Monday, December 12, 2011

Are Non-Married Stepmothers Really Stepmothers?

As tough as it can be to be a stepmother at all, it can be even tougher to be an unmarried one. The role is even more ambiguous and many people don’t extent non-married stepmothers the same level of respect and acknowledgment as married stepmoms.

My now-husband and I lived together for several years before getting engaged and married (both in the same year). I struggled with feeling like people in my life didn't respect that fact that I was, indeed, a stepmom--someone who changed diapers and kissed boo-boos and gave time-outs.

Then when I got married people said things to me like, "how do you feel about becoming a stepmother on Friday?" One person even said, "gosh, on Thursday you'll be a single girl and then on Friday you'll be a stepmom." These comments all came from people who had known me and my family for years.It seems like a lot of the step-parenting material out there is aimed at married stepmoms.

That’s why I’m so excited by a new book I just started reading: Teach Yourself Successful Step-Parenting by Suzie Hayman. In the first chapter Hayman writes,

“What is a stepfamily? A stepfamily is any household that includes children who are related to one parent but not the other. You may feel that partners have to be married for one of them to be a step-parent, or that the children need to live with you full time for them to be stepchildren. The truth is that all the emotional needs and problems that go with stepfamilies kick into play whether the adults concerned are actually married or not.”

I think Haymen hit the nail exactly on the head--whether you’re married or not, you still have to face the same issues.

How about you--do you agree or disagree? While I feel very strongly about this, I've also women who feel very strongly that you're not a stepmother until after you've both said your vows. I’d love to hear what you think.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How to not Look Like You're Trying to Replace their BioMom, Part I

I mentioned before that I’d signed up for a step-parenting newsletter. I was a bit suspicious when I read this installment:

“You are not the parent . . . Making attempts to take the place of your stepchild’s biological parent, no matter how little contact the child has with him or her, will likely backfire. That’s what David Caldwell, a 52-year-old father of two stepchildren and three biological children in San Francisco, learned when he married his wife.‘The main thing is not to overreach,’ he says. ‘I had to remind myself that the kids already had a father. No matter how little he was around, I needed to respect his position.’”
I agree and disagree. I agree that the role of a step-parent is not to replace a biological parent. Our place is not to convince our stepchildren that their biological parents never existed or that our relationship with them is better than the one they have with their parents.

At the same time, though, I believe that being able to be a parent in your own home—that is, to be an equal partner with your spouse, to set rules in your house, to show your stepchildren love and support, and to discipline them when necessary—is crucial for many stepmothers to be happy.

The question becomes, then, how do you parent your stepchildren without acting like you’re trying to replace their biological parent? I’m going to be doing some additional research about this during the week, but here are my initial conclusions:

First, don’t try and replicate the life they have with their biological parent. You might think that you’re doing them a favor by doing everything the way their mother does it—after all, that’s what they’re used to, right? If you do this too much, though, your stepkids are going to interpret this as you trying to take over for their mother.

Next, don’t make any kind of negative comments about their biological mother or the quality of the relationship they have with her. Besides hurting their feelings, this is going to make your stepchildren think that you’re trying to show them that you’d make a better mother to them than her.

More to come next post.

Stepmotherhood and Self-Esteem

No one warned me. None of the books and articles I’d read when I first became a stepmother prepared me for how my new role would, for a time, negatively impact my self-esteem.

What it is about being a stepmom that can rob us of our self-confidence and positive self-concept? After doing a little research, I see three very important factors to consider:

Relationships and Family

Studies show that women link their self-value to their family role and successful relationships. According to this article, experts have seen that, “a large part of a woman's self-esteem depends on her stepfamily relationship going smoothly. Therefore when family situations are negative a stepmother suffers from low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity and guilt.”

Since pretty much all stepfamilies go through rocky periods of adjustment, we can see how most stepmoms would be vulnerable to these effects. Wednesday Matrin describes this very well in her new book Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. She writes:
“women are relaters par excellence. Liking and being liked are generally of paramount importance to us, a kind of interpersonal bull’s-eye that makes us feel happy and successful. Predictably, then, the unremitting hostility and rejection that may come from our stepchildren can feel devastating . . . With our self-esteem thus undermined, we’re increasingly prone to anxiety, stress, and feelings of worthlessness.”
Clarity of Role

Research suggests that having a less clear self-concept is linked to having lower self-esteem. It’s no secret that 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.”

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the stressful feeling caused when a person tries to hold two opposite ideas simultaneously. I’ve also had this described to me as the reason people feel upset when they act in a manner that isn’t in keeping with how they see themselves. Over time cognitive dissonance negatively impacts our self esteem.

Before we enter into our stepfamily, we have perceptions about ourselves and expectations of our stepchildren and partners. However, once we face the difficulties of adjusting to our new stepfamily, we end up feeling confused when reality doesn’t match up with our previous expectations and self-perception.

As time goes by, we may act differently than what feels natural for us because we think that's the way stepmothers are “supposed to act,” only to later think, "wait, this isn't me." Or, our stepchildren disrespect us and we start doubting ourselves—wondering if maybe we aren't the loving, capable, fabulous people we thought we were, because surely our stepchildren would respect loving, capable, fabulous people.

Many stepmoms feel torn when they try to get their stepchildren to treat them with the respect they feel they deserve, only to end up feeling like wicked stepmothers for doing so. “As stepmothers,” Martin writes, “we are expected to let it go, often for years on end. If we can’t—if we complain, set limits, or tell our stepchildren they’re not welcome if they can’t treat us civilly—we are being petty, stereotypical stepmonsters.”

I know that I've had to consciously make a decision not to base my self-esteem on my stepfamily relationships. How have you coped with this issue?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Terrible Advice about Stepmothers and Discipline

I’m interrupting my series of posts about learning to love your stepchildren to respond to some terrible step-parenting advice that’s landed in my inbox.

I signed up for a step-parenting e-newsletter to see what they had to say. Most of what I’ve read so far has rankled me, including this:

"One of the top questions stepparents ask is 'how should I discipline my stepchild?' And, the short answer is 'you don’t' . . . Come up with a few rules to start, and then determine with your spouse how you will help enforce his or her authority . . . If you are going to be the primary caregiver while your spouse is at work, this conversation is especially important."
I was incredibly frustrated reading this because I’ve learned first-hand that relying on your husband to be the only one in your family who disciples the kids will end up making you miserable. (Scroll down to my August 24 post for more about why this is a bad idea.)

One of the first things you need to do when you and your partner move in together is sit down and talk to the kids about what your new household will be like. You can’t cover everything, of course, but try and let them know what you expect from them and what life will be like in your home. It’s important to explain to the children that they will be required to treat you with the same respect that they treat their other parents, that this is just as much your house as your husband’s, and that you have just as much authority to enforce the rules as he does.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t an adjustment period for everyone involved. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t compromise on things or that you shouldn’t be understanding. But when it comes down to it, your step kids will need to adapt to being your (step)children just as much as you are adjusting to being their (step)parent. It may be sad for your stepchildren, and they may be mourning that fact, but the key principle you need to keep in mind is that it’s not your fault that their parents got divorced. You don’t have to give up your right to being an adult in your own home just because their biological parents aren’t living under the same roof.

This might sound a little harsh to some people, but if you’re going to be a happy stepmother then you need to see yourself as an equal partner with the children’s father and appropriately in control of your life, your family, and your home. Your new family is just that—a family, made up of adults and children. And children are still just children even if their parents are divorced. They still need guidance and boundaries and they still need to act respectfully and follow the rules.

That’s what I’ve learned, at least—what do you think?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stepmother Stressor: Money

A friend of mine recently complained to me that her son’s stepmother makes sure that her own children have nice things but doesn’t do the same for her son. I could tell my friend was upset and my immediate reaction was to agree, “Wow, that’s too bad.” But just as the words left my mouth I experienced a secret flash of sympathy for her son’s stepmother, and in the moment of silence that followed I worried about being in that woman’s shoes when I have my own bio-kids.

When it comes to spending money on our stepchildren, what is our responsibility as stepmoms? A toy is one thing, but what about piano lessons and horseback-riding camp every summer? College tuition? At what point do we draw the line?

There are a lot of complicating factors, like whether or not you and your partner have joined finances (we don’t), amount of visitation time, and how involved or detached you are from your stepchildren. However, no matter the circumstances, I think that we stepmoms have the right to decide how much money we want to spend on our stepchildren without worrying about other people will judge us.

Like everything with stepparenting, this is a lot harder than it sounds. A lot of emotional issues go into finances and stepparenting, like wanting your stepchildren to feel like equal members of the family and not wanting them to feel inferior if their stepsiblings get things they don’t. You also may want to have some discretionary money to spend on your biokids alone, but then feel guilty about not spending as much money on your stepkids.

I think the first step to addressing these issues involves just letting go:

- Let go of your guilt. You were not the one who got divorced—their parents were. It’s not your fault that your stepchildren are now in this position.

- Let go of worrying about what their biomom or other people will think of you if you buy or don’t buy something. Remember that your partner and his ex always have the choice to buy things for their kids. If you purchase horseback-riding lessons for your kids and not theirs, they still have the option to buy them for their children. It’s not your fault if they don’t.

Another thing you can do is to focus on finding ways to make your stepkids feel valued and included that don’t involve a lot of money:

- Create a home environment in which your stepkids don’t feel like they are just visiting. Make sure that they have a space of their own and that they’re involved in activities like meal preparation and family dinners. Even something like having assigned chores at your house makes them feel less like a guest and more like a part of the family.

- Spend time together doing things that don’t cost a lot of money, like playing board games and going to the park. Have fun, talk, and get to know each other better.

- Give them encouragement and praise their efforts. Tell your stepchild about how you admire the work she put into their science project and what a good dancer he is.

- Make it a priority to communicate your affection through words, attention, and time instead of by buying things. Money is not the only language of love.

Has spending or not spending money on your stepkids ever been something you’ve stressed about? Have you ever felt guilty about buying something for your kids but not your stepkids? I’d love to hear your story.