Remember playing “Shotgun”? First one to shout out “Shotgun!” rode in the passenger seat of the car. Being a stepparent feels like that – never sure if you’re driving the car, riding shotgun or taking a backseat. Feeling as though each day you have to establish your place. As a biological parent your role is established. You are in the driver’s seat. You are responsible for the car payment, car insurance, finding the keys under the pile of mail and school handouts on the kitchen table and making sure seat belts are buckled.
As a parent, you are your child’s provider of food, shelter and money. You’re their friend, teacher, coach and local authority all in one package. Stepparents can be that, too, but while bioparents wonder, “How am I going to address (fill in child’s current issue)?”, you then ask yourself, “Should I? What is my place? How much do I matter? Can I ever settle in and be confident in where I stand?”
Society collectively agrees that the child’s best interest is what is most important. As bioparent or grandparent, or babysitter, or cousin or aunt, you say that and carry on. There’s at least some sort of social norm or outline for those family members: bioparent’s unconditional love, the spoiling grandparent or the “fun” aunt or uncle. But as a stepparent you wonder, “How do I materialize that? How am I supposed to love you? In what ways do you need me? How do I give it all when there are limits? In what ways won’t I create unrest in others while pursuing your best interest?”
Sometimes you’re in the driver’s seat as you’re preparing meals, helping with homework, picking your stepchild up from school, taking them to practice, asking that they clean up after themselves or put down the toilet seat for the thousandth time, or maybe even having a heart-to-heart with them. Sometimes you’re in the passenger seat, side-by-side with your significant other, at school functions, sporting events, helping with bedtime if they’re running late, facilitating phone calls to their other parent, or having a brainstorming session over the next chapter of your household’s child-rearing how-to book. Sometimes you decide to take a backseat and not be involved as a parent. You decide you’ll be present and observant. It can be difficult to be passive, though. Your significant other is communicating with their ex, the school, a coach, or whomever regarding the task at hand and you know you don’t need to care or want to care, but of course you’re curious.
I know it’s a part of who I am. I’m a helper, a leader, a control freak. I’m empathetic, organized and efficient. All of these traits feel very dangerous as a stepparent, so what traits are safe? What WOULD work? Who could I become that would feel comfortable in this seat? Sometimes I have to not care, because I just don’t have the energy to care any harder. My husband and I have been together for five years now. I haven’t got this figured out yet. It’s constantly changing and evolving. Such is life. I understand that there probably is no clear answer. A yes/no flow chart would be helpful. “Start here: Is your significant other in favor of presenting a united front? Yes or no?” “Are you able to set boundaries where needed? Yes or no?”
Questions of money and custody, and deeper questions regarding respect, belonging and love. Ultimately it really is about love and saying “yes.” Being a stepparent is confusing and challenging, but you say “yes” because you know that it’s all worth it. Maybe it’s not about where you sit in the car, but simply that you’re in it.