When I married my husband, I knew — logically, at least — that becoming a stepmom to his two adolescent girls would be challenging. Still, I felt confident. I was a high school teacher, and I enjoyed working with young people. On top of that, my nieces and nephews thought I was fun and cool. Becoming a stepmother would be challenging, I thought, but also amazing.
Within a year in the new role, though, my new teenage stepdaughters had rejected my invitations to makeup classes and a college open house. They gave up on learning the card game my family loved playing, requested the box version over my homemade mac and cheese, and refused my social media follow requests.
It hurt, every time. It became hard to be around my stepkids. Still, I wanted a relationship with the two girls. I started to realize that I was going to have to change my expectations for what that relationship would look like. After all, the painful moments weren't so much from anyone being cruel as much as from my hopes and expectations that, well, didn't come to be.
After some time working out the kinks, my effort to change my approach to being a stepparent can now be summarized in three mottos. They're simple, but they have helped me move away from the pain and sadness that was making me reluctant to keep spending time with my stepkids and have helped me instead start finding moments of joy in the relationships.
The first motto? Ride loose. When I was a teenager myself, our family visited a theme park. My mom never liked rough rides and rollercoasters. She turned to my dad and asked how he could handle them without his neck aching every time. His answer? "Ride loose." I remembered his words years later after some time on the rollercoaster of being a stepparent. Just like riding the theme park ride, when I stiffened with certain expectations, I ended up hurting. Instead, when it came to my stepchildren, I started making a conscious effort to let go and go with the flow.
So when they backed out of a vacation, or didn't want to participate in an activity I was excited about, or decided to see friends rather than spend time with my husband and me? Ride loose, I started telling myself. It's one moment, not our entire relationship. It will be fine.
My second motto: celebrate the positives. Riding loose is about expecting the unexpected — like not being surprised or hurt when something special doesn't happen. But when something special does happen? Those are things to celebrate. And just like sad things, happy moments do come. Recently, my younger stepdaughter started asking to dye our puppy's tail pink. It sounded like a lot of work and a great big mess, but I decided to try it with her. Both my stepdaughters got into it, and the three of us ended up in the bathroom, juggling dye and paper towels, handling the shower head and a wiggly dog. We talked. We laughed. We connected in a small way, and just maybe even made a happy memory together. I was thrilled to have a moment like that with them, one I could quietly celebrate and treasure. It was a moment that brought joy — joy from moving on from the negative and putting my focus and energy on the positives.
My third motto for being a stepparent is "keep trying." I consciously choose to go with the flow and to focus on the positive moments as they come, but being a stepmom is still really challenging. I don't always know what to talk about or how to connect with my stepkids. I want their happiness and success, but I still feel unsure about my role in helping that to happen. I don't feel like I have our relationship figured out, but I'm going to keep trying. I'm going to keep showing up, keep being positive, and keep engaging — even when it's a challenge.
I am proud of the young women my stepdaughters are. I'm always impressed with how (unlike me) they try scary things, and how they're outgoing even in new situations. I love seeing them discover life and the world. I'm sorry for the sorrow and hurt they've felt being part of a divorce.
I care about them, and I'm so excited to see who they become and what they do with their lives, because I think it will be amazing. I'm grateful I can be part of their lives. I'm not who they call when they need help or advice, and I don't think I'll be helping them pick out their prom dresses or sharing midnight heart-to-heart talks anytime soon — realizations that still make me a little sad, but things I can accept now. I am going to keep being present, keep being positive, and keep working at our relationship. I'm excited to see where it goes.