WRITTEN BY FAYE MACKAY (GUEST WRITER)
All too often a step parent, particularly step mums, are painted as the evil ones. For lots of us, myself included, the idea is planted early in childhood and I remember, even as a five year old being scared shitless of “the wicked stepmother”. I would watch Snow White and Cinderella over and over again, not realising at the time that the villainous characters of both films would have a loose connection to the circumstances of my future. There were certainly many more examples that followed as I grew up, that only reinforced the mindset that us stepparents are homewreckers – immoral people with nothing but disdain for their inherited children. And, while there has been a notable shift and popular culture seems to be making moves to balance out this line of thinking – where does that leave us? Are we really a group of people serving as barriers to otherwise biologically connected, harmonious families? In the main, absolutely not. But if not that, then what are we?
WHAT IS A STEP PARENT?
After a fair bit of research on the topic, the answer isn’t a simple one. Especially as, in my mind the question should really be “what is the role of a stepparent”. Realistically, when you commit to a partner that already has children, you’re accepting their place in your life. If you can’t do that, then my advice to you would be to bow out gracefully.
Naturally, the needs of each family, blended or not, are completely unique. No two are the same – how dull would life be if they were?? Consequently, the type of involvement that each stepparent has differs massively across the board. For the purposes of this piece, I’m going to assume (and I realise that this is by no means the case consistently), that there are two able and willing biological parents in the picture, that have chosen to separate for their own reasons. That there is a communicative relationship, strained as it may be, between them and the children spend time with both sides.
However you cut it, from the off you’re likely to be entering into a less than harmonious situation. When I first met Mark, he was still reeling from the demise of his marriage, despite it happening some time beforehand. It took many more months for him to fully come to terms with what had happened, and even longer to process the impact that it could have on his son. The purpose of this is not to cover your responsibilities as a partner, but needless to say that it was not plain sailing emotionally.
Meeting the children is a huge step. No matter how used you are to having kids around – we’re talking a milestone level event here. With any luck, it will have been pre-empted by a conversation with your partner around expectations of the stepparent role, what it means for both of you and complete honesty about your feelings around it, apprehension and all. Mark and I completely missed this useful little powwow, and merrily danced into it blind. As it turned out later on, our ideas on how our situation should work were completely mismatched. Having had stepparents from an early stage in life myself, my thoughts were based on the experiences I’d had growing up. Meanwhile, Mark had his own ideas based on… well, I’m not sure really. As an adult, I still struggle to navigate the murky waters of being a stepchild. The very nature of the parenting puzzle that blended families create can be fraught with emotional tension and conflicting opinions, that the children can end up being caught in the middle of if not managed carefully. If it’s a minefield for an adult woman, I can only imagine how it may feel for a very young child.
I had no idea what to expect when I met Henry. My almost complete lack of exposure to young children had done little to prepare me for the tiny head that appeared, peeping out from behind Mark’s legs as they opened the front door on the big day. Every hour that we have spent together since has been a learning curve.
First lesson – you are not a replacement for their biological parent.
This was, without doubt, the hardest part for me to get my head around. I’m not their parent, but I do need to align and enforce their biological parents’ approach to discipline, parenting style etc. Bit of a sticky wicket if you don’t happen to agree with how those things are being applied. We’ve been there more than once and it has ended in some almighty behind-closed-door eruptions. Slight side-step, but if this happens to you, keep talking to your partner. In the end we found that there’s always a middle ground, though it might pain you to compromise on what’s happening under your own roof.
As much as you aren’t their Mum or Dad, neither are you their friend. However your relationship as a step parent, with your stepchildren is comprised, you are still an example to them and they will absorb more of you and how you move through life than you realise.
Naturally there’s likely to be emotional fallout from the separation, divorce or death of a parent, and the age of the children will have an impact on the type of reaction that you get. For us, it was A LOT of tantrums, or at least seemed to be. Henry was three and at the age where mind-bending meltdowns are part for the course, so it was pretty hard to distinguish between what was normal for his age and what could have been a reaction to suddenly having two homes and then another person, i.e. me, being added to the mix. My attempts to cuddle him through the outbursts were rebuffed, and looking back, I was a bit daft to expect anything different. His safety net was his family, and even months after our meeting I was still pretty much a stranger. The odd day every other weekend isn’t enough time to become a trusted person in a child’s life and I really wish that I’d clocked that earlier, rather than giving myself an internal bashing every time he squirmed away from me. Eventually I gave in, and Mark took the lead in comforting him on tearful days and disciplining him through the tantrums. That was much more effective and mine and Henry’s relationship developed, but in a different way alongside Mark’s support.
In the absence of being a parent or a friend, we’re running a bit low on options. A step parent is defined as being the “spouse of someone’s parent”, but it is a lot more than that in reality and having written this, I’m not sure that it’s easily defined. It is whatever feels comfortable for the family, and even that may take time to show itself fully. Research suggests that it can take up to three years for a blended family dynamic to settle, with the first year being the hardest. Patience is your friend, and accepting that the child might not warm to you immediately is another. In fact you may never form a close bond, and that’s ok too – not everyone in life gets on, and, if you remove the layer of expectation, this is no different.
Give it time, but don’t lose yourself to the cause. The success of your new family is not completely on your shoulders. It is the responsibility of all parents as a collective, biological or not.
We hope you enjoyed Faye’s post on being a step parent, Faye also wrote a post all about being part of a blended family.