I’ll have to admit that when I became a stepfather, the day I married my wife Terry – in May of 1997 –I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was a stepfather (briefly) for three years in my first marriage. But, I was never a father before, and at the ripe “young” age of 42, I was thinking that I was somehow going to “get by” and become accepted, primarily because I had married their mother. I was in for an awakening, not “rude” mind you but eye-opening nonetheless.
In my mind, “get[ting] by” was being nice, not making waves or expecting too much of Sean, who had just turned 13, and Tracy who was soon going to be 11. But as the weeks turned into months, the challenges of the role became more apparent. Comments like “you’re not my father” served as challenges to any authority I tried to impose, even as innocently as “could you please put this [or that] away.” For about three years, our newly formed family went through some growing pains that included having our own child Catherine, who, in the beginning, was seen as a threat to take away their mother’s attention. Holidays, vacations and birthdays seemed to be about one-upmanship. But, even before those three years were up, some helpful changes occurred that helped.
Different from a biological parent, a major thrust of being a step-parent I’ve learned is to be a friend on some level. Not like a school friend, but an adult friend more akin to being a guidance counselor. Inviting my stepson not only to go on summer vacations, but to also share my love of fishing with him helped in the friendship process. It was more challenging to be a friend to my stepdaughter, a naturally shy person. But to attend some of her basketball games and supporting her need for one-on-one time with Terry helped with this. This takes time, years really.
Presenting a united front with Terry supporting my suggestions or requests (if reasonable) was helpful. This did require respect, caring and perhaps love. These latter two are “earned” from the point of view of the stepchild. Caring and respect are especially important, cannot be rushed, and are granted over time. I think it must take time because as in most relations between unrelated people, trust has to be built. Even though Terry’s and my relationship and eventual marriage happened nearly three years after her divorce was finalized, that still is very soon in the eyes of children. Too soon to not be seen as a “competitor” with their father on some level.
Let me end by identifying some key points:
- Stepparents had best proceed slowly.
- Just because things went well when you were dating the biological parent, does not ensure things will go smoothly once you’re a committed couple. A marriage effectively ends any hope of their mother and father reunifying and can reignite those feelings of loss for the children.
- Take your time in getting to know a stepchild. Rushing it may satisfy your own unmet needs to be liked. Sharing common interests, from sports and arts, can do nothing but help.
- As much as possible, stay out of interactions between biological parents working out holiday or vacation schedules. And especially, try to be courteous and respectful of the “other parent”, keeping in mind that (likely) neither parent would have chosen having their children live with them part-time.
- Cooperate with the biological parent living with you, and talk talk talk.
I hope this is the first of many posts as a step-father. I look forward to your comments. Email me through Terry at email@example.com
The author, Craig Gaspard, LICSW, MPA, is a clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience, primarily in the substance abuse treatment and prevention fields. He has also worked in the affordable housing and homeless services and administered a family mediation program. He is beginning anew as a family and divorce mediator in Rhode Island.