Q&A: Helping new partner define role with your kids with guest expert

Heads up: I'll be on "The Daily Circuit" on Minnesota Public Radio today (Friday) at 11 am Central time talking about the opt-out stuff from my Atlantic piece. Here's the show info, and the livestream link is there. I'll post the archive afterward when they put it up.

Today's question is about step-parenting, which I know nothing about, so I tossed it to Deesha Philyaw (with whom I teach the Writing Through Your Divorce online workshop) . Deesha is a step-mom herself, and her children have a step-mom, so she's got the view from both sides.

Anon writes: 

I have divorced from my kids dad, and we are working very hard (and so far succeeding on the whole) to co-parent them in the style that you are so good at modeling.  
My question today is about helping my boyfriend (hate that there is no better word for that, seems a bit juvenile to use at age 40), who is childless and before me never envisioned having children, figure out what his role will/can/could be my childrens' lives. Neither he nor I have ever seen a terribly healthy step-parent relationship up close (both our folks are still together, and the divorces we've been spectator to have not included involved co-parents, etc etc)
This is all conceptual/information gathering at the moment, as the kids and he have not yet met. Both he and I see us forming a new life together and that obviously will include my children, and he's a researcher and reader and planner (as am I), and I'd love to be able to point him/us to books/articles/personal stories to help us both understand the role of a stepparent when the kids already have a super-active and involved father - i.e they don't need a surrogate dad per se.  I'd love to get us off on the right foot towards whatever that relationship ends up looking like from the initial meeting.  Any thoughts or been-there-done-thats that your readers could share would be most welcome.

Deesha responds:

First, kudos to both of you for being so thoughtful about this and planning ahead.  You're avoiding the trap that some well-meaning folks find themselves in: "We love each other, so of course the kids will love this new person, and we'll all get along swimmingly!"  As with so many things, love isn't enough.  A gradual introduction can help kids adjust.  Starting with short, fun outings in public places give everyone a chance to meet without the high pressure of, say, a holiday dinner, someone's birthday, or a road trip.

When my ex and I separated, we agreed to give each other the opportunity to meet anyone we were serious about, prior to that person meeting our kids.  We both did that, so when the kids told us about meeting Mom's new friend or Dad's new friend, we were able to say that we'd also met them.  What this seems to have done is freed our kids up to get to know these new people (who eventually became their stepparents) without fear of betraying the other parent or feeling like they couldn't talk about what a good time they'd had.  They could also talk about things that bothered them or feelings they were struggling with without worrying that the things they shared would fuel some larger gripes the adults had with each other.  I gave my children permission to get to know and like their stepmom, Sherry.  I genuinely like her myself, but even if I didn't, I wouldn't have burdened my kids with that information.

After those initial grown-up meetings, my then-boyfriend/now-husband C and I met up with the kids (my 2 girls and his 2 girls) at Dave & Buster's. It was loud and fun.  My kids and C's oldest daughter spent more time engaging each other than us as adults.  His younger daughter, however, was definitely checking me out and sizing me up, good-naturedly.  It seemed she was hoping I was going to try and "win her over" by doting and being indulgent, but instead I was engaged without being cloying, and gave them their space.  Of course I wanted them to like me, but I didn't want them to feel pressured to like me right away.  Generally, I followed their lead.  When they got to the point where they wanted to hug me or tell me things that were happening in their lives, I welcomed it, and I reciprocated.

My ex is a very involved father, so my kids didn't need a surrogate dad either.  My kids enjoys C's company and sense of humor. C considers himself a resource, someone who cares for, encourages, and supports my children, and who is a support to me as a parent. I feel similarly about my role in his children's lives.  Not a replacement parent, but I'm there for my bonus daughters, committed to loving and caring for them, and supporting my husband as he parents.

My kids really liked Sherry, right off the bat, when they first met her.  Or so it seemed.  It turns out that my youngest, Peyton, who was 4 or 5 at the time, was asking Sherry to take her to the bathroom whenever they all went out to restaurants. In private, she would say awful things to Sherry, making it clear that she didn't want her around!  So my ex had to address that with Peyton and talk about how she felt about him having someone else in her life.

My ex and I also aimed to do more listening than talking when it came to conversations with our children about our new partners.  We wanted to allow their relationships with our new partners to develop in their own time and in their own ways. No pressure from us to "like' this person or approve.  However, we did expect them to be respectful, as we would with anyone.

I think my girls are able to embrace having stepparents because we (the adults) are all respectful of each other's roles and boundaries.  For example, Sherry is more of a shopper than I am, so my teen daughter Taylor shops more with Sherry than she does with me.  However, I told them that I wanted to be the one who took Taylor to buy her first heels and make-up, and it was understood.

Two resources come to mind.  Our book Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce has a chapter on dating with kids in the mix and remarriage.  Also the Step and Blended Family Institute has good resources for those who are "step-dating."

Good luck!


Deesha runs the site Co-parenting 101, which contains tons and tons of resources for co-parents, including a podcast, guest posts, and resources on step-parenting.