“You’re not my parent!”
There it was – the dreaded line. That’s apparent! I thought.
Everyone I knew had warned me about this. So why was I surprised to hear it?
Surprises, every step of the way.
Step-parenting is the toughest job, by far, that you will ever love.
As I entered the church for my wedding, it only-half surprised me that the pastor did not offer me a choice: “Turn right, walk down the aisle, and get married. Or turn left, step out to the garden area, and meet our firing squad.” The second choice would have been ever so much easier!
Being a step-parent can be a wild ride. Still, I would not have missed it for anything. Now that we are all grownups, I can count my stepchildren as dear personal friends.
However, when I stepped out of my sparkling white satin pumps and into my step-mom shoes, many years ago, the picture was very different. At the time, I was a young adult and didn’t even know any other step-parents. Bookstores did not bulge with how-to books on step-families. The internet did not even exist. What was a brand-new step-parent to do?
Several insights arose, over the years. I earned these with a certain amount of scarring. But I think it’s been worth it.
The new husband and wife simply must develop healthy boundaries with the children from the previous marriage. Of course, the kids have been through crisis, and the marriage will be an adjustment for them, too. But the married couple will need to carve out regular private time together. (During our first six months of marriage, we had two weekends alone. I loved his kids, but this was challenging to a beginning marriage!)
Everyone needs quality time.
Time alone with the kids is essential for the step-parent and the actual parent. Perhaps they can take turns shuttling the kids back and forth to their other home, or attending the kids’ events.
Having everyone together for family activities is important, but so is the opportunity for the children to build a new relationship (with the step-parent) and to rebuild the existing one (with the actual parent).
Sharing craft projects, homework preparation, gardening and home repair projects, and even recreation are excellent ways to facilitate one-on-one relationships. After a while, everyone may begin to feel like a family!
Personal space is essential – for everyone.
Everyone needs a bit of quiet and solitude once in a while, although custodial and visitation weekends can be stressful and hurried.
Even if the children only visit on weekends and holidays, they will need the opportunity to have moments alone. (Families in smaller living quarters may need to be creative here.) Privacy, even in small pieces, helps reduce the stress of a new family situation.
In a blended family, children tend to be shuttled back and forth, from one parent’s home to another. They can feel much more secure by knowing they will have a secure spot to keep their personal items and to break away from the mayhem, when they need to do so.
Making memories together helps build relationships.
Sharing experiences, working through hardships, learning to laugh at silly memories, building holiday traditions, and simply spending time together are all ways to develop bonds in a step-family.
Looking back, our family loves to laugh at some of the crazy things we did together. We have shelves of photo albums of trips we took, activities we did, birthday celebrations, sleepover parties, and holidays we had together. (For example, one year we cut a Christmas tree in the pouring rain!). Shared memories are the bedrock of a new family.
No bad mouthing!
No matter what has happened, the parent and step-parent will gain nothing by bashing the other parent (or step-parent, if there is one). This will only make the children more uncomfortable.
No matter how they may act, the children usually don’t want to break up the new marriage. On the contrary, most kids are seeking stability.
What’s in a name?
Try as he or she might, a step-parent will never be “Mom” or “Dad.” Sometimes, the children will give you a new nickname, if you like it. You can try to be an adult friend, but obviously, you will never replace the other parent.
Give it time.
If you and the actual parent add children to the family, the older kids may begin to see you as a parent. When grandchildren come, a wise step-parent will not usurp the favorite pet names (“Nana,” “Grampa,” “Gram,” and “Pop”), but will seek to create an original nickname with the grandchildren.
Set the stage.
Most important of all, the actual parent sets the tone for success or failure in the stepfamily. His or her attitude can literally make or break the deal. If the actual parent does all he or she can – to encourage unity and acceptance – then everyone wins.
Don’t expect full cooperation.
Every family member can be expected to express his or her individuality. Each of the children may carry different attitudes about the breakup of the first marriage and the impending new one. Even if you arrived on the scene long after the damages were done, the children may find some way to blame you for it. Whether rational or not, this is quite common.
For example, one of my stepdaughters wore black to our wedding. Can anyone say, “passive-aggressive”?
Take the longer view.
In time, you may win the children over, but you may not. If you consider each allegiance to be a bonus, you cannot lose.