One of the top questions I hear from new stepparents and people considering becoming stepparents is about setting and enforcing boundaries.
I personally feel that boundaries are an excellent tool for most adults in any kind of family construct including blended families BUT I also personally think that they can be more complicated than people sometimes realize at first.
Let’s talk about boundaries for Stepmoms
This is a blog post not a research paper in an academic journal. Every once in a while I get a comment on one of my posts here pointing out that the reader wished for more meat or actionable steps. That’s valid feedback. I offer a free video training on boundaries and also a full self-directed online course for stepparents about boundaries. If you want more depth that’s where you find it.
What is a boundary in a Blended Family?
For me a boundary is a personal policy and perhaps an accompanying set of predefined actions that I set up to protect something that is important to me. In my masterclass and my course on boundaries I offer several different categories of things I might protect with boundaries.
I was recently in a online group conversation about a situation in a blended family and where I suggested a boundary another participant replied that a boundary was different than a house rule. You might agree with that person. It’s up to you. As far as I am aware there are no official rules about boundaries or a secret boundary police that will show up and tell you if you are setting or enforcing them incorrectly.
In my opinion, a boundary can be a thought that you have in your head, it can be a rule you express to another person, it can be a pause in response, it can be an app you use to put a technology barrier between you and another person, it can be a door, a fence, a lock, a sign, distance. Again, just in my opinion, this all starts with a rule in my head.
People sometimes talk about healthy boundaries or unhealthy boundaries and even toxic boundaries. These are good things to think about but I think that in most cases boundaries are personally defined. What works for one person may not work for another person or family. If you don’t agree I honor that and I invite you to share with me what you think it means.
Why are boundaries more complex in stepfamilies?
In my opinion and my experience boundaries can be more complex in stepfamilies or blended families because there are often more adults in these family constructs. There are also often preexisting family cultures that the stepparent may be unaware of or not in agreement with.
In some instances this creates a sensation for the stepparent of being controlled by policies and rules created by former spouses, inlaws and even stepchildren. The stepparent is often unsure of how to even begin to protect themselves from these situations or if it’s even possible.
I speak from experience as a formerly new stepparent and a person who has now mentored hundreds of stepparents that sometimes this shows up with the desire to aggressively change the behavior of others in our family.
If you are thinking that your stepkids need to change how they behave, the former spouse needs to change what they are doing or that your partner or spouse should be behaving differently you might be surprised to hear that stronger boundaries might help you a lot.
The other way that this often shows up for new stepmoms is as a feeling of urgency and necessity to dig in and do more.
The other sneaky way I think that this might show up for stepmoms is as a tidal wave of feeling like you are not enough and nothing you will ever do will mean that you are treated as well as other people in the family.
Worries about overstepping boundaries as a stepmom
One of the jokes that I make today after being a stepmom for over 20 years is that I’m pissed off that I didn’t get an instruction book for this role that I took on.
What I realized for myself as I struggled in my own journey as a wife and stepmom is that I did bring into my family my own set of rules and guidelines for what I thought my family should look like. In my experience I was rudely awakened over and over again to the reality that nobody else in my family was operating under the same assumptions.
There were times when I was a new stepmom where other people in my new extended family told me that I was doing things that were outside of the scope of my role. In their opinion, I was overstepping.
That didn’t feel great at the time. In fact, since I was new to the role a few times it caused me to wallow in self-doubt.
As I worked on myself; this is what self-development is…right? … I did become more confident in what I could do and what I wanted to do and what I needed to do and what I expected other people to do.
Overstepping is an opinion. It’s somebody elses opinion. I want to offer you the idea that you may or may not agree with what they think. These are important conversations to have in blended families but in my experience no one person gets to make all the rules in a family. So the concept of “overstepping” should really be filtered through the lens that it is an opinion.
You might be overstepping … or you might be stepping up where additional support is needed in the family. It’s hard to tell in the moment. I’ve done both.
I gave this section the title including “stepmom” I do hear this from new stepdads as well but not as often. Also, you might be calling yourself a bonus mom … and it still might resonate for you.
I have a client who is a new stepparent. My client has a dog. They love the dog. They had this dog before they started this relationship. The relationship between the stepparent and the dog is older than the marriage. The presence of the dog is not causing any known problems to my client. Their partner’s former spouse … the ex… thinks that the stepparent should get rid of the dog. This person has become pretty vocal about it. The client asked me if she should get rid of the dog because of this persons protests. I offered my client support and the idea that they may just not agree with the ex about this. But that they have the ability to define this boundary for themselves.
Anxiety about staying in your lane as a Bonus Mom
I live in Miami, we are not known for our amazing road designs. It’s a fast growing city and several of the highways seem to be forever under construction.
I’ve lived here my entire adult life. A couple of years ago I was driving to the airport and I ended up missing an exit because while it had been a left exit for as long as I could remember it had shifted to the right side of the expressway. But the signs hadn’t been fully updated and so I was on the wrong side of a 6-lane highway and missed it.
Luckily I had plenty of time and I was able to exit and turn around and go back and it was just a mild frustration.
One of the thing that can really trip up a stepparent is the sensation that they don’t know what is expected of them and what is not expected of them or of anybody else in the new family. This is often called “staying in your lane.”
This does also happen to adults who are not stepparents. I see this happen when parents but heads with teachers if their kids are in school and most famously adults raising teenagers is a spot where the lanes in a family can very confusing and unclear.
New stepparents and people thinking about becoming stepparents are sometimes very worried about where the lanes are. I think this is because we are fearful that if we step outside of what we should be doing our new family won’t like us. Many new stepparents do not want to be seen as a wicked stepparent.
This is a place where boundaries help a lot. This is because defining our boundaries is a part of establishing what our lanes are going to be. Because here’s a secret … you can define your own lanes. You can help define the lanes in your family. When I was a new wife and stepmom I thought that it was somebody else’s job to define these for me. Sometimes that can be accurate but I will just offer that my satisfaction and happiness increased a lot when I began to define these things for myself.
Boundaries are not magic
I think boundaries can be very helpful. They are not magic. They aren’t perfect for all situations or all people. I think that boundaries work best if we understand how they are going to work. The more we know the better we are at applying them.
I have a friend who says she loves boundaries. At least once a month she comes to me with a personal situation that is always the same thing. She gets herself in the same social situation and every month we have a repeat of the same conversation where she shares what’s going on and we talk about how having a stronger boundary might be helpful. She loves this discussion but she never actually sets up or implements the boundary so nothing ever changes. This drives some people in our friend group a little bananas. In fact, the last conversation I had about this was with another person in our group who wanted to set up a boundary so that she wasn’t around the next time this conversation came up.
I hope this short article gave you some things to think about when it comes to boundaries in your own family or relationships. If you are looking for more training / information you can check out my free video masterclass on boundaries and also I offer a self-directed boundary course.