#stepparent #stepparenting #stepchildren #blendingfamilies
My stepson Matt, his wife Kristina and her two children spent the Fourth of July weekend with us in the mountains, and I was reminded again of how fortunate I am as a husband and a stepparent. I gained a son when Melinda and I married in 1986. She, as the natural parent, enabled the bond that has deepened over the years between Matt and me. Melinda’s devotion to both of us helped us to get to know one another, play and work together, and eventually become very close as stepfather and stepson.
Too often the focus in any discussion of 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 a breakfast on the deck of their lakeside home. The weekend gets off to a rocky start when they are interrupted by Jamie, Sherman’s 20 year old son. 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, 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, 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.”
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 the 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. It will take time before Jamie cares 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, perhaps even negligent. The clash is inevitable. Stepparents bring into the home a parenting style that is comfortable for them, and if that is an authoritative style and the natural parent prefers to be lenient or uninvolved, a clash will result.
All three characters in the scene demonstrate unproductive behaviors. The natural parent should always take the lead when dealing with his or her child. 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 an attack on the child and will not promote greater acceptance of the stepparent.
- Expect respect. If Tom wants Jamie to shower before breakfast, he should politely insist on it. His carping abuse of his son gives Jamie the satisfaction in knowing that his hostile behavior struck home. Jamie will try it again.
- A child is never a guest while in the home of a natural parent, and emphatically not the guest of the stepparent. That may change as a child becomes an adult, but until then, home is supposed to be a haven, a place of acceptance and security. When Tom reminds Jamie that he is a guest, it is a painful discount.
- Avoid a showdown between the natural child and the stepparent. By insisting that Jamie speak respectfully to Joyce, Tom gives Jamie negative reinforcement and puts Joyce in a bad position. The natural parent needs to establish expectations in a neutral setting that allows for 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 wanted breakfast on the deck to begin the holiday weekend. Jamie interrupts. Tom makes Jamie’s welcome conditionally by insisting that Jamie take a shower. If he had been alert to Joyce’s wishes, he would have known that she had set the breakfast up for him and her to have time together.
- Stay positive. Tom gives Joyce, as the stepparent, permission to attack Jamie also with her remarks about cleaning up after him. Then she plays the guilt card by saying she will make his breakfast for him. Everyone loses in this round.
- Voice approval. What is not in the picture is often more important than what’s in it. Tom attacks his son without so much as a “Good morning.” Jamie behavior is calculated to be negative, and Tom and Joyce go for it. Everyone had different and more positive choices.
Couples entering marriage 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 the complicated business of raising a child or children together. It is too important to ignore.
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