As of this May I will have been wearing the hat as stepmom for seven years. Although I love my stepsons fiercely and care deeply for them, this position has not been an easy one to come into and maintain. I once had a Social Worker friend of the family tell me “being a parent is hard… being a stepparent is its own special kind of hard.” That statement proved to be one of the truest that I have heard regarding step parenting. There are so many complexities that I wish I had known about this new roll I took on. Some of the greater challenges I have encountered in my role as a stepparent are shared custody, the outsider phenomena, and the relationship dynamics.
This is one of the biggest, hardest, complicated, and most emotional factor of blending a family. We have week to week custody of the boys. Our lives are forever in a constant state of flux and adjustment. This is not easy for someone who, like me, is a hundred percent resistant to transitions, they bring up all kinds of anxiety for me. I tried to broach this with compassion. I too was a child of divorced parents who shared custody. I know how unsettled it can feel to consistently be shuffled back and forth. However, even with that approach the constant transitions can take their toll.
The boys (or Brothers – as my daughter says) come to us on Sunday. The first three days of transition are spent with reminders of rules in this house, constant fights, and defiant behaviour. We have two days where everything is smooth, and then two days of change buildup. We repeat this cycle every second week into infinity. After 7 years of this pattern, I have grown accustom to it, I am used to the constant upheaval and change. It has never gotten any easier to transition. By the Wednesday of weeks we don’t have the boys my anxiety is in high gear. By Sunday morning flight or fight has kicked in, by Sunday Night I am planning my escape for the week. I never actually do escape. I know that the next three days will be rough but get progressively better. I know that the dust will settle. I know everything will be ok. So, I focus on self-care, self-love, and self-compassion. Acceptance and patience go a long way during these times.
I don’t actually know if this is the correct terminology, but it is a real thing. The boys obviously have a closer bond to their biological parents. That is a bond that physically I could never have with them. That feeling of disconnect is the outsider phenomena. It creeps up in the weirdest instances, such as at the dinner table when the dish I have prepared is suddenly brought into comparison to their mother’s version of the same dish. Things like “my mom’s chili…” come up on chili night ALL the time. The fact that they need to compare it isn’t actually about the chili, it all stems from the position from where I sit in their perspective. As the outsider coming in.
Yes, this is true. These are real feelings that surface when you step into a child’s life who is not your own. I know that my bond will never be the one to which they have with their mother’s. But that doesn’t mean that we don’t all love and care for one another. The fact is that there will always be a time where the outsider phenomena will present itself. I expect this will continue into their adulthood. Because all of this boils right down to biology, and it isn’t on my side.
Oh, relationships. The word itself just sounds complicated. Where or how do I even begin to explain to you the many, many, many relationship dynamics and appropriate handling of each relationship? Well, I guess I should start at the beginning.
In the beginning there was me, and there was this gorgeous man that I vowed upon first sight of him that HE was the one. Long story short - HE is the one. So, there is that relationship. Second, this gorgeous tall, dark, and handsome creature has two sons. There is that relationship. Those two boys are probably two of the cutest kids I have ever met… side bar. Those boys have a mother. There is that relationship. Their mother is my partner’s ex… there’s another one. The boys mother has a new partner and two kids with that new partner… yes that relationship matters, I will explain later. And finally, now we have a daughter. That is probably the most important relationship dynamic out of them all. If this sounds coo-coo bananas, let me explain. If you are a stepparent, chances are you already understand what I am about to say.
Each one of these relationship dynamics need to be treated with the utmost respect. There can never be any ill words spoke about any of these relationship dynamics. For example, if I hear about a fight between their mother and her new partner I cannot engage and ask for all the gory details. That is probably the most detrimental thing I could do in this situation. The appropriate response is to act neutral, offer compassion to the child, and swallow what ever kind of urge I might have to even ask just one question about it. Another example, the relationship between my husband and his two boys is a sacred one. I let him have his one-on-one time with his boys to bond with them after a week apart. That is their time, and that time they spend together is important.
I feel like when I became a stepparent it was infinitely more complicated than when I became a mother. Appropriate care of handling each relationship dynamic is so important in maintaining trust and respect.
I don’t know what I thought it would be like to stepparent. Honestly, I think I was too blindsided by love to even consider what came along with the role of stepmom. When I came into the relationship with my husband, I was childless. My experiences with children were all situations where I could hand them back to their parents at the end of the day. There is a big leap from going to that to assuming a new position as a parental figure. Not only to one, but two boys. Had I known any of these challenges before I came into this position in life I feel I would have been better equipped when I approached the role of stepparent.