Category Archives: What I Wish I'd Known
Disengaging is not a new concept in step-land.
But it was new to me when I first came across some articles a few months back.
At that time, I was trying trying trying to get the Lovely Man’s kids, and especially Boy A, to like me.
There were thoughtful little gifts, special efforts to make their favourite foods, questions about their interests and opinions.
Boy B was mostly ok, though he was wary and occasionally rejecting. The day I overheard him tell Boy A that he hated me I went into our bedroom and cried.
Boy C was, as ever, fun and funny to be around, offering me a level of mostly unconditional trust and pleasure at our friendship that felt like it was all that was getting me through.
Boy A, though, was really letting rip. Everything I did was stupid, he felt free to criticise my appearance, my cooking, my family. The sighs of disdain rang out and the eyes rolled and his gaze and ears were always averted from me. He actively sought to exclude me and tried to build alliances with the Lovely Man against me.
My poor sister used to patiently hear out my venting and say:
B, you’ve got to stop trying so hard! Just ignore him if he’s being nasty.
That was her approach with her own (heavily alienated) stepdaughter, and she found there was less pressure on them both.
But me? I Wasn’t Giving Up.
But then, after a particularly awful visit, I came across the disengaging concept.
Here’s the classic piece about The Disengaged Stepparent.
And Help! My Wife is Disengaged, an article aimed at men with frustrated stepparent partners.
And finally, Disengaging Made Easy.
(A lie, I’m afraid. It’s not actually easy. But it’s easier than the alternative!)
I didn’t follow the suggestions exactly.
I haven’t refused to do laundry, or made any big announcements. I will if I need to, though.
Here’s what I now do differently:
I’ve mostly given up cooking for the Boys.
It was causing me way too much grief to have my nice meals rudely rejected, so mostly I allow the Lovely Man make the dinners. If I do cook, it’s something their Dad makes that they’ve had a million times before, or a dessert that they’ve eaten in the past and liked. School lunches, when I make them, are exactly what they had the previous day.
The best thing? I’m not giving anyone a hook to hang their loyalty issues or desire to reject me on.
I now almost never buy little treats or presents for the Boys.
I liked doing it, but I didn’t like being expected to do it or not being thanked, so I stopped.
If, for instance, I decide to go to the fancy deli to buy Boy A’s favourite gourmet jam so he has an extra breakfast option, I don’t mention it, or I let him think the Lovely Man bought it.
It’s not that I don’t want to do nice things for the Boys – I do – it’s that I don’t want the stress of being unhappy with the way they choose to react, or to add to the “pity spoiling” they already get from other family members.
Instead, I aim to be completely present in the time I spend with them, whether that’s wrestling on the floor or helping with their homework.
I play with Boys B and C and hang out when and as much as I feel like.
Generally, we have a play session each day, but if I feel like staying in my bedroom with a book, then I do it without feeling guilty.
And because I’m actually enjoying the time I spend with the younger Boys rather than forcing it, we have more fun. They beg me to come and play now.
I no longer try to include Boy A. He’d be welcome if he wanted to join in, but he never does and I don’t mind at all.
I try to do what I say I will rather than “give in” to be popular.
So last visit I told the Boys they could choose a treat for two days of smooth morning school runs. If both mornings hadn’t ended being smooth, they would not have gotten their treat.
I tell Boy C exactly what time I will read until in the evenings, and it is his job to be in his PJs and in bed with clean teeth before that time. The longer he takes getting ready, the shorter his reading time. I don’t give in to cries of “just a few more minutes!”
Because I said I wouldn’t, that’s why. And I want them to know that I can’t be swayed by begging, pouting or bad behaviour.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
Ironically, I’m both happier in myself and more popular with the Boys as a result of my decision to disengage.
There are different approaches to disengaging as a stepparent. Depending on the situation, it may not need to be full-scale, on-strike, you’re-hitchhiking-to-school revolution. But I bet there’s a few things in almost every stepmother’s life that might benefit from a strategic disengagement.
What do you disengage from in your stepfamily?
What could you disengage from?
Recently a friend of mine (You know who you are, Miss A!) became involved with a great guy…. who has two young kids living with their mum in another country.
Now, I’m pretty open with my friends and family about the reality of stepparenting as I experience it. The last thing anyone needs when they are just getting into an exciting new romance, though, is a lot of warnings about this problem and that difficulty they may – or may not – encounter.
Remembering how starry-eyed (admittedly in a slightly anxious way) I was about the idea of the Lovely Man’s kids prior to meeting them (I love kids! Kids love me! They’re so cute! It’ll be fine!), and how unseemly I found the occasionally cynical comments of other more experienced stepparents, there might be a place for offering resources that will give a new stepmum something to draw on during the confusing early phases, but without overwhelming her with horror stories.
(It’s interesting that the process of becoming a new stepmum can perhaps be equated, in this respect if no other, to that of a first-time pregnancy. Ideally, you get support; more often, I gather, everyone wants to tell you their grisliest war stories!)
So, mindful of Stef’s great post 10 things to know about step-parenting, Jacquelyn Fletcher’s post on How To Be A Stepmom’s Friend and my own “What I Wish I Had Known” series, here are five practical, useful ways I think women who’ve “been there” could consider offering help to new stepmothers.
1. First up, be gentle!
Dr Patricia Papernow described the various stages of stepfamily development. Specifically relevant to new stepmothers is the first “fantasy” stage, driven by the expectation that everything will work out beautifully and the new family will be “just like” a nuclear family, full of love and rainbows and unicorns.
While this stage may be terribly unrealistic, it’s also the last chance some women will have for a while to feel really positive and hopeful about their stepfamilies, so personally I’m not going to go around bursting any bubbles. Chances are it will wear off soon enough!
Offer to be there to talk. Preferably without implying that you’re expecting any 3am panic calls.
2. If it hasn’t happened yet, encourage her not to put too much pressure on herself about the “big” first meeting with the kids.
Personally, I nearly drove myself over a precipice of stress and anticipation leading up to the first time I met the Boys and the Lovely Man was also extremely concerned about how it would all play out, so I internalised waaaay too much of an “end of the world” perfectionistic standard for the encounter.
More recent experience and confirmatory accounts from other stepmums have since shown me that the much-hyped first meeting isn’t usually that crucial. There’s often a bit of a honeymoon period in terms of the stepkids’ reactions to Dad’s new partner anyway, and for many kids it also seems to take a while to sink in that you’re there for the long haul.
So I would reassure women in this position not to beat themselves up too much about the first meeting. Barring accidents, it’s the meeting after that and after that and after that, i.e. once a comfort zone has been established, when any problems are most likely to show up.
3. A copy of Wednesday Martin’s Stepmonster, or your own favourite stepparenting book.
It’s probably best to avoid giving anything too gritty. I remember reading Cherie Burns’ Stepmotherhood early on and finding it painted stepmother reality in tones of panic-inducing darkness before I was ready to give up those charming fantasies of instant mutual love and appreciation. Or even to recognise that I had them.
Apparently, research shows women read twice as many books about stepfamily dynamics as men. There’s a good chance that a new stepmum will be really, really wanting to “get it right”; good books will at least give her a heads-up on what she might expect and how normal it is to feel [insert disconcerting emotion here].
4. A chatty email with links to a few online resources “just in case you’re interested”.
Maybe NOT to the sites that describe horrible knock-down, drag-out battles with an evil ex, though – more the supportive, resource-focused ones. Down the track sometime, Jacque Fletcher’s Stepmom Circles podcasts on a CD to listen to in the car or on her iPod might be a thoughtful gift.
You could also mention, in passing, a stepfamily course or group that you have found helpful. If the new stepmother is interested or becomes interested later, she’ll know to ask you for contact details.
5. Advice – or not?
As most of us have experienced firsthand, stepmothers tend to get overwhelmed by advice, most of which is pretty counterproductive.
“Act like an aunt.” “Don’t try to be their mother!” “Be a mother-figure.” “You’d better love them like your own!” “They’ll resent you forever – learn to deal with it.”
Role ambiguity, anyone?
To avoid advice-induced overwhelm, try to limit giving advice unless asked, maybe to a single idea you’ve found really useful.
(Note: However much you might be tempted, screeching “Run! Run like the wind!” won’t work and will just induce a sense of “I told you so” if hassles do arise down the track.)
As a fly-in, fly-out stepparent myself, the only advice I gave my friend was not to assume that because her new partner’s kids lived overseas they wouldn’t be a massive part of his and her day-to-day lives.
On the contrary, I’ve found that the kids are ever-present in our life as a couple. Which I guess would only come as a surprise to someone who doesn’t have kids themselves!
What would you offer a brand-new or soon-to-be-stepmother?
Kids can be mysterious critters, especially for us childless/childfree stepmums.
Listen to the kids. Try not to brush over the feelings they say they have even when they’re inconvenient to your worldview.
Early on, I made the mistake of trying to be reassuring.
But you know you’ll see Daddy again soon!
It didn’t help them miss him less, just told them that their feelings weren’t valid.
You don’t have to fix the feelings, but acknowledging them and offering empathy at least tells the child their feelings are ok. The emotional coaching techniques described by Ron & Nan Deal are really helpful.
HOWEVER – bad behaviour needs to be addressed however understandable or unhappy the feelings that are driving it.
Don’t let the kids hit you or call you insulting names, even in fun. Being called an old ugly stinky witch repeatedly will make you snap one day, however much you try to laugh it off.
Trust me on this.
Understand developmental grieving. Carolyn at The Grown Up Child talks about this a lot from the child’s point of view.
It basically means that kids don’t just get over the divorce.
Every important life milestone from graduating primary school to their own wedding will probably mean they’ll grieve Mum and Dad not being together anymore all over again.
As so many of us are being reminded at this time of year, Christmas is a hot button time for reigniting this kind of grief even in adult stepkids.
So the whole situation can feel like one step forward, seventeen two steps back. Knowing why it’s happening makes it easier, though.
Especially at this time of year, have boundaries with giving gifts.
Early on, I would quite often buy my stepkids presents – I enjoyed sleuthing out things I thought they would like and watching their happy faces when I guessed right, and seeing them get pleasure from the model dinosaur/Lego castle/baking kit/Twilight book.
I hoped it would show them that I got their interests and personalities and that I was interested in what interested them, and that we might do the activity-based things together.
Recently, though, I had this phone call.
Lovely Man: Hi darling. Boy A wants to talk to you.
(Surprised; Boy A never wants to talk to me and recently is usually aggressive and unpleasant in what he does say.)
Boy A: I was just wondering, what did you get us for Christmas last year?
Me: Ummmmm. Ummm. Uhhhhm. I’m not sure. Why do you ask?
Boy A: Just want to know. So what was it?
Me: Weeeeeelll, I think there were books, and those crystal Christmas trees, and…. I can’t remember what else. Why were you wondering?
Boy A: No reason. Bye.
And he hung up before I could reply or talk to the Lovely Man again.
On asking the Lovely Man later, it turned out that Boy A had been making an unfavourable comparison between me and his Mum’s boyfriend (who had just bought the boys a Wii), and the phone call was intended to prove that I wasn’t as “good” a stepparent.
Initially, I was not happy, Jan that the Lovely Man had let him call me for that purpose; the call was uncomfortable, and I knew at the time there was some kind of agenda beneath the words that I wasn’t getting.
But the Lovely Man, bless him, said he was sorry. He said:
I thought that, maybe, it was a positive that Boy A wanted to call you. That you might get a chance to have a conversation.
Mostly, though, I just felt very sad and disappointed and used.
It’s not the first time that I’ve worried that the boys might be heading in a slightly exploitative direction.
I don’t want the Lovely Man and me to be valued chiefly for the nice things we might buy them. I think that it’s dangerous if the main positive they associate with us is gifts, and having money to spend on them.
I don’t want to feel used and taken for a ride.
I have lots to give in terms of my time and personality and care for them, so those are the gifts I’ll be offering from now on.
There will be presents for Christmas, but I’ve decided to give them what they actually want much more than the latest Lego Mega Roadkill Fantasy Kit or whatever, if only they knew it – one-on-one time with their Dad, doing a special activity together.
I’m planning it, paying for it and caring for the other kids while each boy and the Lovely Man do their thing together. I’ll also arrange one experience that we’ll all do together, maybe a surfing lesson or something like that.
Waaaay generous, in my opinion, though probably less immediately, shred-the-wrapping-paper popular on Christmas morning.
Given how little time the Lovely Man and I have together, sending him off to do something with each boy while I care for the other two, and doing it three times over, is absolutely the most generous gift I could give them.
Kids are pretty black-and-white thinkers.
It’s a reflexive kid thing to try to find someone to blame for any given yucky situation.
However unreasonably, that could well be you – it’s hard to blame the Mum and Dad they love for the divorce.
Recognising that adult reality is made up of shades of grey and there doesn’t have to always be someone to blame (hopefully) comes later.
Don’t expect yourself to love the kids.
Other people’s kids can be maddening because we stepparents rely on steely self-control to choke back our baser urges rather than having a built in wait!-don’t-strangle-your-beloved-flesh-and-blood safety valve to fall back on like their parents do.
I find it quite sad hearing stepmums desperately insisting they love their stepkids. Of course lots do, but I remember making this mistake early on, trying to convince myself as much as anyone else.
Then I thought,
Hold on, what kind of idiot loves someone who criticises them and their family, hits them and is rude and disrespectful?
Sounds waaaaay too much like an abusive relationship to me!
So now I give myself a break. Sometimes I love some of them, sometimes the best I can dredge up is compassion, and sometimes they just plain drive me batty and I go for a run to avoid throttling the next little voice that drones Daaaaa-deeeee.
On a happier note, try to enjoy the kids.
Hopefully, you might get the chance to have fun and be playful without having to worry constantly about their futures/educations/moral characters.
There’s actually only a limited amount you can contribute on these fronts, so see if you can let the parents, whose job it primarily is after all, do the worrying while you get your tickle or Nintendo or whatever on.
As a mum and/or stepmum, what kid-related insights do you have to share?
Thanks so much to everyone who commented on/linked to my last post listing the things I wish I’d known about the early days of stepfamily life when I was in the early days…
(What’s that? It still is the early days? Why do I feel 103, then?)
Here are a few more, this time specifically about settling into a relationship with a ready-made Dad.
The mantra the children come first is not a self-evident truth, however tempting it may be to chorus at every opportunity; it’s a destructive and dangerous idea if you actually want your second-family relationship to survive.
One of the common ways this seems to come out is when Dads make a point of showing how important the kids are by always popping the stepmum at the back of the queue.
Joel Schwartzber’s article on What Remarried Dads Owe Their Stepmom Wives talks about this stuff from the much rarer man’s perspective; like most stepfamily resources it assumes the couple are married, but I think applies just as well to any committed partnership with stepkids.
The Lovely Man and I still don’t always find a mutually agreeable balance of my/his/our/the kids’ needs, but things are getting better all the time.
Our biggest progress was when I stopped letting the Evil Mantra (“kids must come first! kids must come first!”) make me feel so guilty that I was silenced from asking for what I needed. He’s truly a Lovely Man, and he wants to help if only I let him know how!
You might not be the kids’ mum, but it’s often a good check-in of whether your partner is being fair to ask whether he’s treating you as if you were.
I don’t mean with respect to decision-making about the kids’ schools or braces or religion, but to general things, like when deciding where to go to dinner or whether to intervene if the children are misbehaving towards you.
These days, my (private) rule of thumb is that if he wouldn’t have behaved this way/allowed this behaviour to his ex-wife during their marriage, then it’s not right toward me either.
So, for example, if one of the boys made disrespectful comments about my family, I think:
Would he have let that go unchallenged if made in front of their Mum about their Mum’s family before the breakup?
If the answer’s no, then I expect him to sit on it, pronto.
Or if he decided what to do for a day out by asking the children’s opinions, agreeing to whatever they said, then saying to me in front of them: Is that ok with you?
Would he have followed this decision-making process with the boys’ Mum when they were married?
Of course not; in healthy first families, children might be consulted but ultimately adults make the decisions.
I’m pretty certain his ex-wife’s views were always genuinely canvassed and taken into account, not just given lip service in front of the kids so that she felt pressure to go along to avoid being the bad guy.
Doing this exercise really helps me sort out my boundaries and also identify when I’m the one being unreasonable. Oh yes, it happens!
You and your partner don’t have to endlessly turn the other cheek to serious untruths or distortions in the name of not dragging the kids into adult conflict.
After all, a lie is often accepted as truth when you don’t correct it, and lies of that kind are designed to often cause harm to the parent-child relationship.
It needs to be very skilfully and carefully done, though, and only when truly warranted. If the cross-talk is getting bad, Divorce Poison shows techniques for assessing whether it’s necessary to take action and, if so, how to address the stories.
(Of course, this is mostly up to Dads. But it’s still good to know.)
Your partner may know how to be a first family Dad, but he might need help to learn how to be a stepfamily Dad.
For Australian families, I can’t recommend the stepfamily course run by Relationships Australia highly enough.
Finally, like Nine Kinds of Crazy said on the same topic, try to make sure you get time with your partner without the kids.
You’ll be a much saner happier bunny for it, and more able to enjoy the kids and your own Lovely Man!
I’ve been thinking today about what I wish I’d known before getting into this step business.
It’s a bit like when someone’s pregnant, you know? Do you tell them birth horror stories so they’re prepared for what could go wrong, or gloss it all over with sticky icing to avoid inducing a panic attack before it’s necessary?
Are all, when you’re dating/bonking/besotted with/engaged to a guy with kids, reality does tend to catch up quickly enough!
So I thought and thought, and wished that, instead of just looking at me with the kind of appalled expressions that made me want to reflexively check my person for dog faeces, there had been some nice experienced step-type person who might have been able to tell me a few things.
Things I wish I’d known in the early days…
You’re not alone – lots of women routinely don’t describe themselves as stepmums because they too are afraid of being judged. Dig a little and you’ll be surprised.
On the other hand, first family parents, particularly mums, may find your very existence terrifying in a this-could-happen-to-me kind of way. Not your fault!
Unfortunately, I’m good with kids and children always love me doesn’t mean you’ll have an easy ride. Your stepkids are not ‘normal’ in the way they relate to you; being able to charm the most petulant primary schooler or colicky infant around in milliseconds does not mean these children will accept you easily.
Just because a child acts sweet or even courts you and says that you should marry their Daddy doesn’t mean things are going to go smoothly. Many stepkids have a delightful honeymoon period until the reality that you are going to be around permanently sinks in; then the acting out can start.
Boy A was like this with me to begin with – during those first few visits he would help me with the chores, assemble ingredients for me to cook, tell me all about his friends and toys.
I honestly thought: Wow, this stepmum thing’s a lark. Nothing to it! Oh, woe, was I in for a shock(er).
Once he realised that I wasn’t a passing fad or an amusing but temporary visitor, his demeanour towards me became much darker – there’s been the hitting phase, the complaints to the Lovely Man about how annoying I am, the endless shrugging, the refusal to answer or acknowledge me, the requests that I not visit anymore, the story that Boys B and C are scared of me.
Not fun, but now that I’ve got a more realistic idea of how he feels at least the Lovely Man and I can work on it.
Boy B, on the other hand, started off very shy and withdrawn but now seems (mostly) to really enjoy my company.
And Boy C is, as ever, my saving grace, with his funny stories and giggling fits and the occasional spontaneous cuddles that warm my [wicked] heart.
Don’t overcompensate to prove to the world at large that you’re not wicked. Foolish people will assume you are wicked however nice you are, while smart people will see how hard your job is and forgive your mistakes.
Same deal: don’t overcompensate to prove to the kids that you’re not wicked. The kids’ attitudes to you may end up having very little to do with you and how you actually behave.
Stepfamilies are so different to first families and some of what happens is completely counter-intuitive. The more a stepkid likes you the more they may reject you? Whaaaattha?!
For non-US stepmums like me, Amazon is your friend. Most of the books I’ve found helpful aren’t readily available outside the US and UK.
However much or little you and your partner see the kids, things are never going to be the same. This will probably take over your life, more or less…
…and your non-step friends will struggle to understand why you seem so obsessed.
And finally, it’s hard, but it’s also sometimes really, really good fun.
This list actually ended up ENORMOUS, so I’ll post another installment tomorrow.
In the meantime, I’d love to know what other stepmums include on their If Only I Had Known list…