Successful Step Parenting: Three Potential Pitfalls - No 3 Contact With Absent Parent

Posted at 05:37am on 25th August 2009

The absent parent and the role they play in a stepfamily is, without doubt, one of the major blended family challenges. In the BBC Birmingham Andrew Peach show on which I had been invited to speak, I was able, in the brief amount of time allotted to me, to get something of this across.

But first, I touched on the other aspects I’ve already covered. The priority is to find common ground between step parent and step child in order to establish a stand-alone relationship which is independent of the biological mother or father. The success of this will, in large measure, depend upon the step parent’s attitude to the child’s biological father or mother.

AN ABSENT PARENT: NO COMPETITION

You and your new partner may see your marriage as a new start and want to do everything possible to eliminate the past. This, however, is the one thing you can’t afford to do. I was fortunate in that my second husband, Will, was a bachelor prior to our marriage, and there were, therefore, no other children involved. Also, having been a step child, himself, he was well aware of the jealousies and insecurities which a second marriage could evoke.

He knew that any sign of competitiveness from him, in respect of my daughters’ biological father, would endanger the precarious relationship he was carving out with them. Consequently, he never made any attempt to be a ‘replacement dad’, but made it clear that he would take on an avuncular role. In other words, he would be a friend – no more.

THE BLENDED FAMILY WHO’S WHO

There was never any question of his being called by anything other than his Christian name. That was what he wanted, and that was what the girls felt comfortable in doing - though, interestingly, they did refer to us, collectively, as their 'parents'. Their father remained 'Dad' in their lives. But again, interestingly, ‘Dad’ became known to their children as a rather remote ‘Grandfather’, while Will has become ‘Grandpa’ in name and in every other respect.

Nevertheless, when I wrote my book, Stepfamilies, it was apparent that our way of doing things was not universal. One family I interviewed told me that, despite an ongoing relationship with their biological father, it was the children, themselves, who asked if they could address their new stepfather as ‘Dad’. Two factors, I believe, influenced this decision. One was that they were very young when their mother remarried. The other was that they had established a warm and affectionate relationship with their step father prior to their mother remarrying.

A second family had a similar experience, but for different reasons. With children on both sides, it’s obvious that some of them will be calling their biological mother ‘Mum’ or ‘Mummy’. This may leave the children for whom she is a stepmother with a sense of being ‘left out in the cold’. In such circumstances they may, like the family I interviewed, want to conform with their step brothers and sisters. But this should be their decision, and not one which is imposed upon them.

CONTACT WITH THE ABSENT PARENT

This is a big subject, deserving of its own post. But what I do want to say here is that it is cruel, unnecessary, and almost certainly counterproductive, to deny a child access to an absent parent. There may be rare exceptions to this where, for instance, there has been sexual abuse; or where a biological father or mother has moved abroad.

Biological families exert a natural bond with which stepfamilies can rarely, if ever, compete. Grandparents, cousins, uncles and aunts have Rights which, though not necessarily enshrined in law, should be recognised in a moral sense. To deny your children these relationships is to deprive them of a fundamental richness of life.

But it’s a risky business! All too often I found that when my youngest daughter returned from visiting her father and his family, she behaved badly toward her stepfather. It wasn’t that she was a naughty child: far from it! But being the youngest she hadn’t the maturity and rationale to deal with the divided loyalties such visits evoked.

We quickly realised the situation and spoke with her about it in a non-challenging way. It was clear that she was experiencing a sense of guilt about enjoying a good rapport with her stepfather – going to football with him; teasing me about my ignorance of the game – when compared with a less satisfactory relationship with her biological father. To compensate, she did the only thing that made sense to her young mind: for days after seeing her father, she would keep her stepfather at a distance by being nasty to him.

Once we had enabled her to see this for herself, I pointed out to her that love and affection are not like a cake, which is finite in size and has to be divided up to be shared. On the contrary, in the words of the old song: Love is something when you give it away; give it away; give it away. Love is something when you give it away. You keep on getting more!

In time, she learned to accept her biological father as he was and to love him in a different way to the affection she felt for her stepfather. And that, in a blended family, is what successful stepparenting is all about. Unless you have anything to add? In which case, I’d love to hear from you!

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Related posts:

Successful Stepparenting: Three Potential Pitfalls – No 1 Financial

Successful Stepparenting: Three Potential Pitfalls – No 2 Coping With Step Children

ALL PROCEEDS FROM MEL'S LATEST NOVEL, A Painful Post Mortem, ARE FOR CHARITIES BENEFITING CHILDREN WORLDWIDE. BUY A COPY AND HELP RAISE CASH FOR PROJECTS LIKE THIS OVERSEAS OR THIS IN UK

Author of a number of books, one a No 4 Bestseller, Mel Menzies is also an experienced Speaker at live events, as well as on Radio and TV.

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