Monday, July 26, 2010

Like It Or Not, Stepfamilies ARE Different!

The other day whilst speaking to a new step-parent I realised, 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 realisation that your stepfamily cannot ever be like a nuclear family, the faster you’ll be able to get on with creating a new, and equally valid – BUT DIFFERENT - family structure.

Have you ever been subjected to statements like?:

§ “Don’t worry about your partner’s kids, soon enough it’ll just feel like they are your own!”

§ “So what if he has kids. I bet it’ll make no difference to you. After all you really love each other!”

§ “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. Although they are usually made in an attempt to help you feel more comfortable about making the difficult and life-changing decision of whether you should or should not partner with the person with whom you are in love and who happens to already have children, they are clearly uttered by someone who has no understanding of the reality of step-parenting. These kinds of statements, well-meaning they may be, can really be quite dangerous as they have the potential to fill you with unrealistic and unhelpful expectations.

So, why is it that a stepfamily cannot be like a nuclear one?

Nuclear families start out with two individuals – a couple with hopes, dreams, expectations, ideals and visions for their future. The only person that has to really be considered in this relationship is your partner. Stepfamilies, however, include more than the couple from the very beginning as there is always at least one child involved in the equation. Whether this child is a permanent member of your household or not, his or her existence prevents you from striding 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 a number of stepchildren. This reality creates the following challenges:

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 number of relatives who are not related to you.

e. Your stepchild may have been raised in an environment that embraced different values and beliefs to the ones that are dear to you.

f. If you decide to have a child with your partner, it will never your partner’s first child.

In this post, we’ll take a look at the first three challenges and tackle at the last three in the next one. Okay, let’s get started….

a. Your stepchild only has blood-ties with your partner:

Whilst many stepparents like - and in time sometimes even grow to love - their stepchildren, their feelings towards them are different to the feelings they have towards their biological child. Why is this so?

Pregnancy and birth usually are very strong bonding agents that connect mother and child in a powerful way. Although dad doesn't get to experience the unborn baby in quite the same way as does his partner, they often bond just as strongly. Nurturing a tiny infant who is 100% dependent on you awakens a protective instinct that you never knew you had. Sharing your baby’s first smile, first words, first steps all ensure that your connection with your child is deepened. Naturally these aren’t experiences you have with your stepchild. Usually your stepchild comes to you at a much later stage when he or she is usually no longer helpless or cute. In fact, more often than not, by the time your partner’s child gets to meet you they will have lived through their parent’s divorce or separation experience which could have been very traumatic for them. Thus by the time they meet you they may feel confused, unsettled, suspicious and unsure as to where exactly you might ‘fit in’ to the picture. Although you may be totally committed to doing the best you can for your partner’s child, if he or she isn’t a willing recipient of your goodwill attempts, your intentions may receive quite a battering. The 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, produce its own 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 journey you have begun.

In the best of circumstances where your partner and his ex are on reasonable terms and whose actions are motivated and guided by being in the best interest of their child, your chances of co-parenting, enjoying their visits, 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 left-over feelings of hostility, jealousy or anger 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 their 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.

c. Stepfamilies come about as a consequence of loss:

Stepfamilies are created after a person has lost their first partner to death or through separation/divorce. Either situation brings in its wake an enormous sense of loss and grief. The person who has had this experience will need to come to terms with their loss of relationship, expectations, future hopes, plans and dreams. Their child will have to come to terms with the loss of a parent, the world as he or she knew it and often their sense of security. Frequently their losses include their childhood home, familiar neighbourhood, their school and local friends. Their experience of loss makes for heavy emotional baggage and grieving can take a long time. Unless you are aware of this reality, you may be confused, unprepared and totally bewildered by your stepfamily member’s emotions and behaviours.

So, what’s the remedy?

Here are some helpful hints:

a. Befriend your stepchildren gently and slowly.

Remember that having no blood ties means that you need to find other ways of connecting with your stepchildren. Spend time with them. Show a sincere interest in what is important to them. Do things with them that THEY enjoy doing. Help them feel liked, acknowledged and accepted. Let them know that you are for them, not against them. Remember that, even though all of these suggestions may be really difficult to adopt, your stepchildren will appreciate them. They will also make your step-journey easier as you are laying the foundation for a future friendship with them…and this will be rewarding for all of you!

b. Realise that your partner’s ex likely struggles as much with your presence in his or her life as you struggle with her presence in yours.

Your partner’s ex may be terrified of losing her children to you! Help your partner’s ex know that you are not trying to replace them in their children’s lives. Remember that it’s the children who suffer most if you cannot connect with the ex on some level. Your life is likely to be much more peaceful if you “bury the axe” with your partner’s ex.

c. Keep your door open to your step-relatives.

Show your step-relatives that you want to welcome them in your life. Befriend them if you can. Be aware that they may be struggling with loyalty conflicts and/or that they may be wary of you. Don’t expect them to take sides. Encourage your stepchild’s relationship with them. Let them help you out by babysitting, taking the kids for the weekend etc.and be sure to really express your appreciation!

Having made these suggestions let me say that I am very aware that in step-parenting, as in all relationships, it takes two to tango … and that many times you may find yourself attempting to tango on your own. If this is true for you, do not let it deter you in your attempts to make your own life and the lives of your stepfamily members as peaceful and as happy as you can. If the other party refuses to tango, just remember that you cannot control what they will or will not do, but you can control how YOU will or will not respond to this!

© Sonja Ridden - originally created in 2004

Sonja Ridden is a counsellor and relationship coach. She is the stepmother of two, author of “Hell…p! I’m A Stepmother” and a number of other stepfamily related publications. For more information on Sonja's services go to

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