Trust Me, Step-Parents: Nacho Parenting Is The Way To Go

I am there to be a supportive person in their lives when they need (or want) me to be. But now I know when it’s time to disengage.

by Katherine Mueller-White
Mother watching her kids playing on the beach
Relationships Issue 2022

Riding in the car, you crack the window to let some of the salty sea air in. “Guys, this is my favorite part — we made it!” you sing, not a care in the world. Beside you driving is your sweet, handsome husband. In the back, amongst the fruit snack wrappers and Capri Sun empties are your step-children. It’s your first major family vacation as a unit, and you are here for the Step-Mom of the Year award you just know you’re going to earn. You’re going to get along, make some inside jokes, bond over sandcastles, figure out that two of you like strawberry yogurt and the other two are Team Blueberry. Mr. Right made his way into your life, it all worked out, and you’re on a perfectly arced trajectory to blended-family success. As you sit back in your seat, you adjust your sunnies and close your eyes. “It’s going to work out. We’re gonna be ok.” You are floating.

What you’re high on right now is hope. And it’s The Hope that gets you.

The first time I got married, a brilliant, lovely little gal came along with the man. Barely a year older than my own son, we discovered quickly that having two was easier than one, and I looked forward to my official “step-mom” role. Woe betide to that youthful naivety: What I didn’t realize is that the Juggernaut of Reality was about to roll over me and back up a few times.

When I became a full-time step-mom that first go-around, I had it…The Hope. I just knew it was all going to pan out, smooth over, and run like a well-oiled machine. What I didn’t know was how intensely difficult it would be, how soft and harsh feelings directed at her own mother would all come barreling out at me, how her short little life of turbulence would find me, over and over, as a target of emotions she didn’t understand.

I did the best I could, but bungled again and again and again — sometimes in small ways, like never getting the knack of a good french braid, and sometimes in much larger, serious ways, like losing my cool when she couldn’t keep hers. The marriage deteriorated, and I found myself annoyed with her always-traveling father, her mother, and, in turn, sometimes her, when I had no business being annoyed with anyone but my own late-night wine-soaked, discombobulated, miserable self. Safe to say the marriage did not last, ended terribly, and all these years later — a decade now — I find myself kicking Then Me for the spectacular ways I failed her. I had The Hope, ran off of it rather than reality, and in the end, sank all of us.

Years later, I found myself in a long-term relationship with a man who had two children, close in age to my own, and — here we go again — spun out once again on The Hope. We arranged camping trips and vacations, family meals, and holidays. Having been previously concussed by The Juggernaut of Reality, I was cautious but ever optimistic. This was it!

I helped the daughter redecorate her room to an appropriate tween theme. I loaned stacks of my sociology and philosophy textbooks to the heavy-thinking older teen son. As fervently as I wished for peace, for bonding, for “the thing” to happen, it never did. In fact, not only did it never happen, all signs pointed to “hey, lady — it’s never gonna happen.”

The son called me white trash (in front of his father) for having tattoos. The daughter wasn’t offended by me, but neither was she interested in cultivating a relationship. A confident girl close with her mother, she didn’t have much need for me and read me for what I was — a ride to DQ when she needed it, and someone in possession of good make-up she could borrow. Eventually, I moved out in an attempt to salvage the relationship (with the man and the kids), but it, too, petered out and ended. This time, it was a peaceful departure, and while I have no (or few) regrets about my attempts to bond everyone together, to become the Ultimate Step Parent, I still wondered in the immediate aftermath: “What IS the equation? How does it come together?”

That’s where my second marriage, and third (second official) attempt at step-parenting comes in. I think I have finally figured it out. And the answer is simple: Disengage. There’s a great method to adhere to regarding this hand-off approach: Nacho Parenting (not your kids, not your responsibility).

The man I am married to is quite often like a handwritten version of The Perfect Man. He is smart. He is handsome. He is hilarious, romantic, talented in his field, has a wonderful family who loves me and my son, has an incredible eye for home decor and the right shoes — he really, truly is a catch.

He came with two young sons (now 9 and 11): beautiful, rowdy blonde boys who are enamored with their daddy and, while personable and polite, started off a bit skeptical about the new adult presence in their lives. This is understandable — of course they were (are?) skeptical. I would be too, were I used to living a cozy bachelor lifestyle with my dad and suddenly a new woman is there, there some more, some more, and boom! Becomes a permanent fixture. But this time I knew how to help everyone, including myself, ease more organically into it.

Rather than running solely off The Hope (though I won’t lie, we all have matching monogrammed Christmas stockings now), I deliberately choose every day to run off of reality. There are curves to learn. Bumps to smooth. Periodically, backtracking necessary. But I knew, finally, from Day 1, that disengagement was the only way we’d make it. I’m glad when they visit. Their dad is happy, we order pizza, they romp around leaving socks and messes everywhere, and the vibe is wholesome. We sleep in, have late breakfasts, sometimes we go to Waffle House. It’s overwhelmingly a nice time and the reason is, again — I have learned to disengage. Not from the fun stuff! But the heavy stuff. I cherry pick the moments I want to be involved in.

Husband having a hard time co-parenting with his ex? I will always listen to his conversation about it, but rarely do I offer unsolicited suggestions. Kids misbehave while they’re here? Not my issue. I let their dad handle it and reappear when things are more mellow. This is not to say I am unconcerned with the ebb and flow of their goings-on and intricacies — far from it. But I have learned, through years of trial and error, that as a relatively new face on the scene, disengaging from the big stuff (discipline, co-parenting, other conflicts) is a sure way to get on a fast track to prolonged peace and, ideally, a sturdier family structure in the future. In a year or so (or maybe longer — who knows?), my step-sons will see that I am not there to replace their mom, or even act like her. I am there to be a supportive person in their lives when they need (or want) me to be, and a supportive person to their dad — which helps him be a better parent in the long run — when they don’t.

The Juggernaut of Reality doesn’t have to run over you. It is avoidable. It may lob a few arrows and boulders at you periodically. It may careen in your direction just when you think things are gonna be smooth sailing. But you can stay out of its direct path by taking a deep breath, a step back, and remembering that disengaging doesn’t mean you don’t love your new family or don’t want it to thrive.

It simply means you are waiting close by, allowing your new spouse, their co-parent, and their children to work through the kinks they must work through now that you’re in the picture until subconsciously — and consciously — they ALL (co-parent and step-kids included) are ready themselves for you to start having direct input on The Big Issues.

In the meantime, find a hobby. Scroll the internet. Talk to your friends. The stepmom community on Instagram is incredibly supportive! But disengaging from, again, not everything, but the Big Ticket Topics will save you, your spouse, your kid(s), their kids, and, frankly, the co-parent, a lot of grief as you all wander into this new phase, hoping desperately to avoid The Juggernaut of Reality, and wait for the Nice Comfortable Wagon of Reality to come by later, and hitch a ride on it, instead.

Katherine Mueller is a freelance writer living in central Kentucky with her husband, in-and-out college student son, and part-time step-sons. When she's not working, writing, or napping, she travels with said husband, and talks to her two cats like they are humans. An invested community builder and volunteer, she subscribes to a "we all do better when we all do better" mantra. She also enjoys canceling plans in lieu of a good under-eye mask and binging The Office from bed.