Stepmothers: Cultivate an Open Heart

30 06 2010

 

 When you’re dealing with people in your family who challenge you with hostility, hurtful words and actions, it can take a Herculean effort to keep an open heart. But remaining open is a worthy goal. Why? Because storing your anger and bitterness in a closed heart will corrupt your spirit and poison your family. The fact is, anger comes out one way or another and you can either work consciously to deal with resentment and opening your heart or you can allow the negativity to eat you alive. I know I sound dramatic, but I believe remaining open is critical to your well-being.

It’s a tall order when you have a stepdaughter challenging your place in the family or an ex-wife badmouthing you to the children. It can be even more difficult when your husband does not support you in front of the kids or expects you to do all the parenting of his children.

Try some of the following strategies to help you maintain an open heart in even the most difficult situations.  

Thank Your Lucky Scars.
You read that right. The scars you’ve developed from painful situations can teach you valuable lessons about your personal journey. Look for the message in the pain that can help you evolve to a more mature, loving human being.

Watch for Patterns.
If you understand why something is happening in your home, it makes it much easier to open your heart. For instance, if you’ve had a good relationship with your stepson except for during holidays, big school events, or the day he returns from Mom’s house, pay attention. It could be that your stepson is experiencing the grief of his parent’s divorce at each of these junctures. It could be a loyalty issue where he feels that if he likes you or spending time at your and Dad’s house that his mother will be hurt.

Develop a Strong Sense of Self.
Women who feel better about themselves overall have an easier time with stepfamily life. That’s because they don’t need everyone in their stepfamily to like them in order to feel good about themselves. If you don’t believe in yourself, remember this: I do and I will hold that belief in you until you can develop it yourself.

Set Your Boundaries.
Learn how to say “No” in a kind and loving way to protect your heart. By setting boundaries about what kind of treatment you will tolerate at the hands of your stepfamily members, you are sending a powerful message to everyone about how to live with an open heart. By protecting your heart with a gentle “No” you are actually giving yourself the needed energy to extend to your stepfamily in more powerful ways.

Nurture Your Compassion
Every time you feel anger building in your heart, use breath to help you connect to the more evolved part of yourself. Sit down and take ten deep breaths all the way into your belly. Then think about the person who is making you angry. Ask yourself what might be causing their behavior. Most of us act out toward other people when we are hurt, grieving, lonely, insecure, or scared.

Lighten Up
Instead of thinking about how hard your life is, try this playful exercise. Instead, view your stepfamily as an experiment so you can take some of the pressure off of yourself and the people who are now connected to you. If you have a surly stepson, brainstorm creative ways you can play with the relationship. Tell him a joke. Do something he likes to do. Tell him about the most embarrassing thing you did when you were his age. The heart responds to fun. Take a light-hearted view and it can help you feel more positive about your relationships.

Let Your Light Shine
This is an exercise in imagination. Close your eyes and think about your heart. Imagine a light is shining out of your heart center bathing everyone and everything around you in love. Shift your shoulders back and down away from your ears so the front of your chest feels broad and open. Breathe.

Cultivating an open heart is not something that happens in one sitting. It is a state of being that we work toward our whole lives. Commit yourself to living with openness instead of remaining closed, defensive, and angry and your relationships will ultimately thrive.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is the author of the award-winning book A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom, the co-creator of The Stepfamily Letter Project, and the host of the popular Becoming a Stepmom podcast. This article first ran in Stepmom Magazine.





New Stepmom Circles Podcast: Actress, Writer, Producer and Stepmom Traci Dority

22 06 2010

A new free  Stepmom Circles Podcast is up! I had a fun conversation with Traci Dority. Traci is a stepmom of two and an adult child of divorce who grew up with multiple stepparents because her parents both remarried several times. This is an important show for all stepmothers to listen to because you’ll get a better perspective of what is going on in the mind’s of your stepchildren.

Traci has also written a screenplay for a movie called Nuclear Families that she is also producing. Learn more about the movie and sign up to get Traci’s blog at http://nuclearfamiliesthemovie.com.

Want to talk about today’s show? Join the Stepmom Circles group on FaceBook.

How Do I Listen? Click the links above or visit HERE for a list of all the shows.





Bonding With Your Stepkids

22 06 2010

Once upon a time there was a guy who had kids with somebody else. Maybe you did, too. And now that you’ve met and fallen in love, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to relate to his kids. But what if you’re not a kid person? What if you love kids but his are hostile and cold? How do you set about getting to know your stepchildren in a way that fosters positive feelings between you and the kids. Here are a few tips to help you get to know your stepchildren better than you do now.

Find Common Ground. Investigate your stepchild’s likes and dislikes and see if there is anything you both like to do. My stepkids and I love to read so we will sit in companionable silence reading on the couch. Then we discuss the books we’re reading. When I finished a young adult novel I was working on, I asked if they would be editors for me. I treasure the notes they wrote me with their comments about the book. And they still make comments about how they liked to help me.

Interview Your Stepkids. I interview people as part of my job. When I was first getting to know my stepchildren, I asked them a lot of questions. And every time they shared something with me, I made sure to reciprocate by telling them something about me. Be curious. Find out what makes them tick. Learn about what kind of human beings they are.

Back Off. When you’re new to a stepfamily situation, it is crucial that you do not come on too strong with trying to get the kids to do what you want. As a stepparent, the more you back off and let your relationship grow, the more successful you’re going to be.  Your job is to sit back and observe for a while until you can figure out your place in the family.  make it your goal to get to know the kids, to have fun with them. Let dad tell them to put their stuff away or pick up their rooms.

Spend Time Together. Spend time together one-on-one so you can build your relationship away from dad. The dynamics that happen when a family is all together shift significantly when people head off in twos. When my stepdaughters are together, for instance, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. But if I get them each alone, on a trip to the grocery store or a walk around the block with the dog, then suddenly I can have a real conversation.

Clearly Set Your Boundaries. Sometimes stepchildren feel more comfortable talking to their stepparents about sensitive topics than they do their parents. Occasionally a kid will test out a hot topic with a stepparent before they spring it on a parent. You and your spouse need to have a conversation about what things you will keep a secret for your stepchild when they ask, and what things you will not. And you need to be clear with both your stepchildren and your spouse about your feelings so no one is ever surprised.

Be Yourself. The best thing I ever did as a stepmother was have a bad day in front of my stepkids. I got the opportunity to say, “Hey guys, I’m having a crappy day, but it’s nothing you did. We all have bad days, don’t we? So I need a little space today. I’ll feel better tomorrow.” Suddenly, I became more human to them in a way that they didn’t take personally. And I got to feel like I didn’t have to be on stage all the time in my own home. Be yourself. It’s the best gift you can give your stepchildren.

Acknowledge Your Feelings. How do you build a successful stepfamily when feelings of resentment are building in your heart? Admit to yourself that you’re having a tough time. Go cry in the shower if you need to. Scream at the top of your lungs and beat on a pillow if no one is home to get some of the frustration out. Then promise to yourself that you will take one action every day to make yourself feel better. Something that will make you feel like you’re making progress.

Say ‘I Do’ To The Kids. Say “Yes” to what your stepchildren have to teach you about yourself, about your partner, and about the world.  Even when stepparenting is not the most fun job in the world, it can still teach you something. You can get something good out of it. I encourage you, as Pollyannaish as this sounds, to commit to getting something good. Say Yes. Say I Do. Say I will.

Give Experiential Gifts. This might be more difficult of your stepchild is at the age at which they want nothing to do with any adults in their family, but giving experiential gifts is a great way to bond.

Challenge

Exercise: Play Time

Make a list of fifty activities you can do with your stepkids for one-on-one time. The list should include things that cater to the personalities of both you and your stepchild. Your next assignment is to do one of the activities with a stepchild. Do it this week if you can. Or schedule it on the calendar if you have to go into next week. Examples: Plant a tree together. Go for a picnic. Go out for food your stepchild has never tried before. Head to a gallery to see work by local artists. See a play.





Guest Post: What is a Mother?

22 06 2010

John and Emily Visher, the legendary stepfamily researchers found that the more flexible a stepfamily is, the better off they are. In that spirit I want to run a Mother’s Day guest post by guest blogger Traci Dority about what Mother’s Day means to her even though Mother’s Day was a while ago! Traci is a stepmother of two and a stepdaughter. She’s an actress, writer, and producer and is working to create a film called Nuclear Families that’s a wonderfully fun and unique way of looking at blended family life. You can also check out the Stepmom Circles Podcast to listen to my interview with Traci, whose story is an inspiration. -Jacque

As Mother’s Day just passed, I’ve been thinking about the women in my life who have at one time or another held the title of Mother, Stepmother, Grandmother, or Step Grandmother. I looked up in my Random House Webster’s College Dictionary the definition of MOTHER. The one that jumped out at me is; “A woman looked upon as a mother, or exercising authority like that of a mother.” How wonderful that being a stepmother is included in this definition!

I’m a stepmom and I bring to this role my history of having also been a stepchild. In fact, like Tiffany in Nuclear Families the movie (www.nuclearfamiliesthemovie.com), I have had two stepmothers. Like most children of divorce I had to battle the issue of split loyalties and didn’t initially make the effort to maintain relationships with my ex-Stepmothers.

As a stepmom, I have worked hard to temper my expectations about how my stepkids should respond to me. I’ve gotten clear on what I perceive my purpose is in their lives. The conclusion I’ve come to is that if I can just be a good role model for them, I’ve done my job influencing their life. I’ve promised myself I will always teach them by living my life fully. This doesn’t mean I’m self involved, it just means that my influence in their life is less about what I say and more about what I do. I do show up for them when they need me, but mostly they have two great biological parents that are my stepkids’ “go to” people. Trust me Stepmoms, I know sometimes this is a hard pill to swallow, but we aren’t in our stepkids life to replace anyone. However, I do believe it isn’t a mistake that we are in their lives, for whatever period we are able to spend with them.

All of my stepparents have influenced my life and contributed to shaping the person I am today. Unlike Tiffany in Nuclear Families, I haven’t always had the courage to recognize my stepparents (both current and ex’s) impact on my life. Today, I want to pay tribute to the women who have welcomed me into their lives regardless of my biology.

First to my mom – You are my hero and as I see you in me everyday I feel blessed. In my acting work, I always see an expression that is classic “Shelby”. AND, I owe you and Nanny the gifts of good skin, class, and chattiness.

To my first stepmother – I owe my talent for hosting a perfect party and my love for photographs.

To my second stepmother – I owe my joy for cooking and creating beautiful spaces.

To my Granny – I owe my silliness.

And to my step-Grandmother’s – I owe the gift of acceptance. To Maw- maw specifically  – I owe the belief in the power of prayer.

THANK YOU all for contributing to the woman, wife, stepmom and soon-to-be mom that I am.





Stepmothers: Your Anger Could Kill You

16 06 2010

The day I decided to write a book for stepmothers remains vivid in my mind. I was working on a story for a magazine about how challenging it is for childless stepmothers to move in with a man and his children. While researching the story, I interviewed several veteran stepmothers who had been in their stepfamilies twenty years or more.

One stepmom who described herself as a successful, happy stepmother told me about how wonderful her life was and how well everyone got along. “Really?” I wondered. I asked her a few more questions. Perhaps because I was the first person who listened to her challenging stepmom feelings with understanding and without judgment, a flood of anger burst from her heart and the raw pain and chronic stuffed anger of decades came flowing out.

That interview has stuck with me all these years because I have discovered after talking to stepmoms around the globe that anger is a job hazard for stepmothers. Because we often parent from the back seat, play second fiddle to the kids and the ex wife and sometimes the in-laws and ex in-laws, and feel powerless and voiceless in our own homes, it’s no wonder so many of us are pissed off.

Still, just because we have a clear right to be angry in many situations, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. During the last two decades researchers have conducted a multitude of studies which suggest that anger, hostility, and stress have a direct impact on our health. These emotions can lead to heart disease, inflammation, and even life-threatening diseases such as cancer. And that’s only one side of the story. Anger and hostility also does damage to our overall sense of happiness, well-being, and quality of life. It can lead to alcohol and substance abuse and overeating. It destroys intimacy and marriages.

I could have told the researchers that anger harms our bodies. In the early days of my stepfamily life I often allowed myself to fall into the whirlpool of negative thoughts. For instance, if I was angry because no one spoke to me during dinner, I would furiously clean dishes feeling like the hired help while everyone else sat companionably at the table. The more I allowed my thoughts to churn through my anger, the angrier I became. My heart rate sped up, my breathing became ragged and by the end of the night I had a horrible headache.

So what can you do about angry and hostile feelings?

View anger as a sign.
If you’re angry, you’re angry. You don’t have to explain it or feel badly about it. Anger is a feeling that you can use as a signal that something is not right. It is often a mask for other emotions. You can use your anger to begin exploring your deeper feelings. Ask yourself questions such as: Are my feelings hurt? Do I feel betrayed or taken advantage of? Do I feel like I am losing myself because I have no voice in this house? Do I feel left out?

Find your own patterns.
Take a moment to think about your life. When do you get angry? Can you identify what happens to set you off? Pay attention to the language you use to describe what is happening. Oftentimes we stepmothers are angry because we feel such a lack of control over our own lives and that is a proven stress producer. “All of our clinical and animal research confirms that the perception of not having any control is always stressful,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College and president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.

Change your perceptions.
As Dr. Rosch pointed out it’s the perception of not having control that is so stressful. So how can you change your perceptions? One stepmother I talked with consciously switched from feeling angry at her three teenaged stepchildren for making her life hell to feeling compassion by choosing to turn on her empathy about their situation. She shut her eyes and envisioned them as wounded soldiers in a field hospital. She cast herself in the role of nurse and healer to these kids who were clearly so deeply pained about their parents’ divorce that they made her the target of their anger even though she’d never done anything wrong. She carried that mental image with her so that every time one of the kids directed hostility at her, she responded with a calm demeanor that eventually broke through the kids’ pain so they could create positive relationships.

Calm your body before you speak.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good thing to vent anger because by yelling at your spouse you are focusing on the anger while in an emotional state and instead of feeling better you can actually increase your feelings of anger. Experiment with calming your body before you let the negative words rip. Do whatever you need to—take ten deep breaths, go for a run, take a hot shower, tell a joke—then return to discuss your feelings when you’re feeling calm.

Learn communication skills.
Take advantage of the many resources available to learn strong communication skills. The tools you learn can help you with every relationship you have. I highly recommend picking up Harriet Lerner’s classic book The Dance of Anger and any of John Gottman’s books for married couples. In the early days of my marriage, I had to learn how to use softer start-ups and “I” language. Clearly saying something like, “You are such an idiot for marrying that woman!” is not an effective way to start a conversation. Instead, stay firmly in your own feelings. “I am feeling jealous today that you had children with someone else.”

Arm yourself with positive emotions.
Another army of scientists have spent the last few decades researching how positive emotions affect our health and well-being. And the results are impressive. By cultivating positive emotions you can dramatically improve your social relationships and physical and mental health. Armed with positivity you are more resilient when bad things happen, you’re a better problem-solver, and you’re more equipped to deal with the ups and downs of stepfamily life. This is why I am constantly telling stepmothers to have fun! Lighten up! Enjoy yourself! This simple advice is backed by serious research so plan something fun right now.

In the end, as more and more research shows, anger can actually kill you if you live with it long enough. By choosing to learn new ways to cope with your feelings so you aren’t a victim of your negative emotions you can head off the long-term affects of chronic anger.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepfamily coach and educator, the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins), host of the popular Stepmom Circles Podcast and co-creator of The Stepfamily Letter Project. This article originally appeared in Stepmom Magazine.





Stepmother Resources

16 06 2010

Stepmoms looking for help: There are several upcoming ways you can find the support you need to create a happier stepfamily life.

RETREAT!

There are still spots left in the Stepmom Circles Retreat, July 18-20. Don’t miss your chance to meet other stepmothers IN PERSON!, learn stepfamily strategies that work, and get away from it all to refresh your spirit.

TELE-SEMINAR

Join me next Tuesday night via the telephone for the Stepmom Circles Seminar: The Ex-tra Woman: Success Strategies for Stepmoms to Better Cope, Communicate, and Co-Parent with the Ex-Wife.

COACHING

As always, one-on-one coaching and group coaching sessions are available.





Your Questions Answered: Stepgrandmother and Grandpa Not Allowed to Visit Grandchild

16 06 2010

I have a 23 year old stepdaughter who has a 2 year old daughter. She’s living with her boyfriend and they are a couple. However, my husband and I aren’t allowed to babysit and the only time we see our grandchild is when WE invite them to dinner. In which case I have to clean, prepare, shop, cook and clean up which leaves me NO time to visit. She has offered for us to take the baby for an hour or two but only once and that time she called and said that plans had changed. This whole thing has made me put her on IGNORE. I don’t call or invite them over anymore. I feel used for a free meal in reality. What should I do? My husband is passive. He has said it is his fault and he should talk to her but he never does. He just tiptoes around the issue.

Dear Stepmom:

It must be so hard for you to see your husband being hurt by his daughter again and again. It is awful to feel so taken advantage of and disrespected as you cook, clean, shop, etc. Without knowing why your stepdaughter acts the way she does, it’s hard to say what is going on in her mind. How long you’ve been in her life and how close she and her father are make a big difference. Usually when grandchildren are born, it can change things dramatically because stepchildren can finally appreciate that complexity of what it takes to be a parent and stepparent. But that doesn’t always happen. Here’s my gut response to your tough question:

Tell your husband to do the shopping/cooking/cleaning/ordering take-out. Your anger around cooking/cleaning/shopping is a big red flag to me. It means there is an easy fix! When your stepdaughter and her family come over, DON’T DO all those chores you’ve set up for yourself. Tell your husband to take charge even if it means he will order take-out and he won’t have the house exactly like you would have it for visitors. Then you won’t become a stepmarytr over the chores that your stepdaughter likely won’t notice anyway. And guess what that means? You’ll feel less resentful. This is good! Stepmothers get into this mess again and again and again and for very good reasons but please hear me now all you women who are doing, doing, doing. Ask yourself this: Can the doing be done in a different way so I don’t feel so burned out and pissed off?

Build bonds instead of barriers. Depending on the relationship your spouse has with his daughter, there is a very real chance that you won’t be involved in your stepgrandchild’s life if she doesn’t want you to be. Decide what your big-picture goal is as a couple. Then work to build bonds with both your stepdaughter and her child. To work around the emotional land minds so common in stepfamilies, you might try to focus on doing activities outside either of your homes. Meet them at a park or the zoo or some other kid friendly location that no one has to clean, for instance. Plus if you’re doing an activity like walking around a zoo, it’s easier to talk and mend fences.

Make it all about the baby. When you’re in hard co-parenting situation, most ex partners and stepparents will make all communications ONLY about the children. That way conversations tend to be less volatile and remain focused on the facts: grades, schedule, braces, doctor visits, etc. You might try using the same approach to co-grandparenting. Keep conversations low-key. How is the baby doing? What milestones has she hit? Wow, she’s so cute! I miss her so much. How are you feeling, new mommy?

Compliment your stepdaughter. Having a young toddler is stressful for women who are in their 30s who have full family support and financial freedom. For girls who have children at young ages out of wedlock, you’ve got a 10 on the stress-o-meter. Compliment her on her parenting and her choices about the hard work she’s doing. Offer to help. New moms have it tough in those early years and it’s hard for them to focus on anything besides the baby. That means many new moms offend people without meaning to because they’re so tired they can’t think.

Put Dad in center stage. The relationship with his daughter is your spouse’s responsibility first and foremost. He needs to decide what kind of relationship he will have with his daughter now that she’s an adult. It’s a stressful transition for a lot of parents/kids to make. At one time their relationship was a matter of necessity. Now it is a matter of choice. And both sides can choose not to continue to try to build something. That’s the sad truth. But remember my Dad’s sage advice: At the end of the day, your family are usually the only ones who show up at your funeral. (And yes, stepparents, you count as family.)