I was recently invited by a fellow mom blogger to write and share a post about 10 things that make me happy. When I finished writing the piece, I proudly read it to my husband. When I was done reading, his face dropped. While he and my daughter had made it onto my list, I hadn’t included his daughter – my stepchild. What kind of a dreadful stepparent was I?
I fumbled a bit, trying to explain the oversight. “Honey, it’s a list of things that make me happy, not a list of things I love.” Max’s daughter lives in New York. She’s with us for just a few weeks of the year. So, to be honest, when I thought, “what makes me happy?” she wasn’t among the first 10 things that sprang to mind. But I swear, if I was writing a list of things I love, she would have made it onto my list.
Would you listen to me, making excuses when I probably shouldn’t because, well, when it comes to parenting a stepchild, it is what it is: complicated. Sure, in an ideal world we’d be able to say we love our stepchildren as if they’d sprung from our very own loins, but being a stepparent isn’t easy. Especially when the stepchild in question has a loving, full-time parent whose very existence (which, of course, we don’t begrudge) drives home the fact that no matter how hard we try, we will always play second fiddle.
Help me bond with my stepchild, already?
Alright, alright, I’m getting there. I promise! But first, let me set this up. Alyx, now 10, has been raised almost single-handedly by her mom, so her idea of how a family functions is vastly different from the picture my ex-husband and I instilled in our daughter before separating when she was seven. While this picture has served my daughter well (she understands that mealtime is family time, for example), it’s been detrimental to the relationship I have with my stepdaughter. Let me explain why.
For the longest time, I was certain that my way was the right way. That my idea of family ought to be my stepdaughter’s idea of family.
One evening, about two years ago, I put dinner on the table and asked everyone to sit down. My husband came and joined me, as did my daughter. My stepdaughter, however, went into the living room and lay on the floor in front of the couch. She was eight years old at the time.
Visit upon visit, our efforts to have Alyx join us at the table failed more often than they succeeded. It was making me C-R-A-Z-Y and causing lots of stress, especially between me and Alyx’s dad. Usually, my husband would ‘parent’ her at this moment and present her with an ultimatum: come and eat now or don’t eat at all. (Of course, he’d never follow through but that’s beside the point.) On this occasion, I decided to try something different. I excused myself from the table and went and lay down on the floor next to Alyx. We began to chat.
Me: You don’t like sitting at the dinner table, do you?
Me: Why do you think that is?
Alyx: I don’t know. I just don’t.
Me: I’m just curious. Do you and mommy eat at the dinner table.
Me: Oh. So what do you normally do when you’re eating.
Alyx: Well, sometimes I like to watch my iPad while I eat dinner. Other times I just eat in my bedroom.
Me: What about mommy?
Alyx: Mommy usually eats later.
This was a very humbling conversation, and one that serves as a perfect segue to my list of lessons learned.
5 things I’ve learned about parenting a stepchild
- Don’t judge. Following the conversation above, I realized that I hadn’t considered what expectations Alyx’s mom may have set around mealtimes. Rather, I had totally judged Alyx and fixated on how she wasn’t meeting my expectations without questioning whether or not she actually had the skills to meet them.
- Be flexible. It’s easy to say ‘our house, our rules’ but if you want to set your stepchild up for success, you need to show a little flexibility, especially when you discover a major gap between your rules and the full-time parent’s rules. Following the conversation above, we gave Alyx the choice of sitting at the table with us or sitting at the kitchen counter alone. Either way, she’d be eating when we ate or she wouldn’t be eating at all. She began in the kitchen, but before the first meal ‘under the new regime’ was complete, she made the decision to join us at the table.
- Have rules. Yes, flexibility is essential, but this doesn’t mean abandoning rules. Whether she’s joining us at the dining table, eating alone at the kitchen counter, or hiding behind the couch while we eat, no devices during mealtimes.
- Earn your stepchild’s respect. That’s right. Earn it. Don’t expect it. While Alyx’s parents were separated before her father and I got together, from her perspective, I am the reason her mom and dad aren’t together. She didn’t sign up to have two homes, and she certainly didn’t sign up for me. While I can command respect from my own daughter, I cannot command respect from this young lady. I have to earn it, and that takes time – which brings me to lesson #5.
- Be patient. While I used to think the stepmom title made me ‘the boss of Alyx,’ the truth is her mom’s the boss of her, her dad’s next in line, and I’m just the friendly sidekick. This doesn’t mean I’m powerless. I’m the grown-up in this relationship, after all, and I’m responsible for her wellbeing. But an authoritarian stance won’t earn me any points. Like they say, slow and steady wins the race, so slow and steady I go.
My stepchild will soon be joining us for a six-week visit.
I can’t wait. I’m especially looking forward to this trip as I’ll be the one driving her to and from horse-riding camp five days a week for two of those weeks. Camp is a good 45-minute drive each way, so we’ll have plenty of uninterrupted time for some long-overdue bonding. I’ll get to be the one who hands over her lunch box and hugs her goodbye. And I’ll be the first to hear about which horse she rode, what new friends she made, what scrapes and bruises she acquired, and more. For 90 minutes a day, I’ll get to be her friend and that’s a giant step towards becoming the stepparent I want to be, and one she’ll hopefully grow to trust, respect and love.