Inspired by Stepmum of the Year and Nine Kinds of Crazy, I decided to put together my own "If Only I'd Known" list.
This is probably going to be particularly apt, since it was revealed last night that a friend of mine has just started dating a 38 year old divorced man with a 5 year old daughter. I remember having a somewhat inebriated conversation with this same friend at a party a few months back, just about the general hazards of dating warfare, and the subject of men with kids came up. During this time, things were rather difficult, it was when BM was kicking off to the max over the summer, and I counseled her to run as fast as she could if approached by a man with kids. As mentioned, the conversation was slightly inebriated so I don't remember the finer details, but I definitely gave her no illusions about the possibility of happy endings when taking on a man with kids - they are few and far between.
Obviously the advice didn't rub off, because I saw her last night and she told me about her new flame. I guess I didn't really take my own advice either, because I showed up a few months later with a ring, and on my way to "official" stepparent-dom, rather than doing what I advised her at the time and getting the hell out. To be honest, had it been a man less special than DF, there is no way I'd still be here now. One thing you've got to be sure of if you're going to put yourself through the steppie mill is that the guy (and the rewards) are going to be worth it.
So, for my friend, and all the other newbie and potential Wicked Steppies out there, here's the list of Things I Wish I'd Known When I Started. And I hope this advice helps a little more than "run as fast as you can in the opposite direction".
Remember your own life.
This may seem like a no brainer, but when you're in the first flush of love, on the honeymoon period where you want to be with your new love ALL THE TIME, not to mention keen to get to know the kids and be accepted into the unit, don't let your identity get swallowed up by it. Retaining your own life, interests, hobbies and most importantly friends will help you to stay sane through rockier waters. Stepmum of the Year wrote in her list "your non-step friends will struggle to understand why you seem so obsessed". When things get overwhelming, it can become quite all consuming, and it's easy to get a little one-track minded when wading through miles of step-shit, but sometimes, what you need is not to talk step. Much the same as if work is bothering you, distraction is a better tactic than talking shop outside work and keeping your focus on the things that are pissing you off!
It's OK NOT to join in with every single kid-activity. Even if the kids seem keen to have you around, they still need time with their Dad and to know their Dad still values their company and there are special things that they do together. By the same token, as your relationship progresses, I can honestly say that my SD and I have benefited from having some time alone together as well.
Discuss how things are going to work BEFORE you think about moving in.
Especially if you're not buying/renting a new place together and you're going to be moving in with him. The child will see the house as theirs and Dad's, and the dynamics will change for everyone when you live together. Do the kids come in the bedroom at night? Do they knock? One of the things I have seen many steppies struggle with is the lack of privacy in their own homes, but by the same token I'm sure a lot of stepkids feel resentful when suddenly they can't go in Dad's room any more without permission. Open dialogue prior to combining lives is extremely important to help avoid these situations.
Take a genuine interest in the kids and try to see them as individuals.
I guess this comes as much from my experience as a stepchild as it does from being a step-parent, because it was something I felt my stepmum did extremely well. She was interested in me, what I thought, what I did, who my friends were and who I was as a person. Especially if there is a high conflict situation, it's an easy trap to fall into to align the kids with the other parent, particularly if that's where they spend the most time, and even more so if there is alienation going on, and just see them as components of the former life with the pain in the ass ex. But they are individuals, people in their own right. Think about yourself in relation to your parents. How like them are you? Do people in your life and family treat you exactly the same as they treat your parents, or do they treat you like you? I have traits of both my parents, I'm sure, but there are a lot of things about me that are very different and not like either of them. It will mean a lot to your stepkids, not to mention helping your relationship with them, if you're prepared to see them as John and Lucy (or whatever their names are), not "My partner's kids from his previous marriage".
Kid Free Time is important!
I apologise to both aforementioned stepmum bloggers for stealing this one a little....but, it's a point so important it merits repetition, so I hope they won't mind.
Keep in mind that your partner is likely to be at his happiest when he has all his favourite people around him - ie, his partner and his kids. For you, you're likely to be happiest when it's just the two of you together. Don't feel guilty about that - you're in the relationship with and for him, not the kids. Let's not forget that even in first families, parents need time out. And we're not talking about collapsing in front of the telly after a full day at work and getting the kids to bed, we're talking about planned activities, dates, time to talk non-shop and non-step. And make that time where you don't discuss the kids, the ex-wife, the holiday contact arrangements, the state the kids' bedrooms were left in on their last visit. This is time for you as a couple, to reconnect, and I couldn't have put it better than Nine Kinds of Crazy did in her list "You need to remember why you did this in the first place".
Which brings me back to one of my first points - the guy HAS to be worth it!