Dr. Patricia Papernow shares tips to help re-coupled dads balance the needs of their kids and their marriage
Even if you and your sweetie are very much in love, “blending” is not the word that most would use to describe daily living in a stepfamily, especially in the early years. In fact, stepfamily structure makes a very different foundation upon which to build a family. The good news is that we now have decades of practice and research that tell us what works, and what doesn’t, to build a successful thriving stepfamily. The bad news is that this information is just beginning to be available to the public (including therapists), and it is often not intuitive!
Stepcouples have “stuck insiders” and “stuck outsiders”
In a stepfamily, every time a child enters the room, or a conversation, parents are “stuck insiders.” Stepparents are “stuck outsiders.” You and your kids have deep
historical lines of connection to each other. You also share agreements about everything from what’s a “loud” noise, to the “appropriate” cost of a pair of sneakers.
When your kids are present, you will feel pulled, engaged, visible and needed. Your partner will often feel (and be) unseen, ignored and invisible. If you both have kids, the parent of the kids who are struggling the most is more of a stuck insider. The stepparent is more of a stuck outsider.
For better or for worse, you and your ex have been co-parenting for a long time. Your new partner is the stuck outsider to this relationship, too. You are the stuck insider. You do need to check first with your partner before making agreements with your ex that affect her. Adding this step requires a major shift in old habits. Do apologize fully when you forget!
Both/and, not either/or
As a dad in a stepfamily, you have at least two different, often conflicting, responsibilities: Your children need your attention and love, particularly so at this time of major transition. Your partner wants to feel special and cared about. A common piece of advice is to “put the couple first.” However, in a stepfamily, this leaves children, including adult children, too alone at a critical time. It will backfire.
Your new couple relationship does need time alone and special attention. So does the parent-child relationship. The guideline is “both/and” not “either/or.”
Carve out regular, reliable time alone with your kids, including some vacation time. Your adult children may also need time alone with you.
And, spend regular time alone with your sweetie. Create some caring rituals–a tender kiss in the morning before getting out of bed, a hug at the end of the day. Send texts, make a quick loving phone call. Caveat: Being affectionate in front of stepchildren intensifies their sense of loss. Do be affectionate, but keep it private.
When your partner feels left out, telling her to “Just join in” ignores the reality and leaves her more alone. Give her extra hugs and a good dose of empathy and compassion. (“That was tough.”) Give stepparents a separate place in the house where they can get some relief from the outsider position and (lovingly) encourage her to go out with friends.
Stepparent-stepchild relationships also need time alone without the parent. Help your partner to find some low-key “shoulder-to-shoulder” activities to do alone with any of your kids who are willing.
Spending lots of one-to-one time may not be what you, or your partner, had dreamed. However, it is the best way to meet the very different and competing needs of all the relationships in a stepfamily. This is also true for nonresidential dads, who often feel especially torn between their children and their partners.
Parenting in a stepfamily is different
It is especially enticing for recoupled dads to put stepmoms in a disciplinary role. The results, for all concerned, are deeply disappointing and even disastrous. The research is clear: until, and unless, stepmoms have formed a trusting, caring relationship with their stepchildren, dads need to do the limit setting and discipline.
Connection comes from putting yourselves in each other’s shoes
Your connection with your partner will not come from the two of you feeling the same way about your children. It will come from really trying to empathize with each other. Put yourself in her shoes. Tell her what you DO understand about where those shoes pinch. Ask her to do the same. Then take a step back together and work as a team on handling all those different shoes together.
Becoming a stepfamily is a process, not an event
Having a good map of this territory and some good “driving directions” for meeting its challenges helps immensely. Children who are struggling will need more time, and they will need more alone with you. Becoming a thriving stepfamily isn’t as simple as blending a smoothie. It’s combining two different family cultures. That takes time, lots of it.
To read Dr. Papernow’s tips for how to parent stepkids, check out Parenting for a Blended Family: Tips for Recoupling Dads