Along this road of adulthood I've trodden nearly twenty years now, I've managed to pick up some useful skills. I have learned to balance a checkbook, drive a stick shift, apply make up at stoplights on the way to work, bake a Thanksgiving turkey, unclog a garbage disposal with the toilet plunger, and know the difference between universal and term life insurance.
But I never learned how to step parent.
Heck! I’m surprised I even learned to regular parent, as set as I was in my youth on moving to Europe to take up with some sleek-haired German and write poetry in coffee shops along the Siene. But once the doctor placed that dark haired, wide-eyed baby boy in my arms after seventeen hours of hard labor, a baby who looked at me with all the love in the world then cried like a tiny donkey, it was as if the assortment of emotional gizmos and gadgets inside me finally lined up and got flipped on. I was complete. I was made to be a mother. My head knew it. My heart knew it.
Of course, mothering didn't—and still doesn't—come easily, even being at it fifteen years now and repeating that love at first sight scenario with three more children, there was a lot to learn. I've never come across a stick shift mini-van. My checkbook balancing didn't impress an infant with a dirty diaper. And my handy life insurance knowledge didn't come in handy when one of my sons came home from school with a ripped jacket, courtesy of the school bully. (Although on a side note, that toilet-plunger-fixes-the-disposal-thing…that gets utilized monthly.)
After my thirteen year marriage came to an end, I spent the next four and a half years single mothering my four boys while attending school then graduating to working five jobs.
Finally, I met the man of my dreams (take two). He was kind, he was funny, he was talented, he was an amazing father, he was take-my-breath-away handsome. He was also in California. I was in Idaho. We were just friends for a year before deciding to take the plunge, slough off our fears about long distance romances, and start a serious relationship. It didn't take long for us to figure out we were meant to get married, helped along by the fact that even our kids were working to get us to the altar. We were miserable apart. We were joyous together. We met about 95% of one another’s “this is what I want” checklists. It was a no-brainer.
So, we got married this last November in a small ceremony, and I packed up my four boys and moved to California into my new husband’s home where he lived with his two girls, and his mom. Are you counting? That makes nine of us here in this house aged 6 to 64. Four boys, three adults, two girls, one dog…and a partridge in a pear tree.
“Oh, you’re just like the Brady Bunch!” we often hear on those occasions we wrangle everyone to go somewhere at the same time. Which is true, except my husband is an artist not an architect, I’m way more punk rock than Florence Henderson, my mother-in-law would not want to be called our housekeeper, and we have never, ever dressed our kids in matching costumes and made them sing together. Yet.
For as crazy as things are sometimes—most times—we are making it work. Just like the Brady’s did. And we are really, really happy. In the same way all my gizmos lined up the first time I held my baby, they’ve lined up again. I feel made to step parent. Though I will be the first to admit I have a lot yet to learn, I’m committed to the learning. I’m committed to this family.
I think that’s one of the most important elements of step parenting: Committing to it. Preparing yourself to erase the barriers of “yours” and “mine” and plunge into the “ours.” Not that you can’t maintain some of your own family traditions, and even keep spending regular one on one time with your own children (in fact, those are both important!) but it means giving every kid as equal treatment and love as possible, and being willing to create something different than what you were used to but which can be every bit as, or even more, awesome. Like any goal you want to meet and maintain (running a marathon, quitting smoking, or learning to play the ukulele), commitment is the key.
Another thing I've learned about step parenting is the power of the family meeting. We use ours to address every issue from putting the toilet seat down to who is going to confess to using Grandma’s expensive eyeliner to draw moustaches on everyone. In addition, a regular family meeting (and the necessary emergency one) is the perfect place for kids to discuss, in a safe environment with adult referees, things that are bothering them and where solutions can be formed together. Plus, for a glorious fifteen minutes, everyone shuts off their i-whatevers and looks at each other. Score!
When it comes to disciplining in a blended family, I've learned this: Stand behind the rule. No one wants to be the step parent with the kid yelling, “You’re not my REAL mom/dad!” Moments like that largely come when a step parent tries to move into the disciplinary role too soon. Kids take time to win over, to learn to trust and respect you to the point they will take correction from you. My advice is to make a concise list of family rules with clear and easily enforced consequences, make sure everyone knows them, and then-- when there is a time you have to discipline your spouse’s child—let the rule, not you, do the punishing. No yelling. No off the cuff grounding. No creatively tying them together with ace bandages until they stop fighting-- Just applying the agreed upon reaction to the action. If it requires more than this (and doesn't involve kids in any immediate danger), save it for the child’s parent to deal with. Not that you can’t stand by your spouse as a unified partner who also loves the child, but you decrease your chances of being the evil step parent when you let the one the child is accustomed to taking punishment from be the primary punisher for a while.
Finally, the best piece of advice I can offer based on my short sojourn in step-parenting is: Expect the best. Nearly half of marriages end in divorce and an even higher percentage of second marriages do. But it doesn't have to be yours. Remember that. Find other blended families you respect, ones who have been at it for years, and let them mentor you directly or by observation. There is a lot of inspiration available out there. Though you may never take the place of a child’s “real” Mom or Dad, you can be pretty darn close. Whatever got you to the situation you’re in that required step-parenting in the first place--be it divorce, widowhood, or marrying for the first time a person who already had children, you can survive and thrive as individuals and families.
And if you can also manage to work in matching costumes and group singing, more power to you, my friend.
See more of Jennifer's writing at her blog theboysquad.