02/26/2011 03:00 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

From Single Girl to Step-Mom

I was a single girl for a long time, enjoying a great lifestyle of work in the entertainment industry, exotic travel, and evenings often spent sipping cocktails with my friends (à la Carrie Bradshaw). Though I considered myself a happy and independent woman, I still wanted a husband and family. When I finally met the man I'd fall in love with and marry, I didn't anticipate he would come as a package deal, two daughters included.

At 38, I went from single and unencumbered to instant step-mom. And I had no idea what I was doing.

I had no friends who were step-mothers. In fact, none of them had ever dated men with children. They were utterly clueless when I came to them with questions about whether I should confront my teenage stepdaughter about borrowing clothes without asking me, or if I should start enforcing some household responsibilities, like insisting my 10-year old stepdaughter help wash dishes or set the table. My girlfriends just shook their heads and said, "that must be a tough adjustment. How about another martini?"

I wondered how other step-moms adjusted to this new, shared life. Did they establish rules or boundaries, even though they weren't "real" parents? Did they feel the need to be nice all the time, so they didn't create animosity? I didn't want my new stepdaughters to hate me.

The problem with being a step-mom is that you automatically have the decks stacked against you. Classic fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White depict good-hearted young girls battling evil stepmothers plotting against them. Movies often depict step-moms as cold, calculating, and loveless. The children's nemeses. If any of the stereotypes of step-moms are remotely real, how can our lives with our new families ever have a shot at being happy and successful?

I reached out and started talking with other new stepmothers in my community. And it turns out most of the step-moms I've met are nice, normal people. We don't look or act like witches, and we're trying to figure things out like anybody else. We all want to be good role models for our stepchildren. We're not parents, but we are influential. We aren't looking to create havoc, or replace the BMs (Bio Moms if you don't know the inside lingo). We don't want to be tough disciplinarians, nor is it appropriate for us to be friends with our stepchildren. But we do want what is best for them, for our husbands, and for us. So the real question we grapple with, especially those of us who have never raised our own children, is simply: where do we fit in?

While living together as a blended family is still a work in progress for me, there are some important things I've learned so far:

Patience and flexibility are essential, because plans change all the time.
While my husband and I might have dinner reservations, they could get interrupted or canceled by an emergency phone call if one of the girls gets sick, or if they need help with a school project. Just because I'm in the picture doesn't mean I'm always the priority. He has two daughters who depend on him.

Compromise is also a necessity for living under one roof
. This was hard for me, as I used to live alone. I liked to watch reality TV (not appropriate for a 10-year old), and I ate peanut butter straight out of the jar for dinner. While meals and television time are now based around homework and iCarly schedules, I still find time for myself, too. It's necessary to have both "me" time and "we" time to avoid burnout.

Having a united front with my husband goes a long way in creating an atmosphere of stability in our home. His girls have experienced the pain of one family breaking up; we don't want them to think that our new family will share the same fate just because it happened before. We plan and do things together, and we support each other when we have difficult conversations with them. This has made the most difference to me in adjusting to my new life. Without the understanding of my husband, things would be much harder in all respects.

It's not always rough, of course. We have a lot of fun together. I love it when they ask my advice or opinion about things. I love it when they're playful, and when they laugh. I know they care about me, and I care about them. They've been very warm and receptive to me joining the family, for which I'm grateful every day. Despite the difficulties and adjustment to a life together, I know our goal is the same: we all want to be happy together under one roof. And I know it's possible.