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 fiancĂ© 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.