Despite the fact that I grew up with a stepmom, there wasn’t a model or rule book for me to follow when I became one myself. Compounded with the fact that I was a pregnant stepmom, preparing to be a first time mom myself, I really didn’t know how to prepare for any of it. So like many things in life, I just applied the ‘figure it out as you go’ strategy, and here we are today.
In light of that approach, there are some simple things that I have discovered along the way that have helped me build relationships with my stepchildren. I share these simple practices not because I feel like I have found some special secret that unlocks the step-parenting riddle, because it’s not that easy, and it's evolving. Constantly. What I share below is simply what has worked for me and for our family and may be helpful for others that embark on the step-parenting journey.
- Invite, don’t assert – I never threw myself on my stepchildren, or asserted my role as their new stepmother, or someone that they had to regard as a parent. Instead, I just focused on building connections with each of them and interacting in a way that showed that I genuinely cared – about them, what they loved, what made them happy or sad. That way, they could connect and bond on their own terms, at their own pace.
- Find intimate moments to connect – I found I was able to do this in the sweet moments at the end of the day, like bedtime stories, or weekend hot chocolate outings, or morning cuddles as a family in bed. These little moments to be with them, free of distractions were always lovely ways to spend time and talk about the things that are on their mind. This is what parents do and as step-parents, it is important for us to find those moments too.
- Play! – Find something that they love and get into it with them. It can be playing the role of “monster” on the playground, setting up elaborate Paw Patrol scenes or listening to a passionate download on mind craft. Whatever it is, just find moments to take interest in what they love be in it with them. You get to embrace your inner child too, which is always a good time.
- Involve them in family planning – When my husband and I got our first home together, we brought the kids on our search and asked them to assess the homes and help us make the decision. When we planned our wedding, I drew a map of the estate and walked them through how it all worked and got my stepson excited about all of the places where he could play spy throughout the day. When we were thinking of baby names, we got their input as well. We paid special attention to include them in all of the big life events so we made decisions from day 1 as a family.
- Love your partner – This is something that is easy for me because I’m so crazy about my husband, but I think it is so important. My husband and I know that our relationship provides an example for our kids for how couples treat, respect and love each other. This is something that they will remember and (hopefully!) take with them when they get older into their own relationships. Many kids of divorce or separation are left with memories of parents fighting – or just living separate lives and not having a real connection. My hope is that in some small way, them seeing me love their dad, and him love me, is having a positive impact on them.
- Parent as a step-parent – Simple fact: We’re not our stepkid’s original parent. Whether that parent is alive or deceased, parent of the year or absentee, a collaborative co-parent or an antagonistic ex, we need to honor the fact that they have an original parent. If their parent is deceased, have your stepchild tell you stories about them. If the parent is alive and someone you can collaborate with to raise the kids – then do it! This is a gift, believe me! Work with them to give your stepkids an amazing co-parenting dynamic. If the other parent is not-so-nice to you, then take the high road and speak respectfully about their parent, even if they tell the kids horrible things about you. Hard, I know, I have personal experience with this one, but you have to take the high road here, always. Finally, in the really shitty case where the parent is alive but not present, unhealthy or harmful, then be that stable, consistent, unconditionally loving parent. This may mean you become an adoptive parent and take on an even bigger, emotional role in their lives. This also means you need to help them cope with this dynamic with their parent and provide support and tools to help them heal from any trauma or distress caused by that relationship.
- Embrace your role - Two years my role as a step-parent, I have found the joy and delight of being a stepmomma. In this role, I get to be someone who loves and cares for my stepkids unconditionally. But I also get to be someone who can have a special connection with them that is devoid of many of the prewired expectations and patterns that parents can sometimes have. In a way, I think it enables me to discover new ways to appreciate and acknowledge them because I am seeing them through a new lens.