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It’s a difficult and loaded question – when you do you stop being Dads girlfriend (or Mums boyfriend) and start being a step parent?

There are many definitions of “step mother”, most of these are specifically related to marriage; many are very longstanding and therefore traditional in their perspective.

A couple gets married, buy a house, have children and stay together until parted by death or rarely *hushed whisper* divorce… the widower (or divorcee) then finds a new partner, introduces the kids, gets married, moves in and all of a sudden a wife and stepmother are born, stepmother is generally hated by the kids but they all put up with each other until dad dies. (Thanks Disney!)

In modern relationships, the order can become very jumbled indeed and some steps may never happen at all. The birth parents may or may not have been married, the new relationship also may not follow the traditional steps.

Take my partner and I – we have been together for over 4 years, Monster was only 9 months old when we became an item, more than 6 months after his parents had separated. We will, one day, get married but first we moved in together. We got our house more than 3 years ago and have lived together happily since. We’re in a serious, committed relationship – we plan to spend the rest of our lives together as we are today.

Despite the seriousness of our relationship, some people have told me I am not a Step-Mum.. because we are not married or bizarrely because his Birth-Mum is not dead??

I didn’t cocoon myself in a blanket and stop myself from forming a relationship with Monster because his father and I aren’t married – I wipe his tears, make him giggle hysterically, help teach him to read and write and how to deal with his emotions… I love him, support him and burst with pride on a waaaay too frequent basis.

Will any of that feel different if we shared the same name or I wore a ring on a different finger? I hope not, if absolutely nothing changes in the next 30 years, I think we have a pretty perfect little family.

So for me, when I started to feel those strange bursts of pride and found myself with a goofy smile because a 2 year old told me he loved me.. I became a stepmum and more important to me.. Monster became my stepson.   There’s no way he’s just my boyfriends kid, he’s a little bit mine too.

It’s not about the label or the status, if there is any in being a StepMum.. for me, it’s the feeling of belonging and the invisible line drawn between Monster and me, its a small and to some an insignificant gesture but it’s our connection and married or not, I wear the StepMum label with pride.

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When I first became an “unmarried step-mum” Monster didn’t have a huge time impact on my life, my partners access was minimal and we had a lot of “free time” to be a couple in our own right. As you will know from my previous posts, this changed – in different ways both gradually and suddenly and over the past 4 years our access has fluctuated greatly from a day a month to every weekend and some weeknights to our current arrangement of every other weekend and one weeknight. The point is, it has changed… and it may change again.

At times, our lives have had no structure, preplanning has been impossible and trying to have our own life has been almost completely unmanageable. That wasn’t really what I thought I was signing up to at the beginning. Though, to be honest I can’t remember what I thought I was signing up to!

Even though now we have a good structure and routine to the time we spend with Monster, as always the potential is there to change again, and I have no way of predicting in which way this may happen. Based on my own and other Step-Mums experience, I might expect:

1. Our access to reduce
2. Our access to increase
3. To gain full time custody
4. To lose almost all access

The potential is all there, anything could happen… and I have to be emotionally (at least) prepared to deal with and support my family through any of those potential outcomes.

I’ve read several stories of Step-Mums who have started with part-time, sometimes very intermittent custody and care of a child, and then found an unexpected situation meaning that overnight, they have full-time care of their step-child. These stories, sometimes positive, sometimes not, have all made me realise that by making a commitment to my two Monsters – that commitment needs to remain no matter what. In being a step-Mum, there is always the potential to be full time, though in my experience being a step-Mum is always a full time commitment, no matter where the little Monster is.

I have considered how happy or satisfied I would be if our arrangement were full time and fortunately – yes I think I would be very happy. Actually, while there could be some ‘drawbacks’ and less time for alone time, there would also be a lot of positives which could make our lives much easier. I’m actually not an advocate of either parent having 100% custody, so I won’t wish for it but if it happens, we will certainly be ok.

Through good times and bad is an expression just made for the blended family and given the history that most blended families come with, the stability and security that sentiment provides is all the more important.

When nobody has full control over a situation, I come to one of my most used step-Mum mantras… just go with it! Love your family and make the most of every moment you spend together, I don’t waste any time trying to make future predictions – as and when circumstances change, we will deal with it and hopefully continue to thrive no matter what happens.

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One of the challenges of a (part-time) blended family dynamic is the many stakeholders and family members who want to be involved.  My partner and I are both very lucky to have nearby families who want to be a regular part of not only our lives, but monsters too. In many respects, we are extremely fortunate to be in this situation – it means we both have good support networks we can rely on and we’re never short of a helping hand.

However, because our time with monster has always been limited, trying to fit everything and everybody in can be a nightmare! His grandparents have always wanted to spend time with him as often as they can – at least every fortnight, which is great, except that we only have him to stay every fortnight. For the first few years of our relationship, the vast majority of our time with monster was spent with other people too. In some ways, this was really good – our “Monster-time” was always very active, social and family-oriented, but it didn’t really give us (three) any time to develop ourselves as a family unit independent of everyone else.

If there is an “average” frequency for grand-parents, great-grand-parents or any other relative to see the kids, I’d love to know it, but everyone seems to be different in this way. When I was very young, my family moved across the country to a new area where we had no family – so I was quite used to seeing our extended family 3-4 times a year on average… that was normal for me. On the other hand, virtually all my partners family live in the same village he was born in, so growing up he saw his grandparents every week, although had a different relationship with his wider family, so normal to him is very regular visits. But in both these scenarios, we both lived with both of our parents full-time with unrestricted access, so even my other half spent a relativity low percentage of his time at home with the extended family.

With monster, if we spend a day with family – that’s potentially 50% of our parenting time with him that fortnight, which especially on a very regular basis feels a little high?! But then, to the grandparents, seeing the Monster once a month sounds nowhere near enough… its such a fine balancing act and a very difficult one to know where the priority should and does sit and who will be enforcing it.

Just to make things a little harder, we add the “step-family” into the mix, who of course I want Monster to have a good relationship with – we have children of a similar age on my side of the family which also makes this a little easier and a bit of a bigger motivation, especially from monsters point of view. But if we spend 50% of our parenting time with OHs family, and an afternoon (25%) with my family – then we are only on our own a quarter of the time we have with him – and a lot of that will probably be spent sleeping and washing etc!

We’ve had some pretty upsetting moments (for the grown-ups) which have brought to light that monster has not seen enough of his extended families – “Which one is great-nana?”, “What was that girls name?”, “Who is that?”. These innocent questions have, to me, been an alarm bell ringing out that we have the balance wrong somehow. The trouble is that to extend Monsters time to further family members, we have to take away from somebody else. We are certainly more protective of “our family” time… but it still doesn’t feel like we have it quite right.

I’m hoping that now we have structure to our time with monster, we will able to structure our time with family too and make sure that he gets the best of all worlds and all sides of his family. I’m not too optimistic and I know it will take some work and definitely a bit of trial and error and sometimes sacrifice of our time and the things we want to do with it…. but the most important thing we want is what’s best for Monster, so our only choice… keep trying!

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