In September, I will have been a stepmom for 13 years. My younger stepdaughter, Maddie, who still lives at home, was still in diapers when I married her dad; she's only two years away from college now. Looking back, it's easy to see the mistakes I made in this complex role. If only I had been able to swing a time-shifting trick, where I could have visited myself back then with all the wisdom I have now, I could have warned myself away from the errors and nudged myself toward the right path, sparing both my stepkids and me some unnecessary tension and pain.
But, I think my future self wouldn't have only issued warnings; I think she'd have offered a few pats on the back as well, for the things I did right. Below, I've listed some of the things I believe my future self would have said if she had visited me in my early stepmom days. But there is no better judge of a stepmom than her stepdaughter; no matter how well or poorly I believe I did, I feel the final vote goes to Maddie, so I asked her to share her opinions too.
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Lesson 1: Channel your favorite aunt more, your mother less.
Favorite aunts smile with delight at children's idiosyncrasies; mothers try to correct them. I fear I tried to make my stepdaughters conform to my expectations and my personality: proper table manners; firm handshakes; an active lifestyle; the wearing of activity-appropriate footwear instead of the "fashion" shoes they gravitated toward; a preference for public TV over pop culture. I took it personally when they didn't immediately and cheerfully morph into Mini Me's the way my bio children did. But they weren't Mini Me's; they were Mini Someone Else's. Although I celebrate that now, I was too slow in getting there.
Maddie: I definitely think that even though I'm not your biological daughter, I picked up on some of your language, habits, manners, etc. For example, we ask if "the dishwasher is recieving," which isn't something I say at my mom's house, but you've always said that, and I picked up on it. Although I never really became a Mini You, I definitely started to talk more like you, eh? (Get it? Because you're Canadian! LOL)
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Lesson 2: There's only one team in a family.
This is one area where I think my current self would give my younger self a "thumbs up." I was never one of those stepmoms who defended her bio kids no matter what. If Maddie and my bio daughter, Libby, were arguing and I felt Maddie was right, I said so. If necessary, I made Libby apologize, and many times when they were little, I sent her to time-out while Maddie roamed free. It's about right and wrong, not us versus them, and I believed I'd be doing all the kids a disservice if I didn't make that clear.
Maddie: Thumbs up from me too on this one. And this still happens, since you're still my stepmom and Libby and I still bicker now and then. There have been many times when Libby was wrong, and you didn't hesitate to tell her so. And when I was wrong, you weren't afraid to say that, either. I never have felt as if you were defending her because she's your biological daughter.
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Lesson 3: Keep the lines of communication open, but communicate their way, not yours.
When I'm upset with someone, I tell them. I'm not one to seethe silently or make passive-aggressive digs. I think that's a good thing, and I believe my stepdaughters appreciated it; it's far nicer to know where you stand than to have to guess. At the same time, though, I often didn't temper the things I said as much as I should have. All moms react too emotionally at some point—we've had a long day; we've had it up to here; and we bark out something that's far blunter than we meant. Bio kids have certainty in their relationship with us and can shrug off our clumsy words fairly easily. Their stepsiblings feel more tenuously connected to us though, and for this reason, they can take badly communicated ideas far more to heart, and there can be a lasting impact. I should've been far quicker to change my mode of speaking around my stepchildren.
Maddie: There is a different level of emotional contact between a bio parent and child compared to a stepparent and child. I think when you're a stepchild and your stepparent raises their voice at you or you get in a fight with them, there's an underlying fear that they don't like you or they don't like having you around. I actually remember the first time you raised your voice at me. Of course, it was a silly thing because I was young, but my first thought was that I wouldn't be able to fix it—fix our relationship. I've known you for almost my whole life so I'm okay with it now because you are a parent to me, and parents are supposed to discipline and teach their kids.
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Lesson 4: Nothing means more to a child than being included; nothing feels worse than being left out.
Here's another area where I believe Future Julie would have beamed proudly at New Stepmom Julie. My stepdaughters have always been at our house a few days each week, according to a strict schedule. This meant I could plan activities—movie nights, dinners out, mani/pedis, weekends away, etc.—around their schedule, and this is exactly what I did. It was imperative to me that they not arrive at our house to hear of some fun thing we had done without them. Much better for them to hear, "We were waiting for you, because everything's more fun when we all go together!"
Maddie: You were/are very good about planning things you know I would appreciate. You plan vegan meals for when I'm there and save meals with dairy/meat products for when I'm gone. There have been countless times when you waited to watch a certain TV show because we all liked to watch it together, which means that you guys had an extra week to anticipate who was sent home on "The Bachelor!" But, I am only there half the time, and I have felt "out of the loop" because things do happen when I'm away. I don't think this is anybody's fault though; you guys have all done a good job at trying to make sure I feel included. I think it's inevitable that I won't always know everything that happens or I'll miss something because I'm not there full-time. It's just the way it works, and there is nobody to blame.
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Lesson 5: When a child acts up, let the behavior, not DNA, dictate your reaction.
It's tough being a stepmom. Sometimes, we can feel a bit like hotel staff. We cook for these kids; we clean up after them; we pack their lunches, but the rewards of parenting—the hugs and kisses and art projects from school—go to someone else, not us. That can make us feel taken for granted, which, in turn, makes us feel resentful. But that doesn't mean that if a stepchild leaves her shoes out and you trip over them, you should shriek at her or mutter under your breath as you hurl them across the room—especially if your bio kid did the same thing the week before and you only rolled your eyes, laughed at his adorable absentmindedness and nudged the sneakers out of the way. Kid behavior is kid behavior, whether the kid is bio or step. Messiness comes with the territory, as does grumpiness, snarkiness, the occasional fib and all the rest of it. It took me longer than it should have to react to these small offenses equally, no matter who the offender was.
Maddie: I don't have much to say about this. This thought never really came to my mind. I've never seen you do this either ... which is a good thing! Ha.
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Lesson 6: Kids make terrible—and unwilling—tug-of-war ropes.
I can feel My Future Self patting my Past Stepmom Self's head here. I imposed plenty of personality flaws on my stepchildren, but guilt tripping was never one of them. If their dad was going to be traveling during days they were scheduled to be at our house, I would tell them, "You're very welcome here, but if you'd prefer to stay at your mom's, I will completely understand." And I meant it. Also, I didn't talk badly about their mom, and if they complained about her, I would say only, "I'm sorry you're upset about that" and not pile on in the hopes of scoring some points. I haven't ever felt the need to "win" against their bio mom, and because of that, I believe they have never felt I was tugging them in my direction.
Maddie: I think you had a really great balance of being a mother figure but not trying to take that role.
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Lesson 7: If you're struggling with your stepkids, maybe the problem is you.
I have a long record of parenting mistakes, but I have an equally long record of admitting my errors, apologizing, and trying to improve. Almost immediately after I married Maddie's father, I started to see a counselor who specializes in blended family issues. She was not a typical therapist who let me whine about my lot in life as she nodded along sympathetically, she regularly told me things like, "You're absolutely wrong about that," and "This problem is coming from you, not them." This was perfect for me; I was far more interested in having a good relationship with my stepdaughters than in hearing I was perfect—because I know I wasn't! But, I worked on a number of things with that therapist, and as I did, I became a better stepmom and a better person. I'm not sure Maddie was aware I sought counseling for this, so her reaction may be complete surprise. I do think she has always known how hard I've tried, and that if I've made mistakes, it was never for lack of effort, caring or love.
Maddie: I do know how hard you've tried. I didn't know that you went to counseling so my reaction is surprise. I think you did a good job at this. Often, if we had an argument and you felt as if you went about it the wrong way, you would come back to me and tell me and apologize. You recognized that you were wrong, and you took responsibility for it, which is one of the many things you did right.
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Looking back at 13 years of stepparenting, I believe there have been more laughs than tears, more conversation than argument, more good memories than bad, and I hope, when it comes to the role I played, more successes than failures. But, let's not take my word for it; let's hear what Maddie has to say.
Maddie: I have too much to say. Over 13 years of you being my not-so-wicked stepmother, it has been more good than bad. Thanks for putting up with my different accents (her British one is really good!), my shoes in the hallway, and the uncountable times I have left my dishes out. There are so many good memories that really just cancel out any of the bad.
Julie Lawson Timmer grew up in Stratford, Ontario, Canada. She lives in Ann Arbor, Mich., with her husband, their four teenage children and two rescued dogs. She is a writer, lawyer, mom/stepmom, and dreadful cook. She published her first novel, "Five Days Left," with Putnam in 2014, and her second book, "Untethered," was just released this year.