I am a stepparent. I am also a biological and a foster parent. Honestly, that stepparent thing was the hardest. I am not even sure why, but I am certain that stepping into the undefined territory of that stepparent-stepchild relationship was one of the hardest things I ever did. And, in the end, one of the most amazing…but not for a very long time. Like years. Like 7 or 8 years.
I met Ben when he was 7 and I had just started dating his dad. Mistake #1 – I met him too soon in my relationship with Joe, but I wasn’t reading every parenting education book published back then. I didn’t even know I was going to become a parent back then, no less teach about it!
Joe told Ben that I was stopping by for about 15 minutes to say hello. We played a brief game called “Life” (I am not making this up) and Joe let Ben win but I don’t remember how. Right then I saw that we had different ways of thinking about children, but Joe was so adorable and charming. Mistake #2 – ignoring what might turn into some big challenges in the future.
About 10 minutes into the game, Ben asked if 15 minutes were up. I had never in my life actually been rejected by a child. I was Mary Freaking Poppins for heaven sake! I told myself I would win this kid over, no worries. Mistake #3 – believing my own delusions!
Ben went on to reject me for a few years – yes, years. He wouldn’t say hello or goodbye unless instructed to do so by his dad, he tended to lie from time to time which made me feel crazy, he refused to eat pretty much anything I cooked and responded to my brilliant, inspired, fantastic gifts (from my point of view, of course) with barely an acknowledgement. And he did this for years. Really.
By the time Ben was a teen, he and I got along well, told each other the truth – pretty much – and as an adult, Ben trusted his dad and I with the privilege of taking care of his first born baby overnight for the very first time. His kids call me Nana and I know that Ben and I love each other even though he remains a bit low key in his emotional expression. We have come a very long way.
When I talk with folks embarking on the role of stepparent I want them to know a few things:
- It will not likely be as you imagine it to be. Calling it a blended family might be too optimistic. It is less like blending ingredients in a cake than like a bunch of Italians learning to live with a bunch of Japanese people. Go slow and take time to get to know each other without assuming anything.
- Your stepchild or children did not choose this. They don’t want their parents to be apart or worse, for one parent to be gone or deceased. They may see you as the problem. They may want you to disappear. You may never have encountered anyone who felt quite this strongly about wanting you to just not exist. Get support. Talk to friends, family, trusted guides and counselors. You may be able to talk to your partner about this challenge, but he or she may feel divided loyalties and may not be entirely able to see your side. Talk to other stepparents. It is a unique journey for each of us, but there are likely some struggles that you have in common.
- Plan one-on-one time for everyone in the family. You need time with your partner. Your stepchild needs time with their bio parent. And you and your stepchild need time together. Don’t be too focused on the happy family picture quite yet. Go slow and do it a little at a time. You really need to carve out your own relationship with this child or children. It is like parenting and it isn’t. Honestly, it is hardly like anything else I ever experienced.
Go slow and keep your eye on the prize – just do the right thing one step at a time. Respect the child’s need for distance if that is what is happening. Accept your own needs for support and perhaps recognition. Teach your partner to appreciate you for your contributions if he or she doesn’t already do that. Focus on what your partner does as a parent that you like and talk kindly about any changes you envision. This may be one of the most important and satisfying relationships in your life and it may take time. Be kind and be patient.
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