We Cannot Care More Than Our Stepchildren’s Parents

by childless stepparent

Many new stepparents dive right in and try to be a parent to their stepchildren. When your stepchild has two involved parents, this is a mistake.

It may confuse things for your stepchild. It may cause tension between you and your spouse. It may cause conflict between your spouse and his former spouse. It will likely make you feel taken advantage of, resentful, out of place.

In trying to parent a child who has two involved parents, you may only deepen your grief about not having children of your own. And as for “loving your stepchildren as your own” – well, in this situation, that’s impossible.

There may be times when you see that your stepchild would benefit from something. There may be times when you think something should be handled differently. Share that with your spouse and let it go. Leave it to your stepchild’s parents.

I have struggled with this. On one level, I’ve attended to a few basic health-related issues with my stepdaughter. On a deeper level, my ego thrives on the idea that I’m better at taking care of my husband’s daughter than her mom is. On an even deeper level, I’m working at being the mom I know I could be. But no matter my motivation, it is not my place. Not when my stepchild has two involved parents.

For instance, my nine-year-old stepdaughter has seborrheic dermatitis (cradle cap) made worse by once-a-week bathing when she’s with her mom. Sadly, kids at school have made fun of her for the yellow scales in her hair. On weeks she’s with us, we have “spa day” so I can treat her scalp with coconut oil (a natural remedy I discovered after diagnosing her skin condition with a little research). My husband has said that it’s important to him that her scalp be treated. So I will show him how the treatment works and let him take care of his daughter in this way. I cannot care more than her parents. I am not her parent.

Another example involves her pierced ears. Last year, her mom had them pierced and she was allergic to the metal in the earrings. After weeks of painful infection, the earrings had to be removed. This week, she arrived with newly pierced ears. I asked if the earrings were gold or surgical steel (to avoid infection) and she said no. I asked if her mom sent her with cleaning solution. She said no. It’s now been several days; in the past I would have made the effort to get cleaning solution, but not now. I cannot care more than her parents. I am not her parent.

The most serious example involves taking her to the dentist. Over a year ago, she had a huge cavity in one of her adult molars. It was causing her a lot of pain. Months went by, and neither her mom nor her dad did anything about it. I was shocked at their lack of concern – this seemed urgent to me. Finally, I made a dental appointment and took her in with a letter of consent from my husband, who was out of town on business. The tooth had to be extracted. It was a traumatic experience, and she was ill the next day. I took time off work to care for her. Six months came and went; again, neither her mom nor her dad made the follow-up appointment, so I took the initiative. That’s the last time. I cannot care more than her parents. I am not her parent.

The truth is, everyone has different standards, different priorities. When it comes to my husband’s daughter, those standards and priorities will be set by her parents. Unless she is walking backwards toward a cliff and I’m the only one there to warn her, it’s not my place to parent.

I can – and should – treat her with kindness. I can – and should – support my husband when he asks for my help, and it makes sense for me to be involved. I can – and should – share suggestions with my husband; but in the end, it’s up to him and his former wife to parent their child.

There is great freedom in this. Clarity. Lightness.

Manifesto #1 | I am a childless stepparent. My stepchild has two involved parents. I don’t need to take on a parenting role.

Manifesto #3 | I am not a mom. The part of myself I thought I would give my child – as a mom – has nowhere to go, and that’s okay.

Manifesto #4 | My husband chose his former wife to be his child’s mother. He must take responsibility for the consequences of that choice for himself and his daughter.