Category Archives: Speaking Up Challenge

Shades of beige

Monday was the first night of our regular week with the kids.

As usual, Boy A was fairly hostile towards me: he refused to respond to my hello, and every comment I made (not to him – I don’t waste time trying to make conversation with him directly) was met with a shrug or a smart remark.

For instance, I was talking to the other boys about making Crepes Suzette for dessert this week and describing how we would set fire to the crepes before serving them.

(Setting fire to foodstuffs has gigantic appeal to boys, in my experience.)

At this point, Boy A butted in to snidely suggest that he’d rather pour petrol than liqueur on the crepes. To which I replied that he was quite welcome to add petrol to his own serve.

Normally I wouldn’t have responded that way; that night had me teetering alarmingly close to the cliff edge of my self control.

His rejoinder?

“Yeah, that’s really funny.”

Oh, right, because it was all about me being funny at his expense.

Anyway, by 5pm I’d had it and retreated to the bedroom with my laptop for much of the rest of the evening, feeling besieged and frustrated but glad to be avoiding further hurtful comments and pointed exclusion.

Later, once the kids were finally in bed, I asked the Lovely Man how he felt the evening had gone and whether there was anything extra I could have done to support him with the kids.

I was expecting to talk about specific tasks, like me doing dinner so he could cover homework duty – that kind of mundane stuff.

Instead, I heard:

“I think it was good that you kind of made yourself scarce and kept a low profile in the bedroom, because Boy A finds it difficult when he thinks you’re too much in the foreground.”

*Cue crickets*

Finally, I found my voice.

“I’m all in favour of keeping things low-key, especially in the first 24 hours we have the Boys, but I am NOT going to hide out in the bedroom or generally fade into the wallpaper because Boy A prefers it that way. His behaviour is the problem here, NOT MINE.”

Turns out that the Lovely Man hadn’t even noticed Boy A’s nastiness, and just thought I was relaxing in the bedroom because I wanted to.

I found it disturbing and a bit hurtful, though, that it’s considered preferable that I minimise my presence and role in the house to keep the peace and keep Boy A “happy”.

Ultimately, I think those kinds of accommodations devalue and disrespect me and enable Boy A to continue deferring his adjustment to our family situation.

I understand that the Lovely Man feels stuck in a lose/lose situation, juggling to keep everyone happy, but this incident has made me wonder – if my best contribution is made by downplaying my existence in what is meant to be my part-time home, why am I here at all?

As a stepmother, are you ever asked or expected to downplay yourself or fade into beige to keep others in your stepfamily “comfortable”?

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Filed under Communication, Kids, Lovely Man, Speaking Up Challenge, Stepfamily Life

Normal transmission will resume shortly

Being a Care Bear - it's a killer

I’ve been on unplanned blog downtime for a month or so now.

Life has felt very overwhelming. Kid stuff, ex stuff, relationship stuff, me stuff, Lovely Man stuff, our incredibly dense schedule, and the endless travel and separation from the Lovely Man that being an involved long-distance stepmother entails have all been taking a heavy toll on my “sparkle”.

There is lots of research out there on the high rates of depression experienced by stepmothers, presumably for all the reasons above and then some extras. Wednesday Martin talks a lot about this less than delightful aspect of stepfamily life on her blog, and in her book, Stepmonster.

I thought, apparently incorrectly, that being aware and educated about stepfamily life was going to keep me well. That knowing that I wasn’t alone, that almost every other stepmother on earth was experiencing or had experienced similar stuff could bolster me against the slow bleed of joy, the takeover of my old life by stepfamily dramas. In the end, though, it seems that even having the biggest stepfamily library in the Southern Hemisphere is not by itself enough insurance.

For other stepmothers and anyone else in the same place, I’ve come across a fantastic book, The Depression Cure by Stephen S. Ilardi. It’s all commonsense stuff, mostly, but it feels right.

So I’m fighting back and trying hard to rebuild a basic self-care regime of exercise, getting outside, avoiding rumination, seeking connection and eating better.

Part of my get well plan is also this blog, which my psychologist has suggested I return to as part of feeling like myself again.

I also need to recommit to speaking up about what is and isn’t okay with me, instead of being what conflict professionals call a “Care Bear” – someone who gives away more than is sustainable for them. It might seem all nice on the surface to be Ms-Endlessly-Supportive-Sucks-It-Up, but in the end, playing Care Bear is a guaranteed happiness killer.

Changing these habits is hard, and I have to take a deep breath each time I say something that goes against my fluffy pastel nice-girl instincts, but there have been some big wins for honesty in the last week or so.

It’s not easy on the Lovely Man, being part of all this while having a lot to cope with himself. I’m very grateful for his support.

So anyway, I’m back – a bit weak and watery at present, but hoping to be back in full voice ere long.

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Filed under Communication, Counselling, Self-Care Challenge, Speaking Up Challenge, Stepfamily Life

Speak Up Week Challenge – first check-in

The Speak Up Week challenge continues.

Our last few days with the Boys were spent taking them interstate to visit the Lovely Man’s extended family. I find travelling with the kids a real “hot button” time when the biological force field is more in evidence than usual, and my outsider status tends to throb like a particularly bad bruise.

During our time away, I…

- expressed to the Lovely Man that I preferred Boy C not share the bedroom he and I had when we all stayed with relatives, given there was space for him to sleep comfortably elsewhere;

- explained how disposable I feel in the family when we’re all out somewhere and the Lovely Man and boys just cruise off without me while I’m in the bathroom, leaving me looking around for them in a panic; and

- spent a happy morning alone trawling the markets for vintage clothes while the Boys and the Lovely Man browsed Lego stalls, instead of tagging along because I “should” and feeling irritated the whole time.

The sense of freedom this honesty brings is wonderful. Yes, there’s a degree of fronting up for potential conflict in the process of speaking out, and that’s scary, but it’s so much less burdening than the internal conflicts that result from pasting on a smile and stewing inside.

What kinds of things do you try to speak up about?

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Filed under Communication, Lovely Man, Speaking Up Challenge, Stepfamily Life, Travel

Speak Up Week Challenge

A few months on from my adventures in extreme self-care, it’s challenge time again.

The challenge concept is a useful one. Especially the accountability factor – there’s nothing like thinking hmmm, what am I going to post as today’s self-care? to motivate me to actually take some time out.

Over the past few months, intermittent bouts of depression have made it clear that some aspects of the way I function as a stepmother need work.

Oh, I always have a smile, produce afternoon tea on demand, and generally find the balance of firm-but-friendly to motivate unwilling kids for the morning get-to-school marathon.

So, what should be different?

Should.

I HATE that word. It always implies a judgement imposed by someone else, almost invariably someone who through lack of experience is completely unable to comprehend the complexities of a given situation. Or, infinitely more cutting, a self-judgement.

I’ve been struggling, but not really with the issues I imagined would be problematic before getting involved with the boys. Originally, I was afraid I would lose my temper, not be able to be present with them, or get culture-shocked by the transition from life as a self-directed single woman to spending large slabs of time with three kids.

Unexpectedly, perhaps, it’s not been those factors that have been the problem; from an outsider’s perspective, then, it’s all happening as it “should” be.

There are shoulds actually being neglected in our various homes – they’re just a different kind.

Honesty, or perhaps authenticity, is the first one. There are so, so many times when I don’t speak up, or find myself going along with situations I don’t agree with. It’s a habit that was preserving surface harmony, but sapping my happiness underneath.

Being more honest doesn’t mean verbalising every frustration or criticism of the kids to the Lovely Man, or becoming hurtfully or abrasively assertive like a 90s cliché. I’m trying for increased authenticity, not a convenient whipping boy. And there are times when I need to accept that the Lovely Man and the Boys’ Mum will make their own decisions for their own reasons, and that those decisions presumably make sense inside their heads if not inside mine.

Overall, though Little Miss Shut Up (gotta get that one on a t-shirt) here really, really needs to morph into Little Miss Speaks Up.

But whether it’s expressing that No, I’m not comfortable loaning the Boys’ Mum our car for her holiday, asking the Lovely Man not to volunteer for anymore fifteen hour shifts on public holidays, or telling Boy A that I expect him to say hello when I collect him from school, the new focus is going to be on calmly and skilfully speaking up in a non-accusatory way.

I accept that asking for what I want doesn’t guarantee I’ll get it. Not even close.

But nobody is psychic, and especially in stepfamilies, if you don’t ask, you surely don’t get.

So each day, I’m going to try to respond clearly and honestly to situations that before would have seen me dropping my eyes and staying mute.

Recently, for instance, the Lovely Man said at dinner:

I thought you boys were really helpful with the cleaning up today, didn’t you B?

Now, one of the Lovely Man’s most endearing qualities is a hefty touch of Pollyanna. In fact, the whole lets-tidy-up process had been about as easy as pulling teeth from a Komodo dragon, with lots of go-slowing resistance from the Boys. So I gulped and said:

Actually, while it was good that you helped a bit, I think you could have actually made an effort tried harder rather than making us stand over you every second. Why do you think adults spend so much energy getting kids to do things they could do quicker themselves?

And I explained that it was because we value cooperating and believe that encouraging them to take responsibility for their mess helps build their characters.

OK, so they stared blankly at me, like I’d offered them vampire sandwiches for lunch.

But I tried. And even if nothing changes, saying it out loud felt so much better than the old nod-and-smile response that I would have given before.

Are there any ways you would like to be more honest in your stepfamily this week?

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Filed under Communication, Speaking Up Challenge, Stepfamily Life