A common expectation from divorced dads is that their partner will step in and parent their children. They might think that if their partner spends more time with the child, a bond will occur quickly and they’ll be a “real” family. But this can often backfire, as there are many challenges a stepparent faces that usually don’t exist for the parent; challenges that make it exhausting, and sometimes impossible, to “parent” another’s child, especially early on in the relationship.
The relationship between stepparent and stepchild will take years to develop and forcing it may actually delay things, or prevent it from ever happening, as negative feelings and resentments build.
But since a lot of dads don’t know this, they get frustrated when their wife wants a break or is resistant to parenting their child.
The fact is, there are some very good reasons why it’s often harder to stepparent than it is to parent.
1. Children are more forgiving of a parent than a stepparent. Parents might learn as they go too, especially first-time parents, but the cost is less. There may already be so many negative emotions about having a stepparent, that one wrong move might cause the child to hold a grudge, making it impossible to ever get close to him. Stepparents often live in fear of misstepping, especially when they don’t know what that might be until it’s too late.
2. A parent has a higher level of tolerance for their own child than the stepparent has. The stepparent didn’t go through nine months of carrying the baby in their womb. They (usually) didn’t have those very precious first few years with the child where they bonded. The child is not an extension of the stepparent. It’s just natural to have more patience for something that’s yours, than something that isn’t. The mess, the noise, the tantrums, the stress – I don’t believe any parent loves these things, but they tolerate it because, well, that child is theirs. Something happened when that baby was born that gave them unlimited ability to put up with anything and everything the child throws at them. Even when they do need a break or get angry, their love for that child never waivers and they’re ready to get back on the saddle in record time. Most stepparents don’t have this superpower and it can often take a long time to trust the child again or have positive feelings towards them.
3. A stepparent never knows when they should speak up. A stepparent is often worried about stepping on toes, getting backlash for something she said, or even something she didn’t say – something that was misinterpreted by the ex or incorrectly passed on to the ex by the kids. And because of #1 above, there’s always a fear of her stepchild not liking her anymore. What an awful existence, living with someone who doesn’t like you – but often holds so much power in the house. It’s exhausting to be so unsure of oneself. And walking on eggshells for an extended period of time will wear out even the strongest of spirits.
4. The child wants to be parented by their parent, not their stepparent. Children are craving time and attention from their parent. They don’t see their stepparents as authority figures, meaning the child doesn’t see them as someone they have to listen to. If they feel resentment that they even have this extra person in their life, listening to and respecting them as an important person in their life isn’t at the top of their to-do list. And even if the relationship is decent between them, it can still feel an intrusion when a stepparent tries to intervene.
5. Children naturally want to please their parents, not so with stepparents. Children don’t look for the approval of their stepparent the way they do their parent. There’s not a natural sense of wanting to be accepted by them. Don’t get me wrong, we all want to be liked, but what I’m referring to is happening on a much deeper level. In fact, sometimes they want to make things as difficult as possible for them, hoping on some level that maybe they’ll just leave and the child can have their parent all to themselves again.
6. A parent has unconditional love for their child, whereas a stepchild can feel like a foreign entity to a stepparent. People love to judge a stepmom who doesn’t automatically fall in love with her stepchild. But the reality is these are basically two strangers who didn’t choose each other, now finding themselves part of the same family. Research shows it takes 4-7 years for a stepfamily to feel and function like a family, so those first years are an adjustment, to say the least, for everyone. A child doesn’t automatically think of their stepparent as a parent – or of any importance to them at all. That bond will take years to develop. And sometimes it just doesn’t happen.
7. There might be an unhappy ex in the mix, discouraging the kids from having a relationship with the stepparent. When a parent places a child in a loyalty bind, the child thinks “If I like my stepparent or have fun with her, it will hurt my mom.” Therefore the child may resist a relationship with their stepparent, or even worse, start acting out against her. Research shows that the more a child actually likes their stepparent, the worse he may act towards her. The guilt he feels may be too overwhelming, as he thinks he’s betraying his other parent.
Dads: If you want to be your wife’s hero, listen to her when she says she’s having a hard time trying to parent your child or when she’s asking you to do more of the heavy lifting that is rightfully yours. It’s not because she “doesn’t like” your child; it’s not because she doesn’t care for you. It’s simply because this is the nature of stepfamily dynamics and sometimes it’s just impossible for her to be what you expect.
The development of the stepparent/stepchild relationship doesn’t happen overnight, so If you want to preserve the space for that relationship to happen, honor the process by letting it evolve naturally, at a pace everyone is comfortable with.
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.