It may seem counter-intuitive, but being less involved as a stepparent is more beneficial to your Blended Family than always trying to be a perfect parent. With that said, it doesn’t mean to disengage from the solid responsibilities of step-parenting and daily logistics that help the family function. What it does mean is trying too hard can actually backfire. Most stepparents start off trying hard to be a great step-parent and that can come with “too close, too soon” feelings and a lack of appreciation from the stepchildren. That pattern will only build resentment on both sides. The Good Enough Parent approach is easier on everyone.
The background on the concept of “good enough” is from Dr. Winnicot (a British psychoanalyst and pediatrician) who coined the term “Good Enough Mother” and linked mothering to a child’s development. The mother starts off at the beck-and-call of the baby’s every whim and whimper. As the child develops, the mother allows the child to experience small amounts of frustration and can back-off a bit to become the “good enough mother” attending to the baby’s needs, but not sacrificing all of her needs.
In step-parenting – it’s more complicated. Step-parenting, in my experience, is linked by the development of the relationships between the different family members. Strong relationships can handle more opinion and more intervention due to an understood amount of trust and mutual respect. Weak relationships, which are usually where the stepparent and step-child relationships start out – can be full of mistrust, resentment and fear. This doesn’t set the tone for easy communication – therefore, less can be more.
Good Enough Parenting in a Blended Family means having to break down family needs and what level to attend to those needs. In my opinion, these are the basic Blended Family parenting needs: physical needs, boundary needs, and building relationships needs.
Physical Needs – Level of attention: high.
These are things like making sure children have what they need: food, correct clothing for school, books, medical appointments, getting to/from school, help with homework, making time for friends and fun activities. These types of things a step-parent just needs to do and be involved in regardless of how the step-child feels about the step-parent or vice-versa. If there is animosity, this is an area that can be free of the negative emotions and where a step-parent can just do their job and do it well. A way to reframe this for a step-child is “I’m not your bio-mom and these are responsibilities I need to help with – it doesn’t mean I am replacing your mom, let’s just cooperate despite how you may feel about me.”
Boundaries Needs – Level of attention: good enough
This is where step-parenting gets complicated. How much do I give my opinion or intervene? Do I sacrifice my needs to keep the peace in the house (in a word, No). Should I comment on what my step-child is wearing if I think it’s inappropriate? Do I question their priorities? Do I lie for them (again, no). This is where Good Enough Step-parenting enters the game. Striking a balance between discussing things with your spouse and having your spouse handle the heavy parenting (discipline, confrontation, questioning of choices, following house rules etc.) and not being seen as a push-over is a difficult balance within a blended family. You need to do good enough and be aware of house rules but leave the enforcing to bio-parent. , Maintain your personal boundaries around respect and kindness toward all household members, but let the little stuff go. Things like: clothing choices, enforcing eating vegetables, laying judgement on their choices, getting mad about curfew (yes, save this one for the bio-parent unless bio-parent is out of town). When kids do (and they will) try to cross the boundaries and areas of respect, try taking out the emotional reactions and using simple statements like “I’m not comfortable with that, let’s check with your dad/mom” and, “your behavior is disrespectful please don’t treat me that way.” Clear statements can help lay the foundation for expectations and maintain a step-parents non-intrusiveness until relationships are stronger.
Building Relationship Needs – level of attention: good enough
Where to start, right? Being a part of a Blended Family is like dating a lot of people at once. At least that’s what it felt like for me. Each family member requires the all the effort of relationship building (like you did with your spouse) while maintaining age appropriate relating and discussions, and parenting judgments, and tolerating the not-so-good feeling of unreciprocated efforts. Good Enough relating will help you here. Make an effort to connect where you can, but don’t force them to spend a lot of time with you right off the bat. Start with talking about music or books your stepchildren are interested in. Add in some simple and fun activities like: taking them for ice cream, taking them and their friends to the movies or allowing their friends over, can help build fond emotions which will help to build mutually respectful relationships. And, as always with being in a blended family, do things without the expectation of getting something back. Kindness has a way of repaying itself.
Can the Good Enough concept be applied elsewhere? You bet! I spent this past school year attending more to the needs listed above than I did blogging, so for this year I am a good enough blogger. Just as I am a good enough stepparent, and a good enough mother, and good enough wife, I have stepped back from the cultural step-family stigma and given myself and our Blended Family a break by being good enough.