You are now a parent, but how much of one? It's confusing. Are you a real parent, or should you try to just be a friend? Talk to some experts and they'll tell you to always take a secondary role to the bioparent. Others will insist that you should take a stronger position. I say that you need to decide what role to take. (I also say you need to decide. Note the change in stress.) I also say that the hard part—and the key—is knowing when to parent, and when to step out. This depends a lot on the age of the child and the level of the other bioparent's involvement.
With children, adults often overlook everything they know about beginning a friendship.
You are in a parenting role (a responsible adult, the mate of the parent), but you are not a replacement parent. You are an additional parent. And despite the cries of kids who say, “Whoa, having two parents is more than enough,” you are going to add something. It's important that you believe that you can be a positive force—this will help keep you from getting trapped in the “old” wicked roles. As you learned in Stepparenting Myths most of those old roles are extremely negative anyway.
You'll do best if you create a whole new title and role for yourself. Be creative with this: Discuss your role with your mate. Ask the kids what role they want you to play in their lives. Following are a range of roles to explore, like trying on wigs, to see what you look like and to consider before you invent your own. Keep in mind that no role is perfect, and some are less perfect than others.
In “the Roomie” scenario, the stepparent has little say about the parenting of the children. All decisions are made by the bioparent, and the “Roomie” simply is another adult in the house—one who may sleep in the parent's bed, but that's it. This scenario brings little commitment to sharing a life together. This arrangement can work; by sliding into it, the non-bioparent figure and the kids get an opportunity to know each other slowly.
These kinds of hands-off relationships might be good at first, but if they don't develop into something deeper, there may be conflict. Ramona's mom is on her fifth marriage, which means Ramona and her siblings have step relationships up the wazoo. “It's important that the stepparent relationship be defined,” she says. “The hardest one was with John, because he was just sort of living with us.” You couldn't go to him for advice, you couldn't go to him for permission, and you couldn't go to him for money. I think it was really hard on my mom, having to do everything and mediate between us all, too.”
Hands-off relationships are ultimately not very satisfying for partners who want to deepen their commitment. The bioparent feels harassed—he or she is doing double duty. The nonparent often feels unconsidered or overruled, the kids often feel jealous of the time both adults spend together, and they're at sea and off-balance because the relationship has not been clearly defined.
“Who Are You?”
The “Who are you?” stepparent actively acts on his resentments at having the little rug rats around. It's his house, after all, and those kids sure are noisy (and expensive). He's pretty wicked. Let's not talk about him, except to remind you that everybody deserves consideration, and that includes the kids, even if they are cramping your lifestyle. After all, the kids see you as cramping their lifestyle in this situation.
The “Teacher” is an authoritarian figure who believes in running a tidy, quiet classroom of diligent students. The teacher carries a yardstick good for pounding on desks; says, “Now class, what do we learn from this disaster?”; and sends the bad kids to the principal's office. Stepfathers tend to jump into this disciplinarian's role. Hey, some people run households like this with their biokids, and at least the role is clearly defined—enough of this frustrating vagueness! The Teacher role does have some problems: It doesn't show the kids much respect, it doesn't let the kids see the stepparent as a real person, and it establishes the family as a hierarchy, with the Teacher at the top.
Super Stepparent Syndrome (S.S.S.) is a condition of many overachieving new stepparents who knock themselves out trying to be the best possible parent (or at least, better than the ex-spouse).
The “Super Step” is an overachiever on the family front, suffering from S.S.S.—Super Stepparent Syndrome. These stepparents want to parent better than anybody ever parented before. They aspire to be the kind of parent the poor neglected child never had, and by golly, they'll do everything they can to show that “evil” ex what a real parent can do. We're talking bake sales, homemade Halloween costumes, hours listening to confidences, chauffeur duty…sounds pretty good, huh? The problem is that, in their attempt to be a Super Step, these stepparents tend to put their own needs second and ignore family tensions. Eventually, resentments on all sides can build to a boiling point.
“Auntie” and “Uncle”
I was lucky growing up. I had, along with two parents and a sister, a large extended family that included four aunts. These four women played (and still play) an essential role in my life—they were advisers, ears, and role-models. I listened when they spoke because they were important people in my life. They cared about me but they were not my parents; they had no responsibility for me.
This is not to knock bioparents. My mother's advice, ear, and modeling were vital to me, but the other input was vital to me as well. When I was first struggling with my role as Aaron and Rachel's stepmother, I used my aunts as models.
The problem with the Auntie/Uncle role is that there is no authority for the stepparent. He can end up feeling as though his thoughts and opinions carry no weight. To survive the Auntie/Uncle role, you'll need support from your mate and agreement that your opinions do matter, that you are a decision-maker and that the two of you will discuss major decisions. Think of yourself as the power behind the throne (yes, hissing in the bedroom is allowed).
For some people, this is the best role—you're a parent, you have all the responsibilities and rights of a parent, yet you take a secondary role to the bioparent. Aim for “detached warmth.” It's sort of a seniority thing: Final decisions are up to the bioparent. Even with your detachment, you can and do play a powerful and significant role in the child's development.