coParent Meets Their Stepfamily
Dear Dr. Jann,
Things went really fast when I met my partner. We both have kids and all moved in together about two months after we met. The kids are all under 8, and we haven’t had much trouble combining our families, but his parents are not happy we moved so fast. I have never met them and he wants us all to spend Christmas them. I’m very nervous and don’t know exactly how to approach my new stepfamily and this situation. What’s good ex-etiquette?
My standard advice about moving in together is that you have a formal plan about how you’re going to do it. (Check out the “BEFORE exercise” on the Bonus Families website.) Parents know that they should reassure their kids that they will always love them even though they are no longer with their other parent, but what kids also want to hear when you meet someone else and want to move in together is how their life will change now that the family configuration is changing. You don’t do a knee jerk move-in, especially with older children who usually have a real problem with surprises. This goes for extended family as well. If they see you are organized, have a plan, and want to include them in your life together, they will not be so quick to judge.
It doesn’t sound like you did any of this, so people are up in arms. Grandma and grandpa are probably concerned about the kids—with so much up in the air, how will this all affect their grandchildren? And, in your case, if mom is still in their lives, how will their relationship with her change and how will they continue to interact now that you are around? More than being upset with you for moving so fast, your actions confused their lives. They are in the midst of dealing with their son’s break-up and now they have a new daughter-in-law and grandkids (a whole new stepfamily) they are supposed to accept–and they don’t even know you.
At this juncture, honestly is the best policy. (“Be honest and straightforward,” Ex-etiquette for Parents rule #8.) You already know how you did this wasn’t the best approach. Your partner is the glue here. He must be steadfast in his conviction that this will all work or grandma and grandpa will openly reject the move. They might, anyway. Going slow isn’t only to help the kids adjust. Extended family needs time as well.
As a general statement, it’s not a good idea to save first introductions for special occasions. Your move was a big one, there are traditions that might have to be adjusted and the introduction could overshadow the holiday celebration. If you can, arrange a meeting before the holiday. Make it casual, possibly for coffee. Their son, your partner, should arrange the meeting with a positive attitude. If you live far away, although an introduction over Facetime or Skype isn’t optimum, it’s something. Your charge is to help them understand why you moved so fast and what you would like to bring to their son’s life, his children, and to theirs. Reassure them about your plans to keep their grandchildren safe. That’s what they care about. Let them talk, because they will. Don’t take any negative remarks personally because you and their son set yourselves up for that by moving so fast. Criticism is because they care–and just put one foot in front of the other. At this point, that’s good ex-etiquette.