I’d been a single mom of one for four years when I met Jason and fell completely and utterly in love with him and his gorgeous son and daughter (Devin, 12, and Leah, 9). Within four months we were all living together and I was thrown into the role of stepmother.
The title carries some serious weight. If you were free-associating the word itself, the first thing to pop into you head would probably be the word “wicked.” My own stepmother didn’t really like children and made that very clear. But here I am, a stepmom trying very hard to be liked, trying hard to juggle being in love with being responsible and trying to make sure everybody’s needs are met without me losing my mind.
Consequently, there have been times that I have cried tears of frustration over things I’ve handled badly, or issues that felt were too big to be compromised upon. (They weren’t, once I’d calmed down.) Was I doing it all wrong? So I asked family therapist Dr. Judith Myers Avis, who is also a stepmother, to weigh in and hold my hand as I paddle through uncharted waters.
Several friends told me that i was making a big mistake moving in with Jason just months after meeting, that I was rushing things and that it would be awful for Perdy (my four-year-old) if things didn’t work out. My reaction was: Screw it, I’m 34 years old. Do I waste a year getting to know him and then discover we are completely incompatible when I move in after that? Plus, I desperately wanted to be with Jason every day.
Myers Avis asked me whether I thought taking things slower would have made things better, and I honestly don’t, despite common sense dictating otherwise. Generally, she advises that couples do take the time to get to know each other better before moving in and perhaps just spend weekends together until the honeymoon period has passed, generally by around the six-month mark.
“There is a struggle between wanting to take enough time laying some groundwork and making sure that not only but also the children are well prepared and that urgency, especially as we get older, of wanting to get on with our lives,” she says. “Before moving in, you need to think about what some of the typical issues are going to be, such as approaches to discipline, finances and values, etc. There are many issues that are best discussed before moving in together, because things get really complicated to deal with once you are in the midst of all of it.”
Admittedly, we didn’t spend enough time talking about our values and expectations as parents, and, perhaps stupidly, our biggest fight to date has been over whether the kids should or shouldn’t do chores. (I thought they should, he didn’t.)
When we moved in, I was like some kind of Super Nanny on steroids and tried to address all the (perceived) flaws in Jason’s parenting style. This was stupid because his kids are awesome; they are compassionate, kind and well-mannered, which is a testament to the fact that he (and his ex-wife) are great parents. I couldn’t ask for better siblings for my daughter. However, up until this point I’ve never had to compromise on any parenting issue and, as a chronic know-it-all, I tend to think that my way of doing things is the best way.
The amount of television that Devin and Leah watch is a trigger point for me. I’ve always limited how much TV time Perdy gets (a movie or two every week, cartoons on Saturdays) and feel guilty for all the times that I’ve let her watch too much because I just need to get stuff done. His kids watch TV a lot, which means that Perdy watches it too.
The television issue represents a difference in rules and expectations, says Myers Avis, and we’d have to reach a compromise rather than it being all one person’s way of the other’s. The adult way of dealing with conflicts around rules is apparently not to slam the other parent’s way of doing things in front of the kids (whoops, must stop doing that) but to discuss the differences in private, away from the kids.
then we’d need to negotiate, accommodate and be flexible in order to reach an agreement on rules. It might not be my “perfect” way of doing things, but it needs to be something I can live with, Myers Avis explains, adding that it is up to the biological parent to enforce the rules and then delegate to the step-parent in his or her absence, especially with young kids.
One of the biggest issues we’ve faced surrounds food. I moved in and started cooking healthy food, made from scratch and nobody would eat it. (Jason and his kids existed on a diet of boxed mac and cheese and taco kits.) One night I had a huge row with Jason’s son that ended up with me in tears and him storming off to his room because he wouldn’t eat peas. After that, I backed off and let Jason cook for his kids and me for mine.
Myers Avis says that although my intentions were good, I’d need to accept that I can’t expect to change their unhealthy habits overnight. “It’s an incremental and gradual process, and you’ll get less resistance if they get involved in it.”
Something I’ve started doing is to get Devin, the pickiest eater in the house by far, to help me cook a family meal one night every week, which is working well. Myers Avis says that doing this, and having Jason cook for his kids are creative solutions to the problem. “Those are examples of accommodation and flexibility. Kids at that age need to have some say, especially if you are introducing them to healthier food and serving up different foods than they are used to.”
My daughter sees her dad twice a year, so co-parenting for me is pretty clean-cut. Devin and Leah live here 50 percent of the time, changing houses every three or four days. When things screw up, such as the kids being dropped off an hour late and already fed when I’ve planned a special family dinner or a miscommunication occurring that means more work for us, I find it hard not to bitch.
The general rule is to never bad-mouth the other parent in front of the kids, says Myers Avis. That is a rule I do adhere to. As the child of a rather nasty divorce, I know how much it hurt to hear my parents say bad things about each other.
Supporting the kids to move easily back and forth is good for their well-being, says Myers Avis, and in order to stay sane, I need to expect bumpy transitions. “The more flexible you can be, the easier ti will make things for you. Don’t have any exact time on days when the kids are being dropped off,” she advises.
Sometimes I can’t always cope with how hectic it gets, so I grab my daughter and escape for the day. This is especially true on Saturdays, when his kids have sports and race from one game to another. I feel guilty for not wanting to be involved in their activities but I love spending time one-on-one with my kid and doing the stuff we used to do when it was just the two of us.
“You absolutely don’t need to be involved in everything. That gives them a space that is theirs with their dad. That serves everyone,” says Myers Avis, “and spending time with the kids in subsets is a great way of building relationships and ensuring that everyone gets a little special attention.”
Thankfully, both Jason’s kids and mine tell us that they are happy. Perdy goes so far as to make up songs about how much she loves her new family. I’m enjoying the backup and support of co-parenting for the first time and the thrill of being in love. (There you go thinking it will never happen again and then it hits you like a truck.) Creating this new family is more fun than it is difficult, and even in the most stressful moments, I realize we are all in it together.
As “Lola the Love Expert” on sympatico.ca, freelance writer Lola Augustine Brown dishes advice on dating and relationships.