If you want to create an awkward moment during a family gathering, admonish a few family members for not being respectful—like what happened at my high school graduation dinner. At the time, I lived with my mom and step-dad full time, but my biological dad was invited to join in the festivities. To me, it made sense to have him be a part of that milestone, but I was unprepared for how people in attendance treated him with less respect than my other parents. It added to the confusion I already felt about having my step-dad, who I happen to call “dad” or “pops,” present along with my biological dad.
As a product of a childhood divorce, my confused feelings were the root cause of my rebellion as a teenager. I knew I loved my step-dad and my birth dad, but I was conflicted. I felt sad and angry that my step-dad was willing to do what I wanted my birth dad to do so easily: be present, provide, etc. I couldn’t understand what stood in my birth dad’s way of showing how much he wanted to be a part of my life, and as a result, it trickled down into how I treated both parental figures. There were periods where I even stopped keeping in contact with my birth dad.
Of course, I’m not alone as a child of divorce. According to the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry, “one out of every two marriages today ends in divorce and many divorcing families include children.”
Now that I’m older, I’m well aware that my parents were not considering how my sister and I would be affected by our family dynamics. In fact, my mom recently shared that her main concern was making sure her daughters were removed from a toxic household and kept safe. I can’t remember when my mom shared details about her and my birth dad’s divorce, but I know I wasn’t quite 2 years old when it was finalized.
Now that I’m older, I’m well aware that my parents were not considering how my sister and I would be affected by our family dynamics.
Although my mom did not date many people, I remember the moment my step-dad entered our lives when I was 5 years old. They have now been together 25 years. I fondly remember being excited about my step-dad’s presence, but it took some time for my sister, who’d developed a steady relationship with our birth dad prior to this, to open up to someone new. Psychologist Carl Pickhardt shared in a Psychology Today article that “divorce and remarriage tend to intensify the natural grievance of adolescence,” and “the step-parent is an easy target for blame since… there is no history of love.”
Fortunately we are in a healthier dynamic and are able to maintain a relationship with both our birth father and step-dad. However, this may not be true for others. It can be one thing trying to figure out how to have a relationship with a birth parent and step-parent, but being a parent to your own child may make things more complex. You may find that feelings you thought no longer existed surface after becoming a parent, thus complicating things. Plus, they’ll be navigating their new role as grandparent, too. If you find you are struggling, here are five ways to maintain a relationship with your parent and step-parent if you choose to do so.
It sounds cliche, but being able to name your feelings and be vocal about them can help everyone involved become more aware of how you’ve been affected by family dynamics. Sometimes, parents, as much as they may try, are not mind readers. This goes with anyone in life. It’s easy for us to become upset with others because we assume they should be able to know what’s going on with us, but that’s not true. As painful as it can be, communicating internal feelings and thoughts is necessary in order for relationships to heal or have some sort of balance.
As the child, you may be harboring resentment for your parent and step-parent along with grief. This goes for the parent and step-parent as well. There may be feelings of bitterness because the divorce or separation occurred in the first place, or for the step-parent, there can be a sense of trepidation.
Communicate Family Dynamics and Establish Boundaries
If it’s possible, it’s important to have a conversation that involves your parents and step-parents. If you have a good relationship with your birth parent and step-parent, sit down to let them know that your love for one is not greater than the other. People can create several scenarios in their head and this can allow tension to build. This same tension can show up if both parental figures are in the same space, like at my graduation dinner.
By communicating that you would like both your birth parent and step-parent present at different milestones or events in your life, you are showing that their presence is equally important. At the same time, you can create a boundary that makes it clear you are not interested in hearing them make passive aggressive comments to each other. You can also inform other family members that it’s unacceptable to make one parent feel inferior than the other. Unfortunately, I have seen first hand the effects other people’s comments about one parent can have on children. It can be damaging, not to mention divisive.
Grace is something we can all use more of, especially in our familial relationships. Setting boundaries and being communicative are essential, but being able to be patient when it feels like our birth parent or step-parent doesn’t get “it” is also key. You may not be the only person struggling to understand and become used to a new dynamic. Instead of punishing your birth parent or step-parent for not immediately being aware of how you’d like to navigate a relationship with them, try to see things from their point of view. When we’re able to step back and imagine how others may be feeling, it helps us to be less harsh.
Spend Quality Time with Your Birth Parent and Step-Parent
One of the best ways to nurture a relationship is to actually make time for it. Depending on who you see more frequently, the other parent can feel left out. To help minimize resentment or tension, find time to engage with your birth parent and step-parent on separate occasions.
Because I see my step-dad more often, I asked my birth dad to spend an entire month with me as I transitioned back to work after maternity leave ended. Whenever I would come home, I would get settled, eat a meal, and watch movies with him. We even visited a wildlife sanctuary during his visit and had a memorable experience we still talk about.
No matter which activity you choose with parents, it truly matters to them when you say, “hey, let’s hang out today.”
Allow Your Children to Interact with Birth Parents and Step-Parents
We often don’t give children enough credit for how perceptive they are. And you were once a child too. If you can imagine how you felt when your parents separated and a new person entered your lives, imagine how children may feel when they see us interact with various people. Letting your children interact with both your birth parent and step-parent will help them see that it is OK for them to nurture their own relationships. It can also help heal any potential childhood trauma you experience as a result of the shift in your family dynamics.
Being a parent and navigating a relationship with your own parents can be tricky. It can affect the way we show up for our children, partners, and even ourselves. However, relationship dynamics do not have to remain in a tense or awkward space forever. It will take time to build the kind of relationships you may want to have. The more you give to the relationship you have with your birth parent and step-parent, the more you’ll find that navigating it comes easier than before.