The Harsh Realities of Stepparenting

Stepmum and stepdaughter reading together

My mother-in-law is a wonderful, caring, nurturing woman. She would give you the shirt off her back in a heartbeat. To boot, she’s never met a stranger – can you imagine what kind of love that means for those of us in her family? Indescribable.

But one day she said something so offensive I couldn’t even comprehend it. It wasn’t said with poor intentions or the slightest bit of malice. Yet it hurts my heart to this day.

Last Mother’s Day, my fiancé Kevin mentioned to his mom that he and my stepdaughter K had decorated greeting cards for me and they only needed to pick up flowers before picking me up from the airport (I had the opportunity to spend the weekend with my own mom in California!).

My MIL responded, “But why? She’s not a mother. I can maybe understand getting a present next year when you’re married. But why this year?

She said she’s not a mother.

I had been in their lives for a year and a half. At the time, I had lived with my fiancé and his daughter for 6 months, tucking that sweet little girl into bed more often than not, packing lunches, playing games, doing laundry, reading stories, and everything else involved in raising a child. Yet one of the ladies the very closest to me, aware of just how large of a role I play in this little girl’s life, the most supportive person and biggest cheerleader of my relationship… Even she didn’t see the maternal value I added to K’s life.

Stepmothers are mothers too.

I haven’t given birth or experienced the sleepless nights or colicky fits of a newborn, but I have attended Kindergarten graduation, given a standing ovation at her first dance recital, celebrated three of her seven birthdays with her, and cheered her on as her softball dugout mom. I have wiped away her tears, cleaned up her vomit, and sat through countless excruciatingly boring softball and dance practices (oh admit it, you think the practices are boring, too).

I’m not here to bash my mother-in-law or birth moms in general, or to spread animosity. I think my MIL is a wonderful woman that never meant to hurt me with her words. But I know she’s not alone. There are millions of people in the world that would agree with her assertion that I am not a mother, so I’m here to share the realities of stepparenting to all that are unfamiliar and uninformed.

A mother’s relationship is not defined by DNA, but by love instead.

Biological mothers and stepmothers are different sides of the same coin, both providing endless love and support to the child. The reality of stepparenting is that it is not a glorious job, but you do it because you love the child and their father. Before signing up to stepparent, there are seven harsh realities you should know.

1. A biological mother’s love is unconditional. A stepmother’s love is chosen.

Carrying and nurturing a baby for 9 months creates an indescribable, unparalleled bond between mother and child. Feeding a child and giving her life only strengthens that bond. There is no question that a biological mother’s love is unconditional from the very start.

A stepmother isn’t given the same opportunity. She will learn to love, care for, and supplement maternal raising when a child is older. A stepmom chooses every single day to love a man and his child when she has no natural obligation to either of them. She willingly chooses a backstage role, always second to Mom, because she loves the child so much.

2. A biological mother’s adoration is inherent. A stepmother’s adoration is earned.

A biological mother breeds her biggest cheerleaders. She has an entire cheering section with whom she shares DNA. My mom is one of my very best friends; we can fight and make up, within the same phone call. A child will defend her mother without pause her entire life.

It takes a lot more for a stepmom to earn a similar adoration. Her stepchildren will be skeptical, they’ll want Mommy and Daddy to get back together, and they’ll try not to like her. A stepmom will accept the challenge head-on and provide as much or as little support as the child will allow. Only by respecting the child’s boundaries and pace of acceptance will a stepmother’s love and respect of her stepchildren be earned.

3. A biological mother is irreplaceable. A stepmother has no legal rights.

Being a stepmother is a choice to love, nurture, and help a child grow.

It’s so important I’ll say it again: a biological mother is irreplaceable. A stepmother’s role is never to replace a biological mother but to supplement the relationship only. Every child needs his or her mother, and nothing can change that. 

But I can tell you from experience that the love I have for my stepdaughter is also unconditional and irreplaceable. Yet if something happened to her father tomorrow (God forbid!), I’d legally have no right to her except one weekend per month during school and one week per summertime that I’d have to share with all of Kevin’s family. I’d go from seeing her nearly every single day to barely 5% of the year. My best friend, my daughter would become a stranger. I’d no longer know who her best friends on the playground are, what she’s learning this week at school, or the latest trends in the first grade.

4. A biological mother gets credit. A stepmother gets mocked as “evil.”

Muffins with Moms, Mother’s Day, and special ornaments and presents sent home for Mom from school at Christmastime. A biological mom is recognized and will receive accolades for her role. How often have you heard a mother complimented on how well her daughter performed or how brilliant her daughter is?

Granted, Cinderella and Snow White had it pretty bad in the stepmom department, but I promise you, my stepdaughter is living the good life. She has food on her plate, a big roof over her head, and more love than her little heart can handle. I’m not a stepmom because I want to hear how awesome I am, but I certainly invest time, money, and endless energy in helping raise that brilliant little girl. Instead of hearing the compliment for how well my daughter performed, I hear jokes about and comparisons to evil stepmothers.

5. A biological mother receives attention. A stepmother gives attention.

The reality is that a child is going to look for her biological mother in the crowd at a soccer game long before she thinks to see if her stepmom is there cheering her on as well. A mother will receive the first hug after a choir performance and will be the first one to hear about how amazing her new book is.

On the other hand, a stepmom gets her stepdaughter’s uniform washed and helps her get ready for the soccer game. She records the entire choir performance from the audience, and she’s the one that purchased the new book. She gives her stepchild ample attention and does her best to make her feel comfortable, normal, and loved–all of the same things her biological mother does, with far less reciprocity.

6. A biological mother has cheerleaders. A stepmother has critics.

It is an American norm to side with the biological mother. Many custody arrangements favor the mother, and that only furthers the idea that we should support mothers. No matter the reason for the split or the mother’s past, habits, or the company she keeps, friends and family of the child’s parents will continue to support the mother and cheer her on.

Stepmothers aren’t given the benefit of the doubt, and they’re seen as causes for speculation and skepticism. A stepmother is rarely accepted from the beginning; she is quizzed on her beliefs, morals, education, experience with children, and intentions with the child’s father. In the spirit of being protective, friends and family tear a stepmother apart while screening her. And sometimes you never pass the test and are always kept at a distance simply because you’re not related to the child, no matter how much you love her or how good of a mother you are.

7. A biological mother gives birth. A stepmother gives hugs, advice, and love, too.

It is a stepmother’s job to give hugs and provide maternal love when the child is at her father’s house. A stepmom packs lunches and prepares dinner, helps with homework, and plays tickle monster too, just as a biological mother does. She listens to a child’s stories from school and offers advice. Both moms instill values, teach life lessons, and assure the child feels loved and cherished.

And that is the reason I was so offended by the assertion I’m not a mother. What more could you want for your child?

Being a stepparent is not a glorious job, but it is immensely fulfilling.

At the end of the day, being a stepparent is grueling, trying, and emotionally draining. You’ll be judged and torn apart, no matter how great of a job you’re doing. You’ll give love and support with little reciprocity or recognition. The reality is, being a stepmother is a choice to love, nurture, and help a child grow.

It is not about the glory, and it is definitely not an attempt to replace the crucial role that only a biological mother can fill, but it is a supplement to that role. A biological mother and a stepmother work toward the same goal. Both want to raise brilliant, successful, beautiful children.

Each has a different, unique role. Each provides perspective and value the other can’t. Both are mothers.

So, let me ask you this…

Have you thanked your child’s stepmom lately?