What We Wish We Would’ve Known

Whenever Dan & I talk about our earliest years together, we commiserate over just how much worse we managed to make everything through our well-meaning but ultimately disastrous intentions.

Becoming a stepparent is the ultimate "If only I'd known then what I know now." When we look back, we want to bitchslap our past selves and yell "UGH why did/didn't we do X instead of Y?!" In the moment, you don't realize just how big an impact your actions (or inactions) will have months or years later.

So here's our top list of things we wish we'd done differently, in the hopes that we can save some other blended families even a fraction of the self-bludgeoning we put ourselves through.

1: The default setting for blending a family is "hard"

Life is already hard and complicated and messy just on your own; and add another adult and their kids (and their ex) to that mix and the hard/complicated/messy factor just spiked up exponentially.

What surprised me most about becoming a stepparent is how absurdly, disproportionately difficult everything became. And this was coming in as a single parent already, so the kid thing at least was not new. I also did not expect my SD to fall in love with me right away, and figured there'd be some hesitation and a general getting-to-know-you phase. None of that bothered me. I honest to god thought I had my eyes wide open.

If we could do it all over…

Dan & I thought surely we must be making tons of mistakes when our everyday life kept getting harder instead of easier. Surely the problem was something we were doing or not doing— something horribly, horribly wrong.

Nope! Life in a blended family is just plain hard, especially for those folks dealing with a high-conflict situation. There's no way around it. The only way out is through. Knowing that ahead of time would've saved us tons of guilt and anger along the way.

2: Getting outside help earlier would've been better.

On that note, let's talk about counseling.

The longer I stepparent, the more I realize just how many mistakes I made in my earliest days of dating Dan and meeting my stepdaughter. Dan says the same about his own mistakes. And one mistake we agree on completely is WHY THE HELL DID WE NOT GO TO COUNSELING WHEN WE WERE STRUGGLING SO HARD.

Looking back, Dan & I are appalled we didn't seek any kind of outside help. We could not have been more lost, more in over our heads, more floundering and mistake-making.

Between the parental alienation (which we didn't know was a thing till about 4 years in) and his ex's high-conflict personality (which we didn't know was a thing till maybe 5 years in), really we never stood a chance on our own.

If we could do it all over…

We should've gotten counseling. Any kind of counseling. Marriage counseling, family counseling, counseling for me, counseling for Dan, counseling for one or the other or both of our girls. ANY outside support would've been better than flying blind.

In addition to counseling, we should've researched more. Found more resources for blended families. Educated ourselves about blended family dynamics. We would've discovered that, while a lot of what we were going through was normal, there were also plenty of red flags indicating larger issues at play that required professional support.

Learning about parental alienation sooner could've helped us counteract the effects better. Learning about high-conflict personalities earlier could've helped us ditch the drama years before we did.

Living in a high-conflict blended family is no joke. If that's your world right now, get yourself some outside support ASAP.

3: We should've put our marriage first

When you're in a high-conflict custody situation like Dan & I were, your head gets very twisted around about the best way to handle the kids and the ex.

We bent over backwards trying to make SD happy when she was at our house, fearing retaliation otherwise— an angry phone call or email from her mother… Maybe legal action, maybe SD flat-out refusing to come over ever again. When we weren't contorting our lives around SD's happiness, we were jumping through hoops trying to keep HCBM's antics in remission.

SD didn't like me or my daughter being around? Fine, we'd make ourselves scarce. HCBM wanted to trade weekends even though we already had plans to go camping as a family? Okay, sure, you got it. Whatever you want. Just stop making our lives miserable.

We felt like we were constantly in trouble, which made us scared to enforce any boundaries with either SD or her mother. Everything we did to keep the peace ended up biting us in the ass; taking actions we knew would upset HCBM or SD would surely be a terrible mistake.

We thought we were giving SD time to come around; instead, we taught her that my presence (and my BD's) in her life was optional. Disposable.

Dan thought his flexibility on SD's visitation time would be responded to in kind; instead, his actions only reinforced the message HCBM pounded into SD's head again and again: that time with him— with us— wasn't important.

We thought we had to wait till everyone else was all on board before we moved in together or got married or even got serious. Then, as no one's approval ever came, we realized we'd put ourselves in the position of never being able to move forward at all.

Creating these dynamics gave SD and HCBM way more power over our relationship than any outside person should have. We put other people in charge of our marriage— the foundation, growth and development of our entire family. And then, once we realized those mistakes, taking back our autonomy launched WWIII.

God we were idiots.

If we could do it all over….

We should've prioritized our relationship first— and, by extension, our blended family—and let everyone's unhappy roll off our backs.

We should've made it clear from the beginning that I wasn't going anywhere and that, yes, all our lives would change as a result. We could have then reassured SD that change was not a bad thing, that maybe if she got to know me she'd see I wasn't the devil. That, like it or not, we were becoming a family, and family is important.

HCBM's complaints? We would've ignored.

4: you can’t Compromise with crazy

As any normal human would, Dan approached his co-parenting relationship with his ex holding "meet halfway" as his ideal goal. To this end, he made a lot of generous gestures—giving up time with his daughter without scheduling (or sometimes even requesting) makeup time, agreeing to last-minute schedule changes without question, doing construction work on HCBM's house for free, you name it.

He expected—again, like most normal humans would— that someday, somewhere down the road, she'd repay that generosity in kind.

When HCBM was upset (which was often), Dan did his best to right his wrongs, address her concerns, respond with detailed explanations to put the latest HCBM-triggering event into a context he hoped would calm her down.

Never once did it occur to either of us that Dan’s goal— to reach a reasonable compromise— was never his ex’s goal.

HCBM didn't want to calm down; she thrived on drama. She didn't want problems fixed; she wanted to use their existence to justify taking yet more parenting time away from him. Dan's generosity was never repaid. Any favors he did her might as well have been flushed down the crapper for all the good they did him.

HCBM had her own agenda, and she didn't care if he was on board with her plans. She regularly went back on her word, didn't hesitate to use her daughter as a weapon, and had zero intention of meeting Dan in the middle under any circumstances, ever.

If he could do it all over…

Dan lost years of beating his head against constantly moving goalposts before he finally figured out that there's no magic phrase or action that will make a high-conflict personality stop being high-conflict.

You cannot please a manipulator. You cannot win over a narcissist. You cannot reach a compromise with someone who gives fuck all about morals, scruples, or ethics.

Knowing that, Dan would've tossed aside the olive branch, hung up the phone on HCBM's screaming rants faster, and responded to her furious, accusatory emails with bland BIFF responses. More compromise wasn't the key to reducing conflict between houses; better boundaries was. 

Don't waste time fighting a fight you'll never win. Withdraw yourself from the drama as much as you possibly can, and establish firm boundaries to minimize the fallout.

5: Not everything IS the Stepparent’s fault

Dan's life clearly became harder during the first years we were together, his relationship with his daughter and his ex increasingly strained. I thought it was because of me.

For one thing, I rained hard on Dan's Disneyland Dad parade. I was a mom, and my kid had rules. Dan's daughter seemed to have no rules whatsoever, and was just as unpleasant to be around as you'd imagine a kid with zero rules would be. I thought it was my job to fix that— hello, weren’t stepparents supposed to help parent?— and came in with all kinds of new rules I thought SD needed.

Add to that, I started asking difficult questions that no one wanted to answer. Questions like "But if the court paperwork says you're supposed to have SD 50/50, how come you only see SD every other weekend?" and "I don't understand— didn't HCBM just scream at you a couple days ago about how you're a horrible father? And now you're going over there to install a floodlight over her garage?"

So it was hardly surprising that SD and HCBM definitively did NOT want me around, and let me know it every chance either of them got. Neither of them acknowledged me in public when I attended SD's school functions or piano recitals. At home, SD ignored me to my face and rolled her eyes at me behind my back.

I was miserable and increasingly stressed, especially seeing Dan miserable and increasingly stressed. When you see that your presence is making life worse for those you love, you really start wondering if you should stick around. Hell, even Dan's dog shoved her head in between us when I hugged him.

Everyone blamed me; I blamed myself. Guilt became my new BFF. I thought everything that was broken within our blended family was my fault.

It was my fault SD didn't like me; I should keep trying harder. When every positive-seeming plan I came up with ended up backfiring or falling apart, I blamed myself for failing. I also thought it was my fault HCBM turned rabid and irrational. I blamed myself for poking the bear. I thought everything must've been fine before I showed up, and it was my fault things were no longer fine.

I felt like nothing I did would ever result in anything positive. Or even matter at all. To anyone.

If we could do it all over….

Dan reassured me even at the time that the challenges blending our family weren’t my fault but I never believed him. Only now, more than a decade in, can I see he was right— that logically, while I definitely made mistakes and my presence was likely one catalyst (“one” as in one of many— not "the") for increased drama, nothing I did or didn't do was responsible for the existing anger and awfulness between houses. As much as everyone loves making stepparents into scapegoats, that dysfunction was lurking there long before Dan & I ever met.

I didn't know at the beginning, but we were facing impossible odds from the very start, regardless of my personal actions. I wasted so much energy on blaming myself for deep-rooted problems that had nothing to do with me, and sacrificed way too much of my self-esteem.

If I could go back in time, I'd give myself a break. The extensive and multifaceted obstacles our blended family faced on the road to functionality were not placed there by me, even if my traipsing around like an idiot did set off a few extra landmines.

6: More one-on-one time with my stepdaughter would've helped

My future stepdaughter followed a very normal arc when we met: at first, she liked me. I did have books on fairies, after all. I collected fun and curious things like heart-shaped rocks. And I liked to sing in the car. Bonus: I had a daughter the same age as her.

The brief honeymoon phase deflated once SD realized that me being around meant her losing out on one-on-one time with her dad. Then she got sulky. The existing high conflict between Dan and his ex helped turn sulky into flat-out rejection pretty quick, with SD making it painfully, unmistakably clear at every possible interaction that she wanted absolutely nothing to do with me.

I never expected SD to fall in love with me at first sight, but I did not expect the level of animosity she blasted my way, hating me for something I didn’t even know I'd done. Just for appearing in her life, apparently.

So I let SD do her thing and I did mine. She was adamant about not wanting to spend a second more in my presence than she absolutely had to; I respected her wishes and backed off. And stayed backed off for years.

At the time, I thought I was doing the right thing by not pushing. Dan & I kept thinking, take things slow. Wait till SD gives us a sign that she's okay I'm around.

Disengaging the wrong way was one of the worst mistakes I made as a stepmom.

If I could do it all over….

I did my best to show my stepdaughter I cared about her in the usual million little ways that stepmoms try: bought her presents, cooked her foods I knew she liked, volunteered to drive her places, stepped up immediately any time I thought I could that might contribute in a positive way.

As hard as it was putting my head under that guillotine again and again, I loved my husband, and thought he deserved a wife who his daughter… loved? Well, "loved" would've been nice, but I would've even taken "could stand to be around." So I kept on trying, kept on getting shot down, kept feeling like I could never win, and kept rallying and diving back in the fray.

The one thing I didn't try, though, was doing more things with SD just the two of us. I just felt so uncomfortable— I mean, this was a kid who left the room when I walked in. She didn't just dislike me; she wanted me to not even exist. Why would I put both of us through what would surely be a miserable time for both of us, whatever activity we tried to do together?

I didn't see then— or maybe I didn’t want to admit— that stepparenting, like everything else, takes practice. Early discomfort between stepparent and stepkid is normal, and eventually would've faded out. Time one-on-one with my stepdaughter— awkward as it may have felt for both of us— would've put a stop to the stories we both told ourselves in our heads.

Telling myself my stepdaughter didn't like me and didn't want to spend time with me took me off the hook. That story meant I didn't have to put myself out there— not really. Buying presents is not nearly as hard as being present.

And by not counteracting whatever stories SD told herself about me in her own head, I helped them grow stronger. Pretty hard to keep telling yourself how much you don't like someone if you start looking forward to the time you spend together. (Unless time together doesn't exist because your stepmom was scared off by a rough start.)

7: More laughter would've been better

Laughter was our first casualty. Joking around, teasing each other— all of that went out the window very early on.

Terrified that an unhappy SD would result in less time with her and/or more time in court, we took her every whim very, very seriously. Like on her weeks with us, I planned meals like my life depended on it, only cooking her favorites and stocking ketchup like crazy because I knew she'd refuse to eat otherwise and then HCBM would probably accuse of us of not feeding her and/or call CPS.

Maybe that sounds like we were overreacting, but this is where your brain goes when you're living in a high-conflict blended family—  everything feels crazy serious. Serious like a damn heart attack. Like the entire future of your family rests on the next outcome of the next court battle. Your daily life is defined by drama you never asked for, dread constantly, and can't escape from no matter how hard you try.

If we could do it all over….

Knowing now that we couldn't win anyway, Dan & I say often how we'd take everything less seriously if we could go back in time. Pick our battles and not give into SD's mini terrorist demands.

We would've let SD be unhappy if she chose to be unhappy, and wouldn't have let her bad moods ruin our limited family time together. Dan wouldn't have spent hours in SD's room with her trying to solve fake problems, dropping everything to coddle her at the merest hint of a storm cloud.

Because laughter is the best antidote to drama. Because good humor is contagious, and there isn't a kid alive who doesn't eventually want to come out and join the fun in the next room instead of wallowing in their own self-imposed misery alone.

We should have laughed more. We should have had more faith that this, too, would pass, that SD's behavior was all a phase. Giving SD's whims weight only gave them—and her—way more power than was healthy.