I was thinking of my own experiences as a stepdad, when a certain family member’s household started dissolving into that sickening puddle of goo into which households sometimes dissolve, just as this year’s holidays were coming into full swing. I came up with a statistical overview of my failures — eight stepkids, four women, three of the kids “real” stepkids by one marriage. I feel pretty terrible about it. That’s a lot of little kids I’ve probably hurt…maybe helped in some way just by exposing them to general experience, happy and otherwise, at an early age. I’d like to think so. But my conclusive view is that my retirement from stepfatherhood came too late, that I’m just not cut out for it and I never should’ve done it at all. I also think a lot of other people who are stepparents aren’t cut out for it. Some are. It demands a whole lot of patience, flexibility and maturity. And oodles and oodles of humility. “Alpha Males” aren’t very often stepdads; the few times they are, they are very distant, uninvolved stepdads.
This raises the question, am I qualified to speak? You don’t get advice on how to quit smoking from someone who’s done it a whole lot of times. Marriage? The argument could be made that someone who’s been married four or five times, might know a thing or two about marriage…but only in the sense of now-and-then having something worthwhile to say. You certainly wouldn’t take “advice” from them about it, not without a large grain. But I notice something about the stepparents: The ones who have made a successful go of it, are pretty damn quiet, while the folks who haven’t got all the information they need, are flailing around helplessly. So the successful folks aren’t chattering away about what can be done right. This is consistent with what I found the job of stepparenting to be, while I was failing at it. It’s got an awful lot to do with keeping your opinion to yourself, or deferring the discussion until a later time.
And so, it seems to me, a crisis has been brewing. Stepparenthood is regarded by many as a rather breezy and casual challenge. There is nobody around to say anything different, since we have a cultural taboo on any implication that blended households might possibly have inherent structural weaknesses. There is also the matter of the situation one is in when one thinks about becoming a stepparent — this is critically important, because until the prospect presents itself, most of us don’t give it a passing thought. Once the option is open, it’s hard to see all the challenges on the horizon. We tend to crystalize it into something unrealistically simple, like “learning to life together as a family,” when it’s much more complicated than that.
Maybe we think about it some more. A lot of people are doing it now, and if there’s an “average” success rate, it seems to be little better than mine, which I only reached by hitting rock bottom and then digging. Now, I’m in the other seat — The Babe is the stepmom, and I’m the blood parent. This seems to be working out much better, so far. It’s probably because she’s not nearly as much of a pig-headed jackass as I was in that position. And I’d like to think the boy gets some credit. She seems to be happier as a stepparent than I was.
I absolutely despise giving people instructions. It’s like the proverbial herding-of-cats…people will do what they will do, you know. So much more fun to sit on the sidelines and watch ’em screw up. But with what I’ve learned over the years and with what I see now, it’s simply high time someone started jotting this stuff down. So take what follows, not as sage advice, but as sort of a partially-complete “launch pad checklist” from a flawed man seasoned in the things that do NOT work.
I’ve gotten all the entertainment from watching people make my old mistakes, that I’m ever gonna get. So here’s what I see missing.
1. All kids, and both parents, have to be mature and open to compromise
The blended family is not for brittle people. And it may not even be an option. If everyone’s pliable and inclined to listen to the viewpoints and concerns of others, and you have only one tough nut who the good Lord just didn’t build that way, even if it’s one of the kids, maybe it’s a meritorious idea to just sidestep it altogether. Give it some thought. Everyone has to bend now & then or it isn’t going to work, and that doesn’t mean just the grown-ups. It’s not a costless process, for anybody.
2. Realize that the deck is stacked against you
Your household will have to stand up for what is important to it, and first and foremost that is the household’s own continuing survival. Don’t count on help from any exterior party with this. Even well-meaning friends will be inclined to show what good friends they are, by taking one parent or the other aside and whispering something about getting out — at the most insignificant trifling inconvenience. Those are your well-meaning friends. It goes downhill from there. As far as movies and television, forget it. Best to get rid of it altogether. Somebody in Hollywood really hates stepparents, a lot. It started in the 1940’s with Cinderella’s wicked stepmother, and it’s gotten worse ever since. The people you count on to write stuff to entertain your stepkids, HATE you. Do your research before going to see “family” films. And read books together.
And then there’s the kids, themselves. They’ve been going through a real rocky patch of road, and have some more ahead of them. They aren’t always going to be cheerful and pleasant. Chalk it up to “Intelligent Design” or natural selection…whatever your beliefs, there is wiring and programming there. Kids are built to be raised by both parents. That is what they are built to expect, and they are going to have an inherent hostility toward anything that challenges that. It won’t be easy sailing.
3. All rules of discipline, household traditions, systems of reward-and-punishment, are now up for re-negotiation
The good news is, that until the holidays this isn’t much of an issue. The bad thing is, when it bites, it bites hard. It’s pretty tough on the kids. The whole “that’s the way we always do it at Christmas” ship has to sail, or at the very least, encounter a stiff headwind. Just realize there are no guarantees here — something’s always been done a certain way, that doesn’t mean it’s going to keep on that way now. This is an occasion for re-thinking old family customs, some of which might have different levels of sanctity to different family members. Discuss.
4. Demand things out of the kids
This is a big one. I see most blended households don’t do this — there’s too much guilt over what happened to make the blended household an option in the first place, whether it was death or divorce. Yes, the kids have been through a lot already, but life isn’t fair. And the biggest mistake you can make is to proceed with this mindset that all the tough spots have to be in the past, and from here on out it’s a fairy-tale ending. Life just doesn’t work that way, and for the sake of the household there are going to be certain things expected from the kids — just because. Just realize that it’s too late to spare the kids from impact, and that kids weren’t designed in the first place to be spared from impact. Life has hard knocks, and more are on the way.
5. Remember, the union is more important than any one single person, or what that person wants
“I’ve had that cat longer than I’ve known you.” “My kids are more important to me than you.” “She’s been my friend since long before I met you.” These words are not allowed in your house, and neither is the mean spirit that underlies them. You’re making a commitment here to not think that way, not ever. If you’re not up to it then don’t waste the other person’s time.
IF THE KIDS ARE HERS
6. If the “real” daddy is around, make sure you get support
If the stepdad doesn’t want to do this because it’s an afront to his manhood, then the stepdad is the problem. If the mom doesn’t want to do this because she’s learned how futile it is to try to impose responsibility on that jackass who never took any on, then she’s the problem. Either way. A household stands for the value of obligations, or it doesn’t stand at all. And households that survive, don’t throw money away. Go after it.
7. The kids do not call the stepdad “Dad”
The one exception to this is if the stepdad is a virtual-dad, one who stepped in before the kid(s) reached an age of awareness. That scenario aside, even if the real dad has split the scene, stepdads aren’t dads. The problem has to do with a re-definition of men, into disposable appliances. We live in a society that, for a number of reasons, wants to make that easy. This does terrible things to kids. It’s a direct assault on a boy’s sense of self-worth, and for a girl, it is a threat to her eventual well-being after she has matured into a woman. No matter what the future holds, women who see men as expendable have never had an easy time of it before, and it’s going to remain a tough row to hoe for them. Don’t allow your household to become yet another instrument of assault on manhood and fatherhood.
Calling the stepdad by his first name isn’t that good of an idea either. If the stepdad makes a kid with the mom, then it is completely unacceptable. So what’s the right approach? That is a question with no good answers. One of many. Welcome to stepfatherhood.
8. Play with the kids
It’s your damn job, man. And gravitate toward the things the kids have not done before — don’t shy away from them. Those are the real opportunities.
9. The mom doesn’t presume her man is doing something wrong, if she’s previously seen it done a different way
Actually, that’s a good rule with or without a step-situation. Men aren’t here to do things a certain way. We’re here to get things done. Like my east-Indian boss used to tell his wife, “don’t worry, if you see me doing it you know it must be for the best!” I like that. It sounds unforgivably sexist, but when you think about it, it makes all the sense in the world. A woman should presume her man knows what he’s doing, just as a man should presume his lady knows what she’s doing. C’mon gals. We don’t tell you how our mothers and ex-wives made our pies. You don’t tell us how that other guy fixed the car. ZIP it.
10. The kids and mom do not have grip sessions about the stepdad
If they try to get one started, mom changes the subject. If it’s something with substance, she takes note of itJust like Tom Hanks said in Saving Private Ryan…gripes go up, they don’t go down.
11. The mom should not use the inertial value of her kids to caboosify the stepdad
Women, in the modern age, seem to be pre-condition to make their men come last in all things. Her blood children provide further temptation to do this, and since they possess inertia in the family, they make for a handy tool for getting this done. Household harmony is endangered if this is not sworn-off at the outset. A family presents a man with a lot of obligations; that’s a completely different thing, however, from saying obligation is all that a family is. It’s supposed to be much more than that, and if it isn’t, then it won’t be around for long.
IF THE KIDS ARE HIS
12. Everybody treats the birth mom with respect…
…and if it is absolutely impossible to do that, then with silence. Nothing bad is said about the birth mom when the kid is around. Or the things she does. Not until the kids reach majority age, and even then it should be left to the kids to start it…and it remains a bad idea. A change-of-subject is a much better idea.
13. The kids are not allowed to express a preference vis-a-vis how the stepmom cooks or arranges furniture, vs. the birth-mom
Here we are back at expecting things out of the kids, giving the poor little toe-heads some more rules. Well, that’s the way it is, and this is a good one. Remember what I said about the wiring and programming in kids. Well, women have some too. They don’t like to be compared to each other. So lay off it. Don’t even give out compliments. It’s not worth it.
14. The dad plays with his kids with the stepmom not around, before the kids ask him to, which they eventually will
This is something I kind of “biffed” and I understand it to be very common. I see, looking back on it, it was entirely avoidable and if I was the kid I would have asked for the same thing. Take off with your kids and play with them. It’s not like you’re getting a divorce, you’re just disappearing for an hour or two. Don’t tell me your woman won’t be grateful. The most loving woman appreciates the break…probably a lot more than you think…as awesome a stud as you are.
15. The stepmom discusses rules with the dad before implementing them
Not because he’s an all-mighty patriarch, but if both parents don’t agree on a rule, you might as well not have it. And don’t discuss possible rules for the kids, in front of the kids. Ever.
16. The stepmom is a helpmate and someone who shares life’s experiences — not a “trinket” or an everyday nuisance
Look at her as a hassle, and in short order she will become one. Your kids are wonderful, of course, but it still takes something to “put up” with them. Show her some respect. A lot of respect.
IF IT’S A “BRADY BUNCH”
17. With “culture conflict,” in general, the higher standard is the one that “wins”
Peter, Bobby and Mark are used to sleeping in on Saturday, Marcia Jan and Cindy are used to getting up and doing chores. That means the whole household now gets up and does chores. In one household it was okay to put your feet on the coffee table, in the other one, it wasn’t. That means it isn’t.
The point is, where these blended households fail, when you trace the reasons back it all starts with an excess of efficiency and comfort rather than from a lack of those things. So elbows off the table. Sit up straight. Wipe your mouth with a napkin. And nobody ever says “but that isn’t the way we had to do it BEFORE…” It all comes back to that item about it being okay to expect things from kids.
And that way, no one single sub-family is guaranteed to “win” at these things all the time. Compromise. Live it, learn it, love it.
18. It is a cardinal sin for either parent to show less enthusiasm toward the accomplishments of “those” kids, than toward the accomplishemtns of “their” kids
Should go without saying, huh? So the trophies all go in one room.
19. Kids do not move back-and-forth between households
When they decide they want to live at a certain place, BOTH households also have to agree to it.
If the brat is laying down conditions on where s/he is going to choose to live, it’s time for a prolonged discussion to take place. Kids do not do this. They aren’t allowed to. If they’re making decisions about where to live based on this, their approach to life has become all skewed and it needs to be fixed right now. Make it a priority.
Parents do not coerce their kids to cast his or her “vote” a certain way. Also, the kid’s vote is a vote, that and nothing more. It does not have the final say. It becomes relevant when, and if, it emerges that each of the households presents the opportunity for a permanent home. If the kid is using that vote to get material things, or to send messages, the kid isn’t using the vote right and the vote is lost.
And bouncing back and forth like a ping pong ball is absolutely, positively, forbidden.
20. No one person can be accustomed to getting “their way” all the time
It’s been said already, but it bears repeating. And again, this goes for kids too. It is forbidden for kids to get ideas in their heads, and ask repeatedly until they get the answer they want. No means no.
21. Under no condition does anybody “hand off” child discipline to someone else who is “better at it”
Stepparenting is not a supplement for weak parents who fail at disciplining their kids. If a parent needs that kind of help with discipline, he/she should stay out of the dating/marriage field and concentrate on parenting exclusively.
22. Blended households acquire pets with greater caution than other households, not less
No one person gets a pet because they “deserve something nice.” Pets are evaluated carefully with regard to their ability to learn and adhere to rules. Also, a blended household can use all the help it can get with anything that might be destabilizing, so stick to pets that are already housebroken.
This part is even more important: Once a pet is acquired, you don’t get rid of them. Remember, children that are taught to discard pets at the slightest inconvenience, will certainly shed marriages the same way later on. Why in the world wouldn’t they?
23. Forsake all others
That doesn’t mean “don’t sleep around.” Any movies that make the stepparent’s job more difficult, do not come into your house in any form. That includes all movies with an adorable moppet who schemes to get his parents back together. They don’t cross the doorstep.
24. Corporal punishment is the responsibility of the blood parent
Why invite trouble; if corporal punishment is that frequent of an issue, you’re doing it wrong anyway.
25. Blood-parents and kids do not have conversations about experiences that pre-date the stepparent when the stepparent is around
It’s like speaking Japanese around the one guy in the room who doesn’t speak Japanese. This is just one of many things that makes the difference between a melting pot and a salad. Don’t be a salad.
26. Blood-parents and kids should place a high value on what the stepparent thinks of things
27. Stepparents should place a high value on what the blood-parents and kids think of things
28. Think of reasons every day why you are happy you met these people and how lucky you are to make a family with them
Your family is a blessing, not a curse. If everyone is truly committed to that, the results will follow.
29. Put aside trivial squabbles, after a decent interval if you can’t do it immediately
Just as you would with any “real” family member. This one is overlooked probably more often than any of the others.
Wow, 29. An odd number, and a prime one. That’s a sure sign I missed some…but again, I never claimed to be the voice of success, only of past failure.