by the Rev. Peter Stimpson
QUESTION: I recently remarried. I got out of a miserable marriage and hoped that life with my new wife would be so much happier. Instead, I find more ups and downs than I ever imagined. Do you have any advice for a new stepparent?
ANSWER: As one out of every two marriages ends in divorce, and as the majority of those divorced remarry, the number of reconstituted families has correspondingly risen, posing a series of ups and downs when one becomes a stepparent.
Many a stepparent dreams of entering a ready-made family where instant happiness looms just behind the door. A stepfather, for example, may expect to be called “Dad” and ushered to an oversized chair, onto which his stepchildren will climb for a hug and a bedtime story. Instead, he is greeted by children who either peek around the corner at him, or tell him to get out of their father’s chair. If he tries to claim his right as their father, he may be told blatantly that he is not, and never will be, their father, and then find himself in a discipline battle over issues large and small.
Turning to his new wife for support, he may be aghast to discover that she overrules him in front of the children, telling him that her ex-husband and she always let the children stay up until midnight on weekends. Gradually, difficulty with his new stepchildren evolves into difficulty with his new wife.
The situation is often harder for a stepmother, especially if she does not work, meaning that there are larger blocks of time during which she must interact with the children. If the mother has been the first and primary source of emotional nurturance for the children, the stepmother, even if she is a direct transplant from the Brady Bunch, may be viewed as ranking three steps down from the Wicked Witch of the West.
Rather than despair, consider three suggestions.
1. EXPECT A NEW NORMAL: First, stepparents should work out new relations with stepchildren, not base “normal” on a first family, or get too upset if not called “Mom” or “Dad”. The intention of the children is less to hurt you and more to remain loyal to their biological parent. Realize that you have to begin at the beginning, getting to know your stepchildren gradually. And then both you and they must see that love is not a limited quantity to be jealously guarded, but a limitless quality to be generously bestowed, the relationships between children and their parents and stepparents being different, not competitive.
2. TALK TOGETHER instead of ACT APART: Secondly, spend time talking with your spouse regarding issues like discipline, rather than trying to impose old or preconceived plans on one another. What worked in the past is past, and unless you both agree on the new rules for the house, the children will see the rift and probably try to manipulate one of you against the other. This may not mean agreeing on how to discipline, but rather agreeing to let the biological parent discipline their own children, taking the pressure off the stepparent, who now simply has to support their spouse and present a united front.
3. BE PATIENT: Thirdly, everyone should be patient and sensitive to the adjustment being made by everyone else. The children now have to relate to two sets of parents and four sets of grandparents. A stepmother has to work to help her husband make child support payments for his children from his first marriage. A stepfather has to deal with his wife’s ex-husband coming into his house every weekend to pick up the children. And then there are all the family functions and parties to which everyone is invited, making it impossible to pretend that the other marriage never existed. The point, however, is not to pretend, but to adjust, and that to adjust, you must communicate frequently with all members of this newly reconstituted family.
The stresses involved in second marriages often lead to a second divorce. So, if being hurt once was bad enough, then consider opening yourself up to the change and happiness that can be yours.