How do you cope when love comes as a package deal?
Like that burger that comes with fries, soda and a cookie. You can’t have fries and you don’t drink soda. Still, you take it all, because the cashier said you’re paying for the entire meal either way.
It is said that as we get older, there’s a much higher probability of us pairing with life partners who’ve already had children.
Let’s face it, despite what’s on TV, we’re not all in our early twenties. Looking to ‘hook up, hang out and see where it goes.’ No ma’am, quite the opposite.
We hit our thirties (or our thirties hit us) and suddenly there’s a flurry of activity. We’re making the transition from cramped apartment to house with a backyard. We go from stuffed animals to adopting actual animals together. We break out the turkey basters and the engagement rings. Yep, the thirties will do that to ya.
Thus begins a new journey with a new life partner. And all her children. How do you navigate this new dynamic, when your partner’s kids seem determined to not get along with you? There are several factors to take into consideration:
Their biological mom was straight, until you showed up!
Now, chances are that Mommy dearest was gay even before she knew it. Or she took the road most traveled. She got married, had some kids, and then she discovered that she preferred softball.
Perhaps she ignored the truth for as long as she could manage, then cracks started appearing in her marriage. Then one day she fell through one, landed in some woman’s bed and the rest is history.
Doesn’t matter. To a bunch of kids, had you failed to exist, then their mom would still be with their dad. Except for the ones coming from a previous same sex family.
They may think you turned their mum gay and for that, you shan’t be forgiven. Not unless both you and your partner make a gallant effort to have a very awkward conversation.
For some of us adults, life is all about embracing what makes us unique, it’s about setting trends. For school age children though, it’s about fitting in and being just like everyone else. Being normal. It’s even more critical from a teen’s perspective. We all know there isn’t much else to life than what their peers think and what society deems ok. So, for a middle schooler, having openly gay parents could mean anything. From ‘totally trending’ to ‘I’ll probably have to kill myself.’
Let’s not forget the bullying factor and the effect that can have. Not to mention the homophobia that exists even on the playground. In fact, your own stepchild could very well become homophobic! If they think you’re the reason other kids tease them, you best believe you will not be on their list of favorite people. My suggestion, have that conversation.
They have a dad they don’t get to live with.
When a couple splits up, it usually means the kids no longer get to live under the same roof with both parents. Most kids want to live with the two people they saw first when they were born.
Sometimes they don’t get a say in the matter at all and if they do, it’s in court. They’re told who it is they’ll live with and who they’ll visit on weekends or holidays. Not only are they physically unstable but mentally as well. For children, home represents safety and comfort and now home is two places. Sometimes more. Gradually they become unhappy and angry, and they’re probably taking it out on you. If left unchecked, those feelings could fester and become a much bigger issue. It could also start to eat away at your relationship with your partner.
They were forced to pick sides.
Before you came along, what was your partner’s previous relationship like? What about the breakup, was it amicable? Are they still civil or even friendly with each other? Or was it a mess of arguments and constant tension in the home?
Why is all this important? Well if the kids know their parents hate each other, that will affect how they interact with each one. When they’re with one parent, do they hear negative talk about the other? Does their dad say things like “what your mother is doing is wrong, she’s confused and that woman is not your mother?”
What is your role in the kids’ lives? Is that role clear to all parties involved? Are you allowed to parent, or are you a permanent babysitter who isn’t allowed to instill discipline?
Does your partner make it clear to her kids what your role is? Do they think they don’t have to listen to you? Do you even want to parent? If anyone isn’t clear on all that, then you might have a permanently tense household.
They want their old life back.
Once upon a time they were a family that looked like every other family. Things were fine until they weren’t. Your presence is a constant reminder that they’ll never get their life back. They might just be trying to run you off by being brats. Don’t underestimate children, The Parent Trap showed me the lengths they’ll go to either get their parents to stay together or keep them apart.
Unfortunately, sucking up to them or bribing won’t always work, depending on the ages of the kids. You could probably buy a four year old’s love with their favorite action figure (I know this kid who cannot resist anything involving the Incredible Hulk) but a teenager will see right through that.
Having a conversation is a great way to sort feelings out. In fact, if your partner is civil towards her ex then you all could meet up at a neutral location and hang out/talk. I totally get that for most, this is the worst idea. However, it could be a very powerful thing for the kids to witness, seeing that their parents are still their parents. Hearing their dad/other mom say ‘you’ve gotta listen to Miss whatsit’ can easily move those little molehills that looked so much like mountains.
As the new parent (or person who appears to be) you can tell them they don’t have to call you mom unless they want to. Sometimes kids just need to hear it to be sure.
In the fourth grade, I had a classmate who got a new stepdad. She simply avoided talking to the man because she wasn’t sure what to call him. She felt like she’d be hurting her dad by giving her stepdad the same title, so she simply didn’t talk to him much.
Lastly, if you’re gonna have that meetup that's great! But be sure to ask the kids what they want and listen to what they tell you. That simple gesture works wonders for us as adults, so imagine what it can do for them.
About the writer:
Nattalie grew up in rural Jamaica and started writing at age eight. She is a screenwriter, playwright and author of the children’s book ‘Ash the Flash,’ available online and in Caribbean bookstores. She’s had one act plays showcased in NYC and won several creative writing competitions in Jamaica.
Feel free to read more of her articles at nattaliegordon.weebly.com
Follow her on IG @nattaliewithtwoteez