Few little girls lie in their beds and dream about growing up to be the world’s greatest stepmother. But, in an era with high rates of divorce and common-law relationships, there’s no denying that when some little girls grow up they’re faced with tweaking their fantasies surrounding domestic bliss.
Sometimes, the love of your life comes as a package deal. Riding shotgun in a minivan with someone else’s pre-teen questioning your presence from the back seat isn’t a dream scenario, but it doesn’t have to be a nightmare.
To make the experience easier on all parties involved, here are seven tips from B.C.-based parenting expert Kathy Lynn on how to tackle the role of stepmother in the early days of your relationship:
1. Patience is your greatest ally
The biggest mistake people make is to want everything to happen too fast, says Lynn. That’s just wishful thinking. Instead of wanting to fast-forward to the good stuff, let the relationship develop slowly through activities.
How quickly things progress may have a lot to do with the age of the child. “The rule of thumb is whatever age the child is it’s going to take that long for them to develop a relationship with a step-parent. The other rule says it depends on how long they’ve been living alone with the other parent. Those are considerations.”
2. Know your place
Confusion about your role in the life of your partner’s child or children is natural — it’s also one of the main reasons why some people struggle to find their feet as a new step-parent. Not knowing what your responsibilities are makes it hard to know how to behave and react. Get some clarity by keeping a few principles in mind, says Lynn.
3. You don’t have to be like their mother
“The most important thing is to remember that this child has a biological parent,” says Lynn. “The child…loves their biological parent and you need to respect that, understand that and don’t try to displace that person.” That means never bad-mouthing or indicating disapproval of the biological mother in front of the child.
4. You’re not Mom, so who are you?
It’s a bit of a challenge, but at first the stepparent is really a hybrid of older sibling (in that you care about them emotionally) and compassionate babysitter (in that you’re in charge of their well being), “It is partially friend and it is also really a respectful caring adult,” says Lynn.
5. Be careful how you handle discipline
While you’re dying to tell your husband’s sullen pre-teen to cool it with the eye rolling and dramatic sighs, don’t. “The rule of thumb is that the biological parent should be the one doing the primary disciplining not the step-parent, especially not at first,” says Lynn.
That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask for simple good manners. Just do so with the same kind of sensitivity that you’re asking the child to extend. Lynn suggests that you sit down as a family — that may include the ex-spouse if possible — and create some basic rules around respect, rules and behaviour.
“You need to involve the biological parent and say that your children need to understand that I’m not their new mom or dad but that we are all living together and we need to develop some rules about respect the way that they would respect anyone walking into the house.”
Make sure the conversation has a light, cheerleading tone as opposed to the confrontational ‘shape up or ship out’ approach.
6. You don’t need to love the child right away
There’s no obligation for you to like, or even love, a stepchild or stepchildren right off the bat — though it doesn’t hurt to make that a long-term goal.
“One of the overriding issues is that the biological family gets to develop slowly…whereas a step-parenting relationship seems to happen over night and that’s a huge challenge,” she explains. Furthermore, Lynn says you do have to treat them with compassion and respect from the word go.
If you find you’re being snappy or giving vent to your frustration or resentment about being plopped into the middle of a family with children cut it out, counsels Lynn. If you find even a personal time-out isn’t working you’d be wise to discuss your issues with a therapist, she says.
7. Don’t be so serious
Sure, it’s difficult — family life always is. But it’s best to “have a sense of humour and be prepared to enjoy the kid,” says Lynn. And if you can’t laugh, console yourself with the fact that every birthday brings that child closer to adulthood. Who knows? Maybe in 20 years time they’ll find themselves saying, ‘God, I sound just like my stepmother.’
Are you a stepparent? How has your experience with the children developed?