While most of the time, I write articles with general guidelines or steps to success, I’m not going to write one now. I simply want to give a shout-out to all of the step-parents out there. Step-parenting is hard. It complicates your life in ways that parenting doesn’t quite reach all by itself. First of all – you’ve chosen these children. They weren’t ‘earned’ so-to-speak, and they don’t match your genetic code. Step-mothers didn’t carry the child for nine months while it was figuring out where its arms belonged, and tested the strength of its legs against the strength of her bladder. Step-parents weren’t there when the kids came into this world – with all the joy and complications that went with it. As such, step-parents have a sort of inherent detachment that makes the connection with the step-kids that much more difficult, but also a lot stronger. None of this happened by accident, and none of it was ‘given’ to you. You chose this life, this family for what it was. As a step-parent, you have looked at your spouse, looked at the children and said, “all in”.
Kids are complicated all by themselves. From the day a child is born, it is up to the people around that child to teach him or her how to grow up into a fully functional adult. No parent does it perfectly, and every kid has to learn many lessons the hard way. As a step-parent, you don’t necessarily get the luxury of being with the kid from the beginning of its worldly lesson. There are bits and pieces of the world that the kid has already learned, and step-parents have no concept of how or why they know it, and what it took to learn that lesson. Finding a way into the child’s world without breaking everything they know about the universe is a delicate dance. You can’t replace their *real* parents, so you dance your way into your own special role with the kid. One that respects the relationships the kid has built so far, but opens the door to new relationships and bonds; all the while trying to teach them valuable lessons about life, love, and the world around them.
The level of difficulty that step-parents run into changes as the children age. While younger kids tend to understand that there is enough love to go around, teenagers quickly learn the easiest ‘out’ they can get. The fact that the ‘step’ is not the *real* parent. Loophole! or not… (I distinctly remember certain events between my step-mother and I that were very hard on both of us, and I am grateful to be almost a decade past those moments; but I definitely fear the Karma Train that is coming as I look at my step-kids getting older every time I see them.)
In addition to that, there are certain financial decisions that are made that the step-parent gets absolutely no vote on. Do the kids need to go to Private School? Summer Camp? Break out the checkbook! Kids cost money, and step-parents live with a line-item on their family budget that they have very little control over. (Child Support and Alimony notwithstanding) How many people do you know that would give up some of their fun money for kids that aren’t theirs? Step-parents do it every day.
Kids are complicated, but post-divorce relationships are even more complicated. Signing up to be a second-spouse adds a level of complexity to marriage that can only be calculated with a multiplier. Need to balance holiday schedules with your family and your in-laws? Try including the ex-family-in-law. Need to take pictures at graduation? Get in line. Got a birthday party planned for the kid? I hope it’s better than their mother’s… hers had a bouncy castle, and maybe even a pony! As each biological parent learns to cope with the new dynamic of another parent in their children’s lives, the human nature of competition springs into high gear. There are probably billions of studies about why this is terrible for the children, but face it – parents are human. The status quo was shattered into a billion pieces during the divorce, and then the *new* status quo is damaged again with the entrance of ‘The Competition’. People don’t like change; and parents will do everything in their power to protect their children from a perceived threat… whether that threat is valid or not, or whether the protection they are giving is good or not. Instincts and human emotions are a difficult pair to break, especially when it comes to the threat of diminished love and adoration from one’s offspring.
I think that my husband, his ex-wife, and I have found our balance. We each have things that we’re good at as parents, and so we focus on the things we’re good at, and let the other two parents pick up where we may be weaker. For example, in our situation, it’s the Mother’s job to make sure that the children feel loved, adored, and special. It’s the Dad’s job to make sure the kids are clothed, fed, educated, and safe. As the Step-mother, I am in charge of making sure that the children grow up to be fully functional adults that will someday marry and have children of their own. Obviously, we’ve got a Venn Diagram of parenting skills, and I’m fairly certain we’ve got a really good balance for the kids. It’s taken a lot of time and patience, and I’m personally proud of what we’ve been able to do together, but it certainly wasn’t easy to get there. It took a lot of hard work, patience, and personal growth for all three of us to get where we are – and I think the kids are happier now that we’ve figured it out.
Step-parents come into a relationship knowing that at best, they will come in 2nd place. Their spouse’s #1 will always be the children, no question – and sometimes, even the feelings of the ex will need to be more important than the feelings of the new spouse. As such, it takes a special breed to knowingly come into a situation where you will never be the most important thing in your spouse’s life. Step-parents know it, acknowledge it, and put all their chips on the table. That deserves some adoration and respect. So if you’re in your second marriage, and your new spouse is helping the kids with their homework, or washing your kids’ clothes or dishes – go give them a hug and tell them that you appreciate everything they do for you and your kids.
About the Author: Abby Dryer's goal in life is to bridge the communication gap between men and women. She finds herself giving lots of marital advice to her guy friends whose wives don’t want to have to explain *everything* to their husbands. “Women are hard to understand. I’m a woman, and *I* don’t even get us sometimes! Goodhusbanding is a great guide to help men understand their women, and hopefully communicate with a little more confidence, because that’s what works… communication!”