So you got divorced. That totally sucks if you have children, a heart, working tear ducts, and a bank account that often gets dumped into a lawyer’s back pocket. But years later, after the dust settles, a routine sets in. You begin to date, see a movie here and there, get your hair done, eat pizza with your kids, and move on with your life.
Eventually, you find another human you want to be around. That person meets the kids, you meet their kids, everyone finds life joyful, and you think it’s a great idea to get married. He gave you a ring! You drank great wine, went on a vacation together, and met his parents. What could go wrong? His kids are super sweet and get along with yours just fine. Everything is lovely and calm and peaceful.
RUN LIKE THE WIND! IT’S BETTER TO DIE ALONE! IT’S THE CALM BEFORE THE STORM!
I’m kidding, of course. A second marriage can be absolutely wonderful. I am remarried, and between the two of us, we have five children. My husband is loving and supportive and we have a great life together. But that first year of marriage can be a real strain on everyone. When you have to parent children that are not yours, things can get even tougher. Things can change after you get married and the kids realize the mother or father they previously had all to themselves is now wanting to cuddle on the couch with someone else. That doesn’t always sit well.
So here are some ways to make that transition from parent to stepparent easier. If you are still considered a wicked stepparent while doing these things, have faith. It will pass. If not, bake things. It will give your arm a work-out while mixing batter and CPS will never be called if you punch the bread dough. Even if you punch it HARD.
1. Back the Hell Off
I know this sounds obvious—they aren’t your kids! You can’t be their mother (or father)! Let the biological parent take charge! I read the same things in the books. I nodded my head to the rhythm of these statements like, “Well naturally. I know I’m not their parent.” But when a teenage girl walks through the house wearing something you don’t approve of, or curses around your small children or says something to your face that you don’t like, your instinct is to want to correct this behavior. You live here too! You don’t have to take this kind of abuse! As much as you can—trust me, I know this is hard—take it to your spouse. Tell them the behavior isn’t acceptable and hurts and you don’t like whatever it is they are doing. Let the biological parent discipline, not you. As much as it can come from them and not you, it will be better received. Even better is when the kid thinks the discipline is coming from the biological parent to begin with and your partner isn’t doing it on your bidding.
2. Set Emotional Boundaries
I don’t know about you, but I’m one of those parents who tries to do it all. Sure, I’ll drive you to school! Of course, I’ll help you with homework! Absolutely, I’ll make brownies! But if you find yourself being emotionally abused and barely surviving in a mildly traumatic situation in your own home, you need to know when to form some boundaries. This is a healthy thing for your own peace. If things are terrible between you and your stepchildren and your spouse asks you to pick them up from soccer practice, maybe for once you can say no and see if he/she can do it instead. Indicate to your spouse that leaving town for a work trip while you have your step kids for a week may not work. Take time to go for walks or do things with your children so you can have some breathing room. Establish some reasonable emotional distance for your own sanity.
3. Look for Little Victories
Let’s say there are children that don’t belong to you that visit every other weekend, or 50/50, and it’s difficult for everyone to adjust. Your stress levels may be high, and you may be anxious when everyone is together. Teenagers may roll their eyes and look at you like they’d prefer you were dead. Maybe they say things like “I wish you would rot in hell.” That’s tough. But let’s say one day, a teenager mutters “Thanks! Those muffins were really good” one morning on the way out the door to get on the bus. SHE SAID THE MUFFINS WERE REALLY GOOD! That, my friends, is a small victory. Repeat it to yourself over and over. Dance a jig. Sing a little song. The muffins are good! Right here in the hood! That was huge, for your stepchild to say this. Always look for the good in every day. This helps to weigh against the bad. And it helps you to laugh more and sigh less.
4. See a Therapist
I am a huge believer in this. If you want to stay married, have sex again, or ever smile and be happy, you cannot constantly trash your stepchildren to your spouse or make him/her believe “those kids are monsters.” It is not healthy for your marriage. Find a safe and confidential way to express your fears, anger, and pent-up emotions in a safe space so you can gather the confidence to come home and be a better stepparent. How would you like for someone to say that about your children? Trust me: every 13-year-old is sometimes going to be a monster, no matter who the parents are.
5. Understand the Loyalty Bond
Many times, stepchildren blame you for “ruining their life,” even when you had nothing to do with their parents’ divorce. They may believe that hating you is a way to bond with their biological parent to prove their loyalty. They can then look at their own mother or father and communicate the message that “[the stepparent] means nothing to me and you are everything. Can’t you see by how much I hate them? You are nicer/funnier/prettier/more loving.” You cannot buy their love or change this dynamic no matter how many muffins you bake. But you can allow them permission to speak this script, realize it’s not their fault, and give them space because it’s the only way they know how to deal with their reality. With a good therapist, they will eventually realize the stepparent isn’t at fault, but this takes time. Let them work this out and be in the background while they do.
6. Focus on Your Spouse
The best way to bond with the children is to have a great relationship with your spouse. You will be more in tune with your partner, you’ll be more relaxed, you’ll understand their heart, you’ll be more understanding when things are hard with the kids, and you’ll remember why you walked down the aisle a second time. Hopefully, you married this person because they love you, they care about you, and you really enjoy spending time with them. Relish in this new-found love.
7. Have Individual Time with Your Own Kids
One thing we have found to be very successful is to have a Friday night with just our own biological kids every other week—whether it’s out to dinner or a movie or just hanging at home—spend this night reminding your own kids that they have not been replaced and that the jokes and patterns set while it was just you and them, are still special. This has been hard for me, as I want everyone to be together all the time, but my husband reminds me it’s important to just have time with our own children. And I’ve now heard the comments from the kids, “it’s fine when we are all together, but this is really cool just hanging with you.”
You’re going to make it. Turn toward your partner, look him/her in the eye, and repeat after me: “This is hard, but you’re pretty cool. Let’s get through this phase so they will take care of us when we’re older.” And then take a deep breath. You are not a Wicked Stepparent. You are a person who cares enough to make things better, and that makes all the difference.