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This is a letter to all the bonus parents: be kind to yourself, you're doing all you can

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Let's be fair: it's not an easy position to have. They're not always happy to have you around and, let's be fair, you might not always be happy to have them around. 

Dear bonus parent, 

You – step parent, bonus parent, caretaker or whatever you call yourself, you, whose partner already had children and offers them love and care. Can I give you this letter? 

When they’re still young, you may take them to swimming lessons, bring them to school, make sandwiches, comfort them and stick plasters to their knees. As they grow older, you practice French words with them, try to tolerate adolescents’ behavior and –just like a biological parent- you lie awake until they come home from a night out. ‘Their mom never said thank you to me,’ a friend of mine said a while ago. And your boyfriend doesn’t realize how special it is what you do for his children, I thought. 

Not necessarily happy to have you around 

Let’s be fair: it’s not an easy position to have. At first, the children aren’t necessarily happy to have you around and  (in my letters, I don’t do taboos), you might not always be happy to have them around. Besides, this relationship isn’t exactly noncommittal. Your partner would really love you to like their children and for them to like you – no pressure, of course. Before you know it, you’re breaching some family code you didn’t know or crossing a limit (‘You’re not my mom!’). You’re dealing with children who have been raised in a different way than you would prefer (or than you raise your own children) and who have habits you might find difficult or complicated. 

Attention and empathy

Besides, there’s this other parent, who isn’t with your partner anymore and who may or may not like you. I am the partner of a man who has two adolescent daughters and I’m also the mother who regularly hands over her children to ‘the new girlfriend’. Both roles require attention and empathy. His new partner is not my opponent. My children are building a connection with her, which is healthy and important.

I will never make my children feel guilty about liking her. ‘I’ve known her before and I like her too,’ is what I often tell them, ‘so I really understand you do.’ That’s no lie. It’s just that, as a mother, I don’t want to hand over my children to anyone, I just want to have them with me, and that’s where the pain comes from – a pain I’ll have to deal with, myself. The other way around, with the mother of my partner’s children, I try not to set foot on any ground that’s hers – and yet, find my own place in the situation. 

It’s both heavy and joyful

Sometimes it’s like running the gauntlet, and at the same time, I love being a bonus parent. Do you know the feeling of being flooded with happiness, simply because this wonderful creature has entered your life? And the feeling of pride because you’re allowed to help raise them? It’s a special role, both a privilege and something difficult, both heavy and joyful.

Investing and not expecting too much

What I’ve learned in the last couple of years, is that the role of bonus parent blooms with modesty. It’s important not to compensate, yet not being more distant than you need to be. When it comes to investing and not expecting too much (the funny thing is that you never expect your own kids to be thankful and appreciative for your cooking and your taking them to sports clubs, but unconsciously, you do expect it from your bonus children). Confidence is something that you have to deserve, especially in the beginning – time and time again. Young children easily get attached to you, with older children or children who have seen a couple of new partners come and go, it’s not that easy. 

Be kind

The trick is not to try to hard, and yet, to do your best. Don’t hurry when it comes to connecting to a child. Children get nervous from an adult who wants to be liked. Make sure your partner is the main responsible person when it comes to the children. But do make an effort. Some children are so distant, you might feel hurt and restrain from you. Remember you are the grownup here. You have a bigger responsibility for the relationship that you guys are building, than the child does. 

Above all: be kind to yourself, dear bonus parent. You’re doing all you can. And sometimes, you do a little less. You’re only human. It’s normal for you to think ‘whatever’, sometimes. Just give it time, enjoy the little happy moments and let your role grow to be one that makes your bonus children powerful, that supports your partner and enriches you. 

With love and respect for the person you are, and for how you’re shaping this new role, 

Susan Smit

Photo: Fancycrave