Monday, December 6, 2010

Stepmoms: Write Your Own Job Description

One of the most stressful aspects of being a stepmom is not having a clear picture of your role. Are you a second mom, or an aunt, or a friend, or a stranger living in the same house? Do you discipline or not? What is your authority? Volumes have been written about the fact that, “the role of stepmother is the most stressful and ambiguous in the stepfamily.”

You can take control of your happiness and remove some of the ambiguity by creating your own definition of what your stepmother role will be. Try this:

1) Give yourself permission to create a definition of your role. It might feel weird at first. This is ok.

2) Reflect on your feelings regarding how involved or detached you want to be. Free write, journal, and talk to friends.

3) Research different types of bio-parenting styles. Yes, even bio-parents have different approaches—attached, authoritative, balanced, etc. Head to your local library and check out a few parenting books.

4) Using your reflections and research, write a “job description” for your role. You could include a mission statement (to maintain your sanity, to promote family cohesiveness, or whatever) as well as the things you will and won’t do for your stepkids. (I will help them get ready for school in the mornings; I won’t hold myself responsible for helping them with their homework.)

5) Discuss it with your partner. Keep in mind that you do not have to phrase this conversation as asking permission. Instead, share your feelings, explain why you came to the plan you did, and invite him to share his feedback.

6) Take stock every week or so. Did you follow your own guidelines? Did it work? Celebrate those things you did right and forgive yourself for the things you could have done better.

You can always change your personal role definition later—but at least this way you have a place to start from, a map to guide you on the occasionally stormy sea of stepmotherhood.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Getting your needs met with Assertive Communication

It’s hard to find the right way to discuss issues within our stepfamilies. We don’t want to come off as bossy or wicked, and at the same time we get treated like doormats if we don’t stand up for ourselves.

Nagging gets us nowhere—how many times have we heard “I don’t have to do what you say, you’re not my real mom”? Yelling doesn’t work, either. Our partners resent us for being mean to their kids, and his children just feel more justified in acting out towards us.

The solution is to find the right middle ground: assertive communication.

Neither passive nor aggressive, assertive communication involves stating your thoughts, needs, and feelings in a manner that is direct and pointed but at the same time respectful and diplomatic. Assertive communication is especially useful for dealing with difficult people and situations because it clearly communicates information between the parties involved without escalating emotions.

Importantly, as this article by the University of Iowa mentions, assertiveness is “the ability to honestly express your opinions, feelings, attitudes, and rights, without undue anxiety.” It’s certainly a lot easier to confront a frustrating situation when you can talk about it without it becoming a big emotional blow up.

I’m really enthusiastic about encouraging stepmoms to practice assertive communication because not only is it an effective way to set boundaries and get your needs met, but is also respects the child and appeals to his/her desire to be taken seriously as an equal member of the family. On top of that, assertive speaking communicates authority and garners respect—two things all of us stepmoms can appreciate.

Here are some examples of assertive communication techniques from the website “Learning to be Assertive" by the University of Texas:

1. Basic Assertion

This is a simple, straightforward expression of your beliefs, feelings, or opinions. It's usually a simple "I want" or "I feel" statement.

2. Empathic Assertion

This conveys some sensitivity to the other person. It usually contains two parts- a recognition of the other person's situation or feelings, followed by a statement in which you stand up for your rights.

"I know you've really been busy, but I want to feel that our relationship is important to you. I want you to make time for me and for us."

3. Escalating Assertion

This occurs when the other person fails to respond to your basic assertion and continues to violate your rights. You gradually escalate the assertion and become increasingly firm. It may even include the mention of some type of resulting action on your part, made only after several basic assertive statements. For example, "If you don't complete the work on my car by 5:00 tomorrow, I'll be forced to call the Better Business Bureau."

4. I-Language Assertion

This is especially useful for expressing negative feelings. It involves a 3-part statement:

· When you do . . . (describe the behavior)
· The effects are . . . (describe how the behavior concretely affects you)
· I'd prefer. . . (describe what you want)

The real focus in I-Language Assertion is on the "I feel," "I want" part of the statement. When expressing anger, often the tendency is to blame the other person, fly off the handle and get caught up in the emotion. I-Language Assertion can help you constructively focus that anger and be clear about your own feelings.

Example: When you didn't buy the groceries like you said you would, I couldn't cook the dinner for my parents. I feel hurt and angry with you. Next time, I'd like you to follow through when you agree to do something like. that."
Assertive listening is another important part of assertive communication. Assertive listening involves making sure you understand what the other person is saying and making sure that they feel heard. Some examples from the article "Assertiveness Skills" include:

I'd like to hear your views on....
I'm confused about your stand on....
Would you tell me more about how you see the situation?
I heard you say _____________, did I understand you correctly?
Your view is _______________________, is that right?
I know first-hand that communicating assertively can feel intimidating if you’re not used to it. If you feel nervous about being so direct with your partner and stepchildren, try practicing some of these phrases with your friends first.

Friday, December 3, 2010

On the Road Again

Just wanted to pop on and mention that I'm heading out to visit my brother in Texas. I probably won't be back here until Monday. Have a week everyone!

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

My Stepdaughter Saved Me from Myself

I’m pretty sure that my stepdaughter saved me from myself.

The journey from screaming, kicking, epic tantrum-thrower to sweet, loving little girl was not an easy one, but going through it with her has been one of the most healing things I’ve ever done.

I grew up abused and, needless to say, it gave me a lot of issues about parenting and family relationships. If I’d had biological children without having had my stepdaughter, I’m certain my baggage would have seriously crippled my parenting. I had so many strong emotions surrounding those issues that I’m sure I would have allowed myself to be carried away by them.

Having grown up with nothing, I’d have given my kids everything they asked for. Afraid of looking anything like my angry, enraged parents, I’d have nagged but let my kids get away with everything in the end. Then when I reached my breaking point I would have lost my temper and yelled, just like my parents. In short, I’d have let them become spoiled brats and I would have been miserable.

Luckily my stepdaughter forced me to work through my baggage. Because she wasn’t my biological child, I didn’t allow myself to go with my gut reaction when she misbehaved. I was so concerned with figuring out how I should or shouldn’t handle her behavior as a stepmother that I found myself objectively examining my beliefs and actions about parenting and families.

Focusing on what I wanted to do right with my stepdaughter started to take up more brain space than how I'd been wronged as a child. My past pains grew fuzzy as I continued to focus on my new family.

The process also allowed me to break a lot of old habits. For example, my family of origin communicated mostly by snapping at each other; where I might have snapped at my biological children out of habit, I caught myself before snapping at my stepdaughter. Now I can’t imagine talking to any child like that, let alone one of my own.

Friday, November 12, 2010

Musings on the Stepmother Role

When I tell non-stepmoms about how I love my stepdaughter and what an important part of my life she is, their response is often suspicion and “your-stepdaughter-already-has-a-mother” hostility.

I’m frustrated when I encounter this black-and-white thinking. It seems to automatically equate loving our stepchildren with wanting to replace their mother—which of course couldn’t be further from the truth.

I know that the love a biological mother feels for a child is different from the love a stepmother feels for a stepchild—but that doesn’t mean that the love we feel isn’t also real and important. It doesn’t mean that our stepfamily relationships are without value and worth.

If we don’t want to replace the BM, then what do we want? I think we want society to have a better understanding of our role. We want recognition for the care and support we give to our family members whether or not we gave birth to them. We want the people around us to respect the validity our stepfamily relationships as much as our blood ones.

Pleased and Honored

I wanted to jump on and say hello and let you all know that I haven't disappeared off the grid. I've been experiencing some technical difficulties which luckily have been resolved.


I'm honored to have been interviewed by Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster, for an article about stepparenting to appear in Parents Magazine. The article will be featured in either the July or August issue--I'll let you know when I hear more!

Changing Perspectives

Sometimes I wonder how my husband’s experiences with his stepmom color the way he views my step-mothering. I also wonder if any of his opinions of her have changed after watching me struggle to find my way within the same role.

Interestingly, he was telling me this weekend about how upset he was by something she told him on her and his dad’s wedding day. Apparently she came up to him after the ceremony and said bluntly, “I’m in your family now.”

I’m sure that as a boy, hearing something like that must have sounded pushy and domineering. But to me as a stepmom hearing that same story, it sounds like she was craving reassurance and approval.

I’m curious—did any of you stepmoms out there have stepmothers yourself growing up? Did any of your husbands/partners have stepmoms? If so, how has your stepmom experience affected your views or memories of your stepmothers?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Making Father's Day less Bittersweet

Father’s Day is bittersweet for some of us stepmoms.

We may outwardly celebrate our husband’s parenting but inwardly feel angry at him for being too lax on his children—or even the fact that he has kids at all.

It’s so easy to fall into a pattern of negative thinking. The arguments over rules and the battles over schedules can leave you feeling pessimistic about the whole situation.

That’s why I think every step-parenting book should include a section about becoming happier by working on being optimistic. After all, studies show that optimists are happier and healthier than their negative counterparts, and research shows that optimists cope better with difficult circumstances than negative thinkers.

Notice I said working on in the paragraph above. For most of us, looking at the glass half-full doesn’t come naturally.

Luckily, you don’t have to have been an optimist. According to this article by Marguerite Lamb, “a tendency toward optimism is only about 25 percent genetic . . . that leaves plenty of room for life experience — not to mention your behavior — to shape your point of view.”

How can you start being a more optimistic stepmom?

1) Whenever you find yourself thinking negatively about your stepchildren or your stepmom role, stop and immediately say to yourself that the situation will be better in the future. Tell yourself things like:

• “The kids will grow out of this phase”
• “We’ll all get more used to each other as time goes on”
• “A year from now this won’t seem like a big deal at all”

2) Change your self-talk:

• Switch “I don’t know if I can take his kids’ behavior anymore” to “this is a difficult situation but I know I can handle it”
• Turn “How did I get myself into this mess” to “I am learning from this and will emerge stronger because of it”

3) Reframe the situation and search for the positive:

• Think about what you’re learning in your stepmom role and how you can apply it to other parts of your life
• For example, if you don’t have children of your own yet, think about how you’ll be more prepared for your own
• Think about how you now have more patience to apply to a difficult boss or colleague.

4) Cut out negative thinking:

• Do away with ruminating
• Quit venting so much
• Stop negative thoughts in their tracks – check out: Stopping the Negative Observer

5) Count you blessings:

• Look at the big picture of your life and make a mental list of all the good things you have going on—and not just once and a while, but every day or every few days. It sounds hokey but it works; this simple exercise helps you make looking on the bright side a habit.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Is Family Counseling a Bad Idea?

Most step-parenting books I’ve read suggest seeing a counselor to work out any blended family issues. I’m not sure if that’s such great advice.

I’ve been to counseling myself for anxiety so I’m not saying that it’s without value. But the problem with family counseling is that you put your happiness in the hands of other people. You rely on your partner and his children to attend sessions, and you rely on them to participate and change their behavior accordingly.

The problem with this, of course, is that there’s nothing you can do if they refuse to go. You can nag, you can whine, but in the end you can’t force them to participate if they don’t want to. I’ve mentioned before that feeling helpless leads to depression. And ladies, feeling helpless and depressed will make you one miserable stepmother.

Instead of depending on others to help fix your problems, my suggestion is to be more proactive. Rather than asking a counselor to convince your stepchildren to treat you better, you need to simply start requiring them to treat you respectfully.

I say simply, but I know it’s not easy. This is where I would suggest going to counseling on your own. As Penelope Trunk mentioned this week on her blog Brazen Careerist, therapy is a great tool for self-discovery and personal development. A counselor can empower you with communication tools and provide support during stressful times. Not only that, a counselor can help you sort out any reasons why you may be having difficulty standing up for yourself. She can help you realize that, yes, you do deserve respect.

If family counseling works for you, great. But for the rest of us, I’d say try it once if your family will go but don’t stress too much if they won’t. What do you think?

Making your Needs a Priority

Making your needs a priority is critical to being a happy stepmom.

Sounds kind of obvious, right? I mean, everybody wants to be happy. All stepmothers want to have the best stepparenting experience possible.

The trouble is that once we become a stepmother our priorities often shift—slowly, and quietly, and sometimes even without our realizing it—from being happy to being a good stepmom.

Where we used to foucs on our work, interests, and friends, we're now spending our time trying to make everyone else in our new family happy. We're picking up groceries during our lunch break, canceling movie night with the girls, and leaving work early to be home in time to make dinner. We make meals we can’t stand because our stepkids are picky eaters. We give up our weekend yoga classes because our husband hates going to his kids’ soccer games by himself. We constantly fret over whether or not we should be disciplining our stepchildren, and we spend a lot of time telling our friends about how badly they treat us. We dwell on the annoying things their mother does and space off in meetings wondering if she does them on purpose.

Certainly putting the needs of our family members before our own is healthy in moderation. Compromise makes for a healthy family.

But when our mind is always ruminating about our stepchildren or their troublesome mother and when we’re constantly devoting our time and brain space to them instead of to ourselves we end up feeling exhausted, frustrated, and burned out.

Instead, we need to retain a strong focus on our needs after we form our new family. Clearly we can (and should) work on our relationships with our stepchildren, but we need to do so in a way that asks “how can we get along together?” instead of “how can I make them happy?”

Part of this process involves managing our partner’s and stepchildren’s expectations of us. A second, equally important part involves managing our expectations of ourselves and our attitudes about the situation. More later this week.