Dear Alice and Emily,
My new husband is very critical of the way I am raising my two daughters. We have very different parenting styles. He feels I allow them too much leeway in terms of bedtimes and homework. They typically go to bed around nine pm. They are eleven and thirteen. They get good grades so I don’t ask about their homework unless they come to me for help. I feel really defensive and in fact, downright angry about my husband’s critical attitude.
To make matters worse, he doesn’t practice what he preaches! His son is very bright but gets mediocre grades because he never does his homework. His room is always a mess and he doesn’t help out around the house. He is fourteen. I love him but he drives me crazy. All I want is for everyone to get along. Help!
Going Crazy in Alabama
Dear Alabama (I don’t think you are going crazy!),
You are encountering one of the most commonly experienced problems in a new marriage with stepchildren. First the bad news. We are hardwired to defend our kids. This is generally speaking a wise choice on the part of biology. After all, defending our kids is a basic childrearing duty. But in a second marriage, that biological detail can derail a relationship.
So if either of you attacks parental approaches or offer a critique of each other’s kids, the visceral anger you feel is nature’s way of reminding you that these are your kids at stake. Cue inner mama or papa bear.
My husband and I encountered this issue early on in our relationship. We were very conflicted over an issue regarding one of my kids. He wanted to confront the problem head-on and get it solved. I knew in my heart of hearts as a mother that my daughter was not ready to deal with the issue but that a time would come when she was ready. I felt it was her responsibility to deal with it. He felt that we should help her along. We were walking a relational tightrope!
So we went to a counselor to see what she would say. To our surprise, she said that we were both right. That intellectually speaking, we both had really good points. But then she went on to say that my husband did not have the bonding or relationship after only a few years of marriage to have an authentic say in her life. He could be right all he wanted but that my daughter couldn’t receive it because his role in her life was a secondary one. Forcing the issue would only serve to distance them.
This was a blow for him. He really wanted to be a positive force in their lives. He wanted to be a father to them because they were fatherless. But while he was ready to be a dad to them, they were not ready to have a dad.
Attitudes towards childrearing are ingrained in us from birth. We go into parenting often with very specific ideas as to how children should be reared. Even parents who share offspring find themselves fighting over how to bring up baby. But when you add to the mix children who raised by different methods, even the step-siblings weigh in on the ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ methods. Chaos ensues.
But you mention the ages of your children. Adolescence is a real minefield for the parent, not to mention a stepparent. Adolescence is the beginning of a life stage in which kids begin to deal with mood swings and hormones. School becomes more of a challenge as the social atmosphere shifts into an uglier landscape, particularly nowadays because of social media.
So here is another piece of bad news. Step-parenting and adolescence do not go well together. You each have caught your children at a time when pleasing mom and dad become secondary to pleasing peers. Add to that a developmental stage characterized by a tendency to see things in a very black and white context and you can find yourself relegated to the role of evil stepmom. Or evil stepdad as the case may be.
But hope exists! My husband and I successfully navigated this stage and you and your husband can too. We developed a boundary I like to call By Invitation Only. We did not comment on our differing parenting styles unless invited to do so. We did not participate in the discipline of each other’s children unless invited to do so. Finally, we did not insert ourselves into the lives of each other’s children unless invited to do so.
The difficult part that no one likes to admit to is that when you remarry, you have all these hopeful expectations that your new mate will fill a role in their children’s lives that the parent you divorced did not. I married my husband thinking that my kids would be so grateful for a father. And they are. Now. Thirteen years later.
But instead, you have uneasy truces and sometimes outright conflict in your home between all parties. The only way to navigate this and maintain some order is to lay down some rules that dictate common decency that everyone has to follow. In addition, give up control over each other’s children. You don’t have it anyway. Give the power of relationship building over to the kids. Let your daughters invite your new husband to participate in their lives at their own pace. Let your stepson get to know you at his. Adolescents do far better when given a little autonomy in the home.
And if both of you give up your right to criticize the other’s parenting styles, you will find that you can begin to support each other in the very difficult task of raising teenagers. My husband and I learned to be each other’s advocates rather than each other’s critics. It brought peace in our marriage and the kids felt much more secure knowing that they weren’t forced to pretend they had a new father or mother when in reality, what they had, in the beginning, was yet another adult to navigate around.
I strongly suggest finding a family therapist and keeping her or him on an ad hoc basis. When conflicts arise, having someone wise and experienced in these matters can really help mediate some of these more painful conflicts. It really helped my husband and I. If your new husband wants to invest in the lives of his new stepdaughters, then he will be open to fully equipping himself for the unique challenges of stepchildren.
And don’t forget, all of your children are learning how to be married, how to love, and how to parent from each of you. Set the best example you can together!