What makes a parent? Is it the biological act of giving birth to a child? Is it the genes that you pass on to the child, manifesting in the fullness of a lip or the shape of a nose? Is it a step forward in the socially acceptable graph of a life well-lived? Maybe the answer is simpler than all these things put together. Maybe the answer is just that a parent is someone who has chosen to raise a child with love, acceptance and respect.
Such a choice isn’t easy for a step-parent; for, trying to fit into a family that has been through a loss and resents any intrusion, is quite a challenge. How can the seeds of respect be sown in an atmosphere of anger and resentment? Is it possible for the family to be whole again? These are questions that need reflection.
As far as a single parent with children is concerned, there's little room for anything else. Finding yourself alone, whether by the cruel blow of death or the pain of divorce, the responsibility of raising children can overshadow everything else. Yet, here you are, finding a companion in someone once again. This can potentially throw you out of balance and you are left to figure out how to bring your two worlds together.
Breaking the ice
Bringing a new parent into a child’s life needs time and patience primarily because the child has to accept a stranger as someone who is suddenly a part of his family.
Dr Safiya Mudassar, a psychiatrist based in Bangalore, advises, “When it comes to introducing a new parent into a child’s life, a lot depends on the personality and age of the child. It is very important that communication remains healthy and open between the biological parent and the child before the new person is introduced. Roles and responsibilities of the step-parent and the biological parent should be well-defined. It is important that both the child and step-parent are comfortable with each other. It is better they have a few meetings in public places or in a casual setting, until the ice is broken.”
Pune-based software professional Mrinalini Gopinath shares her experience. “I wasn’t far past my divorce when I met my current partner, Girish. The separation had been hard on everyone, especially my six-year-old daughter Sia. I knew that any sudden change would add to her feeling of instability. Since she still had warm feelings for her dad, I didn’t want to make her feel like someone was taking his place. I introduced Girish to her gradually. I first had Sia meet him with a group of my friends. I saw that she warmed to him, slowly, yet surely. Then, one day, when I had her in my arms, she suddenly reached out and put her arm around Girish, pulling him into a hug. She asked him not to leave; she wanted him to stay. It was a beautiful start and though the relationship had its challenges, we knew we were going to be okay!”
The child's perspective
Bringing a new parent into the life of a child can be unsettling at first. Children take time to recover from the fact that their parents are no longer together. Larena Cherry, a step-mother and co-founder of a step-parents support group says, “I think we often forget to look at life through the eyes of the child. Imagine being put in a house with a stranger and being told you should love and respect him. To step-parent well, we have to be patient, loving and consistent. It's a high expectation to take on.”
There’s no question that patience is a prerequisite for a step-parent. Larena highlights this aspect by talking about her own experience. “When I fell in love with my partner, I found inheriting his two children overnight to be quite overwhelming. I didn’t have children of my own. Some of our early challenges had to do with different parenting styles between me and the kids’ father. We only saw the kids every other weekend, which made it even more difficult to find a fitting rhythm that defined us as a family. At first, I was ignored by the kids even though I spent my time cooking and cleaning for them. It was difficult to feel as though I didn't exist in my own house. It's such a slow process - forging a meaningful relationship with children out of literally nothing,” says Larena.
Step-parenting and discipline
One of the most trying experiences for a step-parent is to try and establish a modicum of discipline with the step-children. Dr Safiya advises step-parents to work on their bond with the child, to try and understand the child’s needs and to let the biological parent take the lead with discipline until their own bond with the child becomes strong enough. Children resent the intrusion and rebel against someone, who seems to them an outsider. Capturing the frustration that any step-parent would relate to, Larena says, “I would say ‘no’ to something and the kids would go behind my back to their father and get what they wanted. I spent a great deal of time crying in my closet.”
It is therefore important for the parents to share their philosophies and set consistent ground rules for children.
Beacons of hope
Larena adds, “Being a step-parent is often about having to do all the work and receiving none of the glory. We're often abused, disrespected and forgotten, despite loving, respecting, encouraging and supporting children who are not biologically ours. But, we should remember that often the step-parent is the most consistent parental figure in a child's life.”
Parents like Larena hold out beacons of hope to blended families everywhere. In the words of Mrinalini and Girish, “If it is done right, a blended family could mean that a child is loved, cherished and nourished by more than two parents.”
The perfect summation of what makes a family whole lies in the famous words of Robin Williams in the movie, Mrs Doubtfire, “There are all sorts of different families, Katie. Some families have one mommy, some families have one daddy or two families … And, some live in separate homes, in separate neighbourhoods, in different areas of the country – and they may not see each other for days, or weeks, months... even years at a time. But if there's love, dear... those are the ties that bind, and you'll have a family in your heart, forever.”
Try not to rush in with high expectations of an instantly whole and happy family. Even with both you and your partner trying your best, you might find that it takes some time to start feeling like a family. Be reasonable in your expectations and be prepared to wait it out.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Well, turns out it's true. According to a research featured in Monographs of the Society for Research in Child Development, children do well when they have the consistent presence of at least three affectionate adults in their lives.
Stepping up the parenting act
Don't be pushy: To a child, it might seem like a step-parent is trying to replace his biological parent. A little understanding and empathy could go a long way to establish trust and reassure your child that there is no competition.
Take it slow: Relationships are not forged overnight. Allow enough time for the child to get to know you and grow accustomed to your presence.
Clear the air: Communication is key to making things work. Whether it be with your partner or with your stepchild. It is important to be honest about your feelings and be sincere.
Be consistent: Children thrive on consistency. Be sure to discuss issues pertaining to parenting styles with your partner to ensure that you are on the same page.
Don't set the bar high: Try not to rush in with high expectations of an instantly whole and happy family. Even with both you and your partner trying your best, you might find that it takes some time to start feeling like a family. Be reasonable in your expectations and be prepared to wait it out.