Support for stepmothers - The challenges of being a stepmum

In this article I’ll be talking about the challenges of being a stepmum and looking at what prospective stepmothers should bear in mind so they can be prepared for this new chapter of their life. So many things come to mind when I think of writing this article, and there are so many different strands to being a stepmother, which would be impossible to cover in one article.


With that in mind, this article will focus on some key areas, including, what you need to think about before committing, some of the common difficulties and challenges as a stepmother, what it can be like with a high-conflict ex-wife or ex-girlfriend and how you go about instilling boundaries for the sake of your mental health and wellbeing.

Being a mother is one of the most trying jobs you will ever do. Usually, you have months or even years to prepare for it, but as a stepmother, gaining a new family almost overnight can be a daunting experience, particularly if you don’t already have children. 

It’s unlikely for there to be an instant bond between a stepmum and stepchild. One crucial aspect to bear in mind when transitioning into the role of a stepparent is to proceed gradually with caution. Follow the child’s lead, when it comes to the development of your relationship with them and be a support to your partner, rather than taking the lead, especially with discipline. Don’t try to force feelings that just aren’t there. Respect the children’s emotional boundaries and recognise your own boundaries too. Be kind to yourself, and give yourself and the children time to adjust to each other. 

Throughout this initial phase, particularly while the relationship is still in the dating stage, it is imperative to honour the children's connections with their biological parents. Gradually, as circumstances permit, you'll naturally assume more of the stepparent responsibilities, if this has been discussed and agreed upon between you and your husband/partner. By no means, do you have to take on this role, if you don’t want to, as the child already has a mother. If they don’t, it is still your choice, whether or not to take on the motherly role in their lives.

What they say and how you feel

I’ll bet anyone who is a stepmother has heard this said at some point when their struggling or venting. “You knew what you were signing up for.” The truth is, you don’t really know what you’re signing up for when you get into a relationship with a man who has children and more importantly, situations change. What could have started out as a great relationship and you as the stepmother having a good bond with the children, can very quickly change for a number of reasons. 

You may have started out thinking, you can do this, he only has the kids every other weekend, but that can change and often does as the children get older and as needs change. The close relationship you once had with the children can change, leaving you dreading them coming over and feeling like you’re walking on eggshells in your own home. It can bring about anxiety that you’ve not previously experienced and for some stepmothers, they feel like outsiders, having to retreat to another part of the house when the stepchildren come over. This is unchartered territory and it’s important to realise when it’s affecting your mental health and when to seek counselling for support.

The challenges

Building trust – with stepchildren can be challenging, particularly when they are still coming to terms with the breakdown of their nuclear family and getting used to the new two-parent setup. They may have concerns about the role the new stepmother will play in their lives, including how their dad having a new partner will affect the amount of time they spend with him. This makes the children naturally very sceptical and wary of dad’s new partner. It can bring about feelings of jealousy in the children, which is normal.

Navigating loyalties

Stepmothers may find themselves navigating the complexities of building a relationship because of the child’s loyalties to their own mother. This sometimes can be a hindrance or a barrier to developing a relationship with a child. The children may feel that they are being disloyal to their mum if they like you as the stepmum and have a good relationship with you. Some factors that can cause issues with loyalty binds are the personalities of the parents and the way the previous relationship ended. These challenges are less likely to occur where the co-parents have an amicable co-parenting relationship.

Interactions with the ex

In most relationships, you don’t have an ex-partner in the picture, but the challenge in this situation is you can’t get away from the ex being a part of your life because they share a child/children. They have to be in contact with each other, at least till the children are 18 and usually, it doesn’t end there. It can feel uncomfortable to have your husband/partner communicating with another woman, especially if the contact is on a regular basis. If they get on well, that level of familiarity can be hard to deal with and if they are acrimonious, that brings another level of stress into your life as the stepmother.

Family traditions

It can be hard to find your place in this newfound family. Trying to get the right balance between respecting what they had, but also not being triggered by those old family traditions and the desire to create new ones. Stepfamilies don’t have a shared history, so focus on building new memories and experiences together. This doesn’t mean that you have to replace all the old family traditions, but that you add to them, creating new ones that reflect your new family unit.

The in-laws

I’ll touch upon this briefly, as it often comes up in stepfamilies. I acknowledge the difficulties you may have a stepmother in this new family if the in-laws continue to have a good relationship with the ex and particularly, if they invite her for family gatherings or talk about her when you see them. It can naturally lead to feelings of insecurity or discomfort and it’s important to know that you’re not alone in feeling this way.

Prospective stepmothers

Being a stepmother is not for the fainthearted and in some cases can seem like a thankless task, where you’re not appreciated or acknowledged by your husband/partner or your stepchildren. Before you fully step into this role, here are a few things to think about and look out for.

Is your partner seeking increased time with his children, as a result of you coming into his life, which essentially means you will be the one looking after the children, while he’s at work or doing something else? Do not allow those early feelings to cloud your judgement and become an unpaid babysitter.

Does he resent you doing things with your friends and family when he has his children? If so, take note. As part of my research, I read something where the stepmother was planning to visit her family when the children were coming over and her partner said, bold as brass I might add “That she was selfish for going out when his kids were coming over, leaving him to look after them all by himself”.  Yes, I did a double-take on that one too.

Does your partner correct his children, if they misbehave or disrespect you? It’s very easy to blame the children, but if they are not corrected, it’s a partner problem and not a child problem. These kinds of things can leave stepmothers being very resentful of the stepchildren and it affects their happiness in the relationship. The feelings of: ‘Our relationship is great when the children aren’t here’ or ‘We don’t argue about anything else’ will lead to a build-up of negative feelings towards them, where your heart sinks when the time rolls around for them to come over.

Communicate openly and sensitively with your partner and seek the support of a professional to help with this. Parents can be naturally very defensive of their children and can interpret any kind of criticism, as an attack on their parenting, or an assumption that you don’t like their children.

The ex – Consider the state of the coparenting relationship, before you get in any deeper. Sometimes, entering a new relationship, when your partner and his Ex are still in the middle of a court custody battle can be draining and emotionally exhausting. You give your all to support them and can often end up feeling empty. If he is in the middle of a custody battle, it might just not be the right time for him to focus on a relationship. Even when things settle down years later, stepmothers can be left feeling very resentful that the early stage of their relationship was filled with their partner being stressed and financially depleted from legal costs. 

Instilling boundaries

You need boundaries for your mental health, especially where you have a high conflict ex, often referred to as HCBM. Remember, that boundaries are not rules you put on someone else, but what you are willing to accept or not accept. An example of a boundary might be “I’m not going to your parent’s house if your ex is going to be there” as opposed to “Tell your parents she can’t come to their house or I’m not coming”. You are perfectly entitled to put in boundaries for your own comfort and mental health, which is different than telling others, what they can and cannot do.

Your husband/partner needs to have boundaries with his ex so that your relationship is not negatively affected by her behaviour.  It’s not a great feeling to feel like your life is dictated by another woman. There may be times, when this is unavoidable, however, appropriate boundaries are healthy for your relationship. 

There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to stepfamilies. What works for one, may not work for another. Don’t let people tell you that you’re not doing it right and tell you how you should feel or behave. The stepfamily and stepmother dynamic is multifaceted and whilst I could say so much more on this topic, I’m going to leave it here for now.

The role of counselling

Society can sometimes place a lot of expectations on women as a whole and stepmothers are not immune to that. Women are traditionally the nurturers, the carers and sometimes the primary caregivers of children, however, it’s very natural not to have those nurturing feelings or to want to be a caregiver to a child that isn’t yours.

The confidential and non-judgemental space in counselling can be of great support to stepmothers, in helping with emotional support. You can vent, and express your feelings, fears and concerns, without fear of judgement or being labelled as the wicked stepmother.

It feels like parents are not looked at negatively when they speak of the challenges of parenting, but add step in front of parent and it’s very different. The judgement, even from friends and family can be quite surprising.

Stepmothers may find it helpful and supportive to have someone to talk to and share their thoughts with. The relationship can be a struggle and you may need help, to determine what you can do to restore happiness and bring about some peace and improve your mental health and well-being.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Northolt, Middlesex UB5 & Uxbridge UB10
Written by Tricia Ibe, MBACP, NCPS
Northolt, Middlesex UB5 & Uxbridge UB10

Tricia Ibe, (MBACP) (MNCPS Accredited) Counsellor. I am experienced in supporting people to achieve healthy relationships, to navigate the challenges of Step/Blended families. infidelity and struggles with being the other woman/man in a relationship.

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