“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 for me. If it works for you, that’s what matters.
Five years ago I met a really great guy. I wasn’t in the market for two really great kids, but they just happened to come along with the package. I had never once thought of taking this kind of package on either. Despite the fact that my age was making that a greater possibility in terms of the men I might meet, and that I had the experience of having step-parents myself as a child.
I assure you that I could probably write multiple posts on this topic given the experiences I’ve gained. While I’m always hesitant to tout any kind of expertise, I will say that I’ve sought the advice of many, consulted books and other resources, and continually evaluated myself on this journey, recalibrating as I need to do so. 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.
Having now experienced the birth of my own child and step-parenting, I will tell you that I often think step-parenting is harder. We, as step-parents, are called to parent – provide guidance, routine, warmth, love, kindness, aid development – when the children are in our home, because we just are, but we are also always trying to walk the line, find the boundary, know our place. All of this without that one piece that gives us a primal drive to do this: biology.
Here are five of the top things I’ve learned:
- 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. I will say that my husband and I didn’t wait that long, but I think we both felt sure it was right and so I did meet them fairly early on. 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. When my husband and I got engaged, we told the boys about it the next day. When I asked them what they thought about it, they smiled and said they were happy, but then the youngest asked if we had other kids whether we’d love those kids more than them (ask me how I tried not to cry). Remember, this is a child’s mind and a child’s question. I told him that all kids would always be equal in our home. Then they both smiled and said, “Ok, can we go home and play now?” At our wedding, we included them in the ceremony and during my pregnancy with our daughter we kept them guessing each week at her size, with fruits or vegetables, and asked their input on what we should name her or what they thought it would be like when she arrived. When she did arrive, we made sure they could see us and her as soon as possible and stay with us so that they could also bond with their new sibling.
- 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. For a while we never had an Elf on the Shelf at our house, but the kids asked us one day why the Elf wasn’t at our house. So we thought, well, better get an Elf. Clyde Jr. (Clyde is the Elf at their other house) thus made his appearance on the scene.
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.
Sometimes I joke and say that the boys were my “training wheels” for parenthood. They have taught me so much about myself as a person. About my limits and my shortcomings, but also my ability to overcome those limits and shortcomings and where I can lean into my strengths. They’ve made me a better person, and I had no idea any of that was coming my way the day I met their dad.