Stepmom Boundaries

I recently received the following inquiry:

I’ve heard you talk a lot about blended families from the perspective of a stepmom, but I rarely hear you talk about what it is like from the real mom’s perspective.

I have been divorced for 5 years and have joint physical custody of my 9-year old son. My ex husband remarried about 2 years ago.

For the first year following the divorce, my ex and I had a completely amicable relationship. We never followed the custody agreement, he let me have our son the majority of the time and he deferred to me on most parenting decisions. Ever since she came on the scene, however, things have changed. They insist that we rigidly follow the parenting plan and now they want to weigh in on every single decision.

To make matters worse, Stepmom has made herself the “go to” person for all co-parenting issues regarding my son. She calls a meeting with me every few months to discuss the “best interests” of my son. My ex-husband attends the meetings, but barely participates. It is clear to me that she is running the show.

I get constant emails from stepmom regarding various issues having to do with my son. The latest email was a question regarding whether I was attending my son’s field trip at school. She said that if I couldn’t make it, she would go ahead and go. I have to work and can’t be there, but the thought of her attending in my place really bothers me.

What right does she have to do this? She treats my son as if he is her son and I want this to stop. I want her to stay out of it. Does she have any legal right to interject herself in this manner?

This question presents several common divorce/blended family issues.

Stepmom boundaries: what makes a person a “real” parent?

In the above question, Mom refers to herself as the “real mom.” If Stepmom were writing, she might refer to Mom as “bio mom.” The term “real mom” infers that any other mother figure in the child’s life is an imposter. The term “bio mom” infers that the biological link is her only contribution and that there is another person that the child considers a mother. And, of course, thanks to Disney, Stepmom has a negative connotation all of its own. Therein lies the trouble with labels. While accurate, none of the labels encompass what either of these women potentially bring to this child’s life. I advise staying away from labels all together. Neither of these women can really deny that they both are important figures in this child’s life and that they are both helping to raise him. They are both parents. And they are both “real” to this child, whose perspective seems to be completely absent from the question presented.

Dynamics change when parents remarry

One thing is clear, the Dad in this case is attracted to women who like to be in control. Mom liked it when she was calling all the shots post-divorce. Now that Dad has remarried, his new wife likes to call the shots. They are both vying for dominance in the co-parenting relationship and it looks like Dad just does what he is told (which, by the way, is a big mistake on his part). I can understand Mom’s frustration here. They had an arrangement that worked. And then a new woman enters the scene and everything changes without warning. I can also understand Stepmom’s perspective. Perhaps she is the type of person who needs the predictability of a set schedule and the flexibility enjoyed before did not work for her new family. If Mom does not like the original custody schedule they agreed to, perhaps she should discuss with Dad the possibility of changing it to something that works better. The fact that since Stepmom entered the scene, Dad wants to be more involved in decision making regarding the child, could actually be a good thing. It is certainly within Dad’s rights to insist that the schedule be followed and to be involved. I would encourage Mom to focus on the positives of being able to share parenting responsibilities.

The Proper role of Stepmom

The only thing I find really objectionable in this Stepmom’s conduct is that she allows herself to be the face of their side of the co-parenting relationship. Dad should take the lead and Stepmom should be there for support. Each blended family is different, but generally, your co-parenting relationship is doomed for failure if you pit Mom against Stepmom on all major issues. It is a naturally defensive relationship and very little can be accomplished in that context. If Stepmom thinks one way, Mom is going to disagree and vice versa. Mom and Dad should be making major decisions, with input from the child’s stepparents.

The Child Should Come First

I commend Stepmom for having the courage to meet with Mom in order to keep a dialogue going regarding their son. But, as stated above, I think Dad should be taking the lead when it comes to co-parenting with Mom. No matter what, the child should come first. Is Mom really putting the child first when she would rather that the child have no parent at the field trip than have Stepmom attend? How does the child feel about the field trip? Mom should be thankful that Stepmom was willing to defer to her on the field trip issue and that she loves this child enough to participate in this way. In this case, I think Mom needs to take a good hard look at what lies beneath her stated concerns. Is this about her son? Or is it about her own insecurities?

The Legal Rights of the Stepmom

Stepparents do not have many legal rights so long as they remain married to the child’s parent. Stepparents have the right to give consent as a guardian and to obtain education information from their stepchild’s school so long as the child resides with them. Stepmom has the right to attend the field trip. If Dad were to die, Stepmom may have the right to visitation. Stepmom does not have the legal right to force Mom to co-parent with her. Mom can certainly refuse to attend a meeting with Stepmom. But, it is not likely in her child’s best interest to do so.

Jessica H. Anderson
Family Law Attorney Reno, NV