Updated: Dec 13, 2021
The task of becoming a parent in an instant (without the traditional 9 months, or in some cases years, of planning and preparation) may feel like an unfamiliar or even overwhelming challenge. While connecting with your current step-child/step-children or future bonus kiddos is certainly one of the most worthwhile and rewarding experiences a person may ever have, step-parenting will, also, likely be harder than anything you have ever done, or will ever do, in your lifetime. Similar, and possibly equal to, the challenges of parenting biological kids, step-parenting comes with unique battles of its own.
One of the toughest things about parenting, whether raising your own biological children or ones that you have by marriage (or other relationship), is that the experience inevitably comes with a great deal of vulnerability. Becoming a parent often opens the door for outsiders to make judgements, interject their own opinions, and sometimes even criticize your parenting style or parental decision-making. Unique to just parenting in general, however, step-parenting often comes with a heavy dose of personal vulnerability, mixed emotions, and challenges that you never knew you'd be "step-ing" into when you first started your relationship with your lover and his or her kids.
Being able to join with a tiny (or grown) person, at whatever developmental phase they are in, is difficult to do (period). Their openness to you joining them is also most likely influenced by the approach that other adults in their life take toward you (the "other woman," or the "new man"). Your step-parenting success or failure (regardless of how much effort you put in) may end up being less about your raw parenting skills, your attunement to the kiddo, or even the kiddo's actual liking (or disliking) toward you and more about how much external support you have.
Some of the toughest parts of "step-ing," especially alongside your own biological children, are not always about your ability to love them equally or fully, but may be simply a matter of having already missed some important milestones. You didn't have the opportunity to connect and establish an attachment with them during infancy. You may not have been there to see their personality first start to shine through and watch them grow and evolve throughout their toddler years. You may learn that you have missed sharing in some of their social or academic challenges that occurred in elementary or middle school. Not to mention the birth and months of preparation it took for them to first join the world.
In addition to, or completely separate from, any egregious efforts of others to sour your relationship with this little person, (who, you may often be reminded, is "not your child,") there may be some accidental wounding along the way. You may hear others who continually remind you that your step-parenting experience is, must be, and has to be, different from any experience of biologically parenting a child (and maybe to some it is). However these suggestions about step-parenting being "different" are often implications that it is "lacking" to an experience of biologically parenting a child. Have you ever stopped to wonder how different it really is? For the solely biological parents out there, have you truly attributed all your love/liking to your child to the fact that you had either biological participation or were the active participant in birthing them? Such beliefs would propose that couples using surrogacy to conceive or carry would have a less-than parenting experience as well. However, I'm not sold.
As both a counselor and a general participant in society, I'm curious how many of us actually FEEL a difference in our love for each kid and how many of us believe what others' tell us about the step-parent experience from other step-parents, or worse, other non-step-parents. Have you ever slowed down to separate out your own experience of your role as a step-parent, societal beliefs or family members beliefs about being a step-parent, or other influences as different from or similar to your own personal experience with being a step-parent? Have you, by default, accepted that the step-parenting relationship lacks in equal love to the biological parenting relationship based on outside influence?
Perhaps you may have had your own realization that there is A difference in your parenting experience with step vs. bio, but have not been able to identify exactly WHAT the difference is. As human's it is often easier to simply point at the most obvious, that step-parenting and biological parenting would have to be different because even their labels are different, they didn't evolve in the same way, the kids are not blood related, etc. I continue, personally, to be curious around what really is the difference in my parenting relationships, and not only curious about what IS different, but also in what NEEDS to be different.
I think it's important to note that there is expected to be a different parenting experience for all parents (step-parents, adoptive parents, biological parents, or other primary caretakers) but one thing I firmly believe is that being any type of "non-traditional parent" is more SIMILAR to being a biological parent than it is DIFFERENT. And the difference, or differences, you'll never convince me, involve a difference in sheer love.