Years ago when I told a friend that I had married a woman with three children, he remarked “wow, that’s got to be tough. If I did that, I’d constantly feel like someone handed me the key to his Jaguar — and I’d feel honor-bound to drive it very carefully.”
I have to confess that at first I did feel a bit like that. But since I brought no children of my own into the marriage, I came to feel more as though I were jumping on to a spinning merry-go-round. If only I could get a foot hold, I’d be able to catch my balance.
One of the things you learn when you’re a stepparent is that you never quite get your balance; but that’s OK. Even if you’re not driving a Jaguar, the ride can frequently be one helluva lot of fun. And when it’s not fun — well, how can I put this diplomatically — you signed up for a responsibility. If you simply take the attitude that you and your spouse are sharing a residence with his or her children, you’re in for some tough sledding.
If you’re experiencing a bit of strain with the kids, maybe even feeling a bit unappreciated, know that you’re not alone on the merry-go-round. According to the US Census Bureau, 50% of women and roughly the same percentage of men who remarry in this country do so with one or two children. I can’t tell you how to go about one of the most difficult jobs you’ll ever have. But here are four recommendations I’d like to modestly put forth, after years of pain and joy from being a parent to kids I didn’t help bring into the world.
A Stepparent’s Work Starts Before He or She Officially Becomes a Stepparent
By that I don’t mean you should lay down a set of arbitrary rules for children before they move in with you. But it’s never too early to solicit trust, respect, and friendship. Love, though, takes longer, and becomes a reality only if the first three are already in place. If you include young kids on some of your date nights, rather than always dump them in the hands of a babysitter, you’ll be in a much stronger position to let them know that you and their mom or dad are entitled to some special evenings for yourselves.
Teenagers pose different challenges entirely. They might simply not want to go out with you. They might think that you’re trying to curry favor with them. Over the long haul though, whether they consent to go out with you and your spouse, they’ll come to appreciate your good intentions, and remember you made an effort to include them in the courtship before you got married.
Assure Children That You’re Not Trying to Replace a Biological Parent That’s Still in the Picture
In fact, you should assure your stepchildren of this even if the biological parent has died or has abandoned the child. It’s difficult enough for children to deal with separation or loss. They may idealize or inappropriately feel sorry for a parent they see only occasionally or not at all. What they don’t need is for you to interfere in their psychological adjustment process by setting up a test of their love or loyalty. You’re the grownup after all. Take the kids off the hook. Let them know that you realize they miss their biological dad or mom, and if they’d like to talk about it, you’re there to listen.
Tell them too that under no circumstances do you consider yourself a replacement for a biological father or mother. And while we’re on the subject, you and your spouse should not force the word “dad” or “mom” into a child’s family vocabulary if the child reserves that designation for the biological parent in the other residence. Parenting is a lot more than biology: it’s about helping with homework, showing up for soccer games, encouraging a kid that feels down. In time, a child will work out where you belong, and where their divorced biological parents belong, in the broad scheme of things. Ideally, you’ll help raise a child who can learn to accommodate stepparents and biological parents without feeling confusion or resentment.
Let the kids know that you have rules. Make no mistake — they’ll test you. They’ll tell you that when they visit their biological mom or dad they get to stay up late and go to really cool places. Let them know that’s really too bad, isn’t it? They’re in your and your spouse’s house now. The two of you have different rules, and they’re just going to have to abide by them. Tell them too that you don’t consider them messengers between families. If you and your spouse need to discuss any arrangements with their other biological parent and his or her spouse, the four of you will work it out directly.
Expect Some Back Talk, Especially in the Early Years
Just when you thought you had their trust and affection, kids will remind you that you’re not their real mom or dad. If you had already told them you had no intention of replacing their “real” mom or dad, remind them of the conversation.
If you’re dealing with particularly alert kids, walk them quietly over to a mirror and look into it with them. Then say, “You know something? Anybody looking at us can see I’m not your mom (or dad). But you know what’s good about that? I don’t get genetic guilt. That means if you screw up, you can’t blame me. And I won’t feel guilty. Because I’m not your real mom (or dad). We’re not really alike. But if you do screw up — and we all do once in a while — I’d like you to know I’ll always be there for you.” Then go silent. Believe me, the kids will get the point.
Jumping on a spinning merry-go-round is difficult. But the ride can be thrilling.