With the birth of my little girl three months ago, I’ve reflected a lot on families and family dynamics; in between breastfeeding, changing diapers and reading “Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?” of course. And I’ve come to realize something. Some of the biggest challenges of steplife boil down to the fact that we are expected to share the love.
Any parent of multiple children will tell you that, of course, love is not a zero sum equation. You don’t love your first born less when you give birth to their younger sibling. There is just more love to go around. But stepfamily dynamics are more complex, and we have to share love in ways that aren’t always easy.
One evening, not long after my daughter was born, my husband jokingly commented that he had to share me now. Something twigged for me, and I realized, I had always been sharing him.
When you have a child, you love that child as an extension of yourself. Automatically, unconditionally. When I see my husband with our daughter, having bonding time, I feel just as connected as if I were in between them like an Erin sandwich (nice visual right? Haha). But when I see him with his two kids from his first marriage, I don’t feel the same way.
Many stepmothers struggle with insider-outsider feelings, myself included, despite the awesome relationship I have with my stepkids. It’s natural. Your partner has shared history, genetics, and time with his children that you do not have. This is not to say that I don’t love them or love seeing them together, because I do, I just don’t feel like I “belong” in the same way. We’re sharing my husband rather than being an interwoven extension of each other.
In addition to sharing your partner with the kids, you’re also sharing him with his ex. In a way. Perhaps sharing isn’t the right word, but very often, she’s … “present”. Whether it’s via email, text, phone or in person, chances are your partner has some contact with his ex. My husband and his ex talk about the kids – scheduling, school, special occasions, behaviour, and the big one – money, etc… and I completely understand why. But my exes are not present in our relationship in any way, primarily because we don’t have kids together. This “presence of the ex” can range from civil to sticky to downright contentious and volatile.
There are other ways that love is shared in a stepfamily. The bio mom may feel that she is suddenly sharing her kids with your partner (her ex), rather than being a family together. When you come into the picture, she is also sharing her kids with a new woman – this can really get the emotional pot boiling. The children may also experience this sense of sharing love, whether it is sharing time with their mom and dad, or sharing their dad with you as a stepmom. Sigh. It is so complex.
So how do we share love in a way that positively supports these various relationships?
- Remember that love is not a zero sum equation … The more people you love; there isn’t less love to go around. Loving a new partner doesn’t take love away from the kids.
- Understand that supporting love between others can strengthen your own relationships … For example, supporting your partner in his relationship with his children can make your romantic relationship stronger because he’s feeling more at ease and happier as a father. Make sure he spends one-on-one time with his kiddos.
- If you add an “ours” baby to the family, don’t worry that there will be less love for the new addition … Focus on the new relationships that are forming (the baby with mom and dad, and the baby with his/her stepsiblings). Foster those new relationships and it will benefit everyone in the end.
- Be gentle with yourself and others … Don’t force relationships that aren’t ready to develop. You won’t automatically love your stepchildren, because they are strangers when you first meet them. Allow the relationship to grow at its own pace. Similarly, don’t force a friendship with the ex. Be kind, be civil, but take it slow. Make sure your partner knows you are there to support him as a father, and always ask for what you need from your relationship.
So yes, we do share love. But when we do so thoughtfully and respectfully, we may find that love is suddenly multiplied… bigger than ever.
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.