#stepparent #stepchildren #blendingfamily
As I wrote in my previous posting on the role of a stepparent, my wife Melinda and I are coming up on our 26th anniversary. We spent last Saturday evening with my stepson, Matt, and his wife Kristina at the North Carolina Jazz Festival, and I was reminded of how fortunate I am. I gained a son when Melinda and I married. Melinda, as the natural parent, enabled the bond that has deepened over the years between Matt and me. Neither Matt nor I ever experienced that Melinda’s devotion to either of us was diminished in anyway as the two of us got to know one another, play and work together, and eventually become very close as stepfather and stepson.
Too often the focus in any discussion on step parenting is on the stepparent. Melinda’s dedication to her son and her even-handed, nurturing approach in raising him taught me a how important the natural parent’s role is in blending a family. Not all stepparents are so fortunate.
In a scene from my novel, Deadly Portfolio: A Killing in Hedge Funds, Dr. Tom Sherman accepts his wife’s invitation to breakfast on the deck of their lakeside home. The weekend gets off to a rocky start when they are interrupted by Sherman’s 20 year old son, Jamie. Joyce, readers should recall, is Sherman’s second wife and Jamie’s stepmother.
The Scene on the Deck at Breakfast
Jamie stretched and yawned. His dark brown hair was matted to one side from sleep, his brown eyes bloodshot and slit with fatigue. He struck Sherman as thoroughly dissipated in his faded, torn blue jean cutoffs and soiled Hardrock tee shirt. “You mind if I have some coffee and rustle some eggs myself?” Jamie asked of nobody in particular.
“My God, is that you?” Sherman asked. “Do you realize how offensive it is when you don’t shower?”
“After breakfast,” Jamie responded turning to Joyce as if he expected an answer from her.
“No,” Joyce said. “It’s easier for me to do it than to clean up after you.”
“Whoa! You’re not sitting at this table,” Sherman said noticing his son reaching for a chair. “No, sir. Take a shower now, God damn it, or move well down wind from me. How can you stand it?”
“Humans can get used to anything.” Jamie slouched back toward the end of the deck near the lakefront.
“Yeah, well, I don’t care to get used to anything when I know immediately I don’t like it. Go shower! And shave! And put on some decent looking clothes. You’ve got a closet full.”
“I’ll have breakfast ready for you when you come down,” Joyce said.
“Don’t bother. I’m outa here.”
“It’s no trouble,” Joyce said.
“Don’t take that tone with her. You’re her guest here. You treat her with respect or find somewhere else to live.” Sherman took a big bite of toast and looked up at his son.
Jamie turned and yanked open the screen door, and disappeared into the dark of the house. A moment later, Joyce and Sherman heard his car start, back out of the driveway, and accelerate off, tires squealing in protest.
“Please, don’t start,” Joyce said. “I didn’t want the day to start this way. I never want any day to start this way. You’re out-of-sorts. He’s just aching to get your goat. I’ve promised myself I could tough it out until he moves out, so let’s just let it go at that.”
“Surly shit,” Sherman said with half a mouth full of toast. “Learned at the foot of a Jedi master,” referring to his first wife with whom all the children sided when the couple split up. He chased his half-chewed toast with a slug of orange juice.
“Please, just leave it alone. I know you can’t throw him out. I also know that I can hardly stand another day with him here, especially when you’re away. He doesn’t respect me. His room stinks. If I didn’t send the cleaning lady in there to pick up his clothes and make sure they get washed, the house would smell to high heaven in a week. Some days I think we should move back into town and let him live out here until he’s ready to leave. Then I won’t need to deal with him everyday.”
“I’ll talk to him.”
“No. You won’t. You’ll yell at him, and he’ll think I put you up to it. You’ll leave and then, if anything, matters will get worse.”
Author and Stepfather John J. Hohn
Tom Sherman just made life tougher for Joyce. Jamie works at making his rebellious statement. He is angry over the dismemberment of his family through divorce and disruption of his tranquil pursuit of his studies in college. His father is critical of his behavior without making the effort to find out what is troubling the youth, a task that belongs appropriately in the natural parent’s hands. Joyce sees Jamie’s behavior as a personal attack on her. Actually, it isn’t. Jamie is indifferent to Joyce, as most children are when they are first subjected to another adult in the home in the role of an absent natural parent. Jamie doesn’t care what Joyce thinks or that his actions inconvenience her. She is making herself miserable by assuming Jamie is attacking her personally and setting herself up for conflict with her husband and Jamie.
Tom’s behavior is indicative of how he handles other situations as well. Tom and Joyce have not discussed parenting styles. Joyce is authoritative, whereas Tom is, for all his bluster, uninvolved. The clash is inevitable. Stepparents bring into the home a parenting style that is comfortable for them, and if stepparent happens to be authoritarian or authoritative, and the natural parent prefers to be lenient or uninvolved, a clash is unavoidable.
Tom demonstrates several unproductive behaviors. The following apply to the natural parent’s role.
- Discuss chronic inappropriate behavior with the child in private. Being critical in the presence of a stepparent is a façade of support and an attack on the child will not promote greater acceptance of the stepparent.
- Expect obedience. If Tom wants Jamie to shower before breakfast, he should insist on it. His carping abuse of his son gives Jamie the satisfaction in knowing that his hostile behavior struck home. He will try it again.
- Any new home is, in the first place, a child’s home. A child is never a guest while in the home of a natural parent.
- Avoid a showdown between the natural child and the stepparent. When he insists that Jamie speak respectfully to Joyce, Tom gives Jamie negative reinforcement and puts Joyce in a bad position. Any future disrespect will be perceived as intentional. The natural parent needs to establish expectations in a private setting that allows discussion.
- Seek closure. Jamie ends the conflict by leaving. Tom promises to talk to him. Joyce knows from experience that he won’t. Letting matters drop communicates that nothing matters.
- Protect the time that either spouse has set aside for being together. Joyce signaled that she on the deck to begin the holiday weekend. Jamie interrupts. Tom should have said that the two of them preferred to be alone. Jamie is old enough to understand.
- Voice approval. When the natural parent observes the child acting appropriately toward the stepparent, no matter how mundane the situation, the behavior needs to be reinforced. An “I” message. “I was pleased to see you helping Joyce with the dishes.” Or, “Joyce said you were a big help today with the yard. That’s great. Thanks..”
- Never criticize the absent natural parent. The issues you may have with an ex-spouse are between you and that person. The child wants to think well of both natural parents and does not want to hear about how hurt you are, or how angry, or how unfairly treated, or anything else. You may think that the case against your ex is spectacularly self-indicting, but your child will insist on seeing the other parent in a positive light and relegate unattractive information into an unimportant status.
- Your child does not want to know why you and your ex broke up and will not benefit in any way from being told. Your child loves both of you and wants life to go on as smoothly as possible.
- Never ask or expect a child to take sides with you against the other natural parent.
- Do not be surprised if a child is uncomfortable with expressions of affection toward your new spouse. The child would rather not be forced to acknowledge any sexual dimension of your new relationship. In time, it will be OK to be as expressive in the child’s presence as you may have been with the child’s natural parent, but until evidence of the child’s comfort is clearly presented, avoid it. Seductive behavior toward your new spouse is especially distasteful to your children. Instead be openly appreciative of the stepparent’s other attractive attributes (hard working, caring, thoughtful) because it attests to the stepparent’s trustworthiness and character.
- Children resent being required to compliment a stepparent. Asking either forces a denial or less than the truth. Statements as apparently harmless as “Didn’t Joyce make us a wonderful breakfast?” or “Wasn’t that great of Tom to give all the kids a ride home,” will be taken as an expression of your impatience or lack of confidence in the child’s judgment.
Couples entering marriage that involves one becoming a stepparent need to discuss parenting styles and expectations. There is no cruise control solution. Both the natural and the stepparent need to be consciously competent in this complicated business of raising a child or children together. It is too important to just let it ride. It will not work itself out on its own.
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