Stepmothers and the Illusion of Control

19 05 2011

When I interviewed Dr. Paul Rosch, the president of the American Institute of Stress, he told me that when you don’t feel like you have control, you feel stress. This comes as no surprise to stepmothers everywhere. But I’ve noticed in my own life and in talking to stepmoms that we often react to this lack of control in our home lives by becoming tense and controlling over things that the research on stepfamilies tells us often result in backfiring. (Manners, cleanliness, rules, grades, food,  schedules, ex-wives, etc.)

I reacted to the stress of moving in with three children and their dad. Boy did I ever. But after a while, we found our equilibrium. I found little things I could control that made me feel more involved in the family. And I worked hard to develop a really strong marriage so I felt safe enough to let go of some control. Most days this works. Some days it doesn’t and I continue to struggle with the things I have no say over.

When I had my daughter, the lack of control that is inherent in getting pregnant, giving birth, and raising a child brought me to my knees in a way that stepmothering didn’t. I had a say about what I put in my mouth while I was pregnant so my child got all the nutrients she needed. But I didn’t have a say in how or whether she grew in the dark of my tummy. I have a say in how this girl is raised like I have never had with my stepchildren, but she can still choke on an apple and all of my carefully laid plans are thrown out the window as I work to help her get the food out of her throat. I have a say in what school she goes to, what books she reads, and her access to the Internet, but she can still fall and break an arm.

This is what I’ve been meditating on lately. We need to feel control over our lives and our environments. I agree. And at the same time, life will have its way with us no matter how we plan or clean or prepare healthy foods for our families.

It comes down to the same things it has always come down to:  How do we feel safe enough to let go of control just for the sake of having something to control? How do we make peace with the fact that, really, we don’t have control over the big things in life? The ones that matter more than anything else?





Group Coaching Class: Winter Session Starts Soon!

2 02 2011

Looking to connect with other stepmothers and find out concrete things you can do help yourself and your family?

The winter Stepmom Circles Group Coaching session starts in two weeks!

“It was such a positive experience! I carry with me Jacque’s fun loving, caring and supportive voice. It’s a voice I will carry with me for a long time.” –Stepmom of 2

The Stepmom Circles group meets for an hour and a half each week for six weeks over the telephone. We discuss stepfamily challenges based on your needs. (Creating a strong partnership with your spouse, dealing with the ex, bonding with the stepkids, handling your negative feelings, identifying common stepfamily mistakes, discovering what successful stepfamilies know). Each woman in the group is given the chance to ask questions, share challenges, and receive guidance.

Dates
Wednesday evenings, February 16 to March 23.

Time
6:00 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Central Standard Time

Cost
The cost of a six-week session is $197. The conference call each week is long-distance so you will be charged your regular long-distance charges by your phone carrier. If you have a digital plan with free long distance then the call is free. Payment can be made via Paypal or by check.

As a member of a Stepmom Circles coaching group you’ll receive

  • a FREE half-hour, get-to-know you consultation with stepfamily expert Jacquelyn Fletcher over the phone before the class begins
  • email access to me between group coaching sessions so you can ask questions that come up during the week
  • an autographed copy of my book A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom

Email becomingastepmom (@) gmail (dot) com for more information or to reserve your spot in the upcoming session. Space is limited.

“Thank you again for such an enlightening 6 weeks! So much insight and shifts in my thinking…I really needed that. I look forward to the day when I can look back on these tough times and laugh. Thanks for the inspiration! You truly made me think in ways that were outside my comfort zone. I look forward to the continuation of my journey, and hope to get to that place of peace that you talk about. I hope that someday I can inspire other stepmoms as you have inspired me. Thank you for your words of wisdom.” – Stepmom of 3





Are You Willing to Be the Bad Guy?

20 01 2011

You guys have probably heard the joke stepmothers whisper to each other about how we all have scars on our tongues from biting them so often, right? Let’s admit it: Sometimes we can’t keep our mouths shut. And what’s more, sometimes we shouldnt. As all things are in life and in stepfamilies, it’s a balancing act. Here are the criteria I try to use while helping to raise my three stepchildren, ages 15, 13, and 10.

Am I willing to be the bad guy?

Sometimes it’s impossible to consult your spouse or the ex before you speak. Sometimes women see things that men simply don’t. Sometimes you believe so strongly in something that you simply must speak. That’s life. So are you willing to be the bad guy? Because stepparents who speak up become targets for anger from the kids and exes and sometimes our spouses, too. If you are willing, then speak your truth. Sometimes truth is more important than getting along with everyone.

Can I live with my choice to remain silent?

I typically stepparent from the back seat as most stepfamily professionals advise. But sometimes I simply can’t because I feel that if I don’t speak up I will not be able to live with that choice. As you all know, a stepmother’s greatest skill is learning how to let things go. (Your stepchild was allowed to do something by her mother that you disagree with? Oh well. ) Only you know which values you can remain silent about and which ones you can’t.

What are you concerned/angry about?

A warning from someone who has been there: If you do speak up to a stepchild about a behavior or issue you feel strongly about, then work to keep it just about that one thing. For instance, if a stepchild sasses you in a nasty teen tone and you have had it up to here with the disrespect, keep your words calm and focused on the issue at hand. Because stepmothers often stuff so many things to keep the peace, if you open your mouth, your response can be totally out of proportion to the issue because you’re bundling all your feelings of anger from past hurts and injustices into the current issue. If you can’t keep calm and blow your lid instead, try to have a conversation after everyone has cooled off to talk about why you reacted the way you did.

If I stuff my feelings will I carry this with me forever?

I want my stepchildren to like me. Sure, I do. But I also don’t want to have a heart attack any time soon. (Ever read the book Anger Kills? Scary!!) I’m only willing to stuff so much to make the peace. If I am not myself then I have done my entire family a disservice. I wrote my book A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom because I did an interview with a veteran stepmother for an article I was working on. She’d been in her stepfamily for more than two decades. After I asked her a few questions, she let go a torrent of anger she’d been holding in and building on for a quarter of a century!! If you choose to remain silent, please, please, please, do not carry that anger with you for the rest of your life.

So. Are you willing to be the bad guy? About what issues?





Stepmothers: Do You Turn Toward Or Away From Your Partner?

28 09 2010

We all know that conflict is a normal part of any long-term relationship. You’re going to fight. You’re going to get on each other’s nerves. You might even call each other a few choice swear words in the privacy of your own heads.

But at the end of the day, do you turn toward each other or away?

Over the last three months my husband and I have been stressed out. Big time. A whole bunch of challenges hit us at exactly the same time. For the first month, we turned away from each other. We were polite, but we suffered from the stress in our own little worlds. The second month, the stress started coming out in arguments and nasty comments. This month, we turned toward each other.

We acknowledged that we’re both stressed and began exploring some questions. How can we address this together? How can we feel proactive instead of reactive? And most importantly, how can we protect our marriage from the outside stresses it must endure? That is the challenge many stepcouples face. Scratch that. It’s a challenge that ALL couples face.

We came up with some things that are working for us:

  1. Be aspirational. Work toward a goal together that is fun and exciting. We decided to meet once a month for a day to visualize our goals for our future.
  2. Deal with the stress head on. We didn’t just sweep the stressors in our lives under the rug. We built strategies to help us manage the stress and move to a more easeful place with benchmarks so we can track our progress.
  3. Take a break! I know I’ve nagged you all about this one before, but my gosh–having fun is so important. We certainly can’t talk about our problems all the time. We need breaks! We decided that our breaks should include activities that build a positive emotional connection between us.

How about you? Do you have any strategies that you and your partner use to keep connected during challenging times?





Your Questions Answered: Troubled 18-Year-Old Stepson Moves In

3 06 2010

Hi Jacque,

I know that you must have advice for stepmoms like myself. I feel like I am going to fall apart. My children are 26 and 21; my husband’s are 27 and 21. We live his home state because, as he put it, “his kids needed more help than mine did”.

I am happy to say that my kids do seem to be doing fairly well. I was divorced in 1997 and remarried to DH ( dear husband) in 2002. I have a really civil divorce and my marriage is more solid than my first was. Yes, it has its quirks, but seems to be very solid in most ways. When I moved here, my husband was non custodial of the younger son. The ex is a bi polar (yes, is being treated medically for it) mom that finally moved to another state….best for all involved. The younger son got involved in marijuana before I was in the picture and then got into real trouble; didn’t graduate high school, but did get GED and got arrested, ran to another state, came back and went into rehab and was in a year long court run drug program. He graduated and then moved to another state with his girlfriend….he was 18 at the time.

Things were going very well for a year and a half. My husband thought it would be best if the young man moved back up here away from the girlfriend and her family (the younger son lived with them…they are kind of a hippie commune type of family) until the father of that family had enough and moved into a house where none of his kids and their live in BF/GF could live. The son came back to live with us this past January, saying that he was going to go to college.

He was a problem immediately. First evening back he asked over some old friends and they broke something and were up until the wee hours. My husband finally went downstairs and told them all to leave. I was fuming. There were no ground rules set before this young man moved in. I told my husband that it should be done and it would at least start us off on the right foot, but no….this is my DH approach…reactive, not proactive.

The young man smokes like a stack and is also back to using marijuana and probably more. He got arrested about two weeks being back because he didn’t have a driver’s licence or car license and had outstanding fines from before….we are talking a couple thousand dollars. My DH did NOT pay the fines. He got a public defender and the young man got fines reduced, but had no way to get to work to work the fines off. So, as it was still winter, my husband or the young man’s grandmother took him and picked him up. Once in awhile I was asked and it was fine.

I am in the uncomfortable position of, 4 days a week, being the one that comes home well before my husband. I struggle, but try to be pleasant and have left most of the discipline, or lack of, be by my DH. The young man exhibits bi polar and depression symptoms, but has no insurance to pay for a counselor. He pays for nothing here…which I don’t agree with, but husband is doing it until his court dates (yes there is another as the son took his car out and was immediately arrested again). are over. My DH is not saying what will happen after the court dates and all fines are paid and the car license and license plates are paid for (not by us). The son has no plans now of going to college and does have two jobs.

I personally think that it is time the son moves out on his own since he never has been. I would be happy to give him the money for a deposit on an apartment, but that is all. In my opinion, he needs to learn how to sink or swim. My husband says he feels that the young man would completely fall apart and go down the toilet.

Jacque, I feel that I am getting angrier and angrier with my husband for his lack of setting ground rules and he and his son keep having the same fights over and over….smoking in the house when we aren’t here, staying up all hours, letting people in after we have gone to sleep and then they stay over night….ugh……Thanks for letting me vent.

Dear Stepmom,

This is a toughie! No wonder you needed to vent. I want to remind you that I am a coach and not a therapist. A therapist might have some very different ideas for you and I highly recommend seeking out help for your case. Here’s some food for thought I can offer you:

Do whatever it takes to get on the same page with your spouse. When you have a troubled kid like this one, stepparents typically need to take the back seat and let the biological parent do the heavy lifting of parenting. Usually, a stepparent’s main job is to support their spouse while he deals with the child. In this case, I would still say that your job is to not be out there parenting this kid, but he is living with you, so it’s absolutely fair that you be able to create guidelines for the household WITH your husband. This will not work if he is not on board. Tough kids like this kill remarriages. So if the two of you can align yourself as a team you can better help this young man while strengthening your marriage. Okay, so easy enough to say, but how the heck do you do that, right? First of all, go out and read Divorce Busting by Michele Weiner-Davis, right now. I interviewed her for my book and the woman is brilliant. Second, find a third-party who is a trained stepfamily expert who can help your husband see the benefits of working with you as a team to help his son. I would suggest Ron Deal for a situation like yours. Setting boundaries for this kid is crucial or he will never learn to grow up and this is doing him a MAJOR disservice. The only way we learn is to feel/live through the consequences for our actions. Setting boundaries for his behavior in your house with very clear consequences for not following them is a must in my book. Especially at his age. If he were younger, I would give you different advice.

Turn on your compassion. I have said this again and again but I believe so strongly in the power of curiosity and compassion that I’m going to add it here, too. Shift the prism that you are looking at your stepson through to curiosity. What is going on in his mind? What is motivating his behavior? Why is he so angry or why does he hate himself so much that he is ruining his life in this way? What is the pain that he carries around in his heart that makes him act out so dangerously? What kind of help would enable him to turn his life around? You’ll notice that these questions lead you away from “Look at what this kid is doing TO me, my marriage, and my household” and turns your thoughts to an area that is less emotionally loaded. He’s another human being on this planet. How can you turn on that objective, kind, compassionate part of you? There is a big upside for doing this: You reduce your own anger and that means you lower the amount of stress hormones in your body. You’ll feel better, be able to brainstorm solutions more creatively, and–according to some research–live longer!

Help him get the help he needs. If your stepson is struggling with a mental problem like bi-polar disorder, he needs help. Dad could do some research and put together a list of resources for his son. But he can’t make him get help. This boy is old enough to decide whether he’s going to get help or not.

Set up a structure of support for yourself. For the short term, do whatever you can to support your own gentle heart. Spend time with your own children. Stay out of the house when your stepson is there until your husband gets home. Start a book group. You and your husband  will need to find a way to solve this together and it’s not going to be easy. Make sure that you’re taking good care of yourself so you can come at this problem feeling good about your own inner world.





Your Questions Answered: Getting Started in a Stepfamily

12 11 2009

Dear Jacque,

I (26) am in a serious relationship with a girl (20) who has never been married or had kids. I have one of my own who is 5. We have recently been discussing a possible future together with kids and marriage. I have also never been married. My son’s mother and I found out she was pregnant after we had split up so marriage was never on the table. My ex has full custody, but I have him pretty much any weekend I want and for extended periods over the summer. My girlfriend expressed some serious concerns about her role as a stepmom to my son and how our future kids and my son would handle a blended family situation. She is also concerned about her role now, as my son’s dad’s girlfriend, and what amount of time spent with my son would be appropriate. I am ashamed to say that I did not have any good answers for any of these questions. Neither of us have any experience with blended family situations. Can you please give me some advice? I guess the main questions I would like addressed are the following:

*Should I segregate myself and my son from my girlfriend (while she is still just my girlfriend) when he visits? If not what level of involvment would be appropriate. How much of a say should my ex have in regards to this question?

*How is my future wife going to have any authority over my son. Is it ok if she derives this authority through me (for example: Don’t do this or your father will ground you.)?

*How should we handle jealousy that my son might have toward future kids?

Thank you very much, and any input would be extremely helpful and much appreciated.

These are all big questions! Bravo for searching out information on stepfamilies. That will serve you extremely well in the future. You and your girlfriend can do a few things to prepare so you have some idea what to expect. The first resource I would offer you is to sit down with your girlfriend and read my book together. It’s for women who are in her exact position: women who don’t have kids of their own who are dating, engaged or married to a man with kids from a previous relationship. You can read the first couple of chapters for free on my website. Check out the “Browse inside this book” on the right hand side of the page. I address a lot of the topics you are worried about.

It is absolutely okay to have your girlfriend meet your children if you are sure that this is serious with your girlfriend. If you are planning to marry her, it’s even more appropriate and in fact, important. It’s a mistake to introduce the kids to your significant other shortly before the wedding without giving everyone a chance to get to know each other.

Your ex wife does not have a say in who you introduce your son to when he’s with you. This is a hard pill for biological moms to swallow (and dads too, when the kids are with mom), but that is part of blended family life. You have to give up a certain amount of control when it comes to your kids. This is not easy!!!

As for your girlfriend’s authority, your instincts are right on. It all has to come through you. You set up the rules (see the house rules section of my book) with input from your partner and then you present them to your stepson along with the consequences for not following them. And then you tell your stepson that your partner has the authority from you to uphold those rules when you’re not around. It is a mistake to have her be a disciplinarian to your son right away until they develop a strong relationship. The bottom line is slow and steady wins the race. Take your time. Stepfamilies take a long time to feel comfortable and stable.

The jealousy issue is best handled by treating all of the children who live in the house the same. There will be things that a child will naturally feel jealousy about (a new child has more time with dad, for instance) and so the best thing to do is continue to spend time with the older children one-on-one and sending messages of love and acceptance.

You might also try these resources for more education about stepfamily life:

National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC)
www.stepfamilies.info
A vast resource for stepfamilies, the National Stepfamily Resource Center develops educational programs for stepfamilies and the professionals who work with them. Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder, director of the Center for Children, Youth, and Families at Auburn oversees the NSRC, which serves as a clearinghouse of information for stepfamilies that links family science research on stepfamilies and best practices in work with couples and children in stepfamilies. The organization’s website includes links to resources for stepfamilies, frequently asked questions, and research summaries.

Stepfamily Living
http://www.stepfamilyliving.com
Stepfamily expert Elizabeth Einstein has created this site which lists her books, DVDs, and workshops for stepfamilies.

Successful Stepfamilies
www.successfulstepfamilies.com
Author, speaker, and marriage and family therapist Ron Deal’s site with books (including The Smart Stepmom), DVD programs, free articles, and links to support Christian stepfamilies. Includes a list of conferences and workshops for stepfamilies.





Just Say No

8 10 2009

Dear Readers,

I have received so many letters recently that I have not been able to get back to everyone in person. I hope to address each and every one of your letters. Please be patient with me! In the meantime, I wanted to do a quick post on a topic that I think will help many of you. This is it: Learn How To Say No.

I know that saying No is not easy. Believe me. But I’ve been practicing saying No in a loving, kind way to protect my energy and my open-heart and by gosh, it’s been amazing. Not only am I happier and do I respect myself more, so do the people I’m saying No to. The author and wonderful man Gay Hendricks calls this “The Enlightened No” in his new book The Big Leap.

Here’s an example. I have provided free daycare for my stepchildren every summer since we moved in together. I did it at first because I wanted to. I felt it was important that we have that time to get to know each other. But I am a working woman who works from home and it quickly became overwhelming for me. As the other adults in our family came to expect me to be the summer babysitter, I started resenting them. That snowballed into my relationships with the kids and I was really cranky with my stepkids as they can attest to.  Still, I didn’t think I could say no.

It wasn’t until the birth of my daughter when I realized that my need for time to work was about my personality and what I feel I’m here to do on this planet. But I had beaten myself up for years thinking that I should be a better stepmother, a more giving person, the kind of woman who would continue to sacrifice herself for her stepchildren and her family. (This is a great example of how stepfamily dynamics make everything so much more complicated!)

Several months ago I began a big work project and I hired a nanny for my daughter. I didn’t feel guilty or bad about it for a minute because when I had time to get my work done, I was able to be more present with my daughter. It was a revelation for me.

I told my husband in a loving, kind way (I hope–you’d have to ask him to be sure!) that the structure of the summer would have to change. At first he rubbed his eyes as though a migraine had come on and I felt the guilt blossom in my chest. I almost blurted out a retraction, but managed to keep silent.

A day later he told me that the summer daycare issue was solved in one phone call with our other household. It wasn’t even a big deal! And here I was torturing myself for YEARS.

I want all of you to think about this concept because women are notoriously bad at saying no until we’re pushed up against the wall and then we say it in anger and self-defense. The goal here is to start saying proactive, kind-hearted Nos to protect yourself so you can extend to your families in positive ways.

Consider these questions: Every time you say Yes, what are you saying No to? When you say Yes, does it make you feel good? Do you need to say No to something but are afraid to? What would happen if you said No? What are the worst and best case scenarios?

This week, test out saying No. Do this with me! Without anger. Without defensiveness.

Here are some examples that relate to some of your letters:

To a spouse:

“In order to be the best stepmother I can be I need to say no right now to cooking another dinner for children who say they hate it even though I know it’s their favorite meal. Why don’t you order pizza or ask one of the kids to cook a meal? I’m taking the night off.”

To a stepchild:

“Sweetheart, I would love to help you plan your wedding, but my feelings are still so hurt from the last wedding that I need to protect myself right now. I know this is a special time for you and my heart will be with you but I can’t be treated so badly again.”

To a spouse:

“You know I will do everything in my power to make our family work as well as it can, but I refuse to allow your children to treat me disrespectfully. I need you to tell them it’s not okay to treat me like that. Will you do that?”

To an ex wife:

“I appreciate that you have strong feelings about your children. However, I won’t allow you to talk to me like that. If you have an issue you want to discuss with me, please email it to me because I will not be answering the phone only to be screamed at.”

If you manage to say No this week, then please comment on this post and let us know about it! In fact, I think this is so important that I’m going to run a contest. Set your boundary in a kind and loving way, say your No, tell us what happened, and I’ll choose a winner to give a signed copy of my book to.

We can do it!!!








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