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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

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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.

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"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?

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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

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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.

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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.

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"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.

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3
You Become Connected to Your Spouse's Ex Whether You Like It or Not

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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.

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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.

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Wait, she IS the concert? Why isn't she paying us?

2
You Learn That There's Such a Thing as "Too Nice"

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Sometimes a movie or TV show will feature a stepparent as a character, and that person is usually presented as less than likeable. A good example of this is every movie ever made that has a stepparent. If it's not the stepparent being a douchebag, it's a rebellious little fuckhead kid who has to eventually be convinced that the adult is worthy of respect. That idea is so engrained in pop culture that it's easy to enter a relationship expecting the worst.

It's natural to be scared of that idea, especially if you don't have kids of your own. But in doing so, what often happens is that the stepparent goes the polar opposite direction and becomes overly nice. That seems like a weird phrase at first, until you realize that even the most well-behaved kid will learn to take advantage of it. "Dad is going to say no if I ask to borrow the machine gun. But Emily won't! I'll ask her instead."

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"Yeah, but you know the rule: no shooting at ambulances. Don't give me that look, mister."

Even outside the realm of manipulation, you can easily get buried in selfless activities because it's hard to know when to say "I'm done" when the kids want to play nonstop. My daughter likes to talk constantly, and it can get pretty damn trying at times. If you don't eventually cut her off and tell her that it's time for her to give the adults a break, she will just keep going until she passes out from lack of oxygen. My wife had to learn the hard way that doing that is perfectly OK, that she's not damaging the kids by needing time away from them.

It's not easy to do. You feel guilty. You feel like you're making them hate you. Or worse, making them think that you loathe being around them. But kids are smarter than we give them credit for. Unless they have a genuine behavioral or emotional problem, simply explaining that you need some alone time is pretty much all it takes to make them understand. Or barring that, getting them in a figure-four leg lock and screaming, "You still feel like sticking around, bitch?! WOOOOOO!"

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"Now hit my music! I'm outtie!"

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1
You Have All the Duties of a Parent, but You're Not Considered One

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My wife doesn't have kids of her own, but she shares every facet of parenthood with me. She takes care of them when they're sick, helps feed them, talks to them when they have problems, openly shows them love and respect ... but talk to someone outside of the family, and they will look at her as more of a babysitter than a parent.

There's still an attitude of "Well, it's different when they're your own kids." If they're talking about a biological, blood connection with them, they yes, they're right. The truth, though, is that she's every bit as much of a parent to my kids as I am. I may have the final say in how they're raised while under our roof, but that's only a technicality. I talk to her as much as I talk to the kids' mother about parenting decisions. It's a team effort. It has to be.

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"Here, I'll take over for a bit. You go shoot some black tar heroin and calm down."

But it's extremely frustrating for a stepparent to put in all of that hard work and dedication, only to be looked at as a "helper" for the "real" parents. I guess the real battle there is making sure the kids don't view her in that light. Luckily, ours don't, but firsthand experience with my own stepparents tells me that it's entirely possible. "You're not my REAL mom! I don't have to listen to you! I'm 25 years old!"

If you're going into this situation yourself, don't let this article scare you off. If all of the family members are normal, adjusted people, the transition just takes a little time, patience, and the balls to fail a few times. You'll be surprised how quickly it becomes second nature. And as far as not being credited, thanked, or recognized as a genuine staple of their lives ... don't worry, parents go through that, too. It means you're on the right track. People only really call attention to your parental work when you fuck up the kids.


John is an editor and columnist right here at Cracked, with a new article every Thursday. You can also find him on Twitter and Facebook. Special thanks to my wife, Emily, for helping me with this article!

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