It's not for the faint-hearted, you know, nothing short of bravery in allowing love to take you where most are quick to only see baggage and a demanding list of compromises of all sorts. Kudos to you; especially if you are not bringing with you kids from your own failed attempt at building a family in your past. Step parenthood is a role that brings with it lots of challenges but also holds with it a priceless reward.
At a tender age of 23, I became divorced and with a child. Yes I was aware of my life unfolding; as aware as a naive teenager, adolescent and young adult could have been while assuming the world owed her happiness.
Quite lot has changed since then, both my ex and I have met the kinds of people we had miserably failed at attempting to change each other into, and we married them. My son was given a step-mom, and not too long after that, I became one myself. In hindsight, the fact that I had to first learn to navigate accepting the roles and privileges my son's step-mom possessed in his life led me on a path of making step-motherhood work beautifully for myself.
Look, there is no magic pill you can swallow to be good at something. A range of forces are in action when it comes to manifesting a desired outcome, well, in anything! Of all those forces, some under your control and some beyond it, I deem 'will' the most important. Yes, will paves a way when it seems like there might be none. I will go ahead and assume that you have the will to make your role as a step parent worthwhile.
1. Lay it all bare with your partner
Any sort of unknown is naturally scary and let's face it, parenting a child who
doesn't carry half of your genes isn't for everybody.
Be honest with yourself and your partner about what you want and don't want!
Before I met my husband, being back on the dating wagon was tricky to figure out. Although I was always honest, even proud about being a divorced mother in a society that judged me for it more often than not, I was not honest about what that reality of mine demanded. For the longest, I didn't even have an idea! Relationships I attempted taught me some important lessons and led me towards knowing what I really wanted in a man, as well as how to gauge whether or not someone would be a good fit for me.
Once you do your homework, openness is key!
I remember I was on a date once and the guy openly shared with me his desire to start a family on "a clean slate" with a woman he marries, giving as an example how he imagined learning to change their first-born's diapers together with a first-time mother who is no better at it than he is. As one can imagine, It was not a good date to be on, but his forthcoming honesty undoubtedly prevented wastage of all sorts.
Lay down your deal breakers, preferences, intentions and reservations clearly as soon as you are fully aware of them. No hard feelings, they harden when kept in the dark.
2. Intentions are everything
As it is with many things in life, it's very tempting to want to know 'for sure' if a certain unchartered territory could be your cup of tea. When in reality, we seldom know anything for sure but rather trade with intentions instead. The energy flowing from the truest of your intentions allows you to endure, overcome and flourish. It can also make you miserable and cause you to fail. Ask yourself why you want to take on this role. I will assume you are lovingly committed to your partner already or you wouldn't consider anything further right? Intentions start there. But how about when it comes to your step-children?
If all you can think of is how they will soon grow up and leave, that they will only be at the forefront of the life you are building with your partner until that time, re-evaluate your intent. There is no expiration date to the relationship you and your spouse will have with your step kids. At some point, they will see through any temporary facade and soak in everything you are about. Let what they will find be love.
3. Build trust, slowly
Depending on their age and maturity levels, your partner's kids will almost always start from wondering why you are in their lives in the first place. Acceptance will take time. In worst case scenarios, they might even resent you and fear you aim to replace their birthparent. Of course you know that is not only impossible but also selfish and insensitive to even assume you can try. Earn their trust by acknowledging their birthparent living or deceased. Believe me, there is enough love and respect to go around. Earn your very own.
4. Resist the urge to buy their affection
With my son, I noticed how easy it is to try and soothe a sense of guilt with things and a constant flow of yes's. Kids will manipulate guilt and your yearning for them to accept you. I don't know how they learn to do that but they are darn good at it. Don't shower them with unnecessary gifts. By doing that you not only are shaping them up to be material-centered humans but it will also only earn you temporary approval. It's unsustainable and dangerous, don't do it!
Listen to them, be present and shower them with affection. That's what will bring the wholesome yield you desire.
5.Be ready for the tough questions
Those questions have a funny way of popping up at the most inconvenient of times for adults. You will also find out that there is no good time to be asked "why can't you and daddy come live with us and mommy".
Children don't have social filters and this will be one of the scenarios where one wishes they did. They will throw at you, when you least expect them, questions that even you may not be sure of the answers.
Never ignore, laugh at or downplay a question or a concern. You owe them answers and in ways that they can understand them. Acknowledge their emotions and take your time to address their concerns. If you don't know the answers or the if the answers require more years of maturing to comprehend, tell them so. As many times as needed.
6. Your partner's ex shouldn't be taboo
Aim to comfortably mention him/her while you are with to the children. This will reassure them that you are not about scratching mommy or daddy out of the moments they spend with you. Refer to their birthparent with respect, admiration and talk about their love for their kids. No matter what, refrain from criticizing, gossiping about or showing negativity towards that parent. Especially around the kids! Leave your complaints to your partner and your journal.
Kids listen even when they don't look like it, they register and they remember. You don't want the reality they construct to be about animosity around their parent figures, they will most likely end up blaming themselves and disliking you while they are at it.
7. Take your time before you jump on the disciplining wagon
Let you partner announce the time outs and take away the gadgets when they misbehave. You do not want them resenting you before they take you as an established parent figure with authority.
When the time comes for you to take the role of disciplining, always make sure you communicate with them clearly, both before and after the act, what the consequences they are facing are for. A miscommunication in such instances can be damaging as it's likely for them to think you are punishing them for not being 'yours'.
8. Find out and enforce routines that may be important to the other parent
Children thrive in stability. Within reason and with the exception of unhealthy habits, keep your household friendly to what they may encounter in their other home.
My husband and I have perfected this. For example, when all three of our kids are with us and we are about to share a meal, we say grace according to the religious affiliations of both my ex and his, although we subscribe to neither. Such seemingly small acts go a long way for our ex spouses and our children. Remember, the kids will grow up and become their own humans who choose for themselves whats right for them, make their own mistakes an adapt their own philosophies in life. Your role is to guide them until they don't require your guidance any longer.
The more you minimize any sense of egotistic competition that may arise between the households, the more balanced and happy kids you are likely to help raise.
9. Have fun and enjoy the family love blended!
It's easy to get all wrapped up with sweating the details, maneuvering expectations and complaining about issues big and small. Don't forget to be a child yourself and be fully present with your step kids. You have a special place in their lives, they will realize that more and more each day.
Every situation is different but good intentions are universally effective at the end of the day. As a result of mine, I am fortunate to have made the unlikeliest of friendships with my husband's ex and my ex's wife. We are beyond effective at coordinating care for our children and sharing concerns with the intention to solve them for our babies sakes. The difficult conversations have been had amongst adults and the past is no longer bothersome, which frees up so much energy to pour into loving our kids and giving them the best childhood we can. We have come to respect one another's time, values and marriages. Yes, even marriages. Two divorces achieving this outcome is almost unheard of in the culture we were all raised in, it took us time to jump over the hurdles of habituation and voices of negativity around us. It is doable!
Love, in all of it's manifestations, has a way of winning.