The Importance Of Boundaries In The Stepparent-Stepchild Relationship

by Kate Chapman
Originally Published: 
Big family dinner
middelveld / iStock

The fight erupted before it was light this morning. Shouting and slamming doors and spilled cereal. I pulled the covers up and rolled over. When the sound of the shower stopped, I called in to my husband Gabe that the natives seemed restless and went back to sleep. My three weren’t here, so I was off duty. This may be surprising to some, but it’s what works for our blended family.

We draw clear stepparent boundaries in our home.

In our house, discipline (or refereeing in this case) falls to the biological parent. It’s one of the many duties that don’t cross the stepparent line. Defining and adhering to stepparent boundaries with our brood is one way our large blended family differs from big first families.

Gabe and I have a long list of tasks we simply don’t do for the other’s children. When Gabe’s children are here, he cooks dinner for all of us. He manages his children’s laundry and library books. He buys birthday presents and coordinates playdates. He coordinates childcare and doctor’s visits. I do the same for my children. When my biological son Caden needs supplies for a science fair project, I run to the store. When my daughter Lottie misses school with a fever, I stay home with her.

You may be nodding your head at those more mundane items, but hang on. There’s more.

It would be simpler (and cheaper) if we didn’t.

I work from home. While I work full-time, my flexible schedule means it is easy for me to run to the store midday, avoiding the after-work crush. It’s easy for me to stay home with a sick child. The rhythm of my professional life allows me to care for my three while also meeting the demands of my chosen career.

Gabe does not have that luxury. Managing his full-time work outside of the home and the responsibilities of his half of the family is challenging. He’s often in the grocery store after work, or on a conference call as he runs to ballet pickup. His half of our family has a full slate of extracurricular demands, with activities every school night.

The truth is, in many first families, Gabe’s responsibilities would be mine. I have the time and flexibility to help with basketball practice and ballet drop-off. I can meal plan sitting at my desk in the sunshine rather than at the stoplight on the way home. It might be easier on Gabe logistically if I stepped in. Gabe has a nanny help with activities in the middle of the workday — we might save money if I took her place.

So why don’t I?

Parenting belongs to the parent.

Gabe is capable and competent. He managed his household independently as a single father well before I arrived on the scene. His time with his children is precious, and they deserve to have him parent them fully — through the good and the not so great. The lessons he teaches them as their parent, directly and indirectly, have incredible value I couldn’t deliver in the same way. His role in our home models commitment, establishes secure consistency, and challenges gender stereotypes to boot.

Let me be clear: We’re in the trenches together. I don’t walk by my stepson Jack’s fleece tossed on the ground where the dog will surely eat it without picking it up, and Gabe spent 20 minutes helping Simon tie his tie before the formal dance this weekend. We are happy to help the other, and will always support any of our six children. We simply try to leave the heavy parenting lifting to the person most qualified in the child’s eyes.

Stepparenting works better when simplified.

This is a tough gig. Stepparenting involves loyalty binds and mixed emotions and grief.

In our house, we try to clear the way for the stepparent to build a relationship directly and genuinely. We focus on finding the best in the kid and the parent and letting that be the connection point. That means we don’t complicate it with childcare or discipline or regularly picking up dirty socks from the floor.

My stepdaughters and I have our own special activities. Amy and I search for pretty hairstyles on Pinterest and try them together. Sara and I bake. My stepson Jack is my dog-walking buddy. Gabe dances with Lottie in the kitchen, flipping her high on his shoulder, and is teaching my son Simon to drive. Caden loves his time in the garage with Gabe and is the first to volunteer to work a power tool. In our house, we focus on positive, supportive stepparent interaction.

Boundaries support our partnership

Our partnership is the foundation of our family. If Gabe and I are not connected and aligned, none of this matters. Logistically, it might be easier if I took a larger role parenting Gabe’s children. I’d love to turn over the tough teenage son conversations I’m having with Simon to Gabe. But the truth is, blurring our boundaries would make our arrangement much more challenging.

Expecting the other to be fully responsible for a full parenting role would amplify the stress in our household. First, it is unlikely that we would agree on the best way to approach each child. One of us joined midstream, after all. Even if we agreed on approach, experts agree the children would reject it. That rejection would cause other negative ripple effects.

We didn’t marry because we wanted childrearing partners. We are lucky to each co-parent effectively with our former partners. Maintaining our boundaries allows us to limit the potential for conflict in our marriage and strengthens our foundation.

I know it seems strange, especially to first families, that we strictly adhere to this division of duties. It may not work for all blended families, especially those with much younger children or without active coparents.

But in our blended family, setting stepparent boundaries frees us of the conflict I hear about from so many others; we don’t struggle daily with stepparent overwhelm, argue about discipline, or face obstacles of our own making in bonding with the children. For us, boundaries support our partnership and family overall, allowing us to forge strong, positive relationships across biological and stepparent lines.

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