You hear this phrase a lot when it comes to divorce proceedings, but what about after the divorce is final? Do those “irreconcilable differences” go away? Unfortunately, in my experience, the differences in parenting styles can become even more polarizing. Think about it this way: when you’re married, there’s (hopefully) a certain amount of compromise when it comes to raising your children. When you’re no longer together, the motivation to meet in the middle can often disappear. So how do you handle those differences of opinion, especially when there’s no middle ground to find?
Haircut and Color
It may seem trivial, but for some of us stepmommas, getting your stepkid’s hair cut or colored can become a war between households. When I first joined the family, my stepdaughter wanted to get highlights to look like one of her favorite actresses…which did not go over well when we exchanged after weekend visitation. Even though my husband and I prioritized what my stepdaughter wanted, he didn’t talk with her mom first. Lesson learned: communication is key! I personally don’t believe that the custodial parent has the sole right to decide on cut or color, but there’s often little room for compromise when it comes to certain styles. As a wise stepmom once told me, just because you win the battle doesn’t mean you’ll win the war.
Even if you don’t have a stepdaughter, you’ve probably seen posts about girls wearing lacy bras, thongs, or revealing clothing to dad’s house for the weekend. The rant usually begins or ends with the following phrase: “If she was my daughter…!” Stepmomma, this is one of the few times you will hear me say (gently), she’s not. I believe modesty is a very personal decision, and your boundaries with clothing may be very different than her mom’s. I was raised to be modest, but confess I wore a few things in my “mid-Jesus” years that left nothing to the imagination. You better believe I didn’t wear those clothes around my folks, though! We have the opportunity to lead and guide our stepkids, and that includes age-appropriate clothing choices – especially when there are younger or impressionable siblings at home. As you can imagine (or have already experienced!), telling a tween or teenage girl what she can or can’t wear might not go over well. Make it a conversation, not a lecture, and include your husband for support. One creative approach could be the promise of a girls shopping trip, or surprising her with new clothes in her closet – and then reminding her that there’s no need to bring outfits from her mom’s.
This is often covered in newer Custody Orders (COs), giving one or both parents the “right to direct the moral and religious training of the child.” Even within Christianity, there are many different denominations with religious traditions that can vary widely. I have a stepmom friend that was torn after being invited to her stepson’s baptism at his mom’s church…after he’d already been baptized the year before at his dad’s. Do you know what advice I gave her? Be excited for your stepkid! If the other home is teaching him or her to love Jesus more, you are blessed.
I have been asked, even very recently, what to do when the other home is exposing the child to another religion or teaching them not to believe in God at all. The answer is simple: pray. There is likely nothing you can say or do to change the mind of the other parent, or control what they do in their home. We have to learn to trust Jesus with our stepkids, when we are unable to protect their precious hearts. Take advantage of the time you do have them to share how much God loves them, and be ready to have open conversations about faith as they grow older.
As your stepkids hit middle school and high school, dating (and boundaries with the opposite sex) will become a hot topic. One of the hallmarks of children from broken families is using one parent against the other to get what they want in the moment, and unfortunately, dating is no exception. Instead of setting the same expectations at both homes, parents will either be blinded by the desire to be the “cool” mom or dad, or refuse to believe that they’re getting played by their kid (just like they did with that Lego play set or Barbie doll back in the day). I have a mom friend who recently called me, completely heartsick: her ex-husband is allowing girls to spend the night with their son on his weekends. When her ex wouldn’t listen, she confronted her son and (as you would expect) turned into the bad guy for setting boundaries. After much prayer, my friend finally realized that she couldn’t control what her son did at his dad’s – but she, her new husband, and her son’s siblings weren’t accepting the consequences for his actions.
Many stepmoms (myself included) have been accused of being insensitive or worse, selfish, when participating in a stepson or stepdaughter’s “firsts” instead of their mom. Whether it’s taking a stepdaughter to get her first pedicure, or being the first to take the stepkids to Disney, there’s a really good chance you might unknowingly step on the ex’s toes at some point. First of all, use common sense. If the relationship with the other house is already high conflict, don’t go looking for any extra! Put yourself in their mom’s shoes and gain a little perspective: would you be upset if, say, your stepson’s stepdad took him to buy his first car, instead of your husband? Second, you can’t know what you’re not told. Check your heart at the door, but if you genuinely didn’t know that their mom planned on taking them to a particular activity, you aren’t responsible for the fallout. Cooperation requires communication!
Electronics use is a hot topic among parents in both traditional and blended families, with growing concerns over what our kids are exposed to on the internet and social media. The issue is particularly relevant for kids with two homes because the rules and supervision may be vastly different in each. We provided my stepdaughter with a cell phone after she started middle school, and her mom was much stricter about using the phone than we were – but we recognized that she was also the primary parent on school nights. Over the years, my stepdaughter’s phone was taken away as punishment for poor grades or poor choices, and in the spirit of coparenting, my husband took the phone away on weekend visitations, too. Unfortunately, that meant that we lost access to text and talk with my stepdaughter between weekends, an issue that many blended families face. Although newer Custody Orders specify phone access for non-custodial parents, it is often difficult to enforce. I personally know dads whose numbers have been blocked on their kids’ phones – and they made the decision to stop providing or paying for it.
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility, value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. – Philippians 2:3-4
I know that this doesn’t cover all of the hot topics (and I don’t have all of the answers!), so here’s a quick guide to handling the issues that have no gray area.
- Is it covered by the Custody Order in any way?
- Does it fall under “your house, your rules”?
- What legal ramifications are there, i.e. could it affect future court proceedings?
- How does your stepchild feel about it?
The best advice I can give is to act out of love for your stepkids, not hostility for their mom. Our judgment can easily be clouded when we focus on ourselves and not our kids. You’ve heard me say not to keep score with your spouse – don’t keep score with his ex, either. Being willing to communicate, and open to compromise when appropriate, can be the first step in the right direction towards building a better coparenting relationship.