The ‘Instant’ Family

If our new boyfriend is special, most of us are a bit nervous when we meet his children – dare we even imagine, our prospective stepchildren! – for the first time. He’s wonderful, he adores them, we just know we’re going to love them too. At the back of our mind, there is a nagging feeling that these children have suffered because of divorce or the death of their mother – we know they will need extra tender treatment. But will we love them? And will they like us?

At the BSWC, we love happy endings, but the truth is that stepchildren come in all shapes and sizes, and in many cases, the next few years are likely to be a challenge for you, as well as them. Raising your own children can be hard enough, even though you love them, they love you, and you have the support of your husband, your family, other mothers, and society as a whole. If you are a stepmother, (not held in high regard by society and often reviled by ‘real’ mothers), it can be difficult to find support and advice.


If your ‘instant’ family is young and the divorce has been reasonably friendly, the chances are good that you will quickly form a deep and loving bond with these children, and you and your husband will be able to contribute to their upbringing in a way that you both choose. If you are childless, you may feel some regret that right from the start of your marriage, your holidays with your husband are at Center Parcs, not Ibiza, and that weekends are spent in the park or the playground, rather than lolling around in bed. But there will be compensations.

On the other hand, you and your stepchildren may get on well, but your husband and/or his ex-wife may have ideas about the way children should behave (or eat, or dress) that are completely different to yours. We understand that it is their children, but it is also your house and the reality is that for periods of time – sometimes all the time – you live together as a family, with all the intimacy which that entails – laundry, wiping bottoms, dealing with head lice, homework, tears and tantrums. You may also have children of your own, and clearly it is very awkward if there are two sets of rules in the same household. Parents are hyper-sensitive to any criticism of the way they are raising their children, plus their views (and yours) may be extremely strongly held. This makes negotiating a compromise a delicate and difficult task, and is certainly one of the more common relationship issues on our Forum.


If the children are older, and the divorce was bitter, unfortunately, you may be in for a very difficult time. The children may be going through huge trauma as a result of the divorce, and you may be blamed, even if you had nothing to do with the break-up of the marriage. In the worst cases, and despite the best endeavours of you and your husband, there may be Parental Alienation, which can be extremely distressing for you and your husband quite apart from the damage it does to the children.

At the BSWC, we have seen all of these, and everything in between.

One member writes:

I have two teenage stepsons, who I met when they were six and eight. I’d not really had contact with children since I was one myself, so it was a bit of a shock to the system. Particularly:

  • Their table manners – they couldn’t use cutlery.
  • Their personal skills – at six and eight they could not tie their own shoe laces.
  • Their hygiene – even now they’re teens, they basically need forcing into the shower and hosing down
  • The food – despite my best efforts with vegetables, they still prefer sausages or fish fingers and chips

However, the biggest shock was how the little blighters got into my heart, how easily they’ve accepted me into their lives, with all my numerous faults and mistakes, and despite their mother’s best efforts to prevent that. I love the bones of those kids, and I’m more protective of them because I know what a tough time they’ve been through with all the upheaval of divorce.

Another member writes:

Having been brought up by fairly strict, but loving parents, who instilled in me and my sister good manners, consideration for others and respect, it horrifies me that my stepchildren seem to lack all of these. I am also appalled by my husband and his ex-wife’s lax parenting and how spoilt these kids have been.

I think the biggest surprise, though, has been the feelings, which have been stirred up in me:

  • Having met the love of my life in my forties, the sheer joy of falling in love, probably for the first time in my life, but in order to share a life with this person having been catapulted into a situation which is most definitely out of my comfort zone.
  • Having to spend large periods of my own precious quality time with two young adults, to whom I have shown only care and kindness, which has been met with indifference, coldness and occasionally ill will. I have to find every shred of selflessness within my being to deal with this!
  • The overwhelming feelings of loneliness of life as a stepmum, being made to feel like an outsider by my stepchildren and some of my husband’s family members.

Another member writes:

My stepchildren are now 12 and 14 and I have known them for three years. The biggest issue for me has been how every other adult around them just thinks that I should be ‘cool’ with the whole thing. I lived alone in a flat and did my own thing, with no interference. I was the only one who left any washing up etc.

When you adopt a child or give birth, you get maternity leave to adjust. I had just started a new full time job when I moved in with my partner, and had these two to get to know and worry about literally overnight. My life was turned on its head, but I didn’t get support from family and friends like people do when they are the recognised parents. People seem to think – well you’ve made your bed, lie in it. Any sympathy when things are hard? No. Support? No. No one cut me any slack: they waited (hoped?) for us to fail. My husband’s sister waits for me to mess up so she can be the fabulous sympathetic auntie – but does she wash/buy the uniforms, cook dinner, drive to parties with a present? No.

Now obviously my stepchildren didn’t need the same care as a baby or toddler, but they still need a lot of looking after, it is just different. And if I mess up or lose my temper, unlike a baby or small child they know and remember and can tell others all about their wicked stepmum.

Useful Links

The Unexpected Legacy of Divorce