Summer holidays are just about over. Can you hear that school bell ringing in the not-so-distant future?
No matter how many times you’ve done it before, crossing the school gates in your stepparent role can be daunting. Boundaries between a stepparent and an ex can be blurry at the best of times. But heading back to school seems to give those blurry lines laser sharp focus and microscopic attention. One unintentional step in the wrong direction and a stepmum can find herself serving a life-time detention.
Level of involvement
As a stepparent you have a clear reason and purpose for being involved (or not involved if that’s your thing) in your stepkids schooling. You are a special person in the child’s life (whether they acknowledge it or not) and schools are inclusive spaces where children are to be respected, valued and celebrated. Schools are the epitome of society acknowledging it takes a village to raise a child.
Many co-parenting families accept this. They work out the who, how, what and when of school with only a bit of awkwardness and a few tense moments between the adults and little impact on the kids. For others it’s a whole other story. Another opportunity to draw lines in the sand and develop additional and firm ‘no-go’ zones.
How present or involved you’ll be at your stepkids school is best determined by what works best for the child. If your presence means that your stepchild will be exposed to his parents in open conflict or that his mother won’t show up to watch his big solo in the school play, then it may be worth stepping back for the child’s sake.
What role to play
When it comes to school functions, events and fundraisers, it’s probably best to see yourself in the role of an auntie or beloved cousin. A supportive and excited observer. Aunts or uncles don’t usually participate in parent-teacher conferences, but they definitely show up for the school concert, sporting events and award assembly.
All children, particularly those growing up in a stepfamily, need help understanding and articulating their family trees. For a child (& stepparent) navigating the world of stepfamilies through the eyes of her peers (& their parents) raises challenges. What was always ‘just normal’ prior to starting school can suddenly become a wrath of questions about divorce, co-parenting and what is meant by the term half-sibling.
If your partner and you don’t provide your stepchild the answers and skills in understanding and explaining her own family tree, kids you don’t know may do it for her and in a way you don’t like.
Keep your own counsel
Always keep your own counsel once you enter the school gates. Just ask any kid in Year 5 – gossip spreads like wildfire in a school. School is not the place for a stepparent to vent. It’s not the place to discuss your concerns about the other parent, share details about your relationship with your partner or any parenting struggles you are having with your stepchild. Anticipate whatever you say will get back to the other parent. Use your personal friends, the ones you have outside of school, as your support.
Mums on the playground are notoriously bitchy. It’s one thing to manage dealing with your partner’s ex. Add navigating playground politics on top of that and it’s no wonder there are so many stepmums freaking out about heading back to school. Avoid the cliques. Don’t join school mum social media/Facebook groups. Don’t hang out in the playground. And, be prepared for ignorance.
People say really dumb things to stepparents. Particularly school mums and particularly to stepmums. I was once asked by a school mum where my stepson lived. As I was explaining where our home was in relation to the school, she interrupted with ‘no I mean when he is with his real family’. WTF. I was speechless – which gave me time to recover and respond in a kinder fashion verbally than what was running through my head. The kids at the school and their parents will be around your child for years, so be ready to always play nice. You’ll never regret being kind. Even when the circumstances aren’t.