I am fairly confident that the majority of my readership are women – stepmoms specifically. Considering they are my main target group, I’m quite pleased with that!
However, understanding stepfamily dynamics is important for everyone. Who knows? You may end up living in a stepfamily someday, you may teach kids who live in two different houses, or you may be a therapist whose newest clients are a stepcouple. In so many ways you may find yourself working with or simply meeting stepfamilies. They are, after all, everywhere!
So, I hope that these articles reach a wider audience, and today, my focus is on the Dads.
Typically, I write about and to the stepmom experience (because that’s what I know), but I think there are some key takeaways for Dads that can help build successful, happy, and loving second marriages and families.
So ladies, leave this article somewhere for your man to find (i.e. on the BBQ, in the bathroom… just kidding), or just pass him the tablet and ask him to take a gander. After all, a strong marriage + strong parenting = strong stepfamily. (Disclaimer: “strong” doesn’t mean tough; strong means loving, committed, dedicated, affirming, and based on open communication).
TIP #1: Accept that this family dynamic is different from your first marriage.
Some men want to get back to the comfort of family life quickly and assume that stepmoms will slide right in to fill the “mothering” spot. This WILL NOT happen. In your first marriage or relationship, you and your wife had children together – children who are a mix of the two of you. You both had the powerful pregnancy and bonding time with a newborn. You’ve been there to see them walk, talk, fall off a bike and draw a family picture. Even if you separated very early after the birth, that baby is still half you and half your first wife. The bond with your children is immediate, unconditional, and biological.
In your new relationship, you bring with you all of that knowledge – “No, she won’t eat carrots”, “Yes, he’s always been a sensitive kid. He just needs a bit more time”. That intimate knowledge of who your kids are and who you are as their dad is a beautiful thing.
On the other hand, your new partner has none of that. These kids are complete strangers to her. She doesn’t know your history together, the kids’ personalities… in the beginning, she doesn’t really know what kind of a dad you are. All of this takes an incredible amount of time. With that time, patience, and support, stepfamilies can absolutely come to find their own groove and family life. But, it will NEVER be the same as first family life, and that is okay! Different is not bad. But the longer you hold a certain expectation, the more disappointing it will be for you. And you will miss out on all the small changes along the way.
TIP #2: You’re the parent – discipline is your job.
Over time, and I mean years, your partner can step into more of a parenting role (with your support). But in the beginning, all of the parenting – rules, guidance, discipline – comes from you. Your new partners’ role is to support you as a dad and begin to slowly build a relationship with the kids. Expecting your partner to step up with the same level of authority as you, will only cause friction between her and your kids.
TIP #3: Do your best to foster respect between your partner and your kids, and if at all possible, between your partner and your ex.
While your new partner should not take a disciplinary role, you do need to require that your kids treat her with respect – and of course, she must do the same. The bond will take time, but respect is fundamental to living a peaceful life.
Depending on the context, it is ideal that you, your ex, and your new partner can be on good terms and work together for the sake of the kids. If possible, it is in everyone’s best interest if the adults can get along, and trust me that it’s worth it to see the smiles on the kids’ faces when you can all be in the same space for a school concert, a birthday party, or just a weekend transition when kids are coming or going.
TIP #4: If your partner is struggling, hear her out, and be supportive of her taking a break.
Hear me out. You’re the most popular guy in the room. Your kids love you and hold a very special place in your heart. Your new partner wouldn’t be a stepmom if not for falling in love with you, so you’re the common denominator. The common-love-denominator!
As I said in TIP #1, your new partner does not have the history, the love, or the tolerance for your kids that you do. This can make her feel guilty and frustrated, so it means a lot to have her partner – you – understand that this is not an easy situation for her. Even if you don’t really get it, listen and be supportive. Suggest that she take some time on her own – go for a walk, meet a friend for coffee, just a little time away to recharge. Trust me that she’ll thank you for it.
TIP #5: You’re doing just fine.
You’re a great dad, I just know it. And you’ve met someone who wants to be a part of the family you nurture. It’s not always easy, but nothing good ever is. Keep doing what you’re doing, and foster an open, honest, and caring relationship with those you love.
Breathe deep, love deeper.
Erin Careless is the founder and owner of Steplife – Stepmom Coaching and Support where she works one-on-one and in group settings to support blended families. She is a contributing author to Stepparent Magazine and has been published in The Divorce Magazine and Huffington Post. She is a wife, stepmom of two, and mother of one baby girl. See her blog at http://blog.steplife.ca.