12 Steps to Step Parenting: What clients taught a therapist

When I was a kid, there was a time when I would race home from school so that I could watch the Brady Bunch on TV.  She has three daughters, he has three sons and they marry–they children have squabbles, to be certain, but they were always lovingly and successfully resolved at the end of the 22 minute show. The boys relate well to their step mother, and the girls to their step father–again, there are disagreements and mild dustups–but fundamentally, the issues were “regular” growing up issues–not related to being a blended/step family.

I’ve been working with step-families/blended families for years in my counselling office. Let me tell you, the Brady Bunch was a television show in all its glorious fiction.  Step families take multiple years to assimilate and form a new sort of family that has routines and cohesion–and there is generally deliberate work to accomplish this along the way, and the sailing is anything but smooth.

The Brady Bunch did us all a disservice in lulling us to be unaware of the complexities of combining what was two separate families into one household. Folks that think step families work like the Brady Bunch are Set. Up. To. Fail.

Often two-families-seeking-to-be-one come in to see me at their wit’s end. Things aren’t working–kids are hostile and resistant.  Often the children are draining all the loving energy between the couple so that despite the couples best intentions at starting fresh with a loving marriage and family are dashed to smithereens. Discouragement sets in, and parents and step parents feel defeated.  It is be ugly and painful to be a part of that sort of family dynamic.

I’ve also worked with many folks who have been a part of step families who come in for a variety of reasons in their lives and their family experience is a source of tremendous support and encouragement.  They will tell me how incredibly supportive and encouraging a step parent was, or how their family changed for the better when their bio parent got married.  These folks, who may be having difficulty bringing to them to the counselling office, turn to their positive step family experience as a resource in their lives–and drawing on their family experience of having a step parent, they are able to move forward. I notice that they call their step-parent “mom” or “dad” with a loving tone.

Little did I know that one day I would become a part of a step family.  My Junior Tribe would more than double in size. I would be stepping into a situation that seemed potentially fraught with land mines, that would take years to develop and quite likely add extra layers of stress on a new marriage.

I, however, had an advantage in this new family dynamic that few others have the privilege to have.  I get an inside perspective on step families that almost no one else gets.  I’ve had meaningful and vulnerable and authentic conversations with folks for years, discovering the ins and outs of step families.  I’ve read the literature on what works and doesn’t work with stepfamilies, and how folks can navigate the tricky waters of step parenting–and watched folks develop trust slowly with each other with careful respect and understanding. (And FYI…the best quick read that I know of for step parenting is a chapter in Harriet Lerners: Marriage Rules–concise, clear and infinitely helpful, and consistent with current research on the topic)

My clients have taught me how to be a step parent.  I want to thank them for the lessons I’ve learned that I’ve used to help other families–and now myself.  I’m so not perfect, and I’m sure the Junior Tribe Members could point out with laser accuracy where the mistakes have been…but I know that I deliberately relate to my step children in light of all I have been taught.

It was my birthday this week…and all JTM’s and girfriend and fiancé and us Senior Tribe Members walked to Boston Pizza. We laughed and joked over pizza with FIFA soccer in the background. We walked home, shared birthday cake, and played a fun game together (with NBA and hockey playoffs in the background).  I received a card from each JTM that was respectful and affirming. We aren’t perfect by any means, but I can just feel that we are on the right road…I have been taught well. That feels awesome.

Having watched and learned from families who learned by trial and error, and families who were warmly and wildly successful at creating something new when two families are joined in marriage, we decided that, to the best of our ability:

1. Our dating/engaged/married relationship moved at a rate that made sense for the kids, as well as us. He would check in with his, and I with mine about how they felt about things (when the other wasn’t present) to get candid feedback on how they felt about their parent dating, and then later being engaged and getting married.  We slowed things down if even one child needed some time.

2. We didn’t assume any of the children would be OK with our relationship, or the sort of things that come out of that relationship. We asked for feedback from each child as our relationship progressed. For example, he would ask a JTM if the JTM was comfortable with me coming to watch his game.  If the answer was “No”, then I didn’t go. I would work to remember to be grateful that the child was candid about his needs, and I would choose to believe that he was learning I was respectful of him by not going, and not making a big deal of it.  If the answer was “Yes”, I would go, but remain in the background…and then ask again the next time.  Just because he said “yes” once, didn’t mean it was yes from then on.  Each child was in control of when his friends found out about the fact that their parent was dating. I went into this knowing that being sensitively tuned into the JTM’s comfort with me, and then being generous about giving as much distance as the child requested is often the best way to show care to that child.

3. We sought to avoid disruption of regular routines and relationships.  That meant that while we were dating, we often only visited after 9:00 pm when the youngest went to bed.  After we married, I moved into his house so the youngest wouldn’t have to move to reduce the disruption in his life. He is the primary parent to his kids, and I to mine–that doesn’t change. He still tucks the youngest in every night at the same time, just like before…and it takes f-o-r-e-v-e-r–just like it did before.

4. I sought and seek to be a positive presence in the lives of his children, though not as a parent. I know the currency of the adolescent boys–I bake, make good meals, offer to help with homework, do a drop off or pick up, or review a resumé if requested. He did and does the same with mine. I relate to his JTM’s in a similar manner as I would to good friends of my Junior Tribe Members when they have been over–friendly, welcoming, supportive, curious and appreciative but fully aware that I am not the parent. I’m finding out about their favourite movies and investing in watching them with them. I know more about some video games than I used to!

5. I realize that I am not a parent, and I have not earned the right to speak into the lives of his children in a way that implies I can assert my will/opinion/thoughts in a way that seems in any way judgemental of a child.  I simply haven’t known them that long, and to tell them what to do or how to do it would be presumptuous. Simply put, I don’t have enough equity in the relationship bank to give advice or discipline or be corrective.

Tell me–do you like it when a neighbor tells you how to mow your lawn, or your new co-worker tells you why you haven’t been promoted?  It’s simply not my place…influence in a child’s life is earned slowly, over time…and at the child’s pace. I expect that I won’t have the right for years yet.

6. My main task with regards to the children, besides being a warm and supportive and helpful presence in their lives is to support their biological parent to be the best parent he can be.  Sometimes, I’m around when “stuff” happens…I notice things and I might mention it to him privately later, if he is open to my observations.  I have some distance, and so can sometimes see dynamics that he can’t (and vice versa too!!)

7. I do help him parent his children…so, when  his dad isn’t home, I remind a JTM of the screen time that his father has said he can have, or let him know it is the time his dad told him to go to bed. It’s like he’s the lead singer in the parenting band for his kids…and I’m the Doo-Wop back up singer. Doo-wop singers are important but they don’t set the tone–they are not the lead singers. I support the rules he has made if he isn’t around, but he sets the stage, the rules, and determines the rhythm of parenting for his JTM’s.


8. I seek to have far more positive “bids” in their lives than neutral or negative.  It’s not that I’m trying to buy their love, but I am conscious of how nice it is for them to have fresh baking for their lunches, or when one likes a particular supper I make.  I like to visit with them and find about about their day–they are important in my life and I want to get to know them and be a positive presence in their lives. Their dad has earned the right to do the “heavy lifting” of discipline and correction…I have not.

9. We are now three distinct families…his, mine and ours.  We live with that as a reality. On Mother’s Day, he spent lunch alone with his JTM’s, while I spent time with mine. Other times, we are together as one enlarged family. I check in with my JTM’s about how they are experiencing things in this enlarged household so that we can deal with what comes up. They have told me that they won’t feel comfortable about raising these matters in front of my new husband.

10. There is a family expectation of mutual respect collaboration–not unlike expectations at school or the team or anywhere else.  That’s it.  They are not expected to love me–or even like me.  Any of that stuff, as it comes, is a bonus (and it would be a welcomed, treasured bonus which I will cherish should I be fortunate enough to receive it–but I recognize it is not owed to me).  JTM’s did not sign up for this.  Love cannot be demanded. Demanding love is not love at all. The literature suggests a paradoxical effect often happens…the more you demand to be loved as a parent, the less likely it is to happen…and the more you give space and respect and not have expectations, the possibility for love to develop increases.

Step Parenting Guidelines. Poster: We all hope for love, enjoy it and desire it, but expecting and demanding it of others fouls up a good relationship. Alan E. Nelson

11. We are both committed to reinforcing the JTM’s relationship with their biological parent...to celebrating it, facilitating it, and supporting the JTM every possible way to love the other parent. For me, that means honouring her memory by having pictures of her up, and making sure that we are bringing her memory up regularly in conversation…and finding ways to honour her myself–to give the JTM’s the ability to do the same if they so choose.  I planted a planter pot full of red flowers and put it on the top step–red was her favourite color. I know this is trickier when the bio parent is divorced…it means drawing deep on one’s love for the JTM to remember that every child longs and needs to love the bio parent–and to be patient and kind and loving to support that love for the bio parent, even when there are “grown up reasons” to be angry and vengeful. One of the greatest gifts a person can give to a step family is helping the children love both bio parents–that can be a gift that is only given at significant personal cost–but the investment is worth it.

12. We actually avoid the use of step-mother and step-father.  I am simply Carolyn. And I like it that way–that’s my name!  🙂  I am married to their dad.  We live in the same house.  We belong to a new family that is made up of two families. But “step mother” is so fraught with baggage, we simply haven’t used it. We use other language that works for us.

We are in the early stages of this yet.  More mistakes will be made. We will become aware of how we need to tweak, refine, readjust, and recalibrate to make it work for the JTM’s. This isn’t easy for them…and I am so often humbled and awestruck at the efforts they make to make our new family work. JTM’s want to love and be loved–in ways that work for all of us–including them. (Sometimes they make that a little hard to see on the surface, but it’s there–it’s always there). This new brood of enlarged JTM’s brings me to tears with the efforts they make to include me, welcome me, and reach out in sometimes-barely-but-definitely-there ways.

 I am grateful.

1 Comment

  • living

    Everything is very open with a very clear clarification of the issues.
    It was really informative. Your site is very useful.
    Thanks for sharing!

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