Since day one, my relationship with my stepchildren has been pretty harmonious. Some would say, abnormally so.
When my husband introduced me to his kids, when we made the decision to move in together, when we got married, and even when we had a baby of our own, we didn’t experience any of the behaviour you would expect from a “child of divorce”. Until recently there has been a consistent mutual respect.
I repeat—until recently.
Four years into this stepmom gig, I am deep in the step-parenting trenches. As we embark on the tween-age years, there has been a bit of a shift. Nonetheless, I naively entered into this new phase expecting our hearts-and-sparkles stepmom-stepchild relationship to continue.
Since my husband has a week-on-week-off access schedule with my three stepchildren, we’re responsible for everything when the kids are with us. As time has gone on, I’ve taken on the “motherly” roles in our home—laundry, pick-up, drop-off. After we nestled into our new family dynamic, I began asking them to clean up their dishes, tidy their room, and do their part. Until this point, there has never been any backlash—from them, or their mom.
When I committed to marrying my husband, I made the conscious decision that I would always treat my stepchildren as if they were my own. To be clear, this is not an attempt to replace their mother. As a mother, myself, I understand it is a sacred, irreplaceable role. But I treat them the same as I treat my own child because, as a child of divorce, I know first hand the impacts of doing otherwise. That and I love them more than I ever thought possible.
So, last week, when my stepson said he didn’t have to listen to me because I am not his mom, it was a HUGE slap in the face. It appears that politely asking him to put a helmet away was now beyond the job description of a stepmom.
My initial reaction to this response was anger. No—that’s an understatement. I was pissed.
After running it through my head a few dozen times, I managed to calm down a little. I reminded myself that my stepchild is now a step-tweenager. Rebellion, attitude, disrespect, and boundary pushing are all common and age appropriate behaviors. Insert the complicated feelings that come from being a child of divorce and, well, what we were experiencing wasn’t anything outside of the ordinary.
But that didn’t make the slap in the face sting any less. In fact, after some processing, a glass (or two) of wine and some long talks with my husband, anger turned into hurt. I never thought it would come to this.
My husband gave him the usual ineffective talk about respect and we got back to life as usual. Except I had this pit in my stomach that I just couldn’t shake. That and my stepson and I were barely speaking.
A couple of days later he came to me with a mustard-stained shirt and asked if I could get it out. The next day he dumped his laundry in front of the washing machine and asked for it to be done by the following day. Next, he asked me to drive him to his buddy’s house—like, NOW.
Normally I would drop what I was doing and take him, but instead, I asked him to chat.
“Last week when you said you don’t have to listen to me because I am not your mom—it hurt my feelings. A lot. I know I’m not your mom, but I am your stepmom. We are family. We’ve always respected each other and worked together. But now, if you don’t have to listen to me because I’m not your “mom”, why should I have to spend an hour scrubbing the mustard out of your shirt?”
“Or why should I have to clean all your dirty laundry. Or drop everything I’m doing to drive you to your friend’s house?”
I’m crying now. The look on his face says he’s getting it.
“Is it fair to me to do these things for you and still get stomped on?”
He shook his head. “No… it’s not,” he responded.
“I know I am not your mom. I have never pretended to me. This can go one of two ways and the choice is entirely up to you,” I added. I explained that if we took the “I’m not your mom” route, he should understand that if he can’t treat me with respect, I will no longer be willing to go above and beyond for him.
“You’re capable of doing your laundry, and scrubbing mustard out of your shirt. And you don’t HAVE to hang out with your friends,” I continued.
His eyes opened wider.
“…OR we can go back to the way things were before all this and treat each other like family—with love and respect. But you’re not going to get the best of both worlds,” I concluded.
He finally got it.
He picked the second option, and I drove him to his friends.
We’ll see what tomorrow brings! But something tells me this is just the beginning.