In the 20th century, stepfamilies were just really beginning to surface. However, in the 21st century, they are more like the norm. Recently, while reminiscing with an old friend I found on Facebook, I remembered that when her parents got divorced, she found out that her father was gay and that he and his partner lived together. In their divorce agreement, her parents decided it was best for her to be with both parents equally and I remember her being concerned about how she would feel about living 50% of the time with her dad and his partner. As she noted at the time, it’s hard enough to get used to your dad marrying another woman, but marrying a man was even harder to comprehend for a 15 year old. Currently, in the United States, stepfamilies that involve a gay or lesbian stepparent are becoming more and more common. With that being said, you can imagine that the dynamics of stepfamilies change even further and become much more tricky as gay and lesbian stepfamilies bring to their environment both the usual stepfamily issues and additional challenges. However, like my friend, many of these stepfamilies are very successful. As a matter of fact, statistics prove that gay and lesbian relationships have the same long-term success rates as heterosexual relationships.
An example of the challenges that families in this situation face is the stigma and bigotry that is placed upon them by peer pressure. Like any stepparent, defining your role with your stepchildren will be hard but it may be a little trickier if your stepchildren face emotional issues or unfair stigmas from their peers. Young children who haven’t been exposed to prejudice views have no problem with acceptance, but preteens and teenagers may not be as lucky. Not only do they have to worry about what their peers think, at times, they may already have formed their own opinions in this area that may not always be that of their parents. All in all, patience in this instance is the key to successful stepparenting.
In my research, I have found the main component, like in every stepfamily, is communication. The lack thereof can be what makes your family stronger or what ultimately leads to its demise. When communication is lacking, stepparents find it difficult to execute their roles and their identities feel as if they are null and void.
Outside of all of the myths that come along with same sex partnership (i.e., because a parent is gay their child will be gay, etc.) (which research has proven that children raised in gay/lesbian homes are no more likely to become gay than that of straight parents). Other challenges that gay and lesbian couples in a stepparent situation face is that which is different from my story above. Some ex-spouses are resentful at the notion that their children have to be raised in this type in environment so they are less likely to communicate and co-parent effectively. Ex-spouses often use their ex-partners sexual orientation against them when it comes to custody and court battles which make way for a lot of tension and stress for the children, not to mention bullies at school, etc. In my opinion, when this situation presents itself, honesty with your children is always the best policy. It is important that both parents are honest with their children. Otherwise, children feel isolation of the family unit they once had. Remember, the children are the ones that have to manage what is going on within the different households but also with their peers and those outside of their world. In speaking about this particular stress, think about this idea. Children are taught from all ends of the spectrum (from school, church, peers) that being in a gay or lesbian relationship isn’t what is “traditional.” It’s up to parents and stepparents to communicate and to be honest and allow them to express their feelings, to listen to their opinions and views and to let them know that what they think matters. Once open communication and trust is established, they will feel more free to be honest with you about their feelings and it is with this openness that you will be able to help them with acceptance. Here are a few tips to help you navigate a newly formed gay/lesbian stepfamily situation:
Communicate. Communicating with your ex-spouse, your new partner and your children is the utmost important task you need to master. Not only do feelings need to be discussed, but talking to them about your sexuality is also needed. Obviously, age-appropriateness needs to be taken into consideration as a 3 year old isn’t going to understand, but if your children/stepchildren are old enough to understand, or to feel the effects of your relationship from outside influences, then you need to be open and honest. We have to practice what we preach as parents. We want our kids to be honest with us, we need to be honest with them. This component is especially important when it comes to helping them with acceptance. Their feelings are important, they should matter to you and you should make sure they understand that.
Respect Their Feelings. Children may have feelings of fear upon first learning of your sexuality. Make them comfortable by explaining to them that whatever feelings they have on the subject are safe with you and they are safe to express themselves as long as it is in a respectful manner. Be supportive.
Educate Them. As I state frequently, children live what they learn. If you teach your children to learn to respectfully deal with those that choose to disagree with their views and/or those that treat them differently, they will always end up on the right side of the fence. If we model these same behaviors, they will follow our lead. Otherwise, if we don’t teach them, they will pay more attention to the negative and therefore their reactions to people who may not agree with your family situation may be toxic.
Spend Quality Time with Them. Make sure that your time with your children/stepchildren is quality time. Your children will need extra support and it is important that you and your partner provide that by spending quality time with them.
TMF Readers, if you are a part of a newly-formed, same-sex partnership where you are raising children/stepchildren, I encourage you to pay attention to your children’s needs, fears and concerns. I would also encourage, as I would any nuclear or stepfamily, to encourage them to voice their opinion. As parents, it is our responsibility to make sure our children’s needs are met whether that be emotional, mental or physical. Most importantly, our children need to know that we value them, their feelings and their opinions. Once they know they have a voice and feel those vibes from you and your partner, they will be more well-rounded and will care much less about what others think.
Peace and blessings,