Step-parenting (Bonus Parenting) Done Right!



Jessica: Once you get divorced, there’s a pretty good chance your kids could end up with a new stepparent, or you could find yourself as a stepparent in a future relationship. Let’s be honest, that is no easy feat, merging families in a harmonious way while keeping the peace and your sanity is tough. But that’s exactly what we’re talking about in today’s episode of the Divorce etc… podcast. We’re the exEXPERTS, Jessica and T.H. We help you navigate your divorce and successfully move on with your life. Let’s bring in today’s guest.

T.H.: Hey guys, T.H. here from exEXPERTS. I met Maria Natapov—is that correct?

Maria: Yes.

T.H.: She is the host of the Synergistic Stepparenting Podcast. She is also a stepparenting coach. I feel like a stepparenting coach is probably as vital as exEXPERTS. Once you start a new relationship, when do you meet the kids? How should you meet the kids? Should anybody meet your kids? That’s just the tip of the iceberg. We’re super happy to have you here, Maria, with us. We have a bunch of questions for you. We’ve been in other relationships where kids have been introduced, and then those relationships are over now. Welcome to Divorce etc…

Maria: Thank you so much. I’m thrilled to be here.

Jessica: We really appreciate it. I mean, listen, I’m going to start with this one, just because I got married a second time and we both had kids. We were both stepparents. We are no longer married anymore. He still has a really good relationship with my kids. I never really had a close relationship with his daughter to begin with. Is she still my stepdaughter?

Maria: I think it depends, right? How do you define it? I think it’s unique to every situation, just like any marriage. I mean, I think that is such a unique relationship. Truly, as far as what to call it and what type of relationship that is, it depends on the specific individuals, what there is availability for, and the circumstances of that specific situation.

Jessica: I like that my kids still hold space for my second husband, and vice versa. Because I think that we all, on my side, me and my kids, I think we all still consider him a stepdad. I think that he loves them and is happy to have them in his life. But I know from firsthand experience, and for a lot of people out there, that isn’t always the case. Not to mention, it’s so tricky. You can’t treat them initially—like in terms of discipline or certain routines, that’s not what they’re used to with you. They don’t want to feel like you’re trying to take the place of their other parent. Start us off with the simple question of when is it appropriate to meet someone else’s children? And how do you gently foster and nurture that relationship without overstepping?

Maria: Yeah, it’s a great question. I think ideally, and let’s face it, life just happens sometimes. Even in the best case scenarios when we have the best of intentions and plans, it doesn’t always work out that way. However, if one were to go about it intentionally, I think the key is to check in. By that I mean for the divorced parent to check in with their kids and really assess where they’re at. Kids tend to need the most hand holding in these situations. They tend to take much longer to adjust and even be open to the idea of their parents moving on than adults because they’re kids. For them, their whole world is collapsing when their parents get divorced. It’s a whole thing. Plus, they’re younger, they have less of a frame of reference of how these things go in life, less ability to regulate their emotions, identify their emotions, and deal with complex situations or transitions such as divorce. That’s really the key factor to consider, I would say. I do think it’s vital for the parents to not put their lives entirely on hold just for the sake of their children. That may mean that they might not be introducing the partner to the kids. They may just be in the early phases of having those conversations with their children and gauging where they’re at and helping them to come around to being open to that. However, I do think it’s important for parents and really everybody to honor their needs. If that means they’re seeing the person and not merging families and not necessarily having them involved in all the day to day or even on a less regular basis, it’s still valuable for them to live their lives and be truthful to themselves and honor wherever they are at. One thing I will caution though that is key, is to have processed the emotions that come with uncoupling and moving on and not rushing too quickly, which can be tricky and sometimes very tempting. It’s a whole thing.

Jessica: Can you clarify, when you say to be living your truth—I don’t remember how you just articulated that—which person are you talking about, the new partner or the person who has kids?

Maria: I think I’m talking about the person who has kids. Just because your kids may not be ready for you to be dating and they may not be open to that idea doesn’t mean that you put yourself and your needs and your life on hold. However, it may mean that you’re seeing that person and it’s separate from the kids, and you’re not throwing it in their face and inviting them over to dinner and all the things, and basically pushing them on the children.

T.H.: So there is a fine line, because if you wait and you let your kids lead, it may never happen, right? There are just so many different ways that this could happen, right? I’m thinking back to my first relationship of any consequence after my divorce. I specifically did not introduce my kids to anybody for a long time until I really met this guy. Because my ex already had a fiancée in my kids’ lives immediately, and I felt like, I’m not going to complicate their lives. I don’t even know if I like somebody enough to introduce them to my kids. But I dated this guy for a while, and it was like a really big deal for him to meet my kids. He didn’t really care about me meeting his because he’d already been divorced for a while. He’s like, “Yeah, come meet my kids, whatever, whatever.” I just wanted them to like me. I didn’t really know what to do, so I did follow their lead. I learned a few things about them, and then I just sat back and I wasn’t overpowering. I think the big thing I’ve learned between that relationship, and now I am in a full blended family relationship, is to don’t overstep. You’re not even their friend yet, forget about being their stepmother. You are a stranger, and they are going to work you over to decide if they like you or not. If they’re inappropriate, ugh, there’s so much. You need that parent to step in and defend you and stand up for you. There’s so many dynamics here.

Jessica: What are those boundaries? I actually know someone who I’m very close with, who recently got married. He has a child, six years old, who is not happy at all about the situation.

T.H.: Oh, for his second marriage?

Jessica: His second marriage. The child is not happy with it and has acted out tremendously a number of times. I give a lot of credit to this person that I know, that I’m like, wow, she’s still willing to continue to try to make an effort. I mean, even for us as grown ups, it hurts your feelings after a while when they are over and over again, saying that they don’t want you around. How do you navigate that? I think that’s a really common situation.

Maria: It is really challenging. Yeah, to your point, it can take a toll for sure. I think the really biggest key is don’t take it personally. What is happening for that kiddo? I know it’s much easier said than done. I get it. But that’s really where it that line gets drawn though. Because the reality is, that child, they’re struggling. They’re obviously struggling. They’re having some big emotions. They have no idea how to process them. And so what they need is that guidance and that opportunity. Really, kids often need way more support than they let on. Certainly, little kids, but I’m talking like much older kids like teenagers, right? Kids that we often take for granted, and we see them and now they’re taller, and they’re more developed sooner, we’re like, “Oh, they’re fine. They’re an adult and they’re independent. They have all these opinions.” Yes, and they’re not an adult, and they don’t understand the full complexity, and they do still have major emotions and no clue what to do with them and how to go about making sense of them. Never mind actually fully processing them and then responding to them in a way that feels like they’re taking care of themselves in that process. That’s where they need a lot more guidance often from their parents just to create space. How can a parent invite that conversation? It’s not going to be with “Hey, my doors always open if you want to talk,” unfortunately.

T.H.: But what do you do if you’re in a relationship with someone and that person has kids, whether you do or not, and he or she is not talking to their kids and doing the things that you’re saying? Then you feel like, “Well, we have to talk to your kid.” But it’s not your place to talk to your kid. So, let’s start. Okay, so you’re in a serious relationship, everybody, okay? If you both have kids, then that’s like the Mack Daddy situation, but what are some of the biggest mistakes you see people do? We’re right at the point where, okay, you’re meeting my kids. What do I need to make sure I don’t do?

Jessica: Before you answer, though, part of that question, the person who has the kids that are being met, what should they have done to prep the kids for the best possible outcome?

T.H.: Right, right.

Maria: Yes, so I’ll start there. That’s a great question Jess. Is it okay, if I call you Jess?

Jessica: Yeah, yeah.

Maria: Sorry, I tend to always shorten names unintentionally. Ideally, they would have already talked to their children. They would have planted the seed at the very least, right? “Hey, I’m ready to date. How do you feel about that?” They may get a whole slew of responses, including the cold shoulder, or just kind of nothing, right? That’s what a lot of tweens and teens often do, for example. Younger children may also do some version of that, potentially, but they are also more likely to be more open. But it really just depends on what is the common dynamic you’ve fostered with your child. How do you tend to communicate? Have you built that relationship where you guys talk about hard things, or where there are open lines of communication? Hopefully, in an ideal situation, that’s what you would be fostering and nurturing, especially after something as huge as divorce. I mean, that’s just devastating for adults, never mind for children. So, that I would say is the really key number one place to start. As you also have more of these uncomfortable situations and conversations, you will start to pick up on their cues. For example, my stepdaughter, whenever she’s uncomfortable, she will avoid making eye contact, she gets really quiet, her leg may shake, she might start to fidget. Those are her tells. I’ve gotten super, super good at tuning into those. But it takes practice, and every single person is different. They are clues and they are giveaways like their poker face. All the little tells are going to be different. That’s really key. But I think, I mean, at the very least, even if you’re not getting much back from the child, you naming it, you letting them know, “Hey, these are my intentions, this is where I’m at. Think about it.” Even if you don’t have a full fledged conversation or don’t get much of a response, it plants that seed and it allows them to start to come around to that idea and start to accept that reality, whatever that looks like for them. That journey is going to be unique and different for them. It may take them much longer, but at least they’re starting, like you’re making it clear where you’re heading. And so they’re having an opportunity to come around to meet you there. Ideally, though, you will keep creating space to revisit that with them. As far as—are we moving? Sorry, are we moving?

T.H.: No. Well, I also want to say that I think what is also an important piece of information to put around what you’re saying is it’s one adult meeting one set of kids. You don’t all meet the other the person you’re dating and all the kids all at the same time Kumbaya. That’s not the greatest thing.

Maria: Right. Unless they’re really little and if you happen to already have—say maybe their kids go to the same school, or somehow there’s already been some interaction, or maybe it’s at a playground. That could happen. But again, then there’s no pressure because it’s just a public space. They’re free to run around. They can play with each other or not play with each other. It’s like, “Oh, it’s just a play date, just like all the other play dates we have.” Then it feels really natural and normal. Again, it’s about removing that pressure and removing the intensity and the weight of “Hey, this is like a really important person. It’s really important you get along with these kids and this adult.” That usually freaks kids out.

T.H.: Right. That’s going to stress everybody out. When Jess and I were getting divorced from our exes, we hoped someone would take us by the hand and make sure we didn’t make any mistakes with our kids, whether it’s meeting somebody new, finances, dealing with our ex, you name it. But you’re in luck. Just like building exEXPERTS for you, we also created a free Divorce Rulebook for you. We share what we wish we knew back then, including meeting other people, so you don’t make the same mistakes that we did. If you want your free copy, all you have to do is visit It’s right there for you. You don’t know what you don’t know, but the exEXPERTS do. I mean, Maria, we can talk forever, because there’s so many different scenarios here. But okay, so you prepare the kids, you set up an environment to meet the person that you’re dating, in an environment that’s comfortable for your kids. So they’re young, then it’s a playground. If they’re older and they like to play tennis, then maybe you guys all go play tennis together. Do you recommend that you connect in a way that’s fun? I think that sitting down to a meal is like torture.

Maria: Yeah. Yeah, it’s too much pressure. I totally agree. Really, one key piece to remember is, even if your child says, “Yeah, I’m okay with it. Go ahead, I’m down for this meeting,” they may not be okay with it when the time comes. Oftentimes, they won’t know exactly how they’re going to respond until it’s happening, and then they might lose it. And so I always suggest the best way is just a casual setting with an easy exit strategy, and preparing your partner for the same. Like, “We may stick around. we may be able to spend some time together, or it might just be like a hi and we got to leave.”

T.H.: Right, like go for ice cream or go to the park.

Maria: Or even like a “We’ll bump into you at the mall, and we might just say hi and literally take off on the spot.”

T.H.: Uh-huh, so they can look at you take you in. Yeah, I mean, my girls are super judgey. So, yeah, that’d definitely happen.

Jessica: So what about now, because I think that all the things that you’re saying, I think everyone listening can relate that this is very applicable for children of a certain age. Maybe let’s say, for argument’s sake, up to age of 12 or 13. I mean, what if you have kids that are older teenagers, or even young adults, who for sure have opinions of their own and really don’t feel that they need this new person coming into their lives, telling them what their curfew is going to be, telling them that it’s okay or not okay to go out or do whatever? That is also a really challenging place to be. I think that as a stepparent, I feel discipline can ruin relationships.

Maria: 100%.

Jessica: How do you deal with that?

Maria: Yeah, connection over consequences. That’s the key, right? Just like what T.H. was saying, you’re a stranger. You wouldn’t go into any environment as an adult, even a work environment, even when you’re meeting clients, you wouldn’t just expect that someone is just going to completely listen to your every word and take you in, and completely agree with you, and then just follow.

Jessica: I don’t even mean the first meeting. I mean, so you’re in a relationship, you’ve met the kids, you’re however far into it—a year and a half. You decide to move in together. You know the kids. You may not be super close, but now you’re all under one roof. Your kids have been raised with this set of rules. Those kids have been raised with that set of rules, or no rules.

Maria: Yeah.

Jessica: How do you weigh the balance?

Maria: Yeah, communication is really key. I always suggest family meetings. That way, everybody gets to air out their opinions and also ask their questions. Everyone is participating in the communication, including in coming up with the solutions. I mean, just like a round table, basically, is the best way to do it, including if you have little kids. They might not be quite ready to weigh in, but just exposing them to the dynamic, it encourages them like, “Wow, my thoughts matter. And I get to see how this is handled in a hopefully good way.” It’s a motto, but conflict is inevitable. As much as we want to prepare for every single possible hiccup and completely eradicate it, it’s impossible. We can’t do that. All we can do is teach our kids skills and model by example, like how to navigate these challenging questions, situations, discussions, and how to respect each other. That’s really what it comes down to.

T.H.: I think that it’s really a matter of dynamic. I think there’s obviously a difference between toddlers and then everybody else. But my boyfriend’s kids are in their early twenties, and we were living together.

Jessica: That’s the best age, everyone. Merge your families when your kids are already out of the house.

T.H.: Well, but still, I’m saying don’t discount it, though. Because we had planned a vacation where we were all going on vacation together—me, him, and all of our kids. There were 10 of us. My kids basically do what I tell them to do. I said, “We’re going on vacation. This is it. This is it. That’s it, okay?” But I tell them everything. But he’s not the best communicator. His daughter actually arranged for us all to go on a Zoom before this vacation, and she included me. I was like, oh my God, I’m in the hot seat, because I don’t discipline anybody. My mind, as we live together and they’re older, is his kids follow his rules, my kids follow my rules. I’m never going to tell his son that he has to do whatever. It bothers me sometimes. I’m like, “Can you tell him to empty the dishwasher?” This is not my job. But if he doesn’t tell him, then it’s not going to change because I’m not going to say anything. That’s just me. But we had this whole Zoom call, and they’re like, “Is there room for each of us here? Does this mean that all vacations are going to include all of us? Are we never going on vacation alone with you, Dad? Are you never going on vacation with your kids, T.H.?” These were the things, and I was kind of shitting in my pants. He responded in a great way and said a lot of things that were awesome. But I think that his kids felt that he would never have said that if they hadn’t put him in the hot seat with me or because I was listening. You know what I mean? I don’t know what it was, but she brokered that situation. Because I didn’t realize how they were feeling. They weren’t communicating with him, he wasn’t communicating with them, and here we are all going to Utah together.

Jessica: But I also feel what you’re saying, I think, is so important for people to listen to, regardless of the kids’ ages. Just because you end up in a new relationship with a new partner who has children and you are becoming a family—I think this is particularly relevant if your kids are younger—it doesn’t mean that you should not carve out time for your nuclear original family unit, particularly in the beginning for a little while probably, to get to that place. I never even thought of that until you literally just said it, but I feel that’s true. People, you should still be doing a weekend alone with just your kids or doing activities where not everyone’s included, so that they do still feel they have that quality time with you.

T.H.: My kids definitely cherish that. I go into New York; I’m with them alone; I see my son in school alone. But we’re in a house together. So when you’re home, we’re all together. But yes, making time for just us has been really, really important. As his kids are older, they get less of that. They get him alone.

Jessica: What do you think of that, Maria?

Maria: Yeah, that’s so critical. That’s absolutely so critical, especially getting everybody adjusted. What often happens after divorce is that the decisions that the parents would be making together, once they’re divorced, oftentimes, they’re including kids, because it’s like, “There’s nobody else to bounce this off of. I want an opinion. I don’t want all of the burden to be on me. We’re all in this together.” And so now that feels like they’re losing that once a new partner comes into the picture. So in order to help with the transition, and in order to—again, they’re adjusting to a brand new person. That could be rules, that could be characteristics, that could be traits, or that could be something else about the dynamic, as you guys have pointed out. In order to create that space, it’s so important for the parent and the child or children to still have that one on one time once in a while, so that they can feel a sense of normalcy, feel supported, feel like not their entire world is completely changing on them, and in addition, to be able to have some of those difficult conversations of like, “Well, what about when so and so does this? What about that?” That’s a great opportunity to have some of that support and air that out and navigate that.

T.H.: So, Maria, what were your biggest mistakes in your blended family?

Maria: I was the stepparent and I didn’t have children of my own. I mean, there’s one thing that all kids, I think, do is they unnerve all the stuff that we think we have healed through and worked through.

T.H.: They bring it all right back.

Maria: They bring it all right back. And so all the things that I remember, I was like, “Oh, I really don’t like when my parents did that and my parents did this.” Then meanwhile, the automatic responses kicked in, and I’m like, “What? I know better. Why did that happen?”

T.H.: Yeah, you’re your parents.

Maria: Yeah, and especially thinking of blended family situations, because there’s so many cooks in the kitchen. There’s just so much to constantly have to navigate and consider, and just endless coordination, and endless things to accommodate. It feels so unfair, and you feel like you’re really at the mercy of all these things, both other people who are making decisions, but in addition, just circumstances. And so truly, self regulation is the biggest, most important key piece of all of it. That’s really what it comes down to. I will say that it truly makes such a huge difference too when it comes to regaining your sanity and your power and your sense of self. The beautiful thing is when you’re able to find that grounded place—and I know that’s a reach—I’m also part of this world. I’m also human. But you can get there. You really can. You can develop some good strategies and skills and routines. The thing that’s amazing is when you are calm and leading with love, you’re able to see the best in each situation and each person. You’re no longer like, “Oh, they’re doing this on purpose just to get me, just to make my life miserable.” You’re able to say, “Okay, how else can I look at this? What am I missing? If I was going to assume that they’re doing their very best, how else can I view this scenario?” Also, this magic happens, because when you’re calm, you bring out the calm in others. You have so much more opportunity to resolve things in a faster, way more effective and efficient manner, and to limit the misunderstanding, and to limit the constantly adding fuel to the fire.

Jessica: That’s all such great advice. I also just want to put out there that being a stepparent is really hard. I know that for a lot of divorced people, it may be the case for men as well, but I mean, I’m a woman, and I think that I can understand women a little bit better. I know a lot of women who are divorced, obviously, and a lot of us have taken issue with the new stepmother, the new female figure in our children’s lives. But if your kids are in a situation where there is a stepmother figure in their life, and they seem to genuinely like that person, honest to God, you are so fucking lucky. Because to have someone else that treats your kids well, and hopefully one day can love your kids like they’re their own, that is such a gift to your children. Don’t always immediately just hate the other woman because of the fact that she’s in this situation and you’re in whatever situation you’re in. You really are so lucky. It is so hard to be that stepparent and navigate those waters and have the kids actually like you and respect you. You’re lucky if you’re in that spot.

T.H.: I think also is like, be yourself.

Maria: Yeah.

T.H.: And don’t work so hard to buy their love, because you’re never going to buy their love. You can buy them everything, you could take them shopping, you could do whatever, but they may not like you as a person. They may love when you go and buy them everything, but then they’re using you.

Jessica: That’s right. They’ll take advantage of you.

T.H.: That’s not how you want to base the relationship. Just be yourself.

Maria: I would actually say, to your point T.H., that usually breaks any opportunity for true authentic respect and connection, right? Because it’s like, oh, you’re not going to take this seriously? Fine, I’ll play this game. Kids are so smart. They’re so, so smart. They might not be able to name the thing, but they just pick it all up.

T.H.: It’s so funny, because I don’t even think—I mean, we’re not married, but we’ve lived together for the last two and a half years, but I don’t picture myself as a stepparent. He definitely doesn’t. I think we just look at it like we’re another adult figure who’s a friend of your kids, and we’ve got their back. Every time my kids are here and they leave, he goes, “If you need anything, if you don’t want to call your mom about it, you can always call me.” That’s what their relationship is based off of. He is like person number whatever on their list of people to call. So I’m kind of the same thing.

Jessica: But it’s also because, and I feel like it’s because you guys are lucky, but neither of you had to raise each other’s children.

T.H.: Kids together, no.

Jessica: By the time you guys got together, your kids were already fully formed. It’s amazing and awesome for them on both sides there, for all of your kids, to have this additional grown up in their lives that they know that they can fall back on and rely on. It’s different when you’re in the weeds with a fucking seven year old and you’ve got 12 years ahead of you.

T.H.: Totally. Yeah, yeah, yeah, coming home drunk and puking everywhere.

Jessica: Right. And you have to help mold them as a person. It gets really challenging, I think.

T.H.: Right. Yeah, I think it really depends on the stage that you’re in. But I would also, and maybe you embrace being a stepmom, I feel that word feels scary. We have spoken to other co-parenting experts like Christina McGee who says she’s a bonus mom. I’m still not even their mom. But it does help when you’re starting a new relationship with your boyfriend or girlfriend’s kids or whatever, just check in with them, “Hey, how’d your test go?” Because that shows you were listening about their test. Or “How was the weekend?” Don’t be texting them every minute, but check in with them. His daughter had something, I checked in with her. And her Instagram, I comment here and there. I’m not over the top, but I am showing that I care because I genuinely do care. That I feel like is a good thing no matter what, like, “Hey, I’m here. I’m listening. I hope you’re good. Have a great day.”

Maria: Absolutely. To your point, I know we touched on discipline, it doesn’t need to be discipline with the hard consequences and the follow through and this whole thing. It could be person to person you’re just talking and you’re just sharing like, “Hey, here’s my view on the situation. What do you thing about that? How do you feel about it?” It’s about developing civility and human respect and also creating space to get to know each other and understand each other’s perspectives. It’s not about, “I need to make sure to force you to do this or to do that.”

T.H.: Right, right, right. I think that’s hugely important. You’re not the boss of other people’s kids.

Maria: Right. And yeah, you can foster that mutual respect and that mutual consideration and compassion towards each other.

Jessica: There’s so much more to be said as with all of our divorce discussion, particularly because the whole stepparenting thing, it literally can start when a child is age zero, and it can continue on until your child is their thirties and beyond. This is a continuing conversation that we need to have. But thank you so much, Maria, for all of the insight. Because it is a situation so many people find themselves in, and we all need help. God knows we all need help. We really appreciate you coming on and sharing all of your wisdom with us today.

Maria: Thank you very much for having me. I really enjoyed this.

Jessica: And for everyone out there, if you’ve enjoyed this episode of the Divorce etc… podcast with the exEXPERTS today, can you help a girl out? Please take a moment to subscribe, rate, and review. That helps us out and it helps others going through divorce to find us and the resources they need. For more about Maria and how she can help you, check the show notes. And of course, share this episode with anyone you know who can benefit from listening. Have a great day.

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