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When Mom or Dad Gets a New Partner

The morning of my 13th birthday, I woke up to find a stranger in our home. She was my father’s latest girlfriend of a string of what seemed to be thousands, him having fully taken advantage of the sexual revolution as well as the "Me" Decade. Holly—the woman who would become my father’s life partner for 25 years, until the second he died in her lap—and I made polite but awkward introductions.

It would have been wiser for dad to set up meeting in a neutral place first, such as a park or restaurant, according to Boston-based stepparenting expert Judy Osborne, a psychotherapist and family therapist. Kids of any age need a discussion first about the new romantic interest. Younger kids are easier because they aren’t as guarded and don’t have as much history.

“Teenagers are not going to be that thrilled, because it implies in such a forceful way the sexuality of their parent,” Osborne says.

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Meeting your partner’s kids for the first time is a loaded event, no matter how serious you are about a future together. National etiquette expert and author Diane Gottsman, who has a special line of advice for stepfamilies, reminds everyone to think about the child’s perspective, which can be “as varied as candy.”

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“There are all kinds of thought processes with kids,” she says. “Generally they could be hurting, they could be nervous that someone’s going to try and take away their parent, they could be grateful because they want someone […] in their life. So I think it’s important to be sensitive to the individual child and that particular personality because they’re all different.”

One crucial aspect for a smooth transition is the other parent “giving permission” for the child to get to know the new person. A parent who exposes her anger, sadness or jealousy—or a potent cocktail of all three—sets the children up for a battle of loyalty, Osborne says, and they’ll have a hard time welcoming any new person into the family fold.

It’s fine to show up with a thoughtful gift for the child, Gottsman says, but do not to overdo it. “More important than money and gifts is time."

Both Gottsman and Osborne advise that the most successful meetings are ones where the new date doesn’t come on too strong.

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Often, potential stepmothers are eager to please their partner by showing that they’re good with kids, Osborne says. “And that’s where people get into trouble, because the women rush in too quickly to take over roles, or into an intimacy that children are frightened by or affronted by. The most useful way to enter is to make sure your partner knows what they’re doing and isn’t depending on you to be a substitute parent in the relationship.”

It’s fine to show up with a thoughtful gift for the child, Gottsman says, but not to overdo it. “More important than money and gifts is time and the ability to build a relationship with a child. Being a part of their life without being overbearing, it’s step by step. You build this relationship incrementally. She has to learn how to trust you,” she says.

Which happened for me and Holly. I felt like she “got” me when she arrived from her New York home with a funky pair of purple heart-shaped sunglasses for me, and when she took me to see A Chorus Line on Broadway, and when we’d sneak sample cookies together at the grocery store. But later, when she and her young son moved from New York to live with us in Washington State, the possibility that she could “take” my father seemed too real. I made every effort to derail the relationship. I wasn’t going to let anyone cut in line for my dad’s attention.

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Osborne says not to expect immediate success, and that progress in the relationship has to be measured in tiny increments, especially with older kids.

“Life is a long, long journey, which is why I wrote Wisdom for Separated Parents, Osbourne says. "It follows the arc of families over a long period of time, and shows how things change between the parents, and between the kids and the parents.”

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Our story turned out well. Over the years, I came to love Holly in a deep way, not so much as someone who took the place of my mother (with whom I am very close), but as kind of an alternate super-parent. We introduce each other as “bonus daughter” and “bonus mom.” She’s smart in ways nobody else in our family is, makes the best chocolate cake I’ve ever tasted, and remembers every birthday and important date. In fact, I got married in her backyard two years ago. I hope that in a few years my two teenage stepdaughters will feel the same toward me.

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