Parenting from 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 her 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. 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 1,200 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 her expectation that they not to 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 himself 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.

Seeking balance

Whether you are a part-time stepparent or biological parent, here are a few suggestions to help you navigate part-time parenting:

First, it is critical that you hear one another. It is common for husbands and wives to have very different 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.

For example, a biological parent might misjudge a spouse who is anxious over the next visit, thinking the spouse doesn’t like being with the kids. Fearing that the children will then feel rejection, the biological parent might become hypercritical of the stepparent. This only adds to the anxiety in the home and pushes the couple apart.

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?”

Second, paralyzed part-time parents should strive for balance. If you are like Jackson, and 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.

As you have this conversation, it’s helpful for the stepparent to acknowledge how fearful the parent is and validate the legitimacy of  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 heels 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 because 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.

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The following discussion guidelines for couples may help you make important decisions about how you part-time parent. Work through the items together.

  1. Pray together over your discussion and ask for the Lord’s wisdom.
  2. If your children lived with you full time, how would you parent them differently?
  3. List reasons and fears that now keep you from parenting them this way.
  4. 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.
  5. Discuss which low to moderate costs you are willing to risk experiencing in order to move toward a stronger parenting position with your children.

When you observe or hear stories that confirm a parent is being paralyzed by their part-time circumstances, approach with compassion and wonder about his concerns. Say something like, “In talking to other part-time parents, I’ve noticed there is a strong temptation to avoid discipline for fear that it will further alienate the children. I’m wondering, can you can relate to that?”

Listen and validate their feelings and concerns. Then observe, “I can imagine that you feel caught between how you want to parent and how you think you have to parent in this situation. How can I support you as you work through this?”

© 2011 by Ron L. Deal. All rights reserved.