I have been officially, legally a stepparent for a year and a half. I have been in my stepchildren’s lives for over five years. My husband is the second man I have had a relationship with who had kids before I met him.
Stepparenting has become a natural beat in my life, but not without years of unnatural and complicated feelings.
Loving a child is easy. A bright and joyful little face smiling up at you is miraculous regardless of their biological source. Thankfully, my stepkids came into my life when they were only three and one. For those who get teenaged stepchildren perhaps the love you form for the child is less spontaneous and simple.
Nonetheless, I think there are truths about being a stepparent that are consistent regardless of the age of the children. Not every truth is easy to swallow, but realizing them has helped me grow as a stepparent.
- It’s as much about your partner as it is about the kids. In the first relationship I was in with a man who had children, there was one inescapable problem: the person I was dating didn’t see me as a partner in child raising.
And perhaps he shouldn’t have. After all, I was 21 at the time. However, being treated like a babysitter, but being expected to tolerate all the baggage that comes with stepparenting was an impossible reality to embrace. It ended our relationship.
My husband, however, couldn’t have handled the situation more differently.
He allowed me to have an opinion and so much more. He let my love for the kids grow and change with time. He complimented me when I would excel at parenting and say something uplifting on days where I felt I had outright failed. I never felt watched, but always felt supported.
The person you’re dating or married to may try to shape your role as a parent or they may open a door for you to grow into being a parent. Trust me, you want the latter.
Happy thought: If you have found a way to raise kids successfully and honestly with your partner (even though you didn’t make them together) it makes other obstacles seem minor.
- You’re not mom (or dad). Obvious as it may seem, it is so much harder to live. The longer you’re involved with your stepchildren and the more confident you become in your role the harder it is to embrace the fact that they aren’t “yours.”
You are going to feel all the things a parent feels and still have to take a backseat at times. I am a mom when the kids are in my house, but frequently I have to remind myself that I am not the mom. And that’s okay!
Their faces may light up more when they see mom’s car pull up. You may be told that “mommy does it this way.” Sometimes you may get overruled in a decision you feel strongly about. That is life as a stepparent and you have to find the strength to be okay with it. Children can love more than just their birth parents, but there is something beyond powerful about the love between a parent and their child and you have to allow that natural love to just be and avoid envying it (or you risk going crazy).
Happy thought: Being a parent is a tough job. Find some solace in the fact that you are not the sole caregiver. Feel the relief of knowing not all of the pressure of parenthood rests solely on your shoulders.
- A stepparent can be an outlier or a mediator. There are only two roles that a stepparent can comfortably fill in my opinion:
- The outsider – In this scenario you allow the biological parents to do the communicating and deciding.
- The mediator – You serve as a go between.
The reality of most two-home situations is that something doesn’t work between the procreators. If they were chummy and communicated great they would probably still be together and you wouldn’t be here.
So there’s really only two places for you to stand, on the outside or smack-dab in the middle. There’s no shame in either position and you may find that certain scenarios call for one or the other. By default, you are not one of the two power players here.
I personally, am a total mediator. I get along really well with my kids’ mom and I adore my husband and so I feel comfortable navigating situations I know are tricky for them (though they too have come a very long way in communicating with each other).
Why would I want them bickering over an issue I know I can handle smoothly? I have more compassion for each of them than they may be able to have for each other at certain times, so it’s only natural that I would be in the middle frequently.
Happy thought: You get to choose which role you will occupy and when. Sometimes for the good of the team, you may step into the mediator position. Other times, when the waters are looking dangerous, you can choose to step into the outlier role, support your partner and let the “grown ups” wrestle with the issue.
- Stepparenting is a support role, not the lead. This is a notion I’m only starting to embrace. As I mentioned, I am frequently the mediator, which is really fucking easy to mistake for the leader.
In an effort to unite the two sides and keep things rolling forward smoothly, it’s easy to start making the decisions or pushing an agenda.
As good as your intentions may be (and of course mine always are!) you can start to come off like bossy step-tator. In addition to the friction this may cause between you and the parents, it is also a role that can breed some resentment inside yourself.
No matter how noble your intent or how strong your love for the kids are, when you find yourself taking the lead there will be moments where you step back and say “Wait a minute, I didn’t make these kids, why does it feel like I’m the one in charge?”
Well that’s because you put yourself there…
For everyone’s sake, embrace the role of being there for support and don’t try to take charge over the whole crew.
Happy thought: Being a member of a very exclusive support team is wonderful. You can feel the joy of contributing to your kids’ lives without feeling solely in charge of the direction they are headed. Contributing to the development of successful kids is immensely gratifying and you don’t have to be front-and-center to feel that satisfaction.
- Friendship and trust with the other parent isn’t going to form overnight. I have an incredibly healthy and happy relationship with my kids’ mom. I can truly say she is my friend and more often than not, our bond feels closer to sisterhood.
We could both tell you without hesitation though that this is not the place we started.
We started where most “baby mamas” (that term is the fucking worst, but it’s the easiest descriptor) and the “new boo” (an equally disgusting term) do. More or less hating each other.
Not for any reason based in reality, but because by default an ex doesn’t like the new girlfriend and vice versa. Throw kids into the mix and you’re totally screwed.
And for years, we barely tolerated and only sort of acknowledged each other. Both big parts in raising the same children, but more or less passive (and sometimes aggressive) in how we felt about each other.
Slowly we went from a place where we were constantly trying to out-parent the other and got to a place of co-parenting. Looking back it was painfully slow. Small, seemingly insignificant gestures like smiling and making small talk turned into sharing time and being flexible with visits, turned into genuine love and affection for one another.
But it took time, and in the beginning, it took forcing something that wasn’t there yet.
Happy thought: The time and effort and humility it takes to forge this difficult (and doomed-from-the-start) relationship is beyond worth it and absolutely crucial to creating an environment your kids will actually thrive in. You don’t have to be compatible on all fronts, but your common ground being those kids is more than enough to ignite a genuine bond.
- Money will always be tricky. It’s tricky in a marriage. It’s difficult in a friendship. It tears apart family members. And yeah, it’s a big part of two-home families too. At a minimum, child support will be a factor and possibly spousal support. Then there’s everything from medical bills to baseball uniforms to college to weddings. Even beyond your kids hitting 18, there will be money involved.
It can be a big, ugly fat ass elephant that sits forever in your living room. It will likely never be something you feel warm and fuzzy about.
For this, I recommend two things for a two-family home:
- Make sure you have a fair and thorough legal agreement in place to cover as much of the expenses and financial responsibilities as possible.
- Over communicate. For stepparents and their spouse, be clear on finances and consider things like child support and childcare as another line in your household budget.
Lamenting the legal and natural obligations to cover child-related costs will only drive you crazy. As long as an agreeable legal document is in place, don’t fight over what has been decided between the birth parents.
Happy thought: There are multiple contributors to your household income. Your significant other and your stepkids’ parent are (hopefully) sharing financial responsibility of the kids and you are able to help contribute to your home as well, should you choose. You may find in some cases that three or four of you are helping financially support the kids rather than just the two parents of origin.
- Some things you just won’t like. Suck it up. There is no need to go into great detail on this. Though I have found a happy and healthy way to be a stepparent, there are days where I just don’t like how something was handled or how a decision was made.
Though there is a desire at times to step in when that occurs, I must delicately request that you simply shut up. I frequently tell myself to do the same.
Your spouse doesn’t want to hear every gripe you have. And you don’t want to live in and become consumed by every scenario that doesn’t go your way. So find whatever strategy you can to move on from circumstances that upset you and try not to stew for too long.
Happy thought: Learning to cope with disappointment and a lack of control is just a good life skill. Embrace these moments as learning opportunities and let them grow you as a person.
- Sometimes you will screw up and have to answer for it. Suck it up.
Yes, this is another reality that I’m asking you to face, suck it up and deal with. You will not do everything perfect because no parent does. The difference as a stepparent though is that you have someone there watching for when you do mess up.
And sometimes, they will call you out for it.
Even if you aren’t sure you’ve done something wrong, you may just have to apologize. Maybe you let your stepdaughter go out when she had a project due that you missed. Perhaps you simply overstepped your bounds and made the other parent feel slighted. There are going to be hundreds of situations that could either be a small blip or a major meltdown.
Decide to make them the former. Apologize and move on from situations that cause discomfort. Learn the things that make the other parent tick and do what you can to avoid setting off issues.
It’s okay to be a little diplomatic and give in to the fact that this isn’t your child to do with as you please.
Happy thought: Keeping the peace can be up to you. You can diffuse or inflate a situation. That in itself is a powerful place to be. You can choose peace over chaos, and trust me, you want a peaceful arrangement, even if it is pride-swallowing at times.
- You are a parent, and you aren’t. Regardless of how long you’ve stepparented people will say things like “wait until you have your own kids” or “when you actually become a mom” or “your biological kids…”
At first, this will bother you to no end. When your day-to-day life is that of a parent, it feels like a slight to have that brushed off. You want the points for the work you put in. You need the validation that what you are doing is far more than babysitting, but it is rarely other people who will give you this.
There needs to be an internal acceptance that you are in fact a parent and an external understanding that not everyone is going to get that. You are a parent in action, but because you haven’t created a life, you will often find you only get half points (if that) from those around you.
As long as you and your significant other can agree on what your role is, let the others who don’t live in your world all the time think what they will.
Happy thought: Usually with time, the need to slight your role as a stepparent lessens. Don’t expect to get a Mother’s/Father’s Day card in the first year you’re involved with the kids, but know that as you grow into the role, others will grow into accepting it.
- The other parent is the one who really gives you the role of parent. Though I would argue that priority number one is to receive the open door to parent from your partner, they aren’t really the ones who award you the right to parenthood.
Your significant other should give you the foundation for becoming a stepparent. However, the other parent, is the one who will make you feel as if you have been successful. Their acceptance and their embrace of your role happens because you’ve shown you are worth that title.
Your partner let’s you in because they love you. The other parent let’s you in because they love how you love their child.
Happy thought: You may have a particularly difficult scenario and feel as though the other parent will never give you kudos no matter what you do. People change though, and you have years of raising a child together. Though you may never get a flat out thanks or any overt signal of love, understand that trust is a big indicator of your success. If the other parent trusts you to pick up the kids or be present at parent teacher conferences or any other progression in your relationship that allows you more access to the kids, you’re doing just fine.
Stepparenting is hard, rewarding, frustrating, fascinating work. You’ll feel love and insecurity all at once, but know that what you do to help raise kids is as much about how the adults interact with each other as it is about the children. If you’re just embarking on the role of stepparent or struggling to come to terms with your place in the family, know that there are difficult truths you have to face in order to feel all the warm and fuzzies that can come with being a stepmom or stepdad.