• Erin

Pandemic (Step)Parenting: Finding Your Role in Uncertain Times

Like many others, in March I suddenly found myself working from home, with my husband who was (thankfully!) on parental leave, our two little ones (aged 3 and 4 months at the time), and my two stepkids, aged 11 and 13. Where we had previously been every other weekend (EOWE) with the kids, we suddenly had them for a month straight – and were in charge of supporting their e-learning. For the rest of the summer we have been two weeks on, two weeks off.

Everything was topsy-turvy, everything was a learning curve, with so much uncertainty.

Now, five months after we went into lockdown, we are moving from a state of crisis management to navigating the “new normal”. The only thing that is consistent is that feeling of uncertainty, and it impacts all parents, but perhaps especially stepparents. Uncertainty around their role and a lack of predictability in family dynamics and custody can leave stepmoms feeling confused, anxious, and stressed.

How can you, stepmom, navigate your role in your family during a time when everything is up in the air?

Here are three questions to ask yourself so you can bring some peace to these stressful times.

1. What is the current situation where you live, and how is this reflected in your family?

Start with the lay of the land. Are the kids going back to school? Will they be at home doing e-learning? If they are home, does this mean custody has changed? Are you able to navigate these changes with your partners’ ex in a cooperative way? Are you and your partner working from home? What are the new or changing demands on your time? Do you have a support system available, or is your community still practicing social distancing? Talk to your partner about these questions, and even write down your answers to bring some clarity to the upcoming months. When you have as much clarity as possible on what the future (for now) looks like, move on to the next question.

2. What are your expectations and what are the expectations of your partner?

Now that you have a sense of what the situation looks like for you and your family, it’s time to examine your expectations around your role in your family. For example, if you will have increased custody and kids will be taking part in at-home e-learning, how involved do you want to be in that process? What elements of care would you feel most comfortable taking on?

It often happens that stepmothers take on more responsibility for childcare than they intended or imagined they would. There are a few reasons for this. Your partner might be grieving the loss of a “family unit” and so might want to emulate a nuclear family as much as possible. When they respond positively to any parenting done by you, stepmom, they’re really saying “This makes me happy – please continue taking on this role”. Every stepmom I interviewed for my PhD research said they took on more parenting responsibilities for their stepchildren than they had imagined. They also said that this was not explicitly discussed with their partner, but rather seemed to happen “naturally”. There is also a social and cultural aspect to this, as women are still viewed as primarily responsible for childcare. We tend to follow a sort of “social script” that defines us as the nurturer in our families – even when we are not biologically linked to the children!

So decide for yourself the role you feel comfortable playing, and discuss this with your partner. Listen to their hopes and expectations for the family too, and work together to support one another in finding peace and a middle ground in those expectations.

3. What boundaries do you need to set so you can prioritize your mental health and self-care, while contributing to your family in the ways you feel comfortable?

Once the expectations are discussed, you may need to set some boundaries to ensure those expectations are met, and that you don’t slip into taking on more than you agreed to. This can be an uncomfortable process for many stepmoms, but believe me when I say, boundaries often IMPROVE relationships. When lines are clear and you are more confident in your role, relationships can flourish. Remember that boundaries are about what YOU will do to protect yourself. For example: “If you refuse to put the kids to bed at a decent time, I’m not going to be the one to handle the morning routine anymore.” “Dad made it clear that I’m at charge while he is at work. If you don’t clean up your dishes when I ask you to, I will not be driving you to swimming lessons.” Boundaries are about protecting yourself from unwanted behaviours. They don’t need to be permanent, but they need to be firm.

Pandemic parenting and stepparenting is so difficult and strange for everyone. Ultimately, parenting decisions around things like schooling, health, and extracurriculars must be left to the parents. You can provide input and support your partner from the sidelines, as much as you feel comfortable. They may be stressed because custody has changed, or they may be concerned about the way the other home is handling the healthcare guidelines. A little empathy and grace can go a long way, but ensure that your voice is heard too.

In the end, if your relationship is strong and you are a team, you can weather this, and any other storm that comes your way.

Good luck stepmama.

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