As young girls, we don’t dream about growing up to be the world’s greatest stepmother. But, in an era with high divorce rates and common-law relationships, some of us find that we need to tweak our ideas around domestic bliss.

Sometimes Prince Charming comes as a package deal, but as much as step-parenting can be challenging, it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.

I recently had a chat with my dear friend, Mankoana Nhlebela, about how she has navigated her role as a young stepmom. Mankoana and I have been friends for a few years, and I’ve had the privilege to spend time with her and her blended family, and she makes it look so easy. Not only do I feel like we can all learn so much from her, but I know we’ll walk away with handy step-parenting tips to implement in our own lives.

Parenting tips every step mom must know

Tell us more about yourself

My name is Mankoana Nhlebela, 34 years of age and originally from Polokwane, Limpopo. I’ve been married to my husband for 7 years, and together we have two kids aged 10 and 4 years old. My son is a blessing of my circumstance and my daughter a blessing of my womb.

I’m both an entrepreneur and corporate woman, with an established career in the Telecommunications industry and with specialisation in information security strategy, governance, risk, and compliance. I’m the owner of UKARA, a proudly South African fashion and lifestyle brand that provides simplistic, elegant, and versatile ready-to-wear and custom-made apparel for women.

I’m a previous Mrs South Africa titleholder, Transformational Speaker, Mentor and BLOSS Africa Magazine Kids Editor. I’m also the Co-Founder of Motherly Love Baby Shower, an initiative that aims to support less privileged mothers-to-be.

I’m a women empowerment enthusiast at heart. Using my transformational and entrepreneurial talks to recondition mindsets and encourage women to live their best lives without fear.

What is the most common challenge that blended families face?

The transition to a blended family isn’t always as seamless and as quick as we would wish it to be. Often it’s complicated by the fact that, apart from the couple itself, everyone else involved gets drawn into this setup not necessarily out of choice.

Trying to align everyone’s expectations, especially when dealing with kids, is often a sensitive and challenging point. As individuals, we have differing backgrounds, beliefs, parenting styles, and family values. I believe the key part of blending the family is in trying to strike the right balance that creates harmony and dispels any potential resentment that may come with the previous relationship or the ending thereof.

How do you deal with sibling rivalry at home?

As parents, we are very intentional about being consistent in how we parent each kid so that none of them ever get a sense of “favouritism”. As kids would be, there are times when they will not get along, but we constantly remind them that they will always need each other no matter what. In our case, there’s a wider age gap between the two kids, and so at times the older one sometimes feels that he doesn’t get as much attention.

So the moment we observe or sense this from his behaviour we try to make sure the kids are reassured that they are all equally a part of the family. Similarly, when the younger one pulls her ‘innocent’ trick card, we make sure to relay the same principle. I believe in the power of affirmation, and so I generally let them both know, in each other’s presence, what a blessing they are to me as their mom.

Parenting tips every step mom must know

Do you and your husband have the same discipline styles?

We didn’t start with the same discipline styles, but we did agree on the basics that somewhat align our discipline styles. But we are individuals, and often than not, our backgrounds mould us as people. So sometimes we do tend to lean on what we are familiar with first, referencing how we were disciplined as kids. As a result, there are times we won’t always see eye to eye. But what is important is for us not to display our difference of opinion in front of the kids. We keep realigning, supporting, and reassuring each other as we strive to be good parents. After all, we are all trying to do our best for our kids, and that’s what matters most.

I have also found that the context, within which you need to discipline a child, as well as the child’s personality itself may sometimes require flexibility in one’s stance on a discipline style.

What is the biggest lesson you have learnt from your experience as a stepmom?

The greatest lesson for me has been acceptance and broadened perspective. Acceptance in the sense of not ‘blaming’ my partner for his past, accepting that a blended family brings additional family members you may have not planned for and accepting that each child is indeed a blessing.

At the time we became a blended family, I had no kids of my own and my stepson at the time was an adorable 2-year-old. I recall still being a bit conflicted at the situation, as I never had it in my plans to be with a man who already had a child.

We all have plans, but none of us truly knows what the future holds. Sometimes what is brought into our lives, that is good, is not always packaged the way we had planned it. I recall pondering on this very fact, and this was the day my perspective was broadened. Yes, I’ve always known I want to have kids, but whether I could or could not biologically is not something that I knew at that point. So, I transformed my mind and challenged my heart to love this child as though it would be the only child I’d ever have. Loving him without reservations made the transition to instant mom easier and hearing him call me mom for the first time as a little toddler was priceless.

Parenting tips every step mom must know

What advice would you give to a woman that’s about to become a step-parent?

Don’t be too hard on yourself. Bonds take time to create so be patient with the process. Don’t rush any relationship before its time, and this is in particular reference to your partner’s ex.

Unfortunately, your partner’s ex may still have some resentment over their past relationship, for whatever reason, and may therefore not even want to have a relationship with you at first. Some may also go as far as using their kids as a means to try to create a hostile environment. Yours is to stay true to yourself and your values.

In all you do always remember that the kids are the innocent party, which means you may sometimes need to be the bigger woman in situations that require that. But in the same breath, be clear about your family values because these will guide the interactions of all parties as you merge into a blended family.

It’s also essential to guard the stability of your blended family by socialising the concept with people that matter. As an example, at times, your step-kids may not reside with you full time but may from time to time come to visit their home. In those instances, it needs to be made clear to people, such as your nanny, that they are to treat and take care of all kids equally and make them understand that this is their home too. Unfortunately, we take it for granted that people understand this; however, it is always safer to be clear on expectations.

How did you prepare yourself emotionally for your ‘instant family’?

I had to remind myself that I have always known that I wanted to have a family of my own and that I have indeed been blessed with a family, just in a different form. I also had to remember that in as much as this is new to me it’s as new to my partner and therefore, I allowed myself to be honest about my feelings to him, whether good or bad, during the transition. It truly helps to have a supportive partner who reminds you that you are not alone in all of this.

Is there anything you wish you and your husband could have done differently?
I don’t think so, because all we did was out of love. We were honest about the potential challenges we may encounter as we bring everyone on board. But we were equally committed from the onset to make it work.