I want to have a healthy relationship with my partner's young son
July 18, 2011 6:05 PM   Subscribe

I'm in a relationship with the man of my dreams (who has also been a close friends for years before we got together) and I couldn't be happier. It is serious and it is going in the "forever" direction. He has a young son, though and I want help introducing myself to his life without causing too much stress or confusion. Also, divorce fun times...

I have been very close friends with a man for years (over three). I'm 30-ish, he is a few years older. We were only ever friends (albeit close ones), and everything was very very platonic and appropriate (we only ever hung out together as part of a larger group) and we never crossed any line. However, he has been unhappily married for as long as I've known him but it was something we just never talked about. Earlier this year she made the decision to end their marriage, they both are incredibly relieved it is finally over, and they filed for separation. (They have to be separated for a year before you can get a divorce.) So far every thing has been amicable. Basically they both just want it over and done with so that they can get on with their lives.

The second the separation became public knowledge literally everyone that knows us just waited for us to get together and no one (except for me and him) were surprised when we did. Even his soon-to-be-ex-wife expected it (not in a "OMG you were cheating!" way, in a "You two always got along so well" way) and is happy for us. (She is already dating someone else so everyone is being very friendly.) Anyway, It has been absolutely wonderful. We're both old enough that we know what we want, we aren't interesting in jumping in to something without thinking it through or being impulsive, we had a very long conversation when it became clear that dating was an option, but both of us are very very happy now that we are together and have the distinct sense that this is likely going someplace serious. After being basically best friends for over three years we already know each other really really well, and this relationship just feels right. Very very right.

So here comes the question: he has a four year old son with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. They share custody 50/50 so having a part time child is a reality I am facing. Over the years I have met his son briefly a few times, but in general his son doesn't know me from Adam. Since we've started dating I have hesitated in including myself in his life - I don't think it is fair to add me in to the mix while he is still trying to acclimate to the fact that his parents don't live together any more - but in time I WILL need to be introduced in to his life. I'm looking for any tips or suggestions for how to make this as easy for his son as possible. I'd also be interested in anyone's personal experiences in dating someone with a young child, navigating the ex-wife waters, and (yes, this is jumping the gun) people's experiences being a step mom. I don't want to cause any issue with his mother, I don't want anyone to think I am trying to compete or replace her. I do, however, would like to have some level of closeness with him if possible...
posted by gwenlister to Human Relations (9 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You have already done the right thing in asking "how to make this as easy as for his son as possible." Your genuine concern for the child will help you get through most of the difficulty of being a stepparent (or step-parent-to-be.) Seriously.
The biggest potential drawback is that when it comes to stepparenting, you get all the responsibility but none of the power. Especially while the child is young. Mom and Dad get to make the call and you may have to enforce it, or at least live with it. It helps a lot if the father supports you and understands how complicated stepparenting can be.
When dealing with Mom, let Dad take the lead. It's important that their relationship remain as healthy as possible, for the child's sake.

I've been a step-parent for about 19 years and a parent for 14.
posted by Ochre,Hugh at 7:03 PM on July 18, 2011

1. You need to know what the kid's personality is. Dad should help out here. Is the kid laid back? A bit uptight? Extroverted, introverted?

2. You need to respect the kid's personality and space.

3. Recognize that he is a kid, so may or do hurtful things at this stress out time. Take it in stride.

4. Don't pander to him or attempt to spoil him. This is extremely important because the relationship you have with him as kid will likely be the sort you have with him as teenager, when hormones attack and they start to grow away from. It's better to have a foundation of fun, love and trust, than one a relationship of animosity at that point.

On being a step parent:

Never belittle the other parent. EVER. Do not attempt to change, manage or prevent whatever relation they have. Consider yourself the backup parent, another guardian in the kid's life. That said, don't take any shit from the ex. In your house, it's your rules (which should be arrived at with dad, of course). On larger issues, such as where the kid goes to school and what not, it's better, far better to have the ex as an ally then an enemy.

Give it time. Give the kid space, let your relationship with him grow naturally, don't force it.

The biggest potential drawback is that when it comes to stepparenting, you get all the responsibility but none of the power.

That really depends and I see now reason why a step-parent should not have power and be the third wheel. In order for this to work, you all three need to be on the same page. That should established from the start OP and your partner should be backing you on that.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:07 PM on July 18, 2011

Not a step parent as I choose not to be involved in teenagers life due to drama, but here is what I learned from our mistakes and successes over time. I've been involved since the mom first started dating, so this was all new to us.

1) Do whatever it takes to make sure the ex-wife and ex-husband get along even if for the sake of the child. Divorce and split custody is very hard on a child, so the more normacly between the two homes, the better. If needed, get a mediator to help split responsibilites between the two households. I'm talking about things like doing the dishes, laundry, etc; make sure they are the same between the households. Also, This is critical - ENSURE BOTH PARENTS ARE ON THE SAME PAGE WITH DISCIPLINE. Seriously, run for the hills if this can't be worked out. There are horror stories all over the internet where one parent becomes a Disney land parent and the other tries to maintain order; the loser in the entire situation is the kid. I've experienced it first hand with my girl's child, and it affects everything from grades to what happens when he got caught smoking pot. It's miserable when both parents cant be on the same page.

2)Get the kid in some counseling, regardless of if you feel they need it or not. Give them a place to vent. Many kids will hide their feelings, until it reaches a critical phase and then you're playing catch up from the damage of the divorce. This is especially true if both parents are moving on with their life, the child needs to be reminded and assured that they are still parent of the family. Get them in counseling, this is another critical thing that we learned and are only recovering a year later from.

That's really the only critical thing that you should bring up to both parents. Now for you,

1) Good, your showing geninue interest in the child - jam it into your head that you will not be first; nor should you be. Do not become that person that resents the child because they come first. Find out as much as you can about the kid, personality, likes, dislikes, dreams, aspirations, etc. The earlier you can find a common interest, the better.

2) Take it slow with being introduced, find something that all 3 of you could enjoy such as Chuck-E-Cheese or whatever the pizza and arcade places are today. Keep it light and happy; so not PDA

3)Depending on the age of the child, don't have "sleep-overs" until they are gone. If the child is still in a crib or barely an infant; this would prob. be ok.

***4) Just take it slow, and realize your not the parent. You need to be supported by both parents as a legit authority figure (or at least your SO). If either of them, lets the child disrespect you (more then normal sass)- it's only to get worse. Don't discipline until your sure you have the backing of both parents, otherwise you're the loser.

5)Be flexiable with your expectations, take it slow - it takes time. There was a saying I heard one time "Be like a duck, and just let all the water flow off your back". Get a thick skin because as much as it pains you, the child is going to say some hurtful things once in a while. But realize, that to truly make it work - you do need to either A) Love the child or B) Love the SO enough to like the child and want the best.

There are a few single and step parent websites out there; I would highly, highly recommend joining them. Send me a PM and I'll email you some of the better ones along with ones to avoid. It's rough, but if you love the man - then it is worth it. I've also heard that sometimes when a child is older, they often look back and realize they had really, really good step parents. Just breath, it's a life change.
posted by lpcxa0 at 7:12 PM on July 18, 2011

Oh, and like Brandon said; don't disrespect the other parent. Get a thick skin, or a mediator before things get bad. Do not bad mouth the other parent, it will def. hurt point #1 in both parents advise.
posted by lpcxa0 at 7:15 PM on July 18, 2011

1. Let your boyfriend set the pace on introducing you to his son and doing things together.
2. Be curious about his world and join him where he is at. If he wants to talk about dinosaurs or trucks, let him tell you what he thinks is interesting about them. (You will learn more than you ever thought you would know about his areas of fascination but it can be really fun to join their enthusiasm even if you don't have any interest in the underlying topic.)
3. Project unconditional acceptance. If he wants to talk with you, great. If he wants to play alone, great. If he is angry at you, that's what he needs to get through, it's OK. You can set your own boundaries around disrespectful behavior (I won't stay in the room with people who throw toys at me) but as other suggested, try to have a thick skin and lots of patience. In any case, make it clear that you are only rejecting the behavior, you still care about him and are happy to be with him when he is not acting that way.
4. Let his parents do the discipline. If you are eventually alone with him (eg. step mother), view yourself as a babysitter - the parents have given you responsibility to act on their behalf, you don't make up the rules, you just enforce them. This may gradually change over time but it is better to err on the side of respecting the parents' rules. If you have a problem with the rules, discuss them with your boyfriend when the kid is not around and then let him introduce the new rules to his son.
posted by metahawk at 7:30 PM on July 18, 2011 [1 favorite]

ps. Congratulations on your new relationship - it sounds very promising.
posted by metahawk at 7:30 PM on July 18, 2011

I've had five parents in my life. Yep. Five. I have a step-parent collection.

From the point of view of the child, I have one step-parent who got it right and several who just got it mind-blowingly wrong and it comes down to one very simple thing: Never make the child feel like they're not "really" yours. That's it. That's not to say that you're pretending that this is your kid, but take your responsibilities as a parent seriously. All co-parents need to be on the same page whether they're bio parents or adoptive parents or step-parents or whatever. That's not unique to your situation.

Make your partner's son feel like he's important to you and that you don't love him any less for not being biologically yours. Be a true co-parent and work together with the child's bio-parents to make the best home environment possible for the kiddo. I don't have any specific advice for the parenting aspect on the adult side, having not been there, but truly - my first step-dad never made me feel like I wasn't "really" his and took the job of being my dad seriously. Of my three fathers, he's the one I'm closest to now, despite his neither being my biological father nor his being currently married to my mother. When he got together with my mom, I was already in the picture and he saw it as an opportunity to be a great dad. And he truly was. (And still is, but really, he NAILED the "being a dad to a very young child" portion of the program.)

Don't be afraid to get attached. Don't worry about "confusing" the kid. What would be confusing would be to have an adult around you who was constantly keeping you at arm's length. There's nothing to say that you can't have a relationship with this boy even if your relationship with the father fizzles out. My step-dad is still my dad even though he and my mom have been divorced for over a decade.
posted by sonika at 8:21 PM on July 18, 2011 [7 favorites]

To be completely honest, you seem like a very reasonable, intelligent, level-headed woman who is approaching this in the perfect way. That alone speaks volumes, so I don't think you're going to need much advice. Go with your gut.

If it helps, I dated a divorced father for roughly six years. His son was two when we got together. However, his split with his wife was not very amicable, and she moved several states away with his son (after having cheated on him with the man she moved to be with). The physical distance from his child and the relationship with his ex caused many an issue in our relationship.

So I'm glad for you that both he and his ex are going about this split in a mature, responsible way. That speaks volumes about not only the kind of man he is but also the kind of woman and mother his ex is. Count your blessings. A relationship with a single parent is not the easiest, but you have the best possible scenario here. Everything will be great. Good luck. :)
posted by Falwless at 6:45 AM on July 19, 2011

Oh yeah, find something you bond over with the kid, something that just the both of you really enjoy. Or is there something he likes that his parents don't? If so, learn to like that with him. I think it's important that a child and parent have an interest that can bond over as people and not just child and parent.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:50 AM on July 19, 2011

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