The dos and don’ts of step-parenting
A few years ago in a small church, I had a step-parenting breakthrough. The sky didn’t open up and rain down heavenly wisdom, but rather, I was deeply touched by a short article on the challenges of trying to raise someone else’s child. It was in a magazine that I spotted while waiting to take my place as a bridesmaid at a friend’s wedding rehearsal.
At that point, I was three years into a relationship with a man who had a son, Jordan, 7, and I was struggling to make sense of my role as a step-parent. My partner is an excellent father, but I found his parenting style more relaxed than I was used to. Too often, I felt like the household enforcer, nagging about things like putting the toilet seat down, not kicking at the dinner table and other little details that children are apt to forget. This did little to help my self-image as the dreaded ‘evil stepmother’ of Grimm and Disney fairytale lore.
After reading the article, I realized for the first time that I was not alone in my confusion and guilt. I learned that step-parenting is exactly what the name implies: it’s all about taking steps. I stepped into this child’s life (he didn’t ask me to!) when his father and I decided to live together. And as the days and months go by, all of us — me, my partner and his son — are learning a new sort of family dance that is often improvised, sometimes clumsy, but also very valuable. Along the way, I’ve learned a few things about what helps, and what doesn’t, as I try to build a relationship with my stepson.
Recognize that your stepchild already has two parents and that he likely feels deep loyalty to them. Your role is not to fix a broken family by replacing mom or dad. You can, however, play an important role in their lives, but it takes time, patience, discussion and probably some soul-searching to discover what makes sense for this new family.
Figure out house rules and differences in discipline and let the biological parent (as much as possible) be the enforcer to avoid having a child feel resentful toward a “mean” step-parent. If you and your partner are having trouble agreeing on basic house rules, you might want to seek help early on from a mental health professional, who can guide you through the process.
Let the stepchild have time alone with you — and with their biological parent. Too often, stepfamilies feel pressure to bond as group, so they plan all kinds of activities together. However, experts agree that kids, and adults in these situations, feel a lot more comfortable with one-on-one time. So let your partner do things with his or her child. And then plan some fun activities of your own, from watching a few YouTube videos together to going shopping for new winter boots.
Don’t neglect your adult relationship. Step-parenting is hard work, and it’s easy to let family problems and stresses dominate the conversations with your partner. Take time away to reconnect — go on a date, take a trip together, etc. When you and your partner feel connected and loving toward each other, it will be easier to face some of the tougher parts of parenting.
Honour your feelings. Society expects women to feel naturally maternal to a child that is not their own – an unrealistic and unfair expectation that makes us feel horribly guilty. You can’t force yourself to love someone. Like any relationship, trust needs to be built and earned – from both sides. As long as you’re consistent and respectful to the child, that is good enough.
4 pitfalls of step-parenting
Don’t assume that things will just fall in to place; it can take years for the child to accept you. Like any relationship, problems should be addressed rather than ignored. Consider working with a therapist or psychologist, even for a short time, to help the family develop good communication skills.
Don’t speak badly of or answer for either biological parent in front of the child. If your stepchild feels disappointed over the actions of the other parent, have them speak directly to that parent for an explanation. If they ask you, simply answer, “I don’t know.”
Don’t neglect your stepchildren if you have your own. Children will notice if there are more pictures on the wall of the biological kids. Stepchildren want to feel included and loved.
Don’t avoid contact, even if the child is not very friendly. Just a simple “hello, how was your day?” is enough to start. Sometimes, more involvement than that can be overwhelming. Give yourself, and your stepchild, space and time to adjust to a new family.
While it can be difficult to love a child who is not your own, being respectful and kind will go a long way. Many stepparents are surprised by the sometimes negative feelings they have towards the kids. Don’t worry — it’s normal. Look for support from other step-parents to help deal with these emotions. A child may only feel comfortable with feelings of love for their step-parents later on in life. With a mature perspective, the people who were once your biggest critics can become your biggest fans. And if they do not, don’t worry. All we can do is our best.
No more evil stepmom
Lisa MacMartin is a family therapist at the Sedona Centre in Montreal. She feels passionately about the topic of stepmoms, working hard to change the ‘evil stepmom’ myth. She’s been a stepmother for almost a decade and offers these tips:
Don’t assume that stepfamily life will be the same as a traditional family. Women get disillusioned after realizing that the family they have joined is not turning out to be the way they had imagined. There are a lot of turbulent emotions with blended families.
Do put your relationship first. It’s very important for adults in a blended family to have time together because there can be a lot of day-to-day stress. It is good for the kids to see that your relationship is strong.
Do step back. This is very hard to do. Many stepmoms experience deep despair. These are not your children, and if their parents aren’t bothered by the things that drive you crazy, it’s not worth your energy to try and change them. This will help deal with feeling powerless in your house. Stepmothers are often damned if they do, and damned if they don’t.
Do have a support system. There is nothing worse than feeling alone. Try to find other step-parents who can understand what you’re going through, or look for support through a family therapist. Remarried families have very high divorce rates, and stepmothers do not always receive a lot of compassion.
Don’t ever, ever speak negatively about the other parent in front of your stepchild. Being able to communicate openly with the biological parent is ideal, but not always possible, and speaking ill of them in front of the kids can sabotage your relationship. Try not to get involved in conflicts between the biological parents.
Lisa MacMartin runs workshops for stepmothers as the Sedona Counselling Centre, 5708 Monkland Ave., N.D.G. For more information, call (514) 487-2828 or visit www.centresedona.com.
Stepmoms may also be interested in a book called Stepmonster. For more information, visit www.wednesdaymartin.com.