Latest update: June 18th, 2012
Menchlichkeit, good middos, patience and wisdom are the accolades I heard over and over again by stepchildren and stepparents when I asked them to describe the attributes of a good stepparent.
I spoke with those who became stepchildren when a widowed parent remarried. Others came from families where one of their divorced parents married a single person. Then there were those where the new “parent” had also been divorced. At times the “stepparent” had children of their own and the families were blended. But, whether the comments were coming from the perspective of the child or of the stepparent, the ingredients for a successful stepfamily experience were basically the same.
Sima’s* parents divorced when she was quite young. Over the years Sima became religious – her father did not. This had caused a great strain on their relationship, to the point where Sima had to be forced to spend time with him. Several years later, her father remarried a divorced woman with children. To Sima’s new stepmother the strain in the relationship was unacceptable. “I am not interested in being married to a man who does not have a relationship with his children.” So, she decided to take on the role of buffer between him and his children. In addition, Sima was the only girl in this blended family, and her stepmother was thrilled to finally have a “daughter.” All of this made it possible for Sima to have a dad. As far as her stepmother was concerned, there was nothing Sima could do wrong – they got along great. She also never tried to take Sima’s mother place. Once, when Sima called her stepmother “Mom,” she responded, “I’m not your Mom, but I’d like to try to be like her. She’s a wonderful woman.”
Rina showed tremendous wisdom. She was a single woman who married a widower with a large family. The children were quite young at the time of the remarriage. I asked Rina what made her such an exceptional stepmother. Her advice was, “love them as your own children,” and “never erase the memory of the deceased parent, even if some of the children are too young to remember her.”
Rina keeps photo albums readily accessible and both she and her husband tell the children stories about their deceased mother. She constantly reassures them that it is not disloyal to love two mothers. Rina advises that stepfamilies begin therapy immediately, even before the wedding, to allow everyone the time to deal with feelings and adjustments. Above all she says, never poison a child’s mind. Her feeling is that teenagers are the most difficult to deal with, even if you have raised them for most of their lives. She works hard at remembering that they are young and has full faith that they are, in general, good people. She doesn’t take their comments personally. Most special of all, she regularly invites her husband’s former in-laws to spend Shabbos with them and to always feel their status as esteemed grandparents.
Malka was already married when her mother passed away. Her father subsequently married a widow with children. Malka and her family call her Savta to distinguish between her and her deceased mother. Malka has a stepmother on both sides – her father-in-law had remarried as well. And even though he has since passed away, her husband’s stepmother remains an integral part of the family.
Malka says that what she values in both of these women are their warmth and friendly interest. Neither has ever stepped over the boundaries and every member of the family is motivated to be nice to everyone else.
Zahava married a divorced man with children; let’s call him Sholom. Subsequently, she and Sholom had a child together. All of the siblings got along very well. However, Sholom’s first wife and her parents tried to turn the children against Sholom and Zahava.
An important maxim for stepparenting is that “you cannot hate your ‘ex’ more than you love your children.” The stepchildren, who are now grown and live near Sholom and Zahava, have a difficult time having a relationship with them because they feel they would be betraying their birth mother – even though she herself has remarried and had other children. In addition, because the children did not grow up with their father, they resent having to share him with Zahava.
It is important for the stepparents to learn not to allow the actions of their stepchildren to bother them too much. Often, what is being done is something that would be excused or overlooked if done by their birth children. Compassion for what the children have gone through, and the scars they bear, can go a long way in building a healthy relationship. As hard as it is, the stepparent must always act like the adult and never act in a retaliatory fashion.
So what are some of the important principles of stepparenting?
1. Be loving, giving and accepting.
2. Show care by being concerned, asking questions, and wanting to know about your stepchildren, while not moving in too close or too fast.
3. Learn their cues and don’t be intrusive.
4. If there are grandchildren, show an interest in them.
5. Remember, you are not the parent.
6. Get counseling as a family from the beginning.
7. Decide on what the stepparent should be called.
8. Be empathic to the stepparent who is trying to find a role with his/her stepchildren.
9. Don’t allow your children to be rude to your spouse.
10. Allow for mourning over the loss of the original family unit.
11. Make your new spouse come first. Communicate and support each other in your dealings with the children.
12. Ambivalence and negative feelings are a reality of living in a stepfamily. Don’t try to be the perfect stepparent. Your resentment will show through.
Some of the wonderful comments I heard from those I interviewed are important lessons.
1. He’s warm. I admire and respect him. He gives brochos and is very supportive. He is an excellent role model.
2. He treated us well. He treated me like I had a brain in my head. He encouraged me.
3. He considered my daughter as if she were his daughter. He paid school tuition, went to school events, bought her clothing, worked on the computer with her and included her in our vacations.
4. I taught my stepson how to talk on a date. As a stepparent, you need wisdom to know how to use your middos. You need to have compassion for your stepchild and what they went through. Soften your attitude toward their misbehavior. Respect the children. Be patient. Use goodwill to make the relationship work. Don’t let your emotions rule over your brains.
Two closing stories
1. A widower married a divorcee with children. Soon they had children together. The wife’s ex-husband had no money and did not show much interest in his children. The wife and her new husband never pursued child support. They just took care of everything the children needed together. When the ex-husband passed away, there was no money for the burial .So the new husband paid for and conducted the funeral – and since there were no sons, he says kaddish for him every year on his yahrtzeit.
2. Dina’s mother had been widowed for many years when her mother married Sam. Dina’s grandmother, her father’s mother, was still alive and for years, Sam cooked and helped take care of her. As Dina says, “He didn’t raise me, but I respect him for what he did and it makes me happy to see that he makes my mother happy.”
*Names have all been changed and stories altered to protect confidentiality
Tina Kahn is a New York State Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist. With over 25 years of experience, she specializes in marital and communication issues, self-esteem, depression and anxiety. She also uses hypnotherapy for pain management and early childhood issues. Tina Kahn is a member of Nefesh and of the New York Society for Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Hypnosis. Tina Kahn is in private practice in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at 718-253-3973.
About the Author: Tina Kahn is a New York State Licensed Mental Health Counselor and Marriage and Family Therapist. With over 25 years of experience, she specializes in marital and communication issues, self-esteem, depression and anxiety. She also uses hypnotherapy for pain management and early childhood issues. Tina Kahn is a member of Nefesh and of the New York Society for Ericksonian Psychotherapy and Hypnosis. Tina Kahn is in private practice in the Midwood section of Brooklyn. She can be reached at email@example.com or at 718-253-3973.
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