Call it what you will – a team, peeps, clan, kinfolk, your tribe. Most everyone has one. The group of ‘A-lister’ individuals you surround yourself with and can turn to whenever the occasion calls – and sometimes even when it doesn’t, just because they are a swell group of people who you like being around (and who like being around you).
Research shows that family and friends, the informal support network, are those most often approached when support is needed. When you talk with someone you trust, the burdens seem lighter and the problems can seem less of a concern. Your family and friends can’t necessarily fix the problems, nor should they even if they could. But they can offer various forms of emotional, information and physical support.
Relationships give us assistance, happiness, contentment, a sense we belong and a role to play in the world. The experience of belonging, and of the relationships people have with others, is what psychologists refer to as “social connectedness”. Social connectedness is integral to wellbeing. People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression and even lower mortality rates. The bottom line is that our lives and our mental health are made all the better by having people around to encourage us and help us out when we need it, particularly during tough times. The bottom line is that our lives and our mental health are made all the better by having people around to encourage us and help us out when we need it, particularly during tough times – stepparents are no different.
Just as we need a network of work colleagues to bounce ideas off, vent frustrations and guide us through new workplace procedures, stepparents too, need a strong network to support them in their role of parenting/caring for someone else’s child.
As a stepparent, the “team” you surround yourself with is a part of what helps keep you sane and safe during the trials, tribulations, celebrations and daily ups and downs of stepfamily life. They can be your support, your life line, your sense of humor and your voice of reason. They help you process difficulties, problems, concerns, and struggles. They help you celebrate the wins and successes, no matter how small. They anchor you.
If you don’t already have a team of people around you to call on (depending on what you need), there is no time like the present to start building one. And we think that there are five types of people you want, and need, to include on your stepparent team roster:
#1: People who knew you before stepparent-hood.
Friendship dynamics tend to change after we partner up, get married and especially after children come along (step or otherwise). Decreased time and evolving and competing priorities all contribute to us spending less and less time with the people who formed our inner circle before careers, husbands, wives, partners and children came into your world. That’s not a bad thing. After all there does come a time, no matter how young of heart we are, when most everyone has to give up the 3am clubbing and partying of singledom.
There’s no getting around the fact that it’s hard to maintain friendships after children appear on the scene. But having people on your team that knew you before you entered the world of stepparent-hood, who know you for who you are as a person – not just as a parent-like-figure/carer of somebody else’s children – can help keep you grounded. They can help you take a step back from the overwhelming nature of feeling like full-on parent with (possibly) none of the recognition or biological perks. They can provide you an adult ‘time out’ when it all feels a tad overwhelming. They can encourage and confirm that you are not going crazy. They can help you let your hair down and remind you to remain true to yourself and ensure that your relationship with your new partner is enhancing, rather than overtaking, your life.
#2: A seasoned stepparent mentor.
Stepfamilies make up close to 50% of the population in Australia. There are lots – and we mean LOTS – of people out there who have done this before and have been doing it for ages. This means that whatever your circumstances (whether your stepchildren’s other parent is deceased, involved or absent in the children’s lives and no matter what ages your stepkids were when they came into your life) there is a seasoned stepparent or perhaps a stepgrandparent out there who can mentor you; someone who has been there, done that, is happy to take you under their wing and can dish out some sage, sensible and realistic advice that encourages healthy stepparent behaviour and constructive ways of thinking.
Care needs to be taken however, when finding a mentor. The person down the street who complains and gripes about their having had the worst experience ever – you know the types “you think you have it bad, listen to what my stepkids’ father did to us…” – may not be the most suitable mentor. Nor the person who takes a moralising stance “this is what you get when you hook up with a divorcee with children. What did you expect would happen?” or encourages conflict with your stepchild’s other parent and their other household. We’re talking about identifying a calm, open-minded person, who has lived (or is living) the stepparent experience – the good, the bad, the ugly. They are skilled at mindful, active listening and can pay attention to you without imposing judgement, bringing a knowing wisdom to the conversation by offering experienced and helpful support.
#3: A stepparent at the same stage and place as you.
About to marry a man with a young toddler that he sees alternate weekends? Have full-time custody of your partner’s stepkids whose mother isn’t in their life? Entering into an equal shared 50/50 arrangement whereby your new partner has an established co-parenting relationship with their ex? There is a very high probability that you aren’t the only one. Speak to your friends, family, colleagues at work and locate a stepparent or two in the same or similar scenario as you. Sometimes each of us just need to hear that are fears and feelings in response to our stepparent experience are “normal”, that we are not going crazy or being unreasonable and there are other’s out there in the same (or a similar) boat. Normalizing our experiences can help to diminish anxiety and fear, assist us develop a “map” into this foreign territory and help us cope better with our own situation.
This person (or people) differ from a mentor in that you and this team member are at a similar stage in the stepparent journey and can lean on each other. You can debrief about the ins and outs of stepparent-hood that only someone in the same situation can understand – i.e. the school uniform didn’t come home washed again, the toddler is crying for his mother and seemingly inconsolable on weekends he is with you and your partner, the stepkids are fantasizing about their absent mother and imagine her to be something other than what she really is. This team member is about having someone on your team who truly understands your situation as no one else can because they are going through a similar time of trial themselves.
#4: A new acquaintance/friend that know both you and your partner as only you and your partner
You and your partner entered into your relationship with your own, separate, sets of friends which are important to maintain. But it is also smart to cultivate new friendships with other families and couples, together as a couple. Making friends and socializing with persons that only know you and your partner as a couple, who don’t necessarily know you or your partner’s history or have their own personal relationship with one or other of you or the Ex(s), can strengthen your step-couple relationship.
According to University of Maryland professor Geoffrey Greif and his co-author Kathleen Holtz Deal in Two Plus Two: Couples and their Couple Friendships , friendships are surprisingly important to marital wellbeing. The more people, friends, new and interesting things and social dynamics that a relationship/marriage has to react to and share, the more it remains capable of enchantment and novelty. They also add to the couple-friendship benefits, that socializing with another couple (or if they too have children, another family), can provide us with a mirror on how other couples and families handle such issues as raising children, managing conflict and balancing work and love lives.
And last but not least…….
#5: Your loving partner
Research has long told us that partner support can minimize stepparent stress and positively affect stepparent wellbeing. Back in 2012 Danielle Shapiro of the Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation at the University of Michigan conducted a study to see which factors contributed to and buffered stepparents from stress the most – partner support, biological parent support (the children’s other parent) and the children’s acceptance and support. The findings of Shapiro’s study suggested that partner support is a vital component of well-being and adjustment for new stepparents. It also apparently contributes to the overall success of a stepfamily.
Simply put, the one person who needs to be there for you the most is your spouse. They need to be your biggest cheerleader and biggest, unwavering, support. Most of us come into the step-experience with a great deal of insecurity because, irrespective of the parenting arrangement in place or the circumstances surrounding your spouse’s separation, a stepparent is in many respects the ‘intruder’ into a set of established relationships. A supportive partner who stands beside you, eases your fears and frustrations, backs you up even when you make mistakes, respects and loves you every step of the way, even during the rough and tough times, is invaluable.