Stop Being a Backseat Driver in your Blended Family Relationship: Let the Bio Parents Take the Wheel
Turn left here! Why didn’t you park closer to the store? Are you sure you want to go so fast in this neighborhood? Ugh! Almost everyone can agree that a backseat driver is annoying, right? Unfortunately, when it comes to our blended family relationships, we often do a lot of “back seat driving.” Not only is this annoying for many of the people in the “car” of our family, but it can have the serious unintended consequences of putting strain on your relationship with your life partner.
When my husband and I blended our two families, I was single with no children, and he had two daughters from his first marriage. The girls were both younger than ten, but they were clear from the start that they already had a mom and that she was doing a great job, thank you very much. However, as it often does, my arrival on the scene caused a seismic shift in the parenting dynamics of my significant other and his former spouse. Almost immediately, the co-parenting relationship between the ex-spouses went from functioning to failure. Every conversation between the natural parents became a conflict. Looking back, I can see that I made things worse by trying to actively be a new “mom” to my husband’s kids. The girls were right. They already had a mom. So what was my role? It took me a long time to figure out that I could be an important and valuable member of their family without trying to “co-parent” them.
Here are the five things I wish I had known then that could have made our journey much more pleasant.
Find a Healthy “Non-Parent” Label for Your Role with Your Significant Other’s Kids The old saying that too many cooks in the kitchen spoil the meal applies to families as well as to kitchens. When a new adult steps into a gap created by the death or abandonment of a parent, it makes sense for that person to see themselves as a new “Mom” or “Dad.” However, if both natural parents are actively involved in raising their children, setting yourself up as another Mom or Dad can cause feelings of competition, encroachment, or worse. Instead, find a different label for your role. Try seeing yourself more like a favorite aunt or a supportive coach.
Set Priorities with Your Spouse or Significant Other and then Be Flexible on the Details Like it or not, while you’re not driving this car, you are along for the ride. So you should have some input. Decisions about finances, parenting time, transportation, holidays, etc., involve you just as much as anyone else. You and your life partner should communicate about these issues early and often. As a team, work together to define your boundaries and priorities. One of your most important jobs is to make sure you and your spouse are on the same page regarding family goals. Once you’ve set those priorities, you’re not done, though. The details may need to bend a bit from time to time, so you have to be flexible when it comes to those things.
Leave the Heavy Lifting to the Bio Parents The great thing about being the favorite aunt is that you get to be there for all the fun stuff, but you get to leave the hard stuff to the Bio Parents. If Brycen wants to skip out on doing his weekly chores, that’s between him and Dad. Josie wants a new cell phone? Not your call. Kelsie lied to you, but her natural parents take responsibility for disciplining her inappropriate actions, not you. For some, this may feel like you’re giving up control--and you definitely are--but the benefits of not feeling responsible for the child’s behavior free you up to concentrate on your responsibilities in your relationship with your life partner, your natural children, and any other relationships for which you do have responsibility.
Create a Positive Relationship with the Kids You might be thinking that it sounds like you’re just supposed to leave the kids alone and stay out of their lives. Throw that thinking away! The trick here is to be involved, supportive, and friendly without taking on the baggage of feeling or acting responsible for the parenting stuff. You get to praise them when they do something right, participate in cheering them on at concerts or sporting events, and be a listening ear when the child wants a sounding board, among many other things.
Give Your Spouse or Significant Other Autonomy in Dealing with the Ex This one is tough. So much of what gets decided by the natural parents will impact you as the spouse or significant other. It can be challenging to stay out of their conversations and negotiations. However, you can empower your life partner and reduce conflict by trusting that they can handle the grind of working out the details of parenting their children. If you and your life partner are both clear on your family priorities, you’ll be much more confident that although you might not be in the room where it happens, what’s important to you will be represented.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post where we’ll discuss how to step back from “parenting” your stepchildren without stepping out.