The Good-Enough Stepmom

Last night at dinner, my husband asked when I was going to share my first post. “When it reads like an essay from The New Yorker,” I said, half joking, half hoping he’d get distracted by more spicy green beans or chicken fried rice. He paused, sensing that I wasn’t eager for more input, and then added gently, “You know, Nancy… ‘The perfect is the enemy of the good.'”

I didn’t appreciate the reference (a loose translation of Voltaire) or his implication that perfectionism – a rigid attachment to an impossible standard – was getting in the way of my goal. He was right, of course, but I didn’t want to accept it, because it felt like a fatal flaw.

Eventually, I realized that getting stuck in perfectionism isn’t usually a big problem. It’s just one more unskillful behavior that tends to show up under stress. We’re all at risk for perfectionism when we care deeply about an outcome, are unsure of our abilities, and fear that someone would reject us, if we allowed them to see our flaws.

Take this blog post, for instance – Exhibit A. I’ve wanted to write about stepfamilies for ages, but I never got around to it, because my expectations were too high. I told myself that it had to be interesting, insightful, funny and real… but I couldn’t say anything that might embarrass anyone or ever cause me regret.

In short, it had to be authentic and perfectNo wonder I got stuck.

So why resort to perfectionism, if it gets in the way of our goals?

Because most of us have been taught to “just try harder” under stress. Striving feels effective, because it gives us something to do with our nervous energy. It shows everyone around us how much we care. And, most importantly, perfectionism provides a temporary respite from shame.

Biologically, shame is an important emotion that prevents us from revealing anything about ourselves that would cause us to get kicked out of our group. So, if fear of rejection is the problem, perfectionism can seem like the cure.

Given that perfectionism and fear of rejection feed off of each other, it makes sense that stepmoms are at risk. Most stepmoms feel acutely vulnerable, as we step into our new families without a safety net. We know that a lot of second marriages don’t last. And the fear of being rejected is hardly all in our heads. Often, we’ve been told explicitly that our contributions aren’t wanted and that someone would be happy if we failed.

When my husband and I got married, I fell into perfectionism, almost on cue. I reacted to a lot of unwanted scrutiny of my parenting by raising the bar impossibly high. In a misguided attempt to prove my value, I dedicated myself to doing all of the things the stepparenting “experts” said I should do. If my job was to “put the kids first,” then I was going to do that better than anyone had ever done it before.

And it worked in the short-run. During the first few months of my marriage, I was so busy taking care of everyone else’s needs that I didn’t have time to think about my very deep and real fear that no matter how hard I tried, my new family might not ever make room for me.

I could do all this and still get rejected. There are no guarantees.

The problem with perfectionism is that it’s not sustainable. It’s exhausting and overwhelming to keep up the charade. Striving leads to clenching, just when relaxed persistence is key.

There’s a concept in child development called “good-enough parenting,” which suggests that it’s not a good idea to try to be a perfect parent. To do so, would deny our kids the opportunity to practice frustration tolerance, a skill they need to grow.

In my opinion, we should extend this concept to include good-enough stepmoms too. Perfectionism has no place in any form of parenting, because it’s impossible to form an authentic connection, when we won’t let others see who we are.

And when I get right down to it, there’s an even more compelling reason to practice letting go of the impossible standard I set. I don’t want my stepkids to ever – even for a minute – think that they have to hide who they are to be loved.

Coming together as a stepfamily is one of the hardest transitions a family can face. And society places disproportionate pressure on stepmoms to make the whole thing work. So, if you’re a stepmom who has occasional perfectionistic leanings, know that you’re not alone. And your willingness to acknowledge those urges is not a cause for shame. It’s an indication that you’re human and a step on the path towards growth.

My feelings about starting this blog remind me vaguely of entering my stepfamily. I’m not quite sure how to do this or if it’ll all work out. Cultivating a more effective stance takes practice and a willingness to embrace the unknown.

I’m not a perfect stepmom and this isn’t a perfect post. For now, I’m going to allow imperfection, share what I’ve written, and notice that there’s value in being good enough.

And the next time my husband asks if I’ve shared my first post, I’ll be able to smile and eat in peace.


16 thoughts on “The Good-Enough Stepmom

  1. Great article that has reminded me its OK to not be perfect. I’m into year 2 with my new family and I’m still learning not to try and be perfect, but be real. Many stepmoms put a lot of pressure on themselves, I know I do.

    Thanks for posting this perfectly-imperfect article about stepmothering!

    • Thanks so much for your comment! We do put pressure on ourselves to be perfect – and sometimes our families, society and the “experts” do too. The best we can do is to notice when it happens and practice allowing a bit more of ourselves into the room.

  2. So happy to read this and I can’t wait for more wisdom from Nancy. 🙂
    It’s so easy to fall into what we think is expected of us and go for the “perfect.” So glad we can be the “okayest stepmom in the world” instead of striving for the #1 title.

    • Thanks Amy – for your kind words and incredible encouragement! Wisdom, huh? To keep from falling back into striving mode, think I might need to aim for “good-enough” blogger too..

  3. Thanks, this article contains real insights that go way beyond step-parenting and describe aspects of the human condition generally. As I read it, I thought, I should send this to my husband because he strives for perfection in his work, often to the detriment of his health and wellbeing. I also thought, this applies to some step-dads too. I look forward to reading more!

    • Thanks Annika – for your lovely comment! I agree. Striving and getting rigidly attached to an unattainable standard are absolutely part of the human condition. So often we’re told we shouldn’t do it, though it’s interesting to consider why we do..

  4. Nancy,
    I relate to your situation so well! I am a Caucasian mom of two adopted Asian children who lives in a primarily Asian immigrant community. There is a large presence of Asians who see me as unfit to parent my children. Some even ask me, in front of my children, if they are mine (my husband is American-born Chinese, so no one questions HIS parental rights). It sucks. I am not perfect, but I wish they would stop judging me for the color of my skin, hair, eyes…

    • Thanks for your thoughts on this Brenda. I’m so glad the post resonated with you. Your comment was a good (though difficult) reminder that society has many ways of telling parents that if they want to be accepted, they have to be something they’re not.

  5. Nancy,
    I love this! Your imperfection is perfect! My family is a big mush of steps-, halfs-, adoptions, divorces and remarriages. Constant tensions and shifts within a current of joy and love. And, even in my old, wise middle-age, I am so vulnerable to trying too hard and flinching at the very thought of rejection; dodging shame even when it stares me in the face. I love your wisdom, integrity and honesty. Beautifully done!

    • Thank you Nan! I appreciate your comment and your kind words. We all flinch at the idea of rejection at times. It’s such a basic human need to connect.

  6. I’m not a stepmom but I think all of us can relate to the perfectionism problem. And I think writing the first post on a new blog is the hardest. You did a great job! I think how you point out that shame has served a function (keeping us safe and from veering off from the group) in terms of an evolutionary perspective is so helpful. I just heard a talk in which Kristin Neff, Ph.D. says we need to have self-compassion for the self-critic.

  7. Thank you for being loving of your family enough to recognize your own flaws, as this will serve as a platform for others like myself who tend to fall into this category. Looking forward to more of your imperfections!

  8. Hi Nancy- I was googling you so that I could send someone a referral and stumbled upon your blog. I am so thrilled and could hear your voice as I read some of your posts. They are so thoughtful, insightful, and genuine. Thanks for sharing your wisdom/experiences with all of us!

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