Stepmother Land can be a frustrating and even frightening place. Not only are you trying to integrate yourself into an unfamiliar and unavoidably awkward environment you face the greater challenge of figuring out how to become a welcomed addition to the family that lived there before you. Despite the unique experiment of establishing a committed romantic relationship with a parent with pre-existing children, falling in love with them is the easy part. Being seen as more than daddy’s new girlfriend is where the real fun begins. But even the goal of establishing yourself as a serious part of a pre-existing family is easily won if you approach them with the same respect you desire in return. The greatest test, the place where only most fearless among us will dare to pass is the search for common ground with the absent parent. While this concept is not a favorite or even considered as important by most of those wandering through Step-Parent Land, it is actually an equally imperative component in everyone’s mutual effort to be happy.
I have seen this situation from both sides of the proverbial fence. I grew up as a step-child and now have two of my own. They are precious, promising and very observant young ladies. Having worn their shoes I knew that their respect would be gained only through my efforts to earn rather than demand it from them. The fact that old wounds had yet to heal between their parents posed a whole new set of challenges. But I knew what I wished my parents and step-parents would have done when I was a child, to stop acting like a bunch of kids for starters. By one path or another I have spent my whole life living in Step-Parent Land so, for what it’s worth I offer you insight into the first lessons I learned there.
Never Bad-Mouth The Other Parent
We’ve all heard the advice of Thumper’s mom, “If you can’t say something nice, don’t say nuthin’ at all.” Well, the wisdom of this guidance will be better embraced by children if the adults who extol its virtues would practice what they preach. In the process of a divorce, in order to comfort the fear of a child, the splitting parents often make efforts to convince the child that everything will be okay. Three key promises made to frightened children early on are that; the divorce is not their fault, the divorce will have no effect on the love the parents feel for them and even though mommy and daddy will no longer live together they will still be friends. The latter guarantee is the first one mommy and daddy revokes.
Espousing criticisms of the absent parent in front of the child is unnecessary and wrong. As a step-parent, this faux pas will prove deadly to your efforts to earn your way into the hearts of your new charges. In the lame effort to make yourself feel better by trying to diminish a mother in the mind of her child your only accomplishment will be to make the kids feel worse and yourself to look insecure. Allowing or encouraging the ex-spouse to reduce her image in her child’s eyes will still provoke resentment and will ultimately make the two of you look smaller. Don’t go there, and make it clear you will not allow either parent, the kids or anyone else to take you there. The respect you will earn from everyone, especially from the kids, will facilitate (rather than compromise) your efforts to become part of the family.
If the Parent’s Don’t Get Along – Make Efforts to Establish and/or Maintain the Peace
Two of the most difficult challenges for divorced parents is to communicate without anger when standing face-to-face and to resist spiteful chatter when the other parent is out of ear-shot. Regardless of the divorce circumstances and your opinions thereof as the newcomer, you have a valuable opportunity to help mediate a truce and maybe even mend burned bridges. As a neutral third party you alone are in the unique position of playing peacemaker, encouraging them to either work out their differences or at least to keep it away from their children. Discourage the parents from using their children as a form of communication unless it is to say something nice. Encouraging them to remember that their children will always be their bond and to honor that gift by learning how to communicate respectfully will also help them let go of the anger that is no longer necessary. Even at early ages kids are observant and smarter than you might think. When it comes to you and your relationship with both of their parents, they are always paying attention and scrutinizing your actions. The observance that peace came after your arrival will earn the child’s trust and validate your claim that you love them too.
Do Not Try to Eliminate All Evidence of the Absent Parent
This may seem like such a silly and insignificant suggestion but trust me, it isn’t. Having been the one who moved into the house that was once shared by my two step-daughters and their parents I noticed their discomfort immediately. It was difficult for them to watch me hanging my clothes in the closet that once belonged to their mother. Equally evident was their lack of enthusiasm as I started to redecorate the environment that remained as it did when their mother moved out. Take care and tread lightly on this hallowed ground. There are memories there to which the children still want and need to hold onto. Make it clear your efforts are meant to give a new look to the house, not to eliminate all evidence that the other parent lived there. Ask the kids what their favorite things are in a room you want to redecorate and place this item in a prominent place. Include photos of the absent parent in frames around the house. In our case, we plan to take this effort a step further and have a family photo taken of all of us. As silly as all of this might sound the happiness these simple efforts will bring to the kids might very well surprise you.
Offer Assistance to the Absent Parent in Caring for the Kids on Their Watch
The custody dance can be a toe-stomping event sometimes, particularly if the dearly divorced parents can’t get along. Conflicts in work schedules, unpredictable sick days and school calendars will inevitably make havoc of the best laid “Who Has the Kids When and for How Long” plans. Children, especially those who are trying to emotionally survive divorce, need consistency in their lives to feel secure. When scheduling problems arise, let the absent parent know you are there to pitch in. Offer to pick up the kids from school if the parent-in-custody is held up in traffic or has to stay late at work. Drive them to and/or offer to pick the kids up from after-school and social activities if their established shedule goes astray. Volunteer to take them “back-to-school” shopping if both parents are short of time. If you truly want to be seen as another parental figure, the effort to share in the responsibilities of rasing the children will go a long way with everyone involved.
Your walk through Step-Parent Land will forever present new opportunities to solve some unique and unpredictable challenges. Sometimes you will make incredible strides and at other times you will have to be a bit more courageous and resourceful in order to forge your way ahead. But, it’s like my grandmother use to say when I would whine about setbacks. “Even when you fall on your face, you are still moving forward.”
Lauren Paige Kennedy, “The Top Five Mistakes Divorced Parents Make”, WebMD Magazine