Becoming a stepmother or stepfather can be a joyous occasion. Artlip, Artlip & Saltzman note that “lovers have natural narcotics filling their bodies, giving them more energy, faster pulses, and heightened perceptions. They’re on an almost mystical ‘high.’ …Meeting and getting to know the lover’s children often become part of the ‘high.'” (1993, p. 31) It’s certainly okay to be excited so long as you temper this excitement with an understanding that once the novelty wears off, there may be tough work ahead.

Parenting stepchildren can be just as rewarding as parenting your own biological children, though these rewards don’t always show up right away. Just as people find joy in parenting through adoption, step parenting can be the most rewarding endeavor you ever take on in life, apart from your own children.

Taking the plunge: Questions you should ask yourself before becoming a stepparent

Now for a bit of a wake up call: Not all stepfamily scenarios come with happy endings. In fact, it’s reported that “A large number of stepparents urged us to tell our readers: ‘Don’t do it. Don’t even think about it. It’s an absolute nightmare.'” One such stepmother, a 35-year-old named Carolyn, says that “The first three or four years were a nightmare beyond belief. I exhausted myself trying to be all things to everybody, rescue everyone and create their happiness. I almost ended up in a mental hospital. I came so close to a breakdown. I barely caught myself in time. If anybody came to me who was contemplating marrying a man with children, I’d tell them not to do it.” (ibid, p. 21)

Another stepmom reports that “After the wedding it was a living nightmare. I loved the children very much and wanted so much to give them a good home. They would have accepted me, but my husband and his family refused to accept us as a family and kept their dead mother alive and were critical of me, turning them against me.” Another stepmother reports that “My husband and I are now four months into our separation. The children have torn us apart. They do not get along well, and many broken hearts have developed.” A 44-year-old stepfather complains that “Being a stepparent is a no-win situation. It is impossible to have a natural family atmosphere. I am not in control of my life or this marriage.” A 36-year-old stepmother says, “The older girl nearly caused a divorce. They have learned to take everything they can get and give back NOTHING. …I’m a lot more cynical now – not as sweet or naive.” (ibid, pp. 29, 126, 39, 25-26)

We’re not quite as pessimistic about things as the aforementioned parents are. We’ve seen a number of situations where people live happy and rewarding lives in blended families, and a number of stepparents who have loving, affectionate bonds with their stepkids that rival what any biological parent has. But in the spirit of full disclosure, we thought it important for readers to hear such testimonials, because such outcomes are not at all uncommon.

Before becoming a stepparent, you need to think long and hard about the following questions:

  • Am I committed to this relationship and in it for the long haul?
  • Am I willing to put forth the effort it might take to make things work?
  • What do I envision for the new stepfamily, and are these ideals realistic?
  • Am I willing to raise someone else’s children even if it’s a lot of work with little or no reward?
  • Is my relationship strong enough to survive stepchild problems?
  • If my partner ends up with full custody, would that change how I view things?

It’s not healthy for you or the children to jump into a situation you aren’t ready for, only to see the new marriage dissolve amidst a sea of conflict a few years later.