On being a Step Parent

I recently received a note from a friend of mine who is embarking on the difficult journey of stepparenthood. I knew her when she was just a girl — she was the close friend of a girl to whom I was a stepparent at the time. I was younger in those days, and I don’t think I did the job very well. I couldn’t figure out the dynamic and, having come from a traditional family setting, couldn’t enter into the emotional struggles of a young girl trying to live with a stepfather. I got lost somewhere between trying to be a buddy and trying to be a dad, while keeping a confused distance that did not reflect my emotional attachment to the child.

I’ve done a better job this time around with my wife’s children by her first marriage. It still hasn’t been perfect, but, over the years, I’ve figured a few things out. So, when my young friend, now grown from girl to woman, wrote me to tell me that she was going to be the mother to a brood of four kids that came with her new husband, I thought I’d write her a few observations. I decided that I’d pass them along on the website, as well.

Maybe you’ll agree with them; maybe you won’t. But all of us who have tried to be stepparents know that it’s a tough task. Maybe my thoughts will prompt some responses of your own, or maybe, if you are a stepparent or a stepparent-to-be, they will give some shape to your own struggles with this most difficult version of parenting.

Here they are:

You are about to embark on one of the most difficult jobs in the world — stepparenting. It is especially hard if the biological parent is a presence in the childrens’ lives. You never want to speak poorly of that person, because the children want to love their parents, even if the parents don’t get along. You have to learn to be a parent without being a mother, and that’s almost impossible, because you are given all the responsibilities of being a mother.

I guess the most important advice I can give you is to devote all your emotional energies into allowing the children a “soft landing” in working out their familial dynamics. Ideally, over the years, you become at least distant friends with the biological mother, so the children can think of themselves as having two moms rather than having to choose between two different women who both are making a claim on being mom.

Assuming the biological mom is in the picture, at least one of the kids is going to have a primary attachment to her, and, at one time or another, each of the kids will say, “You’re so mean. I’m going to go back and live with my mom.” You need to give them emotional permission to go through these whipsaw experiences. They will value you more in the long run, and they will grow to be healthier human beings. After all, their emotional lives are in your hands right now, and that is a very great responsibility.

Here’s how I’d think of it: in the privacy of your own heart, look upon yourself as the mother of the whole family, in all its extensions, whose job it is to heal the wounds and make everyone feel safe in their feelings, whatever those might be. Make sure you are steady and supportive, but don’t let yourself get involved in even the most subtle putting down of the biological mother, even if the kids seem to be begging you to do so. What you want these kids to come away with is, “We’re all human, we all have our strengths and weaknesses, your mom is a good person who loves you, and it’s all right to love her. What went on between your dad and mom wasn’t your fault and you are now lucky kids because you have two moms, and I’ll do my best to give you my love and guidance as best as I am able, just as your mom will give you her love and guidance as best as she is able. Just remember, you are loved by many people.”

If you can stay out of the wounded space between the two biological parents and assist in any way you can in returning that space to health, you will be offering those children a priceless gift.

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