Life as a Step-Parent
Written By: Olivia Mounet (This piece was originally published at MuslimMatters) How do you […]
Written By: Olivia Mounet
(This piece was originally published at MuslimMatters)
How do you define yourself?
A Muslim? A student? A brother or sister? Daughter or son? Mother or father? Typically how we define ourselves is so deeply ingrained in our psyche that we rarely take the time to think about who we are and what defines us. However, if you were to take a few moments to really think about what roles are important to you and where you fit in within these relationships, you’ll realize just how important they are to you. If we dig a little deeper within ourselves we’ll also realize that each of these relationships and definitions have key factors.
For example, if you are an older sibling like myself, you might think of being an older sibling as being protective and caring of your younger brother or sister and your role in that relationship is clearly defined. The same goes for if you are a husband or a wife. Not every marriage is the same but we are aware of what we do within each of these relationships and what our responsibilities are.
The role of a mother
In the Hadith of our Prophet ṣallallāhu ‘alayhi wa sallam (peace and blessings of Allāh be upon him) we are taught: “Your Heaven lies under the feet of your mother” (Ahmad, Nasai). We are also taught that we should obey and respect our mothers and take care of them as they age:
“Thy Lord hath decreed that ye worship none but Him, and that ye be kind to parents. Whether one or both of them attain old age in thy life, say not to them a word of contempt, nor repel them, but address them in terms of honor. And out of kindness, lower to them the wing of humility, and say: ‘My Lord! bestow on them Thy Mercy even as they cherished me in childhood’” (17:23-24).
If you are a mother, then you know how much you would give up just to see your child grow to be happy and healthy and to be a loyal servant of Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He). If you are not a mother, you can surely think of something your mother did to help you, regardless of how close you are to her or the type of relationship you have with her. This mother-child relationship is clearly defined both in our own minds and in the beauty of the Qur’an.
The role of a step-parent
However, what about step-parents? How can one define this role? After much thought and internal struggle the only way I can define my personal role as a step-parent is: CHALLENGING. Now this isn’t to say that being a biological parent is easy by any means, but the challenges are different. As a step-parent the hardest thing to accept is that, no matter how much you love your spouse’s child, they aren’t your own and therefore the rules are different for you whether you like it or not.
First let me take the most “ideal” situation for step-parents: you’ve married your spouse who has an infant child from a previous marriage and his or her ex-spouse is 100% out of the picture and your spouse views you as his or her child’s mother. The child grows up viewing you as his or her rightful mother with all powers and responsibilities bestowed upon you as a mother and everyone lives happily ever after. This situation almost never happens.
Here’s what really happens: you fall in love with your spouse for the sake of Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) and you convince yourself that it can’t be that hard to take care of his or her child since at some point in life you want children of your own, (and you’ve taken care of your brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, etc.) so how hard can it be? Oh and that ex-spouse? Well he or she will move on and we’ll all be friends and everything will be wonderful. Then, you and your spouse get married and you’ve spent lots of time with the child or children and insha’Allah they have accepted you into their family either because they are too young to understand what’s happening or you’ve spent painstaking hours explaining to them that you could never replace their mother/father, even though very deep down within yourself, that’s exactly what you want to do but you refuse to admit that to yourself.
Typically, at least within the western world, the child lives primarily with one parent while the other has visitation every other week or so. That means, that as a step-parent, one week it’s just you and your spouse living as a couple, and then the next week you’re a mother or father… kind of. And then the next week you’re not. And so on for the next 18 years of your life.
The different relationships that a step-parent is faced with
Now while mothers have that one relationship with their child, a stepmother or stepfather has three relationships to worry about: their relationship with the child, their relationship with their spouse regarding the child, and their relationship with their spouse’s ex-husband or ex-wife.
Relationship with the child
I’ll start with the relationship with the child, which for me was the easiest. My husband’s child was only 1 year old when we got married (he’s almost 3 now alhamdulilah). This relationship was the easiest because I learned to love him quite quickly and he was too young to really understand why suddenly he has “2 mommies.” The key word here is I “LEARNED” to love him. As much as I wish I could say “and then I looked in his eyes and that unconditional love took over me,” I can’t. I did not create this baby with my husband, I did not carry him for 9 months, I did not give birth to him, and I had not been around to see his first year of life. Furthermore, as much as I hated myself for thinking it, I really did not like having him around at first because he was a constant reminder that my husband had wanted to have him with someone else.
These feelings continued for quite some time until the child began calling for me. Suddenly I was the only one who could put him to bed, make his food, or give him a bath. He didn’t want his daddy to do it, he wanted me… his stepmother to do it. That’s when I fell in love. When he needed me like a mother, I felt like a mother and suddenly things weren’t as difficult. I knew my role with him and I could define it to myself and I stopped introducing him to people as “my husband’s son” and started introducing him as “my stepson.”
Relationship with your spouse
The second relationship you have as a step-parent is the one you have with your spouse regarding the child. This is very different to the relationship you have with your spouse as a husband or a wife. The hardest aspect of this relationship is trying to figure out how your spouse wants you to act toward their child. Alhamdulillah my husband was more than willing to step aside and let me handle bed time, meal time, and bath time, and let me take the child out by myself, or stay alone in the house with him. In time he even let me discipline his son when he was having a tantrum, as most 2 year olds do. However, this is not the case for many step-mommies or step-daddies.
A type of power struggle typically evolves as a result of this complicated relationship. Some parents don’t want their spouse to discipline their child or take over certain roles because they feel they are being pushed out. A normal human response to losing control is to fight back and try to take control of everything. It is not unusual for spouses to fight over their roles in the child’s life and for the biological mother or father to tell the step-parent that it’s “not their job to do that” when it comes to a responsibility they feel is rightfully theirs as the biological parent.
In this situation typically the step-parent will withdraw completely and want nothing to do with the child because they don’t want to upset their spouse. In addition, it’s mentally exhausting and emotionally draining to check yourself at every step and have to wonder “is this my responsibility or my husband’s/wife’s?” There is no outlined way in any psychology book or therapy manual to tell you how to resolve this issue. It normally takes an inordinate amount of patience from both sides and strong communication skills in order to overcome this challenge.
Relationship with spouse’s ex
The third and final relationship you have as a step-parent is your relationship with your spouse’s ex-husband or ex-wife. This can either be the most frustrating, enraging, and downright painful relationship you’ll ever have, or it’ll be the easiest. If, on the rare occasion, the divorce was amicable and both parties accepted that the relationship between them did not work and have both moved on and accepted that each will most likely remarry and their child will have two mothers and two fathers, then this relationship for the step-parents is relatively simple. However, more likely than not, the divorce was not pleasant for either party and some hostile feelings remain.
Since both parties are normally told by family and friends to ignore each other and just move on with their lives, those hostile feelings need to come down on someone. So why not the person that your ex-spouse marries and is trying to “move in on your child?” It’s easy to understand the logic behind it: they’re resentful of the fact that they will always be tied to the one person they don’t want to remember, they’re angry that their ex has moved on which makes them feel replaced, they don’t have the typical nuclear family and often get uncomfortable or even rude comments from others in the community, and their child is calling someone else mama or dada. I can’t say that I would feel or act any differently if the roles were reversed.
However, that justification gives little solace to step-parents. Typically in our lives if there is someone we don’t particularly care for, we can keep him or her at a distance and limit communication with them. This doesn’t work in this scenario. The person that is taking their frustrations out on you is the mother or father of your stepchild for whom you care very deeply. In turn, you have to accept that the child loves this individual and you cannot let your own personal feelings for their mom or dad show in front of them. Furthermore, this ex-spouse is a constant, never-ending reminder that the man or woman you married and love did not choose you first. You are second. You might be the “right one” but you will never be the “first one.” You’ll never be his or her first spouse or first mother or father of their child. Never. And their ex-spouse will always be there, either through that 6am angry text message or at pick-ups and drop-offs or when your spouse has to make that direct deposit into their ex’s bank account for child support. They will never go away and you just have to accept it.
Besides these three relationships you’ll have as a step-parent, there’s a whole host of other challenges. What do your parents say about you marrying someone who already has children? What does the community think? How do you comfort your spouse when they have to drop-off their child every other week to their ex-wife or ex-husband and they don’t realize that it hurts you just as much? What do you say when someone asks you if you have children? What do you do when you disagree with something that the child’s parents have decided to do? How do you reconcile having absolutely no legal authority over a child that you consider to be your own? How do you define being a step-parent?
The hardest part for me about being a step-parent is that no matter how much I love my stepson, no matter how supportive my husband is, and no matter how well I control my feelings towards his ex-wife, I will always have to put “step” before “parent” and that will never get any easier. I make du’a for all the step-parents out there that Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) makes it easier for you and that you achieve Jannah for everything you go through and everything you sacrifice as a step-parent. May Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) bless all the stepmoms and stepdads out there who work twice as hard for half the credit. Take solace in pleasing Allah subḥānahu wa ta’āla (glorified and exalted be He) and turn to Him when it get’s too hard.
If Allah helps you, none can overcome you; and if He forsakes you, who is there after Him that can help you? And in Allah (Alone) let believers put their trust. (Qur’an, Surah Aal-e-Imran, 3:160)
Olivia Mounet spent her early childhood in Scotland and then London before moving to the United States. Upon graduating high school she moved to Germany where she completed her Bachelors degree in Integrated Social and Cognitive Psychology. She is currently pursuing a Masters degree in Clinical Psychology for Children and Adolescence as well as her Certification in School Psychology. Upon graduating she is planning to work as a School Psychologist to assist students with learning disabilities. She currently works with The Building Blocks of NJ, a non-profit agency, to provide one-on-one counseling with sisters in the area.