Prompted by a tweet from @redheadstepmom, I was reminded of how my husband brought me into his children's lives. Given that my husband and I worked together at the time, I met his children in the office from time to time before we actually began dating. In fact, it was his interactions with his children and the amount of time he spent with them that first caught my attention. My husband had been living as a single father for some time, and his children were of an age that they expected he would be dating. In fact, they wondered why he wasn't! And the middle one was even encouraging a relationship with the new blonde at the office! By the time his birthday rolled around, we were openly dating. It was his children that invited me to his birthday dinner. And so it was... the kids, their dad and me.
I did not understand the blessing in that simplicity then. We encountered little resistance in our dating relationship. Essentially, that was because the kids were on board. They were ready for their dad to be happy after watching him struggle in a difficult marriage.
But not all love stories begin that easily. Not all kids are ready for their parents to move on and find love. Not all kids are open to the idea of sharing their parents with outsiders. So how do you get the kids on board? How do you know when to introduce the children to the new partner?
1. Has there been sufficient time for the children to adjust to the divorce, or death of their other parent?
Some experts will say that at least one to two years should pass before an introduction should occur after either of the above events. However, no expert can tell you how long it will take your children to mourn a divorce or a death. It may take six months. It may take five years. The time will likely depend upon the pain involved. In the meantime, no one is saying that your needs do not matter. They do. But you are first responsible for the best interests of your children. You brought them into the world. You are responsible for their well-being.
I know a gentleman who moved his new partner into the marital home, while having joint custody of his children, mere months after the divorce filing. It's no wonder that a year later the children are having difficulties adjusting to their dad's relationship. They complain about her, wonder why they have to do everything with her and yearn for time alone with their dad. It's likely that a number of these issues could have been prevented had a better timeline been put into place. It's obvious the children, ages 16 and 9, were not yet adjusted to their parents' divorce before he forced them into a new situation.
2. Look at the level of commitment in the relationship. Is this a serious relationship? Is your partner willing to be involved in your children's lives?
Depending upon how many people you are dating and/or the age of your children, this may not be an issue. But experts agree that you shouldn't introduce your children to every person that you date. Remember, you are not just evaluating a partner for you this time around! However, if you are settled into a long-term relationship and spending significant amounts of time with your partner, it may be time to address the issue. Of course, make certain this is a person that you want in your children's lives.
Kids are resilient. Once they are open to a partner in their parent's life, they are likely to form an attachment. I once recall actress/performer Jenny McCarthy being particularly vocal about her ex-boyfriend Jim Carrey's failure to maintain a relationship with her then young son after their break-up. She said that her son formed an attachment during their five year dating relationship and Jim's failure to continue a relationship with her son has stunted his emotional growth.
You know your kids and their attachment levels. Should the relationship not last, how will they react? Would your partner continue a relationship with them?
3. Do you envision your partner as part of the family? Is marriage in the future?
Obviously if marriage is in the future, the scenario changes altogether. For one thing, I think there's no need in rushing to the altar. If you are in it for the long haul, you should take the time to get it right. In other words, don't rush to introduce your children to your new partner, don't rush to get married. Enjoy this time in your life!
Though I knew my husband's children early on in our dating relationship, we did not rush our relationship. We took our time. We found a church we could all attend together, and then talked to our pastor. We made a life together before the wedding ever took place (two and a half years later). In fact, we simply wanted to be married but the kids wanted a party! (I'm glad that we did because we have amazing memories of our wedding! And my stepson's toast was to die for!)
My husband and I have talked hypothetically about what path we would have taken had his children been resistant to our relationship. Our theory was that our love would last. It would last long after the kids moved out and went on with their lives. And if we had had to wait that long to marry... we would have.
Now that you have determined it's a good time to introduce your partner and your children, how do you proceed?
1. Talk to your children about the relationship.
Let them know of your enthusiasm for the relationship. Let them know that you are excited for them to meet. Your own demeanor will encourage your children.
2. Introduce them in an informal way through a group activity.
One stepmom friend shared that she brought along her best friend, and perhaps more importantly her dog when meeting her stepchildren for the first time. Certainly made for a fun way to start a relationship! Plus, it gave them a common interest. Don't worry--it doesn't set the tone that you will be a "Disney" parent. It merely reinforces your interest in having fun with them.
3. Maintain alone time with your children. Allow your partner to do the same.
I think this is one of the most important factors for parents and stepparents in making children comfortable. Children often want time alone with their parent, especially in the beginning of a new familial relationship. Honor that desire for them.
4. Assure your children that their feelings are natural.
Don't force them into liking your partner. It will cause resentment. They need to know that all feelings are valid and it is important to express them. They are entitled to their own opinion. They don't have to love or even like your partner, but respect is in order. Take the time to listen and reinforce the validity of their feelings. They often will tell you things that you are overlooking because you are caught up in the relationship.
5. When in doubt, seek counsel--pastor or other spiritual leader, stepfamily coach, or even a therapist.
I applaud anyone who takes the opportunity to seek counsel from learned individuals who have the best interests of the family at heart. Friends are great, but often we need professionals or those with experience in the stepfamily arena.
In sum, the beginnings of any relationship are filled with excitement and anxiety, and so it goes in the beginnings of stepfamily relationships. Be smart, keep your children's best interests at heart and reach out for help when needed. You can build happy, healthy stepfamily relationships.