The First Time
The first time that the stepkids come over for a sleepover visit (long or short) is a pivotal moment in the stepfamily's history. As a stepparent, you may feel desperate to please the children, to woo them, to go out of your way to make sure that you're accepted. You may also just want to casually greet them and go on with life, letting the kids fit in as they can. Both these emotions may exist at the same time.
Once the kids arrive, you may find yourself again conflicted. They may not be what you expected at all, even if you've spent casual time with them before. They may have been accepting, friendly, enthusiastic, and affectionate. Now that you are married or living together, you may find that the little ones have turned into little resentful creeps. They may be feeling so nervous that they've become inarticulate. They may be simply different from the kids you thought you knew, simply because kids change quickly as a natural part of growth and maturing. Or you may find that you like them very much, but that they take an inordinate amount of energy—energy you weren't expecting to spend.
This first visit probably has your partner flipped out too—either worried sick that the child won't accept the new arrangement or acting just a little bit strange or different, not as the lover you know so well. The tension the two of you feel may start to reverberate in your relationship. For the first visit, remember these pointers:
- Recognize that visits may be difficult at first, and just be with it.
- Take care of yourself. If you begin to feel emotionally overextended, take yourself out of the situation for a while. Take a walk, take a shower, or take a nap.
- Check in with your partner on a regular basis.
- Remain open for fun. Moments of supreme pleasure often follow moments of disaster, and vice versa. Enjoy the roller coaster ride.
When visits occur on a regular basis, things will get both easier and harder. It's a relief to settle into a schedule and to begin building a regular relationship with the kids. You can get a wonderful sense of family two days a week or even two days a month. Having the kids every weekend can also be a hardship for the couple who's busy working all week; there's no time for just the two of them. Be aware of the following trouble spots:
- Don't pander or grovel to try to gain a stepchild's acceptance; it won't work.
- Be pleasant and welcoming, but don't overdo it. The more you act like yourself, the sooner the child is likely to accept you.
Stepparent Visit Overload
During a visit of any length, you might find yourself in overload. Overloaded people do different things, depending on their temperaments. Some withdraw. Some just get weird—their mates look at them as if to say, “That's not really you! Where is the person I love?” You may find yourself unable to relax or, worse yet, find that you're acting wicked! When your stepchild is doing the same thing (which is common), the bioparent (who wants you two to love each other and get along) may panic.
The bioparent needs to cool out and stop forcing the two of you upon each other. You need to lower your expectations and goals for the visit.
The Abandoned Stepparent
It's not only the stepparent and the kid who start acting odd during visits. Your partner, the bioparent, is so happy or worried that the kids are there that she abandons you. Where is that intimacy? Where is the way she looks at you across the table, that combination of desire, affection, and disbelief at her good fortune? Now she's looking at her kids with the same intensity.
She might also start acting a little strange, talking in a different tone of voice, or snapping back into old behavior patterns. You may find yourself feeling abandoned and lonely, thinking, “I want my partner back!”
Here are some tips for the overloaded or abandoned stepparent:
- I know you're tired and somewhat miffed, but include yourself in at least some of the activities your partner is doing with the kids. Otherwise you'll begin feeling even more left out.
- Try to spend special time with each kid, even if it is on an occasional basis.
- Unless your time with the kids is very short (in which case you don't need a break), take a break for the two of you. You need your intimacy.
If you see your stepkids only once or twice a year or so, the transition periods can be very difficult for everybody. Don't plan too many activities, and expect nothing (I say this as though it's possible!). Remember that even several weeks can be a long time for a child, especially a little one. Kids can change drastically in a short period of time, so it can be like getting a whole new set of children each time they visit. Hey, it's an adventure.
Once the child arrives, give her a little time to adjust before plunging wildly into activities. Welcome her into the house as a member of the family, but make sure that she gets a refresher course on the way the household is run. Remind her of the family values and rules, and maybe discuss what the child remembers from the previous visit.
When you and your partner don't see a child for months at a time, there may be a tendency to treat her like a guest and stay on your best behavior. Stop it! It will work better for all concerned if you get real. Remember that you're not putting on a show here—this is family, and part of being a family is teaching family members how to be real with each other.
On the other hand, don't be too blasé: “Oh, yeah, Jim's here. Lay an extra place at the table, ho hum.” Make sure you greet and treat the child like you are happy to see him; he needs the reassurance.
As you get to know the child, try to avoid playing “Quiz the Kid”: “What are you into now?” “Do you have lots of boyfriends?” It's better to ask no questions for a while. For many kids, questions are not conversation—they are interrogation.