Your Questions Answered: Becoming a Stepchild at 52

6 10 2010

Dear Jacque,

My Dad got married 10 days ago. I have lived with him for the past 25 years, part of that time taking care of my mom and then sharing the house with him after she died for 13 years. I am having a hard time letting go of my responsibilities in the house and I refuse to call my dad’s new wife my step mom. I should share with you that I an 52, and the house prior to the marriage was willed to me. Now that is all up in the air as well as my emotions. My question is do I have to recognize her as a step parent? I just want to call her my Dad’s wife.

Thank you for sending in this question! Your email illustrates something we can all learn from. The dynamics at play in stepfamily life happen no matter how old you are. Why? Because ultimately when a new stepfamily forms, it throws all sorts of things out of balance. It raises questions that family members have rarely asked each other before: Who are we as a family? What does family mean? Who is on the “inside” and who is on the “outside?” Will my father’s feelings change for me? What will this mean to my inheritance? These are all valid questions. And scary questions.

When there are end-of-life issues at stake, we don’t want our loved ones to feel like we’re being greedy, so it’s even more awkward.

My advice is almost always the same on issues where confusion has arisen due to stepfamily dynamics: Talk about it. As uncomfortable as it might be, it is important that you have a conversation with your father about how this is going to change the will. And it is only fair that he be open with you about it. Death is not something we like to talk about. And talking about what will happen to our assets when we go is not fun either, but it must be done. You are going to have to deal with this when he passes. And if your father’s new wife outlives him, you will have to work with her. You might use language such as, “This is not going to be a comfortable conversation, but this new marriage raises many questions for me. Instead of walking around wondering, I think we should have an open conversation about end-of-life issues.”

Change is difficult. As scary as it might be for you to contemplate a different kind of life, I will ask you this: What good can come out of this for you? If you don’t get the house or decide to move out and have to remake your life into something that looks very different from what you thought it would be, it will be scary. But sometimes the scariest things we face are the best for us.

As for the name question. You should call your stepmother what you feel comfortable calling her. You are both adults and this is a relationship of choice. She’s not going to be raising you or parenting you. Again I would advise having an open discussion about this. “You know what, it makes me uncomfortable to call you stepmom. How about if I just call you by your first name? What do you think?”

Eventually everyone will figure out what the new normal is in your family.  Best wishes to you during this tumultuous time.

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Stepmom Circles Group Coaching: Fall Session Begins Soon!

14 09 2010

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

The fall Stepmom Circles Group Coaching session starts in October!

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

Each 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.

Dates
Wednesday evenings, October 6 to November 10.

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

Cost
The cost of a six-week session is $197.

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 extremely 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





Your Questions Answered

10 09 2009

Hi, I am glad I came across your site. I am hoping for some insight. I had dated my husband for eight years before getting married six months ago. He has three children and our relationship has been nothing but full of love from the beginning. I do not have children and treat them as my own but understand and respect the fact that they do have a mother and I am not taking her place. However, just naturally, I have played the mother role when the kids are with us.

Everything has been great and six months ago before we got married, my middle stepson that lives with us, age 16, said that people said that things will be different and he said I don’t see how they will be different.

Well, he just returned from spending two months with his mom and I noticed since he’s been back something is different with him. He seems a little uneasy, very subtle changes but I am very intuitive of these things. On top of all this we are moving to a house and there is a lot of stress in the house which might be amplifying things.

Well, tonight things blew up he spoke disrespectfully to me, which he usually doesn’t do and my husband told him to apologize. He apologized and said that he is just going through something. It’s nothing that I am doing, he says it’s just that he is worried that I am going to become his mother. He is afraid of not being loyal to her and perhaps loving me as his mom since I am taking the mom roll day in and out.

I so feel for him and am not sure what to do to make him feel better and I dont know what roll to take. My instinct is to back off from him and be in outsider but I know that is not right. Please advise…

Dear reader:

What you and your family are experiencing are a completely normal part of stepfamily development. No matter how long you dated your husband before you married, things do change when you marry and live together as your stepson so wisely said. (He sounds very mature for his age, by the way! Few stepchildren can articulate what he did to you. What a gift!)

He is talking to you about what stepfamily experts call a loyalty bind. He fears that if he likes or even loves you it will be taking away love from his mother or make her hurt or even angry. The best way to deal with loyalty binds is for the adults in the situation to sit down with your stepson and say something like, “You know what, you can love me and you can love your mom and that’s totally okay. Your mom is your mom and always will be no matter what. She loves you. I’m your stepmom and that’s different. You and I get to figure out what that means to us together.”

If both of your stepson’s biological parents reinforce this message, it will make your stepson feel a lot better and quickly, too. Stepchildren are often discouraged to talk about their negative or challenging feelings out loud so the fact that you are already discussing this openly with your stepson is a BIG deal. Congrats to you.

As for your role. You are describing what is called role ambiguity. You are trying to find out what being a stepmother means to you and your family. Some women choose to occupy what Dr. Patricia Papernow calls an “intimate outsider” position. They are a part of the family, but they leave the bulk of the parenting to the biological parent. Some women choose a more active role. Some act like a teacher or a coach or an aunt figure.

How you configure your role in your stepfamily has a lot to do with what you are comfortable with, the level of involvement of the biological mother, the support you receive from your spouse, and what the children will accept from you. You can read more about this in my book where I devote quite a lot of space to the topic of role ambiguity.

 In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to continue to talk with your family about what it feels like for each of you to be a new member of a stepfamily. The more you can communicate in these early stages the better off you’ll be.





What counts?

25 02 2009

Ladies, I need to get something off my chest. And I hope if you’ve struggled with this one you will give me your ideas about how to deal with it!

I am frustrated with our other household right now, a.k.a the ex, because I can’t figure out what counts and what doesn’t on the financial tally sheet. We do not have a very good system worked out to keep track of who spends what on the kids and who owes whom. My husband has never had a conversation with his ex about what counts and so it is a guessing game. Because we have the kids exactly 50/50 (and I mean to the hour, people), my husband does not pay child support. Each household pays for the upkeep of the children when they are living there, and everything else is split, but only if it counts.

Some things we spend money on count toward this tally sheet in the ex’s head. Some things do not. For instance, any summer camps she sends the kids to count. Any summer camps we send the kids to do not.

If she has the kids for an extra meal at her house, we must pay for it because that counts. The cash we shell out to drive back and forth dropping the kids off at her house does not count.

But shouldn’t she be glad that she now has two more people in her children’s lives who contribute to their financial well-being? My stepchildren have a stepfather and a stepmother who now help support them. But who counts? Only stepdad? How about the dough I’ve forked over for summer camp to help them make friends and keep their butts off the couch all summer long? Why doesn’t that count?

The reason my book for stepmoms has won two awards is because I interviewed wise stepmoms across the country so I could learn how to be a better stepmother myself. I am a writer, a stepmom and stepdaughter, but not a Ph.D. I am stumped on this one, girls. The system we have can not continue into the future with cars, college, and weddings looming. Any advice would be deeply appreciated.





Stepmoms Speak

12 11 2008

Christina Hines is the author of Navigational Skills for Stepfamilies. The following is an excerpt from her book. Used with permission.

Lack of Awareness

When we navigate without awareness, we still remember the “Wicked” Stepmother in our Cinderella stories. We live inside the lingo, the language of “Broken Homes” and “Step” and everyone suffers on all levels. “Broken” takes on a tone as If there is something fundamentally wrong that will always be fundamentally wrong. Step has a tone as if someone is stepping on someone else’s toes or property, as if by stepping “in and on” you are doing something morally illegal.

Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…. 

We teach our children that love has conditions. “You are free to love everyone! Except the woman who now lives with your father.”

We provide our children with “Disney Land” weekends to ease the guilt we feel inside of us for not being there in the day-to-day.

We get divorced and cling fiercely to making sure our children experience “family traditions” only we don’t stop to understand what we are really doing to them.

Let’s see how this works. We tell our children “Get dressed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, put your jacket on – you are going to Dad’s for three hours to have his tradition. Next, while you are in mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on, come back home, we’ll drive to grandma’s and have our tradition (notice, at Dad’s you had HIS tradition but when you are with me, you are having “Our” tradition.) Take your jacket off and then mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on. Next; we will get back in the car, drive to our house. Take off your jacket it’s time for bed! Now wasn’t that fun?

Children literally spend half of the day in the car. A quarter of the day taking their jackets off and putting their jackets back on.  A quarter of the day just digging into a wonderful play experience only to have it cut short once again.

Family traditions start to take on a tone of hurry up, let’s go, wasn’t that fun and we do this for your sake. Children’s little heads spin. They can’t remember whom they are playing with and everything feels to the child like there isn’t enough time. We literally teach our children how to not focus fully. We teach our children how not to experience something fully and then we label and medicate them when they can’t seem to focus.

More of what’s Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…

We send them over to the other parent’s house exclaiming “Oh I will miss you so much while you are gone,” and then the child spends half the time at the other parent’s house worrying about how lonely and upset the other parent is with visions of the “missing” parent crying missing them so much and unable to enjoy their time fully because they are too busy worrying about the other parent’s experience. We teach our children to always feel like something is missing.

We get out of one relationship to get right back into the “same” relationship with someone else or we go for someone completely different and spend all our time comparing, complaining and “pining” for what we no longer have when we didn’t enjoy what we had when we had it. Never fully enjoying our present moments.

We watch a child grow and develop and we have reverence for the process yet we have no tolerance and lack reverence, time or patience for the emotional evolutionary process of growth and development that needs to happen inside of marriages or inside of divorces or our remarriages.

We treat our children like partners and our partners like children.

We ignore our pain, bury it, pretend it doesn’t exist and we hide behind children using them as an excuse on why we can’t move on or worse, we use them like bait on a fishing rod to attract a potential parent for them verses trying to attract a partner for us who will eventually be a good stepparent.

We set our new relationships up to be stressful and chaotic because we didn’t take the time to process our emotions and then we get mad at our new partner for expecting us to be fully present to them.

We expect our new partners to love and accept our children and us unconditionally while we don’t accept and love them unconditionally.

We set the stepparent up by sabotaging their relationship with our children by bending the rules when the stepparent isn’t home or by blatantly coming out and saying, “I don’t mind but your stepmother is on my back.”

We set our children up to feel abandoned and to resent the person who does what we do for our children – by allowing our children to sleep in bed with us at night and then “kicking” them out when an adult comes into the picture.

We blame the “other” parent when our children lie, manipulate or act out on our time with the children. We say the children are doing that because of who the other parent is and oh what a great parent we are.

 We blame the stepparent for pointing out our children’s behaviors and focus on the stepparent instead of focusing on parenting our children 

Women walk around comparing themselves to each other while competing for who’s better, prettier, has a better body, looks younger, makes more money, has a better house. As if a child cares about any of those things. (Who is that really about?)

Men are so confused, not knowing who to listen to, the biological mother or the stepmother. Knowing perfectly well that he’s completely screwed either way, lying to each woman causing more problems for themselves crying, “Women are crazy people!”

We haven’t learned to “play nice” inside of our adult relationships while we tell our children to “play nice” with others. Or, we no longer care about teaching our children how to play nice, we would rather they think of only themselves. We haven’t learned to share the joys of child rearing while we tell our child to share or, we tell our children that they don’t have to share. We haven’t learned to respect each other while we tell children to respect others or, we don’t care if our children respect others and enjoy our children’s ability to be fully self expressed to the point of pure rudeness. We play a lot of ego oriented superficial games and waste our time and life energy on things that do not matter and have absolutely nothing to do with our children.

With all or half of this going on inside of the lives of stepfamilies, it’s easy to see why there is so much stress involved. Most of it has nothing to do with being a parent or having a child. Children are not the problem at all. Most of it has to do with our inability to navigate the issues that belong to us.

http://www.lulu.com/content/2743477





The Doctor Is In: Susan D. Stewart (Part One)

12 11 2008

Susan Stewart 2Susan D. Stewart is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Iowa State University who studies non-traditional families. Her book, Brave New Stepfamilies, is a compilation of the current data about stepfamilies and a call-to-action to researchers who leave out the many types of stepfamilies that exist when they conduct studies.

Consider these two quotes from Brave New Stepfamilies: “This book contends that prevailing definitions of stepfamilies dramatically underestimate their prevalence and that if researchers included in their definition of stepfamilies all of the diverse forms, it is likely that the majority of Americans have or will have the experience of living in a stepfamily.”

“Most Americans are living in or will live in family forms that are considered abnormal by the dominant culture.”

Stewart is also a stepdaughter and a divorced mom who has contemplated remarriage herself. This interview will be posted in two parts.

Could you talk a little bit about your interest in working on stepfamilies?

Probably some of my motivation for getting involved in stepfamily research was my own background. My parents divorced when I was 8 and then my dad, pretty soon after became involved with a woman and they lived together for over 10 years before they got married. My dad lived with her and her children. Meanwhile, my mom remained single and we lived with her primarily. And so I felt like I didn’t really know what that was. I thought of myself as being in a single-parent family, but at the same time I had a relationship with this woman and her kids whom I see on holidays and it just didn’t seem that there was any kind of place for that family dynamic.

And then my dad and his wife did get married and so now they would be considered more of a traditional stepfamily, but all the kids were grown up by the time they got married all the kids were adults. So they are family but they didn’t fit neatly into the categories of stepfamily that I’d seen in the literature. It is usually couples who get remarried when their kids are younger and they live in the house. That was the only research that I saw. There are very few studies of any other type. And then my mom, after 30 years of being single, just remarried two years ago. Now I have this person that’s her husband in my life. I really like him and we get along well but I am an adult and they are both nearing retirement age. I’m not really sure what to call him. Meanwhile, my dad has been remarried for over 20 years and so that relationship has changed over time but what I was seeing in the literature was the same old definition of what a stepfamily is with none of this complexity reflected.

That’s why I wanted to write Brave New Stepfamilies and point out the few studies that have looked at stepfamily development over time, stepfamilies that are formed later on in the life course, and stepfamilies that start with co-habitation. That led to other ideas about gay and lesbian couples who form a type of stepfamily, racial and ethnic diversity in stepfamilies, and non-marital childbearing and how that affects stepfamilies because those would be first-married families but the child isn’t the biological child of one of the parents and so what is that? How does that fit in?

Did you find that families felt abnormal if they don’t fit the mold? I believe that does something to the psyche of the individuals even when it’s likely that alternative family structures are the majority. I’ve talked to so many people who feel shameful when asked to describe their family.

Exactly. It seems so wrong, when we still hold up this very traditional notion of a family-a nuclear family with a mom and a dad and the kids and it’s intact. Usually the dad is the main breadwinner and we still think the ideal type is with the mom staying home and taking care of the children, especially when they’re little. But looking at the numbers, those families only represent 7 percent of all households in the United States. So a tiny, tiny portion of Americans live that way. If you take out the breadwinner, homemaker piece, because most women work today, you’re still only talking about 1 in 4 families or households with married couples who have children under the age of 18. And so it’s incredible that we still grasp on to this notion when most people are living in other ways.

It’s not necessarily that people are getting divorced in higher numbers then they were. The divorce rate has been pretty stable for the last 20 years or so but it’s that people are delaying marriage later and later. We see co-habitation replacing some of the delay in marriage. People are living together, not getting married right away. They are delaying having kids, so there is much, much more diversity and we don’t really talk about it.

I was just divorced a little over a year ago myself and I’m from New York state and know a lot of divorced people and my parents are divorced. I had no idea how I would feel. I never thought I would feel that bad. But I really felt stigmatized, ashamed, and embarrassed. It seemed like people avoided me or didn’t know what to say to me or were uncomfortable. Some sociologists have talked about how the stigma about non-traditional families has declined so much that we shouldn’t really worry about it, but I disagree. My experience is that the stigma is alive and well. And in fact in more conservative religions there’s been a real backlash again non-traditional families. There’s a real focus on returning to the traditional model because that’s best. And more and more Americans are involved in new religions, evangelical-type religions that are more conservative in their orientation. When I have done research with my students on attitudes and perceptions of non-traditional families, divorce, and non-marital childbearing, there is a strong religious component. If people have strong feelings about it, it’s because of their faith.

When we’ve interviewed family members and friends about their attitudes, it seems like suddenly the people who are in the baby boom generation are more open and progressive than some younger people today. Other writers have been talking about this return, a re-stigmatization of divorce. Back when I was growing up there were shows on TV about single moms like One Day at a Time and Alice and it was more positive. Today I don’t really see much movement even though the numbers say different. I think that’s bad for people. It’s troubling because so many people then who aren’t living in the traditional model, especially kids, might feel bad. For instance, my preschool cannot grasp the idea that they need to give us two copies of the calendar. I have to remind them every time.

From a purely demographic prospective you would think we would be much farther along. But the United States is different than a lot of European countries where people are much more accepting and they have much more progressive ideas of family life-co-habitation rates are higher, divorce rates are higher, marriage rates are lower, fertility rates are lower. Yet we are supposed to be the world leaders. We are supposedly the leader of all the industrialized countries and yet we seem really backward in many ways.





Back to School

28 10 2008

Florida State University sociologist Kathryn Harker Tillman has published some disturbing information in the Social Science Research journal. She analyzed data from a nationally representative study of 11,000 U.S. adolescents in grades 7 through 12 and found that kids who live with stepsiblings or half-siblings do worse in school than those who live with full siblings only. Not only do these kids have lower grades, they also have more behavioral problems. And boys do slightly worse than girls. Interestingly, if kids have stepsiblings and half-siblings in the house, they fare a bit better than if they have only one or the other.
 
Tillman goes on to say that grades do not improve with time. “We cannot assume that over time, children will naturally adjust to the new roles and relationships that arise when families are blended,” Tillman said. “This research indicates that the effects of new stepsiblings or half siblings may actually become more negative over time or, at the least, remain consistently negative.”
 
This is scary stuff, ladies. There’s more. This is from the press release issued by Florida State University about the study: Tillman says: “Part of what makes stepfamily life difficult for young people is the complexity, ambiguity, and stress that come with having nontraditional siblings living in the same home. Stepsiblings who are living together may also engage in, or at least perceive, more competition for parental time, attention, and resources than full siblings.
 In addition to stressful life changes and ambiguous family roles, stepfamily formation leads to the introduction of a new parent-figure who may be less willing or able to invest in a child’s development and academic success. Stepparent-child relationships tend to be more conflict-ridden than relationships with biological parents, and stepparents tend to offer children less parental support, closeness, and supervision. The presence of a stepparent also generally leads to a decline in the amount of attention and supervision children receive from the biological parent with whom they live.  

Furthermore, stepparents generally report feeling less of an obligation to provide financial support for stepchildren’s postsecondary education, and both biological parents and stepparents report actually providing less support for children’s education when they are living in a stepfamily.
Lower social and financial investments may signal to children a lack of parental interest and lower expectations for academic achievement and college attendance. In turn, youth in stepfamilies may be less likely to get academic assistance when needed, less likely to work for higher grades and more likely to act out at school.”

Wow. We live in an age where your education determines everything. Your income, the type of job you’ll be able to get, the neighborhood you live in, your social standing. Education is crucial. It’s a ticket to freedom of choice. If there is one thing I lobby for it’s education.
And yet I have to say when I read this it made me uncomfortable because as a stepparent, I certainly have been less involved with my stepkids’ education than I could be. Of course, there are reasons for that. Their mother is the one who is in charge of their education. I don’t feel like it’s my place to stick my nose in.
 
Still, could I be more active in making sure they understand the importance of school? Yes. Do I treat their education differently than I will treat my daughter’s when she’s old enough? Yes. Do I help them with their homework? Yes. Will I help pay for them to go to college? Not sure. It depends on our resources. Will I put my daughter through college? Yes. Is this fair? Hell no. Do I feel guilty? Yes. Will I lobby my husband and his ex to teach the kids the importance of going to college and even graduate school? Yes. Do I try to open their minds by teaching them the importance of learning? Yes. But I don’t feel like it’s my place to ride them about school as hard as I will certainly ride my own child.
 
This study has sparked heated debate among stepfamily professionals as you might imagine. And the emotions are hot in stepfamilies on this topic. It’s a ripe arena for anger and jealousy to brew. In a perfect world, all the kids in our house and the kids’ mom’s house would receive the same kind of education about education. They would have the same opportunities. But it’s not equal. It’s not the same. And that’s part of what makes stepfamily life so complicated.
 
As the beginning of the school year approaches, I’m going to reassess my approach to my stepchildren’s education. How can I be more involved? How can I make sure they feel supported? How can I pass on to them how important good grades are? What will you do this year to help your stepkids do better in school?