Tell Me About It: Get commitment before stepfamily
Question: I am a 32-year-old woman who has been dating a wonderful man for a little over a year. We are now making lifelong plans together, starting with the process of looking for a new home to move into together.
My boyfriend has joint custody over his 5-year-old son, who until now, for logistical reasons, has lived solely with his mom. We are looking at homes with the idea that his son would start living with us half of the time. His son and I have a very good and ever-growing relationship; the three of us have been car camping together multiple times, and I see him at least once a week (usually more). He's a sweetheart, and I welcome the idea of having him living with us, getting to know him better, and helping my boyfriend raise him.
What are the sorts of things I should be prepared for, and my boyfriend and I should discuss, before we move in together with his son? Any big issues that couples need to address when moving in together when one partner has a child? Neither of us has lived with a partner before, and neither has lived with kids. I want to make sure we're preparing as best we can for this major change all three of us will be making.
Answer: You can make sure you're permanent. Before the house, before the half-time custody, before the book on stepfamily dynamics, there is your relationship with the father of this boy. Calling him your "boyfriend" says you're either still just dating, or are in the gray area between "dating" and "lifelong," and that says forming this stepfamily is premature. Period.
Setting up this "and-son-makes-three" household before you and your boyfriend have made a life commitment is just fundamentally not in the best interests of the child. You may have no intention of becoming the first in a series of Dad's Live-In Girlfriends, and he may not remotely intend you to become that, but your best insurance against that outcome is patience. Don't gather under one roof and then commit. Commitment, then roof. Please.
Enroll in a reputable parenting program together, both to prompt important conversations and to establish a resource for when you're caught unprepared by a challenge, phase, diagnosis, or anything else from the what-did-we-get-ourselves-into menu (which is hardly just for stepfamilies). The pediatrician is a good place to ask for a referral, since the office staff will be familiar with local offerings.
You sound caring and conscientious; please add "careful" to the list.