Stepmom: You’re the Expert

23 03 2011

Most of us have heard the old adage, “Don’t go to bed mad.” And it’s good advice as a general rule of thumb. But just like clothing, one size does not fit all. One couple I spoke with this week has tossed that advice out because it doesn’t work for them. If they’re arguing before bed and they start to get tired, they both know that neither of them will be able to have a rational discussion. To continue discussing the heated topic will only result in a downward spiral of emotional debate that doesn’t get them anywhere.

Instead, they say, “I love you honey. I know we’ve got to talk about this some more, but I’m tired and need to go to bed. Let’s finish this tomorrow.” And they really do go to bed and sleep.

This couple has done two important things:

1. Relaxed their bodies. Going to sleep allows their cortisol and adrenaline levels to fall back down so their bodies are not in a fight or flight state. That means their brains can actually function better and they see the solutions to problems easier.

#2. Reassured each other. By saying “I love you, honey,” they have taken away any threats to the relationship itself. It’s a bonding agent that says, “we’re in this together.” Instead of setting up a power play, it builds camaraderie.

The other couple I spoke with this week goes to bed, too. But they feel guilty because they’re “supposed” to be doing what the experts say. I say, you’re the expert. If you know that going to bed calms you down and allows you to have the discussion in a new light in the morning, for heavens sake, go to bed!

If, on the other hand, you go to bed and punish your partner with a turned back or stay up all night stewing about it, then you might want to re-think your approach. The important thing is to preserve your relationship so your partnership doesn’t take a hit even if you’re mad. Conflict is just part of the deal in relationships and learning how to deal with in a way that doesn’t harm each other is key.

What about you? Have you and your partner come up with ways to deal with conflict that work really well for you? Please share them with the rest of us so we can try them out at home!





Spring Thaw

16 03 2011

It’s going to be in the 50s all week in Minneapolis. Hurray! The giant walls of snow lining our driveway are shrinking. And everyone I know is feeling more energetic, hopeful, and inspired since the sun is shining and the air is warming. The spring thaw in Minnesota is one of the most wonderful feelings in the world. It reminds me of the work of positive psychologists Barbara Frederickson, Sonja Lyobomirsky, and Martin Seligman who all talk about positive feelings and the impact they have on our overall sense of well-being. If you feel good, you can solve problems with more creativity. If you feel good, you can be more flexible. If you feel good, you can be more compassionate.

What can you do this week to feel good?





Stepmom Circles Group Coaching Update

16 02 2011

Due to a cancellation there is a spot open in the Stepmom Circles Group Coaching session that starts this Sunday. We meet for 6 weeks over the telephone. Click here for more details. And email me at becomingastepmom (at) gmail (dot) com for more info or to snatch up the spot! Can’t do Sunday evenings? If enough women want to meet on another night, we can form another group.  Email me with your interest.

Here’s what one stepmom of two says about my coaching:

“When I first called Jacque, I was truly at the end of my tether.  I was quite fortunate to dearly love my stepchildren, but I was tremendously frustrated with dealings with the former wife and — unbeknownst to me — was weighted by a burden of resentment.  The means to my freedom began with the very first steps of the process: filling out a thought-provoking questionnaire.  The act of pondering the answers to the questions helped me to see my situation from a different perspective.  Jacque is an empathetic and careful listener, closely attentive to the words used in conversation and deftly intuitive in interpreting the intent of those words. It was a relief to vent to such an amiable listener, yet it was Jacque’s challenges that fostered my growth.  Jacque’s knowledge through experience, artfully planned coaching and perfectly balanced challenges helped me realize that I held the key to my own prison door… not the former wife.  I had sought counseling for this before, and Jacque does not claim to be a counselor.  But this approach was amazingly effective in dealing with my issues as a stepparent.”





New Stepmom Circles Podcast: Being Healthy is a Revolutionary Act

9 02 2011

I know I’m always thrilled to do new Stepmom Circles Podcasts because I love talking to all my guests! But I have to give you a disclaimer, this one was really fun because Pilar Gerasimo, the Editor-in-Chief of Experience Life magazine is not only a brilliant thinker, she’s also a dear friend. I always have a blast doing shows with her and learn something new at the same time. On this episode of the Stepmom Circles Podcast, Pilar and I talk about her new manifesto Being Healthy is a Revolutionary Act and why it’s critical that stepmothers take good care of themselves. If you haven’t listened to my first podcast with Pilar, you’ll want to go back and hear that one, too, after you’ve heard what she has to say!

P.S. Listen to this show and you’ll understand why you should never again feel guilty about taking care of yourself!

Have an idea for a future podcast? Shoot me an email at becomingastepmom (at) gmail (dot) com.

How Do I Listen? Click on the links to the show above or visit HERE to browse all of the Stepmom Circles shows. You can listen to it online or download it the show to your mp3 player. It’s free. Enjoy!





Guest Post: I’m a Stepmom, Too

25 01 2011

A few years ago at tradeshow, I was talking with a young woman at the booth next to mine. Just a casual conversation between strangers – a friendly back-and-forth.

She mentioned that it was her one year anniversary that week. I offered congratualtions and asked her if she was enjoying married life. Her reply? “I’m a stepmom.”

That’s it. That’s all she said.

I waited.

And waited.

Then I said, “I’m a stepmom too.”

More silence.

Then I said, “It’s ok if you don’t love the kids.”

She got tears in her eyes and thanked me. She said she felt like there was something wrong with her. I assured her there was not.

We talked for a long time that day. I think I helped her understand that she was not alone, she wasn’t evil, she was really quite normal. I encouraged her to befriend other stepmoms, because her friends who were birth moms would not – could not – fully empathize and offer the kind of support she needed. The trade show ended. We hugged goodbye. I never saw her again.

But I learned a valuable lesson that day. When you meet a stranger and learn that she’s a stepmom, speak up. Offer support and understanding. We need each other.

Carrie, the author of this post is a longtime reader of my blog. What a treat to run such a great story! Thank you Carrie. We do need each other.





New Stepmom Circles Podcast: Does Stepmothering Get Easier?

15 07 2010

A new Stepmom Circles Podcast is available! Tune in to hear my discussion with Dr. Ann Orchard about what happens over time in the lives of stepmothers. Does stepfamily life get easier? What happens when the kids leave home or there is a wedding or the birth of a grandchild?

Dr. Ann Orchard is a licensed psychologist who runs stepmother support groups in Edina, Minnesota. I joined one of her support groups before I married my husband. It was a life raft in a chaotic time and I have continued to benefit from her wisdom over the years. Don’t miss this one!

Want to talk about today’s show? Join the Stepmom Circles group on FaceBook.

How Do I Listen? Click on the links to the show above or visit HERE for all of the Stepmom Circles shows.





New Stepmom Circles Podcast: Actress, Writer, Producer and Stepmom Traci Dority

22 06 2010

A new free  Stepmom Circles Podcast is up! I had a fun conversation with Traci Dority. Traci is a stepmom of two and an adult child of divorce who grew up with multiple stepparents because her parents both remarried several times. This is an important show for all stepmothers to listen to because you’ll get a better perspective of what is going on in the mind’s of your stepchildren.

Traci has also written a screenplay for a movie called Nuclear Families that she is also producing. Learn more about the movie and sign up to get Traci’s blog at http://nuclearfamiliesthemovie.com.

Want to talk about today’s show? Join the Stepmom Circles group on FaceBook.

How Do I Listen? Click the links above or visit HERE for a list of all the shows.





Bonding With Your Stepkids

22 06 2010

Once upon a time there was a guy who had kids with somebody else. Maybe you did, too. And now that you’ve met and fallen in love, you’ve got to figure out how you’re going to relate to his kids. But what if you’re not a kid person? What if you love kids but his are hostile and cold? How do you set about getting to know your stepchildren in a way that fosters positive feelings between you and the kids. Here are a few tips to help you get to know your stepchildren better than you do now.

Find Common Ground. Investigate your stepchild’s likes and dislikes and see if there is anything you both like to do. My stepkids and I love to read so we will sit in companionable silence reading on the couch. Then we discuss the books we’re reading. When I finished a young adult novel I was working on, I asked if they would be editors for me. I treasure the notes they wrote me with their comments about the book. And they still make comments about how they liked to help me.

Interview Your Stepkids. I interview people as part of my job. When I was first getting to know my stepchildren, I asked them a lot of questions. And every time they shared something with me, I made sure to reciprocate by telling them something about me. Be curious. Find out what makes them tick. Learn about what kind of human beings they are.

Back Off. When you’re new to a stepfamily situation, it is crucial that you do not come on too strong with trying to get the kids to do what you want. As a stepparent, the more you back off and let your relationship grow, the more successful you’re going to be.  Your job is to sit back and observe for a while until you can figure out your place in the family.  make it your goal to get to know the kids, to have fun with them. Let dad tell them to put their stuff away or pick up their rooms.

Spend Time Together. Spend time together one-on-one so you can build your relationship away from dad. The dynamics that happen when a family is all together shift significantly when people head off in twos. When my stepdaughters are together, for instance, it’s hard to get a word in edgewise. But if I get them each alone, on a trip to the grocery store or a walk around the block with the dog, then suddenly I can have a real conversation.

Clearly Set Your Boundaries. Sometimes stepchildren feel more comfortable talking to their stepparents about sensitive topics than they do their parents. Occasionally a kid will test out a hot topic with a stepparent before they spring it on a parent. You and your spouse need to have a conversation about what things you will keep a secret for your stepchild when they ask, and what things you will not. And you need to be clear with both your stepchildren and your spouse about your feelings so no one is ever surprised.

Be Yourself. The best thing I ever did as a stepmother was have a bad day in front of my stepkids. I got the opportunity to say, “Hey guys, I’m having a crappy day, but it’s nothing you did. We all have bad days, don’t we? So I need a little space today. I’ll feel better tomorrow.” Suddenly, I became more human to them in a way that they didn’t take personally. And I got to feel like I didn’t have to be on stage all the time in my own home. Be yourself. It’s the best gift you can give your stepchildren.

Acknowledge Your Feelings. How do you build a successful stepfamily when feelings of resentment are building in your heart? Admit to yourself that you’re having a tough time. Go cry in the shower if you need to. Scream at the top of your lungs and beat on a pillow if no one is home to get some of the frustration out. Then promise to yourself that you will take one action every day to make yourself feel better. Something that will make you feel like you’re making progress.

Say ‘I Do’ To The Kids. Say “Yes” to what your stepchildren have to teach you about yourself, about your partner, and about the world.  Even when stepparenting is not the most fun job in the world, it can still teach you something. You can get something good out of it. I encourage you, as Pollyannaish as this sounds, to commit to getting something good. Say Yes. Say I Do. Say I will.

Give Experiential Gifts. This might be more difficult of your stepchild is at the age at which they want nothing to do with any adults in their family, but giving experiential gifts is a great way to bond.

Challenge

Exercise: Play Time

Make a list of fifty activities you can do with your stepkids for one-on-one time. The list should include things that cater to the personalities of both you and your stepchild. Your next assignment is to do one of the activities with a stepchild. Do it this week if you can. Or schedule it on the calendar if you have to go into next week. Examples: Plant a tree together. Go for a picnic. Go out for food your stepchild has never tried before. Head to a gallery to see work by local artists. See a play.





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.





Children of Divorce and Stepmom Resources

3 06 2010

Two things caught my eye today: The June issue of Stepmom Magazine is out. A big thank you to Brenda Ockun, the one-woman show who puts together such a great collection of writing from stepmom experts, stepmothers, and counselors from around the globe.

AND this video is only the beginning part of the film but it still made me cry. Joyce Borenstein of Illumination Animation has made an animated documentary film in which thirteen children from the ages of 8 to 18 describe their experience with divorce. Check it out: