Wednesday, December 5, 2012

How to Not Look Like You're Trying to Replace Their Bio-Mom, Part II

I’ve seen the same piece of advice repeated to stepmothers over and over: don’t try and take the place of your step-child’s biological mother. But what does that mean? What constitutes trying “trying to be someone’s parent”? Furthermore, how do you parent your stepchildren without acting like you’re trying to replace their biological parent?

As I sit here thinking about all of the different facets of parenting, it occurs to me that we can think about them as falling into a kind of hierarchy. Here’s a rough sketch of what I mean, starting with the most basic qualities:

1. Caring for a child’s basic needs: providing food, water, warmth, shelter, safety.
2. Caring for a child’s health: providing care for illness and injury; providing good nutrition.
3. Enforcing basic rules (no coloring on the walls, no jumping on the sofa).
4. Extending “black and white” values (no hitting, no name-calling, say thank you).
5. Extending “grey area” values: gender roles, religion, politics.
6. Shaping their future: focusing on certain areas of education, sports vs. no sports, etc.
7. Guiding their young adulthood: college, boyfriends/girlfriends, marriage.

(I’ve left out affection—praise, validation, acknowledgement of thoughts and feelings, hugs, kisses, etc.—because to me these things should be included in every part of parenting.)

My observation is that the more basic a parenting facet is, the less territorial people feel about it. After all, most people agree on “black and white” values like saying please and thank you.

However, people start feeling territorial when parenting involves things that not everyone agrees on, like gender roles, religion, politics, ethics, education, marriage, and the like. Not only do adults have very different opinions on these kinds of matters, but children are aware of this fact. If a child knows that his mother feels very strongly about religion, for example, it’s likely that he’s going to feel like his stepmother is encroaching on his mother’s territory if she tries to influence his beliefs on that subject.

So if you’re worried that you look like you’re trying to take the place of your step-child’s mother, my advice would be to limit your parenting to black-and-white matters that affect your day-to day happiness. By this I mean basic respect for you, your partner, your home, and your family; for example, no back talk, no fighting, basic table manners at your table (i.e., if you drop food on the floor, pick it up, don’t talk and spit food at the same time), minor chores, cleaning up after themselves, and the like. Hopefully down the road, after building a relationship together, you’ll be able to share more of your opinions with your stepchild—but that’s for another post.

This might seem like an overstatement of the obvious for those of us who have been stepmothers for a while, but I wish I had thought about it like this when I first started out.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Has the Bio-Mom Ever Surprised You--In a Good Way?

Hi everyone! I had a great trip and I’m finally feeling back in the swing of things this evening. I haven’t had much time to read this week but I’m looking forward to starting Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., this weekend. I’ll let you know what I think next week.

In the meantime:

This evening as my stepdaughter was getting picked up, she asked her mom, “can I give Meesha a hug before we leave?” And she ran over and jumped in my lap and gave me a big hug and a kiss.

As she walked back around the couch, her mom turned to me and said, “speaking of which, [SD] has a book with pictures of everyone in it—me and her dad, her dad’s family, my family. If you want to give me a picture of you or of you and [DH] together, I’ll add it in there. She likes to look through it before she goes to bed.”

And I thought, wow, that is one awesome mom. I don’t know if I would have been big enough to make that offer if I were her.

How about you--Has your stepchild's biomom ever surprised you in a good way?

Friday, November 9, 2012

Starting the Revolution

My fiancé glared at me, and if looks could kill I would have been flat on the floor.

“I told you to hold her down.” He wanted me to grab his shrieking, kicking daughter and pin her to the carpet so he could force a dose of medicine into her mouth.

My heart raced. Between her screaming and his yelling, I was overwhelmed by the both of them. I put a hand on her arm and then whipped it back. “But the stepparenting books say I’m not supposed to do that kind of thing!” It felt like the thousandth time I’d said it.

He rolled his eyes. “The books,” he said gritting his teeth, “are bullshit.”

I tentatively took hold of her, and only by working as a team were we finally able to get the medicine through her pursed lips. Later that day, after several cups of tea and lengthy reflection, I decided to abandon most conventional stepparenting advice.

I came into my stepdaughter’s life just after her second birthday. I spent the next two and a half years reading everything I could about what I was supposed to do and not do as a stepmother. By the time she’d reached four and half, I was emotionally drained, exhausted, and at my wits’ end. I felt betrayed by all of the step-parenting “experts” I’d consulted. Most of their advice was either impractical, didn’t apply to us (my stepdaughter being very young), or just plain didn’t work.

More than that, much of the advice I read seemed to emphasize, either blatantly or subtly, the need for stepmothers to accept an unreasonable amount of disrespect, inflexibility, and poor behavior by their stepchildren and partner because these things “just come with the territory.” One book I read seemed to suggest that it’s a stepmother’s duty to accept this kind of treatment because she is the one disrupting her stepchildren’s lives.

According that author, once a woman becomes a stepmother she should accommodate her life to her stepchildren’s because “the children have been raised with a family pattern, and it’s not fair to them if they suddenly have to change [their lives] . . . it would be complicated for the stepchildren and this would present them with an opportunity to resent you—the reason for the change.”* Later in this same book the author remphasizes that, "The other members of your family have a previous history and their routines need to be modified to include another person. Sometimes you may feel awkward because you are the reason for all the adjustment and change.”**

When, in reality, the real reason that children’s lives change is because their parents get divorced--stepmothers just come later. But I digress.

Desperate for more information, I started lurking on Internet posting boards like and Step I was surprised—at first—to see that so many other people were experiencing the same problems that I was. I kept seeing people write “the books say . . . but.”


With so many hundred of thousands of people entering into stepfamilies every year, I thought, why isn’t there better advice available to stepmothers? Why are there so many unhappy, frustrated stepmothers?

I decided to start researching stepparenting and stepfamily advice more seriously. I've set up this blog to discuss my research, talk about my experiences, and share strategies that hopefully other women like myself can use in their everyday lives. My goal is to focus not necessarily on how to be a "good stepmother" but how to be a happier, more contented, or at least less frustrated one by rethinking and reshaping the role.

* From 7 Steps to Bonding with Your Stepchild by Suzen J. Ziegahan, page 54.
** " page 96.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

I've Come to a Realization about Detachment

I’ve been putting lots of effort into my relationship with my stepdaughter lately. Last week I spent extra time with her reading books, playing dolls, and baking cupcakes. (This was of on top of my normal stepmama workload: cutting up her food, cleaning her juice spills, trying to get her to eat one more bite of broccoli, helping her in the bathroom, getting her dressed, and, well, you get the idea.)

In the end, every game, every project turned into a devotion to her mother. “These pictures are going to be for my Mama!” “I’m going to tell my Mama about how we went to the park!” “These cupcakes are going to be for my Mama!”

Then one evening she proceeded to tell me over and over again, “I love you, but I love my Mama more than you. I love her more than you.”

Is this surprising? No. Is it normal? Completely. Does it still sting and annoy the heck out of me?


I've decided it’s time to take a step back and reevaluate my level of detachment. According to The Ups and Downs of Becoming an Insta-Parent, “Detachment is often the best decision when a woman realises her input is neither recognised nor welcome . . . Detachment can range from detaching from issues dealing with the ex-wife to not enforcing rules with stepkids to complete non-involvement."

Julie W. describes detachment as, "an art. You must say, “I disagree with what you are doing, but I respect your right to do it. I am washing my hands of this situation, and you, as a parent, must deal with the natural consequences.”

However you go about it, detachment isn't easy. With our family of origin we didn’t have to give a second thought about what we said, who we said it to, or what family conversations or situations we got involved with. But learning to navigate “detached” family relationships doesn’t come instinctively. We have to plan when to speak up and when to keep quiet. We must calculate our comfort levels of detachment and involvement, of love and distance.

This week I'll be thinking about how I want to to renegotiate my stepmom-stepkid relationship. More next post.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Stepmoms Should Feel Comfortable Asking for What We Want--But it's Easier Said than Done

I strongly believe that we stepmothers have a right to be involved in decisions that affect us and that we have the right to speak up for what we want and need in situations that we’re a part of.

For example, if a change in your stepchildren’s visitation schedule means you’ll have to adjust your commute schedule or route, then you have a right to be consulted about that change. Or, if you’re constantly forced to clean up after your stepchildren’s messes, then you have a right to be involved in setting and enforcing rules which require them to pick up after themselves.

The trouble is that it’s often easier said than done.

First of all, we hesitate to insist on being involved because we’re afraid to look like mean, bossy stepmothers. Some conventional advice reinforces these fears by telling us things like:

“The children have been raised with a family pattern, and it’s not fair to them if they suddenly have to change [their lives] . . . it would be complicated for the stepchildren and this would present them with an opportunity to resent you—the reason for the change . . . The other members of your family have a previous history and their routines need to be modified to include another person. Sometimes you may feel awkward because you are the reason for all the adjustment and change.” (From 7 Steps to Bonding with Your Stepchild by Suzen J. Ziegahan)

Additionally, we’re afraid to insist on being involved because we’re nervous about upsetting our family relationships—and as I mentioned in a previous post, research has shown that women judge themselves by the success of their relationships. When we base our self worth on how well things are going with our stepchildren and husband, it can be easy to slip into a mode where we’re focusing on making our family members happy rather than considering our own needs.

I know when I first became a stepmom I felt like I was adrift in the middle of other people’s plans. I felt pressured to give up an exercise class with my co-workers in the evenings, I gave up seeing my friends on the weekends, and I canceled plans whenever the visitation schedule changed (which was often for a time). Meanwhile, my stepdaughter would scream endlessly at the top of her lungs, break things, and call me names. My friendships drifted, my anxiety skyrocketed, and I became depressed—but I was afraid to step up and change the situation because I was afraid of upsetting my husband and terrified of coming off like an evil stepmother.

It finally took me reaching the end of my rope before I realized what I know now: That no matter what our fears are, we stepmoms deserve to have ours needs met just as much as the other members of our families. We didn’t disrupt our family, as Ziegahan suggests. Things were already disrupted before we came along, and we don’t deserve to be punished for it.

Obviously I’m not advocating that we put our needs above those of our stepchildren to their detriment—just that we deserve to have an equal say in what goes on in our lives and our homes, and that we should feel comfortable and justified in asking for it.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Communication with the Bio-Mom

I’ve read a lot about how important it is for divorced parents to communicate with each other about their kids.

However, I’ve also heard a lot of frustrated stepmoms talk about how they seem to end up taking up the slack between non-communicating bio parents. I’ve read some blogs and forum posts where stepmoms talk about sending texts, emails, and phone calls to the bio moms, relaying information back and forth between their partner and his ex.

After reading and reflecting on my own experiences, I’ve been thinking about why we stepmoms decide to take this responsibility upon ourselves. Here’s why I think we do it:

1) We feel obligated to do what we see as “the right thing”
2) We think this is the way to be a good stepmom
3) We want to make ourselves look and feel like part of the family
4) We want to look good to the bio mom (i.e., involved and responsible)

All of this makes me think: how much communicating with the bio mom should a stepmom really do?

I’m sure this is going to sound a little controversial, but my opinion is that a lot of us stepmoms shouldn’t put much enegry into proactive communication with the bio mom.

Let me clarify. What I’m trying to say is that it’s not our responsibility to be reporting what our stepkids did that day, what TV shows they like, or what their new friend’s name is. It’s not our responsibility to send reminders about visitation times, appointments, or court dates.* That kind of thing is your partner’s responsibility, and if you do it because you feel obligated to, then you’re likely to end up feeling used and frustrated.

Furthermore, if you try and be a good stepmom by relaying information between your partner and his ex, you actually end up making yourself feel excluded. Rather than relaxing into your place in the family as a partner/wife and stepmom, you’re constantly holding yourself up between these two former lovers. It may only be an attitude, sure, but it can still negatively impact your happiness.

Finally, if you try and make yourself part of the family by being the reporter and coordinator, then you actually end up feeling empty despite all your best intentions. Even though coordinating information with the bio mom can take a lot of your emotional energy, it’s not actually doing much to build a bond between you and your stepchildren. At the same time, you feel frustrated to have put so much energy into the stepfamily situation without receiving the reward of affection back from your stepkids.

Instead of being the information exchanger, I think stepmoms should put that time and energy into building a relationship with their stepchildren. You don’t need to worry about what the bio mom thinks of you. (Although I know this can be difficult!) Truly, the important thing is what your stepkids think of you, not their mom.

This is my opinion, of course. And I'm sure that there are some stepmoms who have great communication with their kid's bio mom. What do you think? How much information sharing with the bio mom do you feel is appropriate? Have you had any bad experiences? Good ones? I’d love to hear what you have to say.

* I’m all for answering questions that the bio mom asks you (reactive communication), and I certainly support proactive communication in any case that would involve ensuring the safety of the child.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

terminology tidbit

I'm taking a quick moment to pop on here with my morning coffee. My fiance's family and friends arrived from England last night, and today we're knee-deep in last-minute wedding errands and projects.

In the last week several people have asked me, "how do you feel about becoming a stepmother on Friday?" One person 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 know about my situation--that my fiance and I have lived together for the last several years and that we have my stepdaughter about every other day. I was a little irritated with the implication that it wasn't all the love and care that I have shown my stepdaughter, all the kisses, diaper changes, band aids on boo-boos, time outs, swimming lessons, and hugs that made me a stepmom to them. No, to these people I become a "real" stepmom on Friday when the judge signs our marriage certificate.

In each instance I let it slide; I think it must be a hard thing to understand if you're not a stepmom yourself. What do you think--did you receive any comments from the peanut gallery when you became a stepmother?

Thursday, September 6, 2012

We use a different part of our brain to process stepfamily members

According to a recent article in the the latest issue of the journal Neuropsychologia:

"Scientists found that relatives and self-lookalikes are processed through a self-referential part of the brain. Friends and strangers who look nothing like the viewer, on the other hand, light up entirely different areas of the brain, those linked to making important and risky decisions with respect to the self."

After reading this article I thought, no wonder stepfamily relationships are so hard--we're using separate parts of our brain to process different members of the same family!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Stepmoms: You Must Control Your Venting

Everyone needs to vent sometimes—especially us stepmoms. We get frustrated about something our stepchildren or their parents have done and the next thing we know we’re going off on a tirade to ten different people.

Even though complaining feels good in the moment, studies show that it actually leaves us unhappier afterwards. I know this seems counter-intuitive, especially because a lot of us grew up being taught the catharsis hypothesis: the idea that it’s healthy to express and expel our negative feelings.

University of Arkansas psychologist Jeffrey M. Lohr, says that, "If venting really does get anger 'out of your system,' then venting should result in a reduction of both anger and aggression. Unfortunately for catharsis theory, the [study] results showed precisely the opposite effect."

Lohr explains that, "people fail to realize is that the anger would have dissipated had they not vented. Moreover, it would have dissipated more quickly had they not vented and tried to control their anger instead."

At the same time, we all know that completely holding in our frustrations isn’t healthy, either. Bottling everything up has been shown to lead to depression. Plus, complaining is how some of us ask for help.

Striking a balance between these two extremes is an important part of being a happy stepmom. Here are seven tips to help you take control of your venting and make it a productive experience:

1) Set a time limit. Tell a friend, “I want to tell you about something that happened today, but I just have ten minutes to talk.” Call right before dinner or on a break if you have trouble enforcing the limit.

2) Don’t vent the same story to all of your friends—just one or two.

3) Don’t let yourself go over a single incident again and again. Get your friends on board if necessary. Give them the OK to gently remind you if you start rehashing a story you've told three times before.

4) Get used to telling people that you don’t want their opinion. Sometimes our friends are the ones who stir us up—they egg us on or drag out the details. To avoid getting drawn into a lengthy session, tell your friends, “I have something I’d like to talk about—I’m not really looking for any input, but I just need to get it off my chest.”

5) Figure out exactly why you’re complaining. Look for the root of the problem so you can figure out a better way to address the symptoms. Maybe you’re frustrated that the kids never pick up after themselves like you ask them to. Is it possible that you’re more angry that they don’t respect your authority in the house?

6) Ask for help directly instead of complaining and hoping that people will offer you advice. Mention the situation in a short, neutral way and then move on to asking for help with how to deal with it.

7) Go to therapy. A counselor can help you better understand the situation and provide you with tools to deal with it more effectively.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When Older Step-Children Act Out

A lot of what I’ve previously written about stepmothers and how to handle bad behavior applies mostly to very young children. Younger kids often act out not because they are reacting to their parents’ divorce, but just because they are, well, kids. All young children go through a period where they learn to “use their words” rather than hitting, to “use their inside voices” rather than yelling in the house, and so forth.

Older kids, though, may act out because they’re struggling with the stepfamily situation. Going through their parents divorce may have left them feeling powerless and adrift. Besides having endured the painful process of their parents’ separation, stepchildren may have also been forced to move, to change schools, and to be pulled away from their friends and activities.

Suzie Hayman, author of Teach Yourself Successful Step-Parenting, says that,
“One thing children lose when families break up is control. It wasn’t their choice for their parents to separate nor their choice for a parent and step-parent to get together. What is happening around them can make them feel completely powerless. This can lead to their trying to gain control and exercise some choice in their lives, often with drastic and sometimes confusing effect.”

As I mentioned in my last post, step-kids often act out towards step-parents when they are angry at their bio-parents.. Step-kids may feel angry at their bio-parents but be afraid to express it to them; they may think that in doing so they might anger their parents to the point that they might lose contact (or further contact) with them.

On top of that, children often don’t know how to pin down what they’re feeling and express those emotions in words. They may act up and misbehave because that’s the only way they can manage to express what their feeling.

So how do stepmoms best deal with older kids acting out?

Just like with younger kids, you should always react to stepchildren’s feelings in a respectful way—and never with anger. No yelling, even if they yell, and no making labeling or judgmental statements.

When it comes to older kids, Hayman beleives the best approach is to diffuse the situation with a discussion about their feelings, your feelings, and how the situation can be resolved between the two of you.

Hayman suggests that stepparents use language like . . . “When . . . (describe the situation) . . . I feel . . . (describe your feeling” angry, sad, etc) . . . because . . . (why you feel that way; for example, you feel disrespected) . . . So what I would like is” (describe how you would prefer the situation to be). The author also advises step-parents to ask their step-children, “What are we going to do about this?” and encourage them to actively participate in coming up with a solution.

Another good way to approach misbehavior like yelling or arguing is to counter with a statement that summarizes their emotions and why they might be feeling that way. For example, you might say, “It sounds like you’re really upset about this and I’d like to understand. What I’m hearing is that you’re mad because of (describe the situation here). Is that right?”

The key is to make the child feel understood, involved, and like they have a say in the situation. The idea is that by acknowledging a step-child’s feelings and fulfilling his need to have some control over the situation, he will then be more willing to cooperate and less likely to act out.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Stepmothers and Cognitive Dissonance

I think a lot of stepmothers get tripped up by something called 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.

The other part of cognitive dissonance theory says that people can’t handle this stressful feeling for extended periods—and as a consequence, our minds end up adapting by modifying our existing beliefs to reject one of the two ideas.

Meaning, we have these ideas about ourselves and expectations about what our step-children and partners will act like—but then we end up getting confused about ourselves when reality doesn’t match up with our expectations and self-perception. Maybe we act differenly than what feels natural for us because we think that's the way stepmothers are supossed to act, and then we think, "wait, this isn't me." Or our stepchildren disrepect us and we start thinking, maybe aren't the loving, capable, fabulous people we thought we were—because surely our stepchildren would respect loving, capable, fabulous people.

In my experience, I started out feeling a like a pretty together girl. I had control over my life and how I spent my time. But after I became a stepmother, I suddenly felt like I’d lost control over where I went, who I saw, and how I responded to problems like getting punched in the face with a sippy cup.

My stepdaughter visits about every other day, and for a long time I let my fiancé stop me from leaving the house on those days—if she was over, he wanted me spending time with her. I had to rush to be home from work to go with him to pick her up from her mother’s house. I wasn’t allowed to take an exercise class with a friend because it fell on visitation days. I couldn’t go out for weekend coffee or weekday happy hours with my friends anymore. Meanwhile, my fiancé would switch days with his ex without notice; I’d come home, yet again, to find that I’d have to change my evening plans. Not to mention the fact that all the step-parenting advice I read said that I shouldn’t be disciplining his daughter. In short, I was forced to schedule my life, all my “me” activities, around his daughter, while at the same time letting her get away with treating me poorly.

At first I thought, hey, no big deal, I just need to adapt. After all, that’s what the step-parenting books said I was supposed to do. Meanwhile, if I complained to my co-workers about how hard it was, they’d tell me, “well, that’s what being a stepmother is like” or, better yet, “you knew what you were getting yourself into.”

But as time passed I felt increasingly smothered by this tiny, screaming, tantrum-throwing child—and helpless to do anything about it. I felt so confused. How could I be a smart, capable woman but so out of control of my life? How could I have not seen this coming? How could I be strong and defeated at the same time?

After a while I couldn't handle the imbalance anymore. Cognitive dissonance kicked in and I thought to myself, maybe I’m just not the capable woman I thought I was. I guess I’m just a mess. I guess I can’t handle things. It was a very painful period of self-doubt.

After a lot of work to overcome those feelings, I want to warn new stepmothers not to try and act in a way that’s uncomfortable for you just because people or books are telling you that you’re supposed to. Sure, you need to be flexible—but you also need to feel like yourself if you’re going to be a happy stepmother.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Happy Nubbin

I wanted to share something that made my day yesterday. I was sitting with my stepdaughter after dinner, trying not to get grossed out as she told me about how it tasted like apple juice the last time she threw up. Without skipping she then looked up at me and said, "thank you for loving me." Wow.

Sunday, April 8, 2012


For the first couple of years that I was a stepmom I used to really get carried away ruminating—that is, dwelling on my worries over and over again.

I was frustrated that neither of my stepdaughter’s parents seemed worried that she wasn’t meeting her developmental milestones. That her speech and cognition were delayed. That she seemed unreasonably terrified of the world. That she seemed to always be eating junk food. That she would never stop throwing tantrums. That she'd never graduate from diapers and she’d end up calling me from a high school bathroom stall asking me to come wipe her bottom.

I’m guessing that there are a lot of stepmothers who struggle with ruminating. After all, there’s just so much new territory to cover as a stepmom, and so much of it is out of our control.

Not only is dwelling on problems frustrating, but excessive ruminating has been shown to lead to depression. So when you find yourself dwelling on something that your stepchild or their parents have done (or not done, or keep doing…), I’ve found that it’s best to try your best to nip your worries in the bud before they have a chance to take over.

This MSN article has some good tips:

1) Put on music and dance, scrub the bathtub spotless, whatever engrosses you—for at least 10 minutes.
2) Tell yourself you can obsess all you want from 6 p.m. to 7 p.m., but until then, you're banned.
3) For one minute, eyes closed, acknowledge all the thoughts going through your mind.
4) Consider "What's the worst that could happen?" and "How would I cope?"
5) Ask a friend or relative to be your point person when your thoughts start to speed out of control.
6) Accept that you're human and make mistakes—and then move on.

Do you have any suggestions to share?

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Stepmothers: Taking Control

Feeling out of control is one of the most significant challenges that stepmothers face.

When you’re single, you’re in control of your own life. If you start a family with a man, then at least you start off on equal footing with him; you share authority and decision-making power. But partner yourself with man who has children from a previous relationship, and society and step-parenting books tell you to give up control of certain things to your husband and, ultimately, to your stepchildren.

Significantly, most conventional advice says that your partner should be the only one in your household to set rules for his children and to discipline them. This leads to a great many problems. Chiefly, by giving up authority to discipline the children in your household, you are abdicating control over how they will respect you and your home. This means you become totally dependent on your husband to direct his children to treat you and your home with respect.

Secondly, if your partner is like many men, he won’t automatically discipline his kids to the extent that they require, if at all. Whether he feels guilty about divorcing their mother or he’s just clueless—it doesn’t matter. All kids will push to see what they can get away with, and if neither you nor their father enforce limits and discipline then they'll end up getting away with murder.

Not only have I heard countless stories of this happening, but I've lived the consequences firsthand. When my stepdaughter started coming over about every other day, her father would leave her with me to watch while he spent the evening at his computer. She spent the next year and a half ordering me around, jumping on the furniture, screaming, breaking things, throwing tantrums, and generally carrying on. I have a very vivid memory of her punching me in the face with her sippy-cup and screaming “MORE JUICE!” It was exhausting. I spent most of my time caught between wondering why my fiancé never corrected her behavior and trying unsuccessfully to nag him to do so. (He finally told me that he wanted her time at our home to be happy, and as such he didn’t want to be telling her what to do and not do all the time.)

But what if your partner does discipline his kids? Problem solved, right?

Not quite. While this might improve your stepchildren’s behavior, you’ll be left feeling like you’re playing second-fiddle to him if he’s the only one in the family with real authority. Worse yet, if you lack control in your own right then you’ll end up making reports to him all the time about their behavior. If they disrespect you or your home then you’re left tattling on them to your partner--making you feel more like one of the kids than the grown-ups.

Furthermore, this situation equates to your partner making decisions that affect your life that you have no say in. What if he decides on spanking his kids but you get upset watching it happen? What if he decided to overlook an annoying habit that drives you absolutely insane?

Even in cases where he does solicit your opinion, the message sent by conventional step-parenting advice is that any decision ultimately comes down to what the father decides—and that you’re expected to go along with his decision.

Ultimately, whether your partner disciplines your stepchildren or not, you’re left feeling helpless and out of control if you do not have equal authority in the household.

The solution? You need to feel appropriately in control of your life and your family, and you need to see yourself as an equal partner with the children’s father. This means you need to have the authority to be a parent in your own home: to require respectful behavior from your stepchildren, to participate in setting expectations and rules for them, and the ability to follow through with consequences and discipline.

I know this is much easier said that done--especially because it goes against society's conventional view of what a stepmother should act like. I plan to discuss my own experiences tackling this in future posts, and I hope to hear how other stepmothers have approached it as well.

Gaining Affection from your Stepchildren, Part II

This week I’m sharing advice on some simple things you can do to start gaining affection from your stepchildren. These are little things to start out with, the kind you can begin with and then build on as time passes.

Touch your stepkids frequently. Studies have shown that touch has the power to positively alter moods and even biochemical reactions in the body. Start off small; for example, gently tap your hand on your stepchild when you have something to tell them. (“Oh yeah, I found that thing you were looking for…")

Gretchen Rubin calls this “subliminal touching.” Rubin explains that, “studies show that subliminal touching – that is, touching a person so unobtrusively that it’s not noticed – dramatically increases that person’s sense of well-being and positive feelings toward the toucher. And vice versa. This fleeting touching might be something like touching a person’s back as you walk through a door.”

As time passes you can move up to hugging. Hugs have been shown to lower blood pressure and cause our bodies to release oxytocin, a chemical that promotes bonding.

Keep Your Mouth Shut
When you’re first starting out together, listen when your stepchildren talk without adding your two cents. If necessary, add a few little comments here and there to keep them talking, like “mm-hm,” “oh really?” and “what was that like?” You want to earn their trust at first by letting them know they can speak to you freely. Your stepchildren are going to looking for reasons to dislike you, and they are likely to interpret things you say as trying to correct them or change them even if that isn’t your intent. Later, once you’ve gotten used to each other, you should feel comfortable expressing your opinions things they say—but that’s a whole separate post.

Share information about yourself to gain their trust. Even though they may not be willing to say so, they want to know what you’re all about. The trick to doing this effectively is to frequently volunteer tidbits of information that require no response on their part. They don’t want to feel like they’re in an official “get to know you” session all the time, and they’ll get overwhelmed if you come on too strong. You’re sure to have already talked about your job and your hobbies—now is the time to start mentioning things like your friendships, your favorite foods, and that time your little brother put bubble gum in your hair in the third grade.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Stepmothers: the Road to Love is Paved with Low Expectations

I think one of the best things you can do as a stepmother is to lower your expectations for your stepchildren and their mother. It ends up being easier on you if you don’t expect more from them than they are capable of.

Your Stepchildren

I recently read The Explosive Child* by Ross W. Greene. Greene’s belief is that “children do well if they can.” (p. 11) He thinks that children are aware of what’s right and what’s expected of them and that if they misbehave it’s because they lack the emotional or intellectual capacity to behave well. Now, I don’t completely agree with this idea. One of my fundamental observations about the world is that people—especially children—will try to get away with whatever they can. I think there are times when kids misbehave to get something they want or find where the limits are.

So while I don’t support this idea as a kind of “free pass” for kids to act badly, I do think this idea can help you deal with your negative reactions to some of their misbehavior. It’s human to feel frustrated about something you can’t change, but when it comes down to it, it’s useless to get really worked up about a problem if there’s nothing you can do to improve it. It’s easy to get frustrated with your stepchildren and ruminate about things they do that make you mad. It’s easy to complain about these things over and over. But stop and think: is this something that my stepchild truly has the emotional, intellectual, or physical capacity to effectively deal with? Sometimes kids are rude because they’re trying to be mean. Other times kids are rude because they’re overwhelmingly angry or sad and don’t know how to constructively communicate their feelings with the right words.

My fiancé jokes that my stepdaughter is the Wild Child from Borneo. She usually comes over with food crusted on her face and mats in her hair, she has a hard time holding utensils and mostly eats with her hands, and she ends up spilling food and drink on the floor just about every time she’s here. I never gotten away with this kind of behavior at her age and I find myself frustrated with her over this kind of stuff. Then I remind myself that “children do well if they can.” She’s always been about a year behind in learning things; plus, I have to remember that it’s harder for her to learn things if her mother isn’t also teaching her at her other house. Neither of these challenges are her fault or my fault.

Their Mother

From my hunting around on stepmother message boards it seems like a lot of stepmothers feel, at least at some point or another, that the mother of their stepchildren is not doing a very good job with them. So what's does this have to do with you loving your stepkids? I don't have any research about this yet, but there's a part of me that sometimes feels—and this is hard for me to admit—that sometimes the frustration I feel for my stepdaughter's mother spills over to my stepdaughter. Being angry at her mother for letting her eat junk food and look like a wild child sometimes turns into me being mad at my stepdaughter for eating junk food and looking like a wild child. However, getting frustrated at her for things that are not her responsibility to control is not conducive to a loving relationship.

This can be tough because there’s a lot I shake my head at. My stepdaughter is constantly eating McDonald's, candy, chips, and all kinds of junk food. She stays up late but never gets a nap. She always needs her hair cut and her face washed. Her mother dresses her in high heels and lets her daughter argue with her and boss her around. Sometimes I just feel so puzzled by how she treats her daughter or lets her daughter treat her.

Interestingly, while reading Step-Motherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked** by Cherie Burns I came across the following passage that might help explain some of this:

“Divorced mothers frequently do, it seems, abdicate certain aspects of mothering when a family breaks up. Their world is often shattered, and they seem to relegate their children to the backburner . . . Stepmothers frequently complain about how badly the children are dressed. Complaints about table manners run a close second.” (p. 47) Burns goes on to quote a councilor as saying, “Her reward is not the same when the family’s not all there” (p. 47-48).

So while it may feel frustrating to see our stepchildren pushed to the backburner, maybe we should think about their mother in a grown-up version of how we look at our stepchildren: “people do well if they can.” All women love their children. If your stepchildren’s mother could do better then she probably would. So just like you can’t change your stepchildren’s behavior if they aren’t capable of what you expect they should be able to do, you can’t expect their mother to do more than she is capable of, either. It must be hard to send your children off to another woman, and I can only imagine how hard it must be to be a single mother.

(I try and remind myself of this every time my stepdaughter shows up in those little blue high heels.)

* The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene Co. 2005 by Ross W. Greene; Harper.

**Step-Motherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked by Cherie Burns Co. 1985 by Cherie Burns; Times Books.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Don't Try Too Hard

Despite what some people might tell you, stepmothers shouldn’t feel pressured to do things that make them unhappy at the expense of trying to make their stepchildren happy. This week I read Step Wise: A Parent-Child Guide to Family Mergers by James Dale and Alex Beth Schapiro and buy urine kit. This book has some great points, but there are few things in there that rub me the wrong way. For example this urine, they suggest that stepparents should listen to music they don’t like with their stepchildren, watch TV shows they don’t like with their stepchildren, and go to movies they don’t like with their stepchildren, etc. etc. Halfway through the book they state, “the point is that you give and they get; the point is that they come ahead of you” (Dale & Shapiro 2001) and fake urine.

Now, I understand that compromise is a part of being a family quick fix. By all means go ahead and join your stepkids on the couch for an episode of Rap Stars or whatever every once and a while. But don’t start consistently doing a bunch of things you don’t like to do just because you think it’s going to make your stepkids like you more. You’re only going to end up feeling frustrated. You can buy quick fix synthetic urine

Friday, February 3, 2012

Gaining Affection from your Stepchildren, Part III

This week I’m sharing advice on some simple things you can do to start gaining affection from your stepchildren. These are little things to start out with, the kind you can begin with and then build on as time passes.

Praise Others
Research shows that people subconsciously associate us with the things we say about other people. This effect, called trait transfer, means that if you talk about how other people are selfish or annoying, others will associate you as being that way, too. So praise the people around you. Besides being a nice thing to do, your stepchildren will associate you as having the good traits you describe.

Do Small Nice Things
Do very small nice things for your stepchildren without calling attention to them or expecting a thank you. The theory of reciprocity says that when we receive a gift, we feel obligated to make a return gesture. Newsflash—your stepchildren don’t want to feel obligated to you. However, they do want to feel accepted and comfortable, and small gestures like cooking a favorite meal or going to a movie together are good for this.

I say small things specifically, because doing big things without expecting a return is hard. Even if you tell yourself that you’re bending over backwards for the good of the kids, you’ll still end up feeling resentful over time if you never get a thank you. Trust me, I know this one from experience!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Stepfamilies as "Reconstituted" Families

Five days ago my laptop died. My tech-savvy FH has tried each day since to coax it back from the grave, but to no avail. So here I am working on a borrowed computer and mourning the loss of the dozens and dozens (and dozens) of blogs and articles I had bookmarked.

As I’ve been fretting over all the scholarly articles I had saved in my Favorites list, I was reminded of something about them that’s been bothering me for a while. Namely, that a lot of the scholarly articles I’ve read about stepfamilies refer to them as “reconstituted families.” (See here , here, and here for a few examples.) One article even refers to stepfamilies as “recreating families."

This description frustrates me because I think it’s both degrading and inaccurate. The word reconstituted means that something has been “reconstructed, restored, or rearranged.” In reality, though, a stepfamily is not just a family that has been rearranged. A stepfamily is a completely new family with its own unique joys and challenges.

I think as a stepmother it’s important to keep in mind that our family isn’t any less valuable, any less real of a family, just because we or our spouse has children from a previous relationship. A family by definition is the bond between all sorts of relations: adults, children, aunts, uncles, grandparents, and third cousins; a family is the bringing together of people who love one another.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Reading Suggestion: a post about How to End (Stepmom) Suffering

I stumbled across a great blog post on Brazen Careerist the other day: How to End Suffering by Tina Su.

She describes how ruminating about her husband’s frustrating ex-wife caused her intense pain. Though Su doesn’t directly discuss being a stepmother, I thought that her discussion translates well to just how strongly negative thoughts about an ex-wife (and bio-mom) can affect a stepmom. She writes:

“My husband Jeremy was married once before. During the early stages of our romantic courtship, he was simultaneously battling the lingering ends of an unsettling divorce . . . As excited as we were for having found each other under extreme circumstances, the pending divorce hovered overhead, and a battle for money and properties continued without an apparent end in sight . . . Here was a man who I loved and adored more than anything else. When I saw that he was being hurt, it hurt me too. The spirit of mother in me, of survival, wanted to protect and fight anyone threatening to hurt my family. I was like a walking cave-woman, minus the animal-skin skirt and wooden club. To say that I was unwell and unbalanced is an understatement.”

Su goes on to discuss how she overcame her persistent negative thoughts and gives some interesting advice about how others can do the same. Read the whole post here.

Monday, January 9, 2012

standing by...

I'm still playing around with my template tonight....bear with me here...