Back in the days when divorce was a rarity, being a step parent was relatively uncommon too. When it happened, it was usually because one parent had died and the surviving Mum or Dad had remarried. Nowadays of course, when people feel to divorce and remarry whenever they like more and more people are suddenly finding themselves in the curious role of step parent.
And it is a curious role. To be a step parent is to be both a parent and not a parent at the same time. As Mum or Dad’s new partner, you inevitably take on a semi-parental role but at the same time, you aren’t the children’s real Mum or Dad and you never will be. So where do you draw the line? How much authority, if any, do you have to tell your partner’s child to behave themselves or eat their greens? It is a tricky situation, especially in a 21st Century when we’ve all become a little paranoid about non-parental figures interacting with children. Actual or prospective step parents will need to tread carefully with the children and negotiate the situation just as carefully with their new partners.
Of course, every family is different. Some children may welcome the arrival of a new almost-but-not-quite parental figure while others will seethe with resentment at your intrusion. It’s all down to the circumstances in which the other biological parent left the scene, whether tragic (death), criminal (domestic abuse) or (relatively) mundane (divorce and separation). And if you played a role in the latter, you can be sure the kids will find about it, sooner or later.
Earlier today I was intrigued by an article on the Huffington Post by Barbara Goldberg called Do You Dread Your Stepfamily’s Transitional Days? 6 Tips To Conquer The Anxiety. In this she discusses the emotional upheaval surrounding the arrival of step children visiting their non-resident parent. It is unusual to see this common situation discussed from the point of view of a step parent and Goldberg vividly catches the anxieties and conflicted emotions many feel: wanting to make a good impression but repeatedly worried about the reception they will receive.
As a step parent, you can play different roles with your instant family, from a figure of resentment and mistrust via a baffling but basically likable friend of Mummy or Daddy, all the way through to role model and positive influence. It is (mostly) up to you.