Step-parents and their spouses, how did you integrate your families?
July 29, 2013 11:37 AM   Subscribe

I am, for the first time, in a relationship as a single father. So far it's going quite well, which brings up a variety of questions about what might happen in the future. One day I would like to be married again, which would put whoever I marry in the position of being my daughter's step-mother. How would I get from here to there?

Currently, my girlfriend doesn't really take care of my daughter. She helps a bit and watches her for a little here and there. But when my daughter wakes up, she asks for dada (she's just about to turn two) and I go in and get her. I organize her activities and her child care, and if there are things to do like take her to doctor's appointments, I make those arrangements. This, currently, is fine. It seems normal to me, in a relationship of a couple months, *not* to expect my girlfriend to call up the doctor's office and schedule an appointment for her, or to try and pick out her preschool.

But this may not always be the case, and I'm not really sure when, or how, to get a girlfriend who is becoming a potential spouse more involved in these things, or even if it's reasonable to expect so. As a stepparent do you expect to split parenting close to 50/50 with the biological parent of your children, or do you expect parenting to lean more heavily on the biological parent?

For what parenting tasks you do take on, how did you work your way up to those and why did they seem like reasonable tasks to share?

For what it's worth, I have my daughter full-time, she isn't with her mother every other week or anything like that. Also, don't take this post as me rushing into getting married to someone I've only been seeing for a couple of months, it is a generally applicable question that will hopefully apply to someone eventually, but not necessarily (although possibly) this particular person.
posted by tylerkaraszewski to Human Relations (23 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Also: my girlfriend does not have any children of her own.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:38 AM on July 29, 2013

It really depends a lot on your daughter and your girlfriend. You are right not to rush it, especially with a very young child. For now, you're going to be doing all the administrative stuff for your daughter.

At some point, there will come a time when your daughter and your girlfriend may want to do things together and to exclude you, it may be a mani-pedi together. (I keep seeing really young kids in the salon for this, so it's a thing.) Or maybe they go to a movie together. This is cool and you should be happy if this is the case.

Your girlfriend will let you know how involved she wants to be. Everything in your relationship is negotiable. Some women like being involved with the step-kids, especially if they want to have children with you in the future. She may assume the parenting 50/50 at that point.

Keep talking about it.

One thing I do recommend is that all discipline comes from you and you alone. If she's acting up in public, you deal with it. If your daughter gets grounded (in the distant future, not now) you're the one telling her about it.

The good news is that if you and your girlfriend end up getting married, your girlfriend will be the mother figure in your child's life. Without her mother in the picture, there won't be the divided loyalties that a child who is in a joint custody situation may have.

Keep taking it slow, and keep talking.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 11:51 AM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

Adult stepchild here. It's really tough to be a single parent, but I think you are expecting too much from your girlfriend, as long as she's "just" a girlfriend. I wouldn't expect her to start taking over the duties you mention (or really any others) until she's officially slated to become your daughter's stepmother. Her involvement with your daughter's life should increase naturally as your relationship progresses, but some of this stuff might always remain your responsibility. (Example: My stepparents never, ever handled doctor's appointments for me.)
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 11:59 AM on July 29, 2013 [13 favorites]

I would expect little to nothing of your girlfriend besides friendliness and accommodation for the inevitable little irks and inflexibilities that come with having a child. If she grows to be affectionate towards your daughter and enthusiastically wants to take on more child-related work, you can accommodate it. It's hard on kids to deal with a resentful caretaker and it's hard to bond with a kid when you're burdened with parental responsibilities before you get the affection going.
posted by the young rope-rider at 12:15 PM on July 29, 2013 [12 favorites]

I agree with peanut_mcgillicuty. Nothing even remotely resembling parenting or even babysitting until you're engaged.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:25 PM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

If the bio mother is not involved I would hope that your chosen girlfriend would eventually want to take on a mother role to your daughter and steadily but slowly increase her involvement and bond with your daughter.
Its a terrible awful crushing feeling of rejection to live full time with daddy's girlfriend who basically ignores you, that is when she's not resenting the crap out of you, when all you are looking for a is loving mother figure in your life. Ask me how I know.
I don't know, maybe I'm way off of the norm, but I couldn't imagine dating a single dad without wanting to love the crap outta his kids too.
posted by tenaciousmoon at 12:34 PM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

I don't have any experience as a step-child or dating someone with kids, but the standard advice I've heard to parents who are dating is to take things very slowly in terms of the relationship between your child and the person you're dating. It's tough on a kid when they bond with someone and then the relationship ends. So, seconding peanut_mcgillicuty... until you're both sure this relationship is permanent, your girlfriend should not be a quasi step-mom.
posted by Asparagus at 12:42 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You've been in this relationship for a couple of months, and your daughter is very young. Your girlfriend should not be in the role of taking care of your daughter yet. You can build towards it, but you're not there yet.

I was the child of a single parent. I generally was not introduced to potential step-parents until the potential was resolving into the actual. Following this can avoid attachment/abandonment triggers for your daughter.
posted by RainyJay at 12:44 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

the standard advice I've heard to parents who are dating is to take things very slowly in terms of the relationship between your child and the person you're dating. It's tough on a kid when they bond with someone and then the relationship ends.

I was coming in to say exactly this. It sounds a bit harsh, but friends of mine learned to really limit contact between their kids and their romantic interests until things became Very Serious.
posted by ambrosia at 1:10 PM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I am practically a step-mother to my partner's preteen daughter (we live together but are not married yet). My situation is different than yours in that my stepdaughter is a good deal older than your daughter, and my partner does not have full custody, so the demands on me in that role are not full-time.

Am I remembering correctly that you're widowed? If so, I feel like that is a tricky transition, because so much of step-parenting when the parents are divorced is stepping back from immediately assuming a parenting or authoritative role. Like with my stepdaughter, I've know known her for two years, and I adored her immediately, but I had to learn to let her set the pace of what kind of relationship she wanted with me. After two years, we've only just started hugging each other goodbye, and it's only now that I feel comfortable being the one to point out when she should bring her dishes into the kitchen, for example.

But I think that in your situation, with your daughter being so young, and not having her mother available, any woman that you marry is going to really be stepping into a full-time adoptive mother role, not so much a step-mother. Of course, her mother can't be replaced, but if you married while she was still very young, it's likely she wouldn't have known any other set up. So I think that step-parenting advice in terms of how to introduce a new partner into your life as a single parent is more useful than step-parenting advice geared toward families where the parents are divorced.
posted by Neely O'Hara at 1:22 PM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

Your relationship is very new, and your girlfriend shouldn't have any care taking responsibilities for your child. You really shouldn't be thinking about who your kid's stepmother will be. You should be concentrating on taking care of her by yourself and taking care of yourself.
posted by discopolo at 1:25 PM on July 29, 2013

Response by poster: My question was not so much "what should I do right now in my current situation?" but "what should I do in any possible situation that is progressing towards 'permanent relationship'?".

I'm not asking my girlfriend of two months to take over my daughter's medical care. I'm asking if, when, and how these things have happened for you.

You've been in this relationship for a couple of months, and your daughter is very young. Your girlfriend should not be in the role of taking care of your daughter yet. You can build towards it, but you're not there yet.

Yes, I know, my question is "how would I/did you I 'build towards it'?"

Am I remembering correctly that you're widowed?

Yes, this is correct, and it is also why I'm pretty skeptical of "standard advice". Standard advice assumes shared custody between two parents. It also all but precludes dating in a situation like mine, as I can't very well watch my daughter and see my girlfriend without my girlfriend also being around my daughter. I can leave her with a sitter, but I don't see why her bonding with a sitter she won't have forever is somehow better for her than bonding with a girlfriend I might not have forever.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 1:41 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

You build towards your girlfriend being in that caretaker role by letting it happen naturally. These things happen naturally, and at their own pace. I would assume that if she's not living with you and your daughter, that she wouldn't be taking on any of those parental-type responsibilities.

You need a break, maybe one night a week out of the house where a babysitter-- or different babysitters-- can come in and watch your daughter. You and your girlfriend need some time to yourselves to build this relationship. The bond between a child and a babysitter is very different from the one between a child and potential step-parent/parent.
posted by RainyJay at 1:59 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

Single parent here. I've had this internal question, too. I agree with the people who say that you let it come naturally.

For me, [future step-parent] will need to express some interest in my kid, make accommodations for kid stuff, and not expect me to be available all the time, at baseline. I've been dating someone who fits these criteria for a couple of months now, and this person has met my preschooler, held his hand while I went to the bathroom, and even held him in his lap while we all went down a big family-style waterslide (which the kid was okay with). This seems fairly par for the course to me.

My plan is to just... see what happens. This person I'm dating has said they're interested in having kids, someday, so... cool. Let's see how you handle it when the kid is screaming his head off because his cereal bar broke in half. Maybe in a few months I'll be like, "Can you hang out with the kid while I run to the store?"

Let the kid have some say in things, too. Does your daughter like being around your girlfriend? Do they interact? Great, let them keep on interacting and building a relationship. If not, that should probably be raising some red flags for you.

I agree that you and the girlfriend should totally get a babysitter and have some alone time. Hang out both with the kid and without the kid.

Maybe eventually your girlfriend will feed your daughter dinner while you take a breather, or put her to bed or down for a nap. It's about what feels most comfortable and natural for each of them. I think if all of that kind of stuff goes well, then you're starting to get into future step-parent territory.

But, as a single parent, I am assuming that parenting responsibilities are mostly going to fall on me. You're totally welcome to ask whatever future step-parent you end up with if they want to take more of these responsibilities on. Ultimately, like everything else, it's going to be a negotiation between you and your partner.
posted by woodvine at 2:15 PM on July 29, 2013 [5 favorites]

You are the parent. Frankly until you are married to someone else, you are the parent, period. Anything beyond that, none of us can say precisely because it depends entirely on the woman you are with. I will say that it is probably incredibly important in this scenario that you date women who really really like children and will be disposed to really really like your child. You are a package deal now. It would be heartbreaking if you found the woman of YOUR dreams and she only tolerated your little one-and frankly if a woman really likes you she might hide that fact in the beginning.

I do recommend you be very careful who you let your daughter bond with. She's had the ultimate loss already.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 3:04 PM on July 29, 2013 [3 favorites]

I'm not really sure when, or how, to get a girlfriend who is becoming a potential spouse more involved in these things, or even if it's reasonable to expect so.

If it were me, I'd probably want to see how much initiative and interest the girlfriend takes in the daughter and in children in general, both for practical reasons (i.e., if she's not helpful then she's not a good partner) and for the best interests of your daughter (the more interested in parenting and the better at parenting your girlfriend seems to be, seemingly the better she would be as a stepmother for your daughter). So I guess what I'm saying is I wouldn't necessarily "do" anything except observe what your girlfriend does and doesn't do proactively.
posted by Dansaman at 4:36 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

My widowed dad married an awful woman who seemed wonderful to him at the time ... So don't do that! I think it is more important to really get to know your girlfriend's character and make sure she is a stable, good person than it is to worry about childcare tasks, per se. She doesn't so much have to "get along" with your kid as she has to be a reasonable adult parent figure. Anyone can play nice until the wedding; you need to make sure she is the kind of woman self aware enough to recognize and stamp out any evil stepmother tendencies she sees in herself.
posted by yarly at 5:25 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hmmm...I'm going to differ a bit from most of the answers here.

Your daughter is not even two yet, right? And has no mother figure in her life? And I understand from your question that you're asking about further down the track, not a couple of months in?

I'm having a hard time with the idea that a woman would want to be totally hands-off until you were engaged or something. If I was exclusively dating a guy, spending regular time with him etc, you can bet I'd want to be all over the cute little toddler. I'm like that with nieces and nephews and friends' kids, so it would just feel natural. I can't imagine being around a child that little for extended periods of time and not taking on some of the parenting tasks to help out my partner. If anything, I'd probably be waiting for him to ask me, because I'd be afraid of overstepping.

(And I actually have been in this situation, with slightly older kids and a non-widowed father, and after a few months I was doing school pick-ups, getting up in the night when they were sick, etc.)

Basically, as St Alia said, in your situation the woman is functionally becoming her mother. If I were you, I'd be watching pretty closely from the outset for signs that this is a role she'd relish, rather than just endure. Don't ask or expect too much, but create an atmosphere where it's open for her to step up (eg don't leap up in protest if your girlfriend volunteers to take your daughter to the bathroom, or whatever). See what happens naturally.
posted by Salamander at 7:47 PM on July 29, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think that it's common for women to organise the kids' social lives and appointments and so on? In your situation, I don't think you should expect your girlfriend to do that possibly ever. Except maybe once you are living together and your girlfriend considers herself a parent (more than a step-parent).

Picking her up from school/pre-school will likely happen occasionally naturally, and on a regular basis somewhat later. Perhaps at the point at which you and your girlfriend become family rather than two dating people (which might be when you marry, she moves in or earlier).

There are many models for good step-parenting. Not all of them involve your partner doing more hands-on parenting than you, even with such a young child.
posted by plonkee at 11:35 PM on July 29, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have a very young stepchild that won't remember his life without me, but there is also a somewhat sticky shared custody situation, so it's not the same. I also had step-parents of my own from a young-ish age, but not as young as your daughter, so it is not the same.

What makes your situation special snowflakey is the age of your daughter. As others have said, a woman you marry when your daughter is, say, pre-kindergarten, is going to functionally become the mother of that child. If she doesn't---if she hangs back because it's not her kid---she is not a woman you want your daughter to bond with and live with and grow up with.

So what you have to do, given your circumstance, if ascertain as early in the potential 'maybe this is serious' phase as possible, how the woman feels about children. Would she be okay raising a child that's not her own biologically? Could she treat your daughter truly equally to any future children you might have together? Could you be a true and total family?

Fwiw I hung back for a long time with my toddler stepson because his mother is a handful and I feared I would get attached and then she'd take him away somehow. I finally realized that in any less than perfect situation, somebody has to be the one to suck it up. And when it comes down to a kid versus an adult, it has to be the adult. Your future partner has to be prepared to have your future teenaged daughter have a temper tantrum one day and scream 'you're not even my real mother!' at her---and let it go, because she's the adult. She has to be prepared to clean up poop and vomit. She has to be prepared to spend more money than she might expect on things that seem really stupid. BUT---but but but---if she gets that far, she gets to enjoy the good stuff too.
posted by JoannaC at 6:19 AM on July 30, 2013 [3 favorites]

I don't see why her bonding with a sitter she won't have forever is somehow better for her than bonding with a girlfriend I might not have forever.

These two things are very different, for a couple of reasons.

1. Kids understand the difference between a sitter and a step-parent, and form different kinds of bonds with them. I loved my babysitters when I was little, but I never thought of them as like my parents-- they were part of my family in that "it takes a village/families we choose" way, but there are clear distinctions. Both of my parents were very careful about introducing their new partners slowly, but one or two of them did start to feel like family, and those breakups were hard for me (maybe even harder than the divorce), even having had much less involvement than you're describing.

2. The kind of separation that's involved in not having a sitter forever is really different from the kind that's involved in the ending of a romantic relationship, and even though you'll be a central part of either ending, one will be much more difficult for you; do you really want to be dealing with your daughter blaming you for taking away her step-mom while you're dealing with heartbreak of your own? That will complicate your relationship with her much more than it will if you have to fire a sitter or find a new one.
posted by dizziest at 11:38 AM on July 30, 2013

As someone who wound up in a stepmom proximity to my boyfriends daughter back when she was 8, now 15, I would suggest that you keep your current situation as is for the next year.
My partner had visions of white picket fences far too early on, and promoted me to take a maternal role, including feeding and discipline far too soon. At the time, we didn't always have compatible views on parenting; he also gave me discipline authority, but would then get angry when I exercised it. This placed me in conflict with small person, and a resentful papa bear "who knows best for HIS daughter".

So over the next year, keep it light between gf and daughter. Ask her sometimes if she would like to help with a light childcare task. Appreciate what she does when she helps. Have frequent conversations about general parenting topics and articles, get her views.

Going forward...
For me, the split in roles is 80 him, 20 me. Daughter lives with mom, so I am not replacing her mom - just being kind, providing basic needs and advice. I like her very much, but tend to approach her as an aunt ( as she already has a mom). This style is working for us.

In your situation, whatever gf you have needs to know that this is a lifetime - 18 year commitment. If they sign on for that, then the split will go 50/50 if that is what you both agree on. Kids are a huge imposition - if she is contributing cash, feeding kid, housing kid, and helping to raise kid, then your partner gets an equal voice - you find a parenting style that works as a couple.

In the meantime, I would leave it as 80/20. If you want her to be more involved, give her the respect and authority that she needs to do each interaction with. Make sure respect goes between girlfriend and child as your daughter grows, 2 way street. If daughter needs a "Mom" like word to relate to your gf, pick a nickname like pumpkin, or gf's first name, or whatever works for you and your gf. Mom is such a loaded term - will backfire if you and gf break up. I would suggest you avoid the term totally, until/if daughter declares her as stepMom or Mom at an age where she understands the implication. ( it was so exciting when that happened for me and step -daughter :) )

Also, please talk to this gf and any gfs about whether they want more kids. Figure out for yourself if you want kids. I was always wondering whether my partner was open to having a kid with me, whether he would be as excited to have a kid with me, and whether he would love our kids as much as his daughter... Would he ever love me as much as his daughter? Kids come first, yeah, but would he truly love me enough to stand up for me when inevitably disrespectful comments came at me from his daughter (ah, teens...)?
I hope you will think about these questions; it is a lifetime role you are asking someone to take on, and both of you need to know what you are signing on for.

Sorry for the book - me-mail if you like.
Best of luck to all of you!
posted by NorthernAutumn at 2:08 AM on July 31, 2013 [1 favorite]

( and as per Ruthless Bunny, leave discipline as ultimately a "you-daughter" thing. Your partner deserves to be listened to and respected, just as any other family member, but you carrying out the discipline is much easier on the stepmom- daughter dynamic ultimately. When issues arise between me and daughter, I tell her how she is stepping out of line, and ask her to adjust the behavior ... If she doesn't change her approach, I take the issue to her Dad subtly. He listens to me and my input respectfully, and deals with daughter... My job is then to support the discipline choice- I cannot undermine his choice. The only time that I get in direct confrontation with her is over a personal disrespect of me ( eg. Rude remarks to me without apology on an outing would result in turning the car around and going home - I confront it there, her Dad backs me up). Thankfully, this is an exceptionally rare occurrence.)
posted by NorthernAutumn at 2:41 AM on July 31, 2013

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