The Extended Family

The shape of the American family is changing for the better, becoming more inclusive, more diverse, and more extended. Shared custody(both legal and physical) is becoming more the norm, and unlike in the past—when many biofathers left the scene—biodads are often very involved in parenting their kids after a divorce. More involvement means more adults in parenting roles and far more well-combined families.

The only problem with this improved state of affairs is that the more people there are involved in any activity, the more time it takes to plan things and to negotiate through differences of opinion. (Hey, as far as I'm concerned, this caffeine-based, gotta-hurry generation could all use a little more slowing down and time-taking anyway.)

The Value of the Extended Family

Children need other people (don't we all?). Kids do best (and parents, stepparents, and families survive intact) when there's a support network of many people, including relatives, adult friends, teachers, and members of the community.

In any community, the people who live there are mostly luck-of-the-draw; you don't get to pick the residents. You don't get to choose your partner's ex, either, or the family of your partner's ex (nor did they get to pick you!). Nonetheless, all of these people are a distinct part of your community now. Recognize that they are part of your stepchild's (and therefore your) support network, and you are part of theirs. The more you're able to see the wider picture and accept the abundance and diversity of this network, the easier it will be for you to rise above individual disagreements.

You can say it's for the sake of the kids, but the sake of the kids is your sake, too. It's nearly impossible for your stepchild to bond with you when your obvious dislike of her other bioparent gets in the way. She'll feel that getting close to you will hurt her biomom or biodad.

No! You don't have to get all buddy-buddy with the ex now. A working, respectful relationship doesn't mean beer dates, bowling, or heart-to-hearts. Your stepdaughter's soccer coach is also involved in your community, but you don't feel compelled to borrow clothes or tools from her, do you? Work on developing a practical partnership with the ex, not a close friendship.

Take the First Step with the Ex

If things are heating up toward nuclear meltdown, or if the Cold War has been going on for a while, it may be up to you to begin the peace process. Take a deep breath, keep the wide-angle lens open, and begin.

In her book Cherishing Our Daughters, Evelyn Bassoff recommends writing a letter to the bioparent to break the ice. (You could do this over the phone or in person, but it's easier and makes more of an impression when i letter might say something like this:

  • You are there for the child, and although being a stepparent has its challenges and may not have been your first-choice role, you welcome the child into your life.
  • You are not trying to take over her parenting role.
  • You are committed to doing the best you can to try to be a kind, adult friend to her child.
  • You would like to put aside disagreements and put the child's interests first.
  • You are available to talk or correspond any time she has anything to discuss.

For many people, getting over the initial hump is the hardest. Yes, you run the risk of being snubbed, but your efforts may pay off—and if they do, they'll pay off big-time. Think how much easier your life would be if you didn't have that churning anxiety every time you or your partner had to deal with the ex.

The Cooperation Concept

Cooperation and parenting collaboration with the ex will pay off in more than the money you'll save on antacids and headache relief. You can be a better stepparent if you enlist your partner's ex as a parenting ally. Think of the advantages! You can share information and ideas about problems your stepchildren are having. You and your partner are not as likely to be manipulated by your stepkid. And your stepkids will be happier. They won't feel tension in the air, they'll feel more secure, and they'll accept you sooner and with more grace.

Defeating antagonism takes time. Keep trying—it's worth it.

The Other Relatives

Your partner has broken up with the ex and has found fabulous you! Yet, because your partner has kids, there are still more “other” relatives in the picture besides those Other Grands. (Remember them—and see The Rights of Grandparents). Who else is involved? What about your stepkids' aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and third-cousins-twice-removed? Your partner's ex's relatives may very well be a part of your new family's network.

Here's another opportunity to grow your community and incorporate more concerned adults into your extended family. Once again, it may be up to you to take the first steps, especially if your partner's past relationship crashed, flamed, and burned.

Setting Reasonable Goals

In all your stepparenting endeavors, it's vital to keep your expectations in check and to set reasonable goals for yourself and for your stepfamily.

There's a slogan I keep posted on my office wall: “Perfect is the Enemy of Good.” If you try for perfection, you are doomed to fail. Aim your hardest for “good enough.” Do the best you can, and be patient. Change takes time. Be kind to yourself.

Defeating Guilt

“Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Erma Bombeck. Used wrongly, guilt can be a destructive force to you and to others. But guilt can be a positive force when it reminds us that we always have the opportunity to improve ourselves and our actions.

It's hard to read an advice book, especially when it points out things that you've done wrong and suggests ways of doing things that you haven't done. Don't let guilt over your past stepparenting practices freeze you in your footsteps. Don't beat yourself up. It's never too late to make changes, and it's never too late to improve your step relationships.

Source: Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz.