I’m engaged to a man who has four children. I’ve never had children and I worry that he has expectations that I jump in and become their new mother. The children’s parents have been through a divorce and I can sense that they won’t know how to deal with me. I don’t want to be perceived as the “wicked stepmother.” How can I make this transition work well for everyone?
You’ve correctly assessed the delicate nature of this transition for everyone involved. Here are some thoughts about how you and your fiancé can navigate the challenges of blending two families.
Please note that your primary objective is to keep a strong line of communication open with your fiancé. Does he know how nervous you are about this transition? Have you had a chance to express your mixed feelings about the relationship with his children? Your ability to communicate with him will give both of you a chance to minimize the inevitable misunderstands that are common with remarriages.
Your fiancé will naturally be protective of his children’s needs and worries. He may feel guilty for dragging them through a divorce. It’s important that both of you go easy on one another during this time, as it’s common for defenses to run high as he seeks to protect his children and you seek to fit in.
It’s common for children to have mixed feelings about accepting a new stepparent. Divorce is traumatic for children and leaves them with a profound feeling of helplessness. They may irrationally blame you for the breakup of their parent’s marriage, even if you showed up long after the fact. Their desire to make sense out of their loss may cast your motives in an unfair light.
Despite all of the resistance you may experience from his children, please note that there are many things you can do to help ease the transition. It’s helpful to recognize a few truths about step parenting.
First of all, you will have less influence than the biological parent when it comes to discipline. Even though you will be part of the parenting team, if you enter the family and begin directing people around expecting them to respect your authority, you will be in for a surprise. Depending on the age of the children, your influence will be more tied to how they feel about your relationship with them individually.
Babies and younger children will have less difficulty adapting to a change in parents. Teenagers and adult children will expect you to develop a relationship with them before you will earn any respect. This can often take years to develop.
The most helpful way to think about your relationship with his children is to recognize that early on in the transition you will have about as much influence as a grandparent.
Grandparents aren’t expected to create rules, rarely enforce the rules, and spend more time enjoying and building relationships with their grandchildren. Building a relationship with each child is the primary task of a new stepparent. Your efforts have to be motivated out of a genuine desire to know each child’s interests, likes and dislikes, and how they are dealing with the transition.
If you will be the primary caregiver for the children during the day, you will be faced with the task of keeping order and enforcing discipline. It’s critical that your fiancé works to help the children know that these are his rules and expectations. If they know that they have to answer to him, you won’t have to carry the entire load alone. Regular family meetings with the children can help everyone know that it is their responsibility to maintain order. To leave you with the sole burden of disciplining while you’re trying to build relationships will set everyone up for failure.
Depending on how the children feel about their mother, it’s important for them to know that you support their relationship with their mother. If they perceive that you want to replace their mother, they will often stick up for their mother. There is no need to compete. You are not their biological mother and they should be encouraged to maintain and build their relationship with their mother. Of course, if spending time with their mother is not in their best interest and has been limited by a judge, your only obligation is to be a positive and stable influence in their lives.
Your ability to demonstrate compassion to the children, their father, and the stress that they’ve all experienced will go a long way towards making this a positive experience. Do your best to enter with a spirit of curiosity, gentleness and understanding.
Geoff Steurer is a licensed marriage and family therapist in private practice in St. George, UT. Please send questions for future columns to: firstname.lastname@example.org. Geoff maintains a blog, article archive, Twitter feed, and Facebook page which are available at www.geoffsteurer.com.
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