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I am racked with guilt over whether I am a good enough stepmom. Constantly. Way more guilt than I feel over being a mom.

Part of my guilt has to do with the fact that I am still unclear about what my role is supposed to be (will any of us ever know?). Just a few weeks ago my husband tried to have a conversation with his ex-wife about it, and she replied that my role was “[his] wife” and my job was to “support [him].” Notably defined with respect to my husband, not with respect to my stepson. She was unwilling to engage in the discussion any further than that. Ok, got it. Disappointing, but understood.

(I’m not an idiot – I see that the reason she doesn’t want to discuss my role in any concrete way is that she’d like it to be defined as whatever she needs it to be at the time.)

But then-

My husband is traveling next week and two of the nights he’ll be away are nights we’d typically have my stepson. He emailed his ex-wife asking if she’d be able to have him on those nights, saying that if she couldn’t, he could stay here with me.

She wrote back a bitter and sarcastic remark about doing me a favor by taking him one of the nights.

Since when is a child’s mom doing his stepmother a favor by letting him stay at her house for one night? Is that really a favor? Especially when I’m just the wife anyway?

We have a schedule that we try to stick to, but naturally things come up. I always assumed that the order of care in these instances went like this:

1. Parent 1

2. default to Parent 2 when P1 unavailable and

3. default to Stepmom/just-the-wife when P1 and P2 are both unavailable

not

1. Parent 1

2. default to Stepmom/just-the-wife when P1 unavailable and P1=Dad and

3. last resort Parent 2 when P2=Mom

Am I wrong about this? Honest question.

I don’t want to use the guilt angle here, I just thought this was the role we took on when we became parents, the responsibilities we assumed. We take care of our kids. I also assumed a parent who only saw her child half the time would want to seize the opportunity to see him more, but people are busy, people have schedules, I get it.

Here’s where the guilt comes in for me, though. It’s so hard to have this conversation and sort out my feelings about it without the perception that my relationship with my stepson and my relationship with his mother are conflated. The two relationships may be tangentially related, but they are separate. I can be “like a mom” to my stepson without being manipulated by his mom. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the conversation is so difficult to have without blurring the two, sometimes even to myself.

 

Image credit: Ana Teresa Barboza

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8 thoughts on “guilt guilt guilt

  1. You’re totally not wrong. Honestly, your husband’s ex sounds like she’s looney tunes and really just wants to get a rise out of everyone. The “I’ll do her a favor” is totally manipulative and ridiculous. Visitation is designed for each child to see his/her parent, not for your stepson to see you. I guess the next question for her would be, “Ok, then would you prefer that if [husband’s name] went out of town, then we just never switch the schedule?” I mean, if that’s really what she wants, ok. Then the schedule stays as the schedule no matter what. I think she’d probably say, “No, I want [stepson’s name] to stay with me.” The only reason she said that was because someone handed her the power to give that response.

    I think I’m a little confused though, why your husband thought it necessary to ask her what he thought your role should be in this whole situation. What happens at your house, and the role you and your husband figure out that you’re going to play with your stepson isn’t really her business. Frankly, I would lose my sh*t if my husband asked his ex what she thought my role should be. She has way too much influence over my life as it is. It is not her business to figure out how my husband and I structure our family. Boundaries, boundaries, boundaries….

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    • Thanks for confirming what I suspected – I needed a second opinion. I hadn’t considered it in terms of visitation, but you’re right. I just keep coming back to…. you’re his PARENT. You know? Thing is, if we asked if she would prefer him to stay with us if my husband went out of town, I’m 95% sure she would say yes.* I hesitate to say this because I’m sure it isn’t true, but it does really seem like she’ll take any opportunity for a ‘day off,’ unless she wants him for something specific like a trip or activity. It’s whatever she wants, at any given time.

      *and his school is close to her house and far from ours – trip takes me an hour and a half round trip – so it would make a lot more sense, even aside from the whole PARENT thing, for him to stay with her. But I offered in this case, which I will never do again. Lesson learned.

      I see why that was confusing. We do have our roles figured out when it comes to what goes on in this house and she has no influence over that (though she tried in the beginning). I think he was asking her more what her expectations were in terms of my, I guess, logistical involvement among the three adults, not of my relationship with my stepson. His thinking was that if we had something loosely figured out, maybe we wouldn’t have so much conflict over the fact that we all have different expectations. Didn’t work, though, because of what I said above – if she allows my role to be defined, she won’t be able to manipulate me as much.

      It’s a shame that we even have to act like this and set up these rigid walls, but the fact is that if we don’t we are taken advantage of.

      What a stereotype we are living!

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  2. I have so been struggling with guilt over the last few weeks! I feel more guilty about my role as a stepmom, than about all the actual shitty stuff I do! But, my guilt cycle looks like this:

    my stepson does something shitty, or annoying or maddening, or whatever.
    i dislike him in the moment he is doing something shitty.
    i feel IMMENSE guilt about disliking him.
    i resent him for doing the shitty thing, and “making” me dislike him, and “making” me feel guilty about disliking him.
    i feel guilty for resenting him.
    etc.

    I often feel quite stuck in that little cycle.

    But! The logistics of having two homes, and multiple parental figures is also so annoying! And difficult, and guilt-inducing. My partner’s ex-wife typically assumes their son will stay with me if his dad is out of town, or at a late meeting, etc. And I too get the feeling it’s because she wants her “off days”. In fact, I get that feeling, because she’s said it out loud. A few times. In front of the kid. Luckily, that has worked out okay, so far, but I don’t really feel like I’d have a voice to change it if I wanted to. And that part does feel pretty frustrating. Equal responsibility, no power.

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    • I hear you with the guilt cycle. It’s hard. We’re human, we’re not perfect, we have feelings. But it seems like everything is worse if a stepparent does it. Like, I’m pretty sure parents dislike their own kids from time to time, but way less guilt is attached to that because they’re not running through the questions of, for example, is this just because he/she is my stepkid? am I just resentful? is this fair? etc. And then we feel like monsters and that everyone else thinks we’re monsters too. Or maybe that’s just me.

      Why don’t you feel like you’d have a voice to change the situation? Would you want to change it or are you ok with that? How did it come to be that way? Just curious – every blended family is so different.

      “Equal responsibility, no power.” Exactly. Responsibility without rights (or credit).

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      • Those are the exact questions I’m asking myself as those guilty thoughts go through my head – “is this just because he’s my stepson?” It can feel so overwhelming when you don’t have anyone else to do a little reality check for you. My therapist once told me she didn’t like her kid very much that week, and I just cried! It was such a relief to know it wasn’t because I am a horrid, evil stepmother, just a person, parenting an 8 year old.

        My partner’s ex-wife’s voice is very loud, and my partner is quite conflict averse. I think if I demanded something change, he’d be willing to talk to her about it, but his default is definitely to avoid any potential conflict. I think I’m okay with the way the situation is now – for the most part, my stepson and I do get along … but if that were to change, and I asked that he stay with his mom rather than me, I think she’d have a huge problem with losing some of her “days off”.

        I know that quickly after their divorce, my partner became involved with a woman who the ex-wife was very uncomfortable being responsible for their son. I think a big part of it was that woman was pretty crazy, but the idea of a “step-parent” scenario was still very new for the ex-wife. Over the last three years, I think she and I have built some sort of trusting relationship (maybe? some of the time?) and she is more willing to let me take that on. I can’t really remember when it evolved to be that way … maybe since I moved in with my partner?

        These little conversations feel so valuable and sustaining for me. Thanks for opening the dialogue!

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      • Well, if you’re ever on any mixed (i.e., not all stepmoms) boards (APW?) and you mention anything about it things being hard to parent someone else’s children, or anything that would suggest that you’re less than 100% thrilled All The Time with your stepkids, then yes, you are immediately buried in a mountain of critique. So that’s not just you. That said, I think those people don’t know what they’re talking about, and yeah, everyone gets to have feelings, and for heaven’s sake, living with ANYONE makes you extremely aware of all the things that you don’t like about that person. Just because someone is under 18 does not mean this does not apply.

        I think what sometimes helps me when I get stuck in my “I have NO CHOICE ANYWHERE!!!” cycle (which is, um, disempowering, to say the least) is to step back and remind myself that I do actually have choices about things I do or things I choose to speak up (or not speak up) about. I can’t change if my husband is going to set boundaries or have x conversation with his ex, but I can certainly lay out why it’s important to me that he do it and the impact on me if he doesn’t, and then if he doesn’t, I still have choices about how I respond. I can actually explain that the level of responsibility that I have taken on, if it’s accompanied by no voice in decision making makes me feel somewhere on the scale of frustrated to enraged, and if my husband chooses not to engage with me on this, to try to come to something that works better for us, then I have choices again. I actually think that for me, getting caught in a mindset that says I have no power is really unhealthy and martyr/resentment producing.

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      • (I can’t respond directly for some reason – I think it limits the number of comments in a thread?)

        Victwa, out of curiosity, what boards do you like? I’d love some new ones, even if they’re not just stepparents.

        The feeling of having no choice or control is so awful. And I think it can be really damaging for the marriage. For me, it makes me feel like a child, like my “parents” are talking about my life behind my back. It’s totally enraging. Unfortunately, we have to tolerate a *certain* amount of lack of control, but how much depends on the personalities of the adults in involved and how well we are able to set boundaries.

        In my head I keep coming back to the fact that, as stepparents, the only true obligation we have is to be kind, decent people to our stepkids and foster a loving home. That’s it. Anything we do on top of that (picking up, dropping off, childcare, whatever) is what we are choosing to do because we want to. I do want to do some of that stuff and I’m happy to do it, but the expectation that it is my responsibility (“favor,” I mean come on) along with the lack of power/rights? No. I do not have to go along with that.

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  3. This is really interesting. I struggle with my role all the time too – not even sure how much I want to take on. I like this phrase “bonus mom” but I think about it and I’m like, but do I really want to mother these kids? It’s like all of the responsibility but none of the joy of having a child. I think when you have your own kids the highs generally outweigh the lows, but for me, the highs just really aren’t that high. We get along very well, but we aren’t like all in love with each other. Doesn’t help that I’m just not really a kid person in general, never have been, so their antics aren’t particularly cute or interesting to me. I want to have a great relationship with them, I really do, sometimes I think I I want to be like their third parent, but I’m just not sure if it’s an achievable goal for me. I feel guilty because they are good kids and I’m sure if my partner were with a kid person they’d love and adore the kids, but unfortunately that feeling just isn’t there for me. yet! I still have hope! we are getting closer, slowly, slowly, but it’s happening. It’s a marathon not a sprint, right?!

    Anyway, we actually have a different approach than what most do – I think because we really can’t stand the kids mother and want to limit communication with her as much as possible, and definitely don’t want to ask her for help. So our custody goes “our house” vs “her house” and if she can’t be available on her time, she can find someone else (she usually asks my partner) and if my partner is traveling he asks me and if I can’t do it, or we are both traveling, he asks his parents. for the kids this means they generally get a good amount of time with extended family on both sides! I think they have only stayed with me twice, for one night each, but I would do it again rather than ask her. We actually wrote into the custody agreement that if either parent has a partner that partner can take care of the kids by proxy for the parent.

    I’m also interested in hearing about other boards! I got to s t e p t a l k_dot_org because it’s the one I know, but it is, as they say, a place to vent. I haven’t posted there yet.

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