Stepparenting can be a lonely road, but it doesn’t have to be. According to the U.S. Census, over 50 percent of U.S. families are remarried or re-coupled. Over 1,300 new, blended families form every day. Fifty percent of the 60 million children under the age of 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner. I say let’s harness that collective knowledge and learn from each other’s experiences.
As a sociologist, I work with co-parenting education groups, in which divorced or separating parents learn communication and parenting strategies. They also work out parenting agreements for jointly parenting their children. Many times there are stepparents involved.
The stepparents in our groups are quick to support each other. Here, they generously share their wisdom.
- Understand your stepchild may grieve about the divorce or remarriage.
The child may target the stepparent with that grief. Grief takes many forms and can have many repetitive cycles. Stepdaughter Laurie says, “I have a stepmom whose presence in my life has been an immeasurable blessing. We went through many painful times, especially when I was little, and she was often an unfair scapegoat and dumping ground for my disappointments. We got through it.”
“I am glad my stepdad never tried to be a father to me,” says stepson Dave. “We didn’t have to get into any power struggles. He became an adult friend and mentor. He was generous with his time; he listened a lot and gave love freely.”
- As a couple, decide who disciplines.
Most teenagers will only respond to discipline by the biological parent, whereas younger children may be receptive to the discipline of the stepparent. Be cautious about speaking for the other parent. “Let the biological parent be the rule enforcer,” advises stepmom Monica.
Stepparents may find that life flows more smoothly when the biological parent is the disciplinarian, because that parent has known the child longer and has the reference point of how the previous household used to discipline.
- Love your stepchild.
Time is how a child measures love. Be as generous as you can with your time and energy. Cook family meals together. Listen a lot—then listen some more. Learn about their interests, not in an effort to win them over, because that will be seen as a manipulation. Learn about their interests because you genuinely care about who they are. Be generous.
Stepmom Ann says, “I wish I had been less selfish when my stepdaughter was young. I wish I had given to her more freely. At the end of the day, who cares if we were the ones buying the shoes or school clothes, regardless of what the divorce decree stated?”
Stepmom Sandee may have summarized it best: “The reality is, you love your spouse by loving his or her children. They don’t have to do anything to earn that love. It just is. Isn’t that the bedrock of all parenting anyway? Unconditional love.”
- Take care of your own needs.
You can’t give what you don’t have. Taking time to recharge your batteries in healthy, nurturing ways is critical to giving all you can to your new blended family. Just as parents of young children must guard against burnout, stepparents must do the same.
Stepdad Raul says that he sometimes runs errands by himself and listens to inspiring music on the run. He comes back with a better attitude, ready to listen to his stepchildren. “I also try to maintain my friendships by playing softball or watching a game with friends,” he says.
Stepdad Joe says, “My wife and I are careful to make time for each other. We have date nights or even date lunches. We meet during the day for our lunch hour away from our jobs and evening homework chores to talk as adults.”
- Blending a family takes time.
Many experts believe it takes approximately five years to blend a stepfamily. David L. Brasher, BCSW and family therapist, advises, “If you decide to be a stepparent, be sure to attend to the needs of your own children, also.” Above all, be patient with yourself, your spouse and all the children.
Stepmom Sally says, “I don’t know if I am a successful stepparent. I just know, my adult stepchildren come home for the holidays and bring their children to visit me and their Grandpa. The grandkids even call me Grandma.”
To help remind group members to remain non-judgmental, we often remind ourselves that “Kids don’t come with parenting manuals.” If that axiom holds true in most cases, it is certainly true that “Kids don’t come with stepparenting manuals,” either.
There are many helpful resources for stepparents. Sometimes a counselor, pastor or family therapist can lend perspective to the process of blending a family. There are also support groups. Some websites that are readily accessible and helpful to stepparenting immediately are www.remarriageSuccess.com, www.stepfamily.org and bit.ly/195kbWu. For faith based support, visit www.stepparentingbygrace.com.
Laura Reagan-Porras, MS, is a parenting journalist and sociologist. She facilitates co-parenting groups and has two daughters.