An awkward question for a step-parent is ‘how many kids do you have?’. As a woman, most of the time, people are asking if you’ve given birth, not really how many kids you parent. I have always said I don’t have kids of my own but I have two step children. Now, that I have my own daughter, who is only 2 months old, this question is somewhat easier to answer. However, if your mom was asked how many kids you have, she’ll likely only list the children that are yours and not your step children. In other words, your blended family is complicated for other members of your family and they may not consider it the same way that you do. What does my step-son call my parents if his sister calls them Nana and Papa? How much and when is a step-child involved in family events when you don’t have them full-time but your other child is? It is a space full of potential land mines!
As I’ve explained in my previous posts, I grew up in a blended family and now I have a blended family of my own. Generally, this makes my family slightly more prepared for others as my parents have already had to accommodate the dynamics around their own step-children but there are always missteps.
So, if you are a step-parent, here are a few things to discuss with your parents, siblings, cousins, aunts, uncles, etc.:
- Clarify to your family – I have made it clear to my parents and siblings quite that I consider my family to be my spouse, my step-daughter from my first marriage, my step-son from my current marriage and my new daughter. This means that if we have a family dinner, I could have 3 to 5 people attending that dinner depending on when it is held. My extended family can’t make any assumptions and I’ll ask for some celebrations to be rescheduled around when we have all the kids. Not all events must revolve around them, but the important ones are worth arranging schedules. I send reminders out to my family of events involving my step children as well as upcoming birthdays. This is my way of ensuring they are included.
- Presents – Children typically have many family members to buy gifts for them. Grandparents are living longer and when you add additional family members in a blended family, sometimes the gift giving can get a little crazy. In my family, my husband’s mother was used to being the only grandparent to buy her grandson gifts. Now, as he’s my step-son, he has access to my four parents as well…so he went from two grandparents to six overnight. If all members in the family buy him presents, things can really get out of hand. However, including him and getting him gifts is important for him to feel a part of the family and equal with the other kids. I regularly ask for educational gifts that are smaller, like books or puzzles but it can get tricky when my niece or nephew get a big gift and I’ve asked for a small one for my child. This will require some awkward conversations and adjustments for everyone, so be prepared for that. Remember that this isn’t just a shift for you but for everyone.
- Naming Extended Family – This gets a little tricky. When you have a blended family, even naming the step-parent can be difficult, however, extended family is a whole other cup of tea. For my step-daughter, who is now 19, I never pushed her or clarified any specific names for my family to her. She called me by name and generally calls all of my family by name. That being said, she was the oldest of all my parents’ grandchildren and a step-grandchild to boot, so I don’t think they really thought it out much. It never became a problem and we left it as is. However, for my step-son, the question did come up. So, we asked my parents what they were comfortable being called and asked my step-son what he wanted to do. So, we’ve used their grandparent names, same as all the grandkids – Nana & Papa and Granny & Poppa. This will be the names that my daughter uses and my niece and nephew use so we’re keeping it consistent and again everyone seems content. I feel much better, however, that the conversation happened in the first place.
There are always opportunities to misstep and being prepared to talk your step-child through any disappointment is important. Fairness is huge for children and if there are other kids in the family getting attention you’ll want to be sure the attention is equal. Recently, at my daughter’s baby shower, my mother’s cousin brought gifts for my niece and nephew as well as my daughter but she didn’t bring anything for my step-children. My step-daughter is too old to really care anymore but my step-son was hurt. Even though this was a woman he had never met (nor likely to meet again), but the fairness wasn’t there. I didn’t think to say anything nor did my mom, so we had hurt feelings and had to talk it through.
The best way to keep your whole family engaged through these bumps is to communicate. Reinforce with all of your family what you would expect from them, help them along if they need it and over time you will begin to find your normal.