After being in a relationship with my current partner for almost as long as my marriage lasted, I decided that it was time to read about stepparenting. Even though I’m the one with the biological children, and my partner’s the stepparent, the title — The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting -- convinced me to buy the book…
My partner’s first long-term relationship was with a woman who had a toddler, so Ted had some prior experience in the stepdad arena. I took it as a good sign that Ted has stayed in touch with this child as he has grown up, and that they now contact each other several times a year. As a biological parent dejected by divorce, the most that I hoped for from my new experiment in cohabitation with Ted and my children was that we could all just get along and respect each other. Anything above this level seemed like gravy.
My children have never called Ted “Dad,” nor has he wanted them to. He has always been “Ted, my Mom’s friend” or just “Ted.” (I’m working on the “partner” title with them). My children have never wanted us to marry, nor have they ever wanted Ted to leave the family picture. Ted is fun — he rides bikes, plays volleyball, teaches my kids how to make movies — and, importantly, keeps their mother sane and happy. He travels with me as much as is financially possible on my bimonthly trips to my Florida home. In fact, during one of my visits from Chicago, my son asked me, “So, next time, can Ted fly down instead of you?
As my children have turned into teenagers, tensions between my teens, their traveling academic mom and her partner seem to have increased. I have grown more concerned about stepparenting as teen hormones have ‘invaded’ my children. Suddenly my children are asking more questions about divorce, marriage, about relationships in general, or having children of their own… As they become young adults, my teens seem more resentful at being directed to change or alter their behavior by someone who is not their biological parent.
My partner has frequently pointed out the importance of asking older children questions instead of simply barking orders at them. When my daughter acted inappropriately in front of Ted and an adult friend on one trip recently, my partner asked that she write him a story explaining her behavior. I was the one who was furious at my daughter and demanded that she apologize to both adults immediately. My daughter explained to Ted (not to me) that she was upset that we were heading for the airport in a few hours and would soon separate. He got the better story (and more authentic apology) from her. I got resentful silence.
In spite of displaying a bit of parenting exhaustion, my partner maintains a consistent dedication to interacting with his ‘stepchildren’ (a fact for which I am eternally grateful). But it was my partner’s bemused retelling of a story about a friend of his -- also a stepdad -- who plans on “liking his stepchildren when they're older” that gave me some pause and led me to buy Ericka Lutz’s The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Stepparenting. The book covers the stepparenting role from a variety of helpful angles, and is focused primarily on the stepparent’s role and feelings -- not the child’s.
I do not mean to write a book review of the Idiot’s Guide, but I did identify one interesting fact in it that led me to do further research. Lutz notes in a 1994 study by Larry Bumpass that “half of the 60 million children under the age of 13 in the United States are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner.” I found in another study covering cohabitation trends that “roughly two-thirds of all women and 30% of all children will spend some time in a step-family” (Bumpass, Raley and Sweet 1995). The statistics for cohabitation with stepchildren — living together with one or both partners having children -- show no signs of declining. We had better start talking about stepparenting more.
I think one of the easiest ways for a culture to fully embrace the role of the stepparent (and to leave behind the Cinderella stereotypes) is to draw from the Nigerian Igbo proverb that Hilary Clinton also drew from for her book -- "Ora na azu nwa" or “It takes a village to raise a child.” Any long distance parent should understand this proverb intimately. As my own children age, I continue to draw upon and remain grateful for the energy of my partner, as well as for my other adult friends who assist me with helping my children feel supported, protected, loved and respected.
It’s not really that hard. Any idiot can do it…
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