tips for dating someone with kids

17 Tips for Dating Someone with Kids

Whether you love kids or can’t stand them, whether you’re already a parent or you’re childfree, dating someone with kids is hard. Disproportionately, mystifyingly, unbelievably hard.

There’s a bunch of reasons for this. Trying to fit romance in around a schedule that’s at least twice as chaotic as other people’s. Exponentially increased potential for stress and drama. That whole “kids come first” thing creating abominable snowmonsters where there once were special little snowflakes. No one having respect for their damn elders anymore.

Even if your new partner gets along cheerfully with their ex, even if your future stepkids are an absolute delight, even under the most ideal circumstances possible, there’s a million more balls to juggle when dating someone with kids compared to regular dating. And of course, the percentage of stepparents-in-training who are dating under ideal circumstances is some teensy fraction of an even smaller percent.

Life is already complicated. You’ve got work or school, a busy social life, bills, cleaning out the litter box, NOT forgetting to pick up lightbulbs on your way home… Adding a typical relationship in there somewhere can feel like a bit of a tight squeeze. But when you’re dating someone with kids, you need to make room not just for your new partner’s schedule, but their kids’ schedules (and personalities) as well. And if your new partner is in a high-conflict custody situation, plan for at least triple the usual mental space a relationship might normally take up in your head.

Because dating someone with kids is intense, consider carefully before getting serious about this person— and know that really there are no non-serious relationships when kids are involved. Know too that successfully blending a family takes a long time— 5 to 7 years on average, and even up to 10 years. I quote this statistic a lot, because it’s such an objective reminder that you are not just dating; you are committing. Committing in a way that you’ve never committed, getting involved in a situation that could shatter you in ways you never knew you were vulnerable.

Yet— the rewards are sweeter for being fewer and further between, and for being harder won.

No one except you can answer the question of whether you should date someone with kids. Whether you’re ready to be a stepparent, whether you’ll be a good one, if you should cut loose and look for a less complicated relationship elsewhere. Only you know your strengths and your limits.

If you are positive, on a planet of some 7 billion souls, that you have found your Person, and that guy or gal just happens to have a rugrat or two, then you’re in this. Buckle up and hang on. These tips can help you avoid some of the most common pitfalls that could trip you up.

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1. Dating someone with kids is really hard.

I know we just talked about this, but really I can’t stress it enough: dating someone with kids is hard. Really hard. I mean… really, really, really hard. And not in the ways you’d expect; in totally different ways. Better ways! More exasperating, exhausting, complex ways!

You’ll feel powerless over the crap you cannot change— which is pretty much everything. You’ll feel like your partner’s kids don’t want you around— and you’ll be right. You’ll wonder what you’re even doing hanging out with people who so clearly want nothing to do with you. You’ll feel compelled to defend your choices to absolutely everyone from your mom to your partner’s ex to strangers on the street. (“They’re just my boyfriend’s kids, I swear! I had nothing to do with their upbringing!”)

You need to give your pre-stepkids space, but not so much that it seems like you don’t care. You need to be involved, but not so much that you’re overstepping. You need to be realistic about the role you’re taking on as a stepparent, yet idealistic enough to keep on truckin’ when the road gets dicey. You’re helping your partner parent, but you’re not parenting yourself. You’re turning all your personal preconceptions about what being a stepparent means upside down, redefining the role till it makes sense to you— because there is no one right way to stepparent; there’s only the way that works for you and the blended family you’re trying to create.

Basically, you find you’re accomplishing impossible, superhuman feats on the daily when here you thought you were just dating someone who happens to have kids— hm, kids. That’s a new twist I guess, not really something I ever thought about but how much different/harder can it be?

Good news: hard is not the same thing as impossible. Just don’t waltz in thinking this whole dating-with-kids thing will be a breeze. You’ll end up flat on your ass not knowing what hit you.

2. Yes, even if you’re a total kid person.

I am a total kid person. I have always loved kids, and they have always loved me. Strangers’ toddlers wander over to me, hands outstretched, eyes wide. Babies stop crying when I pick them up. At family parties, I still prefer sitting at the kid table. So dating a guy with a kid didn’t seem like that big a deal to me, especially since I already had a kid of my own. Literally not even one tiny smidge of me worried about not getting along with his kid.

But hoo boy did my stepdaughter hate me. With the passion of a thousand fiery suns, with all the fury her little 7-year-old body could muster, she made it clear that she DID NOT LIKE ME and WOULD NEVER LIKE ME. She was so grouchy about me being around she was practically a caricature. And at first I figured her cold shoulder was normal and expected and didn’t let her attitude get to me, assuming it’d pass with time. Only after I’d been around a year or two and her animosity showed no signs of letting up— the opposite, actually— did I start looking for answers why.

So many stepparenting resources out there are written as if all new stepparents are childless morons who have never interacted with any humans younger than legal adulthood, have never observed a child in its natural habitat, and don’t know the first thing about kids. Which may lead you to falsely believe that any stepparents who don’t get along with their stepkids are just clueless about kids in general and that’s the whole problem.

Like any stepparent who didn’t immediately fall head over heels for their stepkid must just not like kids that much. (Read: there’s something wrong with you, obviously.) And vice versa, if your stepkid doesn’t like you, you’re clearly not trying hard enough. (Read: yep, you’re still the problem here.)

But for a kid person such as myself, surely my transition into becoming a stepparent would be way easier. For a kid person, then the stepparent-stepkid relationship would totally gel. Right?

The challenges you’ll face when dating someone with kids do not boil down to kid-person/non-kid-person problems. If you like kids, then yes, you have one less hurdle to overcome. But one less hurdle out of a bajillion or so ain’t much of a head start.

There is not anything you’re doing wrong or could be doing differently to win the kids over when dating their parent; them warming up to you is just a process that takes time. There are no shortcuts that will force the kids to like you. You just gotta hang in there and put in the time.

3. This is dealing with way more than kids.

If you were just dating someone with kids and that single element— the mere presence of tiny humans— were the only wild card, becoming a stepparent would be way easier. But there’s sooooooo much more to dating someone with kids than trading in candlelit dinners for play dates:

  • Your time with your new partner is restricted by their time with their kids.
  • How long should you wait to meet your partner’s kid anyway? You don’t want to wait so long that everyone gets performance anxiety, but you also don’t want to get too close too quickly.
  • Also, are you emotionally scarring your partner’s child if you hold hands in front of them? What about kissing? Is kissing okay?
  • Changing your grownup plans due to kid stuff like someone getting homesick while at a sleepover and needing immediate picking up.
  • Ruined couple plans or family plans due to last-minute visitation schedule changes, maybe frequently.
  • Half-assed dates like “Let’s go to my kid’s soccer game and grab pizza on the way home” which sounds kinda fun and cute and family-like but in reality ends up as you sitting on the sidelines being totally ignored by everyone from the soccer coach to your partner.
  • Calls or texts at awkward times from your partner’s ex, which are hopefully only kid-related but maybe sometimes they aren’t and you don’t always know which and you feel weird asking.
  • Your own unrealistic expectations about your stepkid’s behavior toward you and your partner’s willingness (or lack thereof) to be your advocate.
  • Your partner’s unrealistic expectations about the role (or lack thereof) you’ll play in your stepkid’s life, about how involved you’ll be or not be, about what counts as overstepping vs. what counts as not being involved enough.
  • The presence (or lack thereof) the ex in your partner’s life/their kid’s life/your life together.
  • How supportive your family and friends are about you dating someone with kids, including how much well-meaning but crap advice you’ll have to ignore.
  • The degree to which you’re willing to let go of your personal vision for the family you hoped to have someday and the future you envisioned for yourself.

To sum up: dating someone with kids is about WAY more than just the kids. You can’t separate the kids from everything that connects those kids to your partner—custody schedules, extracurricular activities, the other parent, general kid and parenting stuff, financial obligations, endless driving kids around to here or there.

But just like “hard”≠ “impossible, “more complicated than you realized” doesn’t mean you’re doomed to failure. Focus on flexibility and keep yourself open to changes happening— because happen they will, and more often than you probably expect.

4. Connecting with your future stepkids takes years, not months.

I don’t think any pre-stepparent with half a brain thinks their future stepkids will fall in love with them overnight. Sure, there’ll be a bit of a warming up period. Some shyness. Some reluctance. But they’ll come around once they get to know you, right?

I was totally fine with my SD’s initial hesitance around me. But I started feeling less fine as weeks turned into months and then into years. And not years of mere shy reluctance, no no no. Years of committed rejection, palpable hatred, active sabotage. Years of me crying, wondering what I was doing wrong, wondering if we would ever have a relationship that could remotely be considered positive.

Most kids don’t want to get to know whoever their parent is dating. That they’ll actively resist getting to know you. And again, not just the first few times you meet— for weeks, months, even years.

Dan and I been together nearly 4 years by the time we got married. At our wedding, out of hundreds of photos taken, I have exactly 2 where my stepdaughter is smiling. Two.

AFTER 4 YEARS, YOU GUYS.

And if you’d told me at that time I was only at the halfway point— that we still had a few more years to go before my SD stopped treating me like a leper— I probably wouldn’t have smiled in more than 2 of those photos either. Yet a year later, my SD wrote a school paper on how beautiful the wedding was, what an important and exciting day in her life.

These are the kinds of glimpses you catch that these kids’ emotions are conflicted and barriers are dissolving. It was those few and far between moments that helped me rally, haul myself up, and keep going.

Dating someone with kids is a mixed bag. There’s what’s happening on the surface, but then there’s all the churning complicated currents reaching for miles and miles down below. Becoming a stepparent is the emotional equivalent of the Mariana Trench; there’s no “Oh I’ll just dip my toes in real quick.”

Building this relationship will take years, not months. Remember that blending a family takes 5 to 7 years on average. On average. In a high-conflict situation, up to a decade or more.

If you are in this, you are in for the long haul, so remember to pace yourself. Don’t take every small rejection to heart. Your presence matters. Your contributions matter. Even if it takes years to see it.

5. Stepparenting rules apply to you.

Only after I’d been dating Dan for somewhere like 2 or 3 years (flying totally blind and feeling pretty miserable the entire time) did it finally occur to me that maybe there were some kind of stepmom resources I could look into that would help me figure out what I was doing wrong. Back in those days, there was nothing helpful online except a couple dusty, toxic forums. I hit the library and found a WHOLE ENTIRE BOOK on dating a guy with kids. Hallelujah! There were a couple books on being a stepmom sitting next to that, and I grabbed those too just because.

I read all of them within the week, called my mom all excited that it wasn’t just me— that everything I was going through was NORMAL and I wasn’t the worst woman on the planet for having such mixed feelings about being a stepmom (well, pre-stepmom), that me not getting along with my (pre) stepdaughter was typical, that my kid and his kid not getting along was also typical, that all the incredibly complex and contradictory emotions I cycled through roughly every 12 seconds was totally standard.

Her response? “Well, I’m glad you feel encouraged, honey. But remember, you’re NOT a stepmom.” She said it to be supportive, as in “Sweetie, I hate to see you taking all this on when you don’t have to.” I not only agreed with her, but even took what she said as an epiphany: “She’s right! I’m NOT a stepmom! I’m not married to this guy or his kid or his problems with his ex. I don’t have to put in the time or effort to figure out this whole mess! Whee!!”

Sometimes I wonder just how much that fake epiphany set me back.

Because that was one of those moments where you get what seems like good advice from the outside— don’t get more involved than you need to be (as in: until you have to be, aka you’re married)— but when you’re on the inside, it’s not that simple.

I couldn’t spend time with Dan without spending time with his daughter. I mean I could, but what would be the point? I was dating a guy who had a kid. She was part of his life, so if I also wanted to be part of his life, then our lives— my future SD’s and mine— would intertwine.

Plus, what was the alternative? Wait until we were officially married before putting in the effort to truly connect with my boyfriend’s daughter? Dan didn’t believe in marriage; I might never technically be a stepmom, so that left me… where, exactly? Plus, I also had a kid. Weren’t we working together toward building a family? Was I supposed to wait until legal marriage before we started that process?

There is no halfway when you are dating someone with kids. You’re in or you’re out. Sure, some logistics are different when just dating someone with kids as opposed to officially married or cohabiting stepparents— not sharing a household, not sharing finances— but the stepkid-stepparent dynamic? It’s the same. The emotional obstacles, the challenges, the guilt, the frustration, the wondering where you fit in? Yep, all the same.

Whatever title you give yourself— Dad’s girlfriend, Mom’s boyfriend, pre-stepparent, stepparent-in-training— if you’re feeling lost, start looking at stepparenting resources. At least 90% of what you read will apply to you. Or at least it’ll apply well enough to help you feel less alone, and that’s all that matters if you’re hitting the overwhelm point.

6. You can’t go it alone.

In kid-free relationships, there’s you and there’s your new partner and that’s it. But when you’re dating someone with kids, you are getting to know that someone and you are getting to know their kids. There’s a whole separate relationship there you have to work out.

Just like starting a relationship with another adult, becoming a stepparent includes a similar element of two people feeling each other out, learning likes and dislikes, learning the ways you click and the ways you clash, and putting all that stuff together in your head to figure out if you have a viable future.

Only in this case, one of those people is a kid. And because kids are kids and they haven’t gone through dating themselves yet, they don’t understand how relationships work. Kids don’t understand your role in their life (you probably don’t know yourself what your role is), they don’t want their life to change and they worry you might change it, and they don’t want you taking any of their parent’s attention away from them.

And they can’t articulate any of this; they just know it all adds up to not feeling real thrilled there’s a prospective stepparent in the picture. Which is where your partner’s advocacy can go a long way toward smoothing things over.

As parents, it’s our job to help our kids figure out the world, even when faced with questions we don’t know the answers to ourselves. Your partner needs to take an active role by reaching out to their kid and reassuring them: I love you no matter what; this person does not take away from my love for you; this person is important to me; this person is sticking around; it’s okay if you’re confused/don’t like them/have mixed feelings but it’s not okay to treat them disrespectfully; I know this is hard but you can always talk to me.

Without the constant reassurance and guidance from their parent, stepkids are left to navigate their emotions alone. Emotions they don’t understand, emotions that are more complex than children can even identify, let alone process. In a high-conflict situation, your future stepkids’ emotions may also be manipulated by their other parent.

Your partner is the connection between you and their kid. If they’re not acting as a bridge, then they’re making the process of connecting that much harder.

7. You gotta pick your battles.

Becoming a stepparent is like renting a house. A cute, friendly-looking house that at first you were super excited to move into, but after living there for awhile you realize maybe isn’t as nice as it seemed in photos. Also, the landlord left a ton of ugly furniture you’re not allowed to remove— you can only rearrange.

You have choices. You can:

1) Become overwhelmed by all the things you wish you could change but can’t; curl up in a permanent ball and cry.

2) Rage against everything, call the landlord daily ranting about how they need to change this or that to make the house livable for you. Get even angrier when the landlord agrees yet nothing changes.

3) Survey your surroundings. Take note of what you can live with, what you absolutely cannot live with, and what just might work with a bit of creativity on your part.

In other words, you gotta pick your battles.

There’s so much about our partner’s life that we as stepparents have no control over, especially when still in the dating stages. Also in the earliest stages of becoming a stepparent, we have this illusion that we can control those things.

There are some fights you will never be able to win. Disengage, and make your peace with what you cannot change, Serenity Prayer style.

8. It’ll get harder before it gets easier.

If I had to recreate my own timeline for becoming a stepmom, it’d look something like this:

  • 6 months to 1 year: Date a guy with kids, continually expecting that the awkward difficult stage will pass.
  • 2 years: Wonder why things are getting worse instead of better
    • Start looking for some kind of resources related to dating someone with kids, thinking I must be doing something very wrong.
    • Read that blending a family takes 5 to 7 years.
    • Immediately forget that statistic.
  • 3.5 to 4 years: Move in together. Get married. Wonder why things are getting worse instead of better.
    • Start looking for some kind of resources related to dating someone with kids, thinking I must be doing something very wrong.
    • Read that blending a family takes 5 to 7 years.
    • Wonder why the hell no one told me THAT before.
  • 5 years: Notice more times we feel like a “real” family.
  • 6 years: Realize I can’t remember the last time I felt like a 3rd wheel.
  • 7 years: Realize my kid & his are consistently getting along. When did that start happening??
  • 8 years: Life feels mostly normal. At least, normal for us.

Everything got harder before it got better. Twice.

I think this is pretty typical. In a low-conflict stepparenting situation, the timeline from dating someone with kids to feeling like a functional blended family is likely years shorter. In a high-conflict stepparenting situation, the natural process of blending your family gets set back over and over again with each battle between households; gaining ground is that much harder.

In either case, there’s typically a dip where dating someone with kids gets harder around the 6-month mark, when your future stepkid realizes you’re probably sticking around. Then there’s often a second dip around the 2-year mark, when your future stepkid realizes you’re almost for sure really for realsies sticking around.

Within any blended family, setbacks commonly show up right alongside milestones— moving in together, getting engaged, getting married, the arrival of a new sibling. It’s one of the most exasperating parts of becoming a stepparent: you make some kind of relationship breakthrough that’s worth celebrating, and your stepkid responds by turning into the worst version of themselves.

It’s hard to see how far you’ve come— and how close you are to breaking through— when you’re down in the trenches. Rise above to the 30,000 foot view and remind yourself what you’ve achieved. Think about your new blended family in terms of years, think about how you’ve grown into the stepparent role and all the positive changes you’ve seen so far. Stepparenting getting harder just when you thought it’d be getting easier is a very normal pattern for blended families, and doesn’t mean you’re doing anything wrong.

9. Trying harder can make things worse

If your partner’s kid consistently rejects you just for being yourself, it’s only natural to think you should up your game. Try harder. Bend further over backwards. Buy more stuff. Put up with more crap. Stop crying sooner and fake-smile faster.

But I swear, kids can smell fakery and fear on a pre-stepparent like they’re great whites and you’re thrashing around in open water with some kind of bleeding head wound and no land in sight.

Any kid who’s determined not to like you will only like you that much less if you act anything less than completely authentic. Because then not only are you ruining their lives, you’re also a total fake. You don’t really like them; you’re just being nice to them to get to their parent. You’re just trying to buy their love. (Or whatever stories they’re telling themselves about you.)

The more the kid rejects you, the more pressured you feel to work that much harder— the kids should fall in love with you, dammit! That’s the only way this will work!! So you dump more energy into those tiny human black holes, really getting creative with different ways you can connect, surely there’s something you could try that you haven’t tried that will be the magic key.

The whole time you’re setting up this super elaborate dog and pony show, your stepkid feels increasingly overwhelmed and withdraws further. Why? Because they aren’t ready for a relationship with you yet.

Which is totally normal, and totally okay.

So stop channeling the super-stepparent you think you’re supposed to be and just be yourself. The sooner you return to a not-on-steroids level of authentic you-ness, the sooner your stepkid will feel like it’s safe to emerge from their cave of sulk.

Successfully blending a family takes years, so think of becoming a stepparent like you’re competing in a triathlon. You gotta pace yourself. Don’t give yourself empty in the first leg.

10. Fading into the background can also make things worse.

Okay but by not trying harder, I don’t mean going all martyr like “Welp, no one wants me around anyway, I’ll just let my partner hang out solo with the kids again this weekend.” I mean, sure, yes, definitely all divorced or single parents need some 1-on-1 time with their kids without a stepparent around. But don’t let the sting of your stepkid’s current (temporary!) rejection distract you from your ultimate goal: to build a blended family with this person and that kid. A family that includes you.

11. A lot of children of divorce are innately unlikable.

In a traditional family, we know exactly what happens to the kids whose parents bend over backwards, hand them everything on a silver platter and never enforce rules, consequences, or boundaries. They grow up into spoiled little shitheads. Yet somehow—incomprehensibly— we all think that parenting children this way after divorce won’t have the exact same result.

Guilt is a major component in parenting after divorce. The terror that their kids will be permanently damaged by growing up in single-parent households causes divorced parents to make absolutely absurd parenting decisions.

Not “sometimes.” A lot of the time.

Guilty Parent Complex breeds little monsters. Divorced parents coddle their little rugrats to pieces because they’re always afraid the kids will choose the other parent over them. This dynamic leads to super dysfunctional parent-child relationships. The kids end up with all the power, which breeds entitlement and disrespect.

It’s not hard to see how that kind of kid is not the easiest kid for a stranger to grow to love just because you’re dating that kid’s parent. Over time, Guilty Parent Complex corrects itself… or it doesn’t, but then you can just disengage and learn to live with it.

12. It’s okay for your future stepkids not to like you.

Your stepkids aren’t likely to become your number one fans out of the gate. They may view you with emotions ranging from excitement to resentment to outright hatred or oscillate wildly among all of those (and some extra emotions tossed in for fun) at any given time, maybe simultaneously.

And that’s normal.

As confusing as the blended family dynamic is for the grownups, it’s exponentially more so for kids. Not only is everything happening over their heads and above their pay scale, kids lack the emotional capacity to process the incredibly complex emotions associated with one of their parents dating someone new.

Over time, your future stepkids’ emotional barometer will mature enough to figure out their conflicted feelings, which can manifest in different ways. Some future stepparents are welcomed with open arms— right up till your future stepkids realize you’re in this for the long haul, that is. Then they’ll pull a Jekyll-Hyde move so sudden it’ll drop your jaw.

Other kids immediately reject a stepparent-in-training, and don’t stop keeping them at arms’ length for a second. And this could go on for years.

It’s super important for your partner to talk openly and honestly with their kids about their feelings, but equally important not to harp on heavy emotional subject matter till everyone dreads being in the same room together. Your partner can explain to them that it’s completely normal and expected for them to have mixed feelings about you being in their lives— and that it’s also normal for them to have a laser-focused burning desire to get you out of their lives.

However, your partner also needs to stress that you’re not going anywhere and that you’re important to them, and insist the kids treat you with respect if nothing else.

13. It’s okay for you to not like your future stepkids.

Any adult dating someone with kids can expect to zip from mood to mood like a manic hummingbird with zero warning of what emotion is coming next. And one (or several) of those moods might involve some not-so-nice thoughts aimed toward your partner’s kids. Which, just like the not-so-nice feelings your partner’s kids’ have toward you, is totally normal and very common.

Maybe you want to like your partner’s kids but your partner spoils them so obnoxiously you can hardly stand to be around them. Or maybe you’re not really a kid person and can’t quite figure out how you’re supposed to relate to your future stepkids. Or maybe your partner’s ex is high-conflict, and you’ve started viewing— and resenting— the kids as an extension of their opposite parent.

All completely normal.

You’re still in the dating stages of becoming a stepparent, and blending a family takes years. Over time, your feelings will change approximately 86 bajillion times as you find your groove. And maybe you’ll end up really enjoying time with the kids, maybe love will take root and grow.

Or maybe not. And that’s okay too.

14. You only need one person’s approval: your partner’s.

Dating someone with kids can feel a lot like dating by committee.

You’re not only trying to win over a new partner, you’re also trying to win over their kid(s). You might also feel like you should have the other parent’s approval too— you know, the parent you’re not dating— since you’re going to be involved in their child’s life and all. If you have your own kids, you probably want them to approve of your relationship with this new person, too. Maybe your own ex is also sitting in the ever-growing peanut gallery. And then of course, just like any other relationship, you’ve both got various friends and relatives and coworkers all casting their votes on the viability of your relationship.

Stop.

Just stop.

The only two people who determine the future of this relationship are you and your partner.

You don’t need their kid to like you. If you’re waiting around for your future stepkid’s stamp of approval before getting serious about their parent, you could be waiting years.

You don’t need the kid’s other parent to give you permission to be in their child’s life, either. It seems like the respectful thing to do, but really it’s giving an outside adult inappropriate power in your relationship. The kids already have a parent— your partner— who has full authority to decide who is or is not an appropriate person to introduce into their child’s life.

Keep being yourself. Keep dating your partner. Keep getting to know each other and deciding if this is something that’s gonna work long-term. The rest will fall into place.

15. Don’t get sucked into drama.

When you’re holding hands with someone who regularly gets buckets of drama tossed their way, you can’t keep some from splashing over onto you once in awhile. But what you can do is take big, wide steps around the biggest muck-filled sinkholes to minimize the drama in your own path.

If there’s conflict with the kids, let your partner handle it.

If there’s conflict with the ex, especially let your partner handle that.

Avoiding drama and conflict is harder than it sounds. It’s human nature to want to fight for equality and justice, defend yourself against false accusations, and right the wrongs you see. It’s also human nature to think to yourself “If I can just show them that I’m not/I am [fill in the blank here]….”as you suit up and prepare to wade back into the sludge.

Stop! Put those coveralls down!

When you’re dating someone with kids, there’s intense emotion. There’s a lot of conflict, especially in the early days when everyone is finding their place. Everyone’s emotional barometers are way out of whack, including your own. But the more people who get sucked into whatever drama is at hand, the worse and messier and all-encompassing it becomes.

Your job, as a future stepparent, is not to clean up the mess you wandered into. That mess was already there. You are not in charge of fixing or improving anything. You are not a rule enforcer in a home that isn’t yours with kids who aren’t yours. You are not the ambassador between the ex’s hostile nation and your partner. You are just dating someone who has a kid. That’s all.

Over time, the current dynamics will change. Over time, drama dies down— even if it takes years. If you progress from dating to commitment, if you decide to share a home, you and your partner later on can create better boundaries together that keep any remaining drama at bay.

In the meantime, you are a tourist. You’re only visiting.

Your job right now is to create firm boundaries for yourself. Avoid whatever drama you can. Nacho kids, nacho problems. 

16. Don’t take everything so damned seriously.

When you’re in the early stages of dating someone with kids, that hot mess of emotions everyone’s experiencing makes all parties involved super touchy. If you’ve read any stepparenting resources at all, you’ll see “Don’t take it personally” advised over and over again till you want to scream and punch things, because A) it’s your relationship and your future family so um yes, it’s extremely personal and B) no one explains how the hell you’re not supposed take rejection personally.

There’s a reason all those books and forums say not to take stepparenting so personally. Your future stepkids would treat any adult in your position the exact same way they’re treating you. I know that for me, recognizing that in my logical mind didn’t help take the sting out. So I would say instead, try to not take stepparenting so seriously. And the foolproof way to do this?

Laugh more.

Big emotions feel scary whether you’re a kid or an adult, and sometimes the only way to deflate them down into a more manageable size is to poke some fun at them.

Crack more jokes. Tease your partner a bit. Tease the kids a bit. Make room for the absurdity of it all. If you’re going to laugh about it later anyway, just laugh now.

I mean, don’t invalidate anyone; there’s a line between teasing and mean that should not be crossed. But don’t get so wound about making everyone happy— about making sure everything is perfect and everyone gets along— that you end up feeling stiff, stifled, and resentful.

Stepparenting is overwhelming a surprising percentage of the time. No matter how committed you are to building your blended family, you cannot be all in, all the time without some kind of pressure relief valve. Humor helps tip the scales away from anger and toward regaining a balanced perspective.

17. Every win feels like a million bucks.

Here’s a little secret that no one tells you: every single good stepparenting thing that happens, no matter how fleeting, makes you feel 10 feet tall. And it’s amazing.

No matter how resistant those kids might be to your presence at first, eventually some of the stuff you’re trying so hard to contribute to their live sinks in. Seeing even the vaguest echoes of your own beliefs or values or traditions start peeking out here and there in these kids over the years— these kids you met by chance, who you are completely unrelated to, who sometimes act like they’re whatever the next step removed is beyond strangers— feels flat-out miraculous.

Long-term, seeing the positive effects of your stepparenting is rewarding in a way that’s utterly different from seeing your biological children grow into functional adults. You expect that you’re passing your legacy down to your bio kids; that’s the definition of being a parent. But to find you’re impacting your stepkids is a pleasant surprise, especially when it can so often feel like no one really wants your input… including and maybe especially your stepkids.

My stepdaughter used to leave the room when I walked in. For years. She threw away presents I gave her. She would not eat her lunches if she knew I was the one who packed them. She refused to greet me when she walked in the door, would not speak to me when I attended piano recitals or school plays. She spent the entirety of her formative years rejecting me as thoroughly as she could, in every way she could, and making sure I damn well knew it.

And yet, a dozen years later, that same kid is enrolled in the college I graduated from, living in my hometown, pursuing a career that I suggested. Not because she had some sudden epiphany about how fabulous I am, but because I just kinda rubbed off on her over time without her quite realizing it.

It feels like a damn miracle.

The rewards of stepparenting are way too few and way too far between; the bullshit outnumbers the wins by at least 10 to 1. You can’t think about stepparenting in terms of being “worth it”— just like no one thinks about whether it’ll be “worth it” to have biological kids. You do it because you want to, because you’re willing to make that commitment with no guarantee of a net positive outcome. Making the commitment does not mean every day will be sunshine and roses, but the wins you find along the way are all the sweeter for their unexpectedness.