Movin’ On In: From Singledom to Instant Family

25 11 2008

From girlfriend to stepmom, never-before-married women learn fast that dating and living with a man and his kids are two very different things. Here are some strategies to help ease the transition from single household to instant family.

So you’ve given up that outfitted urban apartment for a house in the suburbs. You’ve sacrificed clean and clutter-free living for a life filled with dirty socks, wet towels, and a million toys messing up your feng shui map. “Why?” is a question many formerly single stepmothers ask themselves in the dark moments when they’re learning how to live with another human being and his brood.

Career women who marry, move in with another person, and become a stepmother all at the same time have a gigantic learning curve-one that is so steep it buries many a successful businesswoman who can run a company or a department but feels powerless at home. “Women who are used to running things have a terrible time with this [joining a stepfamily]. I used to run a crew of seven people at work and all of a sudden I couldn’t run this family. It was stunning,” recalls Jeannette Lofas, president and founder of the Stepfamily Foundation of her days transitioning from a single woman to a stepmom of four.

Anne O’Connor, the author of The Truth About American Stepfamilies, was a single working woman before she married a man with a child. She remembers how difficult it was moving from her single life to living with a man who had full-time custody of his five-year-old son. “I didn’t realize what a big adjustment it was to make. If I could help anybody, it would be that person getting into the relationship. You have to realize just how much you have to learn. I thought I was being very slow, very steady, very smart. I wanted to be clear about what we were doing in our relationship before we dragged my husband’s son into it. But until you start living with people and your life is affected on a day-to-day basis, you can’t know how you will react.”

When a couple moves in together to form a new stepfamily, everyone’s emotions are running hot. So what can a new stepmother do when she is faced with what amounts to moving to a foreign country where she doesn’t know the customs or the language? According to all the successful stepfamily rules, there are so many things to learn and do it’s hard to know where to start-setting the household rules, deciding what your role is, defining and adjusting your expectations, getting to know the children one-on-one, standing up for yourself. So take one step at a time. Be gentle with yourself and remember that like every new job, it takes time to get the lay of the land in an unfamiliar environment. You can begin by trying some simple strategies as you’re setting up your home with a new stepfamily that will help ease the physical transition.

Do Not Disturb
Your home is your sanctuary. The first thing you must do is create a place where you can go to get away from the rest of the people now living with you, no matter if they are living with you part-time or full-time. It’s essential that you feel like you have somewhere to go when you’re not feeling up to the daily challenges of being a stepmom or wife. “I was living by myself in an apartment alone,” recalls Lynn Roberts, former head of the Minnesota chapter of the Stepfamily Association of America. “I am a very private person, and I like my own space. One of my requirements was that my bedroom was on a different floor from the children, or on the other side of the house. My stepchildren were not allowed in our bedroom. When I needed a retreat I had somewhere to go to.” Many stepmothers feel guilty about making a part of the house off-limits, especially the bedroom if her new stepchildren are used to being able to come in and flop down on the bed with dad on Saturday mornings. Get over it. Dad can get off his duff and they can snuggle on the couch in the living room and watch cartoons. Everyone will be better off if stepmom is not raging around the house with nowhere to go for downtime.

When I moved in with my husband and his three children, I requested that my home office and our bedroom become no-play zones, because I knew I would be a better stepmother if I had space to get away to. The kids aren’t allowed in my office unless I’m in it. With my husband’s help, I insisted that if the door was closed to our bedroom, they had to knock, and we promised to do the same if their bedroom doors were closed.

Now that the boundaries are established, we do let the girls come in and snuggle with us now and then. We occasionally let the oldest read with us in bed, but they know that the bedroom is ours. It is a not a playroom. If the door is closed, they may not come in. And in those first few months of living together, I had a place to go cry my eyes out as I grieved the passing of my single life, my fantasies, and dove in to the messy and rewarding work of creating a stepfamily.

Get Educated
Several stepmothers I have interviewed across the country have the same lament. “I didn’t know where to go for help,” they say over and over again. “I was so overwhelmed I didn’t even know where to start.” Because I grew up in two stepfamilies, I had an idea about some of the issues I’d have to face in my new family, but even I felt like I was dangerous because I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I researched books about how to be married. I bought tomes about creating a new stepfamily. I purchased every book for stepmothers I could find and asked around for books about what kind of behavior I could expect from kids at different ages. By the time I was finished compiling the library of information I felt I would need, I looked at the towering pile and went to bed for three days. Then I started reading the books one at a time. I found a therapist who specialized in stepfamily relationships. I joined a stepmom support group.

It’s crucial to get educated about couple relationships and stepfamily life so you have tools you can use in the difficult days ahead, but at the same time, you don’t have to learn everything there is to know at once. Get one book. Read it. Get another. Read one article. Get another. Read it. Breathe. You don’t have to hurry. You’ve signed on for the long haul. You don’t have to learn everything overnight, but you do need to do your homework. Ask your husband for help. Your new mate needs to read the books, too. Get educated together. Learn about the strategies you can use to make your household run smoothly. “Would you start a new business venture without a business plan?” asks Jeannette Lofas of the Stepfamily Foundation. “That’s called the house rules. That’s how the two CEOs are going to run the house. Make sure you’re a CEO and not just an appendage. The most important thing women can do is get information.”

With education comes empowerment. One stepmother said she and her husband had trouble coming up with the house rules all at once because she had no idea what to put on the list until she lived it. Remember you can add to it as you go along and there are resources that can help you identify what should be on the house rules list from organizations such as the Stepfamily Foundation and the Stepfamily Association of America. The materials are out there so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Considering that there are 15 million stepmothers in America and 1,300 new stepfamilies forming every single day, you can rest assured that help is available. You and your mate just need to commit to accessing it.

Create Space
“I was so blind,” says Roberts. “I had these expectations that I was going to come in and make everything better. I think it was about eight months in when I said: ‘I can’t do this anymore. I need to go back to my old life.'” Those first difficult months while everyone is learning to live together, it’s crucial that a new stepmom works through the emotions she’s having. One way to make space for positive thoughts and growth within your new relationships is to clear out the negativity in a conscious way.

One technique I used in those dark moments when I was feeling zero optimism was to pour my negative thoughts onto a piece of paper. Then after I was done, I would burn it. I had to work through the grief, the unbelievable anger, and the sadness. I quickly found out I couldn’t talk to my friends or family about my feelings because they were as shocked as I was at the violent emotions this move brought up in my usually calm demeanor. I didn’t want anyone to know that I was reduced to feeling absolute rage over the fact that a six year old was talking with her mouth full of food at the dinner table. But I knew I had to allow myself to live those emotions fully and I had to get them out or they would eat me alive.

┬áSome stepmothers, including myself, join stepmother support groups to help them work through the negativity and fear that being a new stepmom can bring up. And it’s tremendously helpful to hear that you’re not alone. However, you don’t want the group to turn into a bitch session every time. In the support group I’m in we start every session with a positive thing that happened since we last saw each other, and it helps. We are not powerless. We joined this stepfamily for a reason.

Don’t Worry, Be Happy
In a recent New York Times story, it stated that happy people reportedly live longer. By consciously working to turn the negative thoughts and emotions into positive ones, things can begin to change. For instance, when I have an uncharitable thought about my husband’s ex-wife, I immediately send her thanks in my mind for training him to put the toilet seat down and for letting him go.

Try this: Write down all the reasons you’re with your husband. Write down all the wonderful things you’ve observed about the kids. Katharine in Minneapolis remembers the day her stepfamily experience changed for the better. “It’s hard enough to move in with someone without throwing a kid into it. It took a good year, at least, for me to get used to it. I had times when I thought, ‘What am I doing?’ I knew I wanted to be with my husband, but I had to realize that his son wasn’t just a part of the package, that his son was something special. I started to realize that I was getting something out of my relationship with his son.”

Remember the gifts the children have given you. If you need to, laminate your list and carry it with you at all times so you can get it out and look at it when you’re angrily scrubbing dishes that you didn’t dirty. Remember why you signed on in the first place when you’re picking up toys that have spilled over into your formal living room. Then work out your daily strategies so you don’t have to feel the anger. Ask the kids to do the dishes. Make common areas toy free. Make those things part of the house rules so you and your husband can uphold them together. As you’re working to get to know the children, let them know you. Be open to them. That man and those kids are here to teach you something. Why not let them?