Imagine a scenario where you’ve had to tell your young children their mother died? Now, a couple of years later, you’re about to tell them that you’re re-marrying and they’ll soon have a new stepmom. How do you approach situations that you know are going to be difficult for everyone?
I’m not sure if this article is about marriage struggles or parenting struggles, but as we all know, one affects the other, especially in blended families. To give you some background, I was 40 years old when I married my husband (I hadn’t been married before nor did I have children of my own). At that time he was 43, a widower for two and a half years and had two children with his first wife. Ryan was nine years old and Engle was six when we got married.
After 14 years of marriage, this is what I’ve learned:
Before Getting Married:
- Discuss parenting styles by role-playing every- day scenarios like putting kids to bed, chores to be done, expectations during the dinner hour, etc.
- It used to take my husband 45 minutes to put his kids to bed before we got married. Not only did this cut into our time alone together but he was exhausted by the time they actually went to sleep. Then he had to go back and clean up the kitchen and get their backpacks ready for the next day. I suggested that we try putting them to bed separately, having them help us get their backpacks organized for the next day. The sooner you acknowledge differences in parenting styles, the sooner you can agree on compromises on how to handle normal routines.
- Ask your partner if he/she has fully grieved the loss of their former spouse.
- This is a delicate conversation, for sure, but many times parents are so preoccupied with just getting through the day that they don’t stop and really think about whether they’ve grieved or not. I believed my husband when he said that he had grieved his wife’s death, but the guilt he continued to feel for his children and their loss was still at the forefront of his emotions. This, in turn, affected how he parented.
- Have a family discussion either before you get engaged or at the same time that you announce your engagement to the kids.
- Give the kids an opportunity to ask questions so they can understand in what ways life is going to be different for them. I remember my stepdaughter asking whether her dad was going to still live in the house with her, or if he would move out and I would take over. This also sets up an expectation that things are going to be different, but there’s also a great opportunity for them to have a new family with new advantages. My stepson was reluctant to meet my side of the family but once he realized he had a whole new bunch of cousins to play with he didn’t mind at all!
Once You’re Married:
- Ease into new routines.
- Many times, as was the case for my six-year-old stepdaughter, children don’t remember their parent who died. So, it’s not so much that you’re replacing the parent who’s not there anymore, in their eyes you’re trying to replace their parent who is still in their life, and who has been the family leader for as long as they can remember. My daughter literally didn’t understand what a mom was. So when I asked her to help set the table or clean up her room she took offense to it. And why wouldn’t she? Her dad had been the one to take care of everything. Now she had to do them?
- Even if they understand what it means to have two parents in their lives, they still are resentful of having to acquiesce to a new authority. My stepson was very territorial of his mom’s place in the family. As such, he was obstinate about almost everything I asked him to do. Looking back, it would have been better to pick two chores that their dad did for them that I wanted them to do for themselves instead of insisting on completely changing all of their routines.
- Present a united front.
- We’ve heard this before, but it bears repeating. A strong family unit will not prevail if kids see a rift between the parents. They follow the cues of their biological parent. When my husband would be out of town for business, the kids and I always got along so much better. It was amazing how much easier the dinner hour was. Just little things. As long as the biological parent wasn’t there, it was ok to let me lead the family.
- Agree with your spouse on what new routines you’ll introduce and when. It’s not a ”stepmom thing”, it’s a family thing. Whether you’re present or not, your spouse supports your new routines.
- Practice patience.
- Things will get better in time. Communication and empathy can bridge many disagreements. And in the end, you and your spouse will have raised children who are well-mannered, well-educated and most of all well-loved.