the disengaging essay for stepparents

On every stepparenting forum, you’ll find users sharing links to The Disengaging Essay all sneaky-like, like they’re passing notes or hiding a secret addiction. And it’s true that The Disengaging Essay is controversial. It’s also true that disengaging from your stepkids has been a hardcore sanity saver for more than one stepparent out there.

The original version was written by an unknown stepmom who was clearly on her last nerve. I’ve rewritten an adapted version that I hope can be helpful for stepmoms and stepdads both, as well as pre-stepparents who are still in the dating-someone-with-kids stage.

While disengaging from your stepkids isn’t for everyone, remember there are no rules for running a blended family a certain way. We’re all groundbreakers here. Do what’s right for you.

And if things are really bad– remember, hang in there, folks. No matter how stuck you feel, change is inevitable; you’ll get to a happier place someday.

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Life in “Normal” Families

In a “normal” family, there are two equal parents. Each has a clear sphere of influence, and each has a certain amount of innate authority granted to them simply for birthing/raising a kid: being there and being present.

In a “normal” family, love and discipline are doled out in equal measure by each parent. Sometimes Dad loses his patience; other times he helps me fix up my bike. Sometimes Mom gives me a big hug; other times she sends me to my room. Everything’s pretty balanced. There are ups and downs, but kids learn the rhythms. Dancing along to the beat of the moment is no biggie.

The upheaval of divorce throws every single established family dynamic straight out the window. There are angry accusations, hurt feelings, adjustments to a new reality for kids and parents alike.

Out of all these mixed emotions, though, what divorced parents feel most of all is guilt. So, they stop parenting in an equitable way. Rules go out the window, especially in the case of an uneven custody split, where one parent sees the child far less often. (Who wants to waste time on a bunch of rules when you only see your kids every other weekend?)

Then, one day, that parent develops a relationship with someone new: the stepparent.

Enter the Stepparent

The stepparent, as an outsider, can see all kinds of parenting gaps in the lives of these children of divorce—things that the biological parent has long since glossed over or maybe never realized in the first place. And stepparents also see all the special gifts our stepkids have, gifts that are getting lost in or destroyed by these parenting gaps.

Since we stepparents view ourselves as responsible adults, we think it’s our job to step in and help make things better. After all, we want our stepkids to grow into the best possible versions of themselves. To this end, we’re happy to help take over parenting duties the other parent has missed or forgotten or doesn’t think are important. Little things, like enforcing table manners or bedtimes. This shouldn’t be a big deal, right?

Except it is.

As stepparents, we lack the bonding with our stepkids that would give us authority in their eyes to take over any parenting-type duties. We’re too new. We’re practically strangers, even after we’ve already been around a year or two. We need a recommendation to get into the club—a sponsor, aka your partner.

In a divorced family, the bio parent and the kids form their own team. A stepparent enters the game as the lone wolf outsider, not belonging anywhere… unless our partners reach out and welcome us in. Parent, stepparent, and kids all need to realize that the name of the new game is Blended Family, and everyone belongs in the family equally.

Yet even without this support from our partner, our goals as stepparents remain the same: we want to contribute, we want to help with the kids, we want to give our partner a break, we want our homes to be less chaotic or look more like the family we always envisioned. So we keep trying to organize chores, enforce rules, all those totally non-fun but necessary things that keep a household running. And the stepkids become more resentful of these unwelcome changes, especially if our partners aren’t backing us up.

We feel increasingly isolated, overburdened, stressed out, and disrespected. We complain to our partners. Maybe we get support behind closed doors, but it’s not followed through in real life. Or maybe we’re accused of criticizing the stepkids or our partner’s parenting skills. Which, for the record, really isn’t what we’re saying at all—although we can see how it could come off like that.

This miscommunication isn’t anyone’s fault. After all, biological parents never had to back up the other parent every single time in a “normal” marriage. Having to act differently in a blended family doesn’t even occur to your partner. They’re still parenting the same way they always have, and that always worked just fine before the stepparent came along—so clearly, the problem is us.

We are the wicked stepparents.

The more we talk to our partners about how to make things better at home, the more convinced they become that we are the worst parent figures ever.

Everything was just hunky dory before we came into the picture. We must be at fault. We’re overreacting.

Our partners defend their kids’ behavior, further reinforcing an “existing family” vs. “outsider” mentality.

They actively undermine our role in our stepkids’ lives by giving their children permission to ignore or dismiss our contributions or efforts. Or they passively undermine our role by taking no action whatsoever, by denying our need for support, by themselves ignoring or dismissing our contributions.

Where the Kids Fit In

And how do the kids feel in all this? Well, they knew their expected place pre-divorce, and have adjusted (pretty much) to their new roles post-divorce. A stepparent messes that up completely. While there might be a honeymoon period when a stepkid thinks a stepparent seems kinda cool, once everyone’s settled into the everyday business of living life, it’s time for kids to start testing boundaries.

Totally normal, by the way. Kids test boundaries with their bio parents too. With a bio parent, though, that love/discipline bond is already fully developed. Plus, kids want their parent’s approval—a random virtual stranger, not so much.

Kids have a limited amount of life experience with which to make decisions. A stepparent is an unknown factor they haven’t run into before. Kids don’t know how to handle the situation or how to act toward the stepparent, so they look to their bio parent for guidance. Can I talk back to my stepmom, or will Dad get mad? Can I ignore my stepdad, or will Mom speak up? When the lady my dad is dating brings me stuff, do I have to say thank you?

Any of your stepkids’ poor behavior toward you that’s not immediately redirected by your partner will continue and worsen.

The kids feel they’ve received unspoken permission to defy this new person in their lives. And the bio parent doesn’t see the problem; they only see the stepparent complaining about the kids’ behavior. Everyone gets angrier and more frustrated. Bitterness enters.

The kids end up with way too much power. The stepparent ends up feeling infuriated at the very presence of these tiny dictators. The bio parent feels exasperated that this person who was supposed to help create a new blended family has instead made everything more difficult.

Meanwhile, we stepparents are still in the daily trenches, whether that’s as a provider or an at-home parent or something in between. We’re still buying groceries, helping around the house, chauffeuring kids, supervising homework and piano practice. Every day, we work hard to fulfill our dream of what our family should and could be.

And every day, our partners let those dang kids get away with murder. We feel like we’re getting scraped off the bottom of a shoe by this so-called family we’re making incredible sacrifices for—a family that still treats us like unwelcome interlopers.

We’re angry, we feel unappreciated, we wonder what we’re even doing here. And it’s been like this for years.

When you hit this point, it’s time to disengage.

The Process of Disengaging

Disengaging from your stepkids means accepting several hard truths:

  • Your stepkids aren’t your children. You’re not responsible for raising your stepkids.
  • You’re not responsible for helping your stepkids overcome their biological parenting.
  • You’re not responsible for the type of adults your stepkids become.
  • You need to stop setting expectations. You need to stop creating and/or enforcing household rules.
  • You need to stop disciplining.

All of those responsibilities belong to your partner, who is not going to parent their kids the way you’d prefer. Your stepkids aren’t going to turn out as awesome as they would if your partner supported you. And you have to learn to accept that.

You need to stop parenting your stepkids.

And your partner needs to START parenting them.

Disengaging from your stepkids means turning over all the parenting responsibilities to the biological parent, including letting them make mistakes. Will this make life a little more inconvenient for everyone involved? Yep. But compare that to the constant friction and mental stress and stone cold misery you’re going through right now. That the entire household is going through. By contrast, maybe a little inconvenience doesn’t seem so bad.

Before you disengage from your stepkids, though, you need to let everyone know what’s happening. Set up a family meeting. Sit everyone down. Deliver this speech:

“Everyone is unhappy. Our home is miserable. I’m frustrated and angry with you and the kids; you and the kids are frustrated and angry with me. Something needs to change, and I’ve decided it’s going to be me.

I will no longer [list the things you’re responsible for currently: packing lunches, childcare, school runs, whatever]. I am no longer going to do anything that gives anyone the opportunity to respond with ingratitude or disrespect. In the future, if you kids need anything, you must ask your parent. I will no longer take responsibility, because trying to do so has only made everything a disaster.

My hope in doing this is that we get along better, and the only way I know how to do that is by letting your parent be the one who parents you.”

Now. Does this mean you’re giving up your position in the household? Nope. It means you’re picking your battles, and your battles are now going to be limited to those things that affect only you.

Because the real problem here isn’t between you and your stepkids.

The real problem is your partner.

Disengaging takes your partner off autopilot, and forces them to make conscious choices that inform the family dynamic. Your partner needs make a decision every time there’s a conflict: either support your parenting efforts, or take over parenting themselves.

By being in a relationship together, you’ve agreed to help parent each other’s children. Let’s say that again: you’ve agreed to help parent, which implies that your partner should already be parenting their children.

You’re not obligated to take on thankless servitude just because you married your stepkids’ biological parent. You have the right to see your efforts appreciated.

By disengaging, your partner will have to ask you for help. You’re no longer volunteering your time and energy. By disengaging, you stop martyring yourself. You will no longer put yourself in the position offering to take on extra tasks, only to end up criticized, unappreciated, taken for granted, and fuming in resentment.

Will your partner support your decision to disengage from your stepkids? Probably not. But hey, your partner isn’t currently supporting your attempts to be active and involved, either.

Will your partner feel happy about taking on more responsibilities after you go on strike? Probably not. They’ll have more to do themselves, and no one wants that. Including you. Yet that’s exactly what you’ve been doing: taking on more and more responsibilities while your partner has declined to parent.

Your partner has no right to expect more parenting from you than they are willing to do themselves.

Their kids are their job. If they want to raise great kids, they’ll parent them. It’s up to your partner to decide whether that’s important to them. If raising tiny humans into well-adjusted adults isn’t on their priority list, why on earth should you keep it first on yours?

Disengaging from your stepkids forces your partner to pay attention to parenting. To think about the gobs of work involved in raising the kids. And to think about—and appreciate—the times you do step in, when and if your partner asks. Again, you have every right to feel appreciated. You’re in this family by choice, after all.

Don’t Bother with the Blame Game

This situation is no one’s fault. Blended families are a complex mix of random circumstance, impact of different parenting styles, divorce psychology, child psychology, and so many more influences that listing them all would be impossible.

Blaming your partner or your stepkids for a lack of appreciation isn’t helpful. They’re only echoing your own behavior back at you. But you need to quit blaming yourself, too. Stop accepting crappy leftovers. Stop responding to getting pushed around by rolling over and showing your belly one more time.

Instead, show your family that you’re worth more than that. Value yourself and you will immediately feel better. Be willing to respond to a backseat smartass remark with “I’m sorry you’ve decided to treat me disrespectfully” and turn that car right around.

That’s it. No discussion. Just take care of business.

Heck, you’re already the bad guy. You’ve got nothing to lose at this point. Every single stepparenting book talks about the importance of letting go, a process that’s much easier said than done. But you have to try. Because letting go can mean the choice between continuing to sludge through misery every single day—or finally doing something about it.

The absolute hardest challenge you will ever face as a stepparent is giving up the need to change your stepkids into your idea of what you think they should or could be.

You are not the glue that’s barely holding the family together. They won’t collapse if you let go. And while there’s no guarantee that disengaging from your stepkids will fix your family’s problems, you can at least count on feeling less angry, less frustrated, less resentful, and less hurt.

They say that trying the same thing over and over again in the same way and expecting different results is the definition of insanity. Disengaging from your stepkids is a last-ditch effort to stop the crazy dead in its tracks.

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