Being a Stepmom with No Kids of Your Own
Being a stepmom with no kids of your own is one of the hardest situations a woman can be put in, and there are very few resources out there to support and advise this very niche group. As someone who’s in this exact situation, I thought I would share my stories, struggles, and advice to those who are also stepmoms. Disney may have given us a bad rap, but the truth is that it takes a big heart to step into this role (especially if the bio mom is still in the picture).
I became a stepmom to my four-year-old stepson in September of 2019 (about 6 months ago) after a couple years of dating. I had met my partner’s son just before he turned two, so I had the added benefit of having known him almost his whole life. That being said, it’s pretty difficult to connect with a child that age. Their communication skills are still a work in progress at that point, and they’re not going to sugar coat it if they don’t like you.
Rejection hurts…get used to it
I remember staying up until midnight working on a painting for my future stepson’s second birthday. I knew he liked dinosaurs, so I had painted him a bright, orange raptor with a teal background to match the color of his room. I had it wrapped perfectly, and I was so excited to give it to him at his birthday party. For those who haven’t painted before, it takes a lot of time and effort, so I didn’t make this kind of gift for just anybody.
He opened all of his gifts at the party, laughing with glee at the toys and throwing clothes to the side with the care of…a two-year-old. I handed him my present last, excited to see the look on his face when he saw the painting.
He tore back the wrapping quickly, gave the painting an 0.5 second glance, and threw it to the side with his pile of clothes. My partner’s friends/family oohed and ahhed over my hours of labor, but his son couldn’t care less.
I tell this story to show not only how much vulnerability and rejection goes into being a stepparent, but also to show how much you learn along the way. I had been so out of touch with what a 2-year-old would want for their birthday. Obviously a painting isn’t going to impress them as much as a toy. I’m much better now at picking out gifts that are age-appropriate.
The ‘Mommy’ jump (and all the terrifying vulnerability that goes with it)
This is only a small sample of the vulnerability it takes to be a stepmom though. I know one of the biggest steps for me was asking my stepson to call me ‘Mommy Gabby’ knowing full well he could reject the suggestion completely.
Up until a month ago, my stepson had always called me ‘Gabby’. And while there’s nothing wrong with a stepchild calling you by your first name, it made me feel like the situation hadn’t really been changed by our marriage.
That couldn’t be further from the truth though. Committing to your partner through marriage means committing to their child as well. When we did our sand ceremony during the wedding, my stepson had his own colored sand that mixed with our’s. When I said ‘I do’, I was saying ‘I do’ to my husband and my stepson.
All that to say, I felt like I was finally ready to take on the ‘mommy’ part of my identity, a new role that I would grow into more and more each day. Broaching the subject takes a lot of vulnerability, and it’s one of the most courageous things you can do as a stepparent.
I decided to take that plunge in a Chinese buffet a couple blocks from our house. This wasn’t just any Chinese buffet though–it served American food as well as Mexican (I’ve heard from a few sources that their Chinese food is actually their worst offering).
Chris was out with his friends that night, and I had just taken my stepson to karate. He’s in that stage where there are very few foods he’s willing to eat, so I thought I would skip the struggle and go straight to his favorite food: Chinese. I wanted to broach the subject while he was calm and undistracted, so I waited until he had a mouthful of orange chicken.
“What would you think about calling me mommy Gabby?” I asked him, feeling a bit awkward and exposed. Was I being overly dramatic? What if he said no? I suddenly felt that anxiety that men must feel when they ask a girl out for the first time.
He continued eating his orange chicken, the only indication that he had even heard me a slight widening of the eyes. I repeated the question (as all parents of toddlers must) and awaited his response. I wanted to clarify a bit further, so I explained how he called his stepdad ‘daddy ___’ and it would make me feel happy if he did the same for me now that I was his stepmom. That seemed to click for him, and he nodded in agreement. Satisfied with his response, I finished my own terrible Chinese food and we headed back home.
As my husband was putting him to bed that night, I asked him to reaffirm the request I had made earlier. He told Cairo, “We’re going to call Gabby ‘mommy Gabby’ from now on, okay?” Cairo nodded again, and I felt satisfied that we were giving him the same message and he understood that we were on the same page.
After speaking with some friends, they recommended that instead of reminding him over and over again when he accidentally used ‘Gabby’ instead of ‘mommy Gabby’, Chris and I could both work on referring to me as ‘mommy Gabby’ in front of him.
Say goodbye to mommy Gabby!
Go sit on mommy Gabby’s lap.
Mommy Gabby is going to the store.
The more we used the term, the more excited he seemed to use it as well.
Luckily, I didn’t have to go through the rejection of hearing him refuse, but I can imagine this being an issue for stepmoms who are parenting older children that already have well-established relationships with their biological moms. If you’re someone who’s experiencing this struggle, just remember that the title doesn’t make or break the relationship. Being honest about your intentions and clearly communicating that the new title doesn’t change anything may help. Here are some phrases you can work from:
- I want to feel closer to you, and I think this will help.
- I understand that you already have a mom, and I’m not trying to take her place. I just want to have my own place in your life.
- I want you to know that you can rely on me as you would a mother. I want to take on that role while you’re in our household.
All of these sentiments take a lot of vulnerability to express, so be proud of yourself for taking this plunge! It shows that you’re intentional about your relationship with your stepchild and willing to open up.
Not feeling like a ‘real mom’
There are a few different ways to define a ‘mother’. One focuses on the actual process of pushing a baby out of your vagina (yikes), another looks at the relationship aspect, and the last (and my favorite) is the verb version: “to bring up a child with care and affection”.
I’m drawn to this last one because it’s so universal. With the nuclear family becoming more and more rare, this idea of ‘mothering’ being possible for anyone (regardless of your biological relation to the child) implies that the title belongs to anyone who puts in the work. Being a mother is not being a noun–It’s being a verb. It’s being there for their karate classes, making their peanut butter and honey sandwiches in the morning, comforting them when they fall and scratch their knee. You don’t have to be a saint to birth a child. It takes a real saint to bypass our biological programming and work towards a bond that’s so strong it can evoke self-sacrifice and conjure a love to rival that of any biological mother/child relationship.
I struggle with not feeling like a ‘real mom’ a lot. I work full time, and I’m not able to pick him up from preschool or get him dressed in the morning. A lot of the rituals that our society associates with motherhood are impossible for me to do with my schedule.
This feeling isn’t just internalized either. I have a friend who nannied two young children for most of their toddler years, and she said that she would always be treated differently after she mentioned to a mom at the park that she was their nanny, not their mother. Many mom groups in my area only do activities and meetups during the week while I’m at work. I still haven’t managed to find a working moms group in Kansas City, though I know it’s becoming more and more common.
I often feel alienated from other mothers because they have discussions I can’t relate to: the woes of breastfeeding, pains of childbirth, etc. Not only that, but I just don’t feel like the mushy mom I see all over Facebook. I see no reason to praise the most mundane things my stepson does on social media. I don’t stress about the safety of his car seat or whether the fruit he’s eating has too much sugar. That doesn’t mean I’m not concerned with his well-being or proud of him…it just means I have a different parenting style.
Just because you’re not like the mothers you see around you doesn’t mean you aren’t a good stepparent. Sometimes, kids need that relaxed, unbiased parent that’s going to not let them win at their favorite board game and not make them pose for photos every five minutes. We all have our own strengths, and there aren’t any ‘required skills/personality traits’ listed under the ‘mother’ position. Your core personality isn’t suddenly going to change after you give birth to a child. Obsession doesn’t equal love, and each person has their own unique way of presenting that love. You do you, boo!
Discovering their love languages
I grew up with parents who weren’t very touchy-feely. ‘I love you’ was only said on rare occasions, and my parents didn’t hug me unless it was immediately following an argument. Because of this, I’m a bit more physically distant and emotionally shut off in my relationship with my stepson. I try to bring myself to request more hugs and remember to express my love, but old habits die hard.
On the flipside, my stepson’s mother is an extremely touchy person with her son. When they’re together, hugs, kisses, and ‘I love yous’ abound to no end. In contrast, I feel like a frigid and uncaring supporting character (I’m sure my RBF doesn’t help).
Because my stepson is used to the affection he gets from his mother, his primary love language is physical contact. It’s been an adjustment for me to acknowledge that and respond accordingly, but this will be a unique problem you may come up against as a stepmom. While most children develop their love languages from their parents, you’ll be adapting your own love languages to match theirs.
Time and time again, I’ve voiced my concerns about adjusting into a stepmom role and heard friends and family (kindly) defend my position with the argument that love grows slower when you don’t have a maternal bond. If the kid didn’t grow in your stomach for 9 months, if you didn’t get that oxytocin release as you gave birth, you can’t understand the primal feeling that overpowers logic and reason. Would you jump in front of a bullet for your step kids? Too often we’re told that if we hesitate on this question, we can’t possibly understand the bond between a child and their biological mother. This causes many stepmoms to experience biological jealousy.
After doing some research into this mystical and elusive ‘maternal bond’, I came away with a few insightful facts courtesy of Wikipedia:
- Maternal bonds can take hours, days, weeks or months to develop. Some mothers don’t feel this bond with their baby right away.
- Both physical and emotional factors play a part in the mother-child bonding process.
- This bonding begins to develop during pregnancy when a woman feels the baby move or sees the baby on an ultrasound. By the seventh month of pregnancy, two-thirds of women report a strong maternal bond with their unborn child.
- Production of oxytocin during childbirth and lactation increases parasympathetic activity. Thus, anxiety is theoretically reduced. Maternal oxytocin circulation is said to predispose women to bond and show bonding behavior.
- Breastfeeding is strongly believed to foster the bond, via touch, response and mutual gazing.
Phew! That’s a lot of biological programming to compensate for. Accepting that your bond might never match the bond between your stepchild and their biological mom is the first step toward true happiness. As the stepparent, you need to gauge your own tolerance for rejection or feelings of inferiority. If coming in second place will force you into a depressive spiral, do some self-care and love cautiously. If your rejection tolerance is strong, love that stepchild with your whole heart (keeping in mind that you may never get that same level of love back). This lack of maternal bond may feel the most poignant when you’re a stepmom with no kids of your own, but having biological children someday may help to compensate.
Being a stepmom and feeling left out
From what I’ve seen online, many stepmothers struggle with feeling like an outsider in their own family, especially if they’re a stepmom with no kids of their own. Guess what–I can relate! A lot of this stems from me intentionally taking a backseat when there are interactions with my stepson’s mother, whether out of respect or an aversion to competition. I’ll use a story to illustrate my point.
For the longest time, my husband and I took his son to karate every Tuesday and Thursday night. It was a chance for me to watch him at an activity after work and feel involved. It also gave me a chance to step up and test some of my parenting skills. After class, he’d rush over to where we were sitting and my husband and I would give him a high five and help him get his shoes and socks back on. It may seem small, but it was a mothering ritual that I could finally be a part of!
That all changed when his mom and stepdad decided to start attending as well. All of a sudden, my stepson was rushing over to his mom after class was over instead of us. She was the one instructing him to get his shoes and socks on. There wasn’t any room for me to parent anymore, and I didn’t want to create drama by insisting on leading the post-karate rituals.
These situations can be frustrating. During your parenting time, you want to be the one building those bonds and reinforcing your position in their life. I know my temper, and I opted to sit back and let her do her thing while I just waited for it all to be over.
But then I began questioning my own passiveness. Was my stepson perceiving this as disinterest? Were other parents (and my husband) judging me for not vying for my own hug? How aggressive was I supposed to be? Should I pee on my stepson to assert my dominance? (joking on that last one).
This was one of those situations where I felt completely lost as a stepmom. And there really isn’t a right answer. As long as you’re there for your stepchild when they need you, no one else has any room to judge. Kids like attention, but too much can overwhelm them.
Fun fact: In the state of Missouri, most stepparents have no legal rights in co-parenting situations. If the mother decides she doesn’t want you sitting in on doctor’s appointments or parent-teacher conferences, there’s not much you can do to push back.
Disengagement as a stepmom
There are some out there that believe disengagement may be your best bet if you’re a stepmom with no kids of your own and have a rocky relationship with your stepchildren. The theory here is that by disengaging from your stepchild and leaving it up to their father to discipline and make the big parenting decisions, you can actually improve your relationship with the stepchild.
One interesting quote I found from this article said: “Many stepmothers believe that they must buy into the impossible dynamic of loving stepchildren exactly as they do or would love their own offspring.” While I don’t agree with the sentiment, it does draw attention to the challenges stepmothers face. The article goes on to say: “The stepmother is stuck with the impossible assignment of attempting to “mother” children who already have a mother.”
As someone who grew up on Full House, it’s hard for me to agree that kids can’t benefit from having more than two parental figures. Each of the caretakers in DJ, Stephanie, and Michelle’s lives brought a unique love and value. I grew up in a home with my mother, uncle, grandma, and grandpa for the first few years of my life. I fail to see how extra support could ever disadvantage a child. In that same vein, I’m 100% confident that stepchildren can develop the same level of love for their stepparent as their biological parents.
I see it as my responsibility as a stepparent to raise my husband’s child alongside him and work toward a loving relationship with his son. Notice the word ‘work’. In the same way that your partner would take you out on dates to build up your romantic relationship, take your stepchild out to their favorite restaurant for some 1:1 time. If there’s anything I learned from Supernanny, it’s that bad kids become bad via their environment. Create a positive space for your stepchild and listen to them. Don’t disengage when the going gets rough.
How to be a good stepmom
For this last part, I’m going to reveal the secret to being a good stepmom…
Work towards building a loving relationship with your stepchild.
I hope this has helped someone out there who is struggling with being a stepmom with no kids of your own! If you agree/disagree, sound off in the comments 🙂