Both my Mom and Dad grew up uncomplicated lives, part of typical nuclear families of fifty years ago. when it was usual for biological parents to stay together and raise their children within the family unit. Today divorce rates of close to fifty percent have changed that cosy nuclear family scenario, and now there are more and more stepfamilies, often complicated relationships that often require assistance in resolving interpersonal conflict.
I have been both a stepchild, staying with my Dad and his new wife and a stepfather helping my wife to bring up her own biological children. As a stepchild myself I thought that I had a unique insight into bringing up stepchildren but I found that this was not necessarily the case.
Growing up I rejected displays of affection from my stepmother and refused to take instructions from her. I hadn’t chosen her. She was my Dad’s choice. I had a Mom, who apparently wasn’t quite to my father’s liking. What right did my stepmother have to try to tell me what to do? What right did she have to try and take my mother’s place?
Despite my own emotions as I grew up, when faced with my stepchildren’s rejection of my right to discipline them or set the rules in my home, I felt rejected and side-lined. I realised that taking the hard approach to discipline was never going to work.
Much as I never trusted my father’s second wife, my stepchildren had not learnt to trust me. I realised that I had to provide the support that my wife needed to lay down the rules and to enforce discipline. She had to be the disciplinarian. It wasn’t my place to do this, as I had not earned the right.
I also learnt that as much as needed alone time with my real mom, and resented moves by my stepmother to take her place, I had to learn to step aside for the biological father of my stepchildren. I could not take his place and I shouldn’t try.
I have a role
I decided to work instead on building a supportive environment for the entire family, ensuring that our home life was happy and comfortable and that they would see that I loved and respected their mother. In this way, they could respect the fact that our relationship was a better one than the one that had ended in the divorce of their parents.
In reflecting on my own emotions and conflicts as a stepson, I have been able to change my role as stepfather to one that is fulfilling and reflects the values of a family built on love, support and respect for one another. I could never be the biological parent of my new family, but I don’t have to be. I have found myself a place in the family that is a comfortable and lasting one.