I have been separated for three and a half years. In that time I have had four other women attempt to step mother my children. For some parents, this might be confronting and in the beginning it was – blended families are always a challenge. But as a parent who is confident about my relationship with my children, the concern is not about any impact another adult might have on “us”, but rather the frustration of blurred parental lines and the confusion this creates for the kids. And also one of the reasons I was reluctant to bring a man into our lives for so long.
So far the children have told me each of my ex-husband’s girlfriends have been very nice. “She cooks nice food. She makes Dad happy.” Two of his girlfriends have had children of their own. I hoped this would give them a better comprehension of our “complex situation”. Mothers should be able to relate to other mothers.
My love life has been far less exciting. I have not had any live-in partners – until last weekend, when The Musician and I moved into our own place (Yes. It’s serious). However, previously I did date a man who had two little girls whom I saw intermittently. And each time I felt like an imposter. When I read to them at night, when I held their hand to cross the road – I thought about their mother. How she didn’t know me from a bar of soap but I was minding her children. Nurturing them. Consoling them. Feeding them. That’s what their mother was supposed to do. I felt sorry for her and I’d never met her – she had to cope with her children being cared for by another woman. Would I discipline them the same? Should I discipline them at all? Would I cook different food? Have different moral or religious beliefs? Tie their hair differently? Allow them freedoms she might not agree with? Let them stay up late on a school night? So many variables that can potentially create confusion for children who have to cope with different adult role models, different routines and different households.
Of course the sadness and anguish is all equally true in reverse. The father of those little girls had to comprehend another man tucking them in at night when he was not with them. The torture of missing them sometimes too much to bear, especially in cases where the father’s visitation is reduced.
How do separated parents cope with other adults “parenting” their children? As the grown up in this “complex situation” it is my responsibility to guide the children through the maze of emotion and the intricate circumstances we find ourselves in. Situations nuclear families don’t have to deal with. When my daughter recently came home from her father’s girlfriend’s house and announced the new girlfriend had cut her hair. I didn’t call and abuse the girlfriend for over stepping the parental boundaries. I told my daughter her hair looked nice, but next time I would cut it. I reminded myself this situation was no big deal compared to another friend’s shock after her ex-husband’s girlfriend decided to take her toddler for her very first haircut, removing all her baby curls without telling the mother.
Another heartbreaking example of step-parenting blurred lines came from a friend who recounted having to hand her newborn son, whom she was still breastfeeding, to his father for weekend contact. He worked weekends and consequently left their son with his new girlfriend who bottle fed the baby while the mother struggled with swollen breasts and depression – a stranger was responsible for her new baby’s wellbeing.
On the more alarming and potentially dangerous side was a separated dad’s story of his ex-wife taking up with a drug addict who abused his children and beat their mother in front of them. The children eventually came to live with the father permanently. The dad felt helpless, isolated and desperate for his children during that time. While this is an extreme example of unwanted step parent interference, what is the etiquette when it comes to politely telling the new partner to “step away from the offspring”? Or do we forever walk on egg shells to avoid conflict and the potential of upsetting a delicate emotional balance?
In our house, I do the disciplining of the children. He does far more important things like sing them to sleep, read them stories and love their mother. The opportunity for my children to witness a healthy relationship and know a man who is calm and considered and together is one of the most vital aspects he brings to our family. His stance is “It’s not my responsibility to be their father – but it is my responsibility to love them like one.”