Written by Alanna Henry
This post was written to contribute to the topic of Motherhood/Real Talk for the What Lola Likes blog by Alanna Henry. All facts, opinions, and professional tips are Alanna’s.
Becoming a stepparent can be one of the most challenging hurdles a relationship can face, but there are many ways to overcome the complications it brings and not lose yourself (or your sanity) in the process. While there are so many different situations out there, and so many variables in which this story can be different for you, this has been what I have learned personally throughout my journey of dating, and marrying, a man with a 4-year-old son from a previous relationship. I want to also clarify that this advice is geared toward the stepparent’s personal self-care and sanity, not covering the relationship with your stepchild or the other parent involved.
Communicate parenting expectations with your spouse. For the first month we dated, I was completely hands-off when my then-boyfriend’s son was around. I would talk to and play with him, of course, but I wouldn’t change diapers, help feed him or get up at night if he was crying (he was almost 2 at the time). This was mostly because I didn’t know what my boyfriend wanted of me in these situations, and I didn’t want to upset him if he wanted to parent alone. We just went happily along like that until we all moved in together. On the first night, I sat my boyfriend down and asked him directly what he envisioned of me in his child’s life. He said that he wanted me to do whatever I felt comfortable with, and that he didn’t have any expectations of me but would love for me to be included. This relieved me, but also forced me to seriously think about how much involvement I wanted for myself. It’s extremely important to have space from your spouse to be allowed to figure this out, and there is no wrong answer. Once you know what you want and what you’re comfortable with, communicate it clearly. Being on the same page of expectations with parenting (and stepparenting) is a huge key to setting your relationship up for success.
Make sure what he wants is also what you want. This means to be truly honest with yourself and your spouse, and don’t agree to expectations or responsibilities you simply aren’t comfortable with (doesn’t matter the reason). If the conversation on expectations ends on two different pages, you’ll need to dig deep and look at how you feel. Are there places where you two can compromise, or are there non-negotiables on either end that won’t work for you? In my case, I realized that if I wanted to participate and help him parent his son in the house, I also needed to be equal in all parenting decisions. For me, this meant my opinion of bedtime, his nutrition, schooling, etc. would be listened to and respected. If I was going to raise this child in our house as my own (which is what I wanted), I needed to be respected as an equal. I also wanted to be able to voice my opinion on upcoming and on-going custody decisions. My boyfriend understood, and we moved forward with that game plan. On the contrary, if he wanted to parent on his own and keep me completely uninvolved- or would rely on me to change diapers but would dominate all of the parenting decisions- that would not be something I could deal with. Simply put, he is entitled to his own wants, needs and goals for his child, but so am I for my relationship and my future. And we just hope that they match, because we love our spouse.
Stand up for what you need, but understand what you can’t control. I personally don’t think anyone likes to have their spouse’s ex in their lives, and while there are many grievances and hardships that come with that, there are manageable steps you and your spouse can take to feel more comfortable with that relationship. When my boyfriend and I began dating, phone calls and texts from his child’s mother were often and sporadic, whether we had his son in our care or not. There were many times where she would call in the middle of a special occasion, and it drove me crazy that she could call or text at any given moment and give us terrible news or change our plans. I completely understand that they need to communicate often, and during emergencies or other time-sensitive issues this would happen, but this frequent, pointless communication felt more like an exercise of control to both of us. Down the road and along with asking for court-regulated custody, I asked for designated boundaries of communication. My boyfriend listened, and together we talked about what boundaries we could try to set. Does it work 100% of the time? Of course not, but it has improved tremendously since we began dating with consistent reminders to her and following through on enforcing the boundaries on our end. In the end, you cannot control how another adult will act, but think of ways you and your spouse can manage it. Also, think of some things you care about that will never change and you can never control. Does it help to let it ruin your day when your stepchild’s parent is always 10 minutes late to drop-off? Or can you just expect that, and instead make those 10 minutes an enjoyable time for yourself? You could bring a book you’ve been meaning to read or plan to catch up on emails during that time.
Sorry, this one is annoying: time heals all. If you want to be with your spouse for the long-haul, this is an extremely bumpy road, but it gets smoother with each passing day. Not only are your stepchildren getting older and understanding their situation more, but you are growing with your spouse to comfortably voice opinions and issues together. For me, I always have to respect that this topic is an extremely sensitive one for my now husband, and I know he understands how attached I am to his son, and we are dedicated to making all of us happy in the best way we can. We have grown in many ways to be able to speak productively about the situation without making each other upset, but that path is made up of many failures leading to this point. But with more communication comes more learning about each other. It will always be a work in progress though, and we are understanding of that. Time has also given us consistency for routines and parenting styles, so that part is a breeze now (comparatively)
There are so many different areas of issues that will come and go, but always keep in mind what your end goal is, envision your future and think about the days going by that are taking you there. As long as you and your spouse are understanding of the work involved with your relationship, it will be worth it all. Some days will be awful, but let your love push you to the next day.
Alanna is a published journalist, health coach and former NFL cheerleader who has a passion for all things homemaking. She is a newlywed, a stepmom to a 4-year-old son and a dog mom to two fluffy troublemakers. You can catch her on her Peloton or preaching about vegetables on her
Visit her Instagram.