Raise co-founder Jessica Butler answers your FAQs about becoming a stepparent.
I’ve been a stepmother for 15 years, but I’m still inundated with questions about what it was like to marry someone with kids. Because of the age difference between me and my husband, my role as a stepmother inevitably comes up in small talk with every waiter, receptionist, and salesperson I cross.
Them: “How many kids do you have?”
Them: “How old are they?”
Me: “Seven, twenty-three, and twenty-eight.”
Them (confused): “You don’t look old enough to have a 28-year-old.”
This is the point where one of two things happen: Either I lie about my age or I tell the truth… and the questions start.
I’ve been married to my stepsons’ father longer than their mother was, but the length of my relationship does nothing to change strangers’ assumptions that I’m an outsider in my own family. Below, I’ve complied the most frequently asked questions about what it’s like to marry someone with kids. For more insight, you can read about my approach to co-parenting, how we build holiday traditions as a blended family, and my best advice for new stepparents.
Were you nervous about marrying a man with kids?
No. I had positive examples of stepparenting in my extended family and considered it a normal family structure, albeit less common.
When I was seven, my sister was born and my mother opened an in-home daycare. She always had soap operas playing in the background because she “needed to hear other adult voices.” I grew up watching these fictional towns that were, in essence, one big blended family. There was always drama, but everyone found a way to gather for milestone events and holidays, and I thought that’s how real life was. Frankly, that’s how real life should be.
What was it like the first time you met your stepchildren?
I actually met them several times before we started dating. Warren and I worked on the same TV show, and the kids would occasionally visit him on set. I was an assistant, and one of my jobs was to arrange parking for his ex and escort her and the boys to set. For the record, it was my job to do this for every visitor, not just her.
Warren and I dated for several months before he officially introduced me to them. I was working at Disney at the time, and I brought over a Pirates of the Caribbean board game to play. I made the afternoon all about them, not about me and Warren, and they were thrilled. I don’t know a lot of kids who wouldn’t be excited if someone showed up at the door with a game and said, “let’s play!”
Did they like you immediately?
Yes, and I credit their mother for that. She allowed them to form a relationship with me without trying to influence their feelings. Both she and my husband handled their split in a way that allowed and encouraged the boys to develop relationships with new partners.
Was it hard at first?
It really wasn’t, in large part because their mother was so accepting of me, which allowed them to be accepting. I made my time with them about them, not about my relationship with their dad. I asked them to teach me all about their favorite movies and games, and I spent months just indulging them, getting to know them. I never disciplined them, but I treated them the same way I would treat anyone’s children who were in my care — I kept them safe and spoke up if they were doing something they shouldn’t be doing.
How did the kids react to your engagement?
They didn’t, because we never got engaged. We knew after a month of dating that we were going to get married, but we waited almost a year before moving in together and another year and half before getting married. Honestly, I don’t remember telling them, but I’m sure it happened. It just wasn’t a big event. We wanted a very quiet, private wedding.
Did you always know you wanted to have more kids?
Yes, but it wasn’t something that was constantly on my mind. I was only 23 when we started dating. There was no rush to have a baby. The boys were just 13 and 8 when we were married, and our custody schedule was 50/50. I was a parent from day one. Two kids in two different schools with multiple sports schedules, birthday parties invites, playdates, not to mention I was starting a new career as a TV writer. We always knew that if we had a third child, it would be much later in our marriage.
What’s the hardest thing about stepparenting?
You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you love them as your own, you’re stepping on their mother’s toes. If you don’t love them as your own, you’re an evil stepmother. You can’t win.
What’s the worst advice you’ve received about stepparenting?
No one – and I mean NO ONE – has ever offered me advice on stepparenting, which I think is common. People don’t think of you as a parent, yet they expect you to know exactly how to transition into the role — the role of sharing your home with a tiny human you are supposed to feed, shelter, clothe, chauffeur, tutor, and protect with your life, but definitely not parent.
What do you think about stepmom stereotypes?
I think they’re harmful. Stereotypes shape public perception much more than reality does. The portrayal of stepparents and blended families in media and pop culture has to change in order for society to change its opinion of them.
Do you feel differently toward your stepchildren than you do toward your adopted child?
Yes, but not in the way you might think. I have a unique relationship with each of the boys. My relationship with Henry is very different than my relationship with Jackson, and the same is true for Levon. I assume mothers with multiple children would say the same.
In many ways, I think my stepsons had the better version of me. They lived with us every other week, which allowed me to be totally devoted to them because I could put off my work and appointments until the following week, when they were with their mom. Levon is obviously with me 100% of the time, which makes work/life balance much harder [read: impossible] to achieve. Co-parenting provides a natural balance that allows you to be truly present when you’re with your children.
What is your relationship like with them now?
They are my favorite humans, and I believe our relationship is exactly the same as it would be if I were their primary parent. We still divide holidays with their mother, but they are adults now (28 and 23), and I wouldn’t expect to be with them every year even if they were “my” kids. After all, I’m not with my parents for every holiday.
They both live out of state now, and we have a very traditional parent/child relationship. I would never compare it to the one they have with their mom, just like I wouldn’t compare their relationship with her to the one they have with their dad.
Children have a unique relationship with each of their parents, whether they have a mom and a dad, two dads, or multiple parental figures. Each parent has a different role, even in nuclear families, and I think that’s key to forming a healthy stepparent relationship. You’re not here to replace anyone. Carve out your own space.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of Raise, stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to Raise, she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and six-year-old son, Levon.