The Payoff: Sometimes it’s hard to remember why you said, “yes.”

28 10 2008

You get to choose what the payoff for joining a stepfamily is going to be for you. It starts with what your priorities are. What do you want in the long term? Do you want a strong friendship with your husband? Do you want to have your stepchildren come to you for advice and camaraderie? If you and your husband have children together, do you want all of the kids to love and protect each other? What do you want?
You can build something beautiful with your stepfamily over the long term. Studies indicate stepfamilies that make it have a huge positive impact on the children and adults. Children learn about flexibility and about how to learn to get along with different kinds of people. Adults are reportedly more satisfied with their second marriages if they do the work it takes and learn from the past. But you’ve got to get through those tough years, as you do in any union. We have the power to see our lives exactly the way we want to see them, even if from the outside it looks like we’ve got it pretty bad. You get to choose. The thoughts you think every day are what give you power to either sink yourself into depression or uplift yourself by making you feel that you have purpose and meaning.
So pay attention. When you write in your journal about your stepfamily, what are you writing? Is it mostly negative? How do you talk about them to other people? Do you slam them regularly or talk about their good qualities? Can you work to put more positive things in your journal or your thoughts every day? Can you have compassion for the other people in your stepfamily? Can you walk a mile in their shoes?
Right now the reason you’re in a stepfamily is because you fell in love with that man you married. In the first years of marriage to a man with kids, when life is like a three-ring circus and the marriage is at its most fragile, it’s hard to see what the benefits are, especially after what you’ve given up to be in the marriage. And your commitment is immediately tested, even though you’re still in the process of building a foundation of friendship and lasting love with your partner.
So how do you find happiness and joy when you feel like you’re constantly battling just to keep from bursting into tears? I interviewed stepmoms who have been in their marriages from two years to more than twenty to see if they had some advice about what they got out of marriage to a man with kids.
I Did It All for Love
Love. That great elixir. It moves people to do things they can’t imagine themselves doing – such as marrying a man with a handful of kids who are bruised and battered from divorce or death. It’s what we’re all here for in our marriages. The love stories we’ve all heard since we were kids are something to aspire to, but the tales usually end with a first kiss or wedding, and totally leave out what it takes to protect and maintain love.
“For a long time I used to beat myself up,” says Beth. “What the hell did I do? I used to date young lawyers, guys with nice cars and money. One guy I dated on and off just got married, and he doesn’t have any kids. I think I like challenges, because I got one. I believe every marriage is tough. We do have a strong relationship now, but we had to go through hell and back to get here. And now, to see how happy my stepdaughter is, it was worth it.”
Lisa’s struggle to find her place in her stepfamily is over, but sometimes it’s still difficult for her. When I asked her what the long-term payoff for her is, she said, “The payoff is twofold: One, I now have strong relationships that have sustained the test of fire. Two, I am a much better person because I hung in there and didn’t run away.”
Tracy and Andrew have developed a strong partnership, and the kids have only added to their relationship. “The ultimate goal is to share my life with a wonderful man. And I look at his kids as being a benefit on top of that. You can learn a lot from kids if you’re open to it. There are always good things about kids.”
Even though times have been tough for Georgianne since she married T.J., she knows she was meant to be with him. “My husband’s an amazing guy. At 43, I had never been married. I am a pretty strong-willed individual and finding a guy who wasn’t threatened by that was really hard to do. He is my soul mate. I knew when I met him. I had one of those cosmic flash-card moments, which is not to say we don’t have issues. But we’re so much on the same page about so many things.”
My dad and stepmom often talk about how strong their partnership is now that they’ve spent a few decades working together to form a solid marriage. “In the normal course, marriages are fragile,” Nancy says. “In the normal course, if you have biological children, there’s a risk. It’s greater when you have stepchildren. There’s a time in a marriage when you are tested, and after that you know it’s going to last. It’s usually after you’ve had some trouble. That’s when the awareness of being separate evaporates and your family becomes just part of who you are.”
Arne is a good husband. He is the reason I am able to be in yet another stepfamily. He makes it possible for me to be a stepmother who has developed strong bonds with my stepchildren. At the very beginning, Arne showed the kids how it was acceptable to treat me. He was open to my talking about how it felt to be a stranger entering into his family. He was willing to hash out the details of a new stepfamily. We answered all the questions I posed to you and your husband in this book. And perhaps more than anything, he made me feel important. Without a doubt, he loves his kids with every part of himself, but he doesn’t ever make me feel left out of decisions. That way, I never feel like the kids come before me or I come before the kids. I am his partner. We are the adults and we both make decisions that affect our family together. And I love Arne with all of his imperfections and his past. His presence in my life has helped me clarify my values.
My top five priorities are:
1. My spiritual and personal development and contribution to the world.
2. My husband.
3. Our commitment we made when we said our vows.
4. Raising the children to be healthy, contributing, and confident adults.
5. My family.
So what are your priorities?

Adapted from A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007)



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