When to Let Go and Step Back: Letting the Parents Parent
Stop me if you’ve heard this one.
Woman meets man. Man has kids. Woman and man fall in love. Woman decides she will be the perfect partner by bringing structure and nurturing to this little family. She will be the glue, the warm chocolate chip cookies, the band-aids on boo-boos.
Yeah, me too.
The problem with this is, you are entering into an already formed family, with a shared history, bond, and unconditional love. Children have more tolerance and forgiveness for parents when they snap or have a bad day. And parents wear the rose-coloured glasses that make it almost impossible to see their children’s imperfections and bad behavior. You however – you as stepmom can see it all.
If you try to bring that order and structure to your family, without the clear and explicit support of your partner, you will almost certainly drive a wedge between “you” and “them”. The kids will rebel, your partner may feel like you’re overreacting, and you feel like more of an outsider than ever. Many stepmoms do have an involved role as another parent, but I can pretty much guarantee they do this with the backing of their partner.
Do you need to step back from a parenting role? Ask yourself these questions:
1. Do you often feel stressed, anxious, and angry when your stepkids are with you?
2. Have you had multiple conversations with your partner about introducing more rules/expectations/structure in the home?
3. Does your relationship with your stepkids feel strained?
4. Do you find you are frequently nagging, complaining, and/or fighting with your partner?
5. Do you often feel disappointed with the way your family life is going?
If you answered “yes” to any of these, you probably need to step back. Your partner is the parent. They held that title long before they met you, and to be blunt, they will hold it after you if the relationship doesn’t work out. Let the parent do the parenting. You are in a stepfamily for one reason only – your partner. You didn’t choose the kids first, you chose your love first. So choose it again, with intention.
I know right now a few of you are saying, “But if I don’t do it…”. I challenge you to ask yourself, “what is the worst that will happen?”
“If I don’t pack their lunches it won’t get done”. “What’s the worst that will happen?” “They’ll do it themselves, or they’ll be hungry for a day”.
“If I don’t make them clean their rooms they’ll be disgusting”. “What’s the worst that will happen?” “Their rooms will be gross and smelly until they eventually clean them or their father does”.
See? Not the end of the world. We just need to reframe our thinking. I once had a therapist use this great analogy: If you are in the front of a two-person canoe and you feel like you’re doing all the paddling, stop paddling. The person in the back might let you drift, or they might grab their oars and take over.
If you let people step up into the space you leave for them, they might surprise you. And if they don’t – if they let you drift – then you can decide what you need to do to protect yourself from the resulting consequences.
How to Step Back and Let Go:
1. Tell your partner. In a calm tone, when you’re not in the middle of a disagreement, tell them that you’re finding it difficult to be on different pages in terms of parenting approaches. You don’t feel like a team, and you think it’s time to let them be the parent while you focus on other things. You will support them fully as they parent, but you will step back from that role.
2. Defer to the parent. Stepping back doesn’t mean you still criticize their parenting approaches. Stepping back means letting go of the parenting work AND the stress. Let them handle the work and the resulting behaviours.
3. Focus on the positive. If the family room is a disaster of dirty dishes, toys, and blaring TV, remove yourself from the situation and do something for yourself. Take a walk, meet a friend, grab your book and head to your room (which should always been a safe space). Focus on your partnership as independent from their parenting.
4. Give yourself grace. This isn’t easy, and will take time to get used to. You may need to live in a space that is not ideal for a while (if you let go of doing all the cleaning for others), so again, have safe spaces to go and other things to do to occupy your mind.
5. Revisit and re-evaluate. After some time, have things changed? Have others in your family stepped up? Can you drop some of those boundaries, slowly? Or do you need to keep things the way they are?
The real benefit here is that when you’re not focused on controlling the situation and fixing everything, you can devote that time to yourself and your relationship, and let the rest work itself out. You can foster a loving relationship where you place trust in your partner to parent how they see fit, and pursue things that make you happy.