Friday, January 17, 2014

The weird world of stepparenting

Is any of this OK for a stepparent to say? Maybe it's
not ideal for a parent, either!
If someone were to tell you they never yell at their kids or speak harshly to them, you'd wouldn't think them completely honest, would you?

But being a step-parent, loving someone else's child, is a different kind of relationship than parenting, and exercising power and discipline (except over oneself) are really not part of the job description. Certainly, losing your temper or exerting your will (because "I am your mother") seems really inappropriate, along with parenting "techniques" like nagging, giving commands, issuing ultimatums or punishments, and withholding privileges. I don't recall either of my stepparents doing those things either, ever, at least not with me. (Though I'm aware of a few times they pulled such strings through my parents.)

And for their part, my stepkids are almost unfailingly polite to me. That's also how I tend to respond to them, as well as to my own stepparents. Eye-rolling, sarcasm, and battles of the will seem saved for the parents-in-the-flesh, if they are around.

Might be different if the kids were younger or living with us full-time. But signing up to marry someone with teenagers seems to mean seeking to be their ally. And, to the extent they welcome it, friend. Maybe that's a better job description than a parent gets, though it's certainly a less intimate one. I will never experience the contrast for myself, and I don't know what kind of ("real") parent I would be if I had the chance.

Don't get me wrong, things aren't bad in our house or in my relationships with the kids. But it feels like as a stepmom I'm simply not allowed to be mad at them (and show it) the way one does with a spouse, sibling, or parent. Nor can I discuss them with my husband the way I might they were "ours" in the traditional sense. Complaining to him about his daughter would be like complaining to him about his mother, not a good idea - better to listen supportively to any of his frustrations, but keep my own opinions more or less to myself.

So being a stepparent is a weird thing. It tries to tie the hands and make you bite your tongue. Our relationships are marked less by the tough love of family, more by the service and civility of  housemates, coworkers, or friends. Perhaps that's a good thing. The challenge of being a mother is not one for me, but I know how to be a good housemate, coworker, and friend.

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