How and Why to Take the Parent out of Stepparenting

Why should you take the "parent" out of stepparenting?

Posted Dec 03, 2009

guest post by Mary Kelly-Williams, M.A.

When you hear the word "step-mother," what comes to mind? Be honest... even if you're a stepmother. Evil, manipulative, selfish...destroyer of children...are just a few descriptors that come to mind. Mythology has not been kind to stepmothers and this underlying belief is alive and well in the 21st century.

Stepfathers are better off. The day they say "I do," they don't turn immediately into green scary witches on brooms. Through a lot of pain and suffering, many stepmothers have learned the hard way that the word "parent" should not be a part of stepparenting.

Thus the oxymoron and the inevitable conundrum.

Studies show that children resent parenting attempts by their parent's new spouse, even when one of their parents is deceased. Like many, I learned the hard way when I married my husband over nine years ago. He came with a 5-year-old daughter who was not thrilled with the prospect of having to share her father.

I didn't take it personally. It's hard for me to imagine the type of resiliency it takes to go from one home to another, adjust to new step-siblings, different rules, and seeing your father with another woman--all at the tender age of five.

I thought I would make a great stepparent. After all, I am a family therapist and the mother of four great kids. I was constantly giving my husband advice...well, truth be told...I was constantly in his face shoving my opinions and "expertise" his way. Between my professional and personal experience, I knew I was RIGHT.

One weekend when my stepdaughter was visiting, I offered what I believed to be helpful advice to her (and it really was). An hour after she returned home to her mother, my husband got THE phone call. I had shamed her daughter. The ex-wife was mad at me--and so was my husband.

I thought to myself, "OK. I finally get it!" I knew there was nothing shameful about my advice, but I was being put on notice that when something went wrong, I was going to be the first one blamed.

It's when I decided to let go of my end of the rope. I needed to respect that I was not the mother, she was not my child and there were two active parents involved in her upbringing, whether I agreed with their decisions or not.

Things became a lot smoother after I decided to drop my opinions and my ego, and just let things be. After all, I didn't marry my husband so I could be mother to his child.

But wait, there's more. In stepfamilies, there always seems to be more! What happens when the child actually INVITES you into their lives as a parent? I'm not just talking about the occasional request to hear what your view is. This is an implicit request that looks like this:

--Will you be my parent?

--Of course, you are my parent.

My experience in my own stepfamily and in the lives of my clients in remarriage is that, while not intentionally so on the child's part, this is a big time set up.

Never assume because your stepchild asks your opinion about something that this means he/she has invited you in to the world of parenting. Tread very lightly.

Also remember, the choice is ultimately YOURS. An invitation is just that--and it can be respectfully declined.

A year and a half ago, my stepdaughter's mother had life-threatening complications from a recent surgery and was hospitalized for over a year. In a moment, all of our lives changed as my husband's daughter came to live with us full time.

The first day she arrived, she told me that I was now going to be one of her three parents during the time her mother would be in the hospital. I told her carefully and graciously that while her mom was in the hospital, she was alert and conscious, as was her father. I would be here to offer my opinions and support if she wanted, but that was it.

Shortly after telling me she wanted me to be one of her parents, she declared that she wanted "belly piercing". She was 15 years old by this time, and if she were my daughter, it would be an adamant no (I'd already been through this with my own daughters at that age).

Her mom and dad were fine with it, it seems. This is when I told her the difference between a parent and an ally. Her parents thought body piercing was ok. I didn't. And there is no way I was going to walk onto that minefield!

Their daughter--their decision.

Sure-fire formula for stepmothers who would like to be more focused on their marriage than on children that are not theirs:

1. Don't parent.

2. Don't try to be their friend; be an ally.

3. Do try to see them, hear them, and be an adult they can come to value and respect.

4. Always model an environment of kindness and respect.

5. Keep your personal boundaries intact.

6. If you are invited to be a parent, think long and hard before you agree to it. Ultimately, you are the only one who can decide what you are comfortable with and what you are not.

Mary Kelly Williams, M.A. is a therapist, mother of four, and ally to her husband's daughter. Mary practices in Boulder, Colorado, regularly conducts workshops for couples and women with stepchildren, and has a popular blog on Open Salon. Her website is www.marriedwithbaggage.com