Stepparents, have you ever felt love and resentment at the same time? Have you ever said to yourself, "This is not how I thought it would be"?
Just a few weeks ago, I chatted with Jack, a stepdad who was struggling with very mixed feelings. He loves Becca, his 8-year-old stepdaughter, immensely, but he also feels tension when the child’s biological dad is a topic of conversation.
You see, the girl’s dad was never a full-time part of her life. He abandoned Becca and her mom just before her birth and since then he pops back into her life when it is “convenient for him,” as Mom describes it.
Jack and Becca have a great relationship and the family has worked through the challenges of the beginning-to-blend stage well. The issue Jack is working through is his frustration with Becca’s excitement when her dad decides to show up. Jack is doing all the work of daily parenting (including taking care of Becca through a recent serious illness) while her birth father is what many call a “Disney Dad” (all fun and zero discipline).
The emotional conflict Jack feels is REAL and happens more than most realize. It is hard when one household offers structure and guidance and the other is like a day at the amusement park - no rules, boundaries, or limits. For Jack and his wife Jessica, Becca’s first few hours after a visit with her dad are filled with pushback and attitude as Becca readjusts from a doormat style of parenting back to a home where respect, structure, and routine are a part of every day.
Jack, Jessica, and I explored a number of things and I wanted to share some of the takeaways with you.
1) Frustration is a logical emotion when you know someone is undermining what you’re trying to build at home.
2) Jack is also struggling with sadness knowing how much it hurts Becca when her dad only wants to see her once in a while. In his love for the little girl, he can’t understand how someone could toss such an important relationship to the side.
3) Hearing Becca talk about all the “fun” she had with her dad makes Jack feel resentful. After all, he is doing the hard work of day-to-day parenting while her dad gets to be the “fun” one.
While dealing with stepfamily issues, it is also very important to look at things from a child’s perspective. Becca may have a wide range of thoughts and feelings including…
1) Abandonment issues – “Why did my dad leave me?” “I need to be really good when I’m with him so he will still love me, even if I only get to see him once in a while.”
2) Loyalty issues - “Even though Jack is my dad at home, he’s not my real dad. If my real dad sees I love Jack, he may get mad at me and never want to see me again.”
3) Confusion - “I know Mom and Jack set rules for me because they want me to grow up to be a good person, but it’s so much fun to not have rules at Dad’s house.”
It all makes more sense when you look at all the pieces of the puzzle, I’ve only named a few from both the stepparent and the stepchild perspective. There are so many clashing emotions and family dynamics that it’s not a surprise when conflicts arise within each person and between everyone’s relationships.
Helping Jack understand some of the feelings Becca may be having gave him some much-needed insight. Together, we created a plan for Becca’s “reentry” into the home after a visit with her birth dad, putting the pieces in place for a smoother transition for everyone involved.
So, while there are things that you can’t control (such as how the other parent decides to parent … or not…in their home), you can decide how you will react emotionally and how you will handle things within your own home (like creating the re-entry plan). It takes time and intentional choices, but things can get better! If you know someone who might benefit from the tips in this blog, please pass it on! New readers can sign up to receive weekly stepfamily strategies by clicking here.