Ron L. Deal
Parenting at a distance is difficult, sometimes extremely difficult. Non-residential parents and stepparents alike find remaining connected to kids and keeping influence with children a challenge. For example, when a stepchild’s visitation schedule brings them into the stepparent’s home only a few nights each month, the stepparent can continuously feel like an outsider. “I feel whatever relational gains I make during the weekend are easily lost when she goes back to her mother’s house,” said one stepmom. “It’s two steps forward and one step back all the time.” That feeling is quite understandable given the tentative nature of the stepparent-stepchild relationship to begin with. But sometimes the circumstances surrounding visitation make biological parents anxious, too.
Jackson, a father to two adolescent sons, found himself paralyzed by his part-time schedule. After Jackson and his first wife divorced, she and their boys moved over 1200 miles away. Through the years, Jackson felt his relationship with his sons slipping; they weren’t able to talk much on the phone and when they did talk, their mother made her presence—and the expectation that they not talk very long—very evident. Plus, the visitation schedule only allowed Jackson six weeks in the summer with his kids, one week during Christmas break, and one week during spring break. The lack of time made Jackson discouraged; parenting them with confidence when they came to his house was very difficult. Jackson’s wife, Cathy, was the first to notice…and complain.
“Why don’t you discipline your children the way you discipline mine?” she demanded of him. “It’s not fair that you let them get away with things you won’t let my daughter do. And she’s noticing it—and asking why. What do I tell her?”
Jackson tried to explain his position. “You don’t understand. It’s not fair to expect me to parent my kids the way I parent yours. Your daughter is with us all the time and I can follow through with her. My kids are here for one week; that’s all I get with them and I don’t want it to be filled with conflict or expectations. My kids don’t call me much as it is; I can’t afford to lose the time I have.”
Upon further reflection, Jackson realized that he had a great many fears about losing contact with his sons. He viewed their relationship as fragile and not able to bear much distress. He knew his ex-wife tried to hoard the children as much as she could and that she told them untrue things about his life trying to alienate them further. Plus, he wanted them to leave his home with positive feelings toward he and his wife, not negative ones. While all of these feelings were understandable, unfortunately they resulted in boundary-less parenting on his part, a sense of unfairness in the home, resentment from his wife, and feelings of dread within everyone before each visit.
Whether you are a part-time stepparent or biological parent, here are a few suggestions to help you navigate part-time parenting.
It is critical that you hear one another.
Parents and stepparents alike need to listen to and be heard by their partner. It is common for partners to have very difficult perspectives and feelings about the part-time schedule. A biological parent may look forward to the weekend or six week summer schedule while the stepparent lives in fear of the tension it brings to the home. Both are legitimate and understandable and need to be heard. But fear often gets in the way. A biological parent might, for example, misjudge their spouse who is sharing their anxiety over the next visit as saying they don’t like being with the kids. Fearing that the children will then feel rejection, the biological parent might become hyper-critical of the stepparent. This only adds to the anxiety in the home and pushes the couple a part.
Instead, the biological parent should strive for objectivity and empathy toward their spouse remembering that understanding does not make rejection more likely. “I can hear how anxious you are about my kids coming this weekend; what can we do to make things go a little more smoothly for you?”
Paralyzed part-time parents should strive for balance. If you, like Jackson, find yourself afraid to discipline your children due to the fear that doing so will alienate them further, explore with your spouse what a balanced response might look like. It’s helpful as you have this conversation for the stepparent to acknowledge how fearful the parent is and validate the legitimacy of their feelings (negating this only makes your feelings on the matter less important to your spouse). But even then, choosing to take a risk with what feels to be a fragile relationship is extremely difficult. In some situations, the relationship really is fragile; in other situations, the parent judges it more fragile than it really is. The point is this—if there are other children living in your house (e.g., stepchildren) most of the time you cannot afford to have night and day expectations for different children based on fear. Doing so jeopardizes the stepfamily relationships and often the marriage itself.
Instead, find a balance between having some expectations and letting go of others. Finding this balance can only be achieved through careful and intentional conversation with the stepparent.
In a moment of clarity, Jackson recognized the complications of his stepfamily. “When parents are separated by divorce, parenting gets a lot harder. I’m back on my heals with my own kids which means they have more power than I do—and I can’t be the father I really want to be.”
Part-time parenting is challenging and parents do give up some influence in the process. It is unavoidable. But completely giving up out of fear is never a good solution and rarely helps anyone. Take the risk of acting like a parent and perhaps your children will respect you as one.
The following discussion guide for couples may help you make important decisions about how you part-time parent. Work through the items together.
- Pray together over your discussion and ask for the Lord’s wisdom.
- If your children lived with you full time, how would you parent them differently?
- List reasons and fears that keep you from parenting them this way now.
- Rank the potential costs of each reason or fear from low to high. For example, wanting kids to leave your home with nothing but positive feelings about you (because they had fun the entire time) has low potential costs, while the fear of having children tell an antagonistic ex-spouse that they dread coming to see you has high potential cost.
- Discuss which low to moderate costs you are willing to risk experiencing in order to move toward a stronger parenting position with your children.
Ron L. Deal is Founder & President of Smart Stepfamilies™ and Director of FamilyLife Blended® for FamilyLife®. He is a bestselling author, highly sought-after speaker, and therapist specializing in marriage enrichment and blended family education. Learn more here.