Q&A: Helping new partner define role with your kids with guest expert

Heads up: I’ll be on “The Daily Circuit” on Minnesota Public Radio today (Friday) at 11 am Central time talking about the opt-out stuff from my Atlantic piece. Here’s the show info, and the livestream link is there. I’ll post the archive afterward when they put it up.

Today’s question is about step-parenting, which I know nothing about, so I tossed it to Deesha Philyaw (with whom I teach the Writing Through Your Divorce online workshop) . Deesha is a step-mom herself, and her children have a step-mom, so she’s got the view from both sides.

Anon writes: 

I have divorced from my kids dad, and we are working very hard (and so
far succeeding on the whole) to co-parent them in the style that you are
so good at modeling.  

My question today is about helping my boyfriend (hate
that there is no better word for that, seems a bit juvenile to use at
age 40), who is childless and before me never envisioned having children,
figure out what his role will/can/could be my childrens’ lives. Neither
he nor I have ever seen a terribly healthy step-parent relationship up
close (both our folks are still together, and the divorces we’ve been
spectator to have not included involved co-parents, etc etc)

This is all conceptual/information gathering at the
moment, as the kids and he have not yet met. Both he and I see us
forming a new life together and that obviously will include my children,
and he’s a researcher and reader and planner (as am I), and I’d love to
be able to point him/us to books/articles/personal stories to help us
both understand the role of a stepparent when the kids already have a
super-active and involved father – i.e they don’t need a surrogate dad
per se.  I’d love to get us off on the right foot towards whatever that
relationship ends up looking like from the initial meeting.  Any
thoughts or been-there-done-thats that your readers could share would be
most welcome.

Deesha responds:

First, kudos to both of you for being so thoughtful about this and
planning ahead.  You’re avoiding the trap that some well-meaning folks
find themselves in: “We love each other, so of course the kids will love
this new person, and we’ll all get along swimmingly!”  As with so many
things, love isn’t enough.  A gradual introduction can help kids adjust.
 Starting with short, fun outings in public places give everyone a
chance to meet without the high pressure of, say, a holiday dinner,
someone’s birthday, or a road trip.

When my ex and I separated, we agreed to give each other
the opportunity to meet anyone we were serious about, prior to that
person meeting our kids.  We both did that, so when the kids told us
about meeting Mom’s new friend or Dad’s new friend, we were able to say
that we’d also met them.  What this seems to have done is freed our kids
up to get to know these new people (who eventually became their
stepparents) without fear of betraying the other parent or feeling like
they couldn’t talk about what a good time they’d had.  They could also
talk about things that bothered them or feelings they were struggling
with without worrying that the things they shared would fuel some larger
gripes the adults had with each other.  I gave my children permission
to get to know and like their stepmom, Sherry.  I genuinely like her
myself, but even if I didn’t, I wouldn’t have burdened my kids with that

After those initial grown-up meetings, my
then-boyfriend/now-husband C and I met up with the kids (my 2 girls and
his 2 girls) at Dave & Buster’s. It was loud and fun.  My kids and
C’s oldest daughter spent more time engaging each other than us as
adults.  His younger daughter, however, was definitely checking me out
and sizing me up, good-naturedly.  It seemed she was hoping I was going
to try and “win her over” by doting and being indulgent, but instead I
was engaged without being cloying, and gave them their space.  Of course
I wanted them to like me, but I didn’t want them to feel pressured to
like me right away.  Generally, I followed their lead.  When they got to
the point where they wanted to hug me or tell me things that were
happening in their lives, I welcomed it, and I reciprocated.

My ex is a very involved father, so my kids didn’t need a
surrogate dad either.  My kids enjoys C’s company and sense of humor. C
considers himself a resource, someone who cares for, encourages, and
supports my children, and who is a support to me as a parent. I feel
similarly about my role in his children’s lives.  Not a replacement
parent, but I’m there for my bonus daughters, committed to loving and
caring for them, and supporting my husband as he parents.

My kids really liked Sherry, right off the bat, when
they first met her.  Or so it seemed.  It turns out that my youngest,
Peyton, who was 4 or 5 at the time, was asking Sherry to take her to the
bathroom whenever they all went out to restaurants. In private, she
would say awful things to Sherry, making it clear that she didn’t want
her around!  So my ex had to address that with Peyton and talk about how
she felt about him having someone else in her life.

My ex and I also aimed to do more
listening than talking when it came to conversations with our children
about our new partners.  We wanted to allow their relationships with our
new partners to develop in their own time and in their own ways. No
pressure from us to “like’ this person or approve.  However, we did
expect them to be respectful, as we would with anyone.

I think my girls are able to embrace having
stepparents because we (the adults) are all respectful of each other’s
roles and boundaries.  For example, Sherry is more of a shopper than I
am, so my teen daughter Taylor shops more with Sherry than she does with
me.  However, I told them that I wanted to be the one who took Taylor
to buy her first heels and make-up, and it was understood.

Two resources come to mind.  Our book Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce has a chapter on dating with kids in the mix and remarriage.  Also the Step and Blended Family Institute has good resources for those who are “step-dating.”

Good luck!


Deesha runs the site Co-parenting 101, which contains tons and tons of resources for co-parents, including a podcast, guest posts, and resources on step-parenting. 



0 thoughts on “Q&A: Helping new partner define role with your kids with guest expert”

  1. This is really impressive! I think it is such a great idea to have co-parents meet each other’s new partners before the children meet them. It sets up such a different dynamic of inclusivity rather than competition that I’ve got to imagine would set a very solid foundation on which the relationships can build.

    I do think it’s interesting that in Deesha’s experience, one of her children had a hard time with her ex’s new potential stepmother. For whatever reason, I think the stepmother relationship is much more difficult and fraught than the stepfather relationship. As a new stepmother (who was in a relationship with my now-husband for 3.5 years before we married) I have found the book Stepmonster to be a HUGE help. It has a terrible title but it is a very loving book, very frank at times about how difficult, disappointing, and disheartening the role of stepmother can be at times for a woman who is loving, caring, does her best to be a great stepparent, and still gets rejected by a stepchild. Very often, that rejection is not about the quality of the stepmother, but about how difficult it is for a child to navigate what he or she perceives as divided loyalties to competing parents, even when the parents don’t intend to be in competition. That’s why it seems so great to start from a basis of acceptance and even welcome among the adults involved.

    I found Stepmonster to be a comfort because I feel like I have bent over backwards, twisted myself into a pretzel at times, and gone out of my way to be good to my stepdaughter, but she still basically seems to despise me. We have a very polite, distant relationship, and that would be fine with me if she still had a close relationship with her father, but she has distanced herself from him almost entirely. I know it’s up to the two of them to work on their relationship (she’s 19) and ultimately not my business, but I constantly feel guilty and anxious that they are not as close as they were when I first started dating my now-husband. When I became pregnant last year, my biggest concern was whether the baby was a boy or a girl, because I felt like my stepdaughter would be completely devastated by the presence of a younger sister to displace her as "Daddy’s girl". Luckily, he is a boy, and I had hopes that she might be excited about having a little baby brother. She even moved in with us right before he was born. But she was SO distant toward all of us, rarely ever even held the baby, rejected all of her dad’s overtures to do things alone together, and basically just used the place as a crash pad. (Well, that, as well as making a mess and leaving dirty dishes in the sink while I was recovering from an emergency c-section and nursing a baby with reflux who was just home from the NICU, but I’m not bitter or anything.) She never fed him a bottle or changed a diaper in 2 months. She’s now moved back in full time with her mom, who bought her a puppy. (Her mom has always felt herself in competition with us for her attention, and the puppy is an almost cartoonish example of competing with our new baby – and it worked!) When she left, I felt both immense relief and immense sadness.

    What Stepmonster has helped me to accept is that I can’t reparent her and I can’t change how her parents played into a competition dynamic. My role is not to win her approval or to repair her relationship with her dad. My role is to have a strong, solid marriage that can (eventually) serve as a sense of security and comfort and an example of a stable marriage for her. My role also is to give her and her dad the space to have their own strong relationship. If we can eventually be friends or if she can see me as support, that would be great. But I can’t base any of my emotional well being on what she chooses to do. It’s really, really hard.

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