There are a lot of things that come naturally to the typical nuclear, one household family. Things such as the titles for the parents (ie. mom/dad), who the extended family is and what they are called (ie. grandma/grandpa, aunt/uncle, etc), what you call your children (ie. my daughter/son), and others things that you never even realize could be a topic to consider until you’re in a stepfamily. Here are some topics that we still do not know how to navigate:
1.) ‘Treat’ activities. Things like going out for dinner as a family, grabbing some Menchies (frozen yogurt), going out to the movies, a trip to the waterslides, going to an amusement park and the list continues are difficult to navigate with a child who lives in two different homes. Do we under compensate when she is doing so many ‘treat’ activities at her other house? Or do we continue to go along as planned and HJ just gets to do twice as many (maybe even more so) than the average kid. Recently, my husband and I reflected on the number of family/kids movies that HJ has been to in the theatre over the past year or two. Often enough, not only has she seen every family movie at the movies, she’s seen some twice in theatre. Going out for dinner seems like a ‘treat’ until we sit down at the table and HJ exclaims that she just ate at that same restaurant the night before with her mom. It makes it extremely difficult to keep these activities as a ‘treat’ when she does them so often between both her dad’s house and her mom’s house. We haven’t figured out how to balance treats and retain their ‘treat’ status.
2.) Chores. How many chores, how often does she have to do chores, and what types of chores? My stepdaughter lives in two houses with the potential to have double the chores of your average kid. She also has the potential to have zero of the chores when she is in a 50/50 parenting time agreement. Who wants to spend what small amount of time we have with her to do chores? It would be a disservice to her to let it all slide, but what’s the right balance? We have definitely not figured this one out.
3.) How the three of us refer to each other in public. Striking that balance between having references that accurately define our relationships to each other, not creating loyalty binds for HJ and attempting to keep our lives as simple as possible is no easy task. For a nuclear family, the automatic introduction for child of her parents is ‘these are my parents’. For HJ, it’s always a question…’these are my parents’ is simple and easier, however, may produce feelings of disloyalty to her mom by not specifying that I am her stepmom. ‘This is my dad and stepmom’ is a longer introduction and puts her in a position to feel different by specifying that her family is separated. More often than not, when HJ introduces me as ‘stepmom’ she is bound to get some type of reaction that she wouldn’t get otherwise. I can see the wheels turning whenever she gets the awkward question or assumption that I’m her mom. Does she just let life be simpler by going with ‘yes’ (after all, I’m some of kind of mother figure to her) or does she feel the loyalty binds and correct that person by advising that I’m her stepmom. Do I correct them and let them know that I’m her stepmom? Sometimes I do. Most times I let her lead the way in how she would like to respond that feels most comfortable and her response changes with each interaction. Two and a half years later and it still can be an uncomfortable position for us.
Further to how HJ introduces us, how do my husband and I refer to her as a unit? ‘Our daughter?’ ‘Our daughter…’ and I add ‘I’m her stepmom?’ We seem to change up our references based on each interaction. Ahh, the simplicity of a nuclear family.
4.) How often we include or don’t include HJ in activities. Do we make parenting time switches so that HJ can attend every grandparent’s birthday celebration, every holiday gathering or every extended family dinner? Do we make the switch for some of them or all of them and if not all, then which ones? If she is with her mom for the Thanksgiving weekend do we wait to celebrate Thanksgiving until she’s back at dad’s house? Do we plan that weekend camping trip during a kid weekend or a non-kid weekend? There is the potential for her to have an entirely packed schedule if both houses put all trips and celebrations on hold to happen during parenting time and not a lot of opportunity for HJ to experience down time. Right now we find ourselves contemplating each event – should we ask for a parenting switch? Should we wait to celebrate or go on a weekend trip until she’s back at dad’s house? We try to strike up a fairly equal balance of accommodating HJ’s parenting schedule and not putting life on pause when HJ is with her mom. We have to actively remind ourselves that she is not ‘missing out’ by not being at an event. She’s simply spending her time loving and being loved by the other half of her family.
These, along with others things unique to stepfamilies, are and will continue to be difficult to navigate. For now, we take it one day or event at a time and continuously reevaluate our approach so that we can continue to serve what is best for HJ, for us and for our family.