Just as getting rid of the ingrained societal myths can be hard, so can giving up your hopes and expectations about what marriage, partnership, parenthood, and family life will be for you. "Unrealistic expectations are the biggest risk," says Emily Visher, founder of the Stepfamily Association of America.
Have you ever heard yourself thinking of saying something along any of these lines?
Don't Be Wicked
The stepfamily cannot function as does a "natural" family. It cannot, and it will not. If you try to make it do so, you will fail, flame out, bite the big one.
- Just you and me, and baby makes three. (Hey, what about his older kids Bobby and Suzy over there in the corner?)
- The kids won't live with us, so they don't really play a role in our lives. (Whoa, Nellie. Hold on. What about summer vacation, family reunions, or if one of the kids gets into trouble with the law?)
- My daughter always wanted a big brother to play with, and now she'll have him! (Just because you're joining forces with another family doesn't mean the kids will automatically have a loving, close sibling relationship.)
- I've always loved kids, and I'm great with them. (Yes, but somehow it's different when you're "in-step." There's a lot more at stake and a lot more complications when you're romantically involved with the children's parent.)
The Built-In Family
Many expectations can be built up around the joys of family life. You love him or her as a parent, the children are an essential part of the whole seductive package, and the more time you spend around your Honey while he or she is actively parenting, the deeper you fall in love. You want to crawl into his or her life, curl up in the coziness of the family, and take a rest.
I Kid You Not
Famous stepparent in musical theater: Maria in the Sound of Music, was a warm and loving stepmother, though maybe just a little too sweet?
You've been seeing the family from the position of an outsider, unfortunately. Nothing is ever as smooth as it looks on the surface, and even if it has been fairly smooth, there is no way for you to slide into this still pond without rippling the waters.
No Infancy, Less Work
Hey, the stepparent-to-be thinks, this way I know what kind of kid I'm getting. She thinks: Hey, I get a kid (or more wonderful kids) without going through pregnancy and labor. He thinks: Full-fledged kids without all those months of screaming and diaper changes! All right! Alas, the intensive care of infancy and early childhood is matched in the intensity (if not time) of building a good relationship with an older stepchild. You're gonna have to work hard (possibly harder), depending on how old the children are and what their relationship is with their bioparent.
Don't Be Wicked
Many a stepparent has fallen into the trap of despairing that because things are terrible today, they'll be terrible forever. That's not necessarily so. Try to take a long-range view.
Insta-Love—Just Add Water and Stir!
This is one of the biggest and most brutal expectations of all, that everybody in the stepfamily will love each other, and that you'll gain (or regain) security, easy give and take, and love.
Love is not a requirement. The kids do not have to love you, and you do not have to love the kids. Let me say it again. Love is not a requirement. Go for "reasonable." Go for "content." Go for "we're working at it."
The insta-love expectation is particularly brutal because, as much as you want it to, it just won't happen that way. Remember, you chose your sweetheart and your sweetheart chose you, but the kids had little say over the matter. This is not their romance. And the person you fell in love with is the parent of these children. You may like the children, you may love the children, and they may like or even love you. But this is not a requirement for a functional, working stepfamily. Love takes time, and it must be earned.