I’m writing this from the corner of my closet, wedged between shoes and a stack of purses, trying to keep the laptop from sliding off my knees as I reposition the suitcase currently digging into my back. I’m sitting in this unusual location because I’ve discovered it’s the only place in the house where I can’t hear the loved ones I am currently sheltering at home with – specifically, my two teenage stepchildren.
From the safety of my miniature sanctuary, I can’t hear them barreling up and down the stairs, slamming doors, or chasing each other from room to room with their lacrosse sticks, pent-up energy desperate for new outlets now that sports have been canceled and time with friends is strictly virtual. Perhaps more importantly, in my hanging garden of suits and dresses, I can’t hear them saying they’re bored or asking yet again, “What are we going to do today?”
I love my stepchildren, but I never imagined spending so much time with them.
If anyone ought to have been prepared for their days to revolve around children, it’s me. By day, I’m a pediatric neuropsychologist; I do cognitive testing with children and adolescents who have learning disabilities or brain injuries. When I’m not wearing my proverbial white coat, I write stories for adolescents and young adults. Children have been such a constant part of my professional life, I felt as prepared as I could be to have them in my personal life when I made the decision to become a stepparent three years ago.
And then COVID-19 turned my world upside down.
I was used to the kids being gone at school all day, participating in after-school sports or extracurricular activities, then coming home and doing homework in their rooms. I was used to interacting with them over dinner or as I drove them to friends’ houses or as we celebrated a birthday. The only time we were all together every minute of every day was on family vacations and, because of our busy lives, I looked forward to the uninterrupted family time on those trips.
Now, every day brings the togetherness of a family vacation without any of the fun.
So, here I sit in my closet, exhausted, angry, and feeling like I must be the world’s worst stepparent because I can’t stop thinking, “I didn’t sign up for this!” By this, I mean the life I’ve been living since mid-March – working from home while my partner works from home while my two stepchildren attend school from home. All of us together, at home.
As I write this, we’ve been living together in Silicon Valley, day in and day out, for over 70 days. For those caregivers who are used to being home with their stepchildren fulltime, please refrain from judgement. I don’t write this to compare situations to see who has it worse – I write this to say that, as a stepparent, I am struggling with feeling like I became a stay-at-home mom overnight, something I never anticipated being, and I am straining to adapt. And I’m betting I’m not alone.
Here are some things that have been helpful for me as I learn how to stepparent during a pandemic:
1) Have a schedule
Child healthcare professionals, as well as the American Academy of Pediatrics, agree that schedules and routines are fundamentally important for children and adolescents. Schedules provide consistency, reduce stress, and promote feelings of safety while also fostering self-discipline. We initially got a lot of pushback from our teens about using a white board to write out a daily schedule. “We don’t need a schedule! It’s summer!” they protested, overlooking the fact that both of their schools switched to online learning rather than ending the academic year early. We forged ahead and created a daily schedule, and even though half of it is stuff we already know or aren’t in danger of forgetting, it’s become extremely helpful and acts as a dependable touchstone in this time of chaos. On any given weekday, it might look like this:
7am – wakeup and breakfast (waffles and sausage)
7:50am – school starts
12pm – lunch (turkey and cheese sandwiches, chips, fruit)
2:30pm – school ends
3-4pm – outdoor activity/exercise
4-6pm – homework or activities of choice
6pm – dinner (spaghetti, chicken parmigiana, garlic bread)
7-9:30pm – family activity and/or individual activities
10pm – lights out
Things can be changed as needed and weekends are slightly different, but this has significantly reduced household anxiety and allowed for the development of new routines. One stepchild has already finished school, so his schedule isn’t quite so detailed and instead, involves blocks of time for SAT prep, completing job applications, keeping up with Zoom lacrosse drills, and completing driver’s education.
2) Bedtime still exists
Since our kids are still attending school, albeit virtually, we made the decision to continue having bedtimes on school nights. As a doctor who specializes in developing brains, I’m especially aware of how important sleep is to overall well-being. Staying on a consistent sleep schedule has been great for individual moods, as well as the collective mood of the family. It also helps differentiate a weekday from a weekend, and in times like these, even something so small can be important for promoting feelings of normalcy.
3) Go outside!
As part of our daily schedule, the kids are expected to engage in physical activity, whether it’s riding a bike, skateboarding, going for a walk on the trail, or doing a run through the neighborhood. This has improved their interactions with each other, giving them an outlet besides teasing or arguing. It also provides natural endorphins that help reduce anxiety and feelings of depression or sadness that can arise while being separated from friends and loved ones.
4) Establish new family traditions
As a stepparent, I want to honor the traditions my partner and his children had created before me, but I also want to develop new family traditions that are unique to the four of us. If you’ve ever wanted to establish new traditions with your stepchildren, now is the time to go for it! We are all huge Disney fans, so we established “Sunday Night Disney Night,” where we have dinner together and then watch a Disney movie. Anything can become a new tradition – Friday nights can be for card games, Mondays can involve everyone cooking pasta together, Wednesday evenings might mean turning off all electronics and reading in the living room…there’s no better time than right now to establish new traditions.
5) Try new things
Prior to the pandemic, I tended to rotate through the same few activities with my stepchildren – watching something on Netflix, going to Barnes and Noble, or going to Starbucks. While this was comfortable, sometimes I thought it might be nice to try new things together; however, the timing never seemed right or I was too hesitant to suggest something new. If you, too, have wanted to try new things with your stepchildren, why not now? Watercolor painting, word searches, puzzles, card games, practicing a new language, sewing, origami, baking, making model planes or cars, woodworking – the list of possible activities is endless.
6) Take care of yourself
As they say on an airplane, put on your own oxygen mask first, then help any children traveling with you. This is not the time to feel guilty for taking care of yourself. Do things that bring you peace, and recognize that right now, self-care is key to sanity and survival. Take a walk, do yoga, enjoy a bath, meditate, read a book or magazine, listen to music – it’s all about what helps you feel more relaxed so that you are better able to care for those around you.
I miss the days of stepparenting as I once knew it, but it’s important to remember that my stepchildren haven’t changed. They’re still the same smart, funny, caring, wonderful kids I fell in love with, and they’re doing the best they can to navigate a time that has been likened to the days after 9/11 or Pearl Harbor. It’s the situation that is abnormal and wrong – not my stepchildren, and not me. I’m not an evil stepmother for struggling with so much togetherness. I’m not a bad stepparent for trying to find space to be separate even though it’s physically impossible to be apart. We will get through this, and we will do it the same way we’ve done everything else over the past three years (and the past 70+ days) – together. Just as you and your stepchildren will, too.