A FEW THOUGHTS ON STEP-PARENTING AND SINGLE PARENTING
We just celebrated Mother's Day and I know it is a bittersweet holiday for many in our community. For some of my mid single friends, the years when they could become mothers by bearing children have already passed them by. For others, they face the task of parenting alone. Still others face the task of parenting someone else's children, for whom another "mother" will always have that singular honor. Some have more than one of these factors going on. For some men in this community, the experience with their own mothers or former wives has not lived up to the hype that is so often associated with the holiday.
Owning and managing our own emotions and expectations about Mother's Day is important. Regardless of her failings, your mother gave you something important. Obviously, she gave you life. Additionally, there are other things to learn. Tony Robbins has often said that he appreciates his abusive mother and that he would not have become the man he is without having her to contend with, and without the desperation of the circumstances he grew up with. We can look with envy at the mothers some other people had and wish it could have been the same in our own lives. But consider that God knew what He was doing when he assigned you to the mother he did. If you did not have the warmth and love you craved, learn from that and create it for yourself, your children, your grandchildren, or your nieces and nephews.
Deseret Book President Sheri Dew has not yet married and never had children of her own. She is 67 years old and beyond the years when becoming a mother is a realistic possibility in this life. She has become a favorite aunt to her nieces and nephews, having them for overnight slumber parties and taking them on trips with her. While I'm sure it has been a painful thing to go through life without a companion and missing out on becoming a mother, she has had a major role in the lives of her nieces and nephews.
For those who find themselves single parenting, whether through death or divorce, remember that joy remains available. It's not only about the bills. It's also about the memories. My grown sons remember our many road trips to cheap vacation destinations like national parks. They remember video parties, making tacos on Friday night, and bedtime. For many single moms, I know it is similar. Even if resources are tight, you can find ways to create a sense of family. Rituals, traditions, and moments working together can help.
For step parents, it is important to relax into the role. I am aware of some stepparent situations in very traditional families where Dad brings home a new wife and effectively says, "This is your new mother and you will call her 'mom'." Not a wise move. The kids need time to adjust. Once in awhile my step-kids slip and call me "dad" and it always makes me smile. But I know they have a dad and I choose to honor that.
At first, most of the discipline should be done by the natural parent, allowing the stepparent to behave more like a friend at first. (There are always exceptions where a step-parent needs to step in, such as when the natural parent isn't present or if the misbehavior is directed at the parent. I step in to correct if my step kids are speaking rudely to their mother.)
I take each of my step-sons on a one-on-one "outing" every few months where I buy him dinner or do an activity he wants to do. (One of them really likes the Lego store.) It is also a chance to talk with them about some of the deeper things. It isn't an interview. I want it to be a lot more informal than that. You don't get the real information in an interview. But when I am out one-on-one with one of the kids, they naturally open up to me a lot more than they would in the family setting or if I pulled one of them aside to talk in their room. I used to do outings with my biological children when they were growing up too. They look forward to it and I think it helps to create a separate bond with each of them. I think step kids need to know that you care about them individually and not just their parent. Step parents run into trouble when they try to make a marriage with the parent and sort of ignore the kids.
If you don't have kids of your own but you marry someone with kids, it may be tempting to be over eager about your chance to be a parent. I know I have a meaningful role in the lives of my step kids. But I wasn't there until they were ages 7 and 11. So I've had to earn it. My youngest stepchild had a hard time at first because he felt replaced by me in the life of his mother. I know there were times when he kind of resented me. Patience and persistence pays off. He has definitely come around and he loves me now. But you need to expect those adjustments to take time and be patient with it. Trying to force a relationship generally has the opposite effect to the one you intend. If you are a step-mom who's only chance to be a mother is with your step kids, a little patience will pay big dividends.
When you have two sets of kids that were partially raised in different households with different rules and customs, it takes a while to integrate those systems and it is complicated. Both parents will tend to prefer the way they did things before. Kids will have certain expectations based on past history. It takes a certain amount of flexibility on the part of everyone involved to make it work. I don't think it is inherently bad for kids. Eventually, they are going to marry and merge their life with someone who grew up in a different system. If they learn to adjust and be flexible as children, that will be good for them even if it makes them a little uncomfortable. And chances are good it will make them a lot uncomfortable. Your own kids will expect you to side with them in disputes with their step brothers or sisters, and you may be naturally inclined to do just that. Being even handed may tug at your heartstrings a little bit. Trying to understand and navigate these complicated emotions will be a growing experience for all of you.
In a larger sense, every family has its issues. Sometimes the idea that things got really complicated because we have a blended family is just a story we are telling ourselves. All families are complicated and have their issues. A blended family requires us to be more intentional about how we do things. It requires us to be flexible and communicate more clearly with our spouses, children, and stepchildren. It requires an intentional effort to create family rituals and customs that provide an identity to our family as a cohesive unit where everyone feels included. But it is worth it!
Remember, however you became a mother, the real important principles are the same. Whether you are a mother, stepmother, or favorite auntie, the underlying principle is love. Love takes time but it is the thing in life that gives meaning to all the rest.