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.