Ask a stepmother what advice she’d give to another woman deciding whether to get involved with a man with kids, and the cliché is that she’ll screech:
Run! Run like the wind!
I’ve been tempted to trot this one out couple of times, like when a close friend told me that her new guy had her stay at his house for three days without ever admitting to his full-custody thirteen-year-old daughter that they were dating. And that he referred to this same daughter as “My Special Princess”.
Mostly, though, I resist sounding the fire alarm in these situations. Despite the challenges of stepfamily life, I’m very happy with the Lovely Man, and the Boys certainly keep life interesting.
In any case, we all know what the honeymoon phase of a new relationship feels like; warnings, however justified and well-intended, tend to fall bounce right off the warnee – and generally, rebound to hit the warner schmack! in the face.
Six months in, the warnee may well realise that indeed, it’s not ideal that her partner douses his breakfast cereal in scotch each morning, or has a penchant for wearing garments made from the pelts of stray cats.
Six weeks in, though, when the lust – ahem! – love is still coursing unhindered by pesky reality, funny little details like that get dismissed as merely eccentric, and the warner is written off as simply small-minded/intolerant/jealous.
Nonetheless, here is my list of five things you might want to pay careful attention to as a new/potential stepmother.
Scrape off the love scales and look around.
Look again, harder.
If more than a couple of these are going down, consider keeping your exit strategy dust-free and in good order, because you might need it.
Or at least have a good stepfamily counsellor at the ready.
(Cue Jaws music…)
1. Many months – or more – into the new relationship, things are serious, you’re talking marriage/moving in, but he seems ultra-resistant to the idea of you meeting his kids.
Actually, he seems terrified. He may have made and broken a series of promises with excuses like:
We’ll just wait until the kids graduate kindergarten/high school/college/finally get all their wisdom teeth through/finish learning to fly.
You’ve got to wonder, is he afraid you’ll morph into a fairytale wicked stepmother? Does he feel like he doesn’t truly deserve to have a partner or be happy? What’s really happening here?
There’s no real consensus about the appropriate time to introduce a new partner, except that it probably shouldn’t be before you are seriously committed to each other and have spent enough months together to genuinely know what being committed to each other means, the bads as well as the goods.
For many men, though, there is so much fear of and for their kids rolled up in the “all-important” introduction that they leave the woman they say they want to build a life with feeling like a dirty little secret – for many months or even years. Not a good look.
2. On the other hand, be wary if he wants you to instantly meet the kids.
(Especially if there’s talk of babysitting! Does this guy want a wife/mother replacement or a partner?)
Flattering as it may seem, your trouble-on-two-legs sirens should be blaring if he talks in any way that implies you will be a “new Mummy” to his children, or make up to them for alleged poor mothering by his ex.
Why? Because anyone who thinks their child’s biological parent can be replaced so seamlessly is not only deluded, but almost certain to expect that you’ll love his kids “like your own”.
Holy Recipe for Misery and Disaster, Batman!
3. A related concern would be where you’ve met the kids, maybe even moved in and he wants you to take charge of discipline.
Orangutans at the local zoo could tell you this isn’t going to work, but it’s incredible how many women launch in, determined to shine the Holy Light of Reasonable Boundaries on an out-of-control, rule-free-zone stepfamily.
As Wednesday Martin says in Stepmonster, this is a nothing but a cop-out. In theory, he wants his kids to benefit from better discipline but only if he doesn’t have to be the bad guy. He’s sacrificing your chance of a good relationship with the kids to maintain his own parenting comfort zone.
And worst of all? When you try to implement the agreed consequences, he’ll almost certainly trot out the sensational climax of the Daddy Rocks Popularity Revue by over-ruling your efforts because you’re being “way too tough” on his little darlings.
4. Another valid basis for a freak-out is if you notice that when his ex says “jump!”, your bloke says “how high?” (or, even worse, “off what?”)
Sometimes it’s because he’s desperate to keep the peace; more often, I suspect, it’s because whatever his legal status, his emotional divorce is incomplete. Sure, he might be keen to start again, but he hasn’t really left his marriage behind – guilt, unprocessed sorrow and unacknowledged loss tangle together, tying him emotionally to his ex.
Not precisely what you signed up for, although it may not be the end of the world.
If it doesn’t wind up quickly, though, you risk blinking out of the love haze to find that your relationship is a hotbed of emotional adultery, with all the consequences that entails for intimacy, for trust, financially and in a million other ways.
5. Finally, if the man you’re seeing seems to want his kids’ or ex-wife’s seal of approval on his decision to date you, be very, VERY afraid.
For instance, if his teenage daughter boasts about having had power of veto over his past girlfriends, or a four-year-old seems to be calling the shots on how long you are “allowed” stay out at dinner….
Or if he tells you his ex has a “No skanks around the kids” policy (a verbatim quote from a separated mum I know – quelle horreur!) and insists on popping you into the hot seat to face twenty [thousand] questions from her on what was meant to be your fourth or even your fourteenth date….
Run! Run like the wind!
Ruuuuuuuunnn – while you still can!
What other warning signs should a new stepmother/woman dating a man with kids keep in mind?