Stepparenting – Through A Stepfather’s Eyes

“You’re not my real mother!”  “You’re not my real father!”

How many stepparents have heard their stepchildren shout these words — or even angrier ones — at them, especially during the first years of stepparenting?  Becoming a stepparent is almost always challenging.  I’ve been a stepfather to my two stepsons for over 38 years – ever since they were seven and ten — and even though for the first few years I found my feelings hurt and my patience challenged, stepparenting is the most rewarding experience of my life.  I love my stepsons and their families, and I’m thrilled to be a grandfather to three grandchildren with one more on the way!  So if you’re experiencing problems in your stepparenting life, I’m here to tell you that if you and your wife or husband learn how to meet the challenges and work together, your family life can blossom and you can experience fulfillment as a stepparent.

Since stepchildren often test stepparents and may, at least initially, reject them and even try to break up the new marriage, it may seem as if the key to solving stepparents’ problems lies with the children.   But as I discovered when I interviewed 50 stepfathers and their wives for my book Stepfathering, the real key to making stepparenting work – and stepfamilies work – is the stepparent’s attitude toward his or her role as a stepparent and his or her spouse’s attitude about that role.

First and foremost, stepparents must realize that even if they marry into a family in which the biological parent is dead or isn’t participating in the children’s lives anymore, the stepparent is not the biological parent and shouldn’t try to be.  In that sense, the child who says “You’re not my real parent” is correct; no matter how much you want to be a parent to your stepchild, just because you marry the child’s biological mother or father doesn’t make you the child’s other parent.

If the other biological parent is participating in the child’s life, it’s a mistake to compete or try to be a replacement.  Respect the fact that the other biological parent is forever part of your stepchild, and, regardless of whether that other biological parent is present or absent, living or dead, the child has a bond to that parent and an image of him or her that may or may not correspond with yours. Even if the other biological parent was negligent or abusive, you can’t assume the child is going to accept you into the family right away or want you to replace that biological parent.

Although in time you and your stepchild may form a close bond, and you may even become a parental figure to the child, playing a guiding and supporting role, it’s helpful if you always keep in mind that since you’re not the child’s biological parent, you have to create the space for your stepchild to have whatever relationship the child wants with that other parent — even if it’s only in the child’s memory. Sometimes, at least for a while, children need to idealize parents who have died and even parents who have neglected and abandoned them.

My research for Stepfathering showed me that the second half of the equation of what makes stepparenting (and a stepfamily) work is that your expectations and goals as a stepparent have to be the same as your spouse’s expectations and goals for you.  If you want to be more of what one stepfather called “a camp counselor” or “an uncle” and one stepmother called “an aunt” to your stepchildren rather than a parental figure, and your spouse wants you to be a parental figure to the children, you’re going to have problems.  Conversely, if you want to play a parental role and your spouse has the attitude “They’re my children, not yours.  I don’t want you to try to parent them.  I make all the decisions about them,” you’re going to have problems, too.  Without your spouse’s agreement and support, you can’t play the role that you want to play, and you will be deadlocked in disagreement. Children have no reason to treat a stepparent better than their mother or father wants them to, and if parents don’t agree on how the children will be raised, the children will be caught in the middle of that disagreement, and may try to play parent against stepparent, with disastrous results for the family.

If you bring your own children into your new stepfamily, creating what is often called a “blended family,” children face the challenge of forming relationships with each other as well as with their new stepparents.   The issue of favoritism also comes into play:  Are you favoring your children?  Is your spouse favoring his or hers?  You can’t have two sets of values and standards for discipline within one family!

For this reason, the communication between spouses in a stepfamily, and the ability to support each other and negotiate differences, without involving the children, is vital to harmony within the family and to stepparents finding fulfillment in stepparenting.  Initially, and perhaps for more years than you’d like, children inevitably test stepparents and may resent their presence.  This is natural, when you realize that from a child’s point of view, the stepfamily has come together as a result of loss, either the death of a biological parent or the death of the biological parent’s marriage.   This loss can create conflict for a child; if I accept my new stepparent, am I being disloyal to my other biological parent?

To meet this challenge, stepparents must be sensitive, compassionate, and patient.  Remember:  You are the adult, the child is the child.  Becoming a stepparent takes maturity and generosity.  Stepparents need to know how to listen to their stepchildren and to interpret, and understand, the messages underneath angry words.  Especially during the time it takes to form bonds with their stepchildren (a process that may take more years than you’d like it to, even if the stepchildren are adults), stepparents need their spouses’ love and support.  And, again, communication between spouses, and the ability to negotiate differences, without involving the children, is vital.

One more crucial bit of advice I learned from my research:  While spouses need to come to an agreement between themselves – not in the children’s presence – about disciplinary matters, the biological parent, especially for the first few years, should discipline her or his children and not allow or encourage a stepparent to step in and take over the disciplinary role.  If a stepparent becomes the disciplinarian in the family immediately after the marriage, when he or she hasn’t yet developed a bond with the children, how can the children not resent and reject the stepparent?    How can the children also not resent their mother or father who’s left discipline up to the comparative stranger in their midst?

There’s no better way to create an obstacle to forming a bond with your stepchildren than instantly trying to discipline them.  In time, if your bond with your stepchildren becomes strong and you develop mutual respect, you may be able to take on part of the disciplinary role with them, but again, this can only happen if you have your spouse’s full support about the matters for which you’re disciplining your stepchildren and the manner in which you discipline them.

Finally, it’s important to acknowledge that even with your spouse’s love, support, and agreement about the role you’ll play in your stepchildren’s lives, your relationship with your stepchildren depends a great deal on who they are and who you are, how much they can open their heart to you (which depends, at least in part, on experiences they had before they met you), and how much you can open your heart to them (which also depends on what you’ve experienced).  If you find your stepfamily experiencing problems and you feel at a loss, I recommend family therapy and also stepparenting support groups.  A lot of wisdom and support are available to help you.

About Mark Bruce Rosin

Mark Bruce Rosin was senior editor and special projects editor at Parents Magazine, specializing in psychology and parenting, and an associate literary editor and a contributing editor at Harper’s Bazaar. His book Stepfathering was published by Simon & Schuster and Ballantine. As an author, editor, and “book doctor,” his other books have been published by St. Martin’s Press, Bantam, Stanford University Press, University of Missouri Press, Jossey-Bass and Sage, as well as by independent publishers. Mark is also a screenwriter and producer, and served as an executive at CBS Television and as head of motion picture and television development for Talent Associates. He received his B.A. in English, Phi Beta Kappa, from University of Chicago, and his M.A. in English and Drama from Yale University.

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