Lesson 7 of 7 - evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily


Why and How to Make Co-
parenting "Job Descriptions"

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW

Member NSRC Experts Council

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The Web address of this article is http://sfhelp.org/sf/co/job.htm

Updated 06-27-2015

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      This is one of a series of lesson-7 articles on how to evolve a high-nurturance stepfamily. These articles augment, vs. replace, other qualified professional help. The "/" in re/marriage and re/divorce notes that it may be a stepparent's first union. "Co-parents" means any of the three or more related stepparents and bioparents managing a multi-home nuclear stepfamily. 

      Typical stepfamilies are far more complex than average intact biofamilies, yet co-parents rarely try to define who's responsible for providing specific nurturances. That leads to parenting confusions and conflicts, which lowers their homes' and stepfamily's nurturance level.

      This article describes and illustrates a co-parent "job description" which aims to identify specific child-raising responsibilities in a stepfamily. The article assumes you're familiar with...

  • the intro to this nonprofit Web site, and the premises underlying it

  • self-improvement Lessons 1 thru 7

  • stepfamily basics

  • Q&A about stepfamilies, stepparenting, and stepchildren

   What is a "Co-parent Job Description"? 

       It's a brief document that clearly describes what a stepparent or bioparent in a stepfamily is "supposed to" do. Adults and kids who (a) aren't clear on their family role responsibilities and/or (b) who's responsibilities don't match their abilities, usually experience "role stress" (anxiety.) All new stepfamily members are at risk of this, including co-grandparents and other kin!

Why Are Co-Parent Job Descriptions Helpful? 

       Typical stepfamilies have several dependent kids living in two or more homes, with
three or more adults trying to fill the kids' developmental and special needs well enough. Such families often don't stabilize for four or more years after re/wedding - and some never do. Kids need effective adult nurturing while this is happening. This is often confusing, stressful work, because...

  • minor stepkids have over 30 adjustment needs to fill that biofamily peers don't. Most co-parents can't name them;

  • average re/wedded co-parents discover up to 30 merger tasks they must work at patiently together while learning to co-parent together;

  • typical co-parents have very different child-raising standards, values, priorities, and goals;

  • typical stepfamily adults don'/t know what being in a stepfamily means, and have unrealistic expectations of themselves and each other;

  • most new stepmoms and stepdads don't know what they're "supposed to" do with their mate's children; and..

  • While stepparents' child-rearing goals are similar to bioparents, their family and social environments can differ from intact biofamilies in dozens of ways.

  • In many post-divorce stepfamilies, bioparenting is often regulated by legal parenting agreements and custody decrees. These documents often define who can do what parenting and when - and rarely include stepparent's responsibilities;
       So - stepfamily co-parenting can be unusually confusing and frustrating, which stresses re/marriages! Under the right circumstances, agreeing on clear parental job descriptions can help minimize this stress.

      Co-parent job descriptions can range from useless to useful. How can you achieve the latter?

  Making Effective Co-parent Job Descriptions

      Here, effective means "clearly promoting family harmony and consistently helping adults to fill their and their kids' current and long-term needs well enough."

      Initially, all three or more related co-parents need to...

  • Acknowledge the need to guard their family and descendents from the lethal [wounds + unawareness] cycle;

  • Study and discuss at least Lessons 5, 6, and 7 here. All 7 Lessons is better;

  • Agree that they...

    • all belong to the same multi-home stepfamily (vs. two or three separate "families"), and that they...

    • are caregiving teammates seeking to maintain their respective kids' wholistic health, growth, and eventual successful independence.

  • Then based on these, evolve a meaningful stepfamily mission statement together.

      When your co-parents master these challenging steps enough over some months, you're ready to negotiate useful co-parenting job descriptions.

       Job descriptions are like mission statements in that they clearly declare basic values and goals. They differ in that they include more detail, and they may describe goals over a specific time period. The basic values and goals in a finished job description probably won't change too much. Specific short-term objectives will need to be updated regularly. 

      Like your family mission statement, co-parenting job descriptions will (ideally) be discussed thoroly  with every affected person. A stepparent's job description, then, should include the thoughtful input and suggestions of at least all (older) kids and other co-parents involved.

      Re/wedded mates may make separate goal statements for their marriage relationship, and for co-managing their home. If this was true in the job description sample below, it would be shorter, because the first two parts of the job description would be in these separate statements. An optional third document is a specific strategy or plan to reach the main goals in the stepfamily job descriptions. Plans may be blended into the latter or may stand alone.

      If this sounds like a lot of work - it IS! Co-managing an average multi-home stepfamily effectively is complex, confusing, demanding, and often conflictual, for many years. The eventual rewards of this long-term challenge are priceless: healthy, productive, independent young adults; flourishing re/marriages; and contented, proud co-parents and relatives.

      What does a co-parent (vs. stepparent) job description look like? Here's a...

   Sample: A Biofather/Stepfather's Job Description

       This example shows the most complex case. It has four parts:

  • "My Basic Principles,"

  • "Our Common Parenting Goals," and specific...

  • Stepfathering goals for this man's live-in stepdaughter Ann (12), and...

  • Biofathering targets for his genetic son Alex (15).

       This stepdad/biodad tries to balance his job description between being general enough to allow flexibility, and being specific enough to provide clear guidance. Here...

Martha is the stepdad's wife, Ann's custodial biomother;

Rick is Martha's ex husband, Ann's biofather; and...

Alex lives with his single biomom Nina.

Confusing, isn't it?  Both kids live with their biological mothers, and visit their father periodically.

      As you read this, note which parts you agree with and feel good about, and why - and which you’d do differently. There is no right way!  Keep in mind "co-parent" and "stepparent" are roles, not persons!

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My Co-parenting Job Description

1)  My Basic Principles

  • I will be true to my Higher Power and my Self before all others. Keeping my Self healthy and balanced is one of the greatest gifts I can give to Martha, Ann, and Alex. I'm responsible for doing so;

  • I choose this job of co-parent (biofather/stepfather) in our three-home stepfamily, and I take it seriously!

  • I accept Rick and Nina as fully equal co-parenting partners with Martha and me, even though we don't always agree with their values or choices.

  • Martha and I share responsibility for providing a safe and healthy home for all under our roof. I will never consciously cause or allow verbal, emotional, physical, or spiritual abuse or neglect in our three related homes.

  • My overall responsibility to Ann and Alex is to nurture, protect, and encourage them as valuable, unique people, in cooperation with Martha, Nina, and Rick.

  • When people can't agree in and between our three homes, my marriage commitment to Martha will usually come before all else except my wholistic health and integrity. I ask and expect the same priority from Martha. I pledge my part in protecting us all from redivorce. My loving bond with my son Alex will never break. My growing bonds with Martha and Ann are different and less sure.

  • I will strive to stay clear on what an effective co-parent is in our multi-home stepfamily, and will steadily work for excellence in this job, within my and our limits;

  • As a co-parent, I am a willing, temporary caregiver, guide, and protector for Alex and Ann - not an owner or a buddy.

  • Because I co-conceived him, and have known and nurtured Alex longer, I share more responsibility for his values and choices than I do for Ann's. I will become more responsible for Ann as we all build our stepfamily together.

  • To me, "parental love" means consistently prizing and nurturing the spirit, talents, dreams, and uniqueness of any child. In this sense, I love Ann and Alex equally. Because Alex carries my genes, name, features, and lineage, I also love him deeply in a different way.

  • Nina and I are jointly responsible for major co-parenting decisions about Alex. Martha and Rick are primarily responsible for major co-parenting decisions about my stepdaughter Ann. Martha and I can advise each other on such decisions, where helpful. I share equal responsibility with Martha for daily living decisions in our home.

  • I respect Alex's and Ann's grandparents and relatives as valued, special partners in our extended stepfamily. I respect their rights to know about and contribute to Alex and Ann's welfare. I may - but don't have to - follow their counsel. Martha may have a different view on this.

  • I will never try to take Rick's place as Ann's biofather. I do fathering "things" with and for her every day. I will do what I can to respect and promote a healthy, loving relationship between Ann and Rick. If I feel Rick's actions seriously harm or threaten Ann, I will speak my opinion clearly and promptly, and seek peaceful change together with Martha.

  • In guiding and protecting Ann, I acknowledge the real limits on me that exist in Martha and Rick's divorce decree. I claim the right to disagree with those limits, and to work cooperatively and within the law to change them, if Martha and I agree that would help Ann.

  • Overall, I accept my shared responsibility in protecting us all - and any unborn kids - from inheriting the toxic [wounds + unawareness] cycle.

  • I believe Alex and Ann each have the right to live at some time with their other bioparent if (a) they want to and (b) all adults affected by such a change agree on it;

  • I'm open to constructive ideas from other people about my co-parenting job. I am responsible for making, updating, and acting on this statement to be the best co-parent I can be. I've never been in a stepfamily, so I'll make mistakes as I learn how to be an effective stepfather. That's OK, as long as I learn from them and apologize where needed!

      Pause and reflect - how do you feel about this man's declaration of his co-parental values? What would your declaration look like?

2)  My General Co-parenting Goals

To free my true Self to guide me in patiently growing a high-nurturance stepfamily;

To provide a safe and loving home with Martha, with enough clothing, healthy food, spiritual and medical care, comfort, space, laughter, and peace for us all;

To love Alex, Ann, my adult partners, and my Self as human beings equally and unconditionally (where possible), and to be gentle with my Self and them those times that I fail;

To set and enforce clear limits with other stepfamily members that allow Martha and me our own spaces, privacies, friends, and interests separate from theirs;

To help our (and other) kids learn about our Higher Power and their own spirituality, and encourage them to form their own healthy beliefs;

To help Alex and Ann discover what their special personal gifts are and how to grow and use them in a safe and balanced way;

To help Ann and Alex to grow (a) unwavering Self love, Self respect, and Self confidence in any life situation; and grow (b) the motivation and ways to bring these out in others;

To set the best examples for the kids I can by consistently practicing what I preach. I'm specially dedicated to showing them with Martha what a healthy marriage looks and sounds like!

To work patiently towards acceptable compromises when we have values and loyalty conflicts.

More co-parenting goals: I want...

To learn how to grieve well, and to forge a pro-grief home and family with Martha;

To let Martha, Nina, and Rick know clearly and promptly if I have a co-parenting problem, and then ask their help, and/or resolve it with them;

To thank Martha, Rick, and Nina for their co-parenting efforts and support periodically, and thank the kids when they cooperate, try, or go above and beyond;

To ask Martha and Rick periodically if they're feeling enough co-parenting support from me. If  they aren't, learn clearly what they need from me; rather than going through Martha, Nina, or Rick. I'm responsible for keeping my co-parents partners informed enough;

To merit my own and others’ respect by steadily acting on my co-parenting principles. This includes standing up firmly for my own rights as a person and co-parent, and drawing clear, consistent limits on what behaviors I will and won't tolerate;

To periodically spend fun time with each child without distractions;

To encourage each child to ask questions, and take safe-enough risks without excessive fear!

To take a genuine interest in who Alex and Ann care about and what they hope for, where I can - and be honest when I can't without undue guilt. With my partners and their schools, teach Ann and Alex safe practices around drugs (including food), sex, and money, when that's timely;

To never use the kids to fill my personal needs, other than asking for reasonable help in our home;

Get clearer on what "effective child discipline" means in our three-home stepfamily, and strive for it cooperatively with my partners. I want Ann and Alex to always know clearly what our main house rules are, and what will happen (consequences) if they choose to not follow them;

If any of us co-parents disagree on house rules, my goal is to resolve this without catching the kids between us. Rick and Nina have the right to choose different house rules than we do - even though this is hard at times on Ann and Alex;

To practice our Family Filharmonic Orchestra regularly - we can be great!

To learn with Martha by February if there's a stepfamily support group we could try out, and to do so;

To not take my overlapping jobs as biofather and stepfather too seriously!

To review this statement at least twice a year with Martha, Rick, Nina, Alex, and Ann to keep it current, known, and working.

      A sample stepdad/biodad job description, continued...

3)  My Goals For My Stepdaughter Ann This Year

1)  Remind myself regularly of the gifts, joys, and opportunities she brings into my life, to balance the hassles!

2)  Watch for chances to validate Ann's achievements, no matter how small. Let her know clearly I think she's special when I'm feeling that; 

3)  With Martha, help Ann learn to channel her anger instead of exploding. If no progress by summer, talk about counseling for her (all of us?) with Martha and Rick; 

4)  Learn "what's normal" (!) from other parents of 12 year old girls - specially from other step and biofathers, including Dad and Martha's father; 

5)  Read at least two how-to stepfathering books by August; 

6)  Reduce our hassles about TV limits soon! 

7)  Don't get hooked in when Martha and Rick disagree over Ann, unless they ask me for input or support; 

8)  Stop expecting Martha to discipline the way I do. Work patiently towards compromises and consistency together; 

9)  Remind myself when unsure that I am the co-leader of this home, and as such, I have equal rights with Martha to provide limits and consequences for Ann here; 

10)  Try to accept that - though I do more fathering things than Rick can - Ann's natural loyalty will be to him. This has little to do with my worth as a person or in my role as stepfather; 

11)  Negotiate a compromise about Ann's church attendance with Martha and her parents. Keep what's best for our marriage long-range clearly in mind;

12)  Rethink my objections to a step-rabbit ...

13)  Don't get hooked when Ann accuses me of being unfair - try to see her side of this;

14)  Split family taxi services with Martha without griping (too much);

15)  When we have problems with Ann's visitations, consider Ann's and Rick's needs equally with Martha's and mine;

16)  Stay informed on Ann's school grades, projects, and activities, and help where I can. Make an honest effort to go to all parent/teacher conferences with Martha;

17)  Build a "Phantom Five" clubhouse in the back yard with Ann and her friends by May. See if Rick or Martha want to help;

18)  Support Ann in her Youth Group activities;

19)  By 4/31, get clear with my Self, then Martha on whether I’ll contribute to Ann's college fund. If so, decide when and how much. Tell Rick and Nina. I want both kids to have an excellent education!

20)  By October: think through how I want to provide for Ann, discuss with Martha, and revise my will. Tell Alex, Nina, and Rick.

21)  Give my Self permission to flex on any of these, or add new goals, as our year unfolds!

      Sample Biofather/Stepfather "job description," concluded...

4)  My Goals For My Son Alex This Year

1)  See or talk to him at least once a week - and don't try "too hard" when we're together;

2)  Remember to tell him often how much I love him and how special he is, instead of assuming that he knows this; 

3)  Accept joint responsibility with Nina for working on healing our divorce conflicts without involving Alex; 

4)  Work with Nina and Alex toward win-win solutions of our conflicts on Alex's dental work, weight, allowance, learning to drive, and smoking. Include Martha's suggestions on each of these; 

5)  With Nina, make sure Alex knows clearly, within limits and without blaming her or me, why we divorced, and why we'll never get back together. Ask his feelings about these. If he gives them, try to listen non-defensively. This is really scary!;

6)  Enforce healthy limits for Alex along with Martha and Nina, in spite of the guilt and sorrow I feel about his pain from our divorce and my remarriage;

7)  With Nina, find out about the Rainbows program at school, and encourage Alex to participate if he's ready; (note: "Rainbows" is a supervised peer-support program sponsored by some schools and churches to help kids of divorce or parental death understand and mourn their losses); 

8)  Accept that Alex and Martha don't love each other the way I wish they could, and that it's enough to grow mutual respect for now. This is hard!

9)  Remember that Martha's never been a stepmom before, that she's learning how, and will make mistakes just like I do. Get clear by June on what we each expect of her as Alex's stepmother. Learn Alex's, Ann's, and Nina’s feelings on this. I hope Martha writes her own co-parenting job description by midyear; 

10)  Within limits, tell Alex my daily feelings, dreams, and problems - informationally, not as a pal, whiner, or dependent. I want him to know what being an adult man, husband, and father is like, and help him grow healthy images of them; 

11)  See that Alex, I, Jack, and Dad get some "guy" times together this year - at least once a quarter. I take responsibility for initiating this. 

12)  Stay out of the middle of Alex and Martha, Alex and Nina, Martha and Nina, and Ann and Alex when I can. When I can't - and compromises don't work for everyone - nurturing our marriage will come before everything but my wholistic health and integrity with me, often enough for Martha; 

13)  Pay regular and special financial support on time. Honor my half of the parenting agreement Nina and I worked out. Work with her peacefully for change if it becomes outdated; 

14)  Help Alex feel truly welcome and a full member of our home when he visits. That includes both privileges and chores! 

15)  When we have problems with Alex's visitations, try to balance his, Nina’s, and Ann's needs equally with ours; 

16)  Stay informed on Alex's school grades, projects, and activities. Attend all parent / teacher conferences with Nina, and his ball games when I can. GO VIKINGS!; 

17)  Support Alex's Outward Bound trip in June, and football camp in July. Coordinate our August vacation plans with Nina with enough lead time. 

       I freely choose to work hard toward these co-parenting targets, balanced with the other responsibilities and goals in my life. I'm (usually) glad for the chance to do them!

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       Notice your thoughts and feelings now. Clearly, this step/father didn't just dash this job description off without a lot of reflection and soul searching! What does this document say to you about this man's priorities?

  • How do you think his wife, ex mate, and Ann and Alex would feel about his writing this? 

  • Do you think a job description like this would stress or strengthen their re/marriage and three-home nuclear stepfamily? 

  • What would help this man use this declaration regularly? What might hinder him?

  • What if the other co-parents had similar job descriptions - and used them?

  • How might your life be different if your parent/s had written and used such a job description? Your grandparents?

       Note that this accountability declaration is meant as a guideline, not a legal decree. Unless this stepfather is a rigid perfectionist, he can aim to meet as many of these objectives as he can, not all of them, since Life always throws curve balls. Note that some co-parents' job descriptions would be shorter than this one, because they wouldn't have both bioparent and stepparent roles.

      Is anything in the way of your writing some kind of co-parenting job (role) description like this four-part sample?


      This Lesson-7 article proposes that raising kids effectively in typical stepfamilies is much more complex than in typical intact biofamilies. The article suggests that a way to manage this complexity is for stepparents and bioparents ("co-parents") is to evolve and use a "job description" to clarify which family adult is responsible for what, for nurturing each minor child.

      This article defines a (family) "job description," and summarizes requisites for making one that is effective. The rest of the article is an example of a stepfather/biofather's four-part job description.

      Pause, breathe, and reflect - why did you read this article? Did you get what you needed? If not, what do you need? Who's answering these questions - your true Self, or ''someone else''?

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      Next - use this worksheet to help identify co-parent responsibilities in your family.


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