Got this letter recently:
My husband fathered a child in his teens with a woman he was not married to. The teen mother never involved him in the raising of the child. The child never lived with the father. The father never contributed to the welfare of the child.
When the child was a teenager she contacted him and they met. At that time I was married to him. The child labeled me her step-mother. I do not feel as if I’m her step-mother for two reasons. First, her mother and father were never legally married. Second, the child never lived with her father.
My question is what legally makes a person a step-parent?
My answer to her was:
While there are no legal statutes that cover all states, most specify that if you are married to the biological parent of a child, you are the stepparent of that child. Taking responsibility or not does not affect biological connection. Many times I did not feel like I was anything at all to my often-awful stepdaughter, but the fact that I was married to her mother made me an influence in her life.
I chose to take advantage of that connection to demonstrate to a young person how generous and loving someone can be regardless of whether of not that child deserves anything. It has affected her life positively in many ways, she tells me now that she is grown. It cost me nothing except a few moments of forgiveness and kindness, but it has paid off many, many times over as she became more part of my life later on and I now have a wonderful (step)grandson who thinks I’m the bees’ knees!
It’s your choice entirely, to either resist and push away and become bitter and cold, or to accept and embrace and grow in grace. You will influence your stepdaughter, one way or the other. Period. It’s your choice. And your opportunity.
So, what is a stepparent?
A stepparent is a person who is not related and legally not obligated to do anything at all for another person’s child; yet, simply out of love for that other person (and sometimes for the child) a stepparent turns their whole world upside down for that child. They give money, time, effort, ideas, fears, worries, and most of all caring for a child who may never acknowledge the gift.
Some people think a stepparent is chief among fools for allowing herself to become emotionally invested in a child who resents your very presence in her life. Some people (mostly stepchildren) think of a stepparent as interfering and demanding and “wicked.” And, honestly, some are!
Most stepmoms and stepdads, though, are doing their best to walk a fine line between interfering in their spouse’s childraising, and being too distant from their stepkids. Most stepparents make the mistake of giving advice that is unasked-for and upsetting their spouse and their stepkids. So, they get offended or more cautious and pull back too much so everyone thinks they don’t care enough.
And then there’s the stepparent’s other family – her ex-husband who’s either jealous of the new guy’s place with his kids or just unsure where he stands (or both!), and her children from her previous marriage who are, also, jealous of the new kids and new spouse, and who feel somehow left behind by Mom’s new life. And THEN there are all the grandparents! Her own parents, the ex-spouse’s parents, the new spouse’s parents, maybe even his ex-wife’s parents all want to know how the new person will care for their grandkids!
So, a stepparent has a lot of pressure to be absolutely perfect all the time, right from the beginning of the marriage. It’s a wonder the divorce rate is only 66% for second marriages! The majority of couples just can’t cake all the challenges and stress on a new relationship. (the divorce rate for third marriages is even higher – around 85%).
That’s why I constantly urge couples about to marry into a stepfamily situation and couples already in a stepfamily to get help. They can’t predict all the issues that will come up, even if they’ve been in a previous stepfamily relationship.
When I help couples prepare for or repair their stepfamily, I first investigate all the family connections and how they are affecting the mixture, then look at the immediate issues. Before I can help a couple build a success plan to strengthen their family, we have to know what kind of a foundation we’re building on.
Stepparenting is the toughest job you’ll ever take on, but despite the scary statistics and divorce rates, it is not impossible. You can survive and succeed at building love and peace in a happy home – with the right help. Don’t give up, get busy! Call or email me and we’ll talk about how I can help your family succeed.
STEPcoach, Bob Collins