“Holy crap! Three kids – you’re becoming an Insta-Mom!”
The refrain above was often the response to announcements about my engagement to my now-husband. As a person without any children of my own, most people were surprised that I would be marrying someone with three kids. I love kids, but had not had the opportunity in my life to have my own. Being a stepkid, I also knew that the introduction to stepparents can be a difficult time for kids.
Beginning a relationship with a person with children means taking on more than one relationship at a time. At the beginning, it can feel like something to address far into the future. After all, you are newly in love. Yes, you may need to work around time your new love has their kids, but it’s totally worth it. As your relationship gets more serious, questions begin to arise, both in your own mind and from others. “What is my role?” or “Where are the boundaries?”
Below is a list of questions that you can work through as you begin to think about and define expectations for yourself. Some of these are things I discussed with my partner as we planned our engagement and I was spending more time with the kids. Others came up later and required some examination on my part.
No matter where you are in this journey, remember, the only role you have to fill is the one defined by you, your partner, and your stepkids. The questions below are meant to act as a jumping off point in a journey that you will spend the rest of your life defining and revisiting. One of the best ways I know of to reduce drama is to be pro-active, talk about expectations and get aligned before a crisis hits.
In my case, the first crisis on my own was my then 9-year-old Oldest StepDaughter (OSD) deciding to test all the boundaries by refusing to eat the dinner I prepared, refusing to do the things I asked her to do as an alternative (go to her room), and then trying to get her dad on her side when he got home. Luckily, my Dear Husband (DH) and I had talked about many of the things below, and so what I didn’t have to do that night was worry that he wouldn’t agree with my approach or decisions. When he got home, he listened to OSD’s story, and with great empathy reminded her of my role when he wasn’t there – essentially backing me up. OSD agreed at that point that she was aware of those rules. Things were handled calmly on my DH and my side, and we were a united front, which is crucial.
So – here is the list, with some additional prompts after each:
• Are you a bio-parent?
In my case, I was not, which meant the learning curve was steep, and I had never really thought about my role as a parental figure in anyone’s life.
• What is your partner’s custody agreement?
It is helpful to think about how much time you will be spending with the kids. Take into account sporting events, choir concerts, or other extra-curricular activities you may attend. Understanding the amount of time you’ll be spending with the kids will help you better understand and be ready for the fact that building a relationship takes time – especially on an every other weekend or every other week schedule.
• How old are the kids?
Little ones (under 5 years old) will definitely have a different response to you in their life than bigger kids, tweens, teens, and adult children.
• What is your partner’s relationship with their kids?
Spending time with your partner and understanding their parenting style can be useful for a couple of reasons. One, you will see how their parenting aligns with their values. Also, you will be able to see how their parenting style differs from yours – in which case your parenting styles will complement each other! You just need to talk about it. One thing to be aware of though – you likely aren’t going to change your partners’ parenting style, so make sure you are comfortable with it. You may influence it, but changing it is a big ask, and may be confusing to the kids. There are plenty more to say on this, but this is just to get you started.
• What do you see your role as being?
Think about all of the parental figures in your life: parents, aunts & uncles, grandparents, and others. How did they support you and help you feel loved as a kid? It’s important to understand this, especially headed into the next question.
• What role does your partner see you playing?
Here is where it helps to have defined, on paper or in your mind, your role. You and your partner can see where your expectations differ. It is a lot easier to do this before you have to, even if it feels awkward!! One area that partners must agree on is discipline – who will do it, how will they do it, and what requires it. There are a lot of great posts out there on that subject, so I’m not going to tackle that here and now. But being aligned on their expectations will help boost your confidence too. And chances are, even if they haven’t thought about it specifically, there are expectations built in. You just need to uncover them and talk about them.
• Do your partner and their ex co-parent together now?
Co-parenting occurs on a spectrum, just like stepparenting and parenting. The right situation for them is one upon which they both agree to the terms (either through a formal custody agreement or their own personal relationship). As you begin to think about parenting their kids, ask yourself if you want to join the co-parenting relationship they have, or if you plan on just co-parenting with your partner. Do you plan on communicating with the biological parent and potentially another stepparent? I’m not going to include a lot of additional questions on this one, because once you get an idea, it is best to talk it over with your partner too.
As I said above, preparation can be the key to reducing tension and conflict later in your relationship. While not easy, beginning a parenting journey with a baby means that the baby can’t understand what you’re talking about during calibration or alignment discussions. But with a stepchild that is 6, 10, 14 or beyond, you don’t have that luxury. Spending time thinking and talking about it can reap huge benefits in the heat of the moment.
The questions above are based on my experience – so what am I missing? What questions were important for you to ask yourself (or others) when defining your stepparent role?
In my next blog, I’ll talk a bit about my choices and how I am defining my role.