What to Do When All Hope Is Lost

10 02 2010

I’ve had many letters recently from stepmothers who have hit rock bottom. So I wanted to write a post about what to do when you feel that all hope is lost and you can see nothing ahead but darkness. Most of us feel paralyzed when we’re in that hopeless place. We don’t know where to turn or what to do to start feeling better or to heal our families or our own bruised hearts. I am not going to pretend that I can solve this for you but I am going to suggest some actions you can take to help turn your gaze back to hope.

Protect your heart. Realize that you are worthy of love, you are loveable, and you deserve to be treated with respect. Handle your heart with care. Work to build your self-esteem like you build your muscles in the gym. What is one thing you can do today to protect your gorgeous heart?

Plan something to look forward to. The feeling of anticipation can help us quickly move from despair to hope. First plan something small that you can do in the next week or two that gives you that zing of excitement. Spend an afternoon at the coffee shop with a good book, head to a spa for a decadent treatment, or buy tickets to a show. Then sit down with your spouse to plan some bigger outings. For instance, you might plan a trip somewhere just the two of you next winter. Start ripping pictures of beach views or European cities or rugged mountains out of magazines. Make a file and then go out and purchase one small thing for the trip.

Stop talking. If you and your spouse have been around and around about something (money, sex life, the kids, the BM) then take a holiday for a week (or two if you’re really brave) from talking about anything challenging. Any time either of you are tempted to bring up a hot topic, have a code word or phrase you can say:  “This is the house of no fighting!” You have plenty of time to talk about your conflict later. Right now, be quiet.

Ride it out with gentleness. Sometimes you have to ride through challenging times. The first three years of stepfamily development, for instance, are some tough years when you have to create a strong marriage, bond with your stepkids, set boundaries with ex, get used to living with new people, etc. etc. etc. The list goes on. Remember that you will come out the other side of these challenging times. While you’re in this difficult place, be extra gentle with yourself, please.

Fill your well. For those of you who have read Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, you’ll recognize this one. She maintains that an artist has to fill her creative well or she will be depleted and won’t be able to create new things. This is true of all of us. So take a break from your life and fill your well with things you love to do that make you feel light-hearted and glad to be alive. Do this at least once a week if not once a day. Filling the well can be anything from a trip to an outing to ten deep cleansing meditative breaths. It can also be as simple as stopping to look at the ocean or the snow-covered trees.

Advertisements




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.