Stepparenting is often—and rightly so—called one of the hardest jobs out there. It’s all the confusion and stress of parenting but with the added problems of undefined boundaries and misinterpreted intentions, not to mention the unbelievable frustration of being responsible for a child whose upbringing you don’t really have a say in. When I was a stepparent, I thought I’d never have a title as taxing and complicated as “Stepmom.” But now, I actually do. It’s “Former Stepmom.”
For the eight years I was with my ex-husband, I was my stepdaughter’s primary parent. I was the dinner-maker, the homework-corrector and the appointment-scheduler. I carried her health and dental insurance, planned her birthday parties and served as her softball team parent. Plus, I really love the kid. So, clearly, I wasn’t going to just walk off into the sunset simply because her father and I sucked at marriage.
However, I quickly found that my already sparsely populated circle of sympathizing stepparents was a packed clown car in comparison to the post-apocalyptic wasteland of former-stepparenthood. I have yet to meet a single former stepparent at a sports tournament, a school event, anything. Yet, statistically, over 70 percent of blended-family marriages end in divorce. So why is this mysterious group of former stepparents as obscure as the Sasquatch? While I’m sure there are some stepparents who don’t have any desire to stay in their stepkids’ lives, there must also be some who hurt at the thought of losing the stepchildren they helped raise. So, in an effort to assist that hidden subgroup of parents, I’ve jotted down five tips (or warnings, if we’re being real) to prepare former stepparents for the minefields that lie ahead.
1. Those sideways glances will multiply exponentially.
Every stepparent knows them. Those awkward “Who are you, and why are you here?” looks given to you by biological parents who seem to view your presence as somehow illicit or at least unnecessary. Not everyone sees an active stepparent as a good thing, and instead regard your presence as disrespectful to the “real” parents.
Those same people who are already critical of blended families look at the presence of a former stepparent as damn near criminal. When you approach, their eyes will widen as if you just strolled into the school gym stark naked. They won’t even attempt to mask their whispers, which will include several “oh my Gods” and perhaps a “holy shit” or two, as if now that you’re not a legal stepparent, you’re obviously a menacing stalker who has no legitimate reason to be present. And should the day come where your ex moves on and brings a new partner with him or her to the softball game, Whoa, Nelly! They anticipate nothing less than a brawl. Getting along well enough with your ex that you can continue to sit with him or her will greatly help your chances of not being pegged as a psycho.
2. There is no good way to introduce your former stepchild.
“Former stepchild” or “ex-stepkid” are frankly just shit-tastic ways to introduce somebody. The words “former” and “ex” imply that something is over or broken and, if you’re trying to stay in the child’s life, don’t lend themselves well to your mission. Plus, I defy you to introduce a child as your ex-stepkid and get any better response than an uncomfortable “oh.” You can lie and call her your niece or cousin or some other relation that makes your presence at her volleyball game socially acceptable. Or, you can call her your friend, which is more accurate but begs the somewhat creepy question of why a grown-ass adult is friends with an adolescent. I usually just go the “friend” route so I can at least feel honest, though it doesn’t make the sideways glances go away; in fact, it probably worsens them.
3. You will have to work with your ex to see your stepchild.
Upon a divorce, biological parents get their time spelled out in a parenting agreement. Ex-stepparents get no such guarantee. It’s up to you to work with your ex if you want to see his or her kids. Lucky for me, I get along with my ex just fine, but if things are iffy between you and yours, you’ll have to swallow your pride in order to continue being a part of the kid’s life. Of course, there are public events you can go to without your ex’s permission (sporting events and school concerts, for example), but if you want to avoid being branded as the parenting version of a stage-five clinger (see tip No. 1), I’d make the effort to keep your relationship with your ex as civil as possible.
4. It’s necessary to get comfortable with uncomfortable technology.
If your stepchild is old enough to have their own cell phone or tablet (which, by my estimations, seems to be around age 14 months now), you’re going to have to embrace technology that your social-decency sensors tell you you’re way too old for. Kids live on their phones, and the easiest way to keep in touch with them when you’re no longer talking nightly around the dinner table is to message them on whatever app has currently hijacked their attention. I have Snapchat, Vine and Kik and a few others that I’m frankly too embarrassed to admit. It’s the technological equivalent of wearing your letter jacket to a high school party when you’re pushing 30. My ex-stepkid is generally my only contact on these applications, but that doesn’t stop me from shielding my phone screen whenever anyone passes within eyeshot of my cellular shame.
5. Your parenting knowledge is now deader than a Game of Thrones character.
If your stepkid was your only child, you now have to pretend that you’ve never experienced the common parenting woes most often brought up in conversation. You have to respond with just an “Oh jeez!” to a complaint about a daughter who just won’t complete her homework on time. You’ll pull out a “That must be so frustrating!” when a coworker laments that her son has been lying about trivial things. In reality, you’ve experienced all these problems and could commiserate or even offer solutions, but your parenting prowess no longer holds any weight. Failing in a marriage with kids is somehow equated to failing with kids in general, so just smile a fake smile and play dumb when people bemoan the trials of parenting that you’ve already secretly conquered.
In the end, if you really want to keep the kid in your life, you’ll suffer through these social skirmishes with the same determination and dexterity that helped you navigate the shitstorm of stepparenting the first time around. Because even though there’s no manual about how to be a current or former stepparent, there are also no rules about what your relationship with your current or former stepkid can be. Make it your own, and make it awesome.