by Bob Collins

When I first became a stepdad just a couple of years after my divorce, I was excited to have a ready-made family to love, care for, and raise. I gradually learned that it wasn’t that simple and easy.

I had no idea what “stepdad” really meant, but my new wife and her 14-year-old daughter were more than happy to teach me.

While it is tempting, and even seems logical, to help your new spouse raise her children since those children live with you sometimes now, there are few things more hazardous to a stepfamily marriage. Although you may freely share food, bills, chores, and even sex with your new partner, the rearing of her child is strictly her business. If she does not make that clear before you marry, she will soon thereafter—and the earlier the better for you.

Your stepchild (or stepchildren) will most likely act out in some way to show you that they don’t want you, need you, or approve of you in their family circle. You are an unwanted intruder whom their mother brought into their already shaken world, who is trying to take the place of their father and who is utterly annoying simply because you exist. Based on my experiences with hundreds of stepchildren and stepparents, stepdaughters are way more endearing and, at the same time, way, way more difficult than stepsons. Stepsons can often be won over with sports, food, and/or money. Stepdaughters will determine when, if ever, they will accept you.

And yet, while you may have to step carefully in this new family you’ve helped piece together, you do have responsibilities to them. You have to love the mama and care for her kids, because you love her, and she loves them. Part of your responsibility is to share your mate’s burdens. It is vital, though, that the stepparent acts as an assistant, not as the new head-parent or co-parent. Remember that you married your spouse, not her kids. Your job is to help her, not take over her role or responsibilities with her children.

I’ve seen so many stepfamilies where a new stepdad determines to “help” by stepping up and trying to teach the kids all about discipline and respect for their mom—because he sees those things lacking. I understand the motivation behind that approach, but it pretty much never works. Stepdads who try this wind up frustrated, with a hurt wife and rebellious stepkids. The kids see a stranger pushing them around in their own home and usurping their mom in her role as parent. Naturally, they are less than excited about the changes.

We stepdads need to keep in mind that these people we live with have had a relationship much longer than we’ve been around them. 

I had to learn this in my own relationship. My new wife and her teenage daughter had their own way of relating, and to me, it didn’t make any sense; it seemed unhealthy and just wrong. But whenever I tried to “help” by suggesting ways they could improve their communication habits, it was me who was out of line. I soon figured out that they had long-established patterns of working out issues, based on a shared history that began at the daughter’s birth. My wife clearly knew how to reach her daughter most effectively.

One stepdad in a support group told about breaking up an argument between his wife and his 200-pound stepson because he was afraid things would go too far. He was stunned afterwards to realize that his wife was mad at him for protecting her. (Important note: all mothers are protective of their children and their relationships with their children.) The wife explained that she had everything under control, and that she and her son had an established pattern for working out issues: he would throw a fit for a while until finally he would break down and open up about the real problem.

When the stepdad jumped in to make peace, he was disrupting a mom and son working through a disagreement in a way that was familiar to them. If he’d stayed out of it, his wife said, pretty soon her son would have settled down and talked to her about it. But as it happened, the matter was unresolved, the mom was frustrated, the son felt like his stepdad was butting in, and the stepdad was just confused. Nobody won because an outsider tried to get in the middle.

What works best, in my experience, is for the stepdad to remember his place in the new family structure–that is, again, partner to the parent. As a partner, he provides assistance only when it’s requested or needed, and always in ways that are consistent with his wife—not when he decides it’s time to jump in and take over.

We teach in our support groups and classes that a stepparent should ask themselves this important question:

Has your spouse, the bio-parent, invited or asked for your assistance?

If not then, quite plainly, it’s none of your business. Keep in mind, you signed on as spouse to the parent, not as replacement for them.

The obvious exception to this is when your spouse specifically asks you to help her with the kids. But even then, your responsibility is to assist, not take over. Help with what she asks, as much as she asks, in the way she asks, and nothing else. If you feel like there is more to be done, talk to her about it alone, later. Maybe over a very nice dinner. But only as her friend and assistant.

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Bob Collins has been a stepdad since 1994 and a stepfamily teacher and mediator since 2004. With his wife, he has taught a stepparenting class in Fort Smith Arkansas for over two decades, working with almost 2,000 stepfamilies. Today he works with the Arkansas Family Court system and is a counselor and minister to divorcing and remarried families around the world. His website is at FamilyMediator.org.

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