I married my wife–who is the non-custodial parent of her two boys, now 9 and 12–3 years ago. Although my wife does not have any legal custody of the kids, their father is reasonable and sends the kids our way during the Summer and alternating holidays.
So, not only have I gone from single to married, I had to learn to be a stepfather in spurts. This creates troubling challenges. Invariably, the first week or two of a visit is fraught with conflict (to go along with happiness, of course) due to the kids’ stress of being with us, under a new roof with different rules, etc., combined with my wife and I adjusting to being just the two of us, to full-time parents. Although this period passes to a certain extent over a Summer, Christmas or Thanksgiving visits usually end up being EXTREMELY stressful. More importantly, my wife an I never really get a meaningful period of time to work through all of the issues on our end as the time with the boys is short and, therefore, precious.
As a military member, I have just received orders to work overseas for the next two years. My wife has arranged for the kids to join us for one of the two years. At the same time, I am both excited and dreading the stress that this will put on my otherwise blissful marriage. I want to use this time to work through a lot of this stuff, but am very concerned about the stress of moving overseas, combined with the inevitable “adjustment period.” Any suggestions? JK
Thanks for your email. Stepdadding.com has a special connection with the military. Military families have the highest blended family rate of any profession. Military personnel also experience extremely high levels of divorce. These rates lend to a higher than average number of re-marriages as well –and a high number of blended families. For this reason we’ve made an active effort to be a resource for military families. We’re glad you reached out.
I’d like to start by saying congratulations on the newest members of your family. It’s always an adventure when you marry. When your new spouse is a package deal the adventure increases. Single moms typically have majority custody, so your situation is a little easier –and harder. One advantage full-time Stepdads have is they have more exposure to the kids. This allows them to build rapport more quickly. In your situation, you have the kids sporadically and for short times. This makes it harder to develop a household rapport and settle into patterns. To them it may seem like a vacation but to you and your wife it’s responsibility. It’s natural to expect some push-back as you all try to adjust.
The fact that you reached out is a good sign that you’re going to be the right kind of Stepdad – many men just wing it – you’re looking for answers – very good! The best results come from preparation. With that in mind I want to share some tools to help you succeed.
The Magnificent Seven…(Steps For Success):
1) Good Communication With the Father
Talk with the boys’ dad and let him know you want to try to ease their adjustment when they visit. Ask his advice. This will mean a lot to him even if he doesn’t have any to offer. Creating a good rapport with the bio-dad will pay huge dividends. Fathers are naturally territorial of their kids. A little effort by you can help him see you as a partner instead of a foe. To help the kids adjust easier find out what the father’s expectations are of the kids when they are at his place, If his rules seem reasonable try to mimic those at your home.
The good news is the bio dad seems to be a pretty good guy. He obviously cares about his kids enough to take on custody of them. Sadly, it’s less likely that the father seeks and gets custody. He’s also very generous to share the kids as you’ve described. You all appear to have a good working relationship. That definitely puts you a step ahead of most new Stepdads.
2) Agree on The Rules –and Stick to Them!
Take some time and talk with your wife about what the rules for the kids will be. As mentioned earlier, the closer these mimic the rules they have at their father’s house, the easier it will be for the boys to accept them and transition when they visit. Once you agree on the rules, make sure the kids know what your expectations are.
a) Homework rules
b) Phone rules
c) Snacks and food rules
d) Bed times
e) How and when they use the computer, video games, etc.
Many of these rules will be ironed out as you go along. Give the kids room to mess up as they adjust. As they adjust you can use a three strikes rule. 1st strike = warning and explanation why the rule is there, 2nd strike= Stern reminder. 3rd strike= punishment
3) Establish your Role
If you haven’t already, talk with the mom and make sure you have a clear understanding of what role she wants you to play. Stepdad, big brother, friendly uncle figure, neutral observer… Many new Stepdads are surprised to find that the mom has a different role in mind for him than he was expecting to play. This simple conversation (and agreement) can save huge arguments later and spare hurt feelings on both sides.
Remember that kids don’t want their parents to split up and re-marry. They didn’t ask for this situation but they’re expected to deal with it. They are victims of a failed relationship by no fault of their own. Be patient and understanding of the discomfort this probably causes them. Accept that they will have a settling in period when they visit. It’s tough for you, but it’s also hard on them.
5) Don’t Be the Bad Guy
Establish that you will NOT play the punisher. Talk with the mom and agree on what punishments (if any) should be expected if the kids mess up. Agree that she is responsible for giving the bad news when the hammer falls. You will support her in holding them to her expectations but you won’t be the bad guy. Kids will eventually forgive mom, but they will hold a grudge against a Stepdad. You can easily go from being “mom’s new husband” to “Mr. meanie-pants.” Don’t allow yourself to be put in that position.
6) Be Respectful
This one should go without saying, but never speak badly about the father to the kids or where they can hear it. It doesn’t matter if what you are saying is true, kids will naturally defend their parents. If they think you’re being mean to their dad they will quickly turn against you. Any words you say will almost certainly get back to their father and likely destroy any work you’ve done to build a bridge with him. In your situation the father sounds like a good guy, so this is probably not an issue. Just the same, it’s worth mentioning.
Hundreds of family and child psychologists and researchers can’t be wrong. Bonding is the most vital key to forming a family unit. It’s so important we’ve started a video series with ideas for fun ways to bond. The good news: Bonding should be fun! Choose activities you can all do together. Look for ways to create memories. Take lots of pictures and send them home with the kids to remind them of the times you spent together. Start creating traditions. These can be simple:
a) The way you celebrate birthdays
b) Family movie nights
c) Inside jokes and shared memories “remember when mom stepped in bat poop at Carlsbad Caverns…?”
d) Put pictures of the kids and the family unit on the fridge and walls. Seeing their pic on the wall will make them feel more accepted and make your house feel more like “home” to the kids.
These memories will be the basis of things you all reminisce about years from now. In your unique case, these moments will be especially valuable to your wife since she doesn’t get to spend much time with the kids.
You mentioned that you’re about to go overseas – that’s a wonderful experience to be able to offer the kids. What an amazing opportunity to make memories as a family. It might be an intimidating time for every member of the family. Look at it as an opportunity to get to know the kids better and have a positive influence on their lives. If you make your decisions based on what’s in their best interest, you can’t go wrong.
Remember, no one is required to be a Stepdad. It’s a choice we each make. In a way we’ve imposed ourselves into the lives of our new children: As a time to bond. Don’t expect to completely bond as a family, with so little time together. Creating a good rapport with the kids might be the best result you can hope for. It’s much harder for Stepdads to bridge the gap. The job we do as parents is scrutinized; by our kids, the in-laws, the father, our wives –and even by society. As surrogate parents we have to work harder and think on our feet. We need to constantly focus on doing the best job we can.
A guide for a successful blended family can be found here. This book also covers the five major challenges a Stepdad can expect to encounter. If you’re thinking of having more kids it’s especially important to read this. New children create a challenging dynamic in blended families. It’s vital to be prepared. Good luck –and congratulations again on your new family.