Can parenting less make you a better stepparent?
What if the "step" in "stepparent" actually stood for stepping back? What if disengaging from a hands-on stepparenting role made you a better stepparent?
Stepparents often get pigeonholed (willing or no) into a parenting role smack out of the gate. Within nanoseconds of meeting our partners' kids, we're using shared calendars, chauffeuring, attending school events, helping with homework, contributing to household finances, other 'parenty' things.
We make these contributions partly due to our partners' expectations, but also because of our own preconceptions about what it means to be a good stepparent. Because good stepparents should parent, right? Jump in where our help is needed? Point our stepkids in the right direction when we see them veering off track all crazy-like?
So there you go, killing yourself to be super-involved and do everything "right"—only it's backfiring. The stepkids don't seem happy AT ALL with your attempts to parent. Your spouse says you're coming down too hard on them, maybe accuses you of not loving your stepkids. You find yourself frustrated, resentful, exhausted. You start dreading transition days and living for your kid-free weeks or weekends. Which means that on top of the guilt you already feel that you must not be trying hard enough (because otherwise your stepkids would accept you, right?), now you feel guilty about not being thrilled when they're around.
Will this ever change? Does stepparenting ever get easier? Will blended family life ever feel better?
Why the best stepparents are often the most resentedMost stepkids don't see their stepparents as natural authority figures. They aren't happy at having another grownup around telling them what to do, especially one whose presence they view as non-mandatory (or—fingers crossed!—temporary).
All those awesome parenting things you do for your stepkid then work against you. The kids resent you stepping in because they don't view you as having earned the right to do so.
In Wednesday Martin's book Stepmonster, she explains how stepmoms particularly struggle with this because their husbands position them in the household on an even standing with the kids. Friction between stepkid and stepparent is viewed as being a struggle among equals, and is met with an attitude like "You kids work it out and then go play nice." But a stepkid disrespecting their stepparent isn't unique to stepmoms by any stretch. Plenty of stepdads face the same challenges—it's just that no one's written a cleverly-titled book for them yet.
Compare your stepkids' behavior toward you with how your partner would respond to their child treating any other adult the way they treat you, their stepparent. With any other adult, a sulky attitude, refusal to do what you asked, or lack of basic social niceties would never be considered acceptable behavior.
Would your partner ever say to their child's teacher, "Oh little Johnny didn't do his homework like you asked? Well did you ask nicely or were you mean about it? Why are you always hounding him about his homework, anyway? Just lay off for a while. Why are you even a teacher if you don't love my kid?"
Behavior correction is viewed as a normal part of the adult-child relationship in any other adult-child dynamic. But when it's a stepparent correcting behavior? Suddenly we're being "too hard on" the kids. We're not doing anything differently than any babysitter, teacher, or auntie/uncle would do in the exact same position, but when it's a stepparent parenting, our actions are inexplicably equated with us not loving our stepkids.
Our stepkids, too, resist our attempts to parent more than they'd resist the same response in a babysitter/teacher/auntie/uncle. The kids recognize those other adults as having authority over them, but they don't accept their stepparent in a parent-like role. Stepkids don't see their stepparents' actions as coming from a loving place because they're not ready to accept them yet. It's easier for stepkids to keep rejecting their stepparent than acknowledge that their parents are never going to be together again and this is their new normal.
Stepkids who act shitty toward their stepparents do so because they don't really know their stepparent and don't really wanna know them. And not just new stepparents either—this standoffish attitude can persist for years of knowing each other (or even living together), for no reason other than because kids are kids and they want things how they want them. What they don't want is a stepparent to parent them.
So what's your role as a stepparent?"Hey, it's not my job to make my stepkids like me," you might be saying. "It's my job to raise them into good people."
Yeahhhh…. is it though? Is raising our stepkids really our job as stepparents?
For some stepparents, sure, raising the stepkids into responsible grownups and helping their partners parent the kids is a completely valid, doable role. Yet the majority of stepparents are out there killing ourselves trying to help around the house, trying to parent our stepkids, we're still not connecting with our stepkids and our home life only keeps getting worse. If you're constantly frustrated, resentful, and exhausted, then it's time to accept that hands-on stepparenting isn't working for your blended family.
Not that you can't or shouldn't keep contributing to your stepkid's lives. You absolutely can. But keeping in mind that blending a family takes 5 to 7 years on average, maybe you wanna NOT take the "jump in with guns blazing" approach. Maybe stepping back, disengaging from your stepkids and re-evaluating your role as a stepparent would be a better way to go right now.