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.