Stepparenting: Slow and Steady Wins the Race
Children are quite proficient relationship saboteurs when they want to be. All the more reason to take it slow as you build a relationship with your stepchildren.
If you are in a situation where you are going to be a stepmother, it is best to establish a friendship first with the child. If you want to have any authority in your own home you definitely do not want to come on so strong that you give the child no choice but to resist. You can have better luck if you view yourself as an additional person who can add to the quality of the child's life. If you have trouble knowing where to put yourself, concentrate on the signals you get from the child. You don't have to hold back love, but you do not want to give it so fast and so much that the child can't trust it.
Taking the Household Reins, Gently
On the other hand, a woman in the house becomes the person in charge. You will have a lot of conflict on your hands if you lead the child to feel pushed aside and overlooked. Children are very good at maintaining their position in their homes. To them it is a matter of emotional survival. You would not believe how much a child, even one of average intelligence, can manipulate a situation in order to maintain a sense of security. If you cause the child to feel threatened, do not be surprised to find some very subtle efforts at sabotage.
Manipulation is not necessarily evil and mean-spirited. Children may not be conscious of why they are doing something. They are only looking at the immediate result they want to achieve. If they are worried that Daddy loves the new wife more than he loves them and will abandon them, children look for ways to survive—maybe by developing an illness with real symptoms. Maybe, through naughty behavior, the child will find ways to pit one parent against the other. A child can be aware of exactly what will upset everyone and will not hesitate to use this primitive form of intuition.
Take the Children's Worldview into Account
The problem can be avoided when the stepparents and biological parents become more aware of what the blended family world looks like to a child. You can tell yourself that, as the adults in the situation, your needs and decisions override everything else. But this would be very shortsighted. If you put your child's feelings and worldview into the equation, you are going to be able to avoid problems before they happen.
All children really want is love and security. They don't care if they have two parents who love them or four parents. The more the better if they feel valued and loved. It is when children feel threatened or pushed aside that the problems develop. It is more difficult to reassure children in blended families; their history has proven that things don't always work out according to plan. Although it is difficult to think about the children when everything seems a mess, doing so really goes a long way toward straightening everything out.
Stepparents have legitimate frustrations and concerns. When you think of marriage you think of a nuclear family where there is a daddy, a mommy, and the children. You imagine yourself with some kind of “normal” life, like what you have seen on TV. Nothing too fancy. A few million dollars would be nice, but after a divorce, being able to go through a day without palpitations would be nice, too.
A family cannot be said to be truly blended until all members—both parents and all the children—fully accept one another as part of the unit.
When you blend a family, whether it is a divorced mom with a man with no children, a divorced father with a woman with no children, or a man and woman who are both divorced with children, you are going to have some simple logistical problems. You have a lot of personalities to contend with. You also have:
- Clothing that gets lost
- Books that are at one house when they should be at the other
- Schedules that collide with vacations
- Illnesses that now pass through two homes
- Resentment, and people to appease
- Petty jealousies and competitiveness
I am only familiar with my own situation with two ex-husbands, three children, and my new husband. Thank God my husband and I know each other well enough not to have to deal with many of the conflicts newlyweds have.
Striking a Balance: The Chocolate Incident
When you have a blended family it is vital that the parents create a united front. You have to decide ahead of time how you are going to handle situations. If you don't, the children will try to pull you away from each other so that they can be in control.
More on: Nontraditional Families
Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Motherhood © 1999 by Deborah Levine Herman. 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.
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