Cherished fathers will be celebrated and pampered this coming weekend.  Hugs, cakes, and coupons for lawn-mowing will rule the day on Sunday, June 19th.  But, what about stepfathers?  And, what about stepfamilies (or “blended” families) in general?  In what way are special days like Father’s Day different for them?  Is there a special day just for stepfamilies?  (Hint:  it’s in September!)

There’s no doubt that being an engaged, loving, self-sacrificing parent is enormously complex and challenging.  But it’s also enormously rewarding.  Ask any parent – they’ll tell you about things like “a special bond”, “instantaneous transfer of loyalty”, and “unconditional love “.  There’s also no doubt that being an engaged, loving, self-sacrificing stepparent is extremely rewarding.  But, ask any stepparent about the challenges and complexities they face in their role, and you will likely hear words like “jealously”, “awkwardness”, and “guilt”.

In 2011, the Census of Population counted the number of stepfamilies in Canada for the first time. In that year, there were 464,335 stepfamilies, representing 12.6% of all Canadian families comprising a couple (married and common-law) and children under the age of 25.

No matter how happy and well-adjusted a stepfamily is, the issues they face are quite distinct from non-blended families.  These issues may be outwardly invisible or difficult for people in non-blended families to understand, and are in addition to the “usual” family challenges.  Some examples are:

Jealously – Every member of a blended family may feel some jealously from time to time.  Children may feel jealous of the time their parent spends with the stepparent, especially if the relationship is brand new.  The stepparent may feel jealous about the bond between their spouse and his or her children.  And stepsiblings may be sensitive to perceived “favourites” or material inequities.

Hostility – This negative attitude likely stems from resistance to change – the child doesn’t want another parent or authority figure in his or her life: “You’re not my Mom!”.  New rules of sharing need to be understood and accepted, and this may be difficult if stepsiblings enter the picture.  Anger might also arise if the child feels helpless or believes he has lost his position in the family.

Guilt – The stepparent and biological parent may feel guilty for paying attention to the other adult, especially if the children seem to be struggling with the new family dynamic.  A stepparent will also not want to be perceived as replacing the biological mother or father, and this may trigger guilt, and ultimately interfere with their ability to bond with the child.

Sadness – A childless stepparent may feel grief and resentment over not having a child of his or her own.  The close bond between their spouse and his or her children will be difficult to watch, and may lead to despair in some situations.

Awkwardness – Holidays and special occasions such as Father’s Day can trigger feelings of awkwardness.  The child may feel torn and not want to offend either their biological parent or their stepparent.  A stepmother may work tirelessly all year to love, support, and educate a child only to feel disappointed on Mother’s Day when the Mother’s Day card isn’t purchased for her, or the child’s teacher doesn’t understand that her student needs to draw two pictures for Mother’s Day.

Although there are no easy answers, stepfamilies can try to navigate the difficulties by remembering the following:

Time  – Give it time.  Then give it some more.

Patience – See above re: Time!  Giving the new family dynamic time to feel more natural and less awkward takes patience.  Patience to get past certain milestones (the first family vacation, the first holiday celebration, etc.), and patience and understanding when a child acts out of jealously or a stepparent steps back out of guilt.

Acceptance – After you’ve given it time, and been exceedingly patient, it may be time to accept the situation.  Good, bad, or somewhere in between.  This is your family and you are capable of accepting it, warts and all.  Once you stop resisting, you may even see improvement where you never expected it!

Stereotypes and Humour – Last, but not least, face those stereotypes head on.  And laugh about it!  Cackle like the wicked stepmother you are supposed to be.  Threaten to banish your stepdaughter to her room to scrub the floor (and then take her shopping for new lipgloss instead).  Don’t forget to emphasize the positive:  Bigger family = more presents!  Hooray!!

What’s the bottom line?  The challenges faced by stepfamilies can be wicked, but the rewards are oh, so wonderful.  And, don’t forget – National Stepfamily Day is September 16th!

If you have any questions about any family law matter, contact Gelman & Associates today to meet one of our experienced family law lawyers who will work on your behalf to achieve the best possible resolution for you. With six locations in Toronto and the surrounding areas, our offices are easily accessible by transit and off-highway. Call us at (416) 736-0200 or 1-844-736-0200 or contact us online for an initial consultation.