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, or even 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 resented
Most 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 disciplining, our actions are 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 IS a stepparent’s role?
"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 a hands-on stepparent role isn't working for your blended family.
Not that you can't or shouldn't keep contributing to your stepkids’ 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.
Stepparenting is an ecosystem, not an island. You cannot build a blended family alone, and your partner shouldn't expect you to. Any stepparent who actively parents their stepkids can only do so successfully if their partner actively supports them in a parenting role.
As you disengage, your partner steps in to parent, and you get room to breathe. The time you spent feeling resentful can now be spent enjoying some downtime with your stepkids instead. Disengaging finally frees you and your stepkid up to get to know each other. And because you're not stuck in silent fuming mode anymore, you can actually look forward to spending time with your stepkids instead of viewing them as parenting problems to be solved.
Letting go of stepparent guilt
My SD was the very definition of a special snowflake when I first met her. Both my stepdaughter's biological parents bent over backwards to meet her every whim. Basic life skills— including (but not limited to) chewing with her mouth closed, tying her own shoes, and wiping her own ass— were limited or absent. Call me old-fashioned but I 100% believe a 7-year-old should be capable of all those things. My own 7yo certainly was.
And I thought, this poor kid. Her parents got divorced when she was 4 and everyone just put basic parenting on hold while they wallowed in their divorce guilt. SD’s bio parents were so busy helicoptering over her and making sure she's not irreversibly damaged from their split that they forgot to, you know, parent.
I wasn't sure if Dan was overwhelmed or just oblivious, but one thing I knew: thank god I was there and could step in to help. No more French fries for dinner (ketchup counts as a vegetable I guess?) followed by two desserts. No more 10:30 pm bedtimes on school nights. And these changes will for sure improve SD's sulky attitude, which will only benefit everyone. We all win, right?
When I stepped in and took SD under my wing, mothered her just like I already mothered my own daughter, did SD's diet improve? Did her manners shape up? Did her schedule become more appropriate for her age? Bet your ass.
Did anyone thank me for that?
Even though I was LITERALLY raising my stepdaughter the EXACT SAME WAY I was already raising my own child, I was treated like The Wicked Stepmother™. But… wasn't parenting what I was supposed to do as a stepmom? Wasn't I supposed to love my stepdaughter like my own, and prove that by treating her the same way I treated my own daughter?
Huh. Apparently not.
It's a real catch-22, isn't it? Love your stepkids by parenting them and you're accused of being too hard on them. Stop parenting them, and you're accused of not loving them.
My stepdaughter didn't like any of the structural changes I brought to her life, so she wasn't prepared to accept any of the fun things I could bring either. After weeks/months/years of being treated like I was the worst stepmom on the planet, I started believing I was the worst stepmom on the planet and feeling really shitty about myself. And once I no longer liked myself, how could I expect my stepdaughter to like me?
Taking on a parenting role with my stepdaughter came very naturally to me since I already had a kid the same age as my SD. But adopting a parenting role only alienated my stepdaughter, not to mention caused me a crazy amount of stress. I was so busy trying to parent my stepdaughter, I missed out on a million chances to become something more to her than a wicked stepmom.
How to disengage from your stepkids
Not until I stepped back from my SD did our relationship start to improve. I stopped trying to raise my stepdaughter, and let my husband raise her instead. My rules for my own kid were so completely different from his that I gave up on the idea of what was "fair"; instead, we parallel parented within our own household. I adopted "not my circus, not my monkey" as my new mantra. I gave up on thinking everything had to be equal between bio kid and stepkid, and focused instead on what worked best for each girl.
Me correcting SD's behavior, encouraging personal accountability, creating more structure? Great intentions; misguided execution. I thought parenting my stepdaughter was my job. Instead, I just made her feel uncomfortable around me. I made our home a place of eggshells and uncertainty when I could have made it a safe place for her to land instead.
My SD didn't feel loved and cared for through my actions. She didn't think I wanted what was best for her. Instead, my stepdaughter thought I didn't like her. She felt criticized and restricted.
Figuring all this out took me way too long. Years of damage done could have been prevented by me disengaging from my stubborn beliefs about what a stepmom is "supposed" to do.
By parenting my stepdaughter, I was telling Dan that his parenting wasn't good enough—that I didn't trust him to parent his own child as well as I could. What a shitty message.
I stopped parenting and worked on accepting instead. Accepting that Dan wasn't going to parent SD the same way I would. Accepting that that was okay. Instead of more rules, I tried to bring in more downtime. More low-key hanging out. More laughter. And slowly, over time, the tension in our home eased up and made room for love to enter.
Disengaging from your stepkids (in a loving way!) can make you a better stepparent. When trying to be the best stepmom I could be made me into the worst version of myself, stepping back saved me.
Parenting more isn't what makes us good stepparents. Recognizing what our stepkids want and need from us and responding accordingly—THAT is what makes us good stepparents. Even if what our stepkids want and need is for us to back the hell off.