I recently listened to a woman, Anna* who wanted to know how she could come to terms with not being an equal parent. She went on to say that she felt like her stepchildren’s bio mom had more say because she could keep the kids away from their father and she felt it wasn’t fair.
Anna has children of her own but the dynamic between her and her ex is very different than the one between her current husband and his ex. Anna and her ex have relatively equal custody and they get along very well so they’re often able to talk things through and easily come to agreements on what’s best for their children.
Anna’s husband, however, doesn’t get along as well with his ex. His ex has custody while he only sees the kids on weekends and a few weeks of school vacations scattered through the year. He often gets the kids late or takes them back to their mom early because she demands it. He gives in to many of her demands in his own home because he says, “It’s just easier.”
For Anna, this is frustrating. She frequently hears, “Their mom won’t like that,” when she suggests activities for the kids, discipline for them, or just about any other suggestion she makes. Naturally, this leaves her feeling like she’s playing second fiddle to her husband’s ex-wife.
So how do you come to terms with the idea that you’ll never be seen as an equal parent?
There are a few things that I think need to happen.
Understand the roles of bio parents and stepparents
If you’re a parent yourself, then you likely already understand how it feels to be a bio parent (this is also referring to adoptive parents for simplicity). You are one of the two original parents, and you and your ex ultimately have the final say. This is true legally, but also in terms of common sense.
Stepparents, as wonderful as they may be, aren’t one of the original parents and, as such, their role is different. They don’t carry an equal weight when it comes to making decisions about the kids. As a stepparent, legally speaking, you could divorce your spouse tomorrow and walk away with no obligation to their kids. That’s not true for the bio parents.
It makes sense that your spouse’s ex may not want to consider your input. Whatever the circumstances of their split, you are the new spouse. Whether there’s jealousy at play or not, the fact remains that your spouse’s ex may firmly believe that only they and your spouse have any role in raising their children.
But this doesn’t mean that your spouse can’t take you and your opinions into consideration. And that’s where coming to terms with being an unequal parent comes into play.
Who is making you the “less than” parent?
Anna sees her situation as her husband’s ex making her the “less than” parent. That generally seems to be the way it’s seen: that the ex is the one who is “putting you in your place” and making you take on the unequal parent role.
But consider this: the ex doesn’t live in your home. Barring what might be in a court order, they don’t make the rules in your house. They don’t have the right to get upset about what happens in your home unless it’s abuse or neglect.
They have no real power over you. So are they really the one making you feel like the unequal parent?
Or is that coming from your spouse?
If your spouse is giving in to their ex, if they’re allowing their ex to threaten or manipulate them, that’s on your spouse, not their ex. Their ex can try to control things, but in the end, it’s your spouse that either allows it or stands up for themselves — and for you.
And that means the problem isn’t between you and your spouse’s ex. It’s between you and your spouse.
You need to be a team
There might be a court order that prevents you from moving out of state or going out of the country on vacation without the ex’s consent, but it’s a very rare order that will stipulate rules in your own home. While you need to obey the court order, whatever isn’t specifically outlined in that order is up to the parents to decide.
That means, in your home, you and your spouse need to be a team. You need to be able to work together, to make decisions together, and to have each other’s backs against anyone who doesn’t live in your home. That includes both their ex and yours, extended family, well-meaning friends, and anyone else who wants to offer their input into how your household and family are run.
For someone who perhaps wasn’t divorced very long before remarrying, or who was a single parent for many years before remarrying, this may be a little more difficult. They might still be used to (or have gotten used to) only needing to consult with their ex on raising the kids.
But once the two of you got married, they needed to start working on being on the same team with you. This doesn’t mean their ex is suddenly their or your opponent. But it does mean that your feelings, desires, and opinions should be one of their primary considerations.
If they’re unwilling or unable to do that, then you have bigger concerns than being an unequal parent.
If they’re unwilling or unable to do that, it may very well mean they don’t see you as an equal partner.
Solving the problem
Understanding how or why you feel like an unequal parent is all well and good, but what do you do about it?
As a stepparent, your options are somewhat limited in how you can deal with this situation. Unfortunately, your role is limited, both legally and in general. But there are still a few things you can do.
The first thing is talking to your spouse. An open and honest discussion about how you’re feeling is an excellent first step. If your spouse was unaware of your feelings, this gives them the chance to rectify the situation. It also allows them to tell you their side of the situation, so you can get some insight into what they see — which may be very different than what you see.
If the problem is truly the ex — if they’re manipulating or threatening your spouse with taking away the kids, etc. — then what you can do is support your ex in standing up to their ex and if necessary, taking the ex back to court. This may require documentation of the manipulations/threats, and you can help with that by taking notes on everything your spouse tells you and that you hear on your own.
But if the problem is between you and your spouse, there’s more you can do. You can look into couple or family therapy to help you and your spouse get on the same page, communicate more effectively and start feeling more like equals.
You can also work on a co-parenting plan, similar to what you might have done with your ex, to define roles and rules. This can be a particularly good idea if you both have kids so that all the kids are treated fairly, regardless of how much time they spend in your home.
The biggest takeaway here is that you and your spouse should be working together as a team. If that’s not happening, you need to figure out why and resolve that issue.
You might never be the equal you want to be
As much as we might all wish we had that ideal family where all the parents and all the stepparents get along beautifully, love the children the same, and co-parent without issue, that’s not the standard. You may never be the equal parent you’d like to be.
But that doesn’t mean you should be completely ignored, either. You shouldn’t be treated like an interloper in your own home. You may need to compromise and accept that you won’t be given that equal role that you deserve for all that you do for your stepchildren.
But if you’re made to feel like an outsider in your own family, if you’re expected to live your life at the whim of your spouse’s ex or the decisions the two of them make without even consulting you, you should take a step back and reconsider the situation.
Even if you’re not treated as an equal parent, you do have a role. An important one. And if your role is ignored, you need to ask yourself why. Then you need to decide if you want to live with it.
(*Name changed for privacy.)
Wendy Miller is a freelance relationship writer & meditation teacher. After years of settling for abusive and otherwise toxic relationships, she got fed up. Using meditation and other tools, she got to work on healing herself, setting boundaries, and only engaging in relationships (romantic and otherwise) that bring her joy. She wants to help other single parents find the love they seek, including and going beyond romantic love. She lives in Florida with her two sons, where she homeschools while solo parenting, while surrounded by what feels like a zooful of animals.
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