Two-thirds of stepparents also have biological children of their own. Balancing parental responsibilities, spousal commitments, and stepparent roles can be challenging—and guilt producing.
This Father’s Day, many stepdads will feel torn because they believe that their roles as a biological dad and a stepfather are out of balance. All of your children need your continued presence in their lives. You cannot afford to be a vanishing father. Even if circumstances or distant living arrangements make your engagement infrequent or difficult, never stop pursuing your kids. Your kids are better off with an engaged, active father. And so is your stepfamily.
Here are four ways that you can stay physically connected and emotionally engaged with your biological children:
1. Strike a balance in your roles. Think about it. How can your children celebrate your role as a stepfather if it means losing you to their stepsiblings? Watching you abandon ship only to invest in your stepchildren would cause them to think of their stepsiblings and stepmother as the enemy. This competitive environment would certainly sabotage household harmony and cause many conflicts. What is needed is balance between the roles of father and stepdad, not an over-investment in either.
No, you probably won’t be able to give equal time to each child, but you can strive to be fully present with whomever you are with. Use modern technology (e.g., email and texting) to keep in touch even when you can’t be physically present, and seek to play all the roles a father plays, even when at a distance.
For example, some dads are tempted not to engage in stern talk or boundary setting with their kids when they don’t get to see them much. But your children still need to know you approve of wise choices and disapprove of poor ones. Don’t ditch your disciplinarian role just because time is limited.
Also, resist playing favorites with your kids. One stepdad, Gil, said: “When with my stepchildren, my attention easily switched to my kids. It’s natural to do this, but I had to be intentional—I had to pace myself and balance my attention.”
Putting specific effort to being “in the moment” is worth the energy it demands.
Striking a balance also means managing your guilt when circumstances give you more time with your stepchildren than with your biological children. Some men try to solve their internal guilt by remaining distant or critical of their stepchildren. But this won’t improve your relationship—or your conscience—with your biological children.
If you find yourself struggling with this dilemma, try to think of relationships with your children and stepchildren independent of each other. Give yourself permission to fully engage in each as you are able. You have enough love to go around.
2. Stay predictable in your availability and activities. Of course, some change before and after marriage is inevitable. But as much as it is within your power, remain consistent in your visitation schedule, phone calls, and pattern of involvement. Doing so builds bridges of trust and encourages your children to be open with you. They need to know that you still care to hear about their daily lives, their thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
3. Compartmentalize special time. From time to time, make opportunities for exclusive time with each of your children. Take your daughter to lunch or your son to a baseball game. Planning special time with individual children happens regularly in biological families and no one thinks anything of it (when balanced between all the children over time).
But for some reason, some people get paranoid about compartmentalizing special time in stepfamilies. Your wife might object to you taking your daughter to a special concert without taking all of her children as well, or your ex-wife might accuse you of favoritism for not including all the kids in an activity.
But special time helps to feed a child’s heart, and as long as everyone gets included over time, it doesn’t have to add up to favoritism. Find a balance; have entire family activities where everyone is included and individual special events meant to communicate ongoing dedication to your children.
4. Don’t buy the lie. Don’t ever be fooled into believing that cutting yourself out of your child’s life is to their advantage. Nothing could be further from the truth. “It just seems that my kids’ lives would be less complicated if they didn’t have to travel to see me every month,” Dan explained to me. “Aren’t I making life easier for them by letting them stay at their mom’s house?”
It is true that visitation causes inconveniences for children (and adults), but the blessings far outweigh the difficulties. Don’t buy the lie.