Stepfamilies - How to Live in Harmony
- by Jan Andersen
Conflict, hostility, resentment, anger, rejection, patience, flexibility, sacrifice.
If you're a stepparent, you may identify with some or all
of the above keywords. Unfortunately, stepparents have always had a bad press. Have you, i.e., ever heard of a stepmother
being described as anything but “wicked” in fairytales?
Maybe you have custody of your stepchildren or maybe they live with their biological parent & stay with
you & your partner at weekends or during vacations. Whatever the situation, it requires sacrifice, time & emotional
Nobody ever professed
that being part of a blended family would be easy & it soon becomes apparent that the happy-ever-after scenario that's portrayed in soppy films, rarely exists in reality.
When you become
a stepparent, you find yourself not just playing Piggy in the Middle between your partner
& his/her children, but often between your partner & his/her ex, your partner & your ex, your partner & your
children, your children & your partner’s children. The combinations are endless!
was on my own with my 3 children, now aged 17, 13 & 11, for a number of years after my ex-husband & I divorced.
When my current partner,
Mike, moved in with us a couple of years ago, he was keen to make a good impression & for a while it worked. My children
sang his praises to my ex-husband & his wife & although we had a few problems with Mike’s ex-wife, life in general
was very harmonious.
I was happy because I was in a stable relationship with a wonderfully caring partner & consequently, my children were happier too, not least because they were now part of what society regarded as a “normal” family with two parents.
However, Mike &
I had to meet on common ground regarding discipline & while I'd always been reasonably strict with my children, suddenly
this new man, who wasn’t their biological dad, began to enforce law & order in their domain.
long before my eldest son, now 17, became rebellious & uncooperative, which in turn caused us to react negatively & so on. It was a vicious circle, which culminated in my son moving out after some unwelcome involvement with the local
Social Services department.
To further aggravate the situation, Mike’s 2 sons from his previous marriage, now aged 7 & 5, began staying with us at weekends. They
were still coming to terms with their parents’ recent divorce, still clinging on to the dream that maybe their mum &
dad would get back together again & although their behavior was appalling, Mike was initially conscious about not wanting
to spend the entire weekend chastizing them.
Mike’s ex-wife had already made
the boys believe that daddy had left home because he didn’t love them anymore & he had to work hard to reassure them that that was absolutely not the case.
However, it hurt my children to see Mike’s boys effectively ruling the roost & monopolizing our time when they came to stay. My
children were punished & denied privileges when they'd been disobedient, yet there was little consistency in the way in which Mike treated his children. If his boys were naughty, which they were for a large part of the time, he
still took them out, still cuddled them, indulged their fussy eating whims & generally gave them a good time.
As a result, I
felt that I had to compensate by giving my children the love of two parents, but because of my long working hours I wasn’t always able to be there at the times when they perhaps
needed me the most.
When I broached the subject with Mike, he'd use the excuse that he
only saw his boys at the weekend & that I was fortunate enough to see my children everyday.
However, I explained
to him that it was quality of time, not quantity that was important & as far as I was concerned, my children had virtually no quality time with us. As we were both working full-time, we
devised a daily chores’ rota for the children, yet their only reward was pocket money if they completed their tasks
satisfactorily. When we arrived home in the evening, we were generally exhausted, my daughter always had piles of homework
& we had too little time available to take the children out.
In addition, if
the chores hadn’t been completed to a desired standard, the children would be grumbled at & it soon became apparent that Mike usually only ever gave them attention
when they had stepped out of line.
One of the most heartbreaking times for me –
& probably my youngest son, Carsten – was when he'd received his end of year examination results, which dictated
the sets he would be placed in when he began senior school. He had already ‘phoned me at work to tell me that he had
received his results & I could tell from his tone of voice that they were good.
Mike & I arrived home from work that day, Mike immediately focused on the dustbins that had been left at the front of
the house & which Carsten had been specifically asked to move to their correct spot at the back of the house. Mike muttered
some expletive & when he stormed thru the back door, I knew that Carsten’s neck was on the line.
When we entered the lounge, Carsten was sitting on the sofa clutching a brown envelope in both hands, his face
glowing with pride.
However, his expression
soon changed to one of shock & anguish as Mike began attacking him verbally for not having completed his chores. He then
snatched the envelope from Carsten’s grasp shouting, “And what’s this?” before ripping it open &
reading the contents.
Not being familiar
with the grading system, Mike thought that Carsten had received low marks, when in fact he had received the top marks possible
in his year. Mike began shouting at him again, but when I explained that Carsten had received excellent grades, Mike then
launched into a bulletin on how it was pointless attaining academic excellence if he was too stupid to follow basic instructions
By this stage, tears were already rolling from Carsten’s huge blue
eyes & he looked totally crushed. He'd been expecting praise & congratulations & instead had been belittled, once again. I felt as though my heart would break for my little boy. I told him that he'd done very well, hugged him, then
went & locked myself in the bathroom & sobbed my heart out.
problem reared its ugly head when I began to discipline Mike’s children. I was bombarded with verbal abuse & while Mike’s younger son, Daniel, was generally far more accepting of my authority, his elder son, Christopher,
would constantly backchat & treat me with utter contempt.
If I told him not
to leap all over the furniture for example, he'd say, “Mummy lets us do it at home, so that’s why I don’t
like coming here” or “Mummy says that you’re not allowed to tell us off.” At other times, if I chastized
him, he would simply call me a stupid, fat, ugly cow or some other equally endearing name.
He'd also quote
unpleasant remarks that had apparently been made by his mother about me. I didn’t always tell Mike because I didn’t
want to appear as though I was always complaining about his children.
My initial reaction,
had one of my children spoken to me in such a manner, would have been to slap their backside hard, but I didn't wish to increase
the hostility that Christopher obviously already felt.
Instead, I calmly explained that irrespective of how he was allowed to behave in his own home, when he was in someone else’s home he
had to respect their rules, just the same as he had to at school & that while he was staying with us, we were responsible for his behavior.
I told him that
if he was unhappy, then he didn’t have to stay with us at the weekend. That way, I'd given him the freedom of choice, rather than making him feel that he had been forced into an uncomfortable situation.
What I very quickly realized was that the battle towards acceptance &
hopefully, some degree of unanimity, was going to take time. I also learned from Mike that if his boys were rude to me in
his absence, I had to report it to him immediately.
Today, after 2 years of emotional
highs & lows, Mike’s boys have improved dramatically, although their manners still leave a lot to be desired.
However, they now
accept the fact that I have the authority to discipline them & when I tell them not to do something, they comply with
my wishes, if begrudgingly. There's still conflict & I suspect there always will be, but then that's a natural occurrence in most families, not just blended ones. It’s
all part of the life process, part of growth & learning.
Only recently, Christopher
came out with what was, without a doubt, the most evil thing he had ever said to me. Mike had gone late night food shopping & had put the boys to bed prior to
leaving. I was lying on our bed because, at 5 months’ pregnant, I wasn't feeling too well.
The moment Mike
left the house, I could hear thuds & crashes from the boys’ bedroom, together with agitated shrieks from Daniel.
When I went to investigate, I discovered Christopher leaping all over Daniel’s bed, while it was evident that Daniel
was trying to go to sleep.
I shouted at Christopher
& ordered him back into his own bed, after which I told him that if I heard another sound from him I would ‘phone
his dad. I turned out the light & left the room, but just as I was closing the door I heard Christopher mutter something.
I walked back him
& asked him to repeat what he had said. “Nothing!” he lied. with an expression of ill-concealed worry on his
face. “Yes, he did”, piped up Daniel, “He said, ‘I hope Jan’s baby dies’”.
I was horrified & had to struggle to prevent myself from bursting into tears. Instead, I gave
him an extremely stern lecture & told him that to wish death on someone was the most wicked sin of all.
intended for me to hear him & although he had learned not to backchat, he was obviously still muttered obscenities behind my back!
I also explained that just because his dad & I were having a new baby, didn’t mean that his dad was going to love
him any the less.
With respect to my own children, I have now re-built the relationship
with my eldest son, who recently thanked me for giving him such good “training”.
His flat is immaculate
& he says that he now gets annoyed when his friends come round & make a mess! He told me that had we not forced him to do household chores, he wouldn’t
be as capable as he is now at managing his own place.
My daughter & youngest son accept Mike’s
authority & although he’ll never be their real dad, he’s much more of a father to them than my ex-husband
will ever be.
There's no magical solution, but adherence to the following ground
rules can certainly bring you one stride closer to living in harmony with your stepchildren.
down with the children, when the time is right & explain to them that sometimes 2 people who are married may find
that they're unable to live together anymore, but that it doesn’t mean they love their children any less. This is particularly important for the parent who has moved out, since the children will inevitably experience a sense of rejection & desertion
allow your stepchildren to play one parent off against the other. Whatever your feelings towards the biological parent, you shouldn't condone any derogatory comments about that parent.
all, they're probably saying similar things about you or your partner to the other parent. The only time when it's
imperative to listen & act as if you believe that the other parent is being abusive in any way
Accept the fact
that however perfect a stepmother or stepfather you are, you'll never be the biological parent of your stepchildren. It's
natural for a stepchild to feel a level of resentment towards you when you're imposing rules or restrictions upon them.
However, life revolves
around rules, wherever the place or whatever the situation, so it has to be explained that it isn't only biological parents
who are qualified to enforce law & order
love. Sometimes children need love the most at a time when it’s hardest to give it to them. While bad behavior should never be rewarded with a cuddle
or treat, when children are behaving well it's important to praise them
afraid to defend your own children if you genuinely believe that they're being treated unfairly by your partner. Likewise, don’t interfere & try & condone their behavior
if you know that they're in the wrong.
Undermining a stepparent’s
authority can lead to children having no respect for that parent. Similarly, if you fail to step in when they've been wrongly accused of something, they may lose respect & faith in you
aside special time each week for your partner & yourself. You both need time to be yourselves & to show each other just why you chose to be together
Footnote: Jan Andersen is a freelance writer living in
the UK. Since writing this article Jan has given birth to a healthy baby daughter, Lauren, born on 12 November 1999.