Surviving the Stepdaughter War

Stepmum and Stepdaughter

My stepdaughter Amy has a war raging within her. It surfaced this weekend.

“That’s not how mom makes potatoes,” she told me as I slid the roasting pan into the oven before dinner.

After her shower, she came downstairs, long hair dripping down her back. She held up the Wet/Dry hairbrush she’d begged for the month before. “This isn’t the right brush for my hair,” she announced. “Mom says I need a different one.”

At bedtime, after a family movie, Gabe told her it was time for bed. She leaped into his arms and snuggled into his neck. “Say goodnight to Kate,” he said. “Mmmph, Miss Kate” she mumbled into his neck. She didn’t look at me.

The next day, we all attended her ballet recital. She’d been practicing for months – we’ve seen the steps at home, practiced her hair, and listened to the music on a never-ending loop. To celebrate the big day, I brought a present. After her show (a stunning success by all accounts, I say as her unbiased proud stepmom), I handed her the bag. “We’re so proud of you!” I said. “Kate picked out your present,” added Gabe. Amy took the bag, and looked directly at her father, “Thank you, Daddy.”

This is my usual Amy. I’d like to say it isn’t, but that’s not our truth.

Most of the time, Amy is our cheerful butterfly – flitting about the house, full of fun and light. She tells me my earrings are pretty and snuggles next to me in the minutes before bedtime, filling me in on her day. She is my online bargain hunting partner and the first to try the hairstyles we find on Pinterest. She’s filled with questions and talks a mile a minute.

Sometimes, though, things get hard for our girl. We hear less about her life, and she pulls away from me. She needs more time with Gabe, and will politely opt out of riding in my car or having me help with homework. Things that she seemed to enjoy become topics of concern.

The war, unspoken as it is, seems to be between Mom and Stepmom, Mom’s House and Dad’s House. Our deeply loving and loyal Amy is torn.

Whenever the war surfaces, I try to remember three things that help me keep my equilibrium until Amy’s usual light returns.

This is not about me.

Her behavior is how she is feeling in the moment. I consider whether we’ve somehow triggered that feeling, but beyond that, I do not assume responsibility for it.

I remember that Amy is in a tough spot – as are many children of divorced parents. Moving between homes and rules and parents is complicated, and hard to navigate.

I also remember that Amy has a full life outside of each of her homes, and is entering adolescence. Relationships with friends are critically important and filled with pitfalls. Her relationship with Gabe and her mom is evolving, and that can be tricky, too.

I am a bit player in Amy’s life – I am not responsible for her mood.

I can help her.

Moving between homes and rules and parents is complicated, and hard to navigate.

kate chapman

When Amy tells me I am making potatoes differently than her mom, or that Mom says she needs a new hairbrush, she is reminding me that I am not mom.

I know that, and it is okay with me. She has a mama.

I craft my responses to show that I am okay with the line she has just drawn.  I will respect her boundary. I am calm.

“What does Mom do differently with the potatoes? Can you show me? Would you like to try a new way?” or “I’m sorry that brush isn’t working the way we’d hoped. We still have your old one – would you like to try that?”

When Amy focuses all her attention on Gabe and ignores me, she’s reminding me that in her eyes he is the center of our home. I agree with that, and make no issue of the behavior.

Instead of interpreting her remarks or behavior as insults or injury and responding in kind, I remind her, calmly and gently, that I am aware of the boundaries. I am comfortable in my role and agree that I am secondary to Gabe and to her mother.

By respecting the boundaries Amy is communicating and showing that I am comfortable in my role, I can stop half of the conflict in her head and heart. I can help end the war by showing her, clearly, that I am not participating in a competition.

We love each other.

Amy and I have a strong, loving relationship. I know she cares about me deeply. I love her. That doesn’t change when the struggle surfaces.

We have a strong, positive history. When my feelings are hurt, or I am momentarily thrown by her seemingly out-of-the-blue rejection, I draw on those memories. I remember when she interviewed me at the start of sixth grade as an important person in her family. I remember when she asked me how to apply her stage make-up, and we practiced together sitting at her vanity. I remember when she told me giddily the room we planned together was exactly what she wanted.

It’s hard when the war surfaces for Amy. If it catches me by surprise, my feelings are momentarily hurt. But by remembering our long positive history, reminding myself that this is not about me, and removing myself from the conflict, I can minimize the effect Amy’s struggle has on all of us.

I can help our sweet girl end her war, and as her loving stepmother, that’s all that really matters.