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.

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