Stepparenting and the Expectation of Unconditional Love

Stepparenting and the Expectation of Unconditional Love

I’ve seen some really unhelpful and damaging advice given by parenting “experts” instructing stepparents to simply “Love the kids as your own, unconditionally.”

The advice, or rather, instruction, that you should love a child as your own is bad enough, but the addition of “unconditional” is just preposterous.  If most stepparents were actually capable of unconditionally loving a child who isn’t theirs, don’t you think they would? Life would be SO much easier with unconditional love!

Unfortunately, for most stepparents that’s just not possible.  (Yes, there are a few stepparents who claim to love their stepchildren unconditionally – and that’s GREAT for them and their stepchildren. Obviously this article isn’t for them – it’s for the other 99%.)

To expect someone to have the ability to love another’s child unconditionally, whom they’ve just met, and may or may not even like, is unrealistic.

Have you ever tried to love someone who is disrespectful to you? Who ignores you? Who your personality totally clashes with? Who lies about you? Who tries to push you away? Who wishes you didn’t exist? Good luck with that.

Even with a child you actually like and get along with, love can take years to grow, especially if the child is older. Unconditional love is something usually reserved for the parents who created the child.

There are certain exceptions, such as adoption, but I believe that’s because the whole purpose is to have the child as your own – as opposed to stepparenting where the purpose is marriage and the partner happens to have a child- who often already has two active parents.

I guess the real problem with this advice is the word “should.” It insinuates that if you don’t or can’t, you’re doing something wrong and bad. “Should” makes it seem like it’s the “right” thing to do, therefore if you don’t unconditionally love your stepchild, you’re wrong. Which is total BS.

Many stepparents who are told they should love their partner’s child unconditionally feel like huge failures when reality sets in and it doesn’t happen. This expectation also puts undue pressure on the child. The child doesn’t love you unconditionally either – how can they? They’re still getting to know you. They didn’t choose you and you didn’t choose them – you chose their parent.

So to all you stepparents who feel like failures because you don’t love your stepchild, never mind unconditionally, I’m here to let you off the hook. I’m here to tell you that it’s nearly impossible to do so and that you can still have a fulfilling, amazingly close, wonderful relationship with your stepchild – with or without the love.

Without the unrealistic expectation of having to love another’s child unconditionally, you’re allowed to be yourself. It takes the pressure off of everyone and gives the relationship space to evolve naturally over a matter of years. Remember, stepfamilies start to feel like family in terms of years, not months.

So forget the expectation of (unconditional) love. Instead, go for like. Go for respect. Go forcompassion and understanding. Go for having fun and enjoying them. Go for finding things in common and cultivating a positive relationship with them. After all, positive relationships are created by everyday, little interactions and acts of kindness. Love, if it happens, is just the icing on the cake. Nice, but certainly not necessary.

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved


SHARE: On Being a Stepmom over Christmas

This is SOOOO our house...doing the house-shuffle...never fun for the 
kiddos or any of us that are involved.... 😦

On Being a Stepmom over Christmas

Children of divorce can appreciate the “okay, so I’ll spend Christmas Eve at Mom’s and on Christmas Day I’ll go to Dad’s, and then at noon on Boxing Day back to Mom’s for the…” shuffle. Wanting to make sure you spend enough time with family while also hitting the Ugly Sweater parties and baking batches of sugar cookies.

Actually, I have it pretty good.

My Dad never remarried, but he has a large group of close friends who take it in turn to hold Christmas dinner each year for the ten to twelve of them. They all bring a dish to help share the cooking, and my Dad is quite famous for bringing his traditional “bag-of-on-sale-dinner-rolls”! It’s a great tradition, and I love that he has this group of people in his life.

So Christmas Day dinner is usually spent with my Mom and stepdad Henry, with the occasional Aunt or family friend in tow.

No matter how much time has passed or how happy everyone is in their lives, I still worry that I’m spending enough quality time with both parents. And now, there’s a very “full circle” thing happening where I find myself in the role of stepmom! Big stuff, I know.

Two things come to mind right away. First of all, there are even more people tossed into the Christmas juggling act!

Secondly, and much more importantly, I see two little versions of myself who are going to feel the stress of the holidays in their own lives.

Inspired by that realization, and my own experiences, I’ve put together a few suggestions for stepfamilies that are relevant every day of the year, but particularly at Christmas.

So pour some mulled wine, deck those halls, and get ready for happier, healthier holiday season for you and your family!

  1. Be supportive of sharing time

Even if the intentions are good, remember that the kids are the ones who will be sharing their time.  Don’t say things like, “I wish you were staying here on Christmas Eve” or “I guess we’ll wait until you’re back to open presents”…

Yes, it can be frustrating to have plans change, or upsetting not to have everyone together at Christmas, but that is not the fault of the kiddos. Trust me that they will likely feel guilt about being in one house and not the other, and it’s your responsibility as a parent or stepparent to alleviate that as best you can.

Be positive about the time the kids will spend with the other parent. Something along the lines of, “You’ll have a couple of days at your moms, and when you come back we’ll have another Christmas morning!” Hopefully the two homes can peacefully decide on a schedule for the holidays to keep stress to a minimum, and rather than focus on when the kids aren’t there, have fun when they are!

For us, the kids’ bio mom (BM) doesn’t really celebrate Christmas. As with many other aspects of life, she and I are very different. I absolutely love Christmas! The baking, the carols, the lights, giving to others… the whole shebang.

Stepmom over Christmas

Last year we had the kids for Christmas, and it was wonderful. A few weeks ago, the kids said that they would be spending Christmas at their Mom’s since they were here last year. They’re already thinking of these things at 7 and 9. But actually, they will be here again this year, which we are so happy about.

We are conscious of making sure that they know this was decided by both their Mom and Dad, and that it will be a lovely family holiday.

  1. Don’t go overboard

Sometimes we stepmoms feel a desire to “win over” our partner’s kids.  It’s tempting to do whatever we can to get results as quickly as possible – where results are kids who like us.

During the holidays, this desire can mean going overboard in your role as a new “Santa”.  Rather than (well-intentioned) earning love with gifts, give kids the time and space they need to feel comfortable with you and the new family dynamics. Focus on building bonds through shared activities (maybe baking cookies or watching classics like A Christmas Story or It’s Christmastime, Charlie Brown).

It takes time for stepfamilies to find their groove… years not months.

For those with a lack of patience (ahem, ahem, me), it’s a constant reminder to be happy with every small step forward our family takes.

When I run a half-marathon, I don’t look to the Finish line 21 kilometers away. I take each kilometer one at a time, breaking the journey into mini-races. The same philosophy applies – take it one step at a time. And stay hydrated! Haha.

  1. Give yourself a break

A la National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation, rarely do the holidays run smoothly. The turkey is dry, the tree is crooked, the dog ate the chocolate, and the kids have the stomach flu.

One of the things I struggle with most in life is my desire to control… well, everything. I have to constantly remind myself to relax. To give myself a break. To ask myself the age old anxiety question – so what? What if the kids are grumpy on Christmas morning? So what? What if I burn the mashed potatoes and serve mushy carrots? So what? Nothing bad will happen and no one will dwell on the little bumps.

When you’re feeling overwhelmed, take some time out for you. If you have a space in your home that is off-limits to the kids (and you should), go there! Take a book and a cup of tea, and be amazed at the difference an hour of peace and quiet can make. You’re doing great.

  1. Start new traditions

Becoming a stepmom means joining a family with already established traditions and a shared history. You begin as an outsider, and it’s a long journey to finding your place in the family.

Rather than focusing on what you’ve missed, slowly start building new traditions with your partner and his kids.

In an article from PsychCentral, stepfamilies are compared to newlyweds in the sense that the holiday season involves developing new traditions with a growing family. However, steps have to deal with the added complications of custody, ex-wives, financial demands, and bonding with the kiddos.

Last year we got the kids involved in donating toys for kids living with their moms at a women’s shelter. This year they have picked out food for the food bank. It’s never too early to start traditions of caring and involvement in their community, especially when Santa is bringing them some nice gifts on the 25th.

We also started a Christmas Eve Box tradition. We wrap up new pjs, a Christmas movie, and hot chocolate mix in a box and let the kids open it after dinner. They get into their new pjs and watch the movie, getting more excited by the minute. I make them the hot chocolate, and before bed we leave out some snacks for Santa and the reindeer.

Last year, W said aloud as she put carrots onto a plate: “this one is for Rudolph, this one is for Blitzen, this one is for… um… Splitzen” haha. Look at that! We already have a funny Christmas memory to laugh about!

More love and more fun for a kid can never be a bad thing. Enjoy this time of year and teach your kids and stepkids about the spirit of generosity.

Make plans but don’t freak out if things don’t go as expected. And above all else, take time to be grateful for the people you love.

Oh, and get lots of salted butter for your baking!

And make sure the wine rack is full!


Breathe deep, love deeper,


Erin is a PhD Candidate in Adult Education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.

A certified Stepfamily Coach, Erin has started her own business, Steplife – Stepmom Coaching and Support.

Erin and her fiancée Matt will marry later this year, and share their home with Matt’s two little ones – 8 year-old Oliver and 6 year-old Waverleigh .