The Doctor is In: Cynthia D. Rudick, Ph.D.

18 11 2008

Guest blogger Cynthia D. Rudick, Ph.D., has been counseling stepfamilies in her private practice for 20 years. She’s a professional mediator and arbitrator in Canton, Ohio, who is also an adjunct professor in graduate counseling programs. For the past 16 years she’s been stepmother of two, now ages 23 and 28. She lives with her husband and two yellow labs. Contact her at 330-492-2941 or email her.

Bonding or Bondage in Stepfamilies: The Choice is Yours
One of the hardest challenges for stepmothers and women in general is to balance their needs with everyone else’s. We are taught from birth to care for others and feel guilty if we think about ourselves. Raising children is a full-time commitment. Raising stepchildren is an overtime commitment. The challenges are huge, the rewards are not immediate, and the conflict can be intense.

Perhaps the most difficult time to enter a child’s life is during their teens. If we are a good parent, we have a need to connect and nurture. Yet this child is experiencing a need to separate, a need to resist what is and find out who he or she is. Developmentally, we are on two different planets. Many battles and deep wounds can follow.

One of the only ways I can justify the slings and arrows of life is to be aware of my transcendent purpose. What I mean is to think about the lessons in this experience that are personal and dynamic for me in a spiritual sense.

Our expectations keep us in resistance to situations we encounter in the reality of our lives. Reality is occurring, but we think it should be different. Our peace of mind or lack of it is measured in the space between reality and our expectations.

Stepmothers are idealistic people. We believe we can create a family where there was already one. Idealistic people have a big space between their expectations and reality. Pain is the result of the distance we feel in the space between how things are and how things should be. We need to work on our growth as individuals instead of trying to get someone else to change.

Our childhoods mark us and we have ideas of ourselves formed early in life – what kind of person we have to be, how we think life should be, how we think others should be. We need to work on our core issues and our own growth if we are to stay married. Women who have done this deep work have developed good relationships over time with their stepchildren. I define a good relationship as an honest one. And we cannot be any clearer with others than we are with ourselves.

 Again, it takes so much time to form a family where there already was one. For example, women often enter a family and then things hit the fan when the stepchild becomes a teenager. The child resists the rules in the stepmother and dad’s home because the birth mother requires no rules. Thus, chaos ensues. The child threatens to go live with their mother. Stepmothers need to hold to the high ground and not be deterred by terrorist threats.

Setting an Example is the High Road
I think we model who we are and how we live by example. This is a much more powerful message than all the words we use. Later in life, when the immature teenager develops beyond the lacks of the birth parent they are tied to, they will understand the guard rail you tried to provide for them. Be proud of your mission here. It may be singular but it is a powerful assignment. Children need to learn these living skills from you even though they may offer extreme resistance.

Model Your Own Virtue in the Face of Powerlessness
Again, it is not so much what we say but who we are that provides such a powerful model for others. Believe in yourself. Teach by example. Yelling and fighting just increase your lack of power. In fact, the louder you yell, the more powerless you feel, and vice versa.

Patience is a Virtue in the Face of Powerlessness
Sometimes our timing is off. We want things to happen now. We want things to change now. These patterns in ourselves and others are firmly planted and it takes time and energy to shake them up.

Don’t Take It Personally Even Though It May Be Hurtful
It takes a long time to build trust. Stepchildren have been hurt by broken relationships and promises. Sometimes the person they lash out at is us – because we are there and we are safe. This is a very backhanded compliment. Behavior can be hurtful, even though it is not personal. Try to find a way to process your feelings. Try to find a method to detach from others’ projections when you have done little to cause the anger. Talk to yourself. Talk to others. Take a walk. Scream. Cry.

Journal, Journal, Journal
One of the safest most private ways to vent emotions is on the pages of a journal. This is a great tool for healing. Also, with enough unexpurgated, unedited journal writing, you will begin to see patterns in your life that you need to change.

Do Some Deep Core Work
Do some mining into your inner recesses with a trained professional. There’s a stigma about going to therapy. I see myself as a coach. We are Americans and we want a quick fix. But to really change, we need to work in the deep end of the pool. Some self-help programs and books only put “whipped cream on poop” and the original problems still smell. I encourage you to do the deep work necessary on your inner life. We change from the inside out. It will pay off in the end. And you are worth it.

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2 responses

18 11 2008
Kali Schnieders

“Dear Dr. Rudick,

Congratulations on a great article. I appreciate your insightful handling of this subject and wish I’d had your tips years ago. I too am a writer, stepmother, and co-author of the book, “You’re Not My Mom…Confessions of a Formerly “Wicked” Stepmom” written with my stepdaughter, Elizabeth.

As you so well know, stepfamilies are frought with intense, confusing, and even conflicting emotions. It is next to impossible for itact families to grasp the complicated scenarios that develop within a stepfamily, and the inner and outer turmoil that results.

Our scenario is not the norm. Elizabeth, tragiclly died about 2 years ago at the age of twenty-five. Her birth mother died suddenly and unexpectedly when Elizabeth was only 3 years old. I married her father five years later, so I raised her. She was my only child, and though we had many difficult years I loved her dearly and miss her every day.

The pain of missing Elizabeth is sorrow enough, but the wound deepens when thoughtless people say things without thinking. Such comments as, “So how is her father doing…this must be very hard on him”–the unspoken implication being “After all you were only the stepmother.”
Being a stepparent does not mean that I have no feelings. I poured much of my life into my daughter. She was the only child I will ever have.
If you are planning on doing additional articles on stepparenting at some point, I’d be happy to offer additional insight and comments.”

I wish you well and again, congratulations on a writing job well done.

…Kali Schnieders

20 11 2008
kali schnieders

Dear Kali: thank you for your affirmation of my writing. Unfortunately people do not always recognize the depth of a mother’s love unless she has created the physical body. But there are spiritual connections even deeper than genetics among mothers and children. I,too, have been the brunt of hurtful comments. Even though the structure of families is changing so rapidly awareness lags behind.
I am sorry for the struggles you faced and the losses in your love for your daughter. I do know that love is eternal.
Sincerely, Cynthia Rudick

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