Anyone with a child can attest to the fact that being a parent can feel like the hardest job in the world. You’re completely responsible for another human being and their journey through life—something that none of us have even figured out for ourselves yet. But we get up and out of bed every morning and do it, because we love our children unconditionally, and we love our families. 

The concept of family has changed a lot over the years. The idea of a family strictly meaning mother, father, and child is antiquated, and one look around a public space will prove that to you. Families come in all forms: mixed race families, single parent families, blended families, LGBTQ+ families, foster families, chosen families, with each one equally as valid as the next. Family doesn’t come with an equation or a rulebook, it’s simply led by love. 

I experienced a major change in my own family last year when I met my now husband and his son, Myles. I found myself embarking on a new journey in love and, for the first time, parenting. More specifically, co-parenting in a blended family. I’d never been a parent before, and I didn’t expect to become one so soon. I fell in love with Myles, and committed 100% to my new role in his life as a stepmom. Blended families, also called stepfamilies or remarriage families, are one of many modern family types in the world, and currently make up 40% of families in the U.S. It is defined as any household that includes a stepparent, step-sibling, or half-sibling

As someone who became a step-parent nearly overnight, I was immediately met by a wave of challenges and obstacles. How do I form a good connection/relationship with my step-child? How do I make sure to be a mother to him without trying to replace his birth mother? I had so many questions, but I eventually found my answers.

Here are some things I wish I knew when embarking on this new co-parenting journey: 

1. Ask Your Employers About Taking Parental Leave 

At the time, I was in the middle of co-building my company, Tiny Organics, an early childhood nutrition and wellness company. I was working full time and starting a new family, yet, being surrounded by parents through customers, it never once occurred to me to take parental leave. Why shouldn’t I? I was starting a new family, bringing a child into my life just like any other person who would take parental leave. In fact, I learned that the policy where I live, in New York, covers paid family leave for any kind of family care, not just for birthing mothers. This includes adoption, step-children, custody changes, and more.

In hindsight, parental leave would have given me the chance to face these challenges head-on. It would have given me more time to bond with Myles from the get-go. It would have allowed me to put out feelers on certain topics and situations, without worrying about the time it would take given I had barely any. Don’t be afraid to ask your employer about parental leave options, and how they may apply to your untraditional family. You might be pleasantly surprised by what’s available to you, or you’ll be starting an important discussion within your workplace that will help future parents. 

2. Try Not To Change Everything At Once

Change is hard, even for adults. Now imagine being a child, and having your entire world turned upside down—learning to live with separated parents, possibly a deceased parent, splitting time between multiple households, mom/dad dating a new person, etc. 

The best thing you could possibly do for your family in this situation is take the changes slowly. Let them process what is going on; adjust emotionally, mentally, and physically; talk to their biological parent(s), siblings, and yourself about their emotions and thoughts. Give them the time to live with what is becoming their new normal before you rush to get married, move to a new house, create an entirely new daily schedule, etc. Make sure they understand that this isn’t the end of the world, it’s simply a shift. 

3. Be Realistic In Your Expectations

Realistically, you’re not going to walk into this child’s life and immediately be their favorite person. You have to spend the time to get to know each other properly, and establish a true relationship. 

In the beginning especially, you may find yourself giving a lot more than taking, and that’s perfectly normal. Not every child is going to reciprocate the love, affection, and time you give them right away. You’re a stranger, someone who is coming into their life not by their own choice. Don't force them to like you, or coerce them with shiny objects. Understand that this is going to take time and a series of quality time, discussions, and bonding moments.

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that families and parents come in all forms. A parent is a parent and a family is a family— how you got there is just as valid and significant as how other more traditional families did too. What matters most is that you care for your step child and offer them the love and support that they need. It doesn’t matter if you have to figure it all out as you go along—I did. 

This story is a part of The Motherly Collective contributor network where we showcase the stories, experiences and advice from brands, writers and experts who want to share their perspective with our community. We believe that there is no single story of motherhood, and that every mother’s journey is unique. By amplifying each mother’s experience and offering expert-driven content, we can support, inform and inspire each other on this incredible journey. If you’re interested in contributing to The Motherly Collective please email [email protected]