“Dad, Mr. B yells at us a lot.” As a father, this is not how you want your child to describe their stepfather. I can think of few situations worse than your child’s welfare being placed in the hands of a strange man whose legal title designates them to be a “parent,” and yet you have no idea what kind of person they are. When my son told me about Mr. B’s yelling, I may have remained calm, but mentally a tidal wave of anger was building. Who the hell does this a-hole think he is yelling at my boys?
It’s been four years now, and I still haven’t met this man because my ex-wife won’t allow it for some unknown reason. All I’ve had to go off of so far are vague stories from my three sons, which have been less than flattering. With this latest one, I was already checking on plane reservations before even hanging up the phone. What I’ve failed to mention to this point, however, was that not twenty minutes earlier I had just yelled at my stepdaughter for something and made her cry. Was I being a hypocrite here?
Because I am the parent who is at home the most with my stepdaughters, there’s a higher probability I have to correct them, and I’ve had to raise my voice for valid reasons on more than a few occasions. This makes me uncomfortable. I can’t help but wonder what the girls’ biological father would say about me disciplining his girls. Could it be possible that the same might be true for my boys when their stepdad’s around?
I’m a father in the middle—the real father to three sons who spend most of their time under the roof of another man, and I’m the step-father who spends most of my time rearing another man’s children. One of these fathers I know well enough that we can talk about his kids, the other is a complete mystery.
It’s not easy, but what I have to remind myself of is to keep my emotions in check, and trace them to their source before acting. My emotions can get the best of me, making the situation worse. With Mr. B, a fear of the unknown pushes me to react; however, fear can extend both ways. According to Dr. Isolina Ricci, author of Mom’s House, Dad’s House: Making Two Homes for your Child, “Fears… can be subtle and hidden, but everyone, even the new [step-parent], has them.” I may have my concerns about Mr. B, but as a new stepdad, he has his own apprehensions too. So for me to unleash some serious shock and awe on him as our first contact wouldn’t make for a good start. This is why Dr. Ricci advocates that one parent, preferably the step-parent, reaches out to reassure the other. If you can do this, it establishes a line of communication and reduces tensions for all parties including the kids. Forcing it, though, could hurt those chances of ever establishing any rapport, so be judicious.
Something I often wonder about is knowing when my involvement as a stepdad ends? If a dialogue exists, then the answer is simpler: it’s whatever you agree on. I parent my stepchildren as I would my own, but with some exceptions, such as certain disciplinary actions. For minor stuff I take care of it on the spot; with major issues, however, that’s when I hand it over to their mother. She’s the one who reads the verdict, while I stand by so the girls know I’m in the loop. With my own kids, the opposite is true. Unless the boys are with me, my paternal involvement is kept at a minimum—a classic example of parental alienation.
This of course is frustrating, and my wife shares in that frustration recognizing the negative effects on my children. At the same, though, she also knows that directly involving herself won’t help which is why we maintain a strict policy of noninterference when it comes to contentious topics between us our former spouses. “Step-parent[s] need to sit back and be supportive of their spouse’s efforts,” advises Dr. Douglas Darnell in his book, Divorce Casualties: Understanding Parental Alienation. However, he warns that, “To get overly involved especially in emotional topics… becomes a problem.” And third party involvement is not limited to adults either.
Whatever relationship you may have with the other step-parent, putting the children in the middle is the worst things to do. This is a common item experts warn against, yet it’s an easy trap to fall into especially when emotions cause parents to compete for a child’s favor, to ask a child to be their spy, or to badmouth the other parent outright. Interrogating my son about Mr. B’s with the intent of undermining his parental authority would’ve been a huge mistake according to Julie Ross and Judy Corcoran who co-wrote Joint Custody with a Jerk. Putting kids in the middle “…places them in a vulnerable position. They will wind up feeling disloyal and resentful.” These feelings can also result in the child hyper-defending the other parent they perceive as not being treated fairly, which ironically, also puts them in a position of choosing sides even though the maligned parent is not asking to be defended. So, for me to seek out the favor of either my sons or my stepdaughters would eventually backfire once they realize that they were being manipulated.
All the advice aside, where does this leave me and Mr. B? There’s still no indication that the current dynamics will change anytime soon, and I don’t expect them to. What I’ve found to be help is to simply listen to what the boys have to say, and then mention that I would be talking their mother about it. If the boys are okay with this, then the usually is an issue. If the boys tell me not to or start changing their story, then chances are they were at fault. Either way I ask their mother, and to date, she’s confirmed my hunches. Regardless of past hurts, keeping the channel of communication open with my former spouse are not just essential, they’re all I’ve got, and to fly off the handle over Mr. B. would only put that in jeopardy.
Is this hard sometime? Very. But I have to keep the big picture in mind. I have to consider the consequences. Co-parenting in blended families should be focused on what’s best for the kids, and in this case, that means suppressing my fears and emotions for the sake of the big picture. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a time to act (which is why I always have a plane ticket on standby–Yeah, Mr. B, I’m your huckleberry). But there are also times when you have to wait too. It’s important to know the difference.
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Ron Mattocks is a father of five (3 sons, 2 stepdaughters) and author of the book, Sugar Milk: What One Dad Drinks When He Can’t Afford Vodka. He blogs at Clark Kent’s Lunchbox, and lives in Houston with his wife, Ashley, who eternally mocks his fervor for Coldplay.
Photo credit: ImageBase