Love Versus Duty: A Stepmother’s Story

Why am I here?

Have you ever asked yourself this question? Of course you have. Unless you somehow had a true glimpse into everything that blended family life would be, you probably have been blasted by its reality more than once. It maybe even forced you to step back and think….what on earth am I doing this for?

I believe deep down my heart has known that God had a great plan when He cleverly collided the lives of myself, my husband and his biological son. Although, I can’t say I always trusted it would be a great plan, and I tried to control it’s course repeatedly. If you read my blog on discipline, you are already aware that our story was very rocky. And it was in those rocky times where the beauty and love I once felt for these two faded away before I could even realize it.

I’ll never forget sitting in my therapist’s office one afternoon. She warned me that if I let resentment creep into my heart I’d be in great trouble and that we had to stop it before it started.

Stop it? I thought. We’re way past stopping it. I am beyond miserable here.

You see somewhere along the line, everything that I was doing for my little family was coming from a place of duty instead of love. When you move based upon duty, you expect thanks. You expect to be seen. You are doing things because you believe you have to. And most importantly, you are doing things with anger in your heart. That was me. While I’ve never been the girl to sing while folding laundry, I was like a million miles away from June Cleaver. Oh you can bet I was a supermom, but I was a super task mom. If you gave me a task it was done, quickly and efficiently. I’d keep taking on more tasks, and never filling myself up. In fact, not only did I never fill myself up but I never took an ounce of pleasure in it. Everything was a task. Every. Single. Day.

When you’re in a hostile blended family situation, it is very hard to see any silver lining. I had my nose to the grindstone every day. I was always rushed. I was always miserable. I kept adding tasks to my plate and waiting for some thanks. It’s funny because now I see that all that outside work did nothing for my insides. From the outside, people really thought I was a saint. “Wow!”, they’d gasp when they got a glimpse of our story. “You are amazing! How lucky they are to have you!”

Yes, how lucky they are indeed. And while I can admit I was taken for granted for far too long in some respects, in another way I wanted an unfair amount of thanks. If you’re like me, you need to know that your husband and these kids can never really pay you back. Think about it. You’re taking on something so large and abstract, there really is no way to extend full thanks, or to reciprocate. Some of you can argue you never receive thanks at all. I sympathize. But I’m learning now that things look far different when you’re moving from a place of love instead of a place of duty. And most importantly, it’s time to answer that very important question – why are you here exactly?

We get so wrapped up in our mom tasks and in doing anything we possibly can for thanks that we sometimes take it to an unhealthy level. In fact, when my marriage was in horrible shape, nearly at the end of our rope, my therapist challenged me again. She asked repeatedly, “You sound so unhappy. Why are you still there?” After I had run out of all the obvious reasons and we had worked through that portion, I answered the only answer I had. “I don’t know”, I admitted.

“If you’re not there out of love, you are there out of duty, which will inevitably make you miserable”, she explained. “You are there for the wrong reasons. Your marriage is no longer your marriage, it is your addiction.”

My what? 

Along the way I had to learn that when two unhealthy adults come together, it is a real challenge to create a healthy family. At one point, every member of my wise circle had exhausted all of their encouragement and was finally saying it’s probably time to throw in the towel. They were tired of seeing me in such misery and they know I’d tried all that I could and it still wasn’t working. But there was a tugging at my heart.

You’re not done yet.

So I pressed on. And I realized that if I don’t start living with joy in my soul, things would never change. That included saying no, and meaning no when I wanted to. That included sharing my feelings instead of letting resentment build. And that included looking at my child as a gift instead of a chore. Did that one hit you? Because at some point, many stepmothers start doing this. I obviously fell victim myself. Once I adored every move he made. And it didn’t take long before I was so wrapped up in the BS his mother fed us, the lack of his father’s thanks in my eyes, and of course the lack of his thanks too. How unfair, really. An 8 year old boy cannot express adult thanks. And while my husband and I have a long way to go, it starts with knowing my happiness never truly rested on his ability to thank me. And learning what I did about functional families and mental health, I can’t expect much from biomom. So my contentment all came back to me. It was my responsibility to take control of my life.

There’s been a stirring in my soul on this topic for a while. The topic of doing things because you want to, not because you have to. I love deeply the idea of sharing my story with others and helping them through this whole thing. Because I know there was purpose in my pain and that purpose is to grow myself, and help others too. Last Thursday I was at my church going through a leadership training for small group ministries. I love the idea of ministering to those in this blended family journey and I decided it would be good for me. I received a text message during the training. It was about Bear.

My 8 year old boy has hearing loss, and recently was fitted with hearing aids. Overall it’s been a beautiful experience and I am so proud of him for hopping hurdles and dealing with the not so kind comments from mean and/or ignorant classmates. But at least a few times Mama Bear has come out. If you touch my kid, I will lose it. I can teach him to properly deal with comments and hurt feelings, but touching him is out of the question. One incident escalated past his teacher and onto the principal. This has been a trying time for me. I don’t want to see him hurt but I have to learn to let him fight some of his own battles and pray I gave him the right skills.

Out of nowhere, Bear announced recently that he would be doing karate in the school’s talent show. He also said he’d like to break a board. His father is trained in karate and he’s taken classes as well, so this was a great thing for him. They practiced many times. The child has broken plenty of boards with ease. But the night I was at training, he couldn’t do it. The text I received was from my husband. Bear was heartbroken and obviously full of anxiety. He had planned to get up in front of the WHOLE school; an INCREDIBLE act of courage, and break this board. Now, the night before the show, it seemed that might not go as planned.

A tiny Bear heart crushed.

A Mama Bear heart crushed.

I responded to just encourage him as best he could, and that I would do all I could to try and leave work early to be there to watch him. My husband has a terribly inflexible work schedule, so I knew I’d be the only spectator, if he had one at all. Hopefully knowing he may have a supporter in the audience would help. Especially if that supporter was me. A mother who cared and supported him.

You see, Bear’s biological mother is not in the picture. And though he doesn’t voice it much, it’s a blow to a child. And as much as I’ve stepped up to take on tasks, I haven’t been a superstar in the area of encouragement and love. I am not an awful person by any means, but there is duty and misery and then there is love and joy. I have always lived life quickly. There is not time to enjoy the present. We have exactly 6 minutes to complete this task until we begin the next task. Bear doesn’t work well like this but he’s adjusted for me. His past behavior hurdles led me to overcompensate in structure and it’s not been an easy road. My husband NEVER works well like this and many battles have ensued.

But now, I knew it was time to change.

I am a human resources manager. I am solely responsible for many very vital things in the lives of a great deal of people and their families. It is a terribly busy time of the year for me. I could have easily justified not being able to get out of work. But there was not a thing in the world that would keep me from getting to that talent show last Friday.

And it wasn’t to prove I’m a better mom than his biomom.

And it wasn’t to remind my husband of all that I sacrifice.

And it wasn’t for thanks.

And it wasn’t for praise.

It was because in that moment there was not a thing on the planet that was more important to my son. And I rearranged my entire day to be there. I prayed hard all the way to the school. I asked my coworkers to send some prayers/ positive vibes/ whatever they fancy out to my boy.

I pulled up scared to death I had missed him. But thankfully a dear friend of mine whose daughter was performing said I wasn’t too late.

The Principal announced his name, “on deck”. My heart was racing. I desperately tried to arrange my phone to record this, knowing if he nailed it he’d want to watch it 7 million times. He started, the crowd was silent. He nailed his flying kick – he’d been working on it so hard. He bowed, and they thought he was finished so they clapped.

The gym teacher and Principal  walked over to get the block of wood and hold it in front of the crowd.

“Oooooohhh!!!!” The crowd realized what was happening.

He raised his little hand, and with every ounce of his sweet soul he smashed that board beautifully.

The crowd went nuts!

And me?

I was bawling. The other moms were trying to toss compliments at me and I couldn’t catch my breath.

In a classy move, the gym teacher high-fived him and then waved his hand away in “pain” as if to tell the crowd, “Look how strong he is!”

The pride inside my soul was pouring out of me. Strong is an understatement. This kid has seen some serious trials. This kid has endured a great deal. This kid has come out on top where many kids wouldn’t.

This kid is a walking miracle.

When the show was over, I saw him looking around to see if I had come to watch. I tried desperately not to cry so I wouldn’t embarrass him in front of his friends. I showered him with praise – and it was real praise. None of that forced nonsense. He was proud of himself, and I was proud back. No expectations, just love.

And in that moment nothing else mattered.

This has changed the entire trajectory of my home life.

Yesterday we all played catch. This kid can throw a football perfectly. I never knew that. It’s not that I never let him be a kid, or that I never engage in activities with him. But I have spent far more time on tasks than on what matters; the things that can’t be measured in currency, time, or milestones.

This morning as we drove to take him to school, I saw this mini dinosaur (okay it was a snapping turtle but it was huge) peeking out of the mulch in our neighborhood.

“Did you see that turtle?!” I yelled.

“No, where??” he said with that excitement I remember loving deeply a long time ago …. but had forgotten.

I put the car in reverse and backed up. He looked shocked. We are under a time crunch after all. Because we get to school on time – my time, with no distractions, and we move methodically, never veering from the plan.

I put on my flashers and said, “Come on! Let’s look at this thing! Be careful don’t get too close…”

He got out and we walked up together. I took pictures. We talked about what it was probably doing out there. And how we shouldn’t get too close and bother it. And for a split second I realized I had a glimpse of something I had been so desperately searching for.

Happiness. Peace. A Functional Relationship.

This is what it looks like. This is what it feels like. I’ve been so obsessed with creating a happy life I forgot to live one.

Who cares that it took 3 minutes out of “the usual plan”. It’s 3 minutes he will remember. And it’s 3 minutes that filled me up and helped remind me why I am still here.


I am not suggesting I am not going to stumble with this, because I will. I will lose my temper. I will get hurried. Life moves so fast. But life is more than deadlines, time limits, immovable rules, and stress.

I learned that while you can’t do everything out of love, the more you do, the happier you’ll be. I encourage you to try re-framing these scenarios in your life. When we are with those we love, we want to help them, serving selflessly and asking nothing in return. If this is not possible, it’s time to re-evaluate your path. You can influence more than you think by changing your perspective.


And the next time you’re faced with being moved by love or duty, choose love. Even when it’s hard. Even when you don’t want to. Be careful not to drain yourself, and take care to love your family as treasures, not tasks.



12 thoughts on “Love Versus Duty: A Stepmother’s Story

  1. Fantastic article.. I have been that same “dutiful” childless stepmother that you describe above. If I am honest, it still hits me every now and then- those feelings of resentment – usually after someone is in a bad mood and being mean, testy or we’ve both had one too many long, rough days. However, once you let go, just be and love, you realize that you really would do anything for them… and it has nothing to do with trying to be the world’s best stepmom /better mom than her that you can.

  2. My husband and I hit an incredible rough patch in our marriage, one that I thought would have no choice but divorce. I had a moment, thinking of my little man and all the turmoil he’s already had to endure, & knowing the likelihood of having any relationship with him would be nonexistent, I had to give my marriage another shot. I’m so incredibly glad I did. I’ve had all the feelings from feeling like I had to, to the incredible love that comes when you just let go and be. Our little family is stronger than ever and I’ve learned that it’s not a role I have to fill, but a blessing I have as a family.

  3. Wow. I really feel this. I’ve discovered for myself (and I’m not the first to think about this, I know) that the toughest battles are fought on the inside. Motivations, resentments, miscommunications, missed expectations, all of them are battles you can’t face WITH someone. Even arguments you can talk out. I’m grateful for a Heavenly Father who knows my heart and wants to help me sort it out. I know we can do it. I appreciate your honesty in this article–I’m glad you won this victory. May you continue to win more of them. Thank you so much.

  4. Thank you so much for this… and all your posts. Today was not an easy day for me. I have three beautiful stepchildren and my husband and I own a business, which leaves him working long hours out of the home and me to raise his children. I so easily get caught into what I think is my duty and forget to serve out of love. I have been yearning for compliments and thanks and praise lately only to come up shorthanded and feeling unappreciated and depressed. I am so very thankful for the support and love from other childless stepmothers… you all help keep me going. I will work on myself, my love and my attitude from here on. Thank you, thank you, thank you!

    • I recently came across this blog, so my comments are a year late, lol. But I appreciate your comment, RQuillen.10.05. I, too, am in a similar situation where I am a custodial stepmom, and my husband has to work weekends, and I’m left to take care of my three stepkids after having worked a full week, myself. And there are times when I so desperately want the thanks and the praise, but I realize that this is not just about me and that every day that I’m giving to these precious kids and providing the support that my husband needs, I’m doing God’s will, and He will reward me in due time. This reward came when my eldest stepdaughter was asked, in front of her biomom and me, “who’s child are you?” and she responded, “both of theirs”. I’m not sure how her mom felt about her response, but I was tickled pink, and I realized that I may not receive their appreciation every day, but they are aware of the care that I give to them, day in and day out; and this post is a reminder for me to continue to give out of love and not out of duty 🙂 I really appreciate the encouragement that this blog brings…thank you 🙂

  5. Wow! I really loved your article! It is amazing how you were able to recognize the duty verses love of being a mother and even overcome it. I often think of some things as my duty but things really change when we do things out of love. Especially when it comes to relationships, no matter what kind of relationship. I recently read an article about love and how sometimes we avoid showing or sharing love because of fear. You should check it out! It is at this site: Let me know what you think!

  6. I am in the same boat as you, childless stepmom I mean. I still dread every other weekend and holiday and feel miserable some of the time. I take care of my stepdaughter out of love for my husband and end up resenting it. I don’t know how to change that because I do love my husband and want to help him, but, though there are expressions of gratitude, it is still an expectation that I resent. I resent it because above all else I would prefer it if there was no step child, and I don’t think I will ever get over that. Talk about regret…

  7. Custodial childless acting stepmom of four boys is who I am. Thank you for sharing your story. Love vs. Duty. It makes sense now. You have helped me in so many ways!

  8. Thank you writing this. I’m currently struggling with an adoring husband, three wonderful stepchildren and a fantastic bioMom. Sometimes wondering where I fit in, and why/if I am even needed in their lives. Thank you for reminding us to act in love rather than out of duty…..this struck my heart and brought me to tears.

  9. How true your words are…and how they resonate with me. Love vs Duty indeed. I’m not a childless mom, as I have two grown up children of my own and three adult step children (youngest 18) … Having brought up my two children, I imagined myself equipped for three more. How very ignorant of me. I threw myself into my marriage and step mothering with a kind of reckless wild abandon…All heart and soul and I believed common sense. My step children benefited from the best I had to offer. After all, my own children were raised in fits and starts and instinct alone…and loads of mistakes as I was also growing and maturing. Now years later, I knew which battles to tackle and which were just not worth the unpleasantness, because they were passing phases. I was also much more intentional in my daily interaction with them vs instinctual with my own as they grew up .However, after five years of earnest participation in their lives and many sacrifices (some of which I had not even made for my own children), a conflict that took months to slowly develop (when my husband chose to ignore it instead of deal with it), resulted in me being stabbed in the back by everyone of the very step children I defended, loved and accepted. To add insult to injury my husband chose to believe their blatant outrageous lies over my version and to this day no one has ever corrected things or even acknowledged what occurred. My marriage is threatened by these lies that are just festering under the surface BUT we may not speak of the lies and confront them. Instead everything is swept under the rug and we pretend it didn’t happen. As I sit here typing this I am considering folding up my tent and moving on…I just cannot imagine having to tolerate these lies for the next 20 years of my life or waiting till more lies are manufactured, just because my husband refuses to face the fact that his children were very capable of tearing my life and character to shreds to save their own skins…

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