I used to feel my blood boil when a passing stranger would say “you’ll understand when you have real kids”. Didn’t they know who researched doctors? Who did literal and emotional backbends to get her to brush her teeth at night…and more, at least half of the time? Who quizzed her on sight words and brushed the nest of sleepy tangles, morning and night? Didn’t they know there are many ways to make a family and how insulting that was to foster families, adopted families, and more? Step-parents.
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Now with two bio-babes in addition to my bonus the jury is back: it IS different…but it’s not necessarily better. I’m not physiologically triggered with frustration or worry or anger and have the luxury of love at one degree of separation and perspective. Here’s my advice as a seasoned evil step-mother of almost 7 years.
Principle 1: The kids come first
In the heat of any conflict or at the crux of any decision, there is only one question that matters: what is best for the kids? After they are grown, after they have had the chance to learn and process (and go to therapy) there will always only be one thing that matters and that is acting in the kids’ best interests. No one separates from their co-bio-parent because their relationship is great, so we can assume it will stay…not great. Ultimately, every question and conflict can be guided by this principle. Should you respond to every whim of your ex-partners? Maybe you need to demonstrate collaboration and normalcy to your kiddos or maybe you feel modeling boundaries around your time and new life are more important. At the end of the day, you know where serving your ego ends and doing the best for your kiddos begins. Honor that and you can’t go wrong.
Principle 2: Wait until you’re sure
I cannot underscore the commitment and mutual impact a step relationship can have in your life. To honor principle 1, consider waiting until your exciting new love has stood for at least six months. This was written into my husband’s custody agreement and I was and am grateful for the time and space it created for us as a new couple to only belong to each other. Once you become a family, your life as a family will consume much of your heart and your time. It’s normal to feel a desire to instantly integrate the sometimes fragmented pieces of your heart, but erring on the side of time and planning will allow you to be intentional and thoughtful about the move from lovers to co-parents.
Principle 3: You can’t buy love (for very long)
If your love language is buying gifts, it can be tempting to buy your way into a close relationship with your bonus kiddos. At the end of the day, you really parents and step-parents can’t buy this relationship. Dive into parenting research via Instagram or blogs that align with your goals and learn to play! Quality time is the way most kids measure love and it is the most scarce resource in our modern society. Learn what their passions are (dinosaurs, Barbies, Paw Patrol) and pretend you are one of the characters. If all else fails, watch an episode of their favorite show together and pretend you are one of the characters and they are another, reenacting the exact plot line. Wash, rinse, repeat. This time and energy invested consistently over time will promote you from stranger to family before you know it.
Principle 4: Build bridges
Here’s where the cheesy “be the change” stuff comes in. Every family gets to decide what their co-parenting relationship will look like. Think about your kiddos’ wedding in the future. What does your and your partners’ relationship with them look like? What does a solid co-parenting partner look like? Who is invited? Who sits where? These are obviously silly illustrative questions but will help you visualize what kind of life and relationship and family you want for yourself and your kiddos. Now wind it back about 25 years and start building that relationship now. If you are the new bonus, have your partner give their ex your contact information to open communication and build a relationship. When it comes to step-parents, no one wants their kid parented by a stranger. Hopefully they will be responsive and keep principle 1 in mind.
Principle 5: Assume good intent
Inevitably conflict will arise. It’s hard to raise kids when you’re living with a loving partner. It can feel impossible to get on the same page with someone you are divorced to or just co-parenting with. When that happens, do your best to put yourself in their shoes. With all of the hurt egos and often long and rocky pasts between exes, it’s easy to jump to blame or past patterns. Don’t fall for it, and see the best in the other parent. If you are having trouble doing this in your mind, consider writing down what the conflict is and where the other person is coming from. This simple exercise can help with all sizes of conflicts, from proposing new custody schedules to just swapping weekends.
This advice assumes good intent from all sides. Many people separate because of more challenging issues up to and including physically or emotionally abusive partners. If this is the case, look into including a Parenting Coordinator as a mandate in your custody agreement to resolve issues. In highly contentious situations, documentation and neutral third-parties can be key. When you have healed and are ready for a loving partner to join your family, the five principles for step-parents are here to help.
Maya Angelou’s adage that people remember how you make them feel, not what you say is deeply true. Step-parents focus on building your relationship with your bonus kiddo and the genuine love and care you invest will help build a relationship for the rest of your lives. I’m so lucky to be a stepmom to my teen Chongoose (half Cheetah, half mongoose) and my relationship with her is one of the defining and most important of my life, and if I can do it right, it will be of hers too.