I couldn’t have imagined that 3 years after marrying my husband who had 50/50 custody, we’d be moving 3000 miles away, gaining full physical custody of both boys (then 14 and 17), while mom stayed put. Nope, I did not see that one coming.
The thing with stepfamily life is you never know what’s going to happen. You marry a man with kids who sees them half of the time and you assume it will always be that way. But nothing stays the same.
In my case, we moved in hopes of giving my older stepson a fresh start. So when I was faced with the move, I didn’t think twice, because I knew it needed to be done. But that didn’t mean I was prepared for it.
Going from part-time to full-time custody is one of the most difficult changes you can experience.
Some stepmoms love spending the majority of time with their stepchildren and truly miss them when they’re gone. For these stepmoms, going full-time won’t be as big a challenge – they may even welcome the change. But if you’re one of the many stepmoms who are childfree by choice and/or do the happy dance when the kids go to the other house, transition to full-time stepmom could be extremely difficult for you.
I was one of those stepmoms. Not because of anything having to do with my stepkids, but because I was childfree for a reason.
- I loved my alone time in my house.
- I loved that I could clean it and it would stay clean.
- I loved that my sense of responsibility could shift to myself when the kids were gone.
- I loved the alone time with my husband.
As a side note, some people believe if you don’t want your own kids then you shouldn’t marry a man with them. I’d have to disagree. I’ve seen a lot of good come from my relationship with my stepkids – even though I never wanted my own.
We dance because we can finally relax.
And many women who didn’t want their own children make wonderful stepmoms. They’re caring and compassionate and can easily model a peaceful existence and healthy adult relationship for the kids – because they’re not looking to fulfill a fantasy of motherhood through their stepchildren – and it doesn’t make them jerks just because they do a celebratory dance when the kids leave.
So if you’re like me in that respect, be prepared to sacrifice all of that.
Break? What break?
One of the most exhausting things about having the kids all the time is that you don’t get a break from being “on.” Many stepmoms don’t feel 100% free to be themselves when the kids are home. Watching what you say, what you wear, what you do – and most of all, that feeling of being responsible for a child – these are always present.
Sure, ultimately the child is your partner’s responsibility, but I believe we have an instinct to be on alert at all times when a child is in our home.
I tried to explain this to my stepson. Him being a well-mannered and very well-behaved 16-year-old, can’t understand why I feel a sense of responsibility for him when he’s home – regardless of whether or not my husband is home. But I’m always on alert. What’s he doing? Where is he? What’s that noise? Is he cleaning up after himself?
He’s the most responsible teenager I’ve ever met, and yet I still have those thoughts running through my mind, pretty much all the time.
You never know what’s going to happen
Remember when I said everything changes? Even if you have everything planned out, even if it’s written in a custody agreement, things don’t always turn out the way you planned.
Mom’s visits that were supposed to happen every so often stopped happening.
My oldest eventually moved back when he turned 18, but my youngest loved our new home and his visits back to his mom became few and far between (negotiated between him and mom) – which meant my husband and I got even less alone time than expected. And I got even fewer breaks than I had planned on.
It became more important than ever that we carve out the time to connect as a couple.
How can I prepare?
All the preparation in the world won’t fully prepare you, because you can’t know all the road bumps you’ll encounter until they happen, but there are some things you can do ease your transition.
- Have a discussion about house rules – Talk about what roles and responsibilities all members of the family will have so that everyone is contributing. No more letting kids off the hook because of guilt or any other reason. The full-time gig will only work if everyone is willing to pitch in. And if the kids are resistant, your partner must stand up for you and enforce the rules.
Try this: Go through a typical day from morning to night and think of all the situations that can occur and what challenges might pop up. For example, do the kids usually put up a fight at bedtime, dragging it out for an extended period of time, exhausting everyone? You won’t have the bandwidth to go through that every night, so this is a situation that needs to be addressed and rules enforced around it. But if your partner refuses to enforce a rule around this, then he can be the one to deal with the child while you put yourself to bed.
- Plan for your alone time – There may come a time when you think you’re going crazy and just can’t take the pressure. In order to prevent that from happening, you need to be taking care of your own needs. You need to be seeing your friends and doing things you enjoy. This is non-negotiable. Have a plan for your own alone time and self-care. If you’re an introvert, meaning social interaction drains your energy and you need alone time to recharge, your self-care will be even more crucial.
- Schedule alone time with your partner – This should be as routine as the kids’ after-school activities and is another non-negotiable. If you and your partner don’t make time for each other, to reconnect and honor the intimacy of your relationship, you will start to emotionally separate. If that happens, your entire situation will go downhill because you won’t have the strength of your relationship to support you through this.
- Have a family discussion about what changes will occur and what it might be like to be with each other all of the time, with no break. Ask the kids if they have concerns. I remember light-heartedly saying to my then 14-year-old stepson, “Aren’t you a little afraid to live with me full time, with no break?!” He looked at me, shrugged, and said “no.” And that was the end of the conversation. It was clear that I was the one with doubts. But it’s good for kids to know the door is open for them to talk about their fears and expectations. If your stepkids don’t typically open up to you, your partner may need to talk to his children alone to get their real feelings about the move.
Living full-time with a stepchild who exhibits extreme behavior
If the change in custody means living full time with a troubled child, for example, one experiencing drug addiction or one who has mental health issues, you might find it very difficult to be around this child, finding every excuse to leave the house.
Do what you need to preserve your sanity.
Find supportive friends, see a therapist or coach who can help you manage your feelings and provide you with tools to survive this.
Your partner needs to understand that if it’s difficult for him to manage his child, it will be 1000 times harder for you. I actually got a second job just to get myself out of the house for the majority of the day.
If you have your own children, you might feel guilty that you’ve placed them in a difficult situation. Ask yourself what can you do for them.
How can you protect them?
Is it better for them to stay at the other house while you have visits with them outside the house?
What other options do you have?
And of course, never stay put if you think your stepchild is a danger to you or your kids. Depending on the severity of your situation, you may choose to live separately from your partner until he does what he needs to do with his child.
It’s not ideal, but it can save a marriage.
What does this mean for my relationship?
A change this drastic can make or break your relationship. There’s potential for separation, but also for closeness. As you know, the dynamic between you and your partner is quite different when the kids are present.
In order to preserve the romance and connectedness, you need time alone. And I’m referring to fun, stress-free time, doing things you enjoy, laughing! Even if it’s just going out to dinner once a week – it’s vital to your relationship.
It’s easy to make excuses why you can’t get alone time with your husband like you planned to. But it’s more important than ever that you stick to these commitments.
We started having my stepson go to his grandma’s house every few weeks, just so we could have one night alone. He resisted at first as he’s a homebody as much as I am, but I explained to him that all adults need alone time. And once he was there, he quite enjoyed himself and the spoils that came with it.
Aside from the fun date-night stuff, try to commit to having regularly scheduled time, just the two of you, where you can discuss the happenings of the household. Has something come up that isn’t working for you? Is conflict increasing between you two?
The goal is to stay ahead of any potential relationship wreckers.
You do this by making time for open and safe communication. Safe communication means allowing each other to speak honestly without getting defensive and instead, listening for what your partner is requesting.
What is he/she asking for?
What isn’t working and how can you work together to help change that?
You must give each other the benefit of doubt and trust that intentions are good.
You’re not complaining for the sake of complaining. Each of you is simply saying that something isn’t working and are asking for each other’s help in finding a solution.
For the Kids
If the child is moving away from the other parent, it’s important to continually encourage a relationship between them and their other parent. Remind them to call or Skype. Depending on their age, how often they contact their parent will eventually be up to them, but it’s important they know you and your partner always support that relationship.
Equally important is that the child still have alone time with the parent they’re living with. This is the perfect opportunity for you to practice your self-care and have your own alone time.
The child may also be fearful of such a huge change. It might mean a new school, new city, new friends, etc… Allow them to express their feelings without any judgement from you. Empathize with them without trying to “fix” things for them.
Consider having them see a counselor if they seem to have trouble adjusting. Sometimes they just need a safe place with a professional who can help them process their feelings.
In the end
Although going full time has the potential to be extremely stressful, it also has the potential to be a gift.
For me, the upside is that my marriage survived the turbulent time with my older stepson and now I get to enjoy my younger one. And I have to say we’ve become pretty darn close.
He shares details about his life without any prompting (what teenager does that?) and I get to watch him grow as a person by leaps and bounds.
My husband and I are teaching him how to drive and have encouraged him to get his first job, so at 16 he became certified lifeguard. He’s becoming very social, independent, has a great network of friends and is becoming an amazing young man.
While I imagine it must be difficult for his mom to hear about these milestones that are occurring in her absence, I feel incredibly lucky to be present for them.
These are memories my husband and I will have forever. These are experiences my husband and I will be looking back at with pride for years to come saying “Remember when…?”
These are the years that (I believe) are bonding my stepson and me for the rest of our lives. And for a woman who never wanted her own kids, that’s a wonderful, unexpected gift.
Jenna Korf is a Certified Stepfamily Foundation coach, an RCI Certified Relationship coach and co-author of the book, “Skirts At War: Beyond Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict.” She is also a blogger for The Huffington Post and has been featured as a stepfamily expert on CNN.com, parenting.com and care.com. Jenna is also a Registered Nurse, a stepmom and a stepchild. To read more from Jenna or for one-on-one coaching visit her at StepmomHelp.com.