Most stepparenting advice is a crock of shit. It really is. I’m not even sure who most of this stuff is written for, but not us mere mortals. So after the weekend we had, which wasn’t a bad one, but definitely made me feel like we’d leveled up a little in the stepfamily game, I present to you, a few things I wish somebody had told me before I began.
Oh, and of course the disclaimer, this applies to stepmoms and stepdads equally, and regardless of custody and visitation arrangements. I am not here for that battle of the sexes thing. This is inclusive bullshit, and we’re all handling it together.
- Your partner produced a child (or several) with an idiot at one point, and you’re going to be the one to deal with that.Sounds blunt. Is blunt. Yes, I know there are a few cases of people who get along with their partner’s ex. I am so happy for those people, and I really wish that were my life. Unfortunately, I have this weird situation where this person spent years antagonizing me, but has now settled into this place where she low-key hates me, hasn’t spoken to me in several years, yet occasionally extends really misguided olive branches like signing me up for the PTA at her kid’s school (which isn’t my kids’ school) without my consent. Yeah, it’s odd.
Anyway, this person couldn’t be more different from me. She was raised upper middle class in California, talks like a valley girl, laughs when her kid disrespects her to her face, and is the most permissive parent I’ve ever seen. Meanwhile, I had what might have been considered a progressive upbringing in the deep south in that I got my ass beat a lot less than other kids, but I’m still from the deep south. I’m an authoritative parent, a career mom who doesn’t have time for bullshit and has been doing this, often alone, since I was barely a legal adult. I have lots of kids, and I’ve been completely exhausted for as long as I can remember. I’ve been through too many IEP meetings to count, and passed so many hand-me-downs it’s probably some kind of record, and any phase a kid can go through, I’ve survived three times. I have no patience for her permissive parenting and I have often lamented to my partner that his ex-wife’s parenting style should become a book titled, “How to Kick Your Own Ass Using Just One Small Child”.
Anyway, as you might imagine, this was cause for some major adjustments at first, and it’s ongoing as she parents in a way that I consider completely haphazard and lazy, and I do what she considers abusive things, like making my kids eat what they’re served at dinner, and not making her kid a different meal when he declares what he’s served “yucky” without even trying it (for what it’s worth, he’s come to like previously “yucky” things when he was pushed to try them). It’s great.
Did you really think I wouldn’t tell you my partner’s side of this? I’m not the only one dealing with this in our household. My partner is amazing with money, absolutely brilliant. You could give this man an income of $20k and he’ll end up in a mansion taking two vacations a year somehow. That’s how good at money he is. Anyway, my ex is the opposite. He’s always had a good income and never had anything to show for it. Since he pays child support for our kids, this means that we’ve dealt with the fact that he’s actually stopped paying it for several months on a few occasions, just out of nowhere. Of course everyone rightly points out that the kids suffer when that happens, but you know who else suffers? The adults, including the one who never married the person causing the hardship. My financial guru of a partner deals with the ramifications that my kids’ father is the type of person who has been known to spend hundreds of dollars a month on junk food at gas stations. Let’s be honest. It’s not fair. He’s had to cover a lot of things and make accommodations like taking my kids after school so that we’re less dependent on those child support payments which could stop at any moment. My ex and my partner aren’t as drastically different in parenting styles as his ex and me, but their money management styles are opposite, and that does cause difficulty.
My advice in this is to focus on the present, and the part of it that you can do something with. The fact that your partner spent, in our cases, a decade in a relationship with That Asshole, is just not a pleasant thing to have in your mind, and I wrote out a whole paragraph about how my partner’s ex-wife reminds me of the mean girls in high school whose popularity was a mystery to those of us who spent more time on science and math than hair and makeup, but the details don’t matter. The fact is, we do not have to understand why they ended up having a kid with that person. It probably wasn’t just a drunken mistake in most cases. It was probably planned. Don’t attempt to minimize it or explain it away. That’s unproductive. Just do yourself a favor and put the entire thing out of your mind and just live in the present. Your partner should afford you that chance. That person is just a coworker you have in the job of raising these kids to adulthood, preferably without creating massive assholes in the process.
- You don’t have control of things that you would in a nuclear family, and this is a lot harder than it sounds.
The first summer that my ex took the kids, my partner and I moved in together. My ex planned to keep the kids all summer, and since we’ve always had a nice cooperative arrangement and get along reasonably well, no dates were established (this was my first mistake). I told him I’d let him know when school started and to have them back to me by then. He had always taken them any time school was out, so I had no reason to believe this would be any different. A month later, I got a phone call. His new girlfriend wanted to go on a vacation, and he was dropping the kids off to me a month earlier than anticipated. This left me two weeks to find childcare during a time of year it is at its highest demand and highest prices, figure out how to afford it, and get our new apartment ready for the kids. My partner’s response was what anybody’s would be. “Say no. That’s ridiculous. He can’t drop them off that soon. We aren’t ready.” I tried to negotiate with my ex, but he was bringing the kids, and neither of us could do anything about it. Obviously, although it wasn’t ideal for either of us, this was a lot more workable for me than for my partner. They were my kids. He had to get used to not only living with a couple of stepkids, but doing that weeks before we were ready. Under no other circumstances in the entire world would a person just end up with some kids not related to them dropped in their lap on a date they did not approve of that happening, but when you’re a stepparent, that happens a lot.
Actually, it happened again this year. My ex was supposed to take the kids for Thanksgiving. He decided he isn’t doing that anymore. My partner will be the one staying home with my kids while they’re on break from school, so he was directly affected by that, actually moreso than I am because I will be at work for at least a couple days that week.
Similarly, from my end, every custody and visitation agreement pertaining to my stepson has been made without my input, and in some cases, has included things I have not been happy with at all. It isn’t my partner’s fault. Since these things have always been solved in mediation in this case, the mediator has had the authority to exclude outside influence. Considering we have nearly equal custody, anything related to the scheduling affects me a lot, yet, I don’t get a seat at the table when it’s decided, because I am the stepparent, and that’s how this goes. “This kid is going to spend about half his life in your house for the next 13 years, but you don’t get a vote on how that happens. Why would you? You’re not the parent.” Sounds awesome, right?
If you wonder the sort of thing I’m talking about, here’s an example. The visitation schedule in the summer is week on, week off. The exchanges happen on Sundays. So basically, we never have a kidfree weekend all summer long, except the one time that she takes him for two weeks straight. This seems like no big deal until you consider that, of the three parents in this situation, I’m the only one who works a standard 8-5, M-F schedule, and cannot take time off as needed without spending leave days. What this means is that my partner and I going away on little trips throughout the summer will require me to spend leave days at work because we don’t have a full weekend to just go do something. If I’d been allowed a seat at the table, I would have asked that the exchange day be Monday. This is something that didn’t occur to my partner or his ex-wife because they’re both self-employed and can work their schedules any way. I needed a seat at the table for that discussion, and I didn’t have one.
Then there are the more day to day things, like illness. You wouldn’t have the neighbor kid over while they’re infected with conjunctivitis, influenza, ebola, or zika, but you will have your stepkid over exactly like that if that’s what the schedule says. You will be completely grossed out. You might end up sick. Your kids might end up sick. You could end up with doctor bills. You will probably waste leave days at work. But you’ll do it, because that is what the schedule says, and if you’re anything like us, that schedule is gospel. My partner once caught such a bad upper respiratory infection from my youngest that he ended up on steroids and antibiotics for it. In his line of work, he has to speak well, so coughing for a month of his life was a big deal. Additionally, just last week, my stepson was sent to our house with pinworms. His mother did not feel the need to treat him before sending him over. That was also a fun day in our lives.
So what does a stepparent do about this? First of all, realize that all this is new to you even if you’ve been a parent for a long time like I have. When it comes to blended family stuff, you’re a rookie. Read books. Listen to podcasts. Talk things to death. Before there’s a mediation that you’re not invited to, tell your partner what’s important to you. If you want weekends free in the summer, tell them! If you want certain dates kidfree, tell them! The worst they can do is disagree with you, and that doesn’t make it any worse because you weren’t going to be able to pose this in negotiations anyway. Talk about everything. No “what if” is too stupid to bring up, even if it seems like it is. Also, when your partner brings up things, don’t knee jerk react and shut them down. They have their reasons for their concerns, and you’re the only voice they have in this process.
Everyone has different priorities which usually have to do with how we came to parenting, and our history with it. My partner and I have very different priorities. I’ve been a parent for my entire adult life, and in survival mode for much of it. I desperately need a break. My partner was in his late 40’s before he even had kids, and has been doing this for just over the half decade mark. He finds it fun and exciting. He wants his son around as much as humanly possible. He refers to vacation as the times his son is with us. I refer to it as the times all our kids are away. It isn’t that he loves his son more than I love my kids. It’s that we are coming at this from very different perspectives. Maybe consider where each of you is coming from when discussing these things in advance. It helps in choosing wording and tone, and also finding a compromise that will accommodate some of both of your priorities. Also, our families have a billion moving parts. Figure out what they all are (write it down, even) before agreeing to anything, and the bio-parent can negotiate from a place of making it all mesh together. You, stepparent, won’t have a seat at the table, so you have to show your partner how to represent you, and before you can do that, you have to know what you even want, within the framework of what’s realistic to expect. Figuring that out is the hardest part.
- You and me, baby, ain’t nothing but mammals, and that makes stepparenting really hard.
Fundamentalist religious leaders love to tell us how divorce and single parenting go against god’s plan, but whatever a person’s thoughts on that, it’s pretty damned indisputable that blended families fly in the face of what we evolved to do. At our core, we’re animals. We want to perpetuate our own lineage. We want our offspring to have the most resources. We get nothing out of devoting resources to somebody else’s offspring. Even in the few societies worldwide where it appears parenting is more shared among the villagers, creating sort of a communal blended family dynamic, it’s often found those villagers are closely related, so people aren’t helping raise their unrelated neighbor’s kids. They’re helping raise their sister’s kids, or their aunt’s kids. There is still a genetic link. In blended families, that doesn’t exist. We’re just as related to our stepkids as we are to the kids down the street. How would it go if we were just told that we have to raise them now?
The real mindfuck of it all is that modern society shouts at you from all angles, “You better love that kid like your own or you’re a horrible monster!” without any acknowledgement of the fact that you’re fighting hundreds of thousands of years of evolution just to make yourself even care for this child, and in all but the rarest of cases, you’re not going to love them like your own. It will not come naturally to devote resources to them. It doesn’t mean you’re a horrible monster. It means you’re a human being who has evolved to protect your own young. With stepkids, no matter who they are, there’s a constant reminder that they’re not yours. In some cases, it’s something physical, the way they look, the way they smell, their mannerisms. In others, there are implicit messages from the other parent, “this one is mine and don’t you forget it”. My stepson’s mom dresses him in clothes I can’t believe people pay money for. My ex-husband buys my kids basketball shorts, which are, with no contest, my partner’s most hated item of clothing. It’s funny, to hear my partner tell it, the fact that my kids are a different race from him does less to make them “other” in his perception than the fact that they wear basketball shorts. For me, it’s the smell. Everything my stepson brings over smells like a middle school girls’ locker room because his mother has a love affair with Bath and Body Works that can only be rivaled by all of us when we were 13. I remember saying to my partner, as I altered my stepson’s Halloween costume this year, “This reeks of your ex-wife.” It really did. I could smell it in my closet where my sewing machine sits, for a whole day after the costume was gone.
I don’t even know if she does it consciously, but I know she had insecurity sending him to our place at first. Intentionally or unintentionally, she marks him as her own. “This one is mine. He smells of cucumber melon, and I know you would never buy that, so don’t forget who does.” Similarly, my ex-husband, “These are mine. I dressed them like me so you wouldn’t forget.” I can admit to this as well. I dress my kids in t-shirts from my university, which their father and his girlfriend did not attend, when they go visit. “Hail Southern. These little eagles are mine.”
The cool thing about acknowledging the biological and anthropological end of this stepparenting thing is that it explains everything, and you can overcome it. Yes, I get more annoyed with my stepkid wasting food than my bio-kid, and that is because I have to make myself devote resources to him so it’s twice as offensive if he squanders those resources. It annoys my partner twice as much if my kids break a toy that he bought them than if his kid does. He has no biological investment in their wellbeing, so the gift came from a higher place than a gift to his own son, which is almost in his own self-interest indirectly, so if my kids squander that gift, it is offensive. Once you understand why the reaction to stepkids doing less than awesome things is so visceral whereas the reaction to one’s own kids is more taking it in stride, you can rationalize it and mentally evolve from it. Read books, a lot of books. People are beginning to dig into these anthropological studies of societies that share parenting, and the sociological aspects of blended families throughout the ages. It would do you extremely well to learn about this stuff. Just understanding where your reactions are coming from does a lot to put them in perspective. You’re not a monster, they’re not a brat. You’re just a bird who’s had another bird’s baby dropped in your nest. Go from there, and it’ll be ok. I think. I hope. I’m still working on this. Keep checking back.