Updated: May 27
A common pattern I see in step parent groups is stepmoms talking about a frustrating situation they're dealing with, then asking "Is it ok for to feel (sad/annoyed/frustrated/hurt) about what's happening?" This question is so common, and so sad to me that we as step parents ask it.
Through years of research and personal experiences, we know that step parenting is difficult and can cause lots and lots of uncomfortable emotions for us as adults. We know that blending families is difficult and it takes an average of 7 years to blend. For some reason, we as stepmoms or stepdads feel like it's not ok to feel our feelings, it's not ok to be upset, or sad, hurt, frustrated, angry, or scared.
I see this particularly with stepmoms, and know that as women, we have high expectations of ourselves and our families. We often feel like everyone else in our blended family is hurting and we don't have the right or the ability to hurt or to act like we're hurting; or people around us may be telling us that we *shouldn't* feel that way. (One of my previous therapists used to say "Don't should on yourself"). Stepmoms in particular feel a lot of emotions about their role as step parents. Culturally in the United States, women are taught that being a mother is our role. We may overstep our bounds unintentionally and our blended families are good at letting us know when we're out of line, which can in turn create uncomfortable emotions for us.
In my generation (I'm 43) and in my family of origin, social/emotional skills weren't taught to us by our parents or in school. We didn't know that emotions were neutral, not bad or good, and that they give us information about our situations. We didn't know that anger is a secondary emotion, that it's often preceded by fear, lack of support, mistrust, frustration, disappointment, etc. When we don't have this foundational knowledge as step parents, we might shame ourselves for having these emotions. We might try to push down our emotions, deny to ourselves and others that we're having them, ignore them, or suppress them. Our behaviors, not our emotions, are what cause problems for us.
Part of our lack of social/emotional learning is not knowing what to do and how to get THROUGH our emotions. In the fight or flight response, which is caused by any stressor in our lives, our emotions can become escalated and we struggle to successfully deal with them. As step parents, we have situations that trigger responses in us on a daily basis - kids transitioning between homes, people telling us we "knew what we were getting into", conflicts with our co-parents about parenting, feeling left out, trying to do our best and feeling like we're failing, not having partners that support us, communication difficulties with our partner or co-parent, financial stressors, court or mediation, etc. Having emotional responses to our situation is NEVER bad. Feeling anxious, insecure, rejected, embarrassed, disappointed, or any other uncomfortable emotion is 100% normal and part of our human experience on this planet.
So how do we deal with this? If we can't suppress it, deny it, ignore it, what do we do? We find a healthy way to process through our emotions. We talk to a friend, a therapist, write about our negative emotions then tear that paper up or burn it. We can listen to music, dance, cry, yell out in nature, exercise, or try to change our beliefs. Any feeling you feel is ok, it's normal, it's part of being in earth school, but the point of feelings is to work through them.
So is it ok for us to feel any and every emotion as step parents? Absolutely! We're in a tough situation where we feel set up to fail, and that causes emotional reactions for anyone. Feel your feelings, process through them, then let them go. Just don't shame yourself for them or stuff them down.
Sara Susov: Step Up Mentoring