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:
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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