22 February 2007

Don’t trip up as a new stepfather

You’ve met her - the woman you waited for your whole life. Not only is she attractive, bright and available; she also has a sense of humour, no criminal record … and two kids.

You’ve met her - the woman you waited for your whole life. Not only is she attractive, bright and available; she also has a sense of humour, no criminal record … and two kids.

You and this woman are an item: you have chemistry. You even like the same Ridley Scott movies. But having met her kids, you feel a little out of your depth. You tried playing touch rugby with the boy and he unleashed the ultimate low blow: “You’re not my daddy”. What now?

First, realise that you’re not alone. Millions of stepfathers feel insecure and lonely, never knowing how far their territory extends. Here are 12 principles worth applying.

  • Limit your expectations: Don’t be unrealistic about bonding with the kids, especially when you’re a new face. Remember that you’re a stranger, even if their mother wants to be with you forever;
  • Prepare for challenges: Children constantly try to establish what their boundaries are by pushing against them. As a newcomer, your position in the household will need to be confirmed. Expect a challenge and face up to it when it comes. Have your wits about you – it’s an important moment;
  • Let some things slide: As a counterpoint to the direct challenge, you’ll also be exposed to comments such as “I hate you” and “You’re not my dad”. This is not the time to storm out of the house. Gauge whether the comment is a direct challenge or simply the child’s way of dealing with his insecurities and sadness at the loss of his own father. Harness your partner’s knowledge of her kids on this one;
  • Don’t be an ogre: It’s likely to take two difficult, stressful years before you’re accepted by the kids; Even if your spouse tries to hand all the responsibility for disciplining the child on to you, don’t shoulder it just yet. Spend some time with your partner and establish firm house rules. Tell the kids. Tell them that you’ll both be enforcing them and do so consistently.
  • Set aside adult time: Remember why you two got together in the first place? You enjoyed each other’s company. Don’t lose that. Make an arrangement with grandparents or dependable babysitters and spend some time together, whether at home alone or at a restaurant. Many couples find it useful to set aside a specific night each week, or meet for lunch.
  • Don’t compete: If the kids’ father is still involved with them and is trying to be constructive, you need to respect that and allow the guy the space to do it, even if you regard him as a moron. Also, avoid the temptation to slander him. It’ll backfire and harm everyone.
  • Set an example: Do more than drink beer and flipping TV channels. Remember that your partner’s kids will scrutinize how you treat their mom and judge your place in their lives accordingly. Seek out tasks that will make the household operate smoothly, even if they’re as unglamorous as taking out the garbage and folding the washing. Don’t expect medals, but you might find you’re rewarded in wonderful, intimate ways, particularly if make a habit of pulling more than your weight;
  • Be interested: Kids can smell insincerity a mile away. If they feel betrayed by their own father, they’ll skeptical of your efforts to integrate yourself with their little family. Look for small ways to demonstrate your commitment, such as offering to fetch them from soccer practice, rather than trying big, emotion-laden gestures that Hollywood dishes up;
  • Be interesting: Take them sailing, hiking or some other activity they may not have tried. Tentatively explore ways to find activities that they may not have done with their own father. This will give you the basis for activities that you share with the kids, as well as allowing them to have their own traditions with their biological father, if he’s around. Expect them to hate around half of the activities you introduce them to and move on;
  • Integrate your own kids and your step kids: If you have children of your own from a previous marriage, you have a splendid opportunity to create conflict and emotional upheaval. Miss the opportunity be being conscious of each child’s strengths and weaknesses, and don’t “show up” one child in front of another. Be fair to them all and expect them to compete for your attention by feigning illness, injury and whatever else they can think of;
  • Beware little Lolita: Teenage girls who’re feeling their way around their blossoming sexuality may be drawn to the adult male of the household, who often feels more like a housemate than a father figure. The best way to avoid a potentially devastating explosion is to talk to your partner about it and set some house rules. Your stepdaughter must know that both adults feel it’s inappropriate that she walks around the house in her underwear. And remember: think with your mind, not your crotch.
  • Have one of your own: It may be inappropriate if you’re 65, or if there are already eight kids in the household. But raising a rug rat is likely to help cement the household together. There’s nothing like insomnia and smelly nappies to aid cohesion.

- (William Smook)


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