!


  5. Catherine, I enjoy reading your blog & just wanted to say thank you for sharing your personal thoughts and life with us! 🙂

  6. Dear Catherine
    Do you know what I love about you…..You are not ashamed to share your marital & parental struggles with the rest of the world. You give hope and inspiration to those who might feel that there is no light at the end of the tunnel. Thank you for being so “real”. Although much of our past defines us (wish it were not so), we are still responsible for our actions and our attitude towards others. A man might be the head of the household, but a mother is definitely the core existance of the family. What would happen if you removed the yolk of an egg…….the chick would never grow!
    There is NOTHING more comforting than A MOTHER LOVE!

  7. In the Arthur Miller play “All My Sons” a man finally comes to the understanding that all the boys whose lives were lost due to his refusal to accept responsibility were all his “sons.” In that same way, the children are all our children. We owe them all our best – regardless of their biological parentage. Inclusion is one of the basic needs we have as human beings – your big heart and your honest self appraisal will shape those young lives as surely as anything you could have done, because it isn’t about your single decision, it’s about the character you showed in making it.

  8. Wow! I’m in a very similar situation right now and your post really gave me something to about….. I just had an “aha” moment. Thank You!

  9. Catherine – it was as though you spoke from my heart. You know how much I love you and ALL my grandchildren!! Love, Mom

  10. What insight! I didn’t like calling the man my biological mother married step-dad; he is my dad. I also didn’t like calling the woman my biological father married step-mom; she is my mom. To me the word “step” felt seperate.

    I am now in a relationship with my partner where I am considered the “step-dad”. I’m going to have the conversation with both my partner and his son and suggested we update that term to just “dad”. Thank you!

  11. Beautiful post! I will never, ever forget the first time my stepmom introduced me as her daughter. LOVED it. I also have a most wonderful mom who didn’t mind sharing the role.

    1. you are so blessed to have such a generous mother who understands the value of a tribal upbringing! – the benefit of many mothers!!

  12. Catherine, I love your honesty. You do not pretend to be a perfect mother and wife. I am a very blessed mother of two – 8 year old son and 4 year old daughter. Your daughter Grace’s response to your caption (her huge smile) brought tears to my eyes. I realised that such a small gesture as calling her your daughter, meant so much to her. Our children want our genuine love, time and acceptance.

  13. I stumbled upon your blog and love it. Being an adoptive mother to a child and not a baby is different, but I still see a lot of similarities in your post. My child has a mother that loves him and wants him to be with her, but living in a developing country as a widow she had no choice but to put him up for adoption. This causes me a lot of confusion. We want to make it clear that I am his mommy, but he also has an Ama (mama in Amharic)- Our son is adopted but we would never use the term our “adopted child” just like “step child” their ours. It is a strange dance to figure out, but I think unconventional families are just so beautiful. Keep loving your babies. Biological or other….you sound like you’re doing a great job.

    1. Thank you Jamie, for your story. I love your comment about unconventional families being so beautiful. Perhaps the dynamic strengthens muscles that might remain dormant in more conventional familiesI

  14. Oh I love that! Very well said.

    Oops I just reread my post and some of it got cut out- so it ended up looking like gibberish at the begninning. I meant being an adoptive mother to an older child (rather than a baby) is (of course) different than being a stepmother, but I definitely see similarities.

    I don’t know how to contact you privately, so I am just going to post my question on here:
    Do you mind if I attach a link on my blog to yours? I don’t like doing it without permission.
    My blog is:

  15. I’m a stepfather of three teen age girls, so I know how you feel. Yesterday we had a little chat, and for the first time the oldest one told me that as little children they were afraid of me. I admit, I used to raise my tone sometimes. I blame it on the fact that I used to be an army sergeant, and the yelling habit stayed with me, but I guess I should have kept in mind that they were just little girls, not soldiers.
    Anyway, it came as a shock to hear that I inspired fear on this three little angels. I felt so bad, so ashamed… I asked them to forgive me, I told them I was sorry… and that’s when the youngest one (the cute little brat) smiled at me and said: “I was never really afraid of you. The reason I made you yell so much was because you looked so very funny when you were mad. Watching your angry face was like watching a Loony Tunes character”.
    We laughed hard, they made me do “the angry face”, we laughed some more, and I that was the best moment of my life.
    Greetings from Geneva (Switzerland) to you, your family and all the readers of this blog.

    1. Sy, i am showing your message to my husband! we have the same issue at home as he is very loud and also comes from a military family! Your girls sound hilarious and would probably get along very well with mine!Thank you for sharing your wonderful story.

  16. HI Catherine ,

    As always heartfelt reading.

    You show the depth of your heart by honouring Cappy and Graces mother and ensuring the door is always open for her return, Something that many second mothers struggle with

    You have proven your depth as a parent and partner that you can do that and also be able to see when the children need stability and grounding

    By allowing them the ability be part of your heart you are still being true to who they are and giving them more options whilst understanding they are loved , something that everyone craves

    Thank you for reminding me that as a parent we are constantly growing and sometimes what is right to start with needs revisiting as our children , whether biological or step As all need : – love

    Ps I have been both a step mother and in the step child position and you are doing awesomely

  17. I commend you for taking on the role of Cappy and Grace’s mother. I know it is at times difficultwhen you are not the biological mother, but a mother is what these children needed and you stepped up to the plate. Thank you, Catherine. You mean more to these children than you, or they, will ever know. I am happy you embraces them and after reading your blog, I am happy you allowed yourself to embrace the fact that a mother doesn’t have to be biological to claim and love her “step” children as her own. Thanks again.

    1. Bentley, your words mean a lot to me. Cappy and Gracie have blossomed into lovely, confident young adults. Sending you many blessings for the New Year.

  18. There is also another story “behind the story”: you must embrace whatever life throws in your path. I am going through a personal crisis at the moment, I really loved reading your words.

    1. Mihal, you are brave indeed! I am sorry to hear about your personal crisis. The fact that you are able to embrace your situation goes beyond what one might hope for – the ability to accept one’s reality. The ability to embrace shows that you have a great deal of depth and compassion for yourself and others. ”The most beautiful people we have known are those who have known defeat, known struggle, known loss and have found their way out of the depths. These persons have an appreciation, a sensitivity, an understanding that fills them with compassion, gentleness and a deep loving concern. Beautiful people do not just happen.”

  19. Thank you Bentley. I appreciate you as their uncle acknowledging Catherine for her role. She has been an amazing mother to all of our children and I am grateful that she has been able to be their for Cappy and Gracie. They love her as deeply as she loves them. They needed her and she more than stepped up. It is beautiful to have had someone like her in their lives. As well as them in hers. Your words meant a lot to all of us…

  20. I grew up a stepchild in two different households, first my mother’s with two different stepfathers, then finally from the age of 12 on my father’s with a stepmother. I called her Mom from the get go; I remember thinking I might hurt her feelings if I did not. We had 5, then (when my sister finally came from my mother’s custody as well) 6 kids. The household was very strict, but looking back mostly fair. My father and stepmother must have agreed the adage of all the responsibility and none of the authority was not going to work, and I don’t see how it could have.

    Fast forward 25 years, and I became a childless stepfather to a 13 year old girl who had been in my life (and sometimes under my roof) since she was 8. It took her mother and I 5 years to marry because of the challenges. My wife did not believe in disciplining her only child. She did not feel she needed it. When we finally decided to marry as my stepdaughter was entering high school, the challenges only became more intense. I never wanted the role of disciplinarian, but my boundaries would become so severely crossed at times I had no choice but to be the bad guy. Even then, I was mostly powerless because of the triangles that had already formed. My stepdaughter quickly learned that her mother would defend her position, right or wrong…every time. When she wanted something from me and I said no, she would quickly escalate her emotional state knowing her mother would soon step in to help her get what she wanted. It was often soul sucking. I knew it wasn’t really my stepdaughter at fault, but there were times when I know even she knew she was taking undue advantage of things. Whenever my wife wasn’t in the picture, it was mostly smooth sailing between us. My parents one time commented (when my stepdaughter and I stayed with them), that she was a perfectly behaved kid who gave me no trouble. It was true; the dynamic would only happen when my wife was in the picture. My wife, by the way, was very loving and exceedingly generous to her daughter, and wanted harmony in the house; she just couldn’t see how not ever holding her daughter accountable was contributing to the chaos, and eventually the triangles forming.

    My stepdaughter is now out of the house at college with an apartment in the city. She calls her mother multiple times daily, and texts me for help with boys, and for general advice on various college social situations. We have a relationship on our own terms and it works much, much better that way. None of us can go back and change anything, but at least there is still a relationship and it’s better than it ever was. It didn’t happen as I imagined, and still isn’t, but it’s something.

    Your blog inspired me to write about my experience, because I often wonder where I went wrong and how I could have been a better stepparent. You sound like a very thoughtful, giving, and loving person. I wanted to take the best of what my parents did, and not make their mistakes. It never worked out that way. I wish i had interjected more love into the relationship, and I don’t know if it was me, or it never had a chance. I’m always going to think about it.

    1. Tom, thanks for sharing your story. It sounds like you did the best that you could under the circumstances. Most of the arguments that my husband and i had were over issues triggered by each other’s children. It is an unfortunate part of co-parenting other peoples’ children. It has taken a lot of work on both sides to resist the temptation. It is a nightmare when one parent refuses to discipline. The fact that your step-daughter now comes to you for advice is a strong indication that she respected how you were with her, even though she might have acted resentful at the time. Children respect boundaries. I don’t know too many young adults who trust their step-fathers enough to come to them for anything as personal as advice about boys! I’d say – job well done!

  21. Thanks to your response earlier. I had posted a remark to this in a different area and you just reminded me to never give up hope. It’s like losing my brother all over again, and the way the girls are behaving is not what he had envisioned for them. Faith got us through Todd (my brother’s) death and it will get us through this. The high road is a lonely one, but we have the truth on our side and if the girls ever want it, we have the evidence to back it up. “If you love someone, let them go. If they truly love you, they will come back.” I hope the girls understand that we do love them.

      1. Thanks! I feel that you are as well. Todd was more than a brother to me, he was 7 years older and my protector. Watching him go through the divorce was heartbreaking, but I admired how he made us take the high road.
        The last “big brother” conversation we had was May 10, 2001, his birthday. He told me about his decision to become an organ donor and showed me his signed license. I thought it was an odd conversation, but 19 days later, we were at St. Mary’s Hospital in Duluth, MN and the doctor told us that Todd was brain dead. He asked about donating his organs. My parents didn’t know he had signed his license. The doctor told them that even though the license was signed, the family could still say no. I told my parents about the conversation we had and we gave our consent.
        God works in mysterious ways. There was a reason Todd told me about his decision. His corneas helped a cop see again, his liver was divided between two people (one a teen aged boy) and others have benefitted as well. My nieces, though, are upset with me for saying he was ok with being a donor. I just pray that they get rid of all the anger and learn to love again.

  22. Catherine,

    i dont know if i would call myself a step mother per say, because i sort of inherited a daughter, who never had a mother through my partner zoe.

    while i do find it difficult at times, only cos i am used to being with my son, and raised around boys, that i dont know what i supposed to do with her, she wants to have a tea party, and do girl scouts of which i attend with her, i took her for swimming lessons at the ymca. but most of the time i am learning who she is and what she likes, and the things she needs, (ill blog bout our benchure to wally world with her brother and a few of her friends)

    she loves me and i love her and while i may not know the answer to what she needs at this moment i am sure we can figure it out.


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