Your Questions Answered: Getting Started in a Stepfamily

12 11 2009

Dear Jacque,

I (26) am in a serious relationship with a girl (20) who has never been married or had kids. I have one of my own who is 5. We have recently been discussing a possible future together with kids and marriage. I have also never been married. My son’s mother and I found out she was pregnant after we had split up so marriage was never on the table. My ex has full custody, but I have him pretty much any weekend I want and for extended periods over the summer. My girlfriend expressed some serious concerns about her role as a stepmom to my son and how our future kids and my son would handle a blended family situation. She is also concerned about her role now, as my son’s dad’s girlfriend, and what amount of time spent with my son would be appropriate. I am ashamed to say that I did not have any good answers for any of these questions. Neither of us have any experience with blended family situations. Can you please give me some advice? I guess the main questions I would like addressed are the following:

*Should I segregate myself and my son from my girlfriend (while she is still just my girlfriend) when he visits? If not what level of involvment would be appropriate. How much of a say should my ex have in regards to this question?

*How is my future wife going to have any authority over my son. Is it ok if she derives this authority through me (for example: Don’t do this or your father will ground you.)?

*How should we handle jealousy that my son might have toward future kids?

Thank you very much, and any input would be extremely helpful and much appreciated.

These are all big questions! Bravo for searching out information on stepfamilies. That will serve you extremely well in the future. You and your girlfriend can do a few things to prepare so you have some idea what to expect. The first resource I would offer you is to sit down with your girlfriend and read my book together. It’s for women who are in her exact position: women who don’t have kids of their own who are dating, engaged or married to a man with kids from a previous relationship. You can read the first couple of chapters for free on my website. Check out the “Browse inside this book” on the right hand side of the page. I address a lot of the topics you are worried about.

It is absolutely okay to have your girlfriend meet your children if you are sure that this is serious with your girlfriend. If you are planning to marry her, it’s even more appropriate and in fact, important. It’s a mistake to introduce the kids to your significant other shortly before the wedding without giving everyone a chance to get to know each other.

Your ex wife does not have a say in who you introduce your son to when he’s with you. This is a hard pill for biological moms to swallow (and dads too, when the kids are with mom), but that is part of blended family life. You have to give up a certain amount of control when it comes to your kids. This is not easy!!!

As for your girlfriend’s authority, your instincts are right on. It all has to come through you. You set up the rules (see the house rules section of my book) with input from your partner and then you present them to your stepson along with the consequences for not following them. And then you tell your stepson that your partner has the authority from you to uphold those rules when you’re not around. It is a mistake to have her be a disciplinarian to your son right away until they develop a strong relationship. The bottom line is slow and steady wins the race. Take your time. Stepfamilies take a long time to feel comfortable and stable.

The jealousy issue is best handled by treating all of the children who live in the house the same. There will be things that a child will naturally feel jealousy about (a new child has more time with dad, for instance) and so the best thing to do is continue to spend time with the older children one-on-one and sending messages of love and acceptance.

You might also try these resources for more education about stepfamily life:

National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC)
A vast resource for stepfamilies, the National Stepfamily Resource Center develops educational programs for stepfamilies and the professionals who work with them. Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder, director of the Center for Children, Youth, and Families at Auburn oversees the NSRC, which serves as a clearinghouse of information for stepfamilies that links family science research on stepfamilies and best practices in work with couples and children in stepfamilies. The organization’s website includes links to resources for stepfamilies, frequently asked questions, and research summaries.

Stepfamily Living
Stepfamily expert Elizabeth Einstein has created this site which lists her books, DVDs, and workshops for stepfamilies.

Successful Stepfamilies
Author, speaker, and marriage and family therapist Ron Deal’s site with books (including The Smart Stepmom), DVD programs, free articles, and links to support Christian stepfamilies. Includes a list of conferences and workshops for stepfamilies.

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Interview your stepchildren.

2 11 2008

I’ve created a free guide 110 Questions to Ask Your Stepkids eBook filled with conversation starters to help you get to know your stepchildren (and your partner!) better no matter how long you’ve known them.

As a stepmother of three and as a stepdaughter myself, I have a lifetime of experience dealing with the day-to-day realities of stepfamily life. As the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007) and this blog, I have interviewed blended-family researchers, therapists, and stepmoms across the country and learned how people just like you are making their blended families succeed every day.

As a journalist, I have studied the art of the interview, which is about how to connect with other people and draw them out. I decided to interview my stepchildren to learn about their likes and dislikes, their feelings, their beliefs. In other words, I asked them questions. In return, I shared with them stories about my life. It worked! It continues to work. As the kids grow up, they have new experiences we can talk about. New things happen in my life that I can share with them.

Click on the link above for my free ebook of 110 conversation starters. Then interview your stepchildren. Start asking them questions and you’ll make connections that will last a lifetime. After you give it a try, let me know what worked and what didn’t. Good luck!

Visit my other site for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.

Be an Empowered Stepmother

28 10 2008

What does a strong, successful stepmother look like? What does a stepmother who enjoys her home and her life act like? Is being strong and confident as a stepmother something you can learn? Or do you have to be born one of those really strong people? It sounds like you have to be superwoman!

No, you don’t have to be a superhero in order to be a stepmom who feels comfortable in her own home. The traits of empowered stepmothers are all things you can practice and grow better at doing over time. It’s like learning how to do anything – playing the piano, learning a new piece of software. You learn a little bit every day and you build on what you learned the day before. Then one day you realize the tensions in your home have relaxed and things have begun to feel normal and, dare I say, good. Or you wake up one day and discover that even though your stepdaughter is screaming at you because you won’t let her stay out until 2 a.m. with her friends, you’re still okay. You’re still strong. You’re still you.

Here are ten traits for you to practice:

1. Calm. When you’re in the middle of a tense stepfamily situation, the calmer you can be, the better. If you answer a kid’s hostility with verbal anger, it will add the proverbial fuel to the fire. If you shout back at an ex-wife, what will happen? Practice being calm – calm with your stepkids, the ex, and your partner. If you’re feeling less than calm, you can say to your family, “I need a moment.” You can go into your bedroom until you calm down enough to talk. Then you’ll be able to communicate with your stepfamily more effectively.

2. Flexible. Things change. Such is the way of life. Moms move to other states with the kids. A child acts differently from one day to the next because they are going through puberty. Empowered stepmothers have the ability to be flexible.

One of my greatest challenges with being flexible was, and continues to be, the family calendar. We set our calendar with our other household a year in advance so we can all plan our lives, knowing when we’ll have the kids and when we won’t, but when we get calls to change things at the last minute, it drives me crazy because I have no control over it. I used to write my appointments in pen, but to begin practicing being more flexible, I started using a pencil in my calendar so I wouldn’t get mad every time I opened my calendar and saw scribbled-out dates. I just erased them and penciled in the next date.

If you’re having an issue that absolutely sends you through the roof, what small thing can you do to practice being flexible?

3. Honest. Just how honest can you be with yourself? How in touch with your personal integrity can you be? One woman who is dating a man with two kids ages 12 and 15 described an uncomfortable situation in which she and her boyfriend and her boyfriend’s ex-wife were all in the same room together for the first time. One of the kids was in the room, and when this future stepmom said hello to the ex, the woman looked away and didn’t say anything to her. When she said goodbye, the woman again ignored her.

This future stepmom knew that she could try to catch the woman’s eye and force the woman to acknowledge her, but instead, she said what she had to say to her stepchild and then left the room. This stepmom is a warm, open person and she knew that she had to be honest about her own integrity. She had to say hello and goodbye to this ex because she would do that to anyone. However, she also had to be honest with herself and say, “This woman clearly is not in a place where she can be open to any kind of even merely polite behavior. It’s not my job to push her. It’s my job to maintain integrity.”

But if you had a deep desire to be accepted by everyone and you took this woman’s rebuff personally, it’s easy to see that a situation like this could bring out a scene that would make this stepchild, already caught in the middle, feel even worse. If you’re the type who needs to be liked, can you be honest about your need? Can you be honest about your own weaknesses as well as your strengths? If you can, it’s much easier to witness an ex or a stepchild who is acting out anger or hurt feelings or hostility, and to realize that there’s sometimes nothing you can do but walk your own path and not add to the tensions by reacting to their behavior.

4. Willing To Go Deep. In order to be honest about your motivations, you have to figure out what they are. You have to be willing to explore some painful parts of your own life. You have to be willing to admit your own weaknesses. Sometimes it means seeing a counselor who can act as a mirror for you. And when you have a challenging moment in a stepfamily, use it. Use every dark moment you have as an opportunity to learn something about yourself.

5. Empathetic. One of the most empowering things you can do for yourself is to try to understand what everyone else in your family is going through. Can you imagine what it must be like to be a kid who has to stuff his backpack full of his things and bring it to school on the days that he switches from mom’s house to dad’s house? Can you imagine what it must feel like for that kid to be transplanted every few days? If he forgets something – a library book, a homework folder – at his other house, he feels bad about asking if he can go get it. Can you imagine what it would feel like knowing you can’t say anything about one house to the other because you know, even at ten years old, that your parents will use it against each other?

Consider your spouse. Imagine how you would feel if you had gone through a divorce. Imagine if your own children had to be shuttled back and forth. What if it was your fault that your children were hurting?

The more empathetic you can be, the more you can put yourself in their shoes, the more empowered you will be.

6. Relaxed. Perhaps one of the most useful tools a stepmother has in her quiver is the ability to self-soothe. That means you know how to make yourself feel better. You know how to pat yourself on the back and say, “There, there now. Everything’s going to be okay. You’ll get through this.” A stepmother must learn how to take care of herself so that she can be as present as possible in her family.

7. Responsible. It’s amazing what happens once you begin paying attention to your thoughts and emotions. You get to have control over what’s happening inside of you. A stepmom who thinks, “This isn’t fair! I wasn’t the one who decided to have kids!” can consciously allow herself to feel those feelings, express them, get them out on paper or to a best friend, but can then consciously decide what to do next. You have control over what comes out of your mouth. You have control over your actions. The fact is that you are the only one creating your life.

Pay attention to when you use phrases such as “But they don’t let me…” or “It’s not my fault…” or “No one listens to me…” Put aside the victim role and ask yourself what you are doing to escalate the tensions in your home. What is your fault? What can you do to make the situation better? No, you can’t control another human being, your spouse or your stepkids. But you can control your responses to them. You don’t have to sit silently at the dinner table if no one asks you a question throughout the entire meal. You can speak up. You can make a joke. You can tell everyone at the table to say one good thing that happened to them during the week. You don’t have to sit in mute silence. If you do, that is your choice.

8. Confident. It’s challenging to be confident in a situation that can easily make you feel like second best. No matter how well you get along with your stepkids, they will still do things that make you feel like you don’t belong. When my stepchildren come into a room and completely ignore me because their dad is there, it hurts my feelings. When I build up my confidence in myself, in my worth, then it’s easier to look at a situation like this one and do something about it. I say hello and ask them how their day was instead of holding on to that hurt, hugging it close to my chest and using it as something to keep me angry and spiteful.

How would a really confident stepmother handle the situation you’re dealing with? Can you pretend to be her for a while? Eventually, you will be her.

9. Forgiving. Holding a grudge is an easy thing for a stepmother to do. The daily slights can really build into anger that’s hard to let go of. But you don’t want to be a woman who twenty years from now is still mad about the things your stepkids did to you. You don’t want to still resent how much money you spent on them, or all the things you didn’t get to do because of them.

Instead, find creative ways to do the things you want to do, and forgive. Find a way to let go of the anger at the ex or your husband for putting you in this situation in the first place. Scream and get it out, dance to really loud music, write it all down, vent to your friends, and let it go. Please don’t carry that anger with you for the rest of your life.

You’ve also got to practice forgiving yourself. Because let’s face it, you are bound to do things that you aren’t proud of. If you flip your lid in front of the kids about something their mother did or said, you’re going to have to deal with it. You’re going to have to apologize, forgive yourself, and move on.

10. Visionary. Ultimately, it is your ability to get clear about your big vision that will help you weather the ups and downs of stepfamily and married life. What kind of stepmother do you want to be? How do you want to affect those children? What kind of relationship do you want to have with them? This is crucial. If you don’t identify where you want to go, how will you steer your course? How will you get what you want if you don’t work on finding out what you want? Go back again and again to check in with yourself so you can have that vision of what you really want in your head at all times. If you see a scene of your family together playing and having fun, then you can call up that picture in your mind’s eye when things are not perfect.

Practice being an empowered stepmom. You’ll get there. A moment at a time. A day at time. You can do it. So what will you do today?