I have been in my stepson’s life for a number of years now. He was a toddler when I first met his father. He is now fully-fledged teenage man-boy. I have watched and supported him (and his parents) as he has moved and lived between his two homes. And, notwithstanding my being the adult and him the child, it never ceases to amaze me how much he has taught me, about love, life, family, parenting, acceptance and tolerance – not to mention Minecraft and cross fit!
As I sit back, reflect and give thanks, here are the top 18 most valuable things my stepson has taught me and for which I am truly grateful:
There is always enough love to go around.
We all know that a child can love multiple people, including parents and stepparents, all at the same time and that love felt for one parent/family member/stepparent does not diminish the love felt by that same child for another parent/family member/stepparent. They do not have to choose (unless the adults involved make them). My stepson demonstrates this to me, over and over again, every single day. His love for those in his whole family knows no bounds – even on those occasions when his behaviour might suggest otherwise!
Balance is possible.
I have been taught that the idea of “balance” is the ebb and flow between the different areas of our lives which will forever be tipping back and forth. Therefore, achieving “balance” is more about putting a framework in place that allows you to be flexible and respond to the needs of any given day, week or month with less stress and more clarity. Within our family we have discovered that balance isn’t an end destination or goal but an ongoing, evolving and changing (and sometimes challenging) process.
Your attitude defines you.
Time and time again my stepson reminds me of how just one member of family can be a source of positiveenergy to the entire household and how one person being a “downer” can bring everyone else down to their level of un-enthusiasm. Attitudes (like emotions) are contagious. As Shakespeare once said, “nothing is good or bad but thinking makes it so”.
Self-sacrifice for those you love shouldn’t be a part of anyone’s childhood.
I have no doubt that my stepson, despite the best intentions of all the adults, has perhaps not spoken his mind, concealed his feelings about something or not asked for something he really wanted in order to avoid conflict and/or protect the feelings of one or other of his parents or possibly even me, his stepmom. Nobody or no family is perfect. I have learnt that sometimes, when this happens, understanding the details and ‘cause’ of the problem is not often necessary in order to find a solution, that ensures my stepson doesn’t miss out on something that is important to him.
One size doesn’t fit all.
What I now know is that there is no “one size fits all” solution for parenting arrangements, primarily because each child is different. What works for one child, might not work for the other. Children come hardwired with their own temperament and then their age, stage of development and life experiences (including their experiences of family and of being parented) shape them even further. What has worked for my stepson, does not always for my other children and vice versa. Children are the original work in progress!
There is more than one way to do things.
We all think our way is the best way, of course, but as long as the end result is the same that is all that truly matters.
Sharing your time is a precious gift. Don’t waste it.
As parents and stepparents, we usually want as much time as possible with our family, children and stepchildren included. But children need both parents. In stepfamilies and in family’s where parents have separated, we (i.e. the adults) have to share. My stepson has taught me not to waste the time we get together, bemoaning the other home and missing what we think we are missing out on.
Sometimes kids have bad days for no other reason than it’s a bad day (and they are human).
“So often, children are punished for being human. Children are not allowed to have grumpy moods, bad days, disrespectful tones, or bad attitudes, yet we adults have them all the time! We think if we don’t nip it in the bud, it will escalate and we will lose control. Let go of that unfounded fear and give your child permission to be human. We all have days like that. None of us are perfect, and we must stop holding our children to a higher standard of perfection than we can attain ourselves. All of the punishments you could throw at them will not stamp out their humanity, for to err is human, and we all do it sometimes.” – The Newbies Guide to Positive Parenting” by Rebeca Eanes.
Having to choose between people and things you love sucks.
My stepson was very young when his parents separated and he really only has memories of ever living with one of his parents at a time. He has no doubt had to cope with his longing for a parent who is not there, spending less time in each home than perhaps he might want to and not always having both parents, all of his siblings and both sides of his family together in one place at the same time. Sometimes that sucks (for him). However, one of things that also sucks, is those occasions when he has missed out on doing something with his friends or attending a birthday party because the parenting arrangement dictates that it is his time to spend with one or other of his parents and/or to attend a family event.
As my stepson has gotten older, I know that his desire to do things with his friends is developmentally appropriate and have learnt that this does not mean his relationships with his family are less important. His focus is shifting towards persons and events outside of family. Sometimes in order to meet his needs, his father and I have to be OK with not seeing him as much as we would like to.
Routine and flexibility are equally important in the life of a stepchild.
Every child needs structure, rules and limits – even adolescents. Within these boundaries and routine is the freedom for kids to test, be creative and learn. Flexibility however is just as important to accommodate the unexpected and so that they do not miss out on things. Flexibility makes it easier for children to move between homes and participate in special activities and celebrations and family trips. How does that saying go? “the best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry…..”.
Sometimes what happens in your life is just because you are a kid and not because your parents separated. It’s important for the adults to know the difference.
See lesson #9.
There is always a positive side to any situation.
There’s always something positive in every situation, you just have to find it. My stepson is living proof that getting in the habit of looking at the positive side of things can also prove effective in getting you out of trouble sometimes!
Kids can manage lots of different rules in different places at different times and come out just fine.
Our home is very different from my stepson’s mother’s home. So too are the rules and expectations about chores, school, acceptable and unacceptable behaviour, curfews etc. It took me a little longer than it probably should have to realise that this bothered me more than it bothered or affected my stepson. He just grew up knowing that mum and dad and stepmom each have different personalities and different ways of doing things.
Having a space to call your own is important.
My stepson really appreciates having a space to call his own. His bedroom is somewhere that allows him to have that sense of “my own things, here” and creates a sense of belonging (for him) at home with us. He also has his own space at home with his mum. This means irrespective of where he is, he has a space in which he can just be himself, to retreat to when needed, for privacy, for solitude, for thinking or for escaping his younger siblings.
You can belong even if you aren’t present every day.
Even though my stepson isn’t with us half of the time, he still had a presence in our home. In the same way, even when he is separated from his father and me (his stepmom) he is still our responsibility, irrespective of whether he is with his mum, at school, camp, sports practice or out with friends. We still love him and think of him. He is still a part of the day to day conversation in our home, not least because his siblings talk about (or complain about) him and ask us when he was coming “home”. Now that he is older, texting, phone calls and social media all provide additional ways for us all to stay connected and in loop, when he is somewhere else.
Family traditions and rituals are important (whatever your age)
Rituals and traditions help communicate ‘this is who we are’ as a family and give everyone a sense of belonging. I thought that now my stepson is a teenager, he might baulk at participating in some of our established family rituals, like all of us going out to buy a “real” Christmas tree early in December or hunting for Easter eggs over the Easter long weekend. However, he very rarely does and funnily enough he is often the first to remind us, if he thinks that his father or I have forgotten a particular ritual or celebration.
Acceptance of differences is one of the most wonderful gifts you can give.
My stepson is important to me. I love him. He comes with a large family that includes his mother and her family (my husband’s ex-partner and in-laws). Over the years I have learnt that accepting people does not itself mean agreeing with them, approving of them, waiving my own rights, or downplaying the impact upon me and my family of their behaviour. With regard to my stepson’s wider family, as much as there are things (or persons) I might wish to change, I have to accept the reality of all those other people, their strengths and their weaknesses. I may not like it, I may wish it were different. There are times I may feel sad or angry about it, but at a deeper level, I have had to find peace with it – otherwise it would eat me up.
My acceptance of the differences within my stepson’s entire family is also, in a broader sense, my unconditional acceptance of him – and that is one of the most powerful things, as a stepmom, I believe I can do.