There are no greater heroes than stepparents. A stepparent agrees (gladly) to fill another parent's shoes. Sure, the good part is being in a loving, committed relationship with your new spouse. But the bad and sometimes even ugly parts of stepparenting are often lurking close-by. When signing up for marriage, a new stepparent might overlook the fine print.
Does any of this sound familiar?
Marry someone who has lost a spouse after a battle, either to death or divorce — and has the bruises to show for it.
Commit to loving (on good days), tolerating (on not-so-good days) and sacrificing your time and energy to raise someone else's child — whether or not that child loves you or ever calls you "Mom" or "Dad."
Give up the first-marriage luxury of an uncomplicated honeymoon and months of non-existent-baby bliss. Presto. Kids from day one.
Sacrifice a portion of your spouse's income to support his ex-wife and children. You may also find yourself on the receiving end of a father who contributes the minimum required to support your frugal family income. Uglier yet is when court-ordered child support never comes.
Establish some kind of working relationship with the "ex," the parent of the child you are helping to raise whose values and parenting style you have little control over — his playbook, his rules. You might be opposed to a 12-year-old getting a Mohawk haircut, but your stepson returns from his dad's house not only with his sides shaved but the middle swath spiked and dyed purple. You suck it up and ask with a smile, "Is it Halloween already?"
Be understanding and patient when your spouse's divided loyalties cause him to spend time with his child or side with the mother of his child over you. Their relationships predate yours. Ouch.
Have little power and control over the arrangements that disrupt your life every time a revolving door deposits a child smack in the middle of your otherwise smoothly-running life.
Live in a home laden with memories of a once beloved spouse (and the child's forever favored parent). The "other" mother who can do no wrong, who makes better cookies than you or sweeps the floor the right way never forces your stepson to pick up wet towels and always lets him get away with more than your limits allow.
Become so flexible your back hurts when the ex frequently changes her plans, leaving you and your stepchild angry and betrayed. The schedule that guides your life is forever being changed and dishonored because of someone else's priorities.
Raise siblings and half-siblings under the same roof whose complaints of unequal treatment make you want to duck for cover and eat an entire bag of Doritos.
Are you starting to feel a throbbing pain in your head? After reading that list, it's a wonder anyone joins a stepfamily without coercion (or insanity).
Current statistics show that over 60 percent of first-time stepfamilies end in divorce. Notwithstanding these odds, strong, resilient stepfamilies don't just bounce back after divorce, they bounce forward. They focus not on the bad or ugly, but on the good.
So, back to the good news. Stepparenting invites many unforeseen challenges, but it also invites immeasurable joys. Those who enter into this union with their eyes and hearts wide open can anticipate the pitfalls and turn trials into triumphs.
Here are three guidelines to good stepparenting:
Begin as the guide rather than the boss
Most children, especially older ones, will not be thrilled to have a new person bossing them around. Instead, take on the role of an adult who supports the primary parent and the guidelines already in place. Discipline, at least at first, should be left to the primary parent to enforce whenever possible. Let the children lead you and respond appropriately.
In one family, a 2-year-old jumped into bed with her dad and new stepmother the morning after the couple had returned from their honeymoon. She looked at her stepmom and said, "You my mama!" While you may not be greeted with equal enthusiasm, remember that all children, even grumpy ones, are inwardly thirsty for attachment and love. Don't force relationships or insist the kids call you "Mom" or "Dad." Don't take it personally if your stepchildren hurl hurtful "You're not my dad so I don't have to listen to you" statements. They are just testing to see if you really are committed. Earn their trust, first. Love naturally follows.
Create a new family unit
This is done slowly as you meld two families together, keeping old traditions and forming new ones. Hold weekly family meetings to discuss schedules, family and home responsibilities, school issues, visitations with other parents and other items that affect the household. Each time you meet, you are acting as architects in building the new unit.
As a new family is forming, it is vital that adults and children speak with respect toward one another. If family members feel wronged or unhappy, they should be able to express their grievances in open conversations. Resolving differences and creating new experiences happens over many shared moments — family meetings, mealtimes and supporting one another in extracurricular activities.
Many Family Studies experts agree that it takes about 4-7 years for a stepfamily to finally feel like a "real" family. Some come together much sooner, and some take even longer. On days when it's hard to see the forest through the trees, tell yourself, "This too shall pass." No matter the situation, keep playing — because you are playing for keeps.
JULIE K. NELSON is a mother, wife, professor, author of "Keep It Real and Grab a Plunger: 25 tips for surviving parenthood" and "Parenting With Spiritual Power," and is a contributor on radio and TV. Her website is www.aspoonfulofparenting.com.