One of the biggest myths which surrounds step families and step parenting is that you will come to love your step children as much as you do/would love your own
Here is a big news flash – you might not love your step children as much – and there is nothing wrong with this. In fact, it is okay to find one (or more) of your step children difficult to cope with. In fact, it is even okay to not having loving feelings towards a step child. The reality is you cannot help how you feel. But you can help how you behave. And actually, having an awareness of how you feel, rather than trying to hide from it and pretend it isn’t there, is really important for taking positive action towards the relationships within your family.
Reality vs expectations
Modern life seems to cultivate high expectations of step families, especially with the use of terms such as ‘blended families’ which carry with them the underlying message that successful step families will all blend seamlessly, to appear to the outside world as one homogenous unit.
With this comes the pressure to prove ourselves, our choices, our new families. Prove ourselves to our friends and family. Prove ourselves to our ex. Prove ourselves to our new partners and new step children. Prove ourselves to ourselves.
All this pressure to prove can lead us to having some very unrealistic expectations on how our family should function and how we should all feel towards each other.
The reality is that there is no ‘should’ and sometimes the most functional step families are those who are not afraid to work with how they actually are, rather than try to cover it up by painting a picture of how they think it should be.
We cannot like everyone
It is a basic human fact – we do not like everyone we meet. You may have fallen in love with your partner, but that does not automatically mean that you also will love her children.
Perhaps in time you will, giving love the space to develop and grow, but don’t assume it will happen overnight.
Regardless of how you feel, you still have a responsibility for your step children – to care for them, support them and protect them as part of your family. In fact, there are many adults that take on similar kinds of responsibilities towards children whom they do not love and sometimes do not even like very much – teachers and foster parents being an obvious example. No, it is not exactly the same (teachers do get time off!) but it does go some way to demonstrate that you do not have to love a child in order to be kind, to help them learn and grow, and share positive experiences with them.
Our own personalities can impact on our feelings
If you are a more extrovert personality, and you thrive and get pleasure from social situations and being around people, then you might find it easier to build relationships and positive feelings with the new members of your family.
However, if you are more introverted, you might find that you need more personal space, and having these other people around all the time is very draining, which can make it difficult to feel affection towards them.
How much honesty is too much honesty?
It is one thing for you to be aware of how you might feel towards a step child, and it is helpful to have that awareness. However, be aware that some things are better not being brutally honestly discussed with your partner and definitely not with your step child/children.
Parents are innately equipped with love for their own children, and the desire to protect them. Instinct would nearly always lead us saving one of our own biological children in an emergency, before another. It might feel ‘wrong’ to admit it, but it is primal instinct and not something to be ashamed of.
While your partner might have similar feelings towards your step children, as you do towards hers, it is never easy for a parent to hear that someone does not like their child very much, and it is very difficult indeed when that comes from a partner.
So honesty is something that needs balancing with tact – outwardly saying you do not like or love one of her children would cause an inner conflict, even if she feels a similar way about one of your children.
So what should I do?
Give yourself permission to feel how you feel. You are not the only Step Dad to feel like this. It does not make you a bad person, unless you act on how you feel.
Remember that feelings are not permanent – they can and do change.
With awareness of how you feel, see if you can find ways to widen the kinds of feelings you do have. Can you find things in common with your step child which can help to build a relationship between you both – a common interest or hobby?
With an awareness of how you feel, make sure you that you are not overly favouring, or overly punishing certain members of the family over others. Also be mindful not to allow guilt to go too far the other way, and allow it to rationalise your step child/children getting away with unacceptable behaviour, or trying to assuage the guilt through treats, etc.
Remember, that there are a number of places you can go for support to handle these kinds of situations, such as Relate, or talk to other dads who have experienced similar issues on the DAD.info Forum.