When "Step" Means Step Back
I love to laugh. Laughing is my favorite. And I’ve been told on more than one occasion that my laugh is quite recognizable for its volume and intensity.
So the day my husband said, “It’s good to hear that laugh again”, it hit me.
Time to take stock. What was I doing? What wasn’t I doing? How was I living? Why wasn’t I laughing?
Let’s back up a bit.
There are some pretty common experiences that stepmoms have and one of those is the challenge of different parenting styles. Very commonly (and cited by many specialists in the field of stepfamilies), a stepmom enters into a relationship with a man who is parenting (at least in part) from feelings of guilt; from the divorce, from not seeing his children full-time, from a variety of reasons, all of which make perfect sense.
Unfortunately, guilty parenting often means a lack of routine, expectations, rules and boundaries. This means that stepmoms enter into an already formed family that might be operating under a bit of…chaos.
The script for women in this society is to be managers of the home, so to speak; making sure things run smoothly. So, some stepmoms come into chaos and try to turn that into a “nuclear-like” home, with chore charts, bedtimes and healthy meals.
That doesn’t often turn out very well.
And of course, it doesn’t.
Imagine kids who are used to spending time with Daddy, getting all of his attention, and probably having very little in terms of rules. Then “she” comes in, taking Daddy’s attention and love away from them, and suddenly they have to go to bed at eight o’clock and help with the dishes. Well, guess who isn’t very popular?
You can see how this doesn’t work from the kids’ perspective.
What about her? She’s just doing what she feels is right. She’s trying to help her partner parent and give the kids a happy, healthy home.
What’s so wrong about that? Nothing.
So what is she to do? Well. Certainly, there should be some open and honest conversations with her partner, where they talk TOGETHER about their expectations and hopes for their new family. If they BOTH choose to make some changes together, Dad should be the one to initiate these changes with the children. In a family meeting, these new changes can be discussed with everyone present, so the children know that stepmom has some authority too.
This is pretty much the ideal.
Not necessarily the typical.
So, what happens when stepmom and her partner talk, and she suggests some parenting changes that he doesn’t agree with? Or he agrees but is reluctant to enforce these changes with the children. Does she continue hoping these changes will be made? Does she keep raising the same conversation, which ends up in an argument because they are both frustrated? Does she silently stew over the way he parents, all the while carrying out other parenting tasks like cooking, cleaning, and laundry? In other words, does she continue to take on the labor of a parent without having the decision-making power and respect that a parent has?
She can step back.
Step back from some of those responsibilities and let Dad do the parenting work. He is the parent after all. You can have a conversation with him, letting him know that because you feel as though you’re not a parenting team together, that you are going to step back and let him parent. You will focus on your relationship with him, not on being another caretaker of his kids.
This can be tough to do, but it can also save your marriage. The stress and tension that can be created when you are not a parenting team when you don’t support one another as the adults of the home when you don’t act as a united front together… can erode the strongest of unions.
So back to me. A couple of big changes had thrown our stepfamily life for a loop. First of all, we moved to a different province, a ten-hour drive from the kids. This is temporary but definitely challenging. My husband misses his kids dearly, and they miss him. Instead of weekly or bi-weekly visits with them, we were seeing them a few times a year for longer chunks of time. Secondly was the arrival of “ours” baby, Grace. A little treasure; she has completed our family. And I’m not going to lie; it feels nice to be #1 in someone’s eyes!
At the time of the laughing comment, we had the kids for the whole summer. My husband had the second half of the summer off from work, but for the first half, I was home with the three kids. A baby is a lot of work, as many of you likely know, and I was a bit overwhelmed at suddenly having to make a lot of meals, work on a nap schedule, and keep up with laundry for five people among other things.
Add to that the fact that hubby and I differ significantly on our opinions of things like appropriate screen time and activities for the kids. He’s laid back and chill; I’m type-A and a planner. He’s also got some of that “guilty dad” going on, which I understand in theory but find frustrating. So we were living the typical stepfamily experience – him running around doing everything for the kids, me silently seething about our lack of structure. Him not seeing my side, me not seeing his. Danger.
I knew what was happening. I knew what this was. I knew it was typical, but that didn’t stop me from doing my part. The sighing, the frowning, the leaving the room. And then my husband said something funny, and I laughed. And then he said, “it’s good to hear that laugh again”. And THEN I knew. I had to step back. I had to tell him what I was doing and why, but I had to step back and let him be “daddy”.
It’s not easy, and it wasn’t perfect, but I tried every day to focus on what I could control and let the rest go. There were some small changes around the house, but I still left those decisions up to him. Parenting my daughter is a negotiation between the two of us, but with stepfamily life sometimes you have to let go a little, set some boundaries, and take care of yourself.
Some stepmoms will feel guilty about doing this. I get that for sure. But think about it.
Who is the parent? HE is.
Who has the power to make changes in the household and require that the children stick to these changes? HE does.
Who has the authority to tell children that stepmom needs to be respected in the home? HE does.
Some stepmoms will have the same level of parenting authority as her partner, which is wonderful, but it only comes with a lot of communication and support from him. The kids need to see you as a parenting team if that’s what you want to be.
The hardest part of this gig is finding what works for you and your family. But there is no shame or selfishness in stepping back and letting a parent be a parent. Don’t force yourself into a role that doesn’t work for you. And mostly, take care of yourself, because no matter what, you can’t pour from an empty vessel.
Oh, and laugh. Laughing is good for the soul.
Originally published in Stepparent Magazine August 11, 2017 https://stepparentmagazine.com/step-means-step-back/