The 7 Stages of Becoming a Stepparent
Stepparenting itself— that is, forming a relationship with someone else's kid— isn't the hard part. It's the intense, conflicted emotions you experience as part of the transition into becoming a stepparent that are the real killer.
Becoming a stepparent is a mean ol' tangle of emotions. One day you're hopeful and the next you're ready to throw in the towel. You have moments of bone-deep loneliness alternating with feeling like you're creating something magical with your partner— a new family that didn't exist until the two of you met. You feel furious, jealous, angry, guilty, then calm, accepting, loving, and/or totally over it. All of this in the space of a single afternoon sometimes.
What you're feeling right now— the contradiction and confusion and wondering which emotion's going to hold you hostage next— all of that is completely normal.
I've heard the exact same issues come up for hundreds of people as they're becoming stepparents, and they're the exact same issues that I experienced myself in the early years of blending our family. By breaking down the process of becoming a stepparent into distinct stages, you can start recognizing patterns and pick apart each emotion separately so it's easier for you to accept, deal, know that hard is normal, forgive yourself, and move on to the next stage. Some stages may overlap, and you might take one step forward, two step backs the entire way to acceptance. But eventually you will reach a place where life once again makes sense and find stepparenting is a gig you find you can live with.
The feelings you’ll experience as you’re becoming a stepparent fall into 7 stages:
Let’s break these down a bit, shall we?
Stepparenting Stage 1: Optimism
Who doesn't feel optimistic at the beginning of a new relationship? Becoming a stepparent is no different. You feel great about your partner, you're positive the kids will warm up to you, and you'll all be besties before you know it. Sure, maybe this isn't a life you ever imagined for yourself but that doesn't mean you can't make it work, right?
Or maybe you're beyond that initial honeymoon phase with your partner and you're facing some harsher realities. Like stepkids who, no matter how hard you try, remain determinedly unthrilled that you're around at all. Like spending an awful lot of cash on after-school activities, child support, or lawyers. Or like dealing with an ex who is way more involved in your lives than you'd like.
You believe that somehow, magically, all of these issues will work themselves out with time and no longer affect you.
Welcome to the optimism stage of stepparenting! Aka: living in denial.
Don't get me wrong— I am all for optimism. My husband is the most absurd optimist I've ever met, and his attitude has definitely rubbed off on me over the years. But you can't gloss over the fact that becoming a stepparent is a major life transition that includes equally major challenges— most of which you have no idea are coming till they smack you upside the head.
Grab something sharp and pop that optimism bubble. The kids won't suddenly realize they were wrong about you this whole time and throw themselves into your open loving arms. The ex will never simply vanish from your life. Life in a blended family will never de-complicate itself.
The best way to move past the optimism stage of stepparenting is to work on acceptance: let go of how you think life in a blended family should be, and accept that challenges exist. Acknowledging that fact doesn't mean that you'll never have a "real" family; it just means that you're looking at the reality of blended family life without those stubbornly rose-colored glasses glued to your face, which ultimately will help you feel happier with the family you actually have.
Stepparenting Stage 2: Bribery
Stepkids hate you? Daycare acts like you're a suspicious stranger when you show up to pick up your stepkids? Your partner doesn't acknowledge how hard you're trying? The ex won't give their stamp of approval on your existence? When you're in the bribery stage, you have the same answer for every single rough patch: try harder.
Buy more presents for your stepkids. Cook more of their favorite meals. Schedule more absurdly fun and over-the-top family activities. Go from stepparent to Super Stepparent in 0 to 60 flat, and single-handedly turn everyone's preconceptions about stepparents completely upside down. You're an amazing stepparent and you're gonna prove it to everyone, dammit.
It's great that you want to be the best stepparent you can be. We all want that. But overdoing the whole above-and-beyond thing is really just an extension of the denial stage of stepparenting.
There's no one single gift you can buy or action you can take that will ensure your success as a blended family. I'm definitely not saying don't bother to put in effort— you should, absolutely. But you also need to recognize that 1) blending a family takes years, 2) successfully blending a family does not fall solely on your shoulders as a stepparent, and 3) if you give yourself empty, you won't be good for anyone anymore, including yourself.
If you're thinking that, okay, this next great plan/present/attempt will totally clinch it (all the while feeling frenzied and overextended and like nothing you do is ever enough), you're fully attempting to bribe your way into becoming a stepparent.
Knock it off. Just be yourself. Slow down and let everyone come around in their own time.
Stepparenting Stage 3: Jealousy
My god. You are the worst human ever. You're actually jealous of the relationship between your partner and their kid. You should be better than this. You are the lowest of the low. What kind of person begrudges a parent's love for their child?
Answer: Every new stepparent ever.
You're jealous that your partner and their kids already have a family, and you're on the outside. You wonder why you're even there when it doesn't seem like there's a clear place for you to fit in. You're jealous of other stepparents who effortlessly step into their role when loving your stepkids is so much harder for you.
What about the fact that your partner already experienced pregnancy and childbirth with someone else? You're jealous that you'll never be the first spouse, and jealous you'll never hold the same position in your partner's life as the ex once did.
You even feel jealous of every idiot who pops up in your Facebook feed with pics of their completely normal, traditional first marriages and stupid cute kids, and you'd sell your soul for a little of that simplicity. Jealous of that co-worker who took that amazing promotion when you had to make career compromises because your partner can't move away from their kids. Jealous that other people don't have to factor child support into their budget (for kids that aren't even theirs, btw), that other people can plan family vacations without it turning into World War III, that other people have full-time families and you're stuck with lame-ass, part-time leftovers. Jealous of everything and everything is stupid.
Yep, this is all normal.
I've been there, and so has every other stepparent on the planet. Jealousy becomes indistinguishable from resentment and you feel like you're oozing green poison onto everything you touch. You're ashamed, humiliated, and furious with yourself for not being able to rise above such a petty emotion as jealousy.
But the jealousy stage of becoming a stepparent does pass. No matter how vicious, pervasive, or intrusive that green-eyed monster looms over your life right now, you'll manage to fight your way through the sludge to the other side. Resentment breeds because you haven't figured out where you fit in yet, and there's no answer for that except time.
As time passes, you'll realize there is a place for you, that your blended family is just as valid as a traditional one, and the pain of not sharing past experiences with your partner will start mattering less to you than the future you're building together. Slowly, you and the stepkids and your partner will create new memories of your own, new traditions. Over the years, the old dynamic that excluded you changes to a new dynamic that only excludes those old feelings of jealousy and isolation.
Stepparenting Stage 4: Guilt
I mean, of course the next stage is guilt. Who wouldn't feel guilty after trying everything they can to create the perfect blended family (and failing), then topping that charming cocktail off with a big fat jealousy cherry?
The guilt you feel as a stepparent goes beyond normal human guilt. You probably never realized how much guilt you were capable of feeling till becoming a stepparent. Depths of guilt. Fathoms. You'll use up every smidgen of guilt reserves within your own body, and then you'll borrow even more from the Bank of Guilt.
Guilt that any tension that exists is probably your fault— as some partners or kids or exes may or may not be super helpfully reminding you, none of these problems existed till you got here.
Guilt that you're not doing right by your stepkids— if they don't love you and you don't love them, you're surely failing them and they deserve better.
Guilt (plus some bonus fear) that you're becoming the worst possible version of yourself. You lecture, you nag, you complain. Plus that whole jealousy thing. Ugh, who ARE you these days.
Most of all, you feel guilty that sometimes (okay, maybe a lot of the time) you think how much easier life would be without your stepkids around. You imagine a peaceful, idyllic marriage and family life. The main things you fight about are related to the kids or the ex; life with your partner would be perfect without a bunch of kids and exes involved. And then you feel guilty some more because heck, you knew what you were getting into, right? It's not like you spaced that there were kids and an ex before you reached this point. You knew, and you kept dating this person anyway, so you should just suck it up and get over yourself.
But you can't, so here we are back at guilt.
A stepparent feeling guilty is 100% normal, but all that guilt is built on a house of lies. You're pulling impossible standards out of thin air and then bludgeoning yourself when you fail to live up to them.
Your stepkids not liking you is not personal, no matter how personal it may feel. Also, your stepkids do not have to love you for you to be a good stepparent— and you don't have to love your stepkids to be a good stepparent either. Your #1 job as a stepparent is to support your partner as they parent their own children. How that role works out for you will likely be different from the next stepparent you meet; there is no one correct way to blend a family.
Any tension that exists with the ex is not your fault. Whatever problems exist were already there. It's just that your arrival on the scene pointed a big flood light at a crumbling disaster that multiple people have been trying real hard to ignore up till now.
As for you being the worst possible version of yourself—give yourself a break. Becoming a stepparent is a situation you've never been in before, one where every action you take ends up having the opposite of its intended effect, your instincts and intuition are telling you to do the opposite of what actually works IRL, and where most of the resources you find out there land somewhere between worthless and flat-out wrong.
Take a deep breath, stop blaming yourself, and start putting some of that guilt energy into forgiveness and acceptance instead.
Stepparenting Stage 5: Anger
God, you're pissed.
Furious. Livid. Every entry in the thesaurus under 'angry,' that's about half as many descriptive words as you need to fully encompass the level of volcanic, all-consuming rage that's overtaken your entire being. You, a formerly semi-normal, even-keeled person.
You can't believe you had to cancel plans because of some last-minute schedule change with the kids your partner did not consult with you on. Plans you made together for the family you're supposed to be building together.Apparently your vote doesn't count AGAIN this time, and you wonder if it ever will.
And if you partner agrees with you in private about how [whatever thing] should be handled the next time it happens, then fails to act on that agreement ONE MORE GODDAMN TIME, you're gonna lose your shit on someone.
And these kids. These damned relationship-ruining kids. Where are their manners? Who acts like this? Worse, what parents purposely raise their kids to act like this?? AND WHY ARE YOU IN A RELATIONSHIP WITH SOMEONE WHOSE PARENTING IS SO APPALLING?!
Speaking of appalling parents, can we rage about the ex for a minute? Wtf is THAT whole deal? How can someone be so entitled/ neglectful/ smothering/ oblivious/ evil/ withholding/ controlling/ manipulative/ insert your adjective here?! The ex is SO AWFUL that you genuinely wonder about your partner's sanity sometimes. You were with THAT? And for HOW long? Fuck's SAKE.
Maybe worst of all, you cannot BELIEVE how much of your relationship is spent talking about all these problems over and over and over again. God it's infuriating. Who ARE you together without all the drama? Won't anything ever change?! Will you always feel like you're on the verge of Hulk-raging at the drop of a hat?
The answer is no— you will not always feel this homicidal. And yes, you are absolutely entitled to your anger. Just remember, anger is sticky, so this stage can be particularly hard to move past. If your anger feels so intense it's practically sentient, or you're right at the cusp of saying or doing something you can't ever come back from, seek some outside help. Call a counselor, make some stepparent friends you can vent to without judgment, visit r/stepparents.
Again, I can't overstate the importance of taking a deep breath. Once the anger stage hits, start disentangling yourself and look for other areas of your life to focus on. Virtually anything that isn't your partner, your stepkids, or the ex will do. Take a pottery class, look for a meetup.com you can join, whatever can take your mind out of and off of becoming a stepparent can help defuse your pissed off-ness.
Stepparenting Stage 6: Isolation
I've never been so lonely in my life than I was in my earliest years as a stepmom. Not when my parents moved us to a tiny town where everyone had known each other since preschool and I got treated like the new kid for the next half dozen years. Not when I went off to college in a city where I knew absolutely no one. Not even after my daughter's dad moved out and I was left raising our kiddo on my own.
Stepparenting is incredibly isolating. You have to restructure large swaths of your life to make room for the foundations of a blended family. If you don't have kids of your own, you're likely trading nights out for nights in. If you do have kids of your own, you're changing up your normal routine to make room for someone else's normal routine and meeting somewhere in the middle.
Yet as many things as you change about your life to help your new blended family feel at home, you still feel like a rejected outsider. The efforts you put in go unthanked and unnoticed, even by your partner. And while a stepparenting stage or two ago, that might've made you redouble your efforts or pissed you off, by now you're just tired. You feel hopeless and alone. You wonder if life as a stepparent will ever get better, or you're going to be forever stuck in this sad little fishbowl for one.
I'm not going to tell you to cheer up, because I think curling up and going fetal for a bit is a normal part of becoming a stepparent for most of us. Your optimism is in hibernation right now. Your logical brain is taking some downtime to analyze the situation— outside of your initial blind faith and attempted bribery, throwing yourself harder and harder into stepparenting; outside of the rabid feelings of jealousy, guilt, and anger that follow.
By this stage of stepparenting, some recharge time is definitely in order.
So I won't say you should get over it. Go ahead and wallow for a bit— becoming a stepparent is emotionally exhausting and you don't benefit from bothering trying to pretend otherwise. But listen: as alone as you feel, you are not alone. I've been there, and millions of other stepparents have been there. This too shall pass.
In the meantime, now that your irrational brain has calmed the hell down from the emotional intensity of the earlier stages, this is a great time to consider counseling for yourself. You need extra support right now, and you need validation.
Stepparenting Stage 7: Blended
You fell in love with someone with kids. You cannonballed into the deep end of stepparenting, thrashing around and getting nowhere for a long time before dragging yourself out of the pool, dead tired. Then you lay there for a while, limp and listless, wondering which direction you'd get beat up from next.
Now you're ready to cautiously sit up, take a look around, and think about the best way to move forward. Your vision of becoming a stepparent is no longer clouded by denial, anger, or jealousy. You can see clearly now. Survey calmly.
You realize that somewhere along the way, even though you've been fighting this entire time and probably feel like you've failed way more often than you've succeeded, you kinda sorta feel like… well, a family.
Keeping in mind that blending a family takes 5 to 7 years (or longer), each stage of becoming a stepparent typically lasts several months to a year. So all this time, as you've been going through hell and back, your family has been blending right under your damn nose.
These kids and grownups who were all once strangers have gotten used to having each other around. Maybe you even like each other. Maybe no one's best friends, but no one's enemies anymore either.
Kids have gotten older and grown into the idea that yes, they have two households and one household includes you. You're no longer the alien intruder whose ways are strange and must be protected against. You might still feel like life is easier on the days or weeks when you don't have the kids, but you maybe also miss them when they're not there. Your family doesn't feel quite complete without them anymore.
Congratulations: you are a stepparent. It no longer feels weird to say or weird to think. At some point, without you being able to say exactly when, you all became a unit. Not that any kids involved don't still have two homes; not that your stepkids are now head over heels for you (or you for them)— but you've reached a semi-pleasant plateau where you can just… get to know each other better. A tentative oasis out from under the emotional chaos of those earliest days.
You still might not be happy about some (or many) of the complications associated with being a stepparent; those things haven't and won't go away. Stupid double standards in stepparenting. Sharing birthdays and holidays. Missing out on important events and activities because custody schedules can be a real bitch. Dealing with the frustrating finances of dual households. And if you're in a high conflict situation, dealing with the many daily challenges that can bring: court appearances, boundaries, documentation, strategizing.
And you might still wish for a "normal" family, a less complicated life. But you've accepted— at least, most days— that what you imagine as "normal" simply isn't your reality. This might not be the family you imagined, but you're maybe kinda okay with that. Or if you're not 100% on board still, you're getting there. Which, really, is the best any of us can hope for.