Steven Lake explores three challenges of being a step-dad — there are many more!
I love kids. Always have. I was baby-sitting at the age of eleven – for pay. How could I be equipped for this huge responsibility at such an early age? I guess I had plenty of experience looking after my younger brother. Still, I shudder to think of leaving any child at the complete mercy of an eleven year old.
I remember clearly the joy of holding a three month old child in my arms as the parents went out for the evening. As soon as the door closed, the child erupted into howls of despair and kept it up non-stop for three hours. When the parents returned and came through the door, the child stopped crying, smiled and proceeded to act as if nothing had happened. I was a wreck. There was one moment when I was ready to throttle the child just to shut it up. I can barely imagine what it must be like to have a colicky child crying and hacking for days on end. That is the true test of parenthood.
In my late teens I taught kids from three to twelve years old how to swim. Loved it. Whenever I was at a party and there was a baby around it would end up in my arms and everyone would comment that I would make a great father. Loved that too.
As life turned out, I was in my mid-twenties and living with a woman in her late thirties. She was the mother of three children, two were living at home. I was in a state of bliss regarding these two children. The eldest was thirteen and much like her mother. Very calm and loving. The youngest, was a seven year boy with a learning disorder. Not a happy child when I entered the picture.
Rough Water #1:
Respect and discipline.
This is where the relationship often falters. When dating a person with kids you are not just going out with the other person – it’s a package deal. However, the package does not necessarily start when you begin dating. The other person may not want to introduce you to the kids until they feel there is some potential for an ongoing relationship. Too often they may have seen their children become emotionally invested in a new partner to have him (or her) walk away with heartache all around. Tough on the kids.
Then, there are people who think that kids are not important – they are dating the other adult. This is a major set-up for failure. Sometimes the children will have a major say if Mom or Dad continue to see you. Do not underestimate the children’s influence.
Of course, this gets even more complicated. We have seen countless TV shows where children do not want to lose their parent’s exclusive attention. Also, there is the potential conflict about loyalties. Sometime a child will hold back their affection due to loyalty towards the absent parent.
Let’s say we get past these potential conflicts. The person you are seeing likes you, she or he has introduced you to the kids, they are OK with you, and children and adults start to engage as a group. As in any group, certain dynamics become evident. In psychology and business we often use Tuckman’s stages of group development to understand the processes. These stages are called: forming, norming, storming and performing.
“Forming” is obvious. People, kids and adults, have come together and are considered a group. The adults have decided this, with or without consultation with the children. As members of the proto-family get to know one another, group norms are established. Or at least attempted.
Even when the adults have similar ideas on how to raise children, in the beginning especially, the adult with the children will often be defensive or protective of their kids. After all, they have brought them up, know them and have a working relationship that is not bounded by time. No one knows how long the “other” person will be around. In intimate relationships, the “norming” stage tends to happen unconsciously and a lot of assumptions are made.
Often, I see men, especially if there is a boy, try to establish control or dominance with the child. This typically occurs over “manners,” or how the child is treating the parent (i.e., being disrespectful). When this happens we are now running a wild river – nasty stuff.
The issue of respect, or rather the lack of respect, can trigger a reaction when it is directed at the “other.” Speaking from personal experience, and for many men I know, this is difficult and often leads to a major conflict between all parties where all hell can break loose.
The child may never have engaged in this form of interaction before and be outraged. The parent may be outraged. And you might be outraged that your new found lover has no control over the kids. If, as is usually the case, the issues of respect and discipline have not be discussed, previously unspoken beliefs around child-rearing are brought to the surface as the group moves into the “storming” stage.
If these issues are resolved in a satisfactory way, the family group settles down and develops a workable relationship. This may or may not lead to close emotional feelings between participants. Within a family dynamic, the longer the process, the more likely that caring feelings will develop. Children form bonds faster (depending on their age of course) and the “other” adult is certainly not immune to forming close bonds with the children.
When the group has been stable over time, it is said to have moved into the final stage – performing. In other words, acting as a healthy family unit. This does not mean there will be no conflict, just effective means of resolving it.
Rough water #2
Instant Dad (or Mom).
There is a humongous challenge when brought into a family as the “other” parent. You have to earn the right to be a parent. If it was your child, by definition you are the parent. Not so with someone else’s kids. This can be a shock. It might help to know that the children also having to learn who you are. Like you, they don’t automatically “love” you. The two, or three of you will have to learn about each other, understand the other’s personality and try to form a workable relationship. You, as the adult, will hopefully have more tolerance than the child in this potentially charged process.
Remember, they may already have a Dad (or Mom) and may not want another. That’s OK. You can learn to respect each other, maybe become friends (if you believe that adults in a family should be friends with the children – some don’t) and from there, who knows.
Rough water #3
Being accepted and then losing the relationship.
I was a step-dad for about a year and a half. Doesn’t sound like a long time but I fell deeply in love with my partner’s children, especially the boy. We had our challenges in the beginning. He was wild, angry, had a learning disorder, hated school and resented how men came into his life and tried to tell him what to do. I learned a lot from him. I made mistakes but he was always willing to work through them. He had a big heart. I gave him stability in my caring and willingness to listen to him. The sweetest moment I often reflect on, is watching TV with him sitting on my lap, his back leaning against my chest, my arms around him and his hands resting on my forearms. That was a level of peace and contentment I rarely experience.
Eventually, the relationship with the children’s mother ended. Back then, when a non-marriage relationship ended, that was it. There was no thought of continuing to see the kids. I did not realize how I was affected by this experience until ten years later when I decided to visit my ex. As I came into her place, there was a tall young man standing beside her. When he saw me, he yelled out my name as he rushed forward and gave me a big hug. In that moment, I was overwhelmed with two opposing emotions – elation for being recognized all these years later with such love, and a profound sadness at what had been lost. I had lost my step-son and never even realized it.
These are just three rapids to be navigated when a step-parent. What ones have you gone through or seen? Tell us the most memorable rapid you have run, and I will summarize them in a later article.
Photo: Kelly B, Father to