Some of the most intense challenges for stepfamilies unfold at the family dinner table.
In a stepfamily, the deepest bonds are typically those between the parent and his or her children, not between the stepparent and stepchildren. The parent-child relationship shares so much history, not to mention unspoken agreements about everything from whether Grape Nuts is a form of cardboard or a breakfast food, to the appropriate use of cell phones at meals. The dinner table is a prime place where these rules and customs get played out. The stepparent, late to the party, may feel like a “stuck outsider.” The child’s parent is a “stuck insider,” closest to the stepparent, to his or her kids, and, for better or for worse, to their ex-spouse.
Dinner is also a time when children are reminded of how dramatically their family has changed. The new couple relationship is a long-awaited, wonderful gift to the adults. For kids, however, it often means a loss of parental attention and yet another in a series of difficult changes.
For instance, mom’s new partner is now here during dinner, a time when kids really want her to focus on them. Children naturally come to the table needing to reach out to their own parent for connection and caring, not to the interloper who is stealing her attention. They naturally want to share their stories with their parent, not with their new stepparent. Unfortunately, stepparents can find themselves sitting through entire meals without receiving any eye contact from their stepchildren or from their partners, who are absorbed in responding to their kids.