I am a schoolteacher in an elementary school. By nature, I am good with children, and found it quite easy to establish connections and educate them. Once I made it past my first couple of years, I got the hang of discipline. I thought I knew all I needed to know, and would one day make a great dad. Along the way I became very close friends with a colleague. She had two girls who I quickly became close to. They were 8 and 14 at the time. They are now 15 and 19 respectively. When their mother passed from a brain aneurysm five months ago, I went from close friend and positive male role model/father figure to a step dad intensely caring for these two girls’ many needs I had not previously had to. Below are six lessons I learned through this process.
Lesson One: Your Life Becomes About Them
This was the hardest lesson to learn. Going from single to STAD overnight was a huge shift in balance. I quickly realized that my life was now about the girls. I had to quickly change my priorities and the way I did things to be there for them. This meant making my health and mental well-being a priority so I could give energy to them. And everything was now about the children. As quickly learned, everything from extra money to my sick leave was now shifted and being saved and used for the girls.
Lesson Two: Discipline is The Ultimate Battle
When taking on two children who are not yours biologically, you are accepting them where they are. This means that they may not have the life lessons or character traits you would want them to have, but you cannot force your agenda on them. You have to earn their trust first. I had the fortune of many years of relationship building with these girls. But when it came to helping them adapt to a new way of life in new environments, there were some tough and dicey conversations. It is important as a STAD or STOM to build trust with the child and be on the same page as their biological parent. Otherwise, you will set them up to fail.
Lesson Three: Focus on The Wins
It is natural for children to fight change. They will want to try to normalize the situation in their own way. This can be displayed in the forms of disrespect, apathy, anger, or dropping grades. When this happens, you may feel as though you will never gain their trust and become a part of the new family structure. You may feel as though you are beating your head against a wall. Know that you may think you are failing, but with children, you never know when or how what you do or say will affect the child. So, cherish the little victories you have along the way and know in the long run, you are probably doing more good than you realize.
Lesson Four: Create New Routines
Children thrive on structure. And when someone new enters their life, the structure of it naturally changes. One great way to help ease yourself in is to create new routines that involve you. This could be a family game night or a trip to grab lunch to go with the child. A side benefit of doing this is that you will slowly show the child you are not going anywhere, which can be a big fear for a child with one parent gone, no matter the reason. In addition, you will create time for the child to talk and share. This is relationship building.
Lesson Five: Pick Your Battles
In the long fight to blending and acceptance, there will be many battles. Pick yours carefully. Choose where to spend your energy and on what, and ensure it aligns with the best interest of the child. For example, fighting over whether a child took a shower when asked or not may be a big deal for some. For others, it may be less of an issue. Pick the battles that matter and stand your ground on principle.
Lesson Six: Stay United
You are coming into this new situation with your own set of values and ideas. Hopefully you hashed these out before deciding to get involved. However, issues will come up where the birth parent upsets the child. Always approach these kinds of situations with a united front. Focus on listening, but do not talk about or go against the other parent’s wishes. This will cause divided household very quickly.
It turns out that being a teacher and being a STAD are two entirely different things. Skills from one cross over into the other. But, when you are intensely dealing with a child that is not your own, the perspective and skills needed to parent are entirely different. However, if you draw from the lessons I learned, I am sure you will do just fine. I know I am doing much better now than five months ago, and I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn. But the feedback the girls have given me in actions and words tell me I am making a huge positive impact in my new role, which I relish.