Stepparent Start-Up Time

So, I’m sitting in the World Headquarters for STEP-Carefully! – Panera Bread, having my morning whole grain bagel and hazelnut coffee(s) when I notice a newbie employee shyly working the tables. One of the reasons I frequent Panera is their extreme friendliness, which makes a newbie really stand out.

As I watched her keeping her head down and cleaning the tables without making eye contact, I wondered just how long it would be before she caught the spirit of the place and opened up. That led me to thinking about being the newbie and feeling like an outsider. Which led me to, naturally, thinking about stepfamilies…

Most employers will allow a few days or perhaps a few weeks for a new employee to get familiarized with their surroundings and the secrets of the organization. How come stepfamilies expect a new stepparent to be up to full speed from the first day?

Remember when you first faced the kids after your wedding? You probably felt a little excited, a little anxious, a little nervous. Just like our newbie waitress. But the difference is she gets a probationary period – say two weeks – where she is not really expected to know the ropes or to remember where everything is or to know every customer’s name. For a couple of weeks, she is allowed to make mistakes without blame because she is new, she is just learning.

So why can’t new stepmoms and stepdads get the same probationary period? Yes, there is the dating bit, where you generally learn as much as you can absorb about the family and their rhythm, but that’s kind of like eating in the restaurant before you fill out the job application. Yeah you know the food is good and the staff is friendly, but you haven’t a clue where the forks are kept or who’s the mover and shaker. You have to be “inside” to know the real deal.

Just like in a stepfamily. You go out on planned dates with the kids (who have been coached by their parent to be on their best behavior) and you visit the home as a guest and see that the bathrooms are neat and tidy. But, until you’re “inside” you don’t know the most important facts. Like which of these little angels is really the little … well the child who will square off with you to show you they own the territory. Or where all the private areas are that you need to stay out of. Or which first aid treatment is preferred and which results in screaming and near death fits. Or … on and on and on.

I hereby propose a one month probationary period for new stepparent.

That’s one month after the actual wedding, not after the first date. One month for a new stepmom to learn everyone’s names and nicknames and least favorite foods. One month for a stepdad to find out which toys should not be “lost” by being put away too well, or which child is least prone to rage over your attempts to help with homework.

One month of free time to make innocent mistakes would take a great deal of the pressure off us, don’t you think? One month of “do overs” for pet issues or food flops or nighttime-ritual slip ups. A whole month to memorize the youngest’s stuffed animals’ names. A whole month just to settle in to the flow of this whole new family.

Gosh, wouldn’t it be great! Well now you have a tool to use for your own probationary month. Take this article to your minister before your wedding and ask him to make the probie period part of your ceremony. Show it to your soon-to-be and ask him or her to implement it with their kids.

If you’re already well-married, think back to your own first month with your new family and share those memories with a friend who is thinking of marrying into a stepfamily. Show them this idea and urge them to push it with their own minister and fiancé. And whatever you do, support them like you wish you had been. Help them make it.

God bless your whole family,


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