The other day whilst I was speaking to a new step-parent I realized, yet again, the trap false expectations represent in the lives of stepfamilies. Expecting your stepfamily to function like a nuclear one (as so many new step-parents do) is an expectation doomed to certain failure. The quicker you come to terms with the realization that your stepfamily cannot ever be like a nuclear one, the faster you’ll be able to get on with creating a new (and equally valid) family structure. So, why do we fall into this trap?
It could be that you’ve been subjected to statements like:
- “Don’t worry about his/her kids, soon enough it’ll just feel like they are your own”,
- “So what if he/she has kids, they’ll hardly be around, you’ll barely notice them.”
- “As soon as you have your own baby, it’ll be like one big happy family and no-one will ever know the difference.”
Statements such as these are usually made by well-meaning relatives or friends. Whilst they may be designed to help you feel more comfortable about making a (difficult) decision, they are clearly uttered by someone who has no understanding of the reality of step-parenting. Unfortunately this type of statement also has the potential to fill you with some very unrealistic expectations.
So, why is it that a stepfamily cannot be like a nuclear one?
BECAUSE nuclear families start out with two individuals – a couple with hopes, dreams, expectations, ideas and visions for their future. The only person that has to be considered in this relationship is the partner. Stepfamilies, however, from the very start are made up of more than just the couple – there is always at least one child involved in the equation. Whether this child is a permanent member of your household or not, you cannot forge into the future unencumbered. Your decisions, dreams and plans have to incorporate one or a number of extra bodies. So, stepfamilies, unlike nuclear families have one thing in common – one or any number of stepchild/ren. This reality creates the following issues:
a. Your stepchild only has blood ties with your partner
b. Unless your stepchild’s biological parent is deceased or permanently absent, the parenting job has to be shared with your partner’s ex.
c. Stepfamilies come about as a consequence of loss.
d. You stepchild has a any number of relatives who are not related to you.
e. Your stepchild may have different values and beliefs.
f. If you decide to have a biological child with your partner, this child will never be your partner’s 1st child.
Let’s have a look at these (which are only a sprinkling of the whole ‘kit and caboodle’) in a little more detail.
a. Your stepchild only has blood-ties with your partner:
Whilst many stepparents grow to like, appreciate and even love their stepchildren over time, the feelings they have for their stepchild are quite different to those they have towards their biological child. Why is this so?
Pregnancy and birth are (usually) very strong bonding experiences that connect mother and child in a powerful way. Nurturing a tiny infant who is 100% dependent on you calls to life a protective instinct that you never knew you had. Sharing your baby’s first smile, first word, first steps all ensure that your connection with your child is deepened. Naturally these are not the experiences you have with your stepchild. Usually your stepchild comes to you at a much later stage, no longer helpless, cute, pliable…in fact more often than not they are confused, unsettled, miserable and unsure as to what to make of you – the step-parent. Although you may be totally committed to doing the best you can for your stepchild, if the child isn’t a willing recipient your good-will may receive quite a battering. Reality is that you do not have blood ties with this child whereas you partner does. Whilst connecting with your biological child is automatic, creating connection with your stepchild can be hard work.
b. The parenting job has to be shared with the ex-partner:
This can (and often does) bring its on set of problems. If you are not prepared for this reality, you will be in for a rude shock the first day your stepchild lands on your doorstep, sleep-over bag in hand.
In stepfamilies, stepchildren are part and parcel of the life on which you have embarked.
In the best of circumstances, where your partner and his/her ex are on reasonable terms and whose actions are motivated by their child’s well-being your chances of co-parenting, enjoying access visits, access holidays or any time you spend with your stepchild are greatly increased.
If the partner’s ex has not come to terms with the state of affairs, has any feelings of hostility, anger, jealousy etc, chances are that your stepchild will be caught in a double bind. Even if he or she may wish to connect with you and allows you into his/her life, they will be plagued by intolerable loyalty conflicts. “If I like my step mum, my real mum will never forgive me” or “if I connect with Bob (step dad), my real dad might think I don’t love him any more”. Under such circumstances sharing the parenting job, can be very difficult and trying in the extreme.
Please tune in next week for the rest of this article.