Illustration: Olivia Fields
The trope has been around since forever: A feisty kid, fed up with life, gets into it with a parental figure. Once the kid has had enough, he goes nuclear. “You’re not my real dad!”
You’ve seen it in Bebe’s Kids. And between Will and Uncle Phil on Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. It’s even the premise of that one Hitman Sammy Sam song. But it’s definitely a real-life scenario.
If you’re in a relationship with someone who has children, you just might face the same predicament. Wondering how to navigate? I’ve got a few words of advice. You could say that I have some expertise on the subject.
I grew up with two siblings. My older brother was my father’s son from a previous relationship. He split his time between our house and his mom’s. His mom was super chill with my parents; I barely understood the word stepmom until I was a teen. My mom was his mom. Period.
My blended family was so smooth that I didn’t really know any other way it could be. That is, until my early twenties, when I found myself dating someone with a three-year-old daughter. I fell in love with his daughter right away. But her mom? It was not smooth. It was beyond chunky, word to Skippy. There was no blending happening whatsoever. Over time, we all worked at it. And eventually, my second blended family was silky.
Then, after my marriage ended, I began dating. I was very clear that I didn’t want to get married again. No more stepmom. No more ex-wives. Nada. But of course, I met someone and fell in love. We’re getting married soon, which means I will have a seven-year-old bonus boy. And my partner will have a bonus girl, my 13-year-old daughter.
So, I’m now on my third blended family. I promise you, I’m (almost) an expert on the subject. Here’s some insight on how to best navigate the stepparent quandary.
1. Break it off if you’re not 100% invested
You’re in love with this potential spouse. Everything is going well. But you’re not sure about the kid(s). Look, it might sound awful. But if you’re not sure you can manage being a stepparent, your love for your partner will not help.
You don’t have to be close to the kid. That will take time. But if there are any other issues that seem like they would be difficult? Bail! Yes, your partner will be hurt. But you know what hurts more? Being a parental figure to this person’s child and not being able to give it your best. Do everyone a favor if it seems shaky. This child is not a pet. This is an entire human you are legally bound to. The decision to be a stepparent must be taken as seriously as being a spouse and a biological parent.
2. Talk it out
If you’ve never been in therapy, now you’ve got a great reason to start. This doesn’t have to be a long-term commitment. It can be as simple as six sessions to speak with someone objectively about preparing to take a stepparent role. You can go with just your partner or with the kid(s) as well. You’ll get a chance to catch things before they erupt. Talk about discipline, division of chores — all those things that could come up and be hard to discuss if you don’t have a plan ahead of time. If you and your spouse don’t have the same approaches to parenting, you want to figure that out as early as possible.
What’s more important is that the kid’s other parent, your partner’s ex, understands that you are legit, trustworthy, and not here to replace anyone.
3. Impress the ex first, not the kid
Never mind showering the bonus kid with electronics or heartfelt talks. All of that will come organically with time. Follow their lead, play your position, and, for the most part, stay in your place. What’s more important is that the kid’s other parent, your partner’s ex, understands that you are legit, trustworthy, and not here to replace anyone. Remember that every word you utter will be repeated back to the other parent, good or not so good. If the ex is open to it, have a talk. That person’s respect and approval will go a long way to developing a relationship with your bonus child. And for that matter, your partner, too. And if a decent relationship with the ex seems impossible? Unfortunately, you might need to scroll back up to #1.