In the beginning, here’s how I thought I could best help my husband parent his daughters:
1. Provide him with lots of parenting material. (Sounds reasonable enough — depending on whether or not your husband wants parenting material. Mine didn’t.)
2. Advise him what to say and how to say it during his phone conversations with his ex (number one on my husband’s top ten list of things I did to drive him insane).
3. When he blew a parenting call, let the contempt on my face show everyone my disapproval, then behind closed doors convince him to do it my way. (Suffice it to say, those behind-closed-door discussions should not be used to ‘divide and conquer’.)
After fourteen years of step-mothering my stepdaughters, I think I’m finally learning my step-ABC’s. Here are three strategies I’ve found to be more successful in helping my husband parent his kids.
A: Be an Anchor during Visitations
In stepfamilies, a routine can be an anomaly. More often, we find ourselves being tossed about like a rowboat caught in a hurricane, especially as the kids become involved in more and more activities. Thus flexibility is an important rule of thumb. Yet too much flexibility can wreck some basic structural elements necessary to establish the stepfamily as a family.
Think about the anchor. An anchor dropped from a boat becomes firmly set on the bottom. Yet the boat has a certain amount of leeway to move about on the surface according to the current and the weather.
In the same way, stepmoms can be an anchor in their stepfamilies. Decide with your husband on a few values vital to the wellbeing of your family as a whole. Hold firmly to fundamental values like respect, trust, and getting along with others; and be flexible in other areas, such as scheduling, tastes in food, and preferences in activities. A stepmom who can hold steady to the important things, but go willingly with the flow on the rest will add strength and stability to her family, and sanity to her husband!
B: Be a Buttress during Conflict
The dictionary definition for ‘buttress’ that applies here is: “something that supports or strengthens” and the verb form is “shore up.” In times of family conflict, your husband likely faces pressure to satisfy at least three direct competing sources: you, his ex-wife, and his kids — a daunting task. You, the stepmom, will perhaps have fairly precise judgment as to the motives of the parties involved in the conflict. Your natural response will be to add to the pressure by arguing your case against him, the kids, or his ex-wife. But your best course of action will be to listen to your husband as he sorts through the parenting issues facing him. Then help him answer the right question.
Some wrong questions he might be tempted to answer are:
• “What will make everyone happy?” OR,
• “How can I get back at her (the ex)?” OR,
• “What is the quickest way to get _____ off my back?”
The right question is:
“What is the most responsible choice — first for my child, then for the others affected (you, himself, his ex, etc)?”
Once he has made his decision, support him fully, and hope for the best. Whatever happens, you will all likely survive. He will sense your respect of his decisions, and your trust that he is capable of making decisions. He will then likely grow in his respect for you, for your opinions, and for his own decision-making ability.
There will be situations when you should voice your opinion, but do so behind closed doors. To influence the outcome, air your side in private before a decision has been made. Thwarting a decision he has already made known to his kids and ex will cause them to disrespect him. You will be undermining your own relationship with them as well. So, instead of contributing to the pressure during conflict, be a buttress — be your husband’s strongest supporter.
C: Be a Champion of Quality Relationships
What do champions do? In the sense of a cause they work to meet the needs of a weaker group. Your stepkids — victims of a broken home — need a strong, healthy relationship with their father. Weak relationships in even one area can sabotage the whole family. The tensions of stepfamily life present a plethora of opportunities to weaken parent/child relationships. Three such opportunities are:
1. Men by nature are typically less relational than women. They may not recognize the need to really work on their relationships with their children. To be a champion for your stepchildren, encourage your husband to engage his kids in one-on-one activities that are not merely fun, but promote talks. Encourage him to seek to understand how his children think, and what his children feel.
2. As the stepmother, you may sense your stepchildren interfering with your marriage relationship — a normal, but destructive situation if you allow it to persist. If indeed stepchildren are driving a wedge into your marital relationship, stay calm! If your husband recognizes the destructive behavior of his kids, address the issue as a team. Let your children know you are committed to each other, and to them and their best interests.
If, however, your husband does not see the problem, stay calm! Keep encouraging your husband to strengthen his relationship with his children. Your support will prevent him from feeling torn between you and them — which is exactly what your stepchildren hope to do. They perceive that in a contest, they have the advantage over you. Be a champion of quality relationships by self-assuredly refusing to enter their perceived contest.
Perhaps your stepchildren pose no real threat; they enjoy being with you, but you still have a twinge of jealousy. Be a champion by fighting those irrational feelings and continuing to support your husband’s relationship efforts with his children. The more you fight the feelings, the stronger you will grow, and the stronger your relationships with both your husband and his kids will be.
3. An uncooperative ex-wife may pose a threat to your husband’s relationships with his kids. To champion quality relationships in this very difficult circumstance, encourage your husband to be the adult, to take responsible actions toward quality time with his children, and to resist becoming spiteful in his dealings with his ex.
It is easiest to react naturally in the moment, but what comes out naturally usually tears families down rather than building them up. Build up your husband in his children’s eyes. Be an anchor during visitations, be a buttress during conflict, and be a champion for quality relationships.
Kay Adkins is the author of I'm Not Your Kid: A Christian Guide for a Healthy Stepfamily (Baker Books). Visit her on the web at www.faithfulsteps.com.