Category Archives: Communication

The network

As time passes for me in my stepmother role, I am more and more coming to appreciate the importance of my network. Only a stepmother knows the feeling (or a former stepmother, for that matter) isn’t just a useful mantra, but a self-protective one.

Stepmothers flock together; they find each other, sniff each other out. [No doubt some mothers would say that's because we all stink! So be it; I'm sticking with my metaphor...]

Across two cities, a country and the world, I’ve built my network over the last three and half years, and now there’s always, always another stepmum I can connect with. And almost always, they just get it.

They know it’s like to be partnered with a man who is burdened by separation guilt. (Because no matter who initiated the split, and for what good reasons, they ALWAYS seem to feel guilty, and usually seem to act guilty with their kids and the ex.)

They get how painful it is to feel like an unwanted, unappreciated outsider in your own home. And veteran stepmothers will understand and remind you to feel how that feels, but try not to take it too personally – even if sometimes you’re more successful than others.

Other stepmothers know from experience what a loyalty bound child looks and acts like. This one takes a while to learn, and it’s so confusing at first.

But we were having fun – why is she suddenly hitting me?

Or:

He said blue was his favourite colour, so I bought him blue sheets and now he says he hates blue!

Stepmothers know from experience that stepkids’ mothers aren’t necessarily pleased when you demonstrate a caring interest in the kids. No, they don’t want you to be mean – “wicked” – but…. they don’t necessarily want you to be (too) nice or loving or fun, either. They might expect you to uncomplainingly share the work of looking after their kids because that’s what you signed up for but still refuse to acknowledge or include you as a figure of importance in their child’s life or in the parental decision-making process.

Most stepmums recognise that because this role makes us feel insecure, sometimes we project our shit onto the kids’ mother.

Most of all, other stepmothers realise that talking to most non-stepfamily people about all of the above is generally:

a) pointless – they say unhelpful things like why don’t you just slap the little bugger if she’s acting up? or oh well, only thirteen more years! 

If it’s not a), though, it’s b), and b) is the poisonous cup stepmothers quickly learn not to sip from.

b) includes ouchies like don’t ever forget you’re not the Mother! and Oh, you can’t have kids? At least you have your two beautiful stepchildren. And, of course, that spiky old chestnut you knew he had kids when you married him.

So, that’s the best reason why a network of stepmothers, in person, over the phone and via the www is the biggest gun in your stepmother arsenal. Not to bitch and moan and get drowned in negativity, ideally, but to be able to use shorthand like handover day and disengage to someone who understands everything wrapped up in those words, and knows better than to judge.

Those of us who have a good network know how far it goes toward keeping us sane. Probably if you’re reading this, you have at least begun to tap into some kind of internet community of stepmothers.

But if there was one bit of advice I would offer, it’s that it is so, so helpful to have someone you can meet for a coffee, or a real live voice on the phone. So, adopt a fellow stepmother today!

Where have you found your stepparenting network? Where would you suggest others look to build a network for themselves?

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Protected: Do you mean THIS one?!

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Filed under Communication, Divorce, Lovely Man, Me, Random, Remarriage, Stepfamily Life, The Ex, What I Wish I'd Known

10 Tips for Building a Strong (Re)Marriage : Today’s Modern Family

Another fabulous article from Kela Price at Today’s Modern Family.

These tips are the perfect reminder that stepcouples need more than just a commitment to stick it out no matter what – we need to make extra effort to be happy and have fun in our partnerships, or all the steely-jawed endurance in the world will be for naught.

Enjoy!

10 Tips for Building a Strong (Re)Marriage : Today’s Modern Family.

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Protected: The Way Forward

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Quotes from BoyLand

I’ve now spent a full week with the Boys since the Lovely Man told them about our engagement.

It felt like a long week.

As we expected, they didn’t have a huge amount to say about us getting married. After all, weddings are not usually high on the interest/excitement list for tweenage/pre-teenage boys even in the best of circumstances.

Then, of course, what little they said was well-tinged with ambivalence, and interspersed with plenty of acting out. Again, as expected.

Our goal is to talk about it in a low-key, happy way without forgetting that it’s really a celebration for us, not them.

We try to check in with them, see how and what they are each feeling and address whatever concerns and worries they have.

Plus, while there’s certainly no expectation that the Boys will or should feel at all celebratory, we also don’t want to overplay the whole topic to the point where they start to wonder if us getting married is actually the End Of The World As They Know It.

It’s not an easy balance, and the things that are starting to leak out aren’t necessarily what I would have expected.

For instance, all the Boys mentioned the idea of us having more children. Thankfully, and unlike a number of our less-than-tactful acquaintances, none of them asked whether we were getting married because I was pregnant.

(I’m not. Just saying.)

For instance, Boy C said:

If you were to have boys that would be REALLY COOL but if you have girls then we’ll have to get earmuffs to block out all the squealing!

[That's right, Boy C, because there is certainly no squealing to be heard in a house populated by three boys. Banish the thought!]

At one point, Boy C also draped a (clean) Chux cloth over my head and said:

That’s what you’re going to look like when you get married!

Yeah, thanks. I can’t wait.

*******

Boy B, when asked by the Lovely Man whether he would come to our wedding, said:

Okay, just as long as I don’t have to do anything annoying!

Fear not, Boy B, there will be no embarrassing tuxedos or corny interpretative dance performances or unity candle rituals.

If any of the Boys want to be involved in the ceremony then that’s fine, and they will be given the option in a non-pressuring way just so they know they are welcome, but I couldn’t think of anything worse than pushing reluctant kids to be ring bearers or do a sand ceremony for the sake of demonstrating what a happy little Brady Bunch we are[n't].

*******

Boy A hasn’t had anything specific to say on the W topic, except to ask the Lovely Man whether anything would change about our time with them, and be told, that no, it wouldn’t.

He did have one gem for me, though.

After pretty much ignoring me all week, one morning while the Lovely Man was working and I was trying to orchestrate the school run solo he approached me with an obviously school-issued bit of paper and said:

Boy A: B, I wouldn’t normally let you sign something so important, but this has to be in today and Dad’s not here. Can you do it?

Me: Sure. Pass it over and let me look at it.

So, was it a government-required receipt for exam results, without which he wouldn’t be allowed to proceed to high school? Or perhaps an official authorisation for him to participate in advanced pre-military combat training?

Umm, nope.

I giggled to realise that this Document Most Imperative was…. an order form for his class commemorative tee-shirt! with payment not required until next year!

Wowwee. I can totally see why he might have hesitated to consign something so important to my questionable authority.

*******

Finally, Boy C has let a couple of things slip that make me think he is a bit uncertain about whether the roles in our household will change.

One night when the Lovely Man got called into work I took the Boys to a model-painting activity at a megalopolis shopping centre on the other side of town as a treat. When I delivered them to the painting area, the supervisor said something inane like:

Oh look, kids. Mum has come along to paint as well!

As previously described, these kinds of comments lead to ructions if they go unaddressed, so I said:

I’m not their mum, actually.

And Boy C chimed in with: What are you then, B?

Me: Well, what do you think of me as, Boy C?

Boy C: I know! An ugly old stinky granny?!

Later, as I drove Boy C home, we talked about how that wasn’t a nice thing to say and that it hurt my feelings. He said he was sorry, but I could tell he was a bit thoughtful, and he still sounded confused.

Me: It sounds like you’re wondering what I am to you, Boy C.

Boy C: Yeah. What are you, again? What about when you and Daddy get married?

Me: Well, I’ll be your stepmum, I guess. But you could also say that I’m your dad’s partner, and call me by my first name like always. Or you could call me [Nickname] like Nephew 1 calls me. You could even say I was your step-[Nickname], if you wanted.

Boy C: Could I say that you’re my step greek salad? Or my step chicken schnitzel? Or my step hyper-baric-roller-rocket? Or my….

[and he went on to generate an enormous stream-of-consciousness list drawn from what we had eaten for dinner, his favourite toys of the moment, things that had happened at school and half a kazillion other sources. NOBODY does stream-of-consciousness nonsense-generation as well as Boy C.]

Me: Absolutely, Boy C. As long as it’s nice, you can call me anything you want.

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Recognising (the dynamics of) high conflict divorce

I recently found a fascinating article by Dr Kathy J. Marshack about high-conflict divorce. Although she primarily talks about high conflict divorce with a narcissist, I think her ideas are broadly applicable to other high-conflict personality types.

For me, what was interesting wasn’t so much the pointers on recognising a high-conflict divorce as such (I think most of us know when it’s happening to us!) but the insight it offers into the contribution the lower-conflict spouse makes to the conflict dynamic by playing “nice” and aspiring desperately to co-parent “properly” – even when their ex-spouse is simply not equipped to do so.

In effect, these lower-conflict Care Bear types fuel the fire in their own way by insisting on playing by an inappropriately win-win philosophy, and that’s something we seldom recognise.

Drawing attention to this dynamic is not about blaming the victim; instead, it’s about reminding us of the futility of continuing to remain attached to ineffective strategies even when they’re clearly not working.

If madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different outcome, maybe spouses who avoid getting or enforcing court orders and try again and again to reach consensus decisions with high-conflict exes are perpetrating their own version of crazy without even knowing it.

(That being said, I’m not for a moment suggesting that egalitarian ex-spouses attempt to emulate high-conflict tactics… Face it, as well as it being a negative and damaging approach, you’re simply not as good at anger, manipulation and confrontation as a naturally high conflict person!)

It seems to me that one of the major problems is when the egalitarian ex-spouse feels responsible for the rugged shape of the high-conflict co-parenting landscape. They feel like the level of conflict and lack of cooperation reflects badly on them, making them one of those parents who seem unable to “put the kids first”.

Lacking innate understanding of how high-conflict people work, they are sure that by continuing to set good examples of compromise and negotiation and applying the Golden Rule, their ex-spouse will eventually “see the light”, recognise the benefit to the kids and reform their ways. They try valiantly to be the perfect co-parent, perhaps trying to finally “earn” the approval and acknowledgement of their efforts that were never forthcoming during their marriage.

Or they are held hostage by fear of the kids being recruited and alienated by the other parent and become so ginger about not exacerbating the craziness or putting the kids in the middle that they end up a puppet to the whims and agendas of the high conflict parent.

There’s no easy answer, but the way forward is likely to require egalitarian types to have a radical rethink of how they deal with their high conflict ex-spouses, and insist strongly and firmly on appropriate boundaries and structure regarding communication, decision-making and interaction with the ex.

Instituting low-contact communication and adopting a parallel parenting instead of co-parenting model based on detailed parenting orders may offer other ways to mitigate the impact of your very own high-conflict ex-spouse.

Good luck.

From Recognising High Conflict Divorce:

“While controlling people are narcissistic and do not understand you, the other ingredient for a high conflict divorce is the narcissist’s counterpart, a person who works for equality in relationships. This type of person is often very nurturing and self-effacing, and has a strong sense of justice. Thus while the controlling person works toward a win-lose solution to problems, the nurturing or egalitarian person works for a win-win solution. According to Patricia Evans, this places the win-win person at a disadvantage. While the egalitarian person keeps empathizing with the controlling person in an effort to create a win-win solution, the controlling person views this behavior as weak and an opportunity to conquer.

Essentially the controlling person creates a power struggle with the unwitting egalitarian. This keeps the egalitarian “on the hook,” so to speak because they can’t seem to realize that they will never create a win-win solution with a controlling person. Sadly it appears to be true that narcissists marry egalitarians and create high conflict divorces all too often.”

Visit Recognising High Conflict Divorce for the rest of the article.

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Filed under Communication, Divorce, Linkety-Link, Remarriage, Resources, Stepfamily Life, The Ex

The Shake Up

The Boys have been in Our City for the holidays for nearly a week, and it’s past time for a shake up of their rules and responsibilities.

Some things they’re doing well; dishes are mostly getting put into the dishwasher with few and sometimes no reminders, and shoes are staying in one big pile near the door rather than being scattered across the deck.

In the lounge, though, comics, cushions, toys and food wrappers have collected to form a chaotic compost of boystuff that drives me to the edge of my tolerance.

The bathroom is likewise a scene of horror, with chunks of toothpaste adhered like lazy snails to the basin and toiletries, and toothbrushes, towels and discarded clothes strewn about randomly.

The “stupid” houserules have mysteriously disappeared from their place on the fridge.

The Lovely Man doesn’t seem bothered by all this, or even to notice it most of the time. In fact, he admitted when I asked that he had taken down the houserules after the Boys’ last visit. Whattha?!?!

We discussed the Boys’ contributions to the household last night. It wasn’t heated, but we weren’t wholly on the same page, either.

Unsurprisingly, he is less than keen to take on the resistance and conflict of making the Boys do more regular or more sustained chores. After all, given that he’s not bothered by the mess, why would he go to enormous efforts to change it?

The houserules are a puzzle. We went to a lot of trouble to draft them – a group discussion with the counsellor, a house meeting, input from the kids.

All I can think is that really, the Lovely Man is not that comfortable with structured rules, perhaps equating them with harshly authoritarian parenting styles.

(Whereas I see them as an essential framework for creating healthy boundaries and familiar expectations within which everyone in the house can – hopefully – flourish.)

Also, I think the Lovely Man tends to overestimate the Boys’ current contributions and underestimate their capacity for more meaningful contributions.

I said to him last night:

Do you really think that at 8, nearly 10 and nearly 12, the little they do now is all they are capable of doing?

He must have seen my point, because this morning he announced that the Boys will have three new chores to share between them each morning – picking up food from the floor beneath the dining table, tidying the bathroom and tidying the comics.

There was moaning and grizzling and general resistance, but not too much. As the Lovely Man pointed out, each task takes about three minutes – hardly an oppressive degree of exertion.

And the rules? I’ll be reprinting and reposting them tomorrow.

What could do with a shake up in your step household?

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Filed under Communication, Counselling, Kids, Lovely Man, Stepfamily Life