Stepmoms: Be the Mother Ship (Not the Mother!)

Be the mother ship. Not the mother.” This is sage stepmom advice I received from my friend Ruth over a cider-slash-venting session years ago. She had been a stepmom before it was even cool. I didn’t know her then. She was 19, he was 30 and suddenly she had two small girls for whom to take care. She hung in there for 18 years of marriage and watched herself and those kids grow up. I know we all think there isn’t enough information out there on being a stepmom these days, but 30 years ago there literally was nothing. She had to learn 100 percent through trial and error.

Mother Ship

So, after letting me vent and guzzle for an hour or so, she stopped me and gently said, “Lis, you need to be the mother ship, not the mother.” I stopped in my tracks because I knew this was going to be a good one. I put down my cider and told her to go on.

She described this mother ship vessel I was supposed to be as the calm within the storm. Despite all the drama, chaos and conflict, the stepmom as the mother ship is steady and strong. All parties can go to her for peace and wisdom. She is a safe place, nonjudgmental, nonpartisan and definitely nonreactionary. She lets everyone be heard and does not react.

Just discussing this mother ship concept with Ruth calmed me down. It made sense. At the time, it seemed like very big girl behavior and a bit of a stretch for this new stepmom, but I knew it was something for which I needed to strive if I was going to keep my sanity.

Throughout the years, I have struggled with many issues in this role of stepmom, and the biggest one has been figuring out my boundaries within the whole thing. At the top of that list were my boundaries with The Ex. My fear around her, especially in the early days, was palpable. Her constant presence in my life crossed my boundaries and left me horrified. I spent a lot of my time and energy reacting and overreacting to her behavior because I didn’t know what else to do.

This was not very mother shipish. So, I started taking Ruth’s advice, and the more I did the easier my life became. The calmer and stronger I was, the less volatile the situation became. I was conscious I was no longer part of the problem. And this is the real clincher. By being reactionary, too involved and too invested in things and people we cannot control, the worse we make our lives and the lives of those around us. Ruth would be proud.

Recently, we had an experience where my husband’s ex sent him a long email tracking her resentments and injustices since they split up seven years ago. It was full of threats, irrational thoughts and unreasonable requests. Having had years of practice of this mother ship routine, I read the email and then was silent. My husband was eager for my reaction, which he expected to be somewhere between outrage and panic.

“What do you think?” he pressed. “Can you believe it?” I could sense his fear and knew if I added my own fear and emotion that things would escalate. So, I was calm and responded, “I wonder what is happening in her life to cause her to write this email?” I was nonjudgmental and compassionate toward her. I was strong. My reaction had a calming effect on my husband. He did not respond to her email, and she since has not brought it up. If I had overreacted, my husband would have been more upset, action (possibly regrettable) would have been taken and things would be a whole lot more hot and bothered at my house!

If you ever feel resentment, fear or anger toward what is happening with the ex, the kids, or your man, give the mother ship a shot. It means you choose to feel compassion for each affected party. It means you choose to act from a place of love, not fear. It means you choose to be detached from the drama and conflict that is not yours. It means you choose to make a positive difference in people’s lives.

It is very big girl behavior and feels very grown-up, but it is a gift of greater well-being to everyone involved, and I guarantee you will have a happier life.

If you liked this article, you’ll LOVE the monthly magazine.




This article was written by Lisa Bagshaw and originally appeared in the October 2010 issue of StepMom Magazine.



17 thoughts on “Stepmoms: Be the Mother Ship (Not the Mother!)”

  1. This IS very big girl behaviour and you make it sound so easy but there are times, with my husband’s ex that I have had no choice but to step in and make sure the child’s needs are met, even if it is from afar.
    I started the relationship in big girl mode only to have my sincerity and generosity stamped on the minute I did not melt to her wishes.
    The constant lies and refusals to support any sort of activities that might infringe on “her time” has made it impossible.
    All we want is to give the child his best chance at life and a good future where he has choices and can achieve whatever goals he sets for himself.
    I would LOVE to be the mother ship who does not give reaction but sometimes I need to step in with action or my stepson suffers.

    1. Agree…then throw in the kids controlling, angry stepfather~which is making their mother miserable and acting out on our happy family….

    2. Thanks for this reply. I agree.

      One of the challenges I have worked with is approaching with compassion, but maintaining appropriate boundaries. The approach I have developed is that I will approach w compassion and emapthy, but if our home’s wellbeing is threatened (home being our house, us , our financial well being etc) , action will be taken and boundaries will be firmly , and calmly, upheld.

  2. Brenda,

    I love this post. It is very helpful! I would love to see this in the magazine and/or as a video piece. These are such wise words and actions.


  3. I really needed this today. The ex decided to move 9 houses from our this weekend without letting us know. I feel my personal boundaries are now challenged and this gave me a new way to look at things with her going forward as she’s always the unstable one and we (my boyfriend and I) are the steady ships.

  4. DJ, reading your post was like reading my thoughts exactly! It sounds like you are going through everything that I am. It is so tough to be the mother ship when it is your boundaries being crossed, and you are dealing with a bio mom that refuses to bend “her time” regardless of what activity the child is participating in. In fact, my step sons bio mom used to keep track of minutes he was late after soccer practice and tally them up for our weekend visits, dropping him off exactly that amount of minutes late. She claimed she was losing time, even though she had full knowledge of soccer and we encouraged her to participate, she did not want to and felt she was owed this lost time. It’s not easy.

  5. Wow. This article couldn’t have been posted on my news feed at any better time! I was the “Mother Ship” for the past two years until recently I just cracked! Overwhelmed and exhausted I’ve disengaged and found myself consumed with stress and anxiety over the recent conflict, that in my mind could be avoided. Such a good question to ask “I wonder what’s going in her life…” – It’s so true, the way people treat you really is more about them than it is about you!

  6. Wow, this is the best advice! Great article.

    I only recently subscribed to this magazine and I love it.

    Thank you!

  7. Great article but it is never easy being the step Mom. I have watched my daughter be mistreated by his ex and all the lies and trying to control is. The kids got dumped on their door step and were totally out of control. My daughter took ownership and did everything she could to help the kids. We as grandparents accepted them totally as our grandkids and it has not been easy. My son-in-law will never understand what my daughter has been through unless the exact same thing happened to him. Now that they are older and moved with. Mom since they no longer need a babysitter and can help out they are picking up her negative attitude and treat my daughter terrible. All we can do is pray that they remember all the good morals they were taught at our home.

    1. Kudos to you as well for accepting them as your grandkids. Sometimes it’s forgotten that blended families invve more than just kids and parents, but also cousins, grandparents, aunts and uncles. And it’s hard when one family is raised one way and the other is raised a different way. Being a step mom myself and having a step son who can be sweet and funny one day, and disrespectful and mean another day is hard to deal with sometimes. My husband does not understand what it’s like because my daughter does not behave that way towards him, but I hope one day when the stepson is older he will see things for what they are.

  8. I have shared this article every year since I read it the first time. I am unfortunately in the middle of a horrible legal battle with his Ex and am trying hard to keep the Mother Ship even though it’s hard and I find out right lies about myself being spread. I hope you know that this article has changed my life.

  9. I have been in my stepsons life for 3 years. His biomom has made my life a living hell. When I first got in my relationship my stepson just turned 1. I am the designated babysitter. We’re were originally going by the court order, but whenever biomom had an emergency or work I was the one she’d ask…but when my stepson started to become attached she took him away and make excuses. Literally like clock work every couple of weeks she flips sides. Either she loves me helping and lets us keep him for weeks or hates it and takes him away. She’s told me to go have my own kids. She talked bad to about me to my stepson to the point where’s he’s cried asking why mommy don’t like you and why does she call you bad names? I can handle when she says it to me and my fiance but not to a 4 year old. I’ve lost my cool a couple of times. But I’ve learned she’s must be going through some horrible crap to take it out on someone who just wants what’s best for the kiddo. I just don’t want her teaching him that the love I give isn’t real bc I didn’t give BIRTH to him.

  10. This is the third or fourth year that I have posted this to my Facebook page. I do so annually as a reminder that above all things my home (no matter what my role is) should be a place of comfort. The first time I read this a few years ago I believe I actually cried some because this was exactly how I felt. Thank you for this article and the truth that it speaks. I will post and read this every year to remind me.

  11. The mother ship. Okay , I can do this, I have to try my best. I know it is going to be very challenging. I can do this! Please God give the strength and wisdom to be clam and compassionate.

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