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The fulfilling but winding road of stepparenting

It is comforting to see positive and inspiring articles in the news and many of you would have seen this article recently – I am hopeful that this sort of attitude towards stepparents may soon become commonplace, for now unfortunately this is simply all too rare.

More often situations go like this –

So you have been on a few dates, enjoy each other’s company and are starting to think there might be some future ahead for you… then they drop a bombshell – they are in the middle of a bitter custody battle with their ex. You glance around the room, searching for the nearest exit, wishing you were on a plane and there were illuminated exit lights marking the way. Whilst your breath is becoming rapid, you are aware of the eerie silence which is now creating a gaping hole between you.

If you took the first option of exiting stage left as quickly as possible, then you probably will not find much use in the remainder of this blog. If however those big blue eyes kept you attracted and you didn’t find yourself running as fast as you could in the opposite direction, then read on.

Being a stepparent can be a challenging role, to quote Audrey “NO ONE said it was easy trying to be a mother to a kid you didn’t have.” This becomes even more difficult when there are unresolved family law issues lurking in the background. You can sometimes end up witnessing text message wars, arctic cold changeovers and confused and upset children.

If you are a stepparent (which I include both a new partner as well as a stepparent as a result of marriage), you may feel much uncertainty about your role, particularly when it comes to disputes between the parents which you may or may not be directly involved in.

There are some common queries which arise in regards to this and whilst I do not profess to have all the answers to your parenting questions, hopefully this provides some tips for dealing with these issues.

I have just started a relationship and my partner has children, what is my role?

I suggest you initially research the difference between Paw Patrol and Teletubbies, become very familiar with Frozen (Disney’s version) and install the Peppa Pig App on your phone.  After you have mastered the basics, then there are some other things you should consider…

Some families with new partners/stepparents enter the family and immediately take on the parenting role of the children. Other stepparents take more of a back seat role to assist and support the parent. There is no right or wrong approach. It is important however that you do not undermine the other parents’ role or their position in the child’s life. Immediately inserting yourself as the primary carer and calling yourself “Mum” or “Dad” is generally not the best approach. Slow and steady seems to be more effective in this situation.

How much involvement should I have with the “other parent”? 

This is different in every situation and unique to each family. Generally as a rule of thumb, we do not encourage stepparents to immediately inject themselves into the “other parents” life unless invited to do so. Whilst your intentions may be only good, your presence in itself may be unsettling and cause the other parent to feel as though their territory is being invaded. As a result of this they may either retreat or attack. Either of these responses will not be beneficial, particularly if witnessed by the children.

Therefore the message is to tread carefully. As your relationship grows, the other parent may in fact initiate contact with you. You may or may not want to reciprocate this, however it is well worth keeping an open mind. They simply may want to know the person who is spending significant time with their children. Whilst it is rare that you would turn into besties overnight, it can be reassuring to the other parent to at least have met you and know that you are not something that has just arrived from middle earth.

In fairly rare circumstances the stepparent may become the main communicator with the other parent. This sometimes is effective when the relationship between the parents is particularly strained, and the stepparent is capable of being more objective.

Generally communication is best done directly between the parents. If the other parent makes contact with you as a stepparent ensure that any contact you have is positive. The children will benefit from seeing a healthy adult relationship between two important people in their lives.

My partner is in court about the children – what do I have to do?

If you are living with your partner and involved in the children’s day to day life, it is likely that you may be involved in court proceedings in some way. Your involvement may include, submitting an affidavit outlining your relationship with the children, attending family report interviews, discussing your role with a family consultant and even attending court as a witness.

You may be involved in all or none of these events. You may simply be a support person for your partner and have no active role. This will largely depend on the issues which have brought the matter before the court, and how the situation progresses. Don’t worry, just because the matter is in court this does not necessarily mean that your direct involvement is required.

We have now separated, can I still have a relationship with the children?

Yes. Firstly you may wish to discuss this with your former partner and see if arrangements can be reached for you to continue to communicate with or spend some time with your stepchildren. In situations where you have had a close relationship with the children over many years, you are likely to be a strong parental figure for them. The sudden removal of your presence from the children’s life can have a significant adverse impact on them. If no agreement can be reached between yourself and your former partner in regards to maintaining a relationship between you and your stepchildren, then you may need to seek legal advice in regards to this.

Whatever type of stepparent role you take on, remember you will undoubtedly make a tremendous impact on a little person’s life. Whilst at times it can be a rocky road, I hope that this world will see more attitudes like Audrey’s in the future.