Step parenting – When blending a family turns into a particularly nasty episode of ‘Survivor’

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It’s hard enough being a parent but being a step or foster parent dangles a whole new set of hoops for you to jump through…and it can all become just too confusing.  Giving up can seem like the best option for a stepparent who has run out of solutions, but then… you discover a new level of pain when the shame of failure seems to drop onto your shoulders from a great height.

I read a sanity-saving book about parenting years ago (The Mother Dance) with the very wise Harriet Lerner offering assistance to stepparents that can help plant your feet right back on the ground.  I’ve jotted a few points here with the hope that it might bring some much needed relief into your blended family.  At the very least it might jumpstart some important discussions between you and your partner about re-booting your current (possibly ineffective) step parenting strategies.

Lerner says…

  • Being a stepparent is much, much harder than anyone imagines.  Even fairy tales reveal the deck is stacked against you as stepmothers and stepfathers are often depicted as evil.
  • The role of parent cannot be conveyed upon someone just because they marry a person with children.
  • Don’t expect you will feel absolute love for your stepchild ‘as if they were your own’ and don’t expect the child to feel instant love and gratitude toward you for becoming the new adult in the family.  These expectations are too heavy to sustain when compared with a history of parenting that has not included you.
  • Insisting the love your partner has for you (the stepparent) must exceed the love they have for their child is unfair, since, ‘the love and responsibility a parent feels toward a child can never be compared to what one feels for a partner’.  They are different types of love and both loves can co-exist in the blended family without being diminished by the other.

And the final big three…

  • Don’t assume your stepchildren are looking for another mother/father.  The child may not be looking for another parent at all.  It can be better if you aim to develop a ‘friendly relationship with them like an aunt, uncle or coach or special pal.’
  • Do challenge the proscribed gender roles, ie, who does the parenting and who earns the income.  It can be a real relief to allow the actual parent be in charge of their child for primary decision making, enforcing rules and ensuring that the stepparent be treated with courtesy and respect.  For example, it can feel like a trap for a new stepmother to have to take on this role just because she’s female – no matter how hard she wants to make it work (see previous point).  Even if she spends more actual time at home with the stepchildren, there is nothing to stop the biological father from maintaining his connection with the children and wearing the discipline hat.  Even if he’s working away from home in the evenings, he probably has access to a mobile phone and can communicate his requirements quite well if he has a mind to.  This can take a huge load off his new wife’s shoulders as she can instead enjoy a supporting role and step out of the wicked stepmother role.
  • Don’t push for closeness.  Lerner suggests you ‘Forget your well-intentioned plans to form one big happy family, family dinners and all.  It takes time.’ She quotes Monica McGoldrick: ‘If your stepkids are young, or if you’re very lucky, you may develop a parent-like relationship over time, if you do work out an emotionally close relationship with your stepchildren, that’s wonderful, but it’s an extra – not a given and not something to be expected.  All that should be expected is that stepparents and stepchildren treat each other with curtesy, decency and respect.  It’s the parent (not the stepparent) who has the primary responsibility to see that this particular expectation is enforced.’

This summary is from the chapter in The Mother Dance: ‘What Stepmothers are Stepping Into’.  It is obvious from the title that it’s written to mothers (and Lerner helpfully includes a blended family with two mums as one of her examples), however I believe this information can assist stressed stepfathers as well.

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