Stepparents: Neither Parent Nor Friend

From personal experience, Kate McGuinness shares advice—and warnings—with a friend who recently became a step mother.

Recently, I attended the wedding of a friend who was marrying a man with two children from a prior marriage. Like one-third of all marriages in the United States today, this one would form a stepfamily.

Before my friend accepted the groom’s proposal, she had asked about my experiences as a stepmother. I’ve played that role twice, each time marrying a newly-divorced man with two sons. And, no, I wasn’t the home-wrecker. I didn’t know either of them before the decision to split had been made, but the assumption that the stepmother was to blame is common.

The capabilities of the boys’ mothers made the two situations polar opposites. One had become heavily addicted to pain medication after her divorce, although her ex-husband didn’t know it. She and the boys lived hundreds of miles away, and we saw the children once a month. Further complicating the situation was her poisonous anger at her ex, a puzzling response given she’d initiated the divorce to be with her lover.

The other mother was a capable university professor who had chosen to divorce because of interpersonal conflicts with her ex-husband. She and the boys lived in a nearby suburb.

My friend the bride had expressed concern that she didn’t love her future stepchildren. I told her love wasn’t required, but compassion was. The children were experiencing the loss of the only life they’d known, a life with mom and dad in the same house. Also, for periods of time, they would be thrust into a new living situation with myriad changes, including the absence of the family pet, neighborhood playmates and, perhaps, even their favorite foods.

But I did reassure my friend that with time she would likely come to love her stepchildren. And that is both a blessing and a curse. Loving any other human being is a joyful experience, but her stepchildren will never be her children.

Loving a child means wanting the best for that little person. No matter how desperately the child needs help, whether with hygiene, health, or academics, my friend will have surprisingly little power to see that the child receives it.

A stepmother must first convince her spouse that change is needed, and then he must convince the child’s mother. When dealing with a functional, sane mother, there’s some chance the change will occur. But dealing with an incapacitated mother means the best of suggestions may be resisted. Even innocuous, objectively helpful efforts on the children’s behalf—like haircuts and clean nails—may incur anger. Therein lies the curse of loving your stepchildren: You may be virtually powerless to help them.

Before I leave the topic of former spouses, a warning is in order: They may come after the stepparent’s income. Child support payments are based on a number of factors, including each parent’s ability to pay. When one parent re-marries, the income of that parent’s new spouse can be considered by a judge upon the request of the other parent. A pre-nuptial agreement should shelter the stepparent’s income if this circumstance arises. (In my case, this issue was litigated all the way to an appellate court. Yes, it was the druggie ex-wife.)

Another bit of advice I gave to my friend was to avoid becoming the children’s buddy or playmate. Children need rules and boundaries. Hopefully, the children’s birthparent will be there when discipline needs to be administered.

But there will be times when stepparents need to remind children of the household rules. Admonishments will be more effective if they come from a person with some pre-existing authority rather than a friend suddenly turned mean. I suggest a stepparent take on the persona of an aunt or uncle.

I hope my friend’s marriage lasts a lifetime, but if it doesn’t, she will face one more obstacle as a stepparent. If she and her groom divorce, she will inevitably have less contact with his children. If my prediction that she’ll grow to love them proves true, her heart will ache for more than the loss of her marriage.

Kate McGuinness is a lawyer who spent 17 years at Biglaw before becoming the general counsel of a Fortune 500 corporation. After leaving that position, she studied creative writing and is the author of a legal suspense novel Terminal Ambition, which will be published early in 2012. She is an advocate for women and tweets as @womnsrightswrter.

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