One of the most difficult and confounding things that I have heard said about parenting is that "the kids always come first." It's more of a theoretical idea than a practical guideline, and it doesn't actually carry much meaning when announced without context. It also doesn't ring true to me at all.
I don't know much about building houses, but I do know this: It is important to start with a good foundation. The foundation is what the house is built on, and the rest of the house can't be structurally sound without a solid foundation. No matter how nice the rest of the house is, if the foundation breaks, eventually, the rest of the house will crumble.
In a family household, the partners or spouses are the foundation. They are what the family is built on. Without a rock-solid foundation, the family will function poorly. To build and maintain that solid foundation, it is imperative that the partners invest in their relationship: giving it priority, putting it first, not taking it for granted.
This concept is important in ALL families, but I think it is especially important in step-families, for three main reasons:
1. The partners in a step-family don't have the benefit of years of relationship development before children. In a step-family, the children chronologically DID come before the relationship, so there was no honeymoon period exclusively focused on relationship-building. In the first few years of step-family formation, the foundation is being built simultaneously with child-raising.
2. The divorce rate in step-family couples is over 70% in the first five years- substantially higher than the divorce rate for couples without kids or for couples with biological children only. Being in a step-family creates an enormous strain on a relationship. If partners don't put each other first, focusing consistently and intentionally one each other and on the relationship, the chance of the marriage or partnership surviving is bleak.
3. Typically, one or both partners in a step-family have experienced the devolving of their first primary relationship. Often that happens, at least in part, because of a failure to keep the foundational relationship strong. In second families, couples know firsthand what happens in a relationship in which the foundation isn't prioritized - it falls apart. We have a second chance to form lasting love and commitment, so it's extra important for us to value and take advantage of that opportunity. We also owe it to our children and/or step-childen, whose first model of marriage or partnership is one of brokenness and loss.
Early on in our relationship, Pete and I made a conscious commitment to put each other, and our relationship, first. So, how do we honor that commitment, practically? It doesn't mean we ignore the child in our family. Pete and I engage Lucas every day that we are parenting him. We work on homework with him. We take turns picking him up from the bus stop and reading to him before bed every night. We sit down for dinner together every night - sometimes either Pete or I aren't home, but he has at least one parent eating with him every night. We talk to him about his day and ask him questions about school. After dinner we play a game, go for a walk, or do something else together as a family. Pete and I both go to parent/teacher conferences, I've volunteered in his classroom, and we communicate regularly with his teachers. We are highly active parents with a happy, healthy, little boy who has secure attachments and increasing independence.
For Pete and me, putting each other first means being highly intentional about making time for one another. We enforce an 8:00 pm bedtime, and at least a few nights a week, we use the remaining hours of the day as time for us to spend together. Our parenting schedule allows us kid-free time on Thursday nights and every other weekend, and we use that time to the fullest - spending it with mutual friends, going on date nights, being out of the house as much as possible. We also utilize babysitters once a month or so - the financial impact of this is well worth the positive impact on our relationship. Finally, we have pledged to travel together 4 times a year. These could be big trips, like our winter vacation to Puerto Rico, or small trips, like our fall road trip to the North Shore. It's really important to us to disengage from normal life occasionally, and focus on having awesome experiences together - things we can look back on fondly and remember that we've had amazing, life-enriching, adventures. In short, we prioritize having regular, consistent, and intentional time together as a couple.
Putting each other first also means setting boundaries with Lucas. We have a small house, so it would be easy to allow shared space to get dominated by kids' stuff. But, in order to preserve an adult focus in our home, the vast majority of Lucas's belongings are kept in his bedroom. Additionally, our own bedroom is off-limits to him, except in specific instances in which he asks permission to enter. The idea of keeping one room in the home as a kid-free "sacred space" is recommended by step-family experts, and it's been hugely sanity-preserving for us. We also don't let Lucas interrupt us when we are talking to each other, and we make a point to hug and kiss each other first when one of us gets home. These might seem like little things, but they are little things that add up to send a clear message to each other, and to Lucas, that we value and cherish each other. In doing this, we're not only achieving a five-star relationship that will last, but we're modeling to Lucas what a strong relationship should look like.
I'm proud of the parenting that Pete and I are doing, and I'm proud of our decision to put each other first. We have experienced a lot of trial and error during this first year as a family, and this is the model that we have found works best for us. Because of our choices, our relationship is strong, and I feel confident that down the road, we will continue to be in the 30% of successful step-family partners.