Jim, a 34 year old stepfather, states the following: “I never thought I’d marry a divorced woman with children, but when I met Kim, we really clicked. I had been in a number of relationships before, but not really ‘in love.’ It was different with Kim from the beginning. She liked the things I liked and we just fit like a hand and a glove. There was only one real issue – she had kids and I wasn’t real happy about being an instant father.” Jim goes on to say: “When we were dating things were kind of cool because their father was a real loser and they seemed to like me, but after we got married, man I was hit like a ton of bricks! It was total chaos! The kids did whatever they wanted to do and Kim just let them. When I tried to bring some order, she would get mad at me. The kids would say, ‘You’re not our parent. You can’t tell us what to do.’ Then Kim would take up for them. I really felt like the odd man out! We’ve been married for 5 years now and worked through most of that stuff.”
Stepfathers have a very difficult time with parenting because there are no established norms. The norms have to be worked out through trial and error. Sometimes working through these issues is just too hard and people decide that it’s better for all concerned to call it quits. The divorce rate in stepfamilies is about 10% higher than in first marriages.
The stepfather role is the most common stepparent role because almost 90% of women receive custody of dependent children at divorce. Many stepfathers have children of their own from previous marriages or relationships, but a growing number of stepfathers like Jim have never been fathers before and at marriage become “instant fathers.” The stepfather role is more difficult when there has been no previous experience of being a father.
One of the major problems with stepfathers is that they exert too much influence on the family and on their stepchildren too soon. Researchers tell us that before remarriage, divorced women with children tend to have loose boundaries with their children, lax rules, and little or no hierarchical structure. It can seem chaotic and dysfunctional to a man coming into this system. To establish order, he begins laying down the rules. He tries to have an equal role in the family with the mother. Traditionally fathers have been the disciplinarian, and stepfathers make the mistake of taking on this role too soon.
The result of this overzealousness on the part of the stepfather is to turn everyone off. The stepchildren think that he’s mean and uncaring and his wife thinks that he is overbearing. Many stepfamilies begin thinking that remarriage was a mistake, or they begin the long process of forming a cohesive union that can solve problems and meet the intimacy needs of family members.
Below are some suggestions for stepfathers.
• Don’t try to replace the natural parent. This is a real temptation for many stepfathers. They want to be a role model for their stepchildren and make up for the children’s loss of a father. When the natural father is uninvolved and non-supportive, the stepfather may genuinely have the children’s interest at heart when he assumes the father’s role, but for the most part, stepchildren need to still have contact with their natural father. Sometimes natural fathers may give up their parental rights and open the door for the stepparent to assume an expanded parenting role.
• Develop a friendship with the stepchildren. Children may take some time before they feel comfortable with a stepparent. Researchers have found that stepfathers who first establish a friendship with their stepchildren are accepted more in the long run than stepfathers who try to assume the parenting role too early. Find out what interests them and engage them in those activities.
• Respect the mother’s desire to put her children first and support her efforts to do so. Children who have experienced divorce have many emotional needs. Many have been traumatized by the divorce and may take years to fully recover. In many cases they feel abandoned by their father. They can feel abandoned again when their mother remarries. Such experiences can re-traumatize children when an overzealous stepfather who thinks he’s acting in the best interest of the child demands compliance.
• Work on being a good listener and communicator. Researchers have found that stepfathers who are good listeners and use good communication skills develop a supportive relationship with stepchildren that will develop into a fairly equal role with the mother over time. This cannot be rushed and happens as a by-product to a good relationship. As the relationship deepens, there will be more accepting of the stepfather as an equal parent figure with the mother.