do stepparents have to love their stepkids

You don’t have to love your stepkid to be a good stepparent

Recently I read a blog post asking whether a stepparent can ever love their stepkid as much as a biological kid. I HATE THIS QUESTION SO MUCH, and for sooooo many reasons.

First, the question of how much you can love a stepkid presumes that you can and do (and, of course, you should) love your stepkid. The implication being that if you don’t love your stepkid, you’re some kind of failure. You’re not like other stepparents. And that not loving your stepkid makes you not just a bad stepparent, but also a bad person. So you’d darn well better love your stepkid as much as you’d love any biological kid, right?

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Let’s just break this common myth about stepparenting down a bit, shall we?

Am I a bad person for not loving my stepkid?

There’s no rule that says you have to love your stepkids. And as much as we’re force-fed the bullshit assumption that every good stepparent immediately, unquestioningly, unconditionally loves their stepkids from day one, this is NOT the typical stepparent’s experience.

Ever done any babysitting? Did you fall in love with those kids the minute you walked through the door? No? Guess you’re a bad babysitter! Just like any teacher who doesn’t unconditionally love each and every student on the very first day of school is a bad teacher.

“Wait wait wait, that’s totally different,” I hear you say. “Because teachers and babysitters aren’t becoming parents to those kids. They don’t have to love them.”

Yep, well, stepparents don’t have to love their stepkids, either. (And they’re not necessarily becoming parents, but that’s a blog rant for another day.)

Whether you’re babysitting, teaching, or becoming a stepparent, the fact remains that you are an adult meeting a child for the very first time. Expecting love at first sight is just as unrealistic when meeting a future stepkid as it is when meeting a future partner.

You can’t push a button and BAM, love explodes. If you love your stepkids, you loved them instantly, that’s great. But if you don’t love them, that’s okay, too—frankly, that’s a way more common reaction. And I won’t add to that “PS don’t worry everyone; love grows over time!” Love MAY grow over time. But if you never love your stepkids, that’s okay. (It’s also okay if they never love you, either.)

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Just how much should you love your stepkid?

Now that we’ve addressed whether you should love your stepkids (one more time for those in the back: no, you don’t have to love your stepkids to be a good stepparent), the next problem is this whole “how much” part.

First, please someone (anyone!) explain to me how you measure and quantify love. I deeply love my husband. I also was crazy in love with my daughter’s father. I love my biological daughter and I love my stepdaughter. I love my parents and siblings and my nieces. I have friends that I love. Also I love my dogs. And my cats.

Do I love one of these people (or fur babies) “as much” as any other? More? Less? It’s a question that’s impossible to answer because love is not quantifiable. I can’t compare how much I love my husband to how much I love my daughter. There’s no point, because they’re totally different kinds of love. And same for how much I love my daughter vs. my stepdaughter: they cannot be compared.

How I love my BD is not the same as how I love my SD. They are different kinds of love that formed from completely different relationships. And that is okay. Different doesn’t mean “less than.” It just means different.

I love my BD. She is part of me. I love my SD. She is part of my husband. Together, we’re a family. The question of whether I love my SD “less” or “more” than my BD simply isn’t relevant. And me loving my SD now doesn’t count for less just because it took me a while to get there. Believe me, it took her a while to get there too! And having genuine affection between us today feels all the more meaningful to me for that love being hard-won.

Loving your stepkid in a high-conflict stepfamily

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Because we were living in a high-conflict custody situation in our early blended family days, I was terrified that if I didn’t love SD, that could be used against my husband in court. That SD not loving me—heck, she didn’t even want to be around me—could be used by HCBM as leverage to reduce Dan’s custody.

I put WAY too much pressure on myself and on SD for us to love each other. I felt like the entire future of our blended family was at stake. Like if SD didn’t want to spend time with us, then it was because she didn’t like me, which was my fault for not loving her enough. So if I could just love her more—then she’d start loving me back, and then she would want to come to our house. All our problems would vanish and we’d be like a “real” family. Right?

Yeah, not so much. Those hopes and expectations were totally unrealistic. For one thing, my SD’s emotions were being manipulated by HCBM—I mean, I don’t know why I thought that SD could love me, a total stranger, when she was already getting brainwashed into rejecting her own father. There’s no way SD could possibly show me any affection without putting herself into a loyalty bind against her emotionally abusive mother. I should’ve been more understanding about that.

And I should’ve given myself a break for having mixed feelings about SD, too. How could I feel all lovey-dovey about a kid who came to our house every other week, sulked the entire time she was there, treated everyone in the household like shit, then reported false facts back to HCBM to be used against us later on? Sure, she was only a kid and it was HCBM’s influence making her act that way. Knowing that helped me stay grounded. But SD was still old enough to know that her actions were hurtful toward us.

On my good days, I could remember that SD was a sweet, generous-hearted kid stuck in a real fucked-up childhood that brought out the worst in her. On other days, I struggled to keep her actions in perspective and let negativity get the better of me.

Today, despite everything we had going against us, my SD and I now feel like we’re family. We say we love each other like it’s casual and normal (even though as recently as a year ago it was not casual or normal). But it took me a looooong time to stop feeling guilty over how much I did or didn’t love my SD, and how much she did or didn’t love me.

So CAN you love your stepkid as much as a biological kid?

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It doesn’t matter how much you love your stepkid. It doesn’t even matter whether you love your stepkid. All that matters is that you’re a good stepparent to them, which you can be regardless of your feelings for them or their feelings for you. Just show up and keep showing up. That’s all you gotta do.

The emotions any stepparent feels for their stepkid are different for every single stepparent—just like every single stepparent defines their stepparenting role differently.

Maybe you love your stepkids to pieces. Maybe you don’t. Maybe they love you like crazy. Maybe they hate your guts. Maybe you’re super active and involved. Maybe you take a back seat and give your partner more one-on-one time with the kids. You’ll meet stepmoms and stepdads who love their stepkids yet are not all that involved, and those who don’t love their stepkids and yet are super involved. Any of these factors in any combination is possible and valid. Your feelings about your stepkids—good or bad—do not make you any more or less of a stepparent.

I dunno if you noticed, but none of us are getting prizes here. I mean, we’re not even getting participation ribbons. So don’t go holding yourself to some imaginary gold medal standard. All you can do is the best you can do. If your best includes love, great. If not, don’t beat yourself up. Just keep doing your best, keep being present, and let that be enough.

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