I’m a stepparent and a stepchild. Apparently I am not alone. A staggering 42% of U.S. adults have a steprelationship–either a stepparent, a step or half sibling, or a stepchild. This translates to 95.5 million adults and doesn’t include all the stepkids under 18. This number is probably actually larger, when you count all the boyfriends, girlfriends, and fiancés of people with kids, plus those kids themselves. Essentially, there’s a whole bunch of adults and children wondering, “Who is this person, why are they in my life, and what am I supposed to do with them?”
Here are four stepparenting lessons I’ve learned that apply to philanthropy and consulting:
1. You have all the responsibility and zero authority. As a stepparent you might be packing your stepkids’ lunches and getting them to school on time, but you have no legal authority. You aren’t their parent, so you don’t get to make major decisions. But you can have an impact. Early on I realized that while I would never be first the person my stepkids would turn to for emotional support, I could help get them into college. Thirty campus visits, multiple rounds of ACT tutoring, and countless reminders of application deadlines later, my oldest stepdaughter has graduated college, another is a college senior, and a third is enrolled in community college. Similarly, grantmakers are responsible for the outcomes of their funding initiative, yet they have no real authority to realize those results. Outcomes depend on the success of grantees, the willingness of partners to collaborate, changing political environments, and the economy. But your chances of success are greater if you pick one thing you can impact and align your resources toward that goal.
2. You didn’t build this road and you aren’t driving the bus. Step parenting is like hopping into a moving car. There you are with your stepkids, your spouse, and his or her ex. You didn’t plan this road trip, you don’t get to choose the destination, and no one is handing you the wheel. The best you can do is pull out a map and offer suggestions. Similarly, professional grantmakers did not invent the social problems they are trying to fix, nor have most guided the foundation since its inception. But you can influence the outcome. Well-informed, data-driven strategies and best practices can be your road map to increase your chances of impact.
3. People will appreciate you… 20 years from now. If you are hoping your young or teenage stepkids will remember you on Mothers/Father’s Day or submit your name for the parent of the year award, think again. You definitely aren’t in this for the glory. Your moral compass to do the best that you can for these children is what guides you. Stick with it, be consistent, and tell them you love them no matter what. One day when they are in college or raising their own kids they will tell you how much they appreciate you, and you will see the fruits of your labor in how well they turned out.Similarly, as grantmakers we often don’t get applauded for the ultimate impact of our grantmaking strategies. We fund early childhood programs but rarely get to see when those preschoolers graduate high school or college. But no matter what, we keep our eyes on the prize.
4. You aren’t alone. Early in my stepparenting life I desperately searched for other stepmoms, preferably those with step-teenagers but also small children of their own, like me. I haven’t met many, but when I do we bond instantly and make immediate plans to share experiences and compare notes — preferably over cocktails. Working in philanthropy can be lonely, especially if you are new. However, there are resources to turn to for ideas and support. Join Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, participate in your local regional association of grantmakers, or see if there is an affinity group in your program area. If you are a consultant, join the National Network of Consultants to Grantmakers.
You didn’t start the situation and you don’t have all the knowledge and resources you need to solve it. But if you trust your instincts, get the advice and support you need, and stay the course, you will be 80 percent ahead of the game and you will make a difference.
© 2014 Kris Putnam-Walkerly. All rights reserved. Permission granted to excerpt or reprint with attribution.