"So just what is it that I am supposed to do? Like, can I get a job description here?"
We'd just finished covering some of the common mistakes stepparents often make with their stepchildren.
The man in the back of the classroom was understandably frustrated by our opening list of "don'ts," and actually writing a "Stepparent Job Description" was not a bad idea. So we did, sort of.
It seemed to us that the job of a stepparent tends to fit into four overlapping categories:
• Consulting/Advising -- in many organizations we will occasionally bring in somebody from the outside who knows something about what we're doing and who can give us some advice on how to do it better. It helps that these people are from the outside -- that means they're not part of the problem. It also helps that they have some expertise in our field -- that means they don't have to learn everything from scratch; they just need to become experts on our particular way of doing things. This can be part of the job of stepparents as well.
All parents need somebody to bounce ideas off, do some problem-solving with, or just to offer a bit of commiseration. Stepparents come in from the outside -- i.e. they aren't the parents -- and aren't as emotionally tied in knots as parents often are. And stepparents will see things differently based on their own experience in other families as well as what they've learned about their spouse and stepchildren.
Of course, that sounds a lot easier than it is. Unfortunately, the more time passes the harder it is to be a good consultant/adviser. As they see how their stepchildren affect their spouses, as they grow to care for and feel responsible for their stepchildren, and as they come up against any number of "roommate issues" (everything that has to do with just living in the same house), it's easy for stepparents to lose their objectivity. And, needless to say, it's also easy for any consultant -- let alone stepparents -- to get frustrated when whomever their consulting with -- especially if it's their spouse -- doesn't follow their "sage" advice.
To do this part of the job well, then, stepparents need to continually remind themselves that "these are not my kids!" It means they frame roommate issues as just that -- not parent/child issues but issues that any people come up against when they live in the same house. And it means they respect their spouses' rights and responsibilities to ultimately make all parenting decisions. In other words, like it or not, stepparents have to always keep in mind that though they are full partners in their marriage, they are only stepparents when it comes to their partner's children.
• Care-taking -- stepparents also play a role in the nuts and bolts of taking care of their stepchildren. Whether its fixing a meal, providing transport to a swimming lesson, or reading a book before bedtime, stepparents can make a big difference in how much stress their spouses experience just by being ready to help out when asked (or sometimes before they're asked).
Maybe we should call this "assistant" care-taking. It's not good for anyone if biological parents start to count on stepparents to shoulder most of the care-taking role. Fathers can be especially guilty of this, assuming that their new wife will just automatically assume the role of "Mom" and handle all the various and sundry day-to-day tasks of taking care of kids. This isn't good for the marriage, or for the kids. Biological parents are always responsible for care-taking; stepparents help out only as favor to their spouse.
• Disciplining -- I'd like to eliminate this category from the job description altogether, but sometimes stepparents do need to lend a hand in keeping stepkids in line. This needs to be as rare as possible, and with teens hardly ever. I say this because much of a parent's disciplining authority comes from the unconditional love between parents and their children. Stepparents just can't fall back on this. Stepparents and stepchildren are doing great if they can learn to live with and like each other. Love may follow, but nobody should count on it. And the older the children are, the more of a challenge the living with and liking can get. Now, parents do need to regularly deputize other people (like teachers or coaches or baby sitters) to be disciplinarians. And sometimes stepparents may need to fill this role for one reason or the other. But it's a good idea to avoid it whenever possible. It's usually a lose-lose-lose (parents, stepparents and stepchildren all lose) situation.
• Loving -- most importantly, the job of stepparents is, whenever possible, to find something to love in their stepchildren. This is not only the most important, but the hardest. Kids are often not even likable, let alone lovable. And stepchildren can be especially unlikeable and unlovable when it comes to their stepparents. A lot of this has to do with what it's like for kids to go through the ending of one family through death or divorce, remarriage, and putting together a blended family, all of which are often harder on them than on the adults involved.
Maybe keeping that in mind can help stepparents learn to love their stepchildren even when they are being pretty unlovable. These kids have had it pretty rough. That's not the stepparent's fault, but it's not the child's fault either. All kids need as many loving adults in their lives as they can find. If they can find such loving adults in their stepparents, then all the better. And certainly any marriage is healthier if both partners are working together to love and nurture whatever children are part of the family they have created.
Sometimes stepparents simply cannot make such love happen. When this happens, we want to at least focus on treating our stepchildren with understanding, empathy, consideration and respect, even when they don't treat us that way.
Sometimes job descriptions estimate the percentage of the workweek devoted to each particular task that makes up that job. If we were going to do that for the four categories above, I'd suggest: Consulting/Advising -- 25 percent; Care-taking -- 25 percent; Disciplining -- 10 percent; and Loving -- 75 percent. Sure, that adds up to more than 100 percent -- but stepparenting usually does.