“Love is a verb, not a noun.” – Many
I can’t find a direct source for this quote, but it’s the one thing that comes to mind when I think of step-parenting. And, I wish we had a better word for step-parenting, step-moms, step-dads, etc. I hear “bonus” used a lot in place of “step,” which is nice, but still doesn’t hit exactly home. If it works for you, that’s what matters.
The one thing I will say to those who do step-parent, and to you, if you are considering this route, or just beginning it, my hat is off to you because you are taking on something of huge proportion. It is no easy task and some days are easier than others, but it is ultimately incredibly rewarding.
I will tell you that I often think step-parenting is harder than raising one’s own child. Step-parents are called to parent – provide guidance, routine, warmth, love, kindness, aid development – when the children are in their home, because they just are, but they are also always trying to walk the line, find the boundary, know their place. All of this without that one piece that gives them a primal drive to do this: biology.
Here are five of the top things to know:
- Ease into your role. If at all possible, wait to meet the kids of your new significant other until you both feel that this relationship is for the long haul. Children don’t need to be included in mom or dad’s dating life until it’s someone that really counts. Some people feel a year is the marker for this. Remember that you are going to be an adult that this child becomes attached to in some way. If you think it’s not for you, don’t meet the kids. When you do meet the kids, remember that slow and steady wins the race, and really there is no race. Get to know the kids as people. What do they like? What do they dislike? What is their relationship like with each parent? Allow them to warm up to you in their own time and in their own ways. Don’t go heavy on affection – hugs – and allow children to take the lead on this, especially the older they are when you meet them. As the relationships develop and as your commitment deepens to your partner, you may become a “step-parent” or have another endearing nick name the kids give you, but don’t push it. Let the kids lead this. Allow their parent to be the disciplinarian, and when you are more firmly established in a parental role, you may take some of this on.
- Show up to their lives. While children will not always articulate it, you are an important adult figure and caretaker – especially as time goes on. They look for you to be a part of their lives and their activities, most of the time. Again, much depends on age. At the very least, show an interest in what they are doing. Ask them about school or sports or their friends. Listen to them and make eye contact while doing so.
- Articulate and display their importance at big milestones. Keep conversations at age-appropriate level for kids and tell them things about these big steps that are relevant to them. The younger they are, the more brief these conversations might be. Ask them if they have any questions.
- Accept your role. Know that you will never be this child’s number one, nor should you ever try to be. Their mother and father will be, and that’s the way of the world and the way it should be. But you do have an important role to play as an adult, mentor, and friend in their lives. I think of it as a “trusted advisor” or a “steward.” You will not be one of the primary decision makers for them, unless called upon to do so by both parents, but you will be someone that can be viewed as a consultant for opinions and thoughts. Your experience matters, but you just may be more of a “wing-man.” And, that’s ok. It’s still an important role to play.
- Create tradition in your home. Kids (and adults) crave routine. They want to know it’s safe and safety is known to kids through routine and consistency. As much as possible, be steady with your routine. Get home from work and spend time together as a family, develop rituals and tradition around meal times and find favorite places to go out to dinner. At birthdays and holidays, determine what your traditions will become, and include the kids in doing this.
In terms of the child’s other parent, always be kind, courteous and respectful toward them, no matter how they treat you. And, never speak ill of that parent in front of their children. That person makes up one half of that child, and remember, your spouse had children with them, so they can’t be all that bad. It puts children in an awful predicament to hear negative things about their parents. End story. The only exception to these rules is if there is abuse or neglect going on, and that should be handled with the proper authorities and with the right direction on how to speak to children about such matters.
Finally, go easy on yourself and take care of yourself. Realize that it’s ok for you to set aside some time for yourself when the kids are in your home. For two reasons: one, they need time with their parent alone and, two, you need time to be YOU. For your sanity and the sanity of everyone else. Every so often you might feel like the kids are visitors or intruders, and this is a normal feeling, but remind yourself that you want these children to feel like it’s their home too, to feel safe, secure, wanted and loved at the end of the day. The same way you wanted to or did feel as a child. Dig deep if you have to, because some days you will have to dig deep, and that doesn’t make it any different than parenting of any kind. The fewer expectations you have of what it should be like, the less disappointed you will be and bear in mind that all step-families are different. What works for one person, doesn’t always work for another. If you need it, get some support from people who have walked the road ahead of you, a good therapist, or find a good book on the topic.
Most step-parents report that their step-children have taught them so much about themselves as a person. About their limits and their shortcomings, but also their ability to overcome those limits and shortcomings and where they can lean into their strengths. Like any good relationship that requires care and maintenance, they will make you a better person.