I’m a learner by nature. Whether it’s a new job responsibility, a new piece of furniture, or a new TV show: this girl is going to read anything and everything before I dive in. As you can imagine, I poured over every stepmom and stepfamily book I could get my hands on when I met my husband and his kiddos. I learned many valuable lessons from the stepmoms and experts who came before me, but looking back now, I wish someone had told me that what I did didn’t matter nearly as much as how I did it. When it came to coparenting with either of my stepkids’ moms, my attitude mattered as much as my actions.
Believe the best. It’s easy to fall into the trap that you know why your stepkid’s mom is behaving one way or another. Maybe you’re basing it on something your stepkid has said, or making an assumption due to past conflicts. I’ve got news for you, sister: you probably don’t understand the inner workings of her heart any more than she does yours. Stepmoms should know better than anybody what it’s like to be misjudged! The next time you get a questionable text message or email, check those assumptions at the door. Choose to believe that although it sounds snarky, maybe it wasn’t on purpose, or personal. Believing the best gives parents permission to have a bad day without making it hard on the kids.
Show kindness. Our interaction with my stepdaughter’s mom and stepdad was very limited during her childhood; we lived in different cities, and kept exchanges short and to the point. There were a few times over the years, though, that her stepdad would arrange to bring her to me on his way through town. Do you know what I remember most about those exchanges? Her stepdad was kind. I can only imagine the things he heard about me around the dinner table (and I’m sure some of it was painfully accurate), but you never would have known. We could chat about our jobs and families without an agenda, one parent to another, and it was refreshing. Don’t ever underestimate the power of kindness – for the benefit of your stepkids, if no one else.
Be empathetic. Coparenting with a high-conflict parent can be exhausting…and it’s easy to lose sight of the person on the other side of the fence or telephone. When your stepkid’s mom reaches out to switch weekends, how do you and your husband react? What if she asks you to keep them longer, or gives up her time altogether? Maybe you’re like us, and you’ve been burned by being agreeable or having to change your plans last minute to accommodate. Do you realize that you can respond with empathy, even if the answer is ultimately no? Starting the conversation with something like, “I’m so sorry that you’re going through that…” or “I understand that this is really important to you…” communicates that you care enough about your stepkids to care about what’s going on at their other home and with the other parent(s). My stepdaughter’s mom had a little boy within hours of my father-in-law passing away. Looking back, I know how hard it must have been for us to scoop up her daughter and overshadow what should have been a happy day. In the moment, let’s strive to remember that our family isn’t more or less important than our stepkid’s other family.
Mend fences. You might think boundaries are contrary to all of my previous points, but they’re actually the foundation for why we can be vulnerable in the moment. How many times have you heard a stepmom say, “I thought we were in a really good place with her!” or “Things were going great, but then she…”? The struggle is real when it comes to building a healthy relationship with your stepkid’s mom. I don’t think that there’s a single definition of “healthy” in this context, but rather that the relationship centers around interactions that are life-giving, not damaging, to our stepkids. Sometimes your stepkid’s mom may not understand your boundaries, or even know that they are there. Other times she may run right over them! Either way, we can be left feeling angry, resentful, or bitter…all of which are potential roadblocks to effective coparenting in the future. Left to themselves, our emotions rear their ugly heads at the worst moments! Keeping all communication about the kids, or making certain times (or topics!) off limits, are just two examples of healthy boundaries that help keep us from letting hard feelings overpower our best intentions.
A good person produces good things from the treasury of a good heart… What you say flows from what is in your heart. – Luke 6:45
We had frequent clinic visits and day surgeries scheduled while my stepson was in cancer treatment, and his mom would meet us at the hospital. I remember waiting in a pre-op room one morning, when my stepson got rowdy and started messing around with some magazines. When his mom reprimanded him, my stepson ignored her…and I encouraged the bad behavior. I am sorry to say that I let my personal feelings about his mom get in the way of an opportunity to co-parent. Can you imagine how positive it could have been if I had backed her up? Instead, I showed my stepson that we weren’t a united front – and only widened the gap in my relationship with his mom. I was able to apologize to her much later on, but the damage was done.
Today, I encourage you to examine your actions. Where is your heart at when it comes to interactions with your stepkid’s mom or stepdad? I don’t make excuses for bad behavior (mine included!) but remember, you don’t have to like someone to be respectful. Instead of countering the actions of the other parent, try cooperating, and see for yourself that there can be a positive outcome in otherwise difficult circumstances.