I am in a multiethnic intimate relationship, which is already extremely challenging in and of itself, because of the massive culture-shock that characterizes it.
On top of that my wife is a single mother and, when I married her, I was already in my late 30s, I had never been married before and I had absolutely zero experience with kids.
On top of that, my stepson grew up in the Philippines, he was raised by his grandmother and when he came here he couldn’t speak Italian and I was still learning Tagalog and I was far from being fluent.
Yep, I like injecting myself into challenging life experiences…
The title of my post is actually a rather bold claim, because it is actually almost impossible to really and fully succeed in raising stepchildren and it takes many years, if not decades, to start seeing some tangible results, which brings me to the first point I want to highlight:
Be patient and have realistic expectations
Indeed, as I have said, it usually takes years before you get a stepchild to fully trust you and that is absolutely normal.
Never marry a single mother simply because you love her if her child is not a priority for you
My wife comes from a culture that is all about raising children and the most popular Filipino folk song is actually entitled anak, meaning “child”.
If you have zero previous experience with kids, like me, that’s understandable and excusable, as long as you are willing to learn and as long as you are willing to view the marriage as a “whole package”.
The idea that “if I love my wife and shower her with love things will eventually fall into place with her child” doesn’t quite work and might actually erode the marriage itself.
So, if you are only interested in the mother, and you are not sure if you are willing to give her child the same priority, my advice is very simply: stay away from this kind of relationship.
You have to come across as the provider of something new and special
So, once you are fully convinced that you have to buy the full package and that you cannot edge the child out or give him a backseat in the relationship, you can enter this kind of relationship but, as I said, you have to operate from the idea that it will take a long time to estabilish a successful relationship and that there is the realistic possibility that you will never fully succeed.
What my experience teaches me is that one of the fastest ways to gain at least a measure of affection and trust from your stepson is by carefully looking for ways to provide him with something new and very exciting that his mother has not been able to provide.
Usually single mothers are very busy and so what tends to happen is that stepchildren spend long hours watching TV or playing with videogames while the mother is trying hard to make ends meet.
Often single mothers have little time and energy to come up with new and exciting ways to give their children the adventure they need (and likely crave) to experience.
So what I did at the beginning of my experience as a stepfather was asking myself how I could come across as someone who didn’t just enter into my stepson’s life as the husband of his mother and as someone he had to respect and obey whether he liked me or not, but rather as someone who could create some added value and who could come across as the provider of something new and exciting.
And I tried experimenting with different things.
For example, because my stepson had grown up in the Philippines until age 8, he had never seen the snow.
So one of the very first things I did was taking him to a nearby mountain where he got extremely excited as he experienced throwing snowballs and sliding downhill on a sled.
When I announced to him that I would take him to a snowy mountain he got so excited that he accepted to go alone with me and leave his mother in Rome (as she had to work).
And that broke the ice and allowed me to, at very least, get him to spend time with me and me alone without his mother.
Later I came up with the idea of renting a football field and gathering a group of Filipino kids to play together and teach him how to play soccer (which is almost unknown in the Philippines), and this also introduced some novelty into his life.
I am not saying that by becoming the provider of something new and exciting I managed to estabilish a successful relationship but, as I said, I did at least break the ice and manage to have some time for the two of us that he could (at least in part) look forward to.
The mistake I made at the beginning was to assume that a stepfather must only come across as the easygoing provider of fun and excitement and that if I tried to set boundaries I would run the risk to destroy the intimacy I was slowly creating
What made me change my mind was the fact that one day he himself specifically said to me that he wished I set some boundaries and I realized that the excessively easygoing approach I was taking was actually producing the opposite effect and was preventing him from respecting me.
Yet, on the other hand I was afraid to come across as the one who says something along the lines of “listen, your mother is my wife and, whether you like it or not, you are under my authority and so you do as I say”.
A very useful tip that I remember reading somewhere was that of removing the word “authority” from my vocabulary and replace it with the expression “you are under my legal responsibility“, which was true by the way because I had to be the one to contact the Italian embassy in Manila and apply for an entry visa and I was the one who had to take full legal responsibility to get him a permit to stay in the country.
By avoiding such expressions as “I am your new father” or “you are now under my authority” and by patiently reasoning with him that he was under my legal responsibility, I was able to at least try to add to the boundaries that my wife was already setting for him.
The last point I want to make is probably the most important one:
The wife should never criticize, attack or belittle the stepfather in the presence of the stepson
Any argument or disagreement should be settled in private and when the child is not around.
What’s even worse is if the in-laws criticize the stepfather in the presence of the child.
If either the wife or the in-laws begin to express their frustration for how the stepfather is handling the situation in front of the child how can the child possibly learn to respect his stepfather whom he is already having a hard time estabilishing a relationship at all with?
So it is extremely important that all disagreements be handled when the child is not around.
Have a long-time horizon
If you become a stepfather you can have all the best intentions in the world and all the most effective strategies in the world, but raising a stepson (or a stepdaughter for that matter….I didn’t raise a stepdaughter so I don’t know), is tricky and takes a very long time and it might even take more than ten years before you start seeing some tangible results so have a long-time horizon and tons of patience.