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WONDERFUL WAYS TO BE A STEPPARENT
By Judy Ford, Anna Chase
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 1999 Conari Press
All rights reserved.
RELATING TO YOURSELF
The best reformers the world has ever seen are those who commence on themselves.
—George Bernard Shaw
OPEN YOUR HEART
Opening your heart to your stepchild may be very easy for you—or very difficult. It depends on the particulars of the situation and the personalities involved. But it is possible to do, even under the most trying circumstances, if you can engage your compassion.
Compassion is the ability to "feel with" someone else, to enter into his or her experience and recognize their pain. It's compassion we feel when we see a picture of children starving in Sudan and send money to CARE. It's compassion we experience when we notice a tired look on our beloved's face and offer to do the dishes.
We shouldn't be afraid of compassion for our stepchildren out of fear that they will "take advantage" of us. Rather, we should practice opening our hearts to them every day, if only in private, so that our compassion for their suffering can help us weather the rough spots in our relationship.
Everyone wants and needs to be loved—and that includes both you and the children who have come into your sphere of influence as a consequence of your relationship with their parent. You are probably aware of your desire for them to love, or at least have warm feelings, toward you. You want them to like you, to accept you, to treat you well, and to enjoy being in your company.
They, on the other hand, may be overtly needy of love, mouths wide open like baby birds waiting for worms, or as defensive and hostile as the most surly teenager is capable of. But don't let outward appearances fool you—no matter who your stepchild is, he or she longs to be known and appreciated. And no matter what situation you find yourself in, make no mistake in recognizing that your stepchild is as least as angry and scared as you—and with less experience in dealing with such strong feelings.
So there they are in front of you, with at least the intensity of emotions you are experiencing. They have not been on the Earth very long and have been through a lot already—the divorce or death of a parent; maybe several "potential stepparents" when Mom or Dad was dating; perhaps even a stepparent or two already. If we are willing to feel compassion toward these young souls, our hearts will naturally open as we empathetically relate to the suffering they have already gone through, the confusion they must be feeling right now. And when our hearts are open, our love will flow more freely—regardless of their ability to receive it in the moment.
GIVE UP YOUR DREAM OF THE PERFECT FAMILY
Do you have an image of the perfect family? Chances are it comes from television. Depending on your age, it might be the Cleavers from Leave It to Beaver, the Keatons from Family Ties, or the Huxtables from Cosby. No matter which, these were all "intact" families with parents who loved each other well and communicated perfectly, and kids who, despite minor squabbles, got along heartwarmingly with one another and ultimately always took their parents' advice. These paragon families always celebrated Christmas and birthdays together, and went on happy family vacations.
In shape and substance, these media families probably bear little resemblance to the kind of family structure you now find yourself in. This can be hard. When we set ourselves up for a particular circumstance and it doesn't come to pass, we can get so focused on what we don't have that we can fail to appreciate what we do have. In particular, the nuclear family is a very potent archetype, which means it is locked into our deep unconscious as a model of how family life should be. When in reality we experience something different, there can be profound sadness or anger.
Rachel remembers how hard it was for her to come to terms with her new family. "For years, I constantly felt like the fifth wheel. The kids would arrive for a week, eager to see their dad. I was an afterthought. Whenever we would meet their friends, he would get introduced, but not me. I was irrelevant. And they never made me a Mother's Day card or gave me a birthday present. It was so painful, partly I guess because I had pictured us as The Waltons or something. When I finally stopped wishing it were different and made peace with the fact that we are a complex family that has a lot of issues to deal with, things got better. I stopped waiting for the birthday card and wishing for the Hallmark family moments, and lightened up. Miraculously, the kids felt the lack of pressure and actually got warmer toward me."
Your family is as unique as you are, and it is only because the Cleavers, the Huxtables, and the Keatons are fictional that their families are "perfect." Every family has its own difficulties and beauty. By giving up on an image of how it should be, you take a great step toward making it as good as it can be.
DO A TWO-MINUTE REALITY CHECK
Remember the old adage—the truth will set you free? However you expected your family life to be before you got married, chances are your expectation doesn't match up to reality. That's why one of the first steps in making stepparenting wonderful is to let go of all the expectations of the way you thought it would—or should—be, and take a realistic look at the way things are. What this means is that either in a journal or a private conversation with yourself, take two minutes a day to do an inventory of the way things are. Not the way you wish they were or hope they could be, but what truly is: I'm having more trouble adjusting to life with kids than I thought I would; I'm angry Fred is feeling so guilty about the divorce that he is spoiling his kids and I'm afraid to talk to him about it; I'm hurt that little Emily is wary of me and Dylan is downright hostile.
It's really important that you just take note of the way things really are without judgment: I'm angry; I'm hurt; I'm feeling rejected. What's important about this judgment-free assessment is that it allows you to come out of denial and really face the truth of what's going on. This is not easy to do. Anna remembers that it took her a couple of years to admit that she was not happy about sharing her husband with her stepkids. "It just seemed so selfish and petty," she remembers. "I couldn't stand thinking of myself that way so that I kept pretending it wasn't true. But the more I pretended, the more angry and upset I got at myself, Bill, and his kids. It was only when I finally admitted to myself that I had negative feelings that I could begin to resolve them."
Take two minutes to make contact with reality: How do you feel about your role as a stepparent? About your stepkids, your spouse? Your living arrangements? And then comes the most important part—just sit with what is. Recognize the emotional truth of your situation—Oh, I'm hurt at getting no positive reinforcement from my stepchildren despite all I do for them; I'm angry at my wife's ex for not ponying up his share of the child support—and then hold it in the spaciousness of your consciousness for a quiet few minutes and go about your day. The next day, check in again with yourself—Yup, I'm still angry; I'm a bit less hurt cause Zoe smiled at me today—whatever's true for you.
This practice is about you accepting what is, not you blasting your ex or the kids or husband with what you've discovered. Maybe some day it will be appropriate to share—in loving language—some insight you've gained, but for the most part, the daily check-in is about you coming into the present moment. If you persist over time, chances are you will see how much your feelings, and the situation, change. Sometimes for the worse, but more likely, for the better, if only because your capacity to accept the way things are will have increased tenfold.
BE REALISTIC ABOUT YOUR ROLE
We ask a lot of kids when we create blended families. No matter how old or young the child is, they already have a mother and a father, whom, for the most part, they still wish would live together. Then one (or both) parent asks that the child accept into their lives another parent (or two or three—we know several people who have had three stepmothers). The situation is not the child's doing; they have no choice in the matter. They must simply accept a new stepmother or father. No wonder they often create havoc for us.
The truth, of course, is that the child already has a mother and a father (even if the parents are dead or gone), and we can never fill that role, no matter how much we may care or try to. And no matter how much we try, they may never love us the way we would like to be loved. (Which doesn't mean we have to put up with bad behavior; they must treat us decently, as we would have them treat any other human being, no matter how they feel.)
Every single stepparent we spoke to for this book, no matter their circumstances, said the same thing—as long as they tried to be their stepchild's mother or father, and expected the love the "real" mother or father would receive, they were disappointed. But if they were willing to give up that particular parental role and listen for what the child really needed from them, they were able to forge a relationship that worked. And sometimes, it can develop into something as precious as parenthood.
"Bonnie's kids Lisa and Tim were eight and six when I came on the scene," remembers Tom. "Their father had abandoned Bonnie, but they were still resistant to my becoming their father. So I suggested they call me by my first name, which made them both a bit more comfortable. I kept my emotional distance, but became the all-around homework helper, and gradually I saw their respect and love grow. In high school, they both made contact with their father, but when it came time for Lisa to get married, while her father was there, it was me she wanted to have escort her down the aisle."
By not forcing our stepchildren to love us or see us as mother or father, we give them the emotional space they need to find their way to us.
CREATE AN IDENTITY FOR YOURSELF
So if you can't take on the role of parent, who should you be? That is a question that only you can answer depending on your personality, circumstances, the ages and personalities of your stepkids, and so on. But we do encourage you to create an identity for yourself and make it explicit to the kids. Humor really helps here.
Judy's life-partner Will always signed cards, notes, and presents to Judy's daughter Amanda: "From the man who ruined your childhood," which is what she claimed he had done. Sometimes she would scream, "I hate you! I hate you!" A couple hours or days later when the conflict had been long forgotten or resolved, Will would joke and laugh with Amanda, referring to himself as "the man you love to hate."
Through such humor, we tell our stepkids that we are in their lives, and that while we know they might not always be happy about that, we are an adult they must come to terms with. We also show that their feelings are not deadly, that it hasn't killed us that they said such a thing. This is important because children can get swamped by the strength of their feelings and believe they, as children, are omnipotent. When we make light of such remarks, they can see our sturdiness and rest in our strength.
Bridging the identity gap between how the children view you and how you'd like to be seen starts by receiving unpleasant news without freaking out. When Todd told his stepmom, "I don't like you," she kindly responded with, "You don't have to like me, if you choose not to, but I'm trying to like you." Peter told stepdaughter Amy, "I'm glad you can voice your negative feelings about me." By allowing her to do so, eventually she felt safe enough with him to share her anger toward her dad, with whom she didn't dare share her deep thoughts and feelings for fear he would abandon her completely.
Perhaps in the beginning your identity to the kids is that of an unwelcome intruder, but if you can be good-natured about it all, it can change from being an outsider to observer to being a sounding board and confidante. It depends on you. No one can step into a family and become an instant parent. If you can remember that your identity doesn't depend on what the kids call you or how they treat you, but rather on how you behave toward them, you'll be on the right track.
MAKE PEACE WITH MINE VERSUS YOURS
Melanie raised seven children: three stepsons, two sons from her first marriage, and two children with her second husband. "Our house was a revolving door," she says. "We were the full spectrum: steps, halfs, and fulls, but we never referred to anyone as 'yours' or mine. They were all ours." When talking about one to the other it was, 'He's your brother, she's your sister.'
"We tried to keep the rules the same even if our sons were only with us part time, but it didn't always work out. Sometimes I thought my husband was too easy on his kids, other times he was convinced I was too hard on his and more lenient with mine. Then there were times when I was harder on mine and let his squeeze by."
While some experts might advise you to get over the "yours versus mine" attitude, don't worry if you can't get there. It may not be humanly possible. Your kids will always be yours; his kids will always be his. You bring to your union years of personal history which can't be wiped out so quickly. It's natural to have a unique love for your own child. Kids sense this and can cope with it better if you're honest about your tendencies.
Acknowledging that each parent prefers his or her own child is healthier than sweeping it under the rug. No need to get flustered, defensive, or contrary. The kids will respect your integrity and together you can finds ways to make up for the discrepancies. Admitting the inconsistencies works better than being hypervigilant to make sure every interaction is equal.
It also affects how stepsiblings get along. Joel brought his eight-year-old daughter, Molly, his bride Alyce, and ten-year-old stepdaughter, Amelia, to counseling. Everything had been going smoothly until the wedding, when Molly suddenly withdrew, becoming more tearful and sullen each day. Joel was at a loss as to why things had changed. As Judy talked with them, Molly became more and more agitated and burst out, "I hate Amelia because my dad likes her just the same as me." It turns out that Joel had told the girls on the eve of the wedding, "From now on you're my girls—I love you the same." Molly was devastated, wondering how her father could love Amelia, whom he'd only know for a year, as much as he loved her.
Excerpted from WONDERFUL WAYS TO BE A STEPPARENT by Judy Ford, Anna Chase. Copyright © 1999 Conari Press. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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