I type this with a baby snoozing on my chest, ice cold coffee that I’ve tried to rewarm on the table, a nature show I’ve heard eight hundred times as white noise in the background, and “my” other three gremlins at their other house for the week. Though this scene clearly alludes to the chaos that is my life, I wouldn’t trade it for anything. It’s been just over a year since I took on the stepparent position, and even though the routine and structure is now well established, I find myself constantly peeling back layers to my place in family life.
When I speak of the monster role as a stepparent, I am not referring to the stereotypical image of an evil woman out to tear up a biological family. I’m speaking of the moutainous task of trying to make something so undefined comfortable for everyone involved. Yes, this a collective effort, but that does not make the role of stepparent any less difficult.
As parents, I think the struggle is trying to make sure your kids aren’t falling apart as your family unit crumbles. You worry about how they’re handling it, all the while trying to keep your own shit together. Smiling in front of them while you’re dying inside from the stress and guilt of taking away from them what should be a child’s single given security. Let’s not even mention the process of finding love and acceptance again from another human being, let alone one that will also provide that for children that aren’t theirs.
And should that magical person come into your life, I am convinced that they likely have no idea what the hell they’re actually getting into. I can honestly say I was not entirely clear on what was about to unfold. For me personally, I feel extremely blessed that I have never felt outcasted by these beautiful children. But I think it was largely because their father and I never pressured them to put me in a role they weren’t comfortable with. This is where that mountain starts. From each person involved you are asked to be in a category that best suits the established life you’re choosing to walk into, and having to be a chameleon can be very taxing on your self image, sanity, patience, and existence in general.
Your partner, who has decided you are actually worthy of being in their children’s lives, puts you in a role of replacement. While their eagerness to title you a new and grand title as co-parent is coveted and ego boosting, it also comes with a heavy crown. Even with the best intentions, a lot of the times the pressure to be better than the divorced spouse in the eyes of your partner is enough to make anyone poop their pants. Even if they’re not saying it, and insist that your existence alone is enough, let’s be honest, you’re thinking it. Not only are you entering that new relationship stage with someone who’s smitten with you and can easily forgive your hiccups, you are also having to give the same eagerness for relationship success to little people who owe you nothing, and may or may not like you. It’s easy to get lost in the “make the kids happy to make him happy” cycle. DO NOT GET ON THAT HAMSTER WHEEL, I REPEAT DO NOT DO IT. The biggest saver of our relationship during the first year of life with kids/stepkids was to remember each other. Love got you into it, and it will get you through it. And remember, your partner loved you enough to think you could be in their kids’ lives and so they must also know that you are enough for the kids, too. Trust them before you start trying to bend over backwards to make it work in your eyes. They’ve known those munchkins since birth.
And don’t spent too much time worrying about the other parent. Truthfully, you will probably never be good enough in their opinion, and at very best they will always be a little hyper critical over what they can’t control. I can understand this almost to a fault. In the beginning, I spent so much time considering the other parent’s feelings, worrying about the scrutiny and wanting to be so perfect. One, because I am a perfectionist by nature (most of the time) and too, because I genuinely wanted her to feel comfortable knowing her kids were being treated well in my presence. While well meaning, it really does a number on your personal reality. It’s easy to put too much power in someone else’s hands and in a situation that’s already stacked against you. I learned over time to just let it go and know in my own soul that I was good and capable and loving.
At the end of the day, it really doesn’t matter what anyone thinks, because the kids are the ones who get to decide who you are to them. They’re people too. I spent a lot of time living in the gray area of loving them large when I thought they wanted it, and backing off when I felt like they needed a biological parent. My heart would swell and get pinched one day to the next. The highs and lows coming so quickly, I found myself constantly exhausted. It was my own fault. I’m always overthinking everything (I blame long school commutes, haha) and considering everything and everyone. I sit in the middle of the carousel, watching the spinning characters and taking notes, trying to analyze every bouncing movement so that when I step onto the dizzying ride, I can tread carefully and pointedly and never falter in the confusion of movement. Again, we don’t get to pick how the kids love/view me. You just need to surrender to their choice regardless of how that makes anyone else feel. Being me is enough for them, and I’m very blessed to say that they love having me in their life even if the rest of it seems hard at times. For once, validation appeared swiftly after this epiphany.
Our oldest sat behind me on the to way school like a dark little cloud. For whatever reason, the constant presence of her younger brother and sister had taken its toll on her (trust me, I get it, girl). Having spent some time away from them with her grandmother over the weekend had only heightened the realization that she needed a break from their exuberance. They were kicking her chair, they were taking her stuff without asking, every sound they made was annoying. Normally, I’d sit there silently wondering what I should say or do, if anything at all. I’d try to act in a way that her parents would, to build consistency in her upbringing, even though it wasn’t what I’d actually do. I sighed, sick of my own hyper vigilant attitude towards every day issues, and decided to set an example whether she picked up on it or not.
I looked at my little friend in the rearview mirror and made a comment about how us big girls needed a break from the crazy sometimes, hoping to communicate she was okay to feel that way without making it an escalated emotion. I got a little smile from the usually-stubborn-to-change-her-mood eight year old. Before she hoped out of the car, I touched her arm and told her I loved her against my usual rule of waiting for them to say it first. Her entire face changed and in that moment I knew it was time to stop worrying about what everyone else would think and just be the parent I was.
So to any of those new stepparents out there trying to navigate where you belong, I say this:
- Love your partner and love your relationship without the kids involvement in it. You will need to do this to get through all the hard parts.
- Don’t get lost in worrying about the other parent. Find solidarity in who you are as a person and be patient in letting that shine through to the other side. Trust me, it will, even if you never get to hear it.
- Just let things happen naturally. If you’re truly in it for the long haul, there’s no rush on making the kids like you. You don’t need a label or definition of who you are to them. You’re just you, and that is always a good place to start (or remain).
- Grow a thick skin. And if you don’t, you will anyway. Count that as a blessing. You’ll be able to conquer anything after this experience, I promise. Even the biological kid/stepkid mashup, which I’ll write about next time.