If I was asked what I felt the most difficult challenge of being a nontraditional parent was, I would undoubtedly say, "Loving someone else's child." This comes from my short time being in the trenches, with my own step children, and from the mouths of other nontraditional families, be they friends or family.
Every task of parenting becomes more complex when the child is not one's "natural-born." This appears to be true of step, adoptive, and foster parents. Of course, each type of nontraditional parent is different and unique. The common denominator is that loving a child with whom you have not had an "early biological" relationship with is tough. The only exception might be the adoptive parent who adopts at birth till about 4 years of age. The best time is in early infancy of course, but things don't always work out that way. In early infancy the power of attachment can do it's magical work.
Attachment is the emotional bond that occurs between a parent and child from the moment of birth or even conception. From a discipline perspective, attachment allows parents to cope with the challenges and difficulties of parenting. It is much easier to forgive the behavior of a child with whom you feel biologically attached than with someone else's biological child. It is also easier to discipline a child when attached. For one, children are more likely to follow a biological parent's directives than a nonbiological parent. Though that's not always the case, just what is considered normal. However, if a biological parent (now divorced), has lost control, he/she may never regain it. Then they tend to find themselves in the shoes of the traditional 'step' and can more easily understand the difficulties.
Here is one of the biggest errors step parents can make - disciplining their step children before adequately building a relationship with him or her. When you get "you're not my dad so you can't tell me what to do" lines from your step child, you know you have not adequately build that relationship yet. Of course, my step children still do not do everything I tell them to do, but they never throw my nonbiological parent status in my face. They just don't do what I tell them. Kind of like my own biological child, Joseph, will do as he gets older. Kind of like children period!
In the book "Love & Limits: Achieving a Balance in Parenting" It is pointed out that discipline is made up of two sides: love and limits. Discipline without love tends to be authoritarian and cold. Take out limits and you have a permissive, weak parenting style. The solution is to use both love and limits. All families, traditional and nontraditional, struggle with this balance. Usually, one parent will predominately use love over limits in their parenting style and the other parent will counter with limits over love. This is their way of balancing the parenting in the family system. Unfortunately, it is unhealthy and always leads to feelings of frustration and anger. It also leads to children using the old "divide and conquer" approach. Just get mom and dad fighting over how the other parent is handling things ("you are too strict" or "you coddle him too much") and the child walks away free and clear.
The division of love and limits in nontraditional families is even greater. It typically goes like this: The nonbiological parent usually takes the limits position while the biological parent takes the more nurturing, love position. This is why I suggest that nonbiological parents take a backseat approach to discipline for at least the first six months. That doesn't mean that parents shouldn't discipline their children. Just view your role as a disciplinarian to be similar to a babysitter or aunt or uncle to the child. Look for opportunities to build a relationship, from small (sitting and watching television together) to large (working on a school project), with the child, before doing major discipline.
Let the biological parent stay in the drivers seat and do most of the discipline of the children, even if he or she doesn't want to or feel that they do a good job of it. Some frustrated mom's look for a step father that can set limits with their "unruly" children. It might work in the short-term but it will back fire in the long-term, making the children resentful and unruly (something she was trying to avoid to begin with).
Adoptive and foster parents have a different reason for loving someone else's child than a step parent. Step parents end up loving someone else's child because they choose to love a parent. Adoptive and foster parents' end up loving someone else's child because the other parent could not or would not love a child. So the difference is one of motivation. Step parents are motivated to be primarily with the other parent, and so, by default, with the other parent's children. Adoptive and foster parents are motivated to be primarily with the other parent's child, and so, by default, with the other parent. Think about it.
Of course, this doesn't make adoptive or foster parenting any easier. Adoptive parents must contend with the fact that their adoptive child may go looking for his or her "real" mom and dad. Try spending your life loving someone else's child, like he or she was your own biological child, only to have him or her reject you later in life and go off in search of the other parents. Even if you are not rejected by your adoptive child, you still must deal with societies' view of you as different. Take, for example, parents who adopt children of a different ethnic background. People will continually point out the obvious nonbiological relationship to you. As if you didn't already know!
Foster parents have it tough. Try welcoming a new child into your heart and home, put time, money and effort into that child, learn to love him or her as your own, and then have the child taken away and returned to the biological parent (who messed up the child in the first place) or long-term foster care. How do you keep on loving other parents children without pain and frustrations? Maybe this is why so many of the foster parents I know end up adopting children rather than letting them return to the system.
The moral of this story is that loving someone else's child is one of the MOST LOVING ACTS a nontraditional/nonbiological parent can possibly do. Step, adoptive and foster parents may not feel they are so loving, at times, but the very fact that they doing something that goes against the normal parenting grain of attachment prove they are. Therefore, if someone asked me what the most important thing a nontraditional parent can do, I would say, without hesitation: "Love someone else's child."
by Guinevere Isabeau Haworth