Stepmother illustration by Abbey Lossing

Breaking news: being a stepmother is complicated. There are moments when you feel like Carol Brady, others where you feel like the wicked Cinderella caricature, but most of them are somewhere in between the two. Sort of like, you know, every other parent in the world. Today, we asked six stepmoms to talk about what they’ve learned. Here are their honest stories…

On finding your role:

“At the beginning, I was always asking myself, ‘Who am I? What’s my role here?’ and I’d tell myself, ‘You’re not their mother, you’re you.’ You always have to remind yourself of that, but you also have find the holes. No matter what the two other parents are like, there are holes to fill. Like maybe their parents didn’t play sports when they were little, but you do. And the kids are interested in that. Or maybe the other parent doesn’t have a gross potty sense of humor, but you do! Find those holes and fill them. That establishes your relationship.” — Cara, stepmom of two kids, 12 and 10; mom to one-year-old

“Many parenting books say something along the lines of ‘Be a parent, not a friend.’ These books clearly are not written for stepparents, who have to navigate a weird, thin parenting tightrope of neither overstepping nor being too uninvolved. The reality is that Margot’s mother died and I am her only living mother figure — she needs, and deserves, something more than one parent, plus a buddy to laugh and watch TV with. I never want Margot to think that I am a replacement for her mother. I tell Margot that her mom is her mom — always has been, always will be — and that I am her Lisa — always have been, always will be. It is not a competition. There is no ‘replacing’ her. There is room for all of us in our family.” — Lisa, stepmom to Margot, 13

On expectations vs. reality:

“Stepmotherhood, honestly, is more challenging than I’d anticipated. I went into it thinking we would have an awesome blended family. My husband and I decided we would raise all the kids with the same set of rules and expectations. This quickly backfired because their mom’s household had no rules. Their mom started calling me ‘The Devil.’ I read several books, including A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom and Stepmonster, and it was helpful to hear that blended families are not always harmonious. But our current situation is not pretty or fun.” — Brooke, stepmom of two kids, 14 and 10; mom of two, ages 4 and 3

“It’s hard to feel like I’m really a parent sometimes. The past five years were a whirlwind of coming out, my first girlfriend becoming my first heartbreak, and then meeting the love of my life and mapping out an entirely new path for myself. In the span of a year, I swung from single, city-living millennial dog mom to suburban stepmother with a kindergartener and a condo. I often feel like a child playing dress-up when I pick up Chloe from school or try to make small talk with other parents.” — Sara, stepmom to Chloe, 5

On meeting stepkids for the first time:

“Don’t try too hard. If you’re meeting the kids, you’re probably in it for the long haul, so there’s plenty of time to establish a bond. The first time I met my then-boyfriend’s daughters, they were shy and didn’t say much. You can’t take that kind of thing personally because you have no idea what’s going on with them: Did they have a bad experience with his last girlfriend? Did their mom say something disparaging about you? Or are they just being moody teenagers? And remember — they’re probably just as nervous to meet you as you are to meet them. Just be friendly and open and follow their lead.” — Maria, stepmom to four kids, ages 15-21; mom to 5-year-old

“I met then-three-year-old Chloe about six months into my relationship with her mother. I know it’s eye-rollingly typical of queer lady couples, but my partner Jennie and I got serious quickly. When Jennie and her ex split up, they decided that any new partner would have to meet the other parent before meeting Chloe. Now that I’m part of a co-parenting squad, it was nice to have met Chloe’s dad first. It set the stage for working as a team.” — Sara

“My husband and his daughter first discussed her feelings about his dating again. She appreciated it. There is no need to get a child’s permission to date — a child is not in charge of your personal life! But they do have the right to have their feelings heard. I think that kids ‘get’ more than we give them credit for. No child wants to be blindsided — and no stepparent wants to be the accidental villain because mom or dad didn’t ease them into the idea well.” — Lisa

On navigating holidays:

“The kids are all over the place at the holidays, so it’s pushed us to think a little differently and say, ‘Let’s look at the calendar and figure out when we’re all together.’ So maybe Christmas is on December 16th this year! That’s when we decorate gingerbread houses and get a tree. We have our own traditions and stick with them every year and I think that’s hugely important.” — Cara

“Holidays can be hard. It is a very sentimental time, and even bad traditions matter to people — otherwise we wouldn’t all be eating turkey for Thanksgiving (but that’s a whole separate discussion). We’ve only spent a few big holidays together as a family so far. I am outnumbered a bit — there are two of them and one of me — so there will always, I feel, be Pillsbury slice-and-bake cinnamon buns on Christmas morning instead of the nice homemade ones I would want to make, but that’s okay. It gives me more room for pie.” — Lisa

On disciplining stepkids:

“We went through years of tension in our house when my stepkids would come over. I felt like they were rude houseguests, and I had to bite my tongue in order to not be perceived as disciplining the kids. This led me to stay secluded in the back part of the house with my biological toddlers.” — Brooke

“I’ve found that having your stepkids see you with ‘parental authority’ comes with time and not with telling… but with modeling.” — Cara

On overcompensating:

When I first starting hanging out with my now-husband Brodie, I was achingly conscious of the fact that Margot was a nine-year-old girl who lost her mother, and I overcompensated. For her tenth birthday, I spent days decorating a beautiful cake with sculpted sugar paste owls on top, per her request, and transporting them to another state for the party. She loved it — a birthday cake victory! At the same time, the process left me drained and stressed. Looking back, I wish that I had found a middle ground of doing something nice for Margot, while not depleting myself in the process. Actually, I think that may speak to parenting in general.” — Lisa

On disagreeing with your spouse:

“My spouse is an amazing dad, and I learn more from him about parenting the child I brought to the relationship than I do from anyone else. But there are certainly times where we disagree: mainly, when he is afraid to ‘rock the boat’ with his kids, so he’ll agree to things that affect my life without consulting me, like agreeing to let his kids have a dog without seeing how I felt about it first. (Luckily I do adore the dog, so that worked out!)” — Maria

“It might be easier to take a laissez-faire approach and let my husband do the heavy parental decision making, but I love my stepdaughter and feel very invested in her well-being, so I speak up. (I am also naturally opinionated, so not speaking up would be like asking a fish not to swim.) To his immense credit, Brodie has never once made me feel like less than an equal parent to Margot. We talk it out.” —Lisa

“My husband and I now go to a family therapist who helps us navigate having the stepkids in our house. It’s great. Instead of arguing about parenting issues at home, I write down a list and bring it to therapy.” — Brooke

On communication with the other mom or dad: 

“I have a great relationship with my stepson’s mom. We’ve done some holidays together, we go to games and concerts, and we celebrate this child together in all the ways he deserves. But when it comes to the big parenting issues — teacher conferences, how many teams he’ll play on at once, all the nuts and bolts of raising him — I bow out for one very simple reason: I’m not his mother. He has a great mom and dad who are both deeply committed. Of course, I’ll share my thoughts and concerns with my husband, but ultimately, they should do what they feel is best. I believe in keeping those boundaries because I need them on the other side. My son’s stepmom loves him, but I don’t check in with her on anything. Co-parenting with a former spouse is hard enough without having to co-parent by committee.” — Elizabeth, mom of Jason, 12, and stepmom of Cole, 14.

“I don’t have much interaction with their biological mom. She frequently trash-talks my husband and me to her kids. She tells my husband and her kids that I am the root cause of all the problems. It’s hard, I feel like I can’t win.” — Brooke

On the hardest parts: 

“The hardest part is feeling like everyone is so more experienced at parenting. I am relatively new to it, but all of Margot’s friends’ parents have been doing it for at least 13 years and seem so capable and comfortable. I still don’t know a lot of stuff that I assume most parents know — like how to talk about sex or French braid hair or be involved just the right amount with homework — so it is hard not to feel somewhat of an interloper playing catch-up.” — Lisa

“Logistics are the hardest part for me, hands down. And I’m actually lucky since my husband and I have pretty good relationships with our exes. That said, it’s insanely frustrating that we can’t ever plan a vacation or make any impromptu changes to the schedule until we clear it with two other people. Sometimes it’s totally fine, and sometimes pretty big arguments result. I don’t really see this ever becoming a non-issue. Once the boys are old enough to make their own decisions, they’ll still have to divide their time between their two families. Which leads me to the other hardest part: Just never feeling like we have enough time with them. And it’s going so, so fast.” — Elizabeth

On the sweetest parts:

“By far, the sweetest benefit of having a blended family is watching my son and stepson grow up together as brothers. They were five and six years old when I first met my husband, and they’re now almost 13 and 14. They’re together every other weekend, and those weekends are like three-day playdates. This isn’t to say that they never get on each other’s nerves because they do — just like every other set of siblings. And that’s what’s amazing about it. They are siblings.” — Elizabeth

“Every few months, Chloe and I reach new levels of intimacy. As we spend more time together, our growth as a pair shows up in these sweet, almost unmeasurable gestures. Sometimes it’s as simple as a soft lean on my shoulder when she wouldn’t have leaned before.” — Sara

“When I overheard Margot talk to a cousin about ‘my parents’ and realizing she meant me.” — Lisa

Are you a stepparent? What would you add?

P.S. On having an only child, and my motherhood mantra.

(Illustration by Abbey Lossing for Cup of Jo. Some names have been changed by request.)