As I was sifting through the multitudes of newsletters I wrote throughout the time period in which I still had my extensive stepfamily support site, I came across this one and thought that I'd share it with you today. Enjoy!
The other day as I was sitting in the booth of a Sydney radio station waiting for the sound that would let me know that I was connected to a radio station in Newcastle, where the first of the three interviews I was booked to do that morning was about to go to air, I wondered what the questions might be that the interviewer would ask me. It’s been interesting to observe throughout the numerous interviews I have done during the past 2 weeks in conjunction with the launch of my book, how differently the questioning was approached by those who either were stepparents themselves, had grown up in a stepfamily or had a close relationship with someone in a step-or blended family. One of the questions asked by almost everyone, however, is what suggestions I might have for new stepparents. Although I suspect that this isn’t new knowledge to you, it might be a good thing to be reminded, all the same.
Stepfamilies are rather complex “creatures”, and try as we may, we’ll never be able to turn them into the biological families we (perhaps) grew up in ourselves. So, save your energy for more useful things, for instance how to become more comfortable (and help the other members of the family be more comfortable) in the new family structure, how to “survive” interferences of your partner’s “ex” or your own “ex”, how to get along with your step kids, how to ensure that your biological kids aren’t short-changed…you get the idea?
So, what are things that can help new stepparents?
I think that the most important first step for new stepparents is to ruthlessly weed out their false expectations.
Some of these could be:
- The kids will love me.
- The kid’s presence won’t interfere with our romance.
- The ex-partner won’t be a problem.
- My partner will support me every step of the way.
- Discipline won’t be a problem in our home!
- We’ll just be one big happy family.
For easier reading I’ve used ‘his’ or ‘her’ indiscriminately and assure you that the issues raised equally apply to both male and female step-parents. Now, let’s look at these in a little more detail.
a. THE KIDS WILL LOVE ME – not likely!
They might accept you – grudgingly!
They might tolerate you – because if they don’t their biological parent might threaten to “rip off their heads”.
They might appreciate the fact that you are around – especially if you act as their “general dog’s body”.
If you are lucky, they might like you….and if you are super lucky, one day in the future, they may grow to love you!
FREQUENTLY, however, they initially see you as:
The “intruder” - the one who is responsible for changing everything in their lives.
The “interloper” - the one who takes their biological parent’s attention away from them.
A threat - the one who stands in the way of their biologial parents return to each-other.
The murderer of their treasured fantasy of a “happy ever after”.
It’s important to remember that your stepchildren have some huge hurdles to overcome. You’ve been thrust upon them and they probably weren’t asked whether they want you in their lives or not. Chances are they look at you with suspicious eyes, wondering:
‘Is it her fault that mum and dad split up’?
‘Is he going to take my mum’s love away?’
‘Is she going to say horrible things about mum?’
‘Will he want me around in their new home?’
‘Is she anything like the stepmother in the story of Cinderella, or one of those who’s got a whole heap of poisoned apples hidden away somewhere, as it happened with Snowhite?’
‘Is he going to change everything?’
‘Will she like me?’ etc etc.
His children may harbour many fears about your emergence into their lives. Once they begin to like you they may have even more struggles to contend with, because now they could well be caught in a painful loyalty conflict, for instance:
‘If I like him (the stepfather), my real dad will be so upset’.
‘If I enjoy my stepmum’s company, my mother will feel like she is second-best.’
‘If I show him any affection, he’ll think that I accept him as a dad substitute.’
These examples, of course, are just the tip of the iceberg, but I am sure you get the idea.
- Take it easy, take it slowly.
- Remember that your stepchildren have many obstacles to overcome.
- Remind yourself that your stepchildren might be caught in a painful loyalty conflict.
- Understand that they are very likely grieving their personal losses.
- Don’t take their reluctance, or what may look like their rejection, personally.
- Remain patient and kind, and whilst this can be awfully hard it WILL pay off in the end.
- YOU CANNOT EXPECT YOUR STEPCHILDREN TO LOVE YOU, BUT HOPEFULLY THEY’LL GROW TO ACCEPT, RESPECT AND LIKE YOU IN TIME.
b. THE KID’S PRESENCE WON’T INTERFERE WITH OUR ROMANCE – how wrong can you get??
When the kids are around they’ll make their presence felt for sure and the last thing on their agenda is to give you two any time alone together. If they are only weekend visitors, you might be able to manage by having your romantic dates and romance times of intimacy during the week. If they live with you permanently, you’ll have to be much more creative than that. If you enter stepfamily living with this knowledge, you won’t be quite as resentful the first time your little stepdaughter jumps all over the two of you on a Sunday morning and it’ll be much easier to bear if daddy, pleased as punch, snuggles up with his little girl whilst you, feeling a bit like the intruder, almost fall out the edge of the bed.
Especially in the beginning of your step-journey, it is wiser to confine your romantic notions to times when the stepchildren are not around. If they are around all the time (as in living with you permanently) it is best to create firm boundaries that will let them know right from the start that you need uninterrupted times together. These times and the way this is communicated, needs to be worked out between he two of you and must acceptable to you both, which may mean COMPROMISE.
- If you are a weekend stepparent, ensure that you have romantic dates and times during the week – this is IMPORTANT!!!
- If you are a full-time stepparent establish, together with your partner, agreeable and workable boundaries that ensure private time for romance – this is equally IMPORTANT.
- Insist on the occasional time away (without the children) and ensure that you manage a decent size holiday (without the children). Even if this is difficult to arrange, it is totally necessary to the survival of your relationship.
- IN STEP-SITUATIONS (as in all others actually) IT IS ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL TO MAKE TIME FOR INTIMACY AND ROMANCE.
c. THE EX-PARTNER WON’T BE A PROBLEM - yeah right!!
Well, I guess you could be one of the lucky ones where this is indeed the case. Experience, however, tells me that there aren’t too many such fortunate stepfamilies around. If the “ex” isn’t vitriolic, vindictive or downright hostile, she/he might have gone the other way. She could be so “friendly” that you find her on your door-step at every opportunity, asking you to “help out” by taking the kids whenever she isn’t up to dealing with them (or wants to have time to herself!!) or he could be overdoing it in the kids department – spoiling them in a way that you find quite inappropriate. Interference can come in may different packages.
Unfortunately the ex-partner has a lot of power and can, if he or she chooses, make your life a misery – that is, if you allow it. Reality is that they have a thousand ways to interfere with your attempts at making the new family ‘work’ and because there is no way that you can control this, it can cause you extreme frustration. Therefore it’s a good idea to determine from the start that, no matter what, you won’t let the ex-partner rattle you. This, however, requires good personal boundaries, a certain amount of maturity and someone who lets you blow off steam.
- Make your best effort to get along with the “ex”.
- If that’s a futile attempt, realize that they can only get to you if you let them.
- Realise that hostility, nastiness and resentment are games that lose half the fun if there is only one player.
- Be aware that negative emotions hurt the person who feels them much more than the person against whom these emotions are directed.
- Ensure that you have someone with whom you can safely let off steam if things get a little too hot for you. Your partner is only of limited use in this department, because he or she is too close to the situation to be objective.
- Remember that you cannot control anyone else’s actions, but you can control your response and reaction.
- THE EX-PARTNER WILL IN MOST CASES, WHETHER YOU LIKE IT OR NOT, BE A PART OF YOUR STEPFAMILY LIFE.