This article originally appeared in Macaroni Kid on October 25, 2018 by Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS; Health Affiliates Maine
Question: Just found Macaroni Kid through a friend and am so excited for this resource. I am a “new” mom at age 37! No, I am not expecting, but am marrying a man with 3 children whom he has part-time custody of. It is both exciting and scary. I have never been a mom before and don’t want to replace the kids’ mom. I am looking for all the resources I can on how to balance all of that, along with the newness of marriage. I look forward to your advice.
Answer: Congratulations! You have lots of new and wonderful additions to your life! I wish you all the best! You are wise to want to find balance in everything and to be careful with the feelings of others. These are good signs for success.
My first bit of advice is one I give to all parents and step-parents. That is: take care of your marriage. Children benefit and thrive when a marriage is healthy and it is a good model of a healthy relationship. How well the children adjust and accept you will depend a lot on what they observe, perceive, and learn from the relationship you have with their father. Make your new marriage a priority.
That being said, you will need to move slowly to give the children time to get to know you. Try to develop a unique relationship with each child that is separate from their father. Find a way to have fun together and start to make memories. Memories mean you have a history together, and the kids will begin to feel like you belong. Be prepared that one child may accept you more easily than another, but keep trying.
Always be respectful towards the children’s mother, even when this is hard. Anger and disagreements should be taken up with your husband when you can speak in private. Your rejection of their mother will only make them defensive and want to protect her. Remember that you not only married into a family but you also gained the children’s mother in the mix. If possible, try to develop a positive relationship with her. As you defer some decisions to her, this will put her at ease, so she knows you are not trying to take her place. One mother I spoke with has had a 15-year history with her stepson. She shared that she always made a point to ask him how his mom was doing. She felt this allowed him to feel comfortable talking about her, and her comfortable hearing about her.
In most things, defer to dad and encourage him to continue to set the parental tone; once discipline or other consequences are decided, always have a unified front. If circumstances allow, encourage him to have a healthy co-parenting relationship with his ex.
I also want to share a bit of wisdom from a co-worker who was a stepchild. He said, “I always had ‘step-parents’ and ‘half-brother’, and didn’t realize how much this diminished my relationship with them until (when I was a young adult) my ‘step-father’ stopped calling me his step-son and started calling me his SON. When that happened, I was overwhelmed with the feeling of pride, appreciation and respect.”
I share his comments because we often don’t fully understand how a child perceives love and acceptance. I wish you many opportunities to talk about feelings with your new children and to share lots of love.
Being a stepparent or a parent that has to share custody of children is not an easy situation. Counselors can help parents, children and families navigate co-parenting and these relationships that can be ripe with emotion. Seeking help can make healthy families.
Luanne Starr Rhoades, LCPC, LADC, CCS is a professional counselor and the Outpatient Therapy Director at Health Affiliates Maine, a mental health and substance abuse treatment agency serving adults, adolescents, children and families. For more information or if you or someone you know needs help, call us at 877-888-4304 or visit our website www.healthaffiliatesmaine.com and click on “Referrals.”