Step-parenting is not for the faint hearted! As I sit down to write this article, my eldest daughter is waking up on the sofa at her mum’s house. And she’s mostly not talking to me. When she is, what she says is unrepeatable. Family life in the Legg household does not resemble that of the John-Boy Walton et al! (For the unitiated, The Waltons was a popular TV progamme about a large family living in Virginia in the 30s and 40s. Life was certainly tough, but family relationships were pretty perfect!)
The truth is that parenting isn’t easy in any situation, but the role of a step-parent has additional challenges. As step-parents, my wife Bekah and I have certainly experienced this. When we got married seven years ago, Bekah had two girls of her own and I had three girls and a boy. Since then, we have learned a lot of valuable lessons along the way.
Having realistic expectations about your family life is crucial. Accept from the start that Walton-esque scenarios may be rare – if they happen at all! Inevitably there will be difficulties, perhaps to do with accepting the loss of the old family unit, or with accepting new family members. Sometimes your kids or your partner’s kids may kick back at you.
Acknowledge that sometimes you’ll get it wrong, but know, too, that this doesn’t make you the worst parent in the world – everybody makes mistakes at times.
This is the golden rule for any parent, but especially step-parents. Never, ever criticise your children’s mum or dad. Just don’t go there. Not even if your child does. And not even if the criticism might be deserved. Just don’t do it.
When you criticise your child’s other parent, you force them to choose between you. If you make it clear how much you dislike their mum, then you make it disloyal for them to like her. If you tell them their father is an idiot, then you make them an idiot for loving him. It puts pressure on kids that they should never have to handle.
And kids aren’t stupid – they are experts at reading us, they’ve been studying us since they were born – so be real. Don’t just say the right things. Get your attitude towards your ex sorted.
When you’re a step-parent, as well as having children with someone else’s genes, you may have some with your own. This cannot change how you treat them. All your kids need to feel loved by you and they all need to know their boundaries.
Some step-children, however, may need you to be their dad or mum in a different way. In our family, for example, I think all our girls need me to be their dad. But the needs they have from Bekah are different. If that sounds complicated, it’s because it is! Bekah’s kids see their real dad only once or maybe twice a year. So they need me to be a dad to them because there’s a big hole in their life without me. My kids, however, spend half the week with their mum and don’t need or want another. So Bekah has had to learn what they do need from her, while still being able to lead our family with me and have authority in the home.
It’s a minefield, but minefields, with time and patience and preferably a sniffer dog, can be crossed. Sometimes things go wrong, there’s an explosion and it’s painful, but you get up again. You move forward and eventually you do get to the other side.
Watch your partner’s back. Don’t undermine them. Kids can be masters at playing parents off against each other, and that’s even easier when they can pull the ‘”She’s not my mum” card, but they won’t do it if you don’t play along.
Work out house rules and boundaries together. That’s not necessarily going to be easy if you’ve done things differently in the past. Take time to reach some agreement and then stick together as you follow these through with your kids. You’re going to disagree sometimes with how the other one handled things, but don’t do it in front of the kids; chat it through when you’re on your own. You have to be each other’s champions.
One of the things that has perhaps taken us longest to learn is that although we are one family, we are also two. It is good to create time to be the ‘old gang’ together sometimes. Bekah and her girls occasionally end up being at home alone for the weekend because my children are with their mum and I’m away working. They treasure this time. They want us all to come home soon, but they’ve discovered that, occasionally, it’s nice to be just like old times. And that’s OK.
It made us realise that we needed to create the same kind of experience for me and my children once or twice a year; a time to let them know that although we’re one big family, the old bonds really matter. It usually just involves some walks on the beach, a trip to the kebab shop and sharing some good old memories.
This is important because in all the loving everybody equally, giving the same boundaries and having your partner’s back, your kids need to know they haven’t been replaced by their step-siblings. You and they share a history, you’ve weathered things together, and that shouldn’t be forgotten by the experience of life in a new family.
As I said, step-family life can often be a minefield. But it is a beautiful minefield. I always maintained that when I married Bekah I got three for the price of one and I meant it. I know she feels the same. We wouldn’t change a thing. Our family is complicated but glorious … and who wants to be the Waltons anyway.