7 Essential Facts Every Prospective Stepparent Must Know

Joe Donan

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Although I got married in May 2019, my step-parenting adventures date from 2014, when I began a relationship with the mother of my stepdaughter, right when the little girl—Giselle—was only six.

That’s when I learned that dating a single parent is a double commitment: your role as a step-parent doesn’t begin when you marry your partner, but the moment you start a relationship with them.

And since we recently celebrated Giselle’s twelfth birthday, I decided to write about all the experience I’ve gained during these six years of step-parenthood, with its ups and downs, its good and not-so-good moments, and its never-ending string of life lessons to be learned.

1. There’s a feeling of guilt and disappointment for not being there from the beginning.

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I’m pretty sure you’ve heard people bitterly complain that children “grow up too fast”. You know, that feeling of powerlessness against the passage of time and how it snatches away the best years of your life as a parent. Well, what if I told you it feels twice as fast when you’re a stepparent?

I met Giselle half-her-life-ago, if you’re reading this in 2020. Back then, she was playful, innocent, and very affectionate, three traits I fell in love with almost instantly.

Fast forward to the present day, and everything’s changed. Don’t get me wrong, she’s still one of my two favorite people in the whole world (the other one being my wife), but she’s no longer that little girl who used to run to me and expected me to play with her the whole afternoon.

Now, she’s the preadolescent girl who recluses herself in her room and spends most of her free time binge-watching YouTube videos, saving Pins, and reading novels. In fact, she recently finished The Diary Of A Young Girl.

I now realize six years passed by in the blink of an eye, and to think that in six more years she will be a college student and old enough to leave the nest is heartbreaking.

I really cannot speak for every stepparent out there, but in my case, there’s an inexplicable feeling of guilt that torments me for not being part of her life since she was born.

I know it’s not my fault, but it still bothers me, every day.

2. You get full responsibilities, but limited rights.

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As a stepfather now, it is my duty to care and provide for Giselle as any parent would (or should). Disciplinarian measures and procedures, however, are a completely different story.

There have been times when Giselle has made me lose patience. Moments when I’ve felt like shouting at her. Moments when I don’t feel like talking to her for a couple of hours. Moments when I’ve wanted to bang my head against the wall as a way of catharsis.

But guess what? I usually just close my eyes, take a deep breath, and swallow my annoyance and frustration instead. And this is a reality most stepparents have to face regularly: The feeling that you don’t have the right to enforce the authority a regular parent would.

The thing is, step-parents stand in a complicated position when it comes to child-raising: They get all of the responsibility (and the accountability that comes with it), but limited authority.

This situation is almost counter-intuitive. You may think you have the right to enforce full authority over your stepchildren because you work hard for them, but believe me, that’s not the case.

This is not to say, of course, that stepparents are completely powerless when it comes to correcting their spouse’s children. They just engage in disciplinary procedures with a different approach — one that is not as dramatic or severe.

The corrective role of a stepparent relies heavily on setting a good example for children rather than giving orders to them, actively providing advice instead of constantly telling them off, and being a friendly listener in lieu of an authoritarian figure.

A stepparent should be an ally, but never an accomplice. A friend, but never a bad influence. An advisor, but never an enforcer. Again, it may not make sense to you if you’re not a stepparent yourself, but that’s just the way it is.

3. As a stepparent, you rediscover your capacity for love and sacrifice.

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Ten years ago, I didn’t see myself raising someone else’s child — yet here I am, not only doing so but also loving every minute of it.

I love Giselle more than I could possibly express with my limited vocabulary. And just like anyone would with a child of their own, I’m ready and willing to do whatever it takes to keep her safe, sound, and happy.

I’ve read cases of blended families in which stepparents sadly have a very strong preference for their own children over their stepchildren, which I find sad and unfair.

Now, I know there’s a chance I will become a biological father someday, and that terrifies me. I’m afraid I will unconsciously favor my own child over Giselle, and I don’t ever want that to happen. I have to be careful not to make that mistake.

Then again, I don’t even know if I’ll ever father a child at all. But even if I don’t, I’ll die happily in the knowledge that I did have a daughter, one I loved with all my heart, and who loved me in return. And she will know there was a guy whose blood doesn’t run through her veins, but who loved her like no other man in the world would.

4. You will never be blood-related, but you will always be family.

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Over breakfast, as I was telling my wife about my plans to write a new post, Giselle overheard the conversation and asked me the following question:

“What is your post going to be about this time?”
“Well, I want to write about my experience as a stepfather.”
“Hmm, okay. But don’t use the word ‘stepfather’. Say ‘father’ instead.”

That melted my heart right on the spot! Giselle always addresses me by my first name — Joe — which is fine, but she never calls me “dad”. This time, however, I received confirmation that she doesn’t see me as just some guy her mother decided to marry. She sees me as her father.

That was certainly a relief. Believe it or not, stepparents do care what their stepchildren think of them, and I am no exception. In my experience, stepparents tend to doubt their own ability to raise a child, and thus they’re always silently expecting some sort of positive feedback from their children.

About a year before my wedding, while having lunch with my brother (a father himself), I confessed to him that I wasn’t sure about my capacity to raise Giselle properly. This is what he told me while calmly chomping on pizza:

“Listen, Joe: Blood doesn’t define parenthood. Anyone can have a kid, but it takes a highly committed, responsible, and righteous grown-up to be a parent. It’s not an easy task, but if you can be that person, you both will be fine.”

Brother was right. Now I’m constantly and actively doing my best to be that person he was talking about. And while it can be hard to assess myself on whether or not I’m qualified to be called a parent, Giselle’s approval is good enough for me.

5. Step-parenthood isn’t a popularity contest.

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Here’s a common step-parenting mistake: Wanting the spotlight. Aspiring to be the “cool” parent. Wishing to cast a shadow over the biological parent whose shoes they’re filling. And in the worst-case scenario, trying to redirect stepchildren’s affection from their spouse toward themselves.

As a step-dad myself, I know this is a subconscious way we stepparents deal with our own insecurities. After all, we want to make sure we’re doing things the right way, and that our stepchildren approve of our methods. And of course, we want to be loved in return because of them.

This can backfire, however, as a stepparent might end up becoming either too permissive or overly forgiving with their stepchild, allowing them to break their spouse’s rules routinely and systematically; thus throwing moral values out of the window in exchange for a few popularity points.

Also, if you’re a stepparent yourself, you don’t have the right to trash-talk the other biological parent, nor should you try to convince your stepchild that he or she is better off without them and that you’re the more suitable option. Not only is that wrong, but you’ll also be setting a terrible example for your stepchild in the process.

6. Time spent with stepchildren suddenly makes you understand your own parents.

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Childbirth is like a graduation ceremony. Your baby gets the Child Diploma, and you get the Parent Diploma — both on the same day. Then, little by little, you learn the ropes, you get experience, your child grows, and you evolve and change with them.

Adopting a child is a different matter. You become a parent, but they have been children for a while. In a way, they’re ahead of you. And you have to catch up with someone you haven’t helped to raise, at least not to that point. That alone poses a considerable challenge, as you suddenly have to adapt to this new situation.

You learn about what they like and what they don’t, their strengths and weaknesses, their hopes and fears, and their achievements and insecurities. You deal with a complex little human being whose development has had nothing to do with yours, and that can be hard.

And then, all of a sudden — more so than when you have a baby, I daresay — you start thinking of your parents. You remember the struggle they went through to provide the best they could for you. You start seeing your younger self in your stepchild, and you begin seeing your parents in yourself.

And in the middle of that amazing epiphany, you realize something even bigger and more astonishing about the old-fashioned and flawed progenitors you used to criticize so much:

“They were right all along.”

7. Don’t be too hard on yourself — you will never be a perfect stepparent, and that’s okay.

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A few years ago, I watched Riding In Cars With Boys, a 2001 film based on the true story of Beverly Donofrio, a young lady who struggles to fulfill her professional aspirations due to her unintended teenage pregnancy and several poor decisions she makes along the way.

In a rather sad scene, Beverly confesses to her best friend Fay that she’s conflicted about her motherhood, as she doesn’t know if she really loves her son Jason, or if she loves him because she has to. Fay consoles Bev by reassuring her she does love him, even if she’s not fully aware of it.

The scene ends with Jason nearly drowning in a small pool due to Bev’s negligence as a mother. Luckily, she rescues him on time and promises to be a better parent (while comically dropping him into the water again).

Look, just like no one can ever be a perfect parent, no one can aspire to be a flawless stepparent. You make lots of mistakes; that’s inevitable. But when you look back, you also discover you have done a lot of good things for your stepchildren.

Understanding this is essential if you plan to enjoy your step-parenthood. If you keep a scoresheet with the number of times you’ve messed up and you make a habit of constantly looking at it, basically you’re chastising yourself for being human.

The takeaway

Love knows nothing about DNA. Love only knows about commitment, sacrifice, patience, and service. Step-parents aren’t perfect, but they’re still parents. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise… not even yourself.

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Salvadoran writer, father, husband, educator, and artisan. I write about love and relationships, family, life lessons, and personal growth.

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