You're A New Stepmom, Now What?

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This story originally appeared in the May/June issue of Latina magazine.

You made it down the aisle. You’ve got a great new hubby and—bonus—a brand new family. While it’s all inspiring, the reality of navigating the delicate relationship with your new kids can be daunting. No one wants to be the “wicked stepmom” but being a doormat isn’t any better. Here’s how to stay sane and make it all work. Here are tips on how to be a rockstar stepmom: 

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Figuring out your new role

First, be realistic—trying to live up to a fantasy insta-happy family will only lead to disappointment. Think of yourself as a loving aunt in your stepkids’ life. Get to know them before you get married, say stepmoms who’ve been there. Finding a shared interest is one of the best ways to connect. You also want to set expectations with your partner, suggests Rachelle Katz, a New York City psychotherapist, who specializes in stepfamilies, and is an author of The Happy Stepmother. There’s a fine line between helping out and taking on the role of stepfamily chef, maid, nanny, etc. Plunging in and trying too hard will only leave you exhausted and resentful, she warns. In all probability, your partner and stepchildren won’t appreciate what you’re doing, and bonding isn’t going to get any easier because of these efforts. 

Disciplining—or not.

Your stepkids will test you, whether out of misbehavior or defiance. While you might be tempted to parent, don’t. The rule of thumb is: “Leave the primary disciplining to the biological parents,” Katz advises. Now, this doesn’t mean you should put up with rudeness or bad manners. You have the right to be treated with respect in your own home (and your partner should make sure that happens). Take the time to talk about parenting styles with your partner and, as a family, create some basic household rules that everyone can abide by and some good consequences when those rules aren’t followed. As for the “you’re not my mom!” fight? Teddie, a stepmom from New York, responded once with: “Technically, you are correct. I did not give birth to you. But, just as I decided to be with your daddy, I am deciding to be your stepmom.” Her stepdaughter never brought it up again.  

The Ex Files

Developing a cordial relationship with your husband’s ex and stepkids’ bio-mom is critical to your marriage (and sanity). Teddie says that making it clear to her stepdaughter (instead of bio-mom) that she is not her mother also made the relationship with her husband’s ex-wife easier. What about a drama mama? Never, ever bad-mouth her. Period. If the bio-mom is intrusive and offensive, “disengage,” Katz suggests. “Have only as much contact as is necessary.” And be like Switzerland when it comes to any discussion between your partner and his ex over child support, discipline, or otherwise. You can support him from the sidelines, but don’t get in the middle of it. 

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When it becomes tumultuous (and it will), don’t take it personally, and don’t feel pressure to blend, Katz adds. “Blending isn’t a pre-requisite for a stepfamily to function successfully. It’s an ideal that is difficult for most stepfamilies to achieve.” 

The Brady Bunch down the block may look picture-perfect, but don’t worry, even they deal with the same problems.