This Saturday was my step-son’s fourth birthday and we threw “D” a party with a Lightning McQueen theme, because “Cars” is “his favorite movie. His mom and her boyfriend, his grandparents, and his aunt and her fiance all came to the party, and our little man had a great time. Everyone got along and the level of awkwardness was almost non-existent. But it got me thinking about the path that brought us to this point- a path that has been at times rocky.
The first time that I attended one of D’s activities that his mom was also attending, was extremely nerve-wracking and stressful for me. It was D’s second birthday and Matt and I had decided to host the party at my place. I had never met D’s mom in person and it would also be the first time that I had seen Matt and his ex-wife together, so I didn’t know what to expect.
At the end of the day, I was worrying over nothing because we’re all adults and behaved as such, despite any feelings of being uncomfortable. But I never did fully relax. I was unsure about my role in the family dynamic, and how I should behave towards D. I was simply the girlfriend and not yet a parental figure. If he needed something, was I supposed to jump up and take care of it like I normally did? If he cried, did I hold out my arms to comfort him like I normally did? I had no idea, so I followed my instinct and played it safe by staying in the background.
In the end, I think this was the right move and set a tone for our relationship. As the three of us (Matt, his ex-wife and I) have navigated this co-parenting situation, I’ve made an effort to never make her feel threatened in her relationship with D. She will always be his mom, the first woman he ever loved, his anchor, and one of the two relationships that will define him for the rest of his life. I respect their relationship and would never want to disrupt it. It sounds antiquated, but I know my place.
As time has gone on and we have come together for activities centered around D, the comfort level has risen. Because I’ve now been around for awhile, the part I play has changed, especially since my role has evolved into that of a primary care giver. Whereas D used to get very agitated and confused when we were all together, he now accepts that it’s okay for Mommy and then Daddy and Rosa to come to his activities.
It hasn’t been easy and will continue to require work on everyone’s part as D gets older and his needs change. But here are some things we have learned, that have helped us arrive at the place we are now:
- By putting the child’s needs first – The child’s comfort level will be dictated by ours, as children are extremely sensitive to the feelings of those they love. Leave your ego at the door.
- By gradually increasing exposure - In jointly attending many of the child’s activities over a long period of time, parents and step-parents come to know each other better and understand each other’s place in his life.
- Through mutual respect - Each party should respect the other’s place in the child’s life. Judgements should not be discussed in front of the child because this will taint and confuse their view of the other parental unit.
- With strong communication - Children, particularly young children, have a difficult time articulating things, so parental units must do this actively on their behalf. Without constant and open communication, breakdowns begin to occur and frustrations begin to breed, which is detrimental to the health of the overall relationship.