There are certain days in the life of a stepfamily that are special – landmark days that you look back on and that stand out as significant. The day you moved in together, a wedding day or the first family festival such as Christmas, Eid, Diwali or Hanukkah you shared. There may be other private ones such as anniversary of when you met or when your partner met your family. These moments you share with your partner require degrees of flexibility as you adapt and shape your new blended family.
Planning to live together
Moving in can happen slowly and in stages. One of you stays one night and goes home. A few weekends later they come, bringing a change of clothes and a toothbrush. Sometime after, they leave the toothbrush and then the clothes. And one day you agree it seems silly to keep on two homes and you either let one go, or start looking for a new place that will be your shared home. When the day arrives when you start living together, it may just feel like any other day as shared living has almost become routine.
Whether it has become a done deal for you or not, it may not have become so for the children. Whether they live with one of you full time or are weekend visitors the fact is that their parent’s home is their home too. And someone moving in can feel like invasion. It is important to find out how the children feel before a partner moves in so you can help address any issues. Quite often a child might need time to get to know their parent’s partner to develop a relationship.
Can you go at your own pace in a new relationship?
When you are two childfree adults establishing a relationship, how you do it and what pace you choose is entirely up to you. But when one or both of you have children, that’s another situation entirely. If there are children, you have to consider their feelings and wellbeing too.
The new relationship isn’t just a case of an additional adult in their lives. The new addition might have been very welcome in the early days – someone to cheer up their parent, someone to take them on treats. But once the new person becomes a fixture, all sorts of emotional issues may come to the surface.
It is natural for families with lone parents to often lean on their children, both for practical help and for emotional support. Whereas, non-resident parents may be able to give the child 100% attention as they are not with them full time. A new partner coming into the family will need a share of the time too which may upset the children.
If a child has been used to helping out a parent, when a partner moves in and takes on those duties, he or she might feel a bit redundant. It is important to consider their feelings at this stage and talk to them about this. Letting them know that they are still just as important and needed will be comforting for them.
Your new partner may struggle to keep up with the strong bond between parent and child and may have feelings of resentment. However, a conversation about this and setting new guidelines as a family may help to create the unit that may be desired.
How to work out the best thing to do
The moment clothes or toiletries start being left, or if you have the conversation about it being sensible to pool your resources and live together….call a family meeting and let the children know. If you find the idea of this awkward, embarrassing or scary then think how awkward, embarrassing or scary it may be for them to have to realise that changes are going on but not be able to talk to you about it. And if you don’t raise the issue, they may well feel it’s not something they can come and discuss.
How territorial instincts make it difficult
Children are like cats. They mark their territory by leaving socks and trainers, empty cans and mugs, toys and gadgets scattered around. Their rooms are important to them as it is their own space. Consider what a cat will do if you suddenly walk in with a new kitten or a dog. They’ll spit, they’ll fluff up and they may well attack. They may rush around laying claim to their territory and trying to put off your new partner from moving in. Sooner or later, they should settle down and could become close. But even eventual sworn buddies begin by being totally hostile. Some of this can be avoided by taking simple steps:-
Step one - acknowledge a new era is about to dawn. There will be new people in the house, or you are going to a new house. Raise this with everyone and let people give their reactions.
Step two - taking your actual situation into account, devise a new house plan. You will have several possibly competing needs to take into account.
Step three - acknowledge it - say “It must feel odd to have someone come in do the jobs you were doing, I’m really grateful for how much you did when we were alone. How are we going to sort things out now so you and (new partner) don’t argue so much? I really hate it when you quarrel.”
Simply bringing the issue out into the open sometimes does the trick. One tactic may be to agree specific responsibilities together as a family and give the child praise after. Encourage your child and new partner to do fun bonding things together and as a family too to help strengthen the new relationships. On this note, it is important to speak to your partner about boundaries and discipline so they are aware of how things are run in your home, and if they do have issue with it, it can be discussed and agreed before you start living together.
How to do an ideas storm about moving in
Write down every single thing that comes to mind. Whether you do this on your own or with your partner, you may find you put down a range of both positive and negative emotions. You may be feeling excited, nervous and relieved or have regrets and mourn losses from your past. You may ask “What do we feel about moving in? What might the children be feeling?”
When you do this with children you may need to be prepared for some different viewpoints. What you may discover is that while they may agree on the excitement and nervousness, they may express regrets and mourn losses from the past. They may feel particularly hurt at the idea that their old family is never coming back. They may have what appear to be entirely selfish and apparently silly concerns such as whether they still get to go to some after school activity or see certain people. It isn’t trivial – it’s a genuine fear they may feel that will need addressing.
If you have ideas stormed you can call a family meeting with some idea of what you may be saying but also what the other people in the family may be feeling. The best way to deal with unhappy feelings is to bring them out into the open so you can talk them over. Ensure your child gets space and time to talk without feeling they may be scolded for saying how they really feel. Unhappy emotions doesn’t go away, they may feel withdrawn and unwilling to communicate and this may present itself in negative behaviour. Ask them to be honest and reassure them that there will be no reprisals. Ironing out these concerns, even if they do seem random, will give your child the security they need during this massive change. So once you know moving in is on the cards, start preparing by talking to your children about this and asking them what they feel, what they’d like, what they’d not like.
How could your new partner be feeling?
New people in the house need to feel at home and that this is as much their place as everyone else’s. One pitfall for stepfamilies is when people feel as if a home isn’t actually theirs and they are trespassers. They may feel they have no stake in this place and family and so put little effort into making it work. Indeed, it could be the opposite and give them the challenge to make it work.
Anyone living there already can feel invaded and pushed out. They can feel as if the new people, whether living there full time or visiting, are getting special treatment and allowances. They can resent the invasion and find themselves taking up a position of resistance, both emotionally and physically. Especially when space is at a premium, children can become aggressive and defensive. On the one hand, everyone needs to know that this is a new situation and that you are moving forward into it, leaving the old behind. However, on the other hand, children need to retain links with the past and so, in fact, do adults.
Even when the only new face is an adult or whether children will be staying but not living full-time with you, It is crucial to consider all feelings. When there are two sets of children concerned, it is even more important. Children desperately need to feel they have a place, even if they visit sporadically.
Sharing space positively
Important memorabilia and items important to all of you should stay. Children need to see photographs and items that remind them of their original family and the other parent, and the new adult needs to accept this. Your new partner may bring stuff of their own which should be given room in shared areas, and a private spot too.
Children who come to stay need a space they can call their own. If you’re lucky enough to be able to give them a room of their own, allow them to make this space their own so they feel they can leave items that will be safe and untouched until the next time they are there. If they will have to share a bedroom with resident children, negotiate how this will be managed. If they visit regularly and frequently, it will be reasonable to see this room as a full-time shared room in which the resident child or children are lucky enough to be in sole charge at some times. Get the children to work out some ground rules, such as either child touches, takes or uses property that isn't theirs without first asking. That each respects the others right to private property and privacy.
How to manage moving in day
On the day new people move in, make as much of a change around for everyone as you can. You could get everyone to swap bedrooms, so instead of having to go into a bedroom already occupied by a child who may feel their hackles rise at the invasion, both children move into a room new to both of them. If this isn't possible, redecorate the house so it feels different. Be flexible and acknowledge that room allocation may not remain the same for long – as children grow older you may want to have a rethink. Be prepared for the day to be exhausting, exciting but also argumentative as moving is stressful.
We are here for you
It may help to chat to other parents on our forums to find out how they are dealing with this issue within their family life. You can also talk to us online via our live chat service, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org or call us on our helpline on 0808 800 2222 to speak to trained family support worker.