Like many stepmothers, I’m sure, I’ve turned to the Internet for advice on stepparenting. There are a variety of articles on the subject out there; but the variety I come across more than any other is the “boundaries” article: that is, the list of boundaries that stepmoms should NEVER CROSS EVER UNDER PENALTY OF LOSING YOUR LICENSE TO STEPMOM. (Stepdads have boundary articles, too, but they are not nearly as ubiquitous.)
I loathe those articles. Every single one of them is wrong.
First: the very idea of “boundaries” in stepparenting is inherently divisive. We immediately know that, if somebody is talking about boundaries, that they are by extension talking about territory – those areas, whether physical or metaphorical, where certain types of people belong and other types do not. Stepmoms shouldn’t cross into “Momland”; Dads are not welcome in “Steptopia” (etc, etc). It implies that there is a fundamental difference between different kinds of parents (yes, stepparents are in fact parents too), other than that one kind of parent physically pushed the kid out of herself at one point, and that there are parents who are better qualified to parent based on a genetic relation to the child. Setting aside the argument of legality for a moment, we know that genetics don’t make people good parents. Parenting makes people good parents. The law says that children can have only two legal parents; but it takes a village to raise a child, and legality doesn’t necessarily equal practicality. I’ve found that life is a lot easier for everyone when each person is able to define their own niche and work together to form a cohesive parenting unit. Moms don’t need to be threatened that their kid has a stepmom – she’s an addition to the village, not a replacement mom.
Second: each of the “boundary” articles has the same flaw – there is no one-size-fits-all solution for parenting a child when it’s two parents, let alone three or four. I probably couldn’t do it if I wrote a book series; trying to derive a solution in the space of 600-800 words (the typical length of a blog post) is laughable. Every single family is different. Every single solution must be different. What’s important is that all the parents in the family show respect for each other (whether you feel it or not). We’re all dancing together here, folks; let’s try not to step on each other’s toes.
Third: a stepmom is a woman who married a man with a kid. I’m sure it differs between states, but in my state there is a clause in the custody agreement saying something along the lines of, “communication about visitation or other childcare related stuff won’t be done through the children or stepparents.” This basically means that Max’s mom shouldn’t be negotiating changes in visitation with me, or communicating discipline or anything else. (This is to protect stepparents and biological parents; stepparents can’t get harassed by high-conflict biological parents, and biological parents don’t get left out of the conversations they should be having. It’s also a little inconvenient, in that Chris often forgets to pass along information that I need to know. One time I heard him agree to a schedule change at the door when Max was dropped off, and after the door was shut I asked what the change was. He literally couldn’t remember the conversation he had just had. He had to text her and ask her to put in writing what he’d agreed to. Anyway.)
The people who make the rules in my house are my husband, me, and…actually, no that’s it. No one else. Chris and I will certainly consider her input when determining things like when Max goes to bed or what activities he takes part in, but she doesn’t have the authority in my house to flat-out TELL me how to run my household. Mine and Chris’s decisions are based on what is best for all three children who live with us, not just Max. Now, a certain degree of consistency is desirable; it makes transitions easier for Max, which is why we take it into account. When I’m able to make her rules or preferences a part of his life at my house, I do so. And I fully expect the same from her. I married her ex-husband, but that doesn’t mean I married her too. I will dance with her to the extent that Max needs me to – that doesn’t mean I have to dance the same dance that she’s dancing.
So. All of that being said, here’s my list of boundaries that NO parent should cross:
Don’t be disrespectful of the other parents.
To clarify: don’t talk s*** about any of the other parents in front of the child. Don’t try to make major decisions for the child without bringing in the other parents to weigh in. In general show respect for all other parents of the child (particularly in front of the child), even if you hate their guts. Compete to be the bigger person, and behave like a grown-up. To clarify further using the dancing metaphor: not stepping on other people’s toes doesn’t mean that they should be allowed to step on yours, BUT sometimes practicality and the fact that none of us really know what we’re doing mean that your toes will get stepped on from time to time. Forgive and forget.
That’s it. That’s the whole list. Stepmoms are frequently worried about legal issues that can arise when they have physical responsibility for their stepkids; I can address legal questions to a greater extent in another post, but if you follow the one thing on my list, you’re in pretty good shape. All other considerations, “boundaries”, etc will vary from person to person and family to family, and there’s no such thing as a truly comprehensive list of behaviors that stepmoms shouldn’t engage in.
Nobody knows all the steps, but we’re all dancing. Let’s just try to keep off everyone else’s toes.