The most significant change I've made this year, and possibly in my life, is becoming a stepfather. Moving in with my partner meant making a commitment to her three children, which turned out to mean a lot more after I made it than I had anticipated.
Being a stepfather is similar to becoming a father, but there are a few key differences that I've discovered matter a lot. For one thing, it happens quickly — one minute you're single, the next minute you're surrounded by children of various ages. There will be no gradually settling into your role or nine months of anticipation.
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Here are a few more things I've learned in the last six months. Of course, this is far from a comprehensive list — anyone with children knows that the moment you think you've got it figured out, everything changes. But, contrary to my expectations, I have a wonderful relationship with my stepchildren. I'm not sure I'm a great stepfather yet, but I believe I'm on my way to becoming one.
Your love knows no bounds, but your power does
Recognize the boundaries of your authority early on. Even now, the majority of my authority in our house is borrowed from their mother — I've even caught myself on the verge of saying, “just wait until your mother comes home!” I simply don't carry much weight; instead, I've learned to be reasonable, to remind them of chores rather than demanding they get to work, and to demonstrate as much as possible that what I'm saying is reasonable.
Don't be like Dad
One significant difference between step-fatherhood and fatherhood is that your step-children (in most cases) already have fathers. Fathers who, more than likely, they adore. Fathers whose authority is far greater than yours. Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to take his place!
This means, first and foremost, do not request that they address you as “Dad.” My stepchildren's stepmother insisted on being addressed as “Mom”; it's been years, and there's still a lot of resentment there. It's possible that the kids will call you “Dad,” which is a wonderful feeling, but don't be selfish and demand it.
Similarly, don't be too quick to impose punishments. Remember, you don't have much power; putting yourself in the role of Enforcer won't help. Instead, they'll grow to fear you. Give advice, issue firm warnings, and when things become out of control, sit down with mom and present a united front.
Finally, no matter how much of a jerk their father is, never badmouth him. Typically, they will side with dad, leaving you screwed; however, even if they do not, you have no right to interfere in that relationship.
Be a father
While insisting on being addressed as “Dad” is a bad idea, it does not excuse you from being a father. Act responsibly, be there for the kids when they need you, share their joys and sorrows, build them up as much as you can, help them with their homework, offer advice, explain how things work, organize their day, and so on — everything you would do if you were their actual father. And do it knowing that you're unlikely to receive much attention or appreciation for it, because it's the right thing to do.
Make time for one-on-one conversations
Taking my stepdaughter with me on Take Your Child to Work Day was one of the most significant steps I've taken in my relationship with her. Mom works in a high-security area (for some reason, the kids haven't gone through the FBI's screening yet…), and dad's company prohibits children on the premises, so I volunteered to take her to class with me. We had a great time getting to know each other away from the hustle and bustle of a house full of family, pets, and friends.
It's easy to use mom as a shield to avoid getting too close to your stepchildren; spend some time alone with them and interact with them as individuals rather than as “family.”
Don't belittle them
One of my life rules is “never speak down to children or animals.” I have a habit of using the same vocabulary around my stepchildren that I do in the rest of my life (though I make sure to define or explain things that are clearly above their heads). I involve the kids in decision-making, tell them what I'm up to each day (I have a different schedule every day), and generally treat them as equals in conversation.
You and your stepchildren are in this together — you both have to figure out the whole step-relationship thing, and it's not easy. As a result, make sure you listen to and respond to their concerns. Don't ever think you have nothing to learn from them; chances are, they'll figure it out faster than you and can teach you a thing or two about being a stepfather.
Take your cues from your mother
When I first moved in, I spent some time on the Internet reading step-parenting forums and websites, and I was astounded by how many complaints about how “mom is spoiling these kids” or “mom doesn't keep discipline” or whatever. Keep in mind that your mother and your stepchildren have worked out a living arrangement that may not make sense to you at first, but makes perfect sense to them. Deal with major disagreements away from the children; otherwise, follow mom's lead.
You Can't Buy My Love
Don't try to win them over with gifts, trips to amusement parks, or anything else. For starters, most kids are pretty savvy and will end up manipulating you because of your over-eagerness; secondly, you'll build your relationship on a foundation that you can't possibly keep up with — eventually, you'll run out of gifts to give and they'll start resenting you.
Be honest about your life, career, likes and dislikes, and interests — and try to learn about theirs. Participate in their activities and include them in yours. Not only will you find some common ground to connect on, but you will also be able to participate in their personal development, which is what this is all about.
Finally, you must forgive. Forgive them for being difficult, forgive mom for not always helping you out when you're lost, forgive their friends for not understanding your new role in your children's lives, and most importantly, forgive yourself. You'll make a lot of mistakes, just like I did. And I am. And I intend to. Accept that you and everyone else involved will fail; learn from them and move on so you can enjoy the joys and rewards of becoming a great stepfather.
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