Spotlight Stories: Gayle Nelson

Gayle Nelson's wedding photo with husband and bonus son

Spartan Spotlight Stories

This series highlights Spartans through the Spotlight Stories around issues that are important to the MSU WorkLife Office. The series is starting with new parents raising infants and breastfeeding. Other topics to come will include building community at MSU, eldercare, flex schedules, raising teens and more. The goal is to build community at MSU, show people they are not alone, bring awareness to important stages of the lifespan and promote a family friendly policies and workplace. 

Topic: Being a Bonus Parent (aka Step Parent)

Gayle Nelson, Director of MS Business Analytics in the department of Accounting and Information Systems in the Broad College of Business, talks about the realities of being a step-parent.

What do you wish you knew before you became a step-parent?

I never had or wanted my own children, so suddenly acquiring a bonus-child was a real life changer. He’s old enough to be pretty self-sufficient, so that’s nice, but I wish I had known how much your life changes time-wise. I sort of assumed I would just be kind of there the in background, helping out—but nope! I need to consider him in grocery shopping (does he have enough snacks for school), dinner prep (though he’s not picky thankfully), plans on weekends/nights we have custody.

What was/is the most challenging part about the step-parenting process or step-parenting while working?

Probably deciding my role in co-parenting and decision making—do I get a say? Do I not get a say? Can I take him to the doctor if he’s sick? What about education and activities? I get along well with his mom, but it’s still always a matter of where is the boundary line? Where am I stepping on toes?

What does it mean to you to be a step-parent parent?

I see myself as another adult Billy can trust and come to for advice/help. I never want him to be afraid to talk to me. I don’t ever expect to take the place of his mom, nor do I want to---she does a perfectly fine job!

What supports helped you be successful in balancing work and step-parenting?

I really should use the work-life office more. The emails that go out with activities are super helpful. And as odd as it sounds, I’m really lucky I get along with Billy’s mom so well—that has been a major game changer I don’t think a lot of people get. Also other friends with kids have been really helpful on giving me advice, mostly because I have NO CLUE how to keep one of these alive…

Did you attend any classes or read any books that were helpful to you about step- parenting?

Nope—just the school of life.

How did you prioritize work, family, outside activities after you became a step-parent, or currently?

It was a difficult balance. I wanted to put family 100% first so I dove in deep straight away, but I found myself getting really upset, depressed, and hurting my work performance because I felt like if Billy needed something and my husband or his mom couldn’t, I was obligated to jump RIGHT THEN. So now I try to prioritize things as they come. Is it a sport game or school function that is really important to Billy? Can this (like being picked up from school for not feeling well) wait an hour until this meeting is over? Have I taken time for me so I can be the best I can be, or am I getting resentful? And possibly most important—is this something his mom and dad really need to work out and not have me in the middle?

What type of support do you wish you had more of regarding step-parenting?

Maybe a group of other step parents. Particularly those without children of their own. 

What was the biggest surprise you had as a step-parent?

That I’m actually attached to the kiddo! I didn’t think I’d care that much, as I always wanted to be child-free, and I never thought I’d date someone who had kids, but here we are…it’s kind of fun, they say and do such crazy stuff sometimes. 

How did/does your supervisor or coworker support you and your family?

My supervisor, colleagues, and support staff here are great. If you need to work remote with a sick kid, or leave early, they are very accommodating, as long as you have it marked on your calendar so you can be contacted if needed. I’m academic staff, so I get a lot of perks with that type of role at MSU, but I know if varies from supervisor to supervisor. Most of the people here have kids, so they get it.

Is there anything that you would do differently regarding step-parenting and work-life balance?

I wish I would have figured out the boundaries earlier, or had someone say hey, this is going to happen, this is how you deal. You can’t just go from no kid to full white picket fence like a "Leave it to Beaver" family. It’s a process. 

Is there anything else you would like to share?

Being a “bonus-parent” (I prefer that to step-parent) is a really complex process. On top of all these new responsibilities, and having to work with someone who isn’t your spouse (and may or may not like you), there is definitely some emotional issues that can crop up. I know for me, I have had moments where I see my husband be a dad, or see pictures of Billy as a baby, and get jealous—even though I didn’t want children of my own, that is an experience with my husband someone else got that I will not share with him. It’s a daily reminder of a previous relationship, and that can be really tough. It’s important to communicate through those feelings—they are valid!

Also, for someone who was originally child-free, it’s a major adjustment to share your house with a small human who is loud, messy, and demanding of your time and attention. Take a deep breath. It’s a process, and those are feelings even biological parents have! Most of all—have patience with your bonus-kid, and grace on yourself. This is an adjustment for them too. They may struggle to accept a new “parent figure,” their other parent may be saying things when they have them, they may be picked on at school for having “a new mommy/daddy,” you never know. Try to be understanding and love them through the process. I met Billy on his 8th birthday, and he’s a really a good kid so he didn’t have too many issues, so I’ve been super lucky. But not everyone is, and that is okay—every family is different!

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