With one in three UK marriages failing and an estimated 18 million Britons involved in ‘step’ relationships, finding yourself being Dad to kids that aren’t biologically yours is nothing out of the ordinary. But that doesn’t make it any easier. Thankfully FQ is on hand with some advice for first-time step-fathers.
You remember that irritating BT ad with the gawky bloke who falls for an older woman, only to find that it’s a buy one, get kids free kind of deal? One day he’s playing PlayStation in his pants, pizza boxes and larger can strewn across the living room. The next, it’s all Genie in the House, brain-bruising mats homework and stroppy teenagers snarling about the place. But in the end, of course, it all works out beautifully – stepdad, mum and kids living in hi-tech domestic bliss.
Of course, life isn’t always like the ads. Being a stepdad can be stressful, challenging and exhausting. Weekend visits are often fraught, moving into someone else’s family home is a minefield and, all too often, you’re not exactly flavour of the month with her ex.
To help you negotiate this tricky territory, we’ve asked the experts to come up with 15 secrets to being the perfect stepdad – from dealing with an unhinged ex to defusing that ticking time bomb known as Christmas.
1 What if your stepchildren hate you?
Sadly, this is almost a given. Even if you weren’t responsible for their parents splitting up, you’re most certainly not their dad. Batten down the hatches…
Secret: “This is very common,” says Suzie Hayman, author of Stepfamilies: Surviving and Thriving in a New Family. “So don’t take it personally, as the kids are objecting to the situation, not the person. You need to accept that they feel angry and upset, but if you remember that it’s not about you, it will be much easier to remain calm and help them through a difficult time.”
2 What if you don’t love them?
It may be hard to believe, but just because you fancy their mum, there’s no guarantee you’ll fall for her little darlings – especially if they treat you like pond scum.
Secret: “It’s not like with your own kids, where you develop an instant bond,” says Hayman. “With stepkids that has to grow, and it can take some time. Don’t blame them or yourself if that love doesn’t come right away. It’s not something you can force, so be patient and let the relationship develop organically.”
3 What if your kids and your stepkids fall out?
Ever seen that American kids’ show, Drake & Josh, single Mom and single Dad fall in love move in together with their boys and, hey presto, instant siblings! Except, of course, they fight like cats and dogs – as yours are likely to do.
Secret: “It’s important to treat all the kids the same way,” says stepfamily coach Jo Ball. Although it may be tempting (especially if her kids are obnoxious brats), never put your little ‘uns first. “Make sure you and your partner stick together as a parenting team – don’t take sides with your own kids,” says Ball. “Try to remain neutral and let the children sort it out for themselves.”
4 Should you make them call you Dad?
The D-word carries huge symbolic significance, which won’t be lost on them – or their biological father.
Secret: As with most stepfamily issues, don’t force it. Insisting that your stepkids call you Dad is a recipe for disaster. Establishing a ‘reconstituted family’ takes time, patience and mutual respect. Using first names for both adults and children allows everyone to be equal and respected for who they are, rather than their place in the family. It also avoids antagonising their ‘real’ dad.
5 What if you feel shut out?
Hard as you try, your partner will have a bond with her kids you can never feel. You could try pouting, or throwing tantrums, but there must be a better solution…
Secret: “Problems in stepfamilies often revolve around exclusion,” says Susanna Abse, director of the Tavistock Centre for Couple Relationships. “When you’re living with kids that aren’t your own, you might think, ‘Am I wanted? What’s my place? Does she love them more than me?’ You’ll need some emotional maturity, and to give them space. Let her and the kids hang out without feeling threatened by it. Ultimately, the happier they are, the better your relationship with her will be.”
6 Should you foot the bills?
If you inherit them young, you could get stiffed for 18 years worth of skateboards, school uniforms and ski trips. But is this fair?
Secret: “You need to decide how you’re going to deal with the money, as financial issues cause huge strain,” says Jo Ball. “But it depends on your family’s circumstances, like how old the kids are, which parent is working, and so on. You have to thrash out what’s right for you and your family.”
7 Those dreaded weekend invasions
When the little blighters visit, your neat, tranquil home can get trashed – along with your sanity. What to do?
Secret: Remember that those weekends are stressful for the kids too – a nomadic lifestyle, where they are constantly moving between houses, is tough. Try to put yourself in their shoes and be patient. If the red mist descends remove yourself from the situation, breathe deeply and count slowly from 20 down to one. Or there’s always the pub…
8 Dealing with an angry ex
If her last bloke is a tad, um, excitable, you’ll need some strategies for dealing with him. And no, moving to Tasmania isn’t one of them.
Secret: “Your partner must sort this out with her ex,” says Susie Hayman. “Adults have to set aside the arguments that led them to breaking up and focus on co-parenting. If they can’t do this, counselling or mediation may be necessary – but they have to sort it out, for the kids’ sake.”
9 Should you try to be his mate?
With psycho boy above, this may never happen. But if he’s a reasonable chap, should you go for a pint?
Secret: “100 per cent yes!” says Hayman. “You’re not trying to replace him, so you should be working side by side for the children. You will probably never be best friends, but there’s no reason you can’t be friendly, at the very least. The better everyone gets on, the easier life will be.”
10 What if he and your partner seem a bit too cosy?
They’re spending time together “for the sake of the kids”, but suddenly them seem to be getting on rather well. Cue the green-eyed monster…
Secret: “This can be really hard,” says Susanna Abse. “You might think, ‘Is she about to go back to him?’ It can cause a lot of jealousy and insecurity. So make sure you have clear boundaries – don’t ban her from seeing him, but don’t let your ex intrude on your relationship.”
11 What if your stepkids have different rules to yours?
Your kids help with the chores; hers just laze about. Yours can’t drink Coke; hers guzzle it by the gallon. Trouble lies ahead…
Secret: “The answer is to have house rules,” says Suzie Hayman. “Kids are perfectly capable of going from one set of rules to another – they do it from home to school every day. Agree rules or the house with your partner about chores, bedtime, homework and so on. But never treat your kids and hers differently – those rules apply to all.”
12 Should you leave discipline to their mum?
If the little blighters smash your neighbour’s window (again!), should you let rip or bite your tongue will their mum comes home?
Secret: It’s those house rules again. “Anyone breaking them can be pulled up by anyone else,” says Hayman. “That applies to the parents too. So if you tell your stepkids off for breaking the rules, by swearing, for example, it’s not because you’re trying to take the place of their father. You’re just enforcing those house rules.”
13 Should you spend time alone with your stepkids?At first, this may fill you with terror. But when you’re used to each other, should you spend time mano a boyo?
Secret: “Only if you can do it in a natural, organic way,” says Jo Ball. “Don’t force it. If it’s still new, don’t go for a meal, just do little things like going to the shops for chocolate. And look for shared interests – if they like football, watch a match together at home.”
14 Should you have Christmas en masse?
So you’re over the tricky early days – but when the festive season rolls round, should you do turkey and crackers together, or split the days between you?
Secret: “It all depends on the relationship between you all,” says Susanna Abse. “For example, does the ex have a new partner? Do you all get on? Never do it for the sake of the kids – you will end up with a tense, unnatural event. But if it feels right, the kids will be deliriously happy – everyone they love together in a big, happy family.”
15 How about holidays?
It may be most people’s idea of hell, but if Bruce, Demi and Ashton can do it, should you head for the sun with her ex in tow?
Secret: Here’s a clue – why was there so much fuss about Mr Willis chilling with Demi and her new beau on holiday? Because, to ordinary mortals, it seemed utterly bizarre. Spending Christmas Day together is one thing, but being cooped up together for a fortnight is advisable for only the most laidback of extended families. Be sensible, enjoy your break – and send the ex a postcard.