Being a parent is hard enough as is. It takes years of trial and error to perfect the art of not turning your kid into a stab-happy rage monster, let alone a dumbass blight on society. I couldn't imagine walking into an already existing family and learning their system from scratch. That's what my wife did, and even though she's handled it like a seasoned pro, there were still many things she wasn't expecting when she became a stepparent. Things like ...
#5. You Don't Know if You're Overstepping Boundaries
When you don't have children of your own, it's common to think of kids as this generic mass with a broad set of rules and guidelines to keep them from oozing out into oncoming traffic. What's not expected is finding out that each situation requires a specific variation of more generalized rules. The parents have probably already figured most of this stuff out by the time the stepparent comes into the picture completely cold.
The unfortunate truth is that where discipline is concerned, all a stepparent can do is kind of wing it and see what happens. Yeah, they have the parent there to help coach them along and explain why certain rules are in place, but then again, there are teachers in college to tell you all about molecular biology -- it doesn't mean you're going to remember it all. It doesn't mean that you're an idiot (unless you are). It's just a lot of information to retain.
Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images
"Come on, think. I know it has something to do with buttholes."
Sometimes, even though you have the best intentions for the kids, it conflicts with what the parent wants, and that's where it starts to get sticky. I'm not even talking about big, life-altering decisions. They're not supposed to have pop after a certain time because it gets them hyper and they won't sleep at bedtime. But they haven't mutilated anyone today, and there's no school tomorrow, so you throw them that tiny reward. Or they're doing something you really don't like, but it's apparent that you're the only one it bothers. Do you make a new rule? Will that piss off your spouse? Will the kids resent you for it?
But wait, there's still the ex to consider. Are you inadvertently breaking one of her big rules by allowing the kids to play Dodge Sword? Is it going to cause a huge problem if you have to step in and wield some authority from time to time? What if you agree with the ex's rules more than your spouse's? Do you bring it up to him or just quietly accept his decision?
Or maybe "convince" them all with your Bat of Compromise.
Every little decision becomes a weird internal battle when you're a stepparent because you're afraid that doing the slightest thing wrong will erupt in catastrophe like a zit on Satan's ass. But you can't just sit it out because you are now a part of that infrastructure. Like it or not, you're a player ... even if that means learning the rules as you're holding the ball.
#4. You Never Know if You're Being Too Strict
Siri Stafford/Digital Vision/Getty Images
One of the more important lessons you learn as a parent is that strictness is a sliding scale. It's even harder for a stepparent to grasp because they haven't had nearly as much practice as their spouse. I equate it to fishing. You don't just set the hook and jerk the poor fucker in by the lips. You have to know when to let out the line a little, when to reel in, and when to just let the fish tire himself out. Then when you get him to shore, you cut his head off and pour his blood all over your crotch.
Different kids require different sets of punishments and rewards, but the secret is being able to get those standards close enough that they seem relatively equal, otherwise it looks like you're playing favorites. For instance, my middle son reacts best when you tell him straightforwardly how he's screwing up and let him know that he needs to cut the shit before you shave him bald and set him on fire. Do that with my youngest daughter, and she'll instantly shut down and start crying. The only way my wife can know that is to see it in action, which is why I make it a point to yell at my kids for no reason at least once a week while my wife sits back and laughs at them.
Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images
What? She lets me do anal. Shut up.
I understand that this is weird for a stepparent because it's weird for "full" parents. It feels wrong -- it goes against the old "everyone should be treated equally" message we've been taught our whole lives. But the reality is, if you treat all kids equally, you're not doing them any favors. They have individual needs and reactions. Even if it's an only child, the scale still slides. If he's late for curfew every night of the week, then something has to be done about it. If he's late one time in a month, accidents happen. You probably don't need to make him wear a prom dress to school as punishment.
And that's really where it gets hard for a stepparent, because there are going to be times when the birth parents aren't around and you need to make a decision on the spot. Is that decision going to match up with how the mom or dad would react? Would they react at all? Are you going too far by cutting off one of the kid's fingers, or would his parents go straight for the wrist? What ends up happening is the stepparent goes through a mental checklist, comparing the offense (or reward) to other comparable situations that she's seen firsthand, and just hopes for the best.
D. Anschutz/Photodisc/Getty Images
"That's it! Five minutes in the badger closet!"
It can seem extremely complex, but just like with anything, it gets easier with time and experience. It becomes less of a case of cross referencing a computer database and more like trusting your gut.
#3. You Become Connected to Your Spouse's Ex Whether You Like It or Not
Buccina Studios/Photodisc/Getty Images
I got really lucky that my wife and my ex not only get along, but actually like each other. I, however, grew up with a lot of stepparents -- between my mom and dad, I think they were married a total of 11 to 14 times -- and that wasn't always the case. Hell, I've even seen my sickeningly sweet grandmother head-butt one of my stepmothers, and that's not a joke.
Whether you want to or not, since you have a direct relationship with the kids, you now have a relationship with the ex. It may not be a direct one, but it's still there, and you still have to deal with it. Their parenting decisions are going to eventually affect you because they shape the way you conduct yourself and interact with your stepchildren. At the same time, the ex is going to sometimes make parenting decisions that flat-out piss you off because they seem stupid enough to generate their own heat. And it's going to sting your pride like hell when you have to just swallow the rage, because as long as their actions aren't illegal, they outrank you and their decision is final. There's simply nothing you can do about it.
Yep, even if her decision is to hand-paint pretty, pretty flowers on all the boys' clothes.
It gets even more complex and frustrating if child support is involved. Yes, technically, that money is for the kids, but anyone who's ever been involved in that financial tie will tell you that it doesn't always feel or work out that way. I've seen enough people blow their entire support checks at the bar to know how the shittier side of humanity does it.
And yes, it may be your spouse paying or receiving that money, but since you're married to them, that money is considered shared assets. So if you receive the money and you spend it in a way that pisses off the ex, you're just as likely as the spouse to get into a pretty heated argument or a head-butt from Grandma. If you pay support, just flip the roles and put on a helmet. You will at some point find yourself thinking, "Is that bitch going to a concert with the child support money that WE just paid her?!" And right or wrong, as long as the ex is taking good care of the kids, you have no say in the matter.
Wait, she IS the concert? Why isn't she paying us?