Step dada-ism — Making a blended family work

September 28 | Guest post by Rich Thomas

Rich and his sonI always thought "blended family" sounded more like something off the Jamba Juice menu than a term you'd use to categorize relationships between parents and children, but nonetheless I am both the byproduct of a blended family and do a little family blending of my own.

I have three sisters—all from my parent's first marriage—and two step-sisters who are the children of my Dad's wife, both of whom have different fathers. I have a half-brother who is 20 years younger than me, and my step-father has two kids of his own, though I don't really talk to them.

I am also the proud step-father of my own 10-year-old boy, whose biological father I sometimes watch football games with when my wife and our son are out of town together. It's not always easy, but it works, and the benefits far, far outweigh any weirdness that ensues as a result of the close ties. (Arguing about politics with my son's Dad's mother on Facebook = FAIL.)

"If he's trying to reach out to you, make sure you reciprocate those emotions, lest your son feel like you're shutting him out."

Sure the parents can take credit for greasing the wheels on this complex machine, making things easier along the way through compromise and clarity, but the real winner is my son.

He's comfortable in the way he addresses both parents, especially when all three are in the same room together, and he doesn't try and pull any House #1 vs. House #2 maneuvers that seek to undermine the rules and regulations we've all set. He's a cool customer, and very confident in his decisions and his relationships with all three parents, all of whom are very different.

At the beginning of our relationship, when he was 3, I was very careful to not "encroach" upon his relationship with his Dad. I stayed away from activities I knew they regularly engaged in, and I never used terms like "son" when we spoke, nor did I insist or insinuate (as some parents do) that he call me "Dad."

And on the occasions later in life when he would confide in me something that his Dad did that let him down or upset him, I was careful to not throw Dad under the bus, tempting, at times, as it was.

One afternoon, after a particularly difficult conversation with my son, I decided to give my Dad a call for some fatherly advice. He respected my decision to be cognizant of my son's relationship to his dad, but he warned me about keeping my son's emotional advances towards me at arms length.

"If he's trying to reach out to you, make sure you reciprocate those emotions, lest your son feel like you're shutting him out." Basically, take what you're given, even if it feels like the offering you're getting is the result of your child not finding an outlet for those feelings with another parent.

Last week, his mother and I took him to his first ever concert, which definitely took some convincing on my end, as it wasn't an activity his mom saw him engaging in for at least another few years. It was The Killers at the Hollywood Bowl, and we had a blast.

Our seat neighbors were cordial and respectful, and the herb in the air was minimal. The first thing he asked after the show was over: "Who are we going to see next?" It was a magical, kick-ass moment of family awesomeness, and I can't wait to do it again.

My son also had his first little league game this weekend. After three years of soccer, he wanted to try something new, and though we had played catch a few times, it was his first organized game.

His dad and his uncle showed up, and he went 1-3 with a double and two RBIs. He pitched an inning, and recorded the only two put-outs of the game at second base. Righteous.

I was right there hanging off the fence and cheering him on, I warmed him up on the sidelines before he took the mound, and I made sure his jersey was tucked in before he took the field. These are all things his dad could have done, and if it were five years ago, I probably would have deferred to him.

But after days and days of pitching and fielding practice, a few hours at the batting cages, and an afternoon of shopping for socks, athletic shorts, and gear, I wasn't about to drop out at the end.

I never had a ton of confidence as a kid, and growing up it was always a challenge to take the initiative. Maybe this comes easily to other step-parents, but it definitely wasn't easy for me to jump in with both feet and take the reins on things I once felt should have been reserved for my son and his biological dad.

It's one thing to be the best step-parent you can be. It's another thing to have that investment come back to you tenfold and ultimately transcend that funky prefix. So yeah, we'll definitely be hitting more shows, signing up for more sports, going to opening night showings of movies, and probably talking about first girlfriends. Because that's what dads do.

  1. I love this and want MORE!!! I'm a single mom of 2 boys whose live in boyfriend has a son of his own. This is a hot topic that I can not get enough info and insight on!

    • So glad you enjoyed the post! We'd be happy to have your perspective or your boyfriend's perspective on this issue as well, if you care to share it 🙂

  2. Props to Rich for striking that balance! I am also the product of a blended family, so I know firsthand how tough it is to establish and maintain the boundaries for the step-relationship, especially when the family is tightknit to begin with.

  3. I'm just at the beginning of this journey, getting to know my partner's 9 year old son D. I've not been feeling very confident about it, am finding it hard alongside the realisation that I will not be able to have biological children (damn uterus!) and D's mum and step dad aren't being too helpful.
    You've given me hope on a tough day- thanks!

    • Take heart! I am a stepmother of 4,and have no children of my own. Their mother TRIES to make it hard by acting plain stupid, or bashing me to the kids, and sometimes it gets to me, but she doesn't know that. I always try to remember that no matter what silly, selfish decisions the adults make, the children are what matter most. And three years later, they love me for it. The oldest two have started to figure out when bio-mom is being manipulative, and they no longer fall for it. They have begun to trust me with secrets, thoughts, fears, and I have figured out how to build a bridge of communication where they think their dad (my husband) may get upset about something.
      I wish every blended family could be like the one in the story, but alas, they aren't. Although we sometimes go through changes that are not always nice, friendly, or easy, I don't mind. As long as the kids and I develop a loving relationship, I dont care what the adults are doing.

  4. I am also a new stepparent – to two wonderful boys (the oldest of which lives with my husband and me). The boys' mother recently remarried herself. All the parents (bio and step) are friendly and we have been very deliberate in trying to keep things that way, for the boys' sake.

    I too, would love to hear more about stepparenting here on OffbeatMama.

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  5. I really appreciate all the kind words. Step-parenting is both the most rewarding and, at times, the most challenging thing I've ever done. I look forward to sharing more stories with you all!

  6. Yeah it can be really hard when your stepkid complains about their bio-parent and like you there have been times when I had to bite my tongue really hard.

    But what has worked for me is to try and keep things focused in on the kid and their needs rather than drawing them into an adult conflict. So if for instance you get faced with this littler pearler as I did a few week weeks ago.

    Stepkid: 'mummy says you stole all daddy's money.'
    Me (thinking to myself fucking psych bitch): 'How did that make you feel?'
    Stepkid: 'Sad'
    Me:' Well have you thought about telling mummy your feelings?'

    I'm not sure if that would always work. But I think you can't ignore ill-feelings but at the same time you can't break the golden rule of badmouthing the bio-parent no matter how much you'd like to.

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    • I am a stepparent of 4. Like you, I (many times) have to keep the way I feel to myself, for the sake of the children. Children can sometimes the caught in the crossfire of adult stupidity and selfishness.

      I think if one of my 'Bonus Babies' had come to me with this one, I would have handled it much the same way, BUT I would have had to make sure that I defended myself be denying the accusation in a gentle way. A VERY gentle way. You dont want your bonus babies to think that something biomom has said about you is true by leaving it open to interpretation. I always defend myself against biomoms' assertions (when necessary), because the children need to understand that everything they hear from someone (even their mother) is not always the truth. My oldest bonus babies have learned when their mother is being manipulative.

  7. Having also treaded the waters of step-parenthood, I relate! And I think you're right on. While you aren't bio-dad, you're still a dad, and he's become your son. Awesome! And giving your step-son every ounce of love you'd give your own biological child is how it should be. Kids can never have too many adults who love them, spend time, and listen to them, can they?

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  8. As a grown step child myself it was really refreshing to read your post. It's great to see those of us who have lived the other side grow into wonderful and loving step parents. Kudos to you and yours for working towards this extraordinary reality!

  9. What a great story! I can draw so many parallels from it with my own life. I've been with my husband for over seven years now, and he has a 15-year-old daughter. We are very lucky to be good friends with his ex. We just had our official wedding celebration in May '09 (thank you OBB for inspiration!), and both mom and daughter were bridesmaids of mine. With regards to helping raise my step-daughter, my husband and step-daughter's mom take the lead. There has never been a decision they have made that I disagree with. Even if there were, I think I would give my opinion to them and let them do with it what they will, rather than try to throw my weight around. If a decision has to be made with regards to something that she does in my home, then that is when I would step up. She's a fantastic young lady, and so far nothing like that has happened. She is smart and mature for her age. I don't know if anything will ever happen in which I have to put my foot down, so to speak – but if I do, I only hope I'll make the right decision.

  10. Not to sound like a broken record or anything, but I too, would really love to hear more on this topic. Especially from the step-parents' point of view. I have three children, and an amazing boyfriend. We have been talking about moving in together recently and while I have ever confidence in him and my children love him and vice versa, he is very worried about what his role in our family should be like etc.(even though I keep saying that your role is whatever we make it etc..,lol). So I fowarded him this article as a sort of encouragement…..Honestly, it was awesome! Thanks.

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  11. You completely filled a craving I had for this site. I was keeping my fingers crossed that someone would touch base on this subject. I'm a step-mommy in my heart, mind, and soul for my partner's son. We aren't married by choice but my role is well-defined and concrete in our eyes. It seems as though my role appears confusing to outsiders and I guess I can understand to an extent. It's rough because I can't leave work to pick him up from school or take him to the doctor solely because I dont have a marriage certificate. Step-parenting has extra challenges since often times my decisions aren't final. I have an extra channel to run them through and an extra set of feelings to compensate. I'm in no way whining–these are just facts of reality. I applaud Rich for delving into the subject and I truly hope to see many more articles on the subject here. Let's here it for Offbeat Step-parents! 🙂

  12. as a step child with both "kinds" of stepparents, i applaud you rich. i have a dad who is not my "real father"…i don't call him dad, i call him bob. that's his name. but he's my dad, for sure. and i have an inkling of how challenging it must have been for him when my mother and he decided that he should move in when my sister and i were 6 and 4, respectively, but he did a great job. keep up the good work, and you will continue to be rewarded. i am lucky to have my "dad", as your "son" is lucky to have you.

    my "real father" on the other hand…i think he's only now realizing the gravity of his mistakes (an "i can't be bothered" attitude) when we were growing up. and my stepmother…she approached it as though we were no longer my mother's children when we visited on the weekend, but instead were hers, deliberately laying down rules and expectations that were shallow and superficial and directly contradicted what we were used to at home, because "it's my house and my marriage"…like we were intruders in her marriage. not a good way to handle it.

  13. I just wanted to comment really quick and say how much I appreciate your input. Please, please, please for all of us out here who are in the same boat, do not stop sharing!

    I'm getting married next year and my fiance has a two year old daughter (biologically his) and a three and six year old (helped raise them). A couple months ago he got 50/50 custody of his daughter, and I'm finding that it's a really big challenge for me to adjust to having a kid. I love her to pieces and try in all ways possible to be as much of a mother-figure as possible to her while still respecting her mom's boundaries. My life is extremely changed (not just in habits and such but also in the way that other people see/treat me, including my own family). It's really just great to know that someone else is doing it too, and succeeding!

    Thanks so much!

  14. I'm a new stepmom, and not able to have children, which is OK. I never thought I would be a momlet in ANY way, so it's all new!

    All the parents (his ex is remarried, also) try to be as respectful to each other as they can, which is not easy, sometimes, as their marriage kinda imploded, and there are still bad feelings. But we focus, I think mostly pretty well, on the fact that it's not about US, it's about the kiddo.

    I'm so happy that OBM exists, and that there are other steps here, so that I can try to wrap my head around it and try to be a good, loving stepmom to my new son.

    I'm not trying to force anything; I just want to provide a happy, safe place for him to be, for him to enjoy his time with us, for me to encourage a great relationship between him and his dad, and just to try my best to be another loving adult in his life.

    He's coming in two weeks, and I am a little nervous, since last summer, his dad and I were still dating, and not living together. Xmas break, we were living together, but not married, and it was a pretty short vacation, full of lots of crazy holiday travel.

    This time, it'll be the first time he's been here that I am officially stepmom, and that we'll have almost two months together of daily routines, and things like that. I am excited, because he's a great kid, and I think we'll have lots of fun, but also nervous, because OMG what if I screw up?

    I never thought or wanted to be a parent, but I fell in love with a great guy who has a great kid; it's just like…WHOA! New roles I never thought I'd have (wife/parent).

    It's good to know others are dealing with similar issues, and coming out ok.

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