“Stepping into a new sense of family is both complicated and wonderful.”
Every family is a system. A change in one part of the system impacts the rest. We’re often hopeful after a divorce, a cooling down period, the spark of new relationship and promise of a new family, that we’re “free from the old.” Unfortunately, that hopefulness often leads co-parents and partners headlong into dashed expectations, major confusion and a sense of failure and blame.
Families don’t blend — family relationships build in steps. We step toward one another, we step back, some steps are easy, others are hard. And as far as children are concerned, the request to become family with other children and/or adults… well, those steps are often experienced as too fast.
When parents and partners understand the underlying architecture of a stepfamily, when they consider the complexity of the relationships that are shifting, building, and strengthening, they are far more successful. When expectations are more reasonable, emotions easier to understand, steps can be taken to soften the stress and avoid forcing the impossible. With understanding and coaching, you allow the new family to blossom and develop in a way that respects all members of the family system.
Your co-parent is part of your children’s expanded family. If you are sharing your children with another parent, they extend the boundaries of your new family to include in some important ways their other home and parent. Original co-parents remain the executive team of their children’s lives — which does not include the new stepparent. This can lead to clashes, fears, and on-going uneasiness. You never dreamed that falling in love and developing a family with someone who just happens to have kids could be so challenging!
When parents, co-parents, stepparents, or partners are willing to come together to discuss how best to define roles, set expectations, care for children, honor boundaries, respectfully communicate, life in an expanded family system can be safe and secure for everyone. Memorializing those discussions is what we call a Stepfamily Plan. It’s not a legal document, but rather a family plan, a stepfamily plan.
Like other forms of mediation, here are the cornerstones of stepparent mediation:
- Mediation is voluntary and confidential.
- Stepparent mediation focuses on the unique needs of all family members and their situation and is tailored to meet those unique needs and achieve the best possible outcome for kids, co-parents and stepparents.
- Parents make the decisions—not the mediator. As coach and mediator, I bring my 30+ years of experience with families to assist parents to consider the family system issues, developmental expectations and practicality of their decisions.
- The stepparent mediator walks the parents through a list of concerns and considerations that will allow each of them to successfully fulfill roles, meet expectations, respect boundaries and communicate effectively. This may include things like:
- School work
- Extra-curricular activities
- Transitions and transportation
- Communication protocols
- Parenting responsibilities
- Inter-home boundaries
- Children’s belongings
- Scheduling concerns (holidays, birthdays, vacations)
- Religious practice
- New family members (additional children)
- Extended family of all the adults
- Family values, norms, and expectations
Each family may have specifics not listed here that are important to work out with explicit agreements. Most importantly, in a newly forming family and a shifting family system, we want to be sure everyone knows that they belong, where they belong and how they can thrive. With plenty of love and support, children will step into stepfamily and adjust once again to another family change, co-parents will feel secure in their relationship with their children even as another adult begins to love and care about them, and stepparents will find their way into relationship with a family that already has an important history. And as you know, when both parents have children, we take all those concerns and multiply by two!
Would you like to receive an announcement on the release of “The Stepfamily Handbook: From First Dates to ‘Blending Family’” by Karen Bonnell and Patricia Papernow expected in spring 2018? Subscribe to our eNews.
If you would like a PDF of The Stepfamily Plan Worksheet, request here and I’ll be happy to send one your way.