Why Stepparent Boundaries Matter

The fight erupted before it was light this morning.  Shouting and slamming doors and spilled cereal.  I pulled the covers up and rolled over.  When the sound of the shower stopped, I called in to Gabe that the natives seemed restless and went back to sleep.  My three weren’t here, so I was off duty.

We draw clear stepparent boundaries in our home.

In our house, discipline (or refereeing in this case) falls to the parent.  It’s one of the many duties that don’t cross the stepparent line.  Defining and adhering to stepparent boundaries with our brood is one way our large blended family differs from big first families.

Gabe and I have a long list of tasks we simply don’t do for the other’s children.  When Gabe’s children are here, he cooks dinner for all of us.  He manages his children’s laundry and library books.  He buys birthday presents and coordinates play dates.  He coordinates child care and doctor’s visits.  I do the same for my children.  When Caden needs supplies for a science fair project, I run to the store.  When Lottie misses school with a fever, I stay home with her.

You may be nodding your head at those more mundane items, but hang on.  There’s more.

It would be simpler (and cheaper) if we didn’t.

I work from home.  While I work full-time, my flexible schedule means it is easy for me to run to the store midday, avoiding the after work crush.  It’s easy for me to stay home with a sick child.  The rhythm of my professional life allows me to care for my three while also meeting the demands of my chosen career.

Gabe does not have that luxury.  Managing his full-time work outside of the home and the responsibilities of his half of the family is challenging. He’s often in the grocery store after work, or on a conference call as he runs to ballet pick up.  His half of our family has a full slate of extracurricular demands, with activities every school night.

The truth is, in many first families, Gabe’s responsibilities would be mine.  I have the time and flexibility to help with basketball practice and ballet drop off.  I can meal plan sitting at my desk in the sunshine rather than at the stoplight on the way home.  It might be easier on Gabe logistically if I stepped in. Gabe has a nanny help with activities in the middle of the work day.  We might save money if I took her place.

So why don’t I?

Parenting belongs to the parent.

Gabe is capable and competent.  He managed his household independently as a single father well before I arrived on the scene.  His time with his children is precious, and they deserve to have him parent them fully – through the good and the not so great.  The lessons he teaches them as their parent, directly and indirectly, have incredible value I couldn’t deliver in the same way. His role in our home models commitment, establishes secure consistency, and challenges gender stereotypes to boot.

Let’s be clear: we’re in the trenches together.  I don’t walk by Jack’s fleece tossed on the ground where the dog will surely eat it without picking it up, and Gabe spent 20 minutes helping Simon tie his tie before the formal dance this weekend.  We are happy to help the other, and will always support any of our six children. We simply try to leave the heavy parenting lifting to the person most qualified in the child’s eyes.

Stepparenting works better simplified.

This is a tough gig.  Stepparenting involves loyalty binds and mixed emotions and grief.

In our house, we try to clear the way for the stepparent to build a relationship directly and genuinely.  We focus on finding the best in the kid and the parent and letting that be the connection point.  That means we don’t complicate it with childcare or discipline or regularly picking up dirty socks from the floor.

Amy and I search for pretty hairstyles on Pinterest and try them together.  Sara and I bake.  Jack is my dog walking buddy.  Gabe dances with Lottie in the kitchen, flipping her high on his shoulder and is teaching Simon to drive.  Caden loves his time in the garage with Gabe, and is the first to volunteer to work a powertool.  In our house, we focus on positive, supportive stepparent interaction.

Boundaries Support our Partnership.

Our partnership is the foundation of our family.  If Gabe and I are not connected and aligned, none of this matters.  Logistically, it might be easier if I took a larger role parenting Gabe’s children.  I’d love to turn over the tough teenage son conversations I’m having with Simon to Gabe.  But the truth is, blurring our boundaries would make our arrangement much more challenging.

Expecting the other to be fully responsible for a full parenting role would amplify the stress in our household.  First, it is unlikely that we would agree on the best way to approach each child.  One of us joined midstream, after all.  Even if we agreed on approach, experts agree the children would reject it. That rejection would cause other negative ripple effects.

We didn’t marry because we wanted child-rearing partners.  We have those. Maintaining our boundaries allows us to limit the potential for conflict in our marriage, and strengthens our foundation.

I know it seems strange, especially to first families, that we strictly adhere to this division of duties. It may not work for all blended families, especially those with much younger children or without active coparents.

Setting stepparent boundaries frees us of the conflict I hear about from so many blended families: we don’t struggle daily with stepparent overwhelm, fight about discipline, or face obstacles of our own making in bonding with the children.  For us, boundaries support our partnership and family overall, allowing us to forge strong, positive relationships across biological and stepparent lines.

Want a FREE tip sheet on bonding with stepchildren? Click Me!

By | 2017-06-13T15:47:13+00:00 February 6th, 2017|Blended Family Tips, Our Life Together, Stepparenting|


  1. Dawn Spector February 15, 2017 at 3:22 pm

    I have to disagree. I am stepmom to two teen girls and mom to one teen boy. I have a way more flexible schedule at work then my husband does. We have been married for five year and I don’t think twice about helping out ie buying birthday gifts for parties, driving kids places, picking kids up from their Mom’s and the list goes on. My husband sometimes works 7 days a week and his relationship with his ex is barely on speaking terms. I see it as helping my spouse and taking care of my stepchildren. Just like my husband helps with my son I totally get what you are saying, my trigger points have been financial dealing with his ex. I used to jump in and handle all those conversations and soon realized that was not good for me, for us, for anyone.Same with discipline those decision while we might discuss are up to the parent not step parent. I am curious how you handle things if one of your kids acts up while with your husband or vice versa. Do you let it go until the parent is home? Sometimes things need to be addressed at the time.

    • Kate Chapman February 15, 2017 at 3:54 pm

      Dawn, thanks so much for your comment. I absolutely see where you’re coming from, and can see that it works for your family. I think the distinction might be around expectations: Gabe doesn’t expect me to do the day to day work for his children, nor do I expect him to do the day to day work for mine. We certainly help out often, though! I am taking my eldest stepdaughter to her dress rehearsal tomorrow night, he’s teaching my son to drive, I’m on tap for school dance prep, etc. Just not an expectation that we do it all. Even that may not work for other families; I can certainly imagine a scenario where a couple divides the work so that one person works outside the home and the other manages the household and the decisions they make are different. This is simply what works for us. It’s also important to say (and we’re talking about this on FB today) boundaries exist in expectations we have of each other, and out of respect for the other parents’ in our children’s lives, but the boundaries are blurred or non-existent in our hearts. We love these six with everything we have, no matter who brought them to this party. On the discipline side, we have house rules for all six of the children that the adult present enforces. If one of mine breaks a house rule, Gabe will handle it in the moment if I am not there. Then, I follow up with any consequence. Make sense?

      • Dawn Spector February 15, 2017 at 5:00 pm

        Thank you for your response. Hoping you will delve into the world of teens as our kids are 19,17,15 and we have been dealing with new uncharted waters so to speak. Like refusing to come over, criticism from ex’s starting to come back at us. Every time I feel like “I have this” I realize I might not.

        • Kate Chapman February 16, 2017 at 9:04 am

          Ah, teens. We’re just behind you, at nearly 16 and 14. Fun times. We’ll definitely be talking about that here! I think it’s totally normal to feel like you’ve got it, and then wonder what the heck just happened! 🙂

  2. Erica February 23, 2017 at 10:54 pm

    Just to clarify, you have the same rules for all the kids or are they different depending on the parent?

    • Kate Chapman February 23, 2017 at 11:01 pm

      Great question! We have the same house rules here for all children.

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