Being a step-parent has been both the most difficult and the most quietly rewarding challenge of my life. And even though it can be a tough day for a stepmom, I am an unapologetic defender of the greeting-card-driven, fake American holiday that is Mother’s Day.
Don’t get me wrong, there is a lot of truth in Mollie Hemingway’s piece on the negatives of Mother’s Day. But it is easy to take this cheesy holiday for granted when you and the world know where you stand in the pecking order. For those of us who soldier on as step-parents (this applies for stepdads, too), being recognized even in a small way can help you survive another day, month, and year, knowing there is some small appreciation for the sacrifices you make for your children.
But Mother’s Day is not without its hurdles for a stepmom. Here are a few things to remember so you don’t end up crying in the corner.
1. You’re Number Two!
Being a step-parent may be the only job in the world where, if you are doing everything right, you come in second place. You should never, and will never surpass your children’s mother (let’s call her Mom No. 1 for the purposes of this article). It does not matter what type of parent Mom No. 1 is—it is your job to put her first for your kids whether she is caring and engaged or missing in action.
It’s important to remember that this isn’t about you. It’s about teaching your children to respect and love their parents no matter what. Anything less allows you to be a pawn to the whims of a child who is being lazy or wants to lash out at another parent.
Case in point, my Mother’s Day experience last year. My oldest daughter (a high school senior who lives exclusively with her dad and I) is a great kid, but tends to have a tough time remembering to do things on time. This usually ends up in lots of stress around birthdays and Christmas as we scramble to find and mail last-minute gifts! Determined to avoid the chaos, I reminded my daughter approximately 8 billion times to purchase a Mother’s Day gift for her mom.
But, like clockwork, the gift went forgotten, and a few days before Mother’s Day I found myself helping my daughter a) think of a gift, b) buying it for her while she was at school, c) reminding her to wrap it, d) reminding her to get a card, and e) driving to the Post Office to mail it in time. Now, do I owe Mom No. 1 a gift? No way. But by making sure she gets recognized on Mother’s Day isn’t about her, it’s about making sure my daughter grows into the kind of woman who puts family first.
2. No One Will Remember You’re a Parent
If your kids don’t live with you and their dad full time, or live far away, this will be your most irritating challenge on Mother’s Day weekend. Be ready for the “Ohhhh, right, you’re kind of a mom, too” after someone gives you an odd stare when you stand up in church during the “mom recognition” song on Sunday. Or, if you’re on the younger side, well-meaning people will ask you if your kids think of you “like a friend” or just outright assume you don’t get along.
But the truth is, good step-parents plan their lives around their kids, whether they live with you full time or not. For my two daughters who live with Mom No. 1, I spend more time planning visits, coordinating for after-school activities and summer camps, and scheduling FaceTime throughout the week than I do just about anything else.
Kid’s lives are complicated, especially when you have to coordinate with a second set of parents to make decisions. So, when Mother’s Day rolls around and someone seems confused, don’t get offended—just gently remind them that you’re a parent, too, by mentioning plans for summer or your next visit with your kids. They’ll get the message.
3. You Can’t Make Everyone Happy
Let’s face it, stepmoms don’t get the best public treatment. Worst-case scenario, you’re the wicked stepmother (literally, that is the name of the character!). Best-case scenario, you’re some clueless floozy. Thanks, Julia Roberts, but while you stare and smile become best friends with your husband’s ex, the rest of us are just trying to make this complicated mess work. And there is nothing more difficult than trying to balance co-parenting with Mom No. 1 and maintaining a close relationship with your kids.
There’s almost no chance you’ll be able to find a balance that pleases everyone. If you don’t call enough, you’re distant and don’t care about the kids. If you call too much, you’re probably trying to steal them away or convince them to abandon Mom No. 1. If you don’t spend money on your child, you’re selfish. But if you do, you’re just trying to buy their affection! And when conflict comes around (as it does between all children and all parents), you will almost always be stuck in the middle.
While your instinct may be to “side” with your child, it’s important that as a stepmom you do your best to be fair and consistent. Listen to your child, but support Mom No. 1 in the rules and punishments she chooses in her home (within reason, of course). Trust me, this approach will not be popular! But it will be the best for you and your children in the long run.
Also accept that you will likely be blamed for your children’s bad behavior when you are a thousand miles away, and that your kids may lash out at you anytime you back up Mom No. 1 on house rules. And on Mother’s Day, recognize that while you may be stuck between your child and a hard place, the best thing you can do is to step up and be a consistent parent in the turbulent world of a blended family life.
4. Husbands, You Carry the Day
Around this time of year, my dad likes to remind me and my siblings that our mom is “not his mother,” his way of pointing out that he won’t be taking a leading role in planning or gifts. Unfortunately, husbands and dads with blended families do not have this luxury.
The truth is, for many stepmoms, the only person who is there to celebrate them is their husband. The kids will most likely spend Mother’s Day with Mom No. 1 (rightfully so), and unless they are old enough and considerate enough to think of it on their own, most won’t send a step-parent cards, gifts, flowers, or even pick up the phone to call. My 14-year-old called on Mother’s Day for the first time last year—and while I was surprised and touched, I certainly won’t hold my breath that I’ll get a call this year.
So husbands, celebrating your spouse on Mother’s Day and every other day of the year often falls on your shoulders. Call your kids and encourage them to remember their stepmom once they have finished celebrating with Mom No. 1. Offer words of encouragement throughout the year when no one else remembers how much effort it takes to be a step-parent. And remember, this woman loved you and your children enough to volunteer for one of the most thankless jobs in the world. You don’t have to go overboard, but flowers and a nice afternoon can go a long way.
5. You Are Valuable, Even if No One Knows it Yet
The truth is, Mother’s Day can be tough for blended families, just like any other day. There aren’t rules for how to recognize the sacrifices step-parents make, and the unfortunate truth is it is rare for stepmoms to be seen as more than an out-of-touch parent along for the ride. You can’t ask to be appreciated as a step-parent. You adopt unconditional love and sometimes get nothing in return. As your kids grow up, you may feel like your very existence just complicates things for everyone. It probably won’t matter what you do, your contribution won’t be appreciated by your kids or the rest of the world.
But your investment is for the long term, and you truly have the opportunity for valuable impact on your children’s lives. Don’t give up. As they grow older, you’ll see glimpses of the ways your example has helped to shape your children’s future.
When I met her seven years ago, my oldest daughter was shy, unsure of herself, and too afraid to use the oven, much less take on any sort of challenge or independence. Today, she is a confident young woman, headed to college on a U.S. Army scholarship, and talking about travel and politics and how she might want to try and get an Airborne school next summer.
She may be following her dad’s footsteps into military service, but I know without a doubt that my encouragement and confidence in her helped get her where she is today. My youngest is fearless, sings Dylan covers to me over FaceTime, and asks if she can come along for my next business trip to a national lab.
These things aren’t a coincidence. I may never be Mom No. 1, but I don’t have to be to see how these girls are benefitting from my influence and learning from my life experience.
So this Mother’s Day, enjoy the flowers your husband buys you (seriously, I wasn’t kidding about number four!), and focus on the future. Today may require more deference and humility than you think you can handle, but your unique contribution as a parent has incredible value. Your example and choices as a parent will shape your children, for better or worse, and you can offer them a perspective on the world they would never have without you. I firmly believe that by embracing your own position in the family, your devotion and sacrifice will be recognized through more fruitful relationships as your children grow older. And you can enjoy it all just fine from second place.