We all have a fairytale picture in our heads of how we want our lives to work. This picture often has nothing to do with the reality of our lives. I never thought that I would only meet Mr Right at the age of 36. I didn’t consider that he might be divorced and already have children. And I never dreamed there would be an ex and children to consider as I negotiated my new relationship.
But so it was, and I wanted to make it work.
Until I met Hans I had always lived on my own as an independent, self-sufficient woman. I owned my own home, had a great career and knew how to take care of myself. Then I fell in love and almost overnight became stepmother to two beautiful girls.
The thing about becoming a parent is that you usually have at least 9 months to prepare yourself for accommodating a new person in your life. Then that new person is cute and cuddly and totally dependent on you. You fall in love with a baby and grow as a parent as she grows up.
When you become a step-parent there’s usually considerably less time to get used to the idea. Just like most new parents, you don’t have a clue what to do or how to handle this new person.
Johannesburg psychologist Nadine Frampton, who has two stepchildren, says she did not know what she was getting into when she fell in love with her husband. “You can never know that which you have not experienced. I’m not sure if our expectations anticipate hardships greater than our perceived capacity to deal with them.”
The thing I tried to remember when I first started dating Hans and met his children was that the situation was just as strange for them (the girls were 7 and 9 years old at the time) as it was for me. I’d never had children living with me before (even though it was only every second weekend and some holidays) – and they had never been away from their mother before.
Before Hans’s girls came to spend their first weekend with us I arranged a coffee date with their mother to discuss some dos and don’ts. I wanted to make her an ally in raising her children when they’re not with her. I wanted to know her wishes for her children when they’re with us. I asked her what values were important to her and things she wanted us to encourage in her children when they were with us.
We spoke about their personalities, how they get along as siblings, a little bit about food likes and dislikes and anything else she thought I should know about them.
But meeting with an ex-spouse, especially if he or she is still hurting and hostile after a break-up, can be tricky. I was fortunate that she was open to it, wasn’t hostile and didn’t mind that I was in Hans’s life.
NADINE SAYS IT’S IMPORTANT TO KEEP THE BOUNDARIES CLEAR. THE DISCUSSION SHOULD BE ABOUT THE CHILDREN, NOT ABOUT THE EXES. “DO NOT ALLOW THE CHILDREN’S MOTHER TO CONFIDE IN YOU TO THE EXCLUSION OF THE CHILDREN’S FATHER,” SHE ADVISES.
Discipline & manners
One of the biggest challenges when you become a stepparent is negotiating disciplining your spouse’s children. I felt so conflicted in the beginning, and to be honest I sometimes still do (even after 8 years with the girls in my life). They are not my children, yet I am a grown-up in their lives and they are sharing my living space.
It is very important to discuss issues of discipline with your partner before the children even come into your space.
In the beginning, I asked Hans to be responsible for disciplining his daughters. We sat down with them and discussed house rules and what we expected of them while they were in our house. Whenever the girls broke a rule, Hans handled it with them. This worked well for us because they only came to us every other weekend or holiday and Hans was always there, but in situations where your stepchildren live with you, this will not be practical.
“Children need help understanding that a different set of rules might apply in the different households they now live in,” says clinical psychologist David van der Walt. “Letting the biological parent handle discipline at first is a good strategy. But don’t let things slip when the biological parent is away.
"The grown-up should always be the one to set the boundaries. If your stepchildren misbehave, remind them of the house rules that everyone, including their biological parent, agreed to. That way you can avoid the ‘you-are-not-my-parent’ arguments,” says David.
When you’re trying to bond with your stepchildren, it’s important not to force things. “Don’t try too hard to bond with stepchildren,” says Nadine. Treat them fairly, without being overly nice or overly strict.
One of the things I did from the beginning was to give them their own room. Although they didn’t live with us, I felt it was important for them to know that they had their own space in our house. We lived in a two-bedroomed townhouse, so it was not possible for each of them to have their own room, but they had a room that they could make their own. They could put their own pictures on the walls, choose the colour of their duvets and have a say in the décor.
Nadine admits that not having a room for her stepchildren is one of the reasons her relationship with them is not great. But it’s a double-edged sword. “The children have stayed over twice in the last 8 years,” she says. “They do not have their own rooms in our house. The ‘making-special’ when they visit, I think, is part of the problem, the trying-too-hard is unnatural. The absence of expressed conflict keeps the relationship at a superficial level.”
And baby makes 3, or 4, or 5
When you have a baby of your own, your relationship with your stepchildren really gets tested. It is very easy to focus so much on your own baby that your stepchildren feel less important.
This happened to Heather, whose husband was a doting stepdad to her son Jamie until they had a baby of their own. “Steve and I got married when my son, Jamie, was 4,” says Heather. “At first things were great and Steve spent a lot of time with Jamie. But when our daughter, Elsa, was born things started to change. Steve was bursting with pride for his daughter and I was so happy that I had such a lovely family. Until Steve started hinting that maybe Jamie should go and live with his dad.”
David says it is quite common for step-parents to go off the rails a bit when they have a baby of their own. “It’s important for new parents to understand how their behaviour and words impact on stepchildren. They have a moral responsibility to all their children and it’s important not to let the bond with your stepchildren fade when you have children of your own.”
This was never an issue for me, as I’ve always seen Hans’s children as my own son’s full siblings. On the day that my son, Seth, was born, the girls came to visit him. They held him and cuddled him just like any new baby’s siblings would. They were old enough to help with bathing, feeding and changing him. Seth is 4 now (his sisters are 13 and 15) and they adore each other.
Nadine says the greatest reward of step-parenting is the ultimate growing-up that comes from knowing what is and what is not in your control. “And not allowing a potentially contaminating dynamic to erode an amazing marriage.”
Steps to ensure happy blended families
- Communicate. You may find some difficulty communicating because family members bring with them varying styles of communication, different jargon, and dissimilar body language. With time you’ll blend communication styles and communication will become easier.
- Keep expectations realistic.
- Be flexible. Be prepared to change plans. Accommodating more people will inevitably lead to some unpredictability.
- Be patient. Stepparents must move slowly, planting the seeds of love and helping them to grow through respect, caring and appropriate affection. It doesn’t always happen immediately.
Don’t try to be what you think the children (or your spouse) want in a step-parent. Just be yourself.
ADVICE FOR OTHER PARENTS
- Don’t interview your stepchildren. Ask no more than 3 questions in a row and then shut up.
- Make a decision in your relationship to make love more important than money.
- You can never make someone like you.
- Never ask the biological parent to choose between you and their children. Even if they choose you, you will have lost.
- Do not attempt to reason with children who think they are right.
- GIVE THE CHILDREN PLENTY OF TIME ALONE WITH THEIR FATHER.