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Parents and Step-Parents: Where Is the Boundary Line?

01/24/2014 05:57 pm ET | Updated Mar 26, 2014
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Being a step-parent may very well be the most challenging thing I have ever done in my life. Parenting is tough enough in and of itself, but at least with the children I birthed I know that I can make a major parenting mistake and they will laugh at me and forgive me for my shortcomings and then forget about it by the time they get home from school. It seems like no matter what we face, we begin each day with a clean slate.

It's different with my step-children. I find myself worrying that I may at any moment make an irreversible mistake which could cause them to harbor resentment until my last breath is taken. I often dance around issues and walk on eggshells and probably coddle them more than is even necessary.

But the most challenging part about being a step-parent is not crossing the imaginary "boundary line" to which so many parents and step-parents refer. We are expected to love the children like our own... but not too much. We are expected to make decisions regarding our home... but not specifically regarding the step-kids. We are supposed to be interested in their lives... but not too interested in what they do at the other home. We are supposed to go to their sports activities and cheer them on... but not offer to assist with the activities. We are expected to treat them like our own... but not really.

Where Is the Boundary Line?

As both a mother whose children have a step-mom and as a step-mom myself, I honestly have no idea where this supposed line is. It changes completely depending on the parent and I am pretty sure I have unknowingly crossed that line as both a mother and a step-mother. The fact of the matter is this: I may not have always willingly accepted it, but my children's step-mom essentially acts as their mother when they are with her. Unless it is a major medical or educational decision regarding my children, then she and their father make the decision together if it is their custodial time. I trust in them and I know if it is something that is the least bit controversial, then they will consult with me. If I didn't want that to be the case, then I should have stayed married to their father. I didn't, so here we are.

I admit that when my ex was newly married, it would infuriate me when he would copy his wife on all of our emails. I would always "reply" without hitting "reply all." Each time I did that he would add her back on when he replied. I remember thinking, "We are the parents! She is not! Is she keeping record of all of our correspondence in case he takes me to court?"

It's much easier emotionally as a mother to designate the role of the step-parent as one of someone who sits on the sidelines and smiles at the appropriate times, but nothing more. A step-parent worth a grain of salt would never settle to be merely a "cheerleader." One day, my ex plainly said, "I need her included in the emails because she plays a major role in picking up the kids and getting them where they need to be and she needs to know if the calendar will work out for all of us." [insert my blank, idiotic and sheepish look here] I felt like a fool.

Until that moment, I had not seen her as a valid part of our parenting arrangement.

It was in that moment that I realized that I should always include her in my correspondence. I began reaching out to her specifically about things like clothes or medicine, since she would probably be the one to handle that. After that email, I realized that she is a woman just like me and it's not just my life... it's our life. What a disservice I was doing both to my children and to her by trying to exclude her from our equation. We now truly respect each other and share this important role in raising the kids. After eight years of working together, we don't have this supposed boundary line in our relationship. We have something better: Trust.

Unfortunately, not all stepmoms and moms respect each other like we do. Some are truly out to hurt the other person. A friend of mine reached out to me a few days ago for advice. She said that her ex-husband, who was very controlling and still angry about the divorce, had remarried an equally controlling new wife. My friend and her ex have shared physical custody of the children and joint legal custody. Her kids began a new school in the fall and my friend has noticed that she has been missing important events and has not been receiving information like she should from the school. She reached out to the school to find out that the step-mom had put her name in as "mother" on all school paperwork. My friend's information was nowhere to be found. Here's the kicker: The stepmom had informed the office that she and her husband had full custody and that all of the info was to go to her and not to the mother. My friend had to fax her custody agreement to the school to prove to them that she was in fact the mother and had parental rights for her daughter! Can you even imagine? After doing a little more research, it turns out the step-mom had changed everything -- soccer contacts, dentist, orthodontist, pediatrician. My friend is currently trying to figure out how to handle the situation from this point, but this is an example of someone who didn't just cross a boundary, but pole-vaulted over it!

I may not know where the line is, but I know it was crossed in this particular situation -- far and purposefully. I suggested she talk to her ex and plead to his softer side by asking him how that would make him feel in the same situation... She told me that she tried that and his response was, "Too bad... you shouldn't have divorced me." Wow. I would love opinions from my readers on how my friend should handle this situation with a step-mother who has clearly leapt over that boundary line.

I truly believe there is a balance that can be found between step-mother and mother as long as there is respect on each side. As many friends have told me though, sometimes that respect is just not there. While it comes naturally to me to always fill out paperwork with my name and my ex's name as the parents' info and the step-parents info under "emergency contacts," some people refuse to do that, claiming the other parent doesn't pay or just avoiding putting the information in out of spite.

Because I am in a positive situation, I find it shocking when people choose not to make it work when kids are involved. Through my writing/research though I am learning that this blatant disregard for the best interests of the children is far too common. And the very best thing for the children involved in divorce is for there to be no need for these supposed "boundary lines." If we all work together with open communication while putting the children's best interests and needs ahead of our own, then we can raise happy, healthy children... together. Erase the boundary lines and trust each other.

Read more by Valerie DeLoach on her blog, Life in a Blender.