Doing the Stepdance

Raising your own kids is tough, but adding another person to your brood can be even harder. Blended families make up a large proportion of the Canadian population; almost 12 percent of couples with children are stepfamilies. Difficult as it may be, step-parenting can be more rewarding than you might imagine. Here’s how three families make it work.

THE NEWLYWEDS
Although they met in high school, when Vancouverites Rick Olsen and Maria Guenette rekindled their romance, they each brought two children to the relationship. When they married two years ago, it took some adjusting for their kids.

Maria’s daughters Virginia and Alex (ages 14 and 15) were excited about the new family arrangement and took to Rick immediately. Rick, who has a son and daughter living with his ex-wife, says, “When Maria and I were dating, I was the giant pillow. I’d sit down to watch TV and Maria’s girls would be leaning on me and she would get frustrated because she couldn’t get in there and would laughingly grumble about having to share me.”

Not that it was a bed of roses; after all, the kids in this family are all teenagers. “There were a couple of times that the girls gave Rick attitude but it soon settled down,” says Maria. “I expected them to test me,” says Rick, “That’s normal teenaged behaviour.”

However, Rick’s son Justin (aged 15), who initially moved in with them, found the transition too difficult and after a year went to live with his mom and sister. “When Justin came here and had two parents riding him to tow the line, it was too much and so he went to live with his mom,” says Rick. Justin still visits often and the kids get on a lot better now than they did when they lived under the same roof.

The practicalities of having two males move in to a previously all-female household caused a few waves. “We never had to worry about privacy because there were no guys, then suddenly it became an issue,” says Maria, “Plus, sharing the bathroom with two more people was hard, especially when those people have a habit of leaving the toilet seat up!”

Rick says that the girls have been very accepting from the start, which made it easy for him to come in to the family, but they don’t call him Dad. “The day we married Virginia told me you’ll still be ‘Rick’ because, well, you’re ‘Rick’,” he says, “And that’s perfectly acceptable to me.”

 
 


THE STOKED STEPDAD
When Chad Wiebe, from Vancouver, met Amy Lau he wasn’t put off by the fact that she had a two-year-old son, Drewyn; far from it. “I was excited because I’ve always thought it would be cool to raise a kid. I saw her child as a bonus rather than something that would scare me away,” says Chad.

The couple took it slow, holding back from introducing Chad to Drewyn, until they had been seeing each other a while. “When I met him I was stoked and looked forward to all of it,” says Chad. “Soon, he was excited about seeing me and hanging out with me. It was a pretty great experience.”

When the couple moved in together, Chad had the difficult task of determining exactly what his role would be in Drewyn’s life. “You have to work out whether you’re going to be a buddy or try to fill the role of a father. Drewyn already has an active biological father, so trying to be his dad is a slippery slope and could lead to a lot of tension. But I fully consider myself one of his parents.”

Drewyn has four co-parents, and Chad says that besides the everyday challenges of raising a kid, that has probably been the biggest challenge. The parents do get along well, and even went on a camping trip together last summer, although there are still the occasional bumps in the road with four distinct personalities all trying to raise one spirited little boy.

Drewyn has brought much joy to Chad’s life. “As a step-parent you always run the risk of being completely rejected, or the joy of having the child embrace you, which is fortunately what happened with Drewyn,” says Chad.

THE FRUSTRATED STEPMOTHER
Louise Rowe from southern Alberta, has three children of her own, three step-kids and is fostering her sister’s five children. Although the kids all get along and the family functions well, dealing with their exes has been far from easy. Louise says, “The hardest part of being a blended family is when two sets of parents don’t parent in the same way, and my husband’s ex is a lazy parent. It’s almost like we’re fighting against her to raise them properly.”

Louise’s ex-husband has a very similar parenting style so that doesn’t raise too many problems now that they have reached a point where they can communicate well (without dragging up the past and getting emotional every time they speak). They co-parent effectively. Her husband, David, however, is yet to reach that point with his ex-wife, which makes things tricky, “It’s just easier if I handle all communication,” says Louise.

Learning how to get on with your ex is of paramount importance, says Louise, as it models for your children about how to overcome differences and work together for a common goal. “Besides, it benefits your children if you can co-parent without getting stressed out.” Of equal importance is holding your tongue regarding any bitterness you feel towards others in the co-parenting arrangement. “The kids will remember the nasty things you said for a long time and they still love that other parent, whatever their behaviour,” says Louise.

Louise acknowledges that she’s unlikely to ever have an effective co-parenting relationship with David’s ex. “I’ve come to terms with the fact that she’s never going to change or implement the things that we do at home. So we just deal with the fact and say if you can’t be grounded at your mom’s house, it continues from the point you get back to our house. You’ve just got to work around it,” she says.

However, dealing with the differences isn’t only for the parents. “We had to lay down the law and say, ‘You have to make that transition between the two houses.’ It’s up to the kids to take some responsibility too,” says Louise. That transition was difficult initially. Louise’s kids knew what was expected of them but their new siblings weren’t thrilled with the new stricter regime.

“All of a sudden I’m there, someone who believes in rules and respecting each other. It was a different type of parenting. They’re used to it now,” says Louise, “And the kids are great. They’ve learned that behaving well has its own rewards. It’s become easier with time.”

The joys of being a step-parent are many for Louise. “Watching the kids play together, cooperate and grow has been wonderful. The kids help each other and do chores that help this big family function well.”

TIPS FOR GETTING ALONG

Joining
a family is one of the most complicated challenges in life, says
psychologist Leonard Felder, PhD, author of When Difficult Relatives
Happen to Good People. “Each person has mixed feelings about whether to
be loyal to the step-parent or loyal to the family as it existed
previously,” says Felder. Here’s how to make it work:

RESPECT
“The
most important ground rule is to treat one another with respect, and
clarify that the step-parent is not trying to replace or usurp anyone
but simply be a positive part of the team now,” says Felder, “A
step-parent doesn’t need to be a boss or peer to the kids, just be
compassionate and understand that it takes time to gain the trust and
love of those who may be justifiably hesitant at first.”

FIND SOLUTIONS TOGETHER
“Meet
as a family for half an hour every week and brainstorm together on how
you can improve things for all family members. The emphasis should be on
brainstorming and not on airing grievances or assigning blame,” says
Felder, “Each person should have a chance to offer ideas and suggest
creative ways to increase respect and build trust in the family. It
takes frequent checking in together to assess what’s working and what
still needs to be improved.”

BE REALISTIC
“You
have to stop expecting this family to look like the way things were or
some impossible ideal like the Brady Bunch,” says Felder, “Instead,
you’re forming something positive and healthy between unique individuals
that never existed before.”

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