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.

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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.)





Your Questions Answered: How much is my job?

27 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

I just found your great website, and will pick up your book today. Thanks for this service!

I have need some advice, so I thought I would write in. First a little background – we’re all a mess: My husband and I have full custody of his 11 year old daughter. We’ve been together since she was 9 (not long), and my husband has had full custody since she was 6 (Mom left). Mom is local and has visitation rights. My SD sees her most weekends for all or part of the weekend. Mom has health problems that got significantly worse last year: blood disorder, for which she takes the chemotherapy pill, and problems with her feet and back. She uses a walker and wheelchair, and was told recently that she will never walk again. She is now on disability. I’m 38, with no living children of my own. We were pregnant with a baby girl last year, but I missed carried at 20 weeks. Shortly before losing the pregnancy, I was also laid off from my job. And my change of lifestyle has resulted in losing some friendships. So I’ve been home with my stepdaughter full-time for the last year, managing our day to day life – homework, dinner, soccer mom stuff, etc., plus doing a little freelance work, and also going through a big grieving process of my own.

SD has been acting out a lot – of course! The last year has been very hard on all of us. And she has the teen years looming. She lies, sneaks stuff, whines, talks back, and is super emotionally manipulative. She puts little effort into chores or studying. When we ask for an attitude change or call her out behaviors that are impacting her grades, she cries and asks us what right we have to judge her and be mean to her (!). She accuses us of not loving her. We get the cold shoulder, the eye roll, the arguing, etc. Basically she cannot handle any discipline or critique without melting down. And It’s really not all doom and gloom around here. We tell her we love her multiple times a day. We both try to help her talk about her feelings about her mom and the divorce. Her dad is playful and affectionate with her, does lots of sports stuff with her. She and I have good after-school chats and sometimes go for treats or do yoga together. We pay for horseback riding lessons. But still. I don’t think anything we do for her will be enough to make up for her Mom being sick.

My question is: what should my role be in disciplining her and in helping to maintain the rules of our house (which are pretty basic: respect, pitching in, doing your best)? And also: what should I make of her behaviors? Are these normal developmentally? Are they normal blended family behaviors? Are they the products of loss and stress? And if the latter, is it my job to fix them? I want to support her emotionally and help her learn better ways to communicate, and I know she is going through some hard times. On the other hand, the way she talks to us and the way her grades are sinking is just not okay. On the third hand, I’ve gotten very emotionally wrapped up in this dynamic – bracing myself for the arguments and the whining and the blow offs and the blow outs. Sometimes it is just too much, and I want to say, “Who cares? You guys work it out. I’m going to a movie – see ya’!” I would never walk out, but sometimes it is tempting.

One of the extra stressors is that her Mom has totally different parenting values than us. She never says no, gives SD whatever she wants, lets her watch TV all hours, smokes in front of my SD, criticizes my husband, claims she is going to sue us for custody (never does), complains to SD about her money problems, and gives SD guilt if she wants to do something with her friends instead of visiting her. Basically she treats SD like her pal, or worse, her caretaker, and doesn’t do any of the tough work of parenting. I’m doing all that hard stuff voluntarily for her kid, and I do, I admit it, resent it sometimes. Especially when SD is so negative to me.

So basically – SD’s Mom has been really lax with her, and my husband is lax with her sometimes and strict with her sometimes, and she’s never experienced a real system of consquences for her behaviors. That’s what my husband wants for her now, and I agree, but it feels like a huge uphill battle. Up a hill of baggage that was here before I ever came on the scene. I want to back him up, and he needs my help to figure out a good system. And I certainly want SD to both behave better and feel better inside. But after my own losses, I need time and energy to get my health and career back on track. Am I allowed to have typical stepmom boundaries even though I have full custody? Even though her Mom does not mother her and somebody needs to? I love SD and don’t want to let her down. I also don’t want fights and constant negativity. How much of this is my job to fix? And if I don’t have a role in fixing it, how do I just live with it?

Thanks, Jacque!
Stepmom in Boston

Dear Stepmom in Boston:

Thank you so much for your eloquent letter and your amazingly generous heart and spirit. You and your family have been through a lot and the fact that you remain open-hearted is a major accomplishment!

I think you are correct in your assessment that your stepdaughter’s behavior is due to her relationship with her mother. It sounds to me that this girl is acting out because she is sad and scared about her attachment to her own mother. That could be why she is so needy with you and your husband. The fact that she is acting out the way she is says to me that she feels safe with the two of you. Safe enough to test you to see if you’re going to go away like her mother has. Safe enough to test your love for her (and her dad’s).

Children of divorce are often hungry for love and attention and it seems like no matter what you do they are never sated. Her behavior sounds very fear driven to me.

As a full-time stepmother you are in the unique position of being loved for your attention and hated at the same time because you are not her mother. It’s a hard place to live, especially when you are in your own grieving period.

I agree that the girl needs to have boundaries set up and real parenting done by you and your husband even if she whines and pushes back. Kids need boundaries to feel safe. The way to do this is to talk with your spouse about household rules and then he can present them to his daughter and tell her that you have the authority to enforce them when he’s not around.

Now a few questions for you. How can you be a full-time stepmother and feel good about it? She’s going to annoy you more than your husband because she’s not your biological child. You don’t have the same well of unconditional love. But she is still a child that is in desperate need of love and attention.

The rewards we see from parenting our stepchildren come in small little things like a smile, or an attempt at a connection by them in the form of a conversation, or maybe even a thank you. But some of us never get a “Thank you” from our stepchildren for how hard we worked. That leads me to a second question for you. What’s the big picture vision for you in this situation? When this girl successfully reaches adulthood with your help, how will that make you feel? Will you be proud of yourself?

Many veteran stepmothers cite their own personal growth as a major reward of the sacrifices they have had to make in order to be part of a stepfamily.

We all need boundaries. So when you ask if you can have stepmother boundaries, my answer is yes with a caveat. I don’t know what type of boundaries you’re asking for here. But you have the right to be treated with respect in your own home. You have the right to feel good in your own home. Since you are raising this girl, you have the right to parent her (with the support and authority of your husband backing you up). You also have the right to take breaks if you need them. At the end of the day, she’s not your biological child, but she is going to remember every thing you’ve done for her. She’s going to remember those conversations at the table after school and all the times you drove her to soccer and showed up in her life. Kids watch we do more than they listen to what we say.

Your role is something that you all need to figure out together. How much is your job? Your job is exactly as much as you can handle, as your husband helps you create, as your particular stepfamily defines. And you have a say in what your role looks like.

Bless you for your hard work, your huge heart, and your sacrifices.





Stepmom Group Coaching: A few spots left

19 05 2010

This week has been nutty but I’ll have a new podcast up next week and more blog posts with lots of stepfamily information. I wanted to alert you all that I am starting another Stepmom Circles Group Coaching session NEXT WEEK. I’ve had a few last minute spots open up so if anyone is interested, please email me at becomingastepmom (at) gmail (dot) com right away. I did not make this session public because it was filled with people from the waiting list.

This session is on Wednesday nights from 6:00 to 7:30 p.m. Central Standard Time, May 26 to June 30.

The  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.

Cost
The cost of a six-week session is $197. That’s about $32 per week.

As a member of a Stepmom Circles coaching group you’ll receive

  • a FREE half-hour, get-to-know you consultation with me 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

Because space is limited, you’ll need to reserve your spot fast.

Email becomingastepmom (@) gmail (dot) com for more information.





Stepmom Circles Podcast: Role Ambiguity

4 02 2010

Tune in to my first Stepmom Circles Podcast of 2010 to hear a conversation I had with Claudette Chenevert of Coaching Steps about role ambiguity: one of the most challenging aspects of stepmothering. Because there are no known models for stepmotherhood–besides the wicked stereotype–we get to choose what kind of stepmother we will be. That’s a challenge and a gift! Listen to my free Stepmom Circles Podcast to hear what kinds of roles tend to work best for stepmoms. You can also check out my book A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom for some exercises that can help you identify what role you’re comfortable with. And in the March issue of Stepmom Magazine, Erin Erickson will have an article about this important topic so keep your eye out for that. Here’s to finding a role that fits you and your family perfectly!

How do I tune in? Click the link above for this episode or visit HERE to browse all the Stepmom Circles shows.





A Revised Stepmom’s Bill of Rights

22 01 2010

My Dear Stepmamas:

WOW! My post about the Stepmom’s Bill of Rights generated a lively discussion! Many thanks for all of your thoughtful comments. It’s clear to me that, as I discovered while doing research for my book, there are a lot of brave families out there trying to do their best in frightfully difficult circumstances. BUT, there is still hope. As I have said all along, stepfamilies DO make it every single day. So I’d like to propose an alternate version of the Stepmom’s Bill of Rights because I believe that empowered, happy stepmothers mean happy stepfamilies. (And happy stepmothers are flexible stepmothers. Research tells us that the more flexible the members of a stepfamily are, the higher chance that family will stay together!)

A Revised Stepmom’s Bill of Rights

I will create a rock-solid marriage with my husband so we both feel confident in our commitment to each other and the family. I vow to always make fun together a priority.

I have the right to be on the parenting team with my husband but I realize that this takes time to develop.

I understand that stepfamilies are formed out of loss and that the people I’m living with are carrying wounds that will affect them forever.

I will congratulate myself every day on a job well done. Even on days when I’ve done or said things I’m not proud of, I will be gentle and kind with myself because I am a brave, courageous woman.

I will work to feel confident and worthy of love.

I will not look to my stepchildren for validation or self-worth.

I will protect my heart with healthy boundaries that help me to be a more loving and present wife, stepmother, and human being even if that means making difficult choices.

I will forgive my husband, the exes in our lives, my stepchildren, and myself for our human-ness.

I will try to understand what living in our home is like for every member of our family.

I will create a sanctuary for myself and make self-care a priority so I can recharge my batteries.

I will choose my battles.

I understand that control does not equal respect or love.

I realize that I don’t have any control over what the ex or the ex-in-laws or the kids think or do. The only person I have control over is me.

I will ask for what I need instead of making people guess what I need to prove their love for me.

I will find the gifts in being the outsider in a family that formed before I came along.

I will focus on building relationships instead of on who is right and who is wrong.

I will take breaks when I’m angry so I can be calm when I discuss issues that affect me but I have little control over.

I will hold on to the things that remind me of who I am.

I will plan things to look forward to with my husband and with my family.

I will remind myself often of the many reasons I decided to be with my husband.

I will choose hope.

I will choose love.

Much love to you all,

Jacque