Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making a Detachment Plan

Sorry it's taken me a while to get back here--my computer was totalled by a virus last week.

Last time I mentioned that I wanted to talk some more about detachment. Detachment can be described as creating a sense of indifference towards your stepchildren’s behaviors and actions; it’s a way to put a halt to your emotional reactions to them and the whole step situation. I spent this week creating a personal detachment plan. Here are some suggestions for creating one of your own:

1) First, make a list of things your stepchildren (or their parents) do that drive you crazy and hurt your feelings.

2) Next, start by thinking about ways to avoid these hot button situations. Are there any activities you can get out of? For example, I’ve decided to remove myself from pick up and drop off situations from now on; they’re just too emotionally exhausting for me.

3) Give yourself permission to leave the room. I used to feel bad about this; I felt like it was childish, like I was running away from a problem. I’ve since come to realize that there’s no shame in removing yourself from certain situations—especially ones that you feel aren't worth arguing about or where you feel like you’ve become too emotional to effectively deal.

4) Acknowledge your feelings. After some introspection I realized that part of why I get frustrated is because I feel like I’m not supposed to let myself get upset in the first place. It’s time to let myself off the hook.

5) Figure out stock phrases you can have ready for when your hot button situations arise. Try to think of things that can either diffuse the emotion or help you escape the situation without any further tension. For example, I used to get really worked up when my stepdaughter would whine, “but my Mama lets me…” over and over again. Now I just say, “well, that’s okay at Mama’s house but here we don’t (whatever). We’re not going to argue about it anymore.” It’s important to practice phrases like these on your own or with a friend—it makes it easier to remember them in the midst of an emotional moment.

6) Find ways to control your emotional reactions from the situation.

• Repeat to yourself: “I can’t control the actions of others; I can only control my reactions to their actions.” This is something I'm really focusing on.

• Nip it in the bud: Try and catch yourself before your emotions run away with you. Having a list of you hot buttons helps with this.

• Absolve yourself of responsibility for their actions: You do not have to judge yourself based on your stepchildren’s or their parents’ behavior.

• Don’t respond to jibes or even unintended annoyances: There will be times that you need to speak up and make it clear that something your stepkids have said or done is not ok in your house. Other times, letting things go helps you avoid getting sucked into emotionaly draining situations.

• Deep breathing: Make yourself stop and take a series of deep breaths. It sounds a little corny but it really works. If you can meditate, even better.

• Exercise: Your body fills up with adrenaline when you’re frustrated—you need to get rid of it, even if it’s just by taking a brisk walk.

7) Put it all together by writing it down or talking about it with a friend. Discuss your plan with your partner and family if you feel comfortable doing so. Finally, give yourself permission to put your plan into action.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More Questionable Advice for Stepmothers

I received more questionable advice from the step-parenting e-newsletter I signed up for. Here’s something that made me raise an eyebrow:

“If you have raised your children to eat more healthfully than your spouse has, serve both doughnuts and Grape Nuts for breakfast. If the rule in your former house was for children to help with the household chores, avoid putting your stepchildren to work scrubbing and mopping.”
Compromise is certainly an integral part of being a stepmother. But here’s the catch: when you to try and compromise too much on issues that are important to you, when you try and give up your values and try to be someone you’re not for the sake of Being a Good Stepmom for too long, you’ll only end up frustrated and unhappy.

Resentment builds and grows over time, and, in my experience at least, cognitive dissonance kicks in. Cognitive dissonance is the stressful feeling caused when a person tries to hold two opposite ideas simultaneously. It’s the reason people feel upset when they act in a manner that isn’t in keeping with how they see themselves.

Here’s what I mean: it’s easy to compromise about things you don’t care that much about. If you never used to serve doughnuts for dinner but you don’t place a high value on eating healthfully, then serving doughnuts for dinner to your stepkids won’t drive you up a wall. But if you’re like me and think that a child should never eat like that, then you’re going to end up resenting it every time. Besides that, you may even get stressed out about it, because our minds have a hard time dealing with us acting in a way that doesn’t fit with how we see ourselves.

I’m by no means saying you should rule with an iron first. It’s your family and you want to make everyone as happy and comfortable as you can. You should compromise where you can handle it—that’s what healthy families do, after all. But when it comes down to it, the house belongs to you and your partner—you are the adults and they are the children. In a certain amount of years the kids will grow up, leave the nest, and be free to eat doughnuts for dinner if they want. But until then, you and your partner are still the adults and they are still the children.

It's not your responsibility to replicate an illusion of your stepkids’ old household. You shouldn't feel required to tip-toe around doing everything the way their mom did it when she and your partner were married. Should you make an effort to understand and accommodate your stepchildren’s preferences where you can are where you feel it would not upset you? Of course! But the fact is, their parents got divorced and nothing’s going to change that. The way that things happened in your stepchildren’s old household is in the past. It may be sad, and your stepchildren are certainly upset about it, but the key principle here is that it’s not your fault that their parents got divorced. You shouldn't have to feel guilty about that, and you shouldn't have to feel pressured to act in a way that conflicts with your values because of it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Love Outside the box

All step-parenting guides say you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t love your step-kids. While I agree with this, it doesn’t mean that it’s not uncomfortable for a lot of women. Feeling guilty for not loving your stepchildren can be stressful--but so is trying to make yourself feel for them the same bubbling love that you feel for your partner or the warm fuzzies you have for your sister.

The answer to this problem is to create a mental category of love that doesn’t involve warm, emotional feelings and to give yourself permission to think about that kind of love as being real and valuable. Duty, loyalty, and providing for the needs of others—these are all worthwhile, honorable forms love, even if they don’t inspire you to run up and hug someone.

It can feel a little awkward to think about love this way because it’s not what we’re used to, but it’s worth it if you can stick with it. This kind of impassionate love can help build a foundational connection between you and your stepchildren leading to more emotional love further down the road.

Psychologically speaking, our beliefs and emotions end up resulting from our actions, rather than the other way around like you might think. According to Gretchen Rubin, happiness researcher over at The Happiness Project, performing kind actions for a person makes you more feel more kindly towards them over time.

So in the short term, this strategy allows you to get over the guilt you might feel at not loving your step kids—because it’s not that you don’t love them at all, it’s just that you love them in a different way than their father does. In the long run, feeling that you do love your stepchildren—carrying that knowledge around with you and acting on it—will result in you feeling more emotion for them over time.


This weekend my stepdaughter and I had a delightful talk about the Easter Bunny and how she is hoping he will bring her a toy in his basket. Not so long ago the toy situation around our house was drastically different.

There was a long period when SD brought a new toy with her every time she came over to our place (which is about every other day). Even if her mom had to stop at a store on the way to our apartment, she always seemed to walk through the door with something new.

Despite the plenitude of toys at her other home, she always threw big tantrums about wanting to take toys from our house back to her mother’s. This ended up being frustrating because her mom would never bring them or send them back to us—but at the same time SD would whine and complain that we didn’t have enough toys at our place.

For a long time I felt compelled to replace them. I added toys to our grocery list, squeezing them into our tight budget so I didn't have to hear her yell, "you needed to buy me a new toy at the store! Why didn't you buy me a new toy!" over and over again.

Eventually I realized how ridiculous that was and I stopped buying new toys. Instead, I tried getting her to leave the Daddy's House toys here--but that didn't work either. I'd tell her no but she'd throw a tantrum and my husband would end up giving in.

One night SD was digging through a green Rubbermaid bin in the living room when she pulled out a plush cow with magnets in its feet. It's little black hooves snapped together and hugged her hand. I thought it was so cute that I'd bought a second one after the first went back to Mamma's a few months before.

"I remember this," she said. "Mamma put ours in the trash can and the trash man took him away."

"What?" I slopped tea onto the coffee table.

"Yeah. The trash man took him away. So you need to buy me anudder for my Mamma's house. You need to buy anudder one at the store."

I made what DH calls The Spock Face and asked her, softly, about the other Daddy's House toys. From her description I gathered that they'd suffered the same fate.


I sucked in a breath and leaned forward on the couch. I wasn't just mad; I was pissed. I wanted to say that it wasn't a nice thing for her mother to have done, or why would she do such a thing, but luckily I caught myself and kept mum.

She went back to digging through the bin and I flopped back into the couch cushions. That’s it, I thought, I’m officially done with this.

I spent a lot of time thinking that evening and finally came to the realization that it wasn’t my responsibility to fight that battle. It wasn’t my job to replace all the toys she kept taking away, let alone to buy them all.

From then on I kept my mouth shut when the subject came up. The situation ended up resolving itself over time as the toys drifted away, but looking back I wish I’d put my foot down in the beginning. Now we only buy her presents for her birthday and holidays, plus a surprise treat here or there.

Have you faced a similar situation? If so I'd love to hear how you handled it.