Your Questions Answered: Traveling with Stepkids

27 05 2010

Hi Jacque,

First off, I want to thank you for the wonderful resources you are making available to women around the world like me. Reading your book and listening to your podcasts have given me very important support and wonderful perspective on becoming a stepmom.

I’ve been dating my partner for over a year now and moved in with him about 7 months ago. He has 2 beautiful children from his first, 6 year long marriage who stay with us most weekends and on holidays. After listening to some of the horror stories you retell, I know that I am very blessed in our situation. The kids have really opened up to me and like me (their mom does not discourage this) and my partner is a great, strong parental figure who tells them how important I am in the family, is not afraid to discipline, and is a great communicator, both with me and the kids. Of course I’m worried about the teenage years (only a few years away), but I know that working as a team we can handle it.

BM has been difficult over the last few months, as she seems to be in a less stable and satisfied frame of mind. She is quite controlling and judgemental, and doesn’t usually listen to reason, as she considers herself the authority on everything. She’s living with another woman now, although the kids do not seem to be informed if this is a relationship or a friendship and we’re just going with the flow, as it’s not our place to comment on what’s going on in that home. Perhaps you have some pointers on how to handle delicate situations like this, and what to say if questions arise?

What I’m most concerned about, however, is a big upcoming transition, and how our blossoming (still young) step family will adjust. I’m going back to school to get my masters and because my school is across the country my partner and I (and the kids) will have to do the long-distance thing for 2 years. I’m committed to him and we’ve talked it through- he can’t come with me because of his job and because he wants to be close to the kids. I’m not as worried about him as I am about the kids- how they may pull away from me because they see that I’m leaving them, that I’m hurting their dad by being far away, even though I need to take this next step for my career and myself.

Do you have suggestions for things I can do to better prepare them (and all of us) for this transition? To make them feel safe about it and to know that I’m still there for them, even though I’m far away? What are potential stressors and pitfalls we should be aware of that will affect our relationships- both my partner and I and our whole family? Also, suggestions for smart ways to plan our special holidays and times together in between school so that BM doesn’t freak out if we want to travel with the kids?

Thanks again for all the virtuals support and advise. It’s been so helpful over the last several months and I look forward to more podcasts to come.

Dear Stepmom,

It’s fantastic that the kids’ mom has not discouraged them from opening up to you. This is a BIG DEAL. You didn’t mention how old the children are, which does impact my response some. But I’ll give you my general thoughts. First of all, how you will all handle the children’s questions about Mom’s new partner should be discussed by all the adults if possible. Or at least your boyfriend and his ex need to have that discussion so you’re all on the same page. There is a book you might take a look at as a resource: Families Like Ours by Abigail Garner talks about what it is like for kids to be raised by a gay parent or parents. It’s a wonderful resource.

As to your long-distance relationship, you’re right to be concerned. This will impact your bonds with the kids and your partner simply because you won’t be physically around. We have lovely new technology that will enable you to keep in touch (skype, ichat, etc.,). If you want to stay connected you might set up skype calls every week with the kids just to check in with them and see how they’re doing. Write them letters. Stay in touch and stay as present as you can in their lives despite the distance. My advice is the same for your partner. Use the time apart to get to know each other even better through your conversations.

Traveling with the children is something that your boyfriend should also discuss with his ex so that it is not a surprise. Sometimes exes have to provide each other with a letter in order to travel with the children. Find out now what she will be comfortable with and you can then plan what you’ll have to do. I would be prepared to do all the traveling to them for a while just in case the ex is not okay with having them leave.

Since you are a relatively new stepfamily, rest assured that the comfort level with things like travel often changes over time as everyone gets to know everyone else and learns to trust each other’s intentions with the kids.

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Your Questions Answered: How much is my job?

27 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

I just found your great website, and will pick up your book today. Thanks for this service!

I have need some advice, so I thought I would write in. First a little background – we’re all a mess: My husband and I have full custody of his 11 year old daughter. We’ve been together since she was 9 (not long), and my husband has had full custody since she was 6 (Mom left). Mom is local and has visitation rights. My SD sees her most weekends for all or part of the weekend. Mom has health problems that got significantly worse last year: blood disorder, for which she takes the chemotherapy pill, and problems with her feet and back. She uses a walker and wheelchair, and was told recently that she will never walk again. She is now on disability. I’m 38, with no living children of my own. We were pregnant with a baby girl last year, but I missed carried at 20 weeks. Shortly before losing the pregnancy, I was also laid off from my job. And my change of lifestyle has resulted in losing some friendships. So I’ve been home with my stepdaughter full-time for the last year, managing our day to day life – homework, dinner, soccer mom stuff, etc., plus doing a little freelance work, and also going through a big grieving process of my own.

SD has been acting out a lot – of course! The last year has been very hard on all of us. And she has the teen years looming. She lies, sneaks stuff, whines, talks back, and is super emotionally manipulative. She puts little effort into chores or studying. When we ask for an attitude change or call her out behaviors that are impacting her grades, she cries and asks us what right we have to judge her and be mean to her (!). She accuses us of not loving her. We get the cold shoulder, the eye roll, the arguing, etc. Basically she cannot handle any discipline or critique without melting down. And It’s really not all doom and gloom around here. We tell her we love her multiple times a day. We both try to help her talk about her feelings about her mom and the divorce. Her dad is playful and affectionate with her, does lots of sports stuff with her. She and I have good after-school chats and sometimes go for treats or do yoga together. We pay for horseback riding lessons. But still. I don’t think anything we do for her will be enough to make up for her Mom being sick.

My question is: what should my role be in disciplining her and in helping to maintain the rules of our house (which are pretty basic: respect, pitching in, doing your best)? And also: what should I make of her behaviors? Are these normal developmentally? Are they normal blended family behaviors? Are they the products of loss and stress? And if the latter, is it my job to fix them? I want to support her emotionally and help her learn better ways to communicate, and I know she is going through some hard times. On the other hand, the way she talks to us and the way her grades are sinking is just not okay. On the third hand, I’ve gotten very emotionally wrapped up in this dynamic – bracing myself for the arguments and the whining and the blow offs and the blow outs. Sometimes it is just too much, and I want to say, “Who cares? You guys work it out. I’m going to a movie – see ya’!” I would never walk out, but sometimes it is tempting.

One of the extra stressors is that her Mom has totally different parenting values than us. She never says no, gives SD whatever she wants, lets her watch TV all hours, smokes in front of my SD, criticizes my husband, claims she is going to sue us for custody (never does), complains to SD about her money problems, and gives SD guilt if she wants to do something with her friends instead of visiting her. Basically she treats SD like her pal, or worse, her caretaker, and doesn’t do any of the tough work of parenting. I’m doing all that hard stuff voluntarily for her kid, and I do, I admit it, resent it sometimes. Especially when SD is so negative to me.

So basically – SD’s Mom has been really lax with her, and my husband is lax with her sometimes and strict with her sometimes, and she’s never experienced a real system of consquences for her behaviors. That’s what my husband wants for her now, and I agree, but it feels like a huge uphill battle. Up a hill of baggage that was here before I ever came on the scene. I want to back him up, and he needs my help to figure out a good system. And I certainly want SD to both behave better and feel better inside. But after my own losses, I need time and energy to get my health and career back on track. Am I allowed to have typical stepmom boundaries even though I have full custody? Even though her Mom does not mother her and somebody needs to? I love SD and don’t want to let her down. I also don’t want fights and constant negativity. How much of this is my job to fix? And if I don’t have a role in fixing it, how do I just live with it?

Thanks, Jacque!
Stepmom in Boston

Dear Stepmom in Boston:

Thank you so much for your eloquent letter and your amazingly generous heart and spirit. You and your family have been through a lot and the fact that you remain open-hearted is a major accomplishment!

I think you are correct in your assessment that your stepdaughter’s behavior is due to her relationship with her mother. It sounds to me that this girl is acting out because she is sad and scared about her attachment to her own mother. That could be why she is so needy with you and your husband. The fact that she is acting out the way she is says to me that she feels safe with the two of you. Safe enough to test you to see if you’re going to go away like her mother has. Safe enough to test your love for her (and her dad’s).

Children of divorce are often hungry for love and attention and it seems like no matter what you do they are never sated. Her behavior sounds very fear driven to me.

As a full-time stepmother you are in the unique position of being loved for your attention and hated at the same time because you are not her mother. It’s a hard place to live, especially when you are in your own grieving period.

I agree that the girl needs to have boundaries set up and real parenting done by you and your husband even if she whines and pushes back. Kids need boundaries to feel safe. The way to do this is to talk with your spouse about household rules and then he can present them to his daughter and tell her that you have the authority to enforce them when he’s not around.

Now a few questions for you. How can you be a full-time stepmother and feel good about it? She’s going to annoy you more than your husband because she’s not your biological child. You don’t have the same well of unconditional love. But she is still a child that is in desperate need of love and attention.

The rewards we see from parenting our stepchildren come in small little things like a smile, or an attempt at a connection by them in the form of a conversation, or maybe even a thank you. But some of us never get a “Thank you” from our stepchildren for how hard we worked. That leads me to a second question for you. What’s the big picture vision for you in this situation? When this girl successfully reaches adulthood with your help, how will that make you feel? Will you be proud of yourself?

Many veteran stepmothers cite their own personal growth as a major reward of the sacrifices they have had to make in order to be part of a stepfamily.

We all need boundaries. So when you ask if you can have stepmother boundaries, my answer is yes with a caveat. I don’t know what type of boundaries you’re asking for here. But you have the right to be treated with respect in your own home. You have the right to feel good in your own home. Since you are raising this girl, you have the right to parent her (with the support and authority of your husband backing you up). You also have the right to take breaks if you need them. At the end of the day, she’s not your biological child, but she is going to remember every thing you’ve done for her. She’s going to remember those conversations at the table after school and all the times you drove her to soccer and showed up in her life. Kids watch we do more than they listen to what we say.

Your role is something that you all need to figure out together. How much is your job? Your job is exactly as much as you can handle, as your husband helps you create, as your particular stepfamily defines. And you have a say in what your role looks like.

Bless you for your hard work, your huge heart, and your sacrifices.





A Critical Skill for Happy Stepmothers

20 05 2010

I forgot one critical tool to being a happy stepmom: LAUGHING!





The Happy Stepmom

19 05 2010

Last week’s Stepmom Circles Podcast with Rachelle Katz, the author of The Happy Stepmom, got me thinking. Am I a happy stepmom? Is there such a thing as a happy stepmom? What is different about happy stepm0ms than unhappy stepmoms? I’ve explored this topic from different angles in my book, podcasts, and on this blog, but I think happiness makes for an interesting way of looking at stepmotherhood. I also just finished reading The Happiness Project by Gretchen Rubin, a woman who spent a year working on making her life happier and so happiness is on my mind! Here are the things that make me a happy stepmom:

Time alone. This is huge for me. I love hanging out with my family and friends, but to recharge I need to have some solid me-time with no one else within earshot. When I have a balance of time alone and time with family, I am happy.

Time with my husband. With four kids in our house,  weeks can go by when my husband wave at each other twice a day. If we don’t pay attention we can easily become the proverbial ships passing in the morning and night. Spending time with my husband makes me a happy stepmother.

Curiosity about my stepchildren’s lives. When I’m feeling low I will often consciously turn on my curiosity about my stepchildren’s lives. What makes them tick? What’s happening in school these days? What’s it like to be a kid in 2010? What does it feel like to be 15 or 12 or 10? Being curious can lessen resentment or hurt feelings and turn me into a happier stepmom.

Feeling included. Even though I know I don’t have full parenting rights, I like to be asked at least for courtesy’s sake. My husband is usually very good at making me feel like part of the parenting team. But I still don’t feel included all of the time. I look at it this way: As long as I feel included 80 percent of the time, that’s pretty darn good. And that makes me a happy stepmother.

Exercise. If I don’t work out, I turn into a nasty beastie. It’s better for everyone in my family if I get my tush off the couch.

What makes you feel like a happy stepmother? If you were going to consciously work to be happier in your daily life, what would you do?





Stepmom Group Coaching: A few spots left

19 05 2010

This week has been nutty but I’ll have a new podcast up next week and more blog posts with lots of stepfamily information. I wanted to alert you all that I am starting another Stepmom Circles Group Coaching session NEXT WEEK. I’ve had a few last minute spots open up so if anyone is interested, please email me at becomingastepmom (at) gmail (dot) com right away. I did not make this session public because it was filled with people from the waiting list.

This session is on Wednesday nights from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, May 26 to June 30.

The  Stepmom Circles group meets for an hour and a half each week for six weeks over the telephone. Every week I lead a discussion on a particular stepfamily challenge. (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). Then we have an open talk about your particular questions and issues.

Cost
The cost of a six-week session is $197. That’s about $32 per week.

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

  • a FREE half-hour, get-to-know you consultation with me 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

Because space is limited, you’ll need to reserve your spot fast.

Email becomingastepmom (@) gmail (dot) com for more information.





First-Ever Stepmom Circles Retreat!!

12 05 2010

Dear Stepmothers:

I am thrilled to offer the first-ever Stepmom Circles Retreat! Are you free July 18-20? Do you want to meet other stepmothers who will likely become lifelong friends? Do you want to learn about how you can make your stepfamily life better?

Join me on Sunday, July 18, 2010, for a three-day stepmother extravaganza.

During our days together you will:

  • Bond with other stepmothers
  • Learn the ICES approach to stepmothering (Inspiration, Communication, Education and Support)
  • Discover proven strategies to create a stronger marriage and stepfamily
  • Take a break from your life to remember who you are and to renew your strength
  • Eat delicious food
  • Laugh a lot!

The retreat will be held at The Creamery, just outside Menomonie, Wisconsin, which is about 45 minutes away from the Twin Cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota.

I am limiting the retreat to 24 people so if you know you want to go, reserve your spot now by emailing me at becomingastepmom (@) gmail (d0t) com

Cost:
Retreat: $350, includes two and and a half days of group sessions and individual attention from stepfamily expert, coach, author, and podcast host Jacquelyn Fletcher
Food: $100, includes a 4-course group dinner on Sunday night, beverages and snacks, and lunch on Monday. If you stay at the Creamery breakfast is included in the lodging charge on Monday and Tuesday.
Lodging: $150-175 per night. There are only 12 rooms available at The Creamery. If you’re willing to share a room with another stepmother, your cost goes down. There is also lodging available in nearby Menomonie.

If you’ve had enough of feeling isolated, left out, hurt, or angry and want a boost that will help you feel more positive, retreat!

Email me at becomingastepmom (@) gmail (d0t) com for more information.

A BIG THANK YOU to Kate, one of my readers who asked if I could bring this retreat closer to where she lives. The answer is: YES! If you want me to do a Stepmom Circles Retreat in a town near you, pop me an email and I’ll see what I can do.

Here’s what past Stepmom Circles’ participants have to say about Jacquelyn Fletcher’s approach:


“I am so excited to feel like I have a strong chance of making it through this step life without losing my sanity or my marriage.”

“Jacquelyn, you are providing a valuable resource to stepmoms — and potential stepmoms too. While there are still several things about the situation that terrify me (including those I can’t even anticipate), I feel more prepared to handle them.”

“Jacque, I cannot begin to express how meaningful our conversations have been. Your concern, care and encouragement has been a hopeful light during a dark and challenging time. Thank you seems very inadequate, but it is most sincere.”

“Jacque, thank you for your continuing candor on the subject of being a stepmom…I’m finding it’s never too late to learn stepmom strategies.”





Your Questions Answered: Stepdaughter Questions Stepmom’s Authority

12 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

What do I do and how should I feel when my stepdaughter tells someone when they ask her who she listens to more, “I listen to my dad because he’s my dad but because stepmom hasn’t been in the picture that long I don’t listen to her”? I have known her and her brother for 7 years and married 5. How should I feel and what should I do?

Dear Stepmom,

I’m so sorry that after all this time you have to deal with rejection from your stepdaughter–yet again! I’m guessing that you’ve worked hard the past seven years and this feels like a slap in the face. I would imagine that you’re hurt and angry. Talk about feeling like an outsider! Before I offer you any thoughts I want to point out that I think you’re amazing! You’re working your tail off and I am so humbled by your generosity of spirit, your kindness, and your big open heart. Women who say “Yes!” to becoming stepmothers are the most lovely giving women in the world.  Now, here are a few things I would offer you:

Don’t second-guess your feelings. It’s so easy to be confused about how we “should” feel as stepmothers. The fact that you asked me what you should be feeling really struck a chord. There are so many “shoulds” around stepmotherhood. We “should” feel more maternal toward our stepchildren. We “should” love our stepchildren. We “should” help create a big, happy family. We “shouldn’t” feel hurt when a kid says something hurtful to us since they’re just kids. There are so many pressures coming from society and from our own expectations that it’s enough to make us crazy and doubt our own gut instincts. But your feelings are your feelings. Acknowledge them and please don’t torture yourself about them. For goodness sakes, you are a human being, and you deserve to be treated with respect–especially from yourself.

Thank your stepdaughter. Wait. Huh? Bear with me. Your stepdaughter is telling you, or this person she told, the truth about how she feels. This is really valuable information you can use to improve your situation at home. The more honest we are with each other about what stepfamily life is like for each of us, the more we are able to bond in the long run. This is really challenging but the only way to begin making changes in our lives is to be able to identify what needs to be changed.

Rally your husband. My guess is this child has not received a strong message from her father that you are an authority figure in her home. Dad’s support is what gives stepmothers authority of any kind. Sit down with your spouse and have a discussion about what each of you thinks a stepmother’s role should be. Typically it works best if Dad is the primary disciplinarian but stepmom needs to feel a sense of control, too. Explain to him that if he says to your stepdaughter, “Honey, you have to listen to your stepmother. When I’m not here, what she says goes,” and upholds that in the heat of the moment, it will help make your life and your marriage SO MUCH BETTER. Oh, and by the way, it will help your relationship with his kids, too.  (I’ve got a lot of information about creating household rules together in my book in case your partner needs some convincing.)

Reconsider what you think you need to do. Sometimes adolescent stepchildren flare up against us even if they’ve known us for a long time. But one of the beautiful things about stepparenting is that the kids already have at least one biological parent around. Leave the parenting to the parent and back off. They are his kids. Let him deal with it. I know that sounds extremely harsh, but sometimes disengaging a bit is the best thing you can to do for the long-term health of all of your relationships. Settle into more of a coach, teacher, or friend role with your stepdaughter and she might accept more guidance from you that way.

The truth is that no matter how long you’ve been in a stepfamily you’re always the outsider. Even stepmothers who have been married for twenty or more years are referred to as the “new” wife. Even when a stepmom has been around decades longer than the first marriage lasted! You will never be related to your stepchildren by blood and in their eyes that means you’re always a bit removed (nevermind that you’ve helped with homework, cooked 1,000 meals, cleaned up vomit, helped pay for college, etc. etc.). This is a fact we need to accept as stepmothers. Once we do, we can open our hearts to the many different kinds of relationships we can develop with our stepkids.