Third Party Parenting

Ariana's pic

If you’ve ever seen an episode of the reality show “Wife Swap” (and I am NOT suggesting that you do, but…), you’ve seen what it’s like to be dropped into a family with its own habits and parenting styles that might not resemble your own. When you already have your own children from a previous relationship, stepping into a family with already established routines and expectations is an inevitable shock for new step-parents, especially since these routines were probably established by someone who is not a member of your household. You soon realize that you are now one of three parents along with your spouse and their ex, you form an imperfect triad, a new set of parents that must find ways to work together to meet the needs of your new step-children.

While having raised three sons into adulthood, since becoming a step-mother I’ve learned that my parenting style has needed to become flexible, and I need to conform. What compounds any parenting issue most though, is a lack of communication between all parties. While my husband and I usually communicate well, communication with the girls’ mom  is primarily by text message between them. While I’d like to have an open line of communication with her myself, as of now we haven’t yet reached that point.  So the challenge I face regularly is finding ways to compromise and conform, not only with my husband, but also with a person with whom I can’t discuss differences when they come up.

I know I’m not alone in this, and in fact, many step-moms and step-dads are probably in similar situations, so as I’m learning some dos and don’ts through this early stage of being one of three parents, I’m happy to share them. Since I tend to discover what not to do first, we’ll start with the don’ts.


Over-react – My husband and I have recently had a difference with the girls mom regarding how much food should be put in our 6-year-old’s lunch.  I make their lunches about half the time and I took offence at the thought that I wasn’t providing enough food.  I’m not proud of how I reacted.  After a particularly sharply worded text, not directed at me, but taken personally anyway, I went into the kitchen and packed her lunch for the next day. In addition to baggies of veggies, an apple, unopened yogurt tube, cheese, crackers, and half sandwich that were left uneaten from the lunch her mother had sent her with that day, I added a banana, a tangerine, applesauce, cheese stick, container of yogurt, and another sandwich. She left for school the next morning with a lunch bag that had to have weighed close to 5 lbs.  She didn’t take a lunch to school, she took a buffet.

Be rigid – When my kids were little, schools didn’t send home guidelines for what should be packed in a lunch. In efforts to address the nutrition needs of students, school now send home instructions on what should go into the brown bag. The sandwich/fruit/treat combo my sons were used to is not the same selection of fruits/veggies/grains/dairy that the girls are used to getting from their mom.

Insist on being right – There are few black and white issues when it comes to raising kids. Spending way too much time dwelling on the lunch issue, I began to obsess. I researched the caloric and nutritional needs of 6 year olds, and created a graph showing the approximate time of day she met both, if she actually ate everything we gave her for breakfast and lunch. (When it comes to over-reacting, I do it big.)

Fortunately, I’ve also learned a few dos when it comes to being part of this triangle of parents.


Seek to Understand – People rarely make completely unreasonable requests.  I wasn’t taking into consideration that, unlike my kids, our 6 year old doesn’t go right home after school, so her after school snack needs to be included with her lunch. Another difference I came to understand was that while I raised my sons to eat what they were given, the girls have always been given much more choice, once I realized that having a variety of food is important to her, it was easier for me to add items to her lunch.

Listen to the voice of reason – Sometimes that voice is mine, sometimes it’s my husband’s and sometimes it’s his ex-wife’s.  I was ready to deliver that spreadsheet and graph to all parties concerned, fortunately, my husband convinced me that would only be fanning flames.

Be ready to compromise – Just because I raised my sons with one set of expectations for their behavior, doesn’t mean that there aren’t other ways of parenting and other behaviors that are not equally acceptable.  Continuity and consistency is a priority for kids, it’s imperative that my husband and I seek to provide that for them, even when it comes to what is put in the lunch bag.

Keep Perspective – For all the angst the brown bag battle produced, as far as problems go it is but a minor blip on the radar screen. Our family works well, most of the time, like most families do.

Learn Lessons – Outside of food, there are bigger lessons to be learned from this incident that hopefully will help to mitigate future issues.

  • Just because I feel ready to establish communication, I need to respect that the ex is not, and that she still feels anger and hurt (don’t most divorces end in anger and pain?)
  • I have the desire to be supportive and non-confrontational.  I want for my presence in the girls’ lives to positive for them, and in any way possible, helpful to their mom. I need to remember that as being my primary goal.
  • Remember to appreciate what the ex brings to the parenting table. The girls are healthy, happy, smart, and active, mostly because of her skills as a parent. Their mom has provided a great example of independence and self-reliance in the last few years that they will benefit from for the rest of their lives. I too admire what she has made of her life, finishing up her education, and beginning a new career. I’ve never seen anyone who can keep as many balls in the air as she can, and I’m constantly impressed by that.

I like to think that the perspective I bring, as someone who has already raised 3 sons into adulthood will help me be an effective, as well as loving step-mother to our girls. The girls are young so there is much time left to continue adding to this do and don’t list .


Ariana Gruver is a mother (and landlord) of 3 grown sons. Being single after 25 years of marriage seemed pretty awesome, but then Mr. Right walked into her life, bringing with him two little girls. Starting over again, moving from vibrant Portlandia to the soggy Southern Oregon Coast, changing from a full-time career to being a part-time insurance agent, thrice-weekly stepmom, growing blogger, and full-time wife, she is embracing adventure and sharing her experiences and lessons on her blog. Still Growing. You can learn more about her by following her on: Facebook: and her Blog:


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