When I first moved in with my soon-to-be husband and his two daughters, I was committed to being the nice, easygoing stepmother. I assumed there would be mutual respect and consideration between us since they were already ten- and sixteen-years-old. They weren't little kids who didn't know any better. But it didn't take long to see that my assumptions would be tested. I exercised patience and bit my tongue when my protein bars were returned to the pantry unwrapped and half-eaten. I pretended not to care when my stepdaughters would just reach for my glass of water because it was apparently too much trouble for them to pour their own. I turned off the neglected lights at night and picked up the socks and shoes left in the hallway. I even let it slide off my back when my clothes, makeup or jewelry went missing.
But after the first few weeks of feeling a loss of control over what I considered mine, I found myself becoming more and more resentful. Taking a sip from my water glass is a small intrusion, and I do believe in not sweating the small stuff. But the more it happened, the more my anger built up inside of me. I had no sense of privacy in what was now my own home. I had lived alone for a long time, so I was used to having my things left alone. I was slowly letting go of personal boundaries in favor of keeping the peace, whatever that meant. I wasn't so sure anymore, since I felt anything but peaceful.
I kept telling myself to get over it. I liked and wanted to bond with his girls. I didn't want to risk having them be angry with me or think I was uptight, especially over a small thing like sharing a glass of water. But it wasn't about the water, it was about privacy and respect. My frustrations continued to grow. I told my husband what was irritating me so much, hoping he would speak with his daughters and handle things for me. I wasn't their mother. I felt such criticism was unwelcome, especially with a teenager who was used to doing things her way. But it was also my house! I'd hoped my husband would have figured things out and said something sooner. But he seemed oblivious to the problem and my growing frustrations, which made me even more frustrated. Who borrows clothes without asking? Who puts half-eaten food back in the cupboard? Who steals someone else's water when they can pour their own? These kinds of manners and consideration were all common sense to me. It was a big part of my upbringing.
At the heart of my grievance was a simple truth: I was hurt. I had been ignoring my own needs for the sake of being the nice stepmother. Saying "yes" instead of "no," or just telling myself to "get over it" was not working. It was like admitting to myself that I didn't matter, that my feelings were not important.
I needed boundaries in my own home, and I'd given them up, along with my self-respect. But how could I change things now?
The big challenge with being a new stepmother is you are walking into a situation already in progress. Family dynamics are in place. Rules and expectations have been communicated to the children, but they aren't your rules. You can't make any assumptions. What seems common sense to you is not to your new family. It's up to you to figure out what's going on, what's wrong, and where you fit in to the whole picture.
My tactic of laying low and letting my husband do the disciplining backfired entirely.
One day my husband took his ten-year-old daughter aside to correct her on my behalf. She came over to me later and asked rather astutely, "Kelly, why don't you just tell me yourself if you're upset about something I do? Why does Dad tell me?" I was taken aback by her candor. The idea of confronting her directly seemed so simple. But for me it was so much easier said than done.
I'm no pushover. In my career I've had several highly stressful jobs working for very difficult people. I was skillful at handling a wide variety of sticky situations. When someone was upset, I could always talk them down from the roof. When there was a tricky political situation, I was the one to bring both sides together. I was the calm, rational co-worker who could deal with problems and crises on a daily basis. Why couldn't I deal with them in my own home?
But I found stepmothering to be completely different. I'm helping raise children who aren't mine. I wanted to make the transition for them easier by being as accommodating as possible. But what I really needed was to establish boundaries and enforce them consistently. I needed control over my own space, in my own home.
I realized the best way to teach my stepchildren about respect is to have some for myself.
It's still an ongoing struggle for me and I have to choose my battles. But things are getting much better. I'm handling the occasional petulant silences, the angry glares and disrespectful arguing from my stepchildren. But setting clear boundaries has helped me enjoy being with them so much more. More importantly it has made me more comfortable in my home, which helps our relationship.
The other day, my older stepdaughter walked over to me after her run, hoping to drink the glass of water I'd poured for myself. Instead of just taking it as she used to, she asked, "Can I have some of your water?"
"No," I responded. "This is for me."
Maybe it's just a glass of water. But I'm making progress.