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Let's say your partner doesn't have primary physical custody, but the kids show up on the weekends. Once a week, or once every other week, your life changes.
Even if their main home is elsewhere, it's vital that the stepchildren feel that they are residents (albeit short-term ones) rather than guests. Reassure them that this is still their home. This is not only for the children's well-being, though that's important too. It's essential for yours. You can't be on host or hostess duty whenever the stepkids are there. Even young children can take on some responsibility. Having small jobs to do (such as clearing the table or hanging up their wet towels) will keep you out of the role of “hotel staff” and will make them feel they belong.
Even kids who are rarely around need a private spot to call their own, such as a shelf, a drawer, or a whole room.
”I Didn't Expect This!”
Often people marry parents without knowing ahead of time how much the children will be visiting. Pete and Sarah fell wildly in love and married after a four-month romance. “I thought Chuck had custody and that Sarah only had visitation rights, but I didn't realize we'd spend every weekend of our lives with her kids,” says Pete. “I work all week, and I want to see my wife alone once in a while.”
Often the kids don't visit as much while the parent is dating, but once the parent is settled down again, they become a big part of their parent's life once more. Unless the extent of the parent's involvement with his or her children is discussed ahead of time, it can lead to deep resentment, like Pete's. Partners need to talk about visitation and its attendant problems at the first signs of strain. There's more on visiting in When Stepchildren Visit.
If, like many steps, you “get” the stepchildren for the occasional weekend or holiday and then for big blocks of time (like summer), be prepared for a very different experience. There will be more strain than if you are regularly in each others' lives. But you'll also be getting a closer look at the kid who goes to the park with your spouse once a week during the school year. The glow will be gone. The romance will be over. You'll all get real. And what you may find is a kid you really like.
Nasty Gnarly Transitions and Comparisons
Whenever any kind of transition is made within a child's environment, there will be some equal (if not opposite) reaction time. Be prepared for some nasty comparisons, often voiced by a child beginning a sentence with something like, “At home we…” or “But Dad used to let us.…” Here's a strong suggestion for dealing with the comparison game (and my advice goes for the full-time stepparent as well): Don't play! Simply say in a neutral voice that leaves no room for debate, “Well in this house we all clear our own dishes to the sink.” If there's still resistance, add, “We have different rules for different houses.”
Don't Be Wicked
It's important to take care of yourself when your stepkids are there, but it's also important that you don't do it at the expense of your mate or your family. Consult with your mate. Is it convenient for you to play poker with the guys that night? Or did she have a big family dinner in mind?
Time for Yourself
When the going gets tough, the tough need some recreation. This is a good time to spend doing something special with your own child, if you have one. (After all, you both might be feeling stressed and appreciate the time together away from the others!) Or schedule in time for yourself to do whatever you do to relax. Have a massage, a bubble bath, a chocolate binge, a long chat on the phone with a friend. Organize a golf game. You'll be at your best as a stepparent when you're at your best personally.
Say your partner has kids, but they live far, far away. Perhaps you've never met them. At the least, they're not in your life. You don't have much of a relationship, and you may not want to! Sometimes you chat with them on the phone, but since you don't know them, it feels awkward. Here are some things about long-distance stepparenting:
- Be prepared for them to demonize or romanticize you—or sometimes both! You're not with them, so it's impossible for them to really know you.
- That's true vice versa: You may feel more than geographically distant from your stepkids. How can you not?
- You may not want a relationship with the kids. (It's probably a good idea to have some relationship with them, though; they'll probably appear in your life at some point.)
- You may feel nonexistent. You pick up the phone only to hear, “Hi, is my mom there?”
- Getting to know your long-distance stepchild is up to you. You can write letters or email, send small gifts, or become active in the child's life in other ways.
- Don't expect kids to write back!
More on: Nontraditional Families
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz. All rights reserved including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form. Used by arrangement with Alpha Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
To order this book visit the Idiot's Guide web site or call 1-800-253-6476.