A Very Brief Guide for Step-Parents
Some practical wisdom I’ve been forced to learn.
There are six weeks to go before the big day and I’m standing in a men’s clothing store with my husband-to-be and his three children. We’re purchasing suits for the two boys to wear to the wedding. While my fiancé brings the pants to the tailor next door, I stand by the checkout with the kids, waiting to finish up and head on to the next errand on the agenda.
Alex, the eight-year-old, is playing with the little business card holder on the checkout desk. I watch as he pockets one card, then another, then a third.
“Alex, that’s enough,” I say, almost instinctively.
Immediately, I’m challenged by Jason, who’s 13. “You’re not his mother. You can’t tell him what to do!”
“You’re not his mother. You can’t tell him what to do!”
Whoa. What am I supposed to say to that one? “That’s true,” I say, as evenly as I can, and pray for hubby-to-be to come back quickly and rescue me.
No, I’m not his mother. I’ve got the dubious distinction of being stepmother-to-be. But even when I attain the status of stepmother, I still have no permission to offer directives, direction, or criticism. After all, rule #1 of step-parenting is let the biological parent handle the discipline. And rule #2 is that if he doesn’t, you still have to keep your mouth shut (though you can certainly discuss it privately with him afterwards).
We’ve come a long way since that scene in the clothing store, but most of the time it seems like we just take one step forward and two steps backward. Granted, not every situation is as challenging as mine, and children’s ages, life circumstances, and a host of other factors all impact the step-parent/step-child dynamic. Still, here’s some wisdom I’ve gleaned in the process of trying to smooth out this complicated relationship:
1. No expectations. Your step-kids may not say please or thank you in your home. They may not appreciate all the efforts you put in to make them feel comfortable. Preparing their meals and doing their laundry may feel like endless drudgery in a way that taking care of your own children’s doesn’t. Don’t expect it to be any different, at least not at first.
2. Lower your standards. Even if you have kids of your own, more kids in a home inevitably means more mess, more noise, and more fighting. You may have to lower housekeeping standards and increase your stress tolerance while your stepchildren are around. When you really need some quiet, simply close the door to your room, put in some earplugs, and curl up with a book or magazine.
3. Look for ways to build the bond. Unlike your own children, with whom you have – hopefully – a built-in connection, your stepchildren may view you through a haze of suspicion, distrust, and plain ol’ antagonism. Try to reach out to them in little ways – buying birthday gifts, baking their favorite treats when they come over, offering to play a game or some other one-on-one time.
4. State your needs. As the kids get used to being in your home, you can speak up for yourself, letting them know which behaviors you would appreciate and which are simply unacceptable. “Before you leave, please put all your dirty clothes in the hamper instead of leaving them on the floor of your room” is a perfectly reasonable request. If it doesn’t go over well, have your spouse reinforce it.
5. Look for the positive. It may take a while, but over time you’ll see gradual cracks in the armor. Treasure those small moments of family togetherness, increased affection, and lowered defenses. Hone in on them, and they’ll build up steadily.
6. Go for family counseling. Before you attempt to build a blended family, meet with a therapist who has experience in dealing with stepfamilies. Things that are no big deal in an intact family unit become very big deals in a blended family, as two different families, each with their own family cultures, try to turn into one household. An expert’s perspective in this area is invaluable in untangling the knots and keeping your goals in perspective.
7. Look for other successfully blended families. Other families that have succeeded at this challenging task can give you the insider’s view of how they’ve done it – and the will to keep going. At the very least, you’ll get some empathy in a situation that most members of intact family units can hardly begin to fathom.
8. Don’t give up. This may be the toughest challenge you’ve ever undertaken, but don’t throw in the towel too soon. If both spouses want to make it work, eventually you’ll achieve success!