Tag Archives: stepmumoftheyear

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?

7 Comments

Filed under Communication, Resources, Stepfamily Life

Bite Back

I was over at Family In Bloom reading Tulip’s latest about how her husband put a really powerful and appropriate boundary in place for her pre-teen stepdaughter, Daisy. Go read her post, if you haven’t already – the way Tulip’s husband handled the situation was just SO perfect. It was like stepfamily poetry or something.

What was interesting though was despite the ringing-from-the-hills rightness of how the issue got dealt with, a rightness so patent that it had commenters alternately sighing wistfully and congratulating madly, Tulip was nonetheless second guessing the actions taken and wondering if the way the particular situation was dealt with was too harsh.

(In case I wasn’t already clear, there was NO.WAY. it was too harsh… in my opinion, anyway.)

The whole thing made me think: isn’t it funny/weird/interesting that we stepmums tend to push harder than our partners for boundaries, rules, structure in a dynamic that can feel utterly ENDLESS, but when we finally get our wish and we get to firm up the boundaries or someone else does it for us, we suddenly feel a tiny bit guilty, uncertain, or just plain mean?

I had this come up recently in a different context.

It was my week in the Boys’ City, and there had been a steady but not slow degeneration into morning chaos and disorganisation from the Boys. Morning after morning, we’d get halfway to school to hear a voice from the back that someone had forgotten their assignment, due today and reeeeeeeally important. Or someone else had left their lunch behind. Or their tie, and now they wouldn’t match the other kids at choir and would risk getting into trouble.

I’m sure I need hardly say that in every instance, there had been a range of reminders that morning about the assignment, the lunch, the tie. For goodness sakes, the Lovely Man and I give multiple prompts about taking assignments and homework with them, we place the Boys’ lunch boxes on top of their school bags to be packed and we LAY THEIR UNIFORMS OUT ON THEIR BEDS for them (OMG, I’m a valet to pre-teens!) while they enjoy their leisurely reading breakfasts. Which is another story altogether…

Anyway, the Boys were constantly and sloppily forgetting their school things. And for the most part, the Lovely Man would either turn the car around to get whatever it was, guaranteeing a late arrival at school for all the Boys, including any that were organised that morning, or he would drop them at school, then drive the twenty-five to thirty minute round trip to collect the forgotten item and deliver it to the school. There were never any negative consequences to the Boys from their forgetfulness, just a confident expectation that the adult servants would rectify the situation with minimal inconvenience to the child involved.

I’ve always had a problem with this approach; the incentives aren’t there for improvement in the patterns of behaviour, so how could we expect improvement? It would actually be unfair to expect the Boys to be more careful to remember their things unless the adult response changed.

So anyway, the Lovely Man had early work on a couple of mornings in a row and it was down to me to do school runs alone. The Boys were a tiny bit more motivated about getting ready in a timely way than usual, but inevitably the call came: Boy B had forgotten his blazer and tie, and Boy A had forgotten his blazer as well, despite my reminders.

We were about halfway to school, doing okay for time but set to be late if I turned the car around, so after checking that they wouldn’t be cold, I said:

It’s a pity, but I’ve got things on today, so I can’t run home and get them for you. You’ll just have to manage as best you can.

There were no demands that I rearrange my schedule or accusations of cruelty or wickedness; they were pretty accepting.

But you know what?

Even though I stuck to my guns, it was a warmish day, and I absolutely knew letting them tough it out was the right and necessary thing to do if they were ever going to learn to take responsibility for packing their school necessaries properly, I felt bad and guilty and just plain mean.

All day long.

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Filed under Kids, Stepfamily Life

Small delights

I did the school run for the Boys by myself today and will be again tomorrow, since the Lovely Man has two early starts at work.

By “school run” I don’t just mean the drive in to school but the entire early-morning-drill-sergeant-get-boys-up-and-ready routine.

It only lasts about ninety minutes, but it’s quite an intense process, especially since stepmother authority to compel obedience/listening/quick responses is often fairly limited.

I sometimes dread the prospect of school run days, but today went fairly smoothly, on the whole. (Three boys of various sizes invariably = a range of at least minor hiccups, but that’s parenting, I guess.)

There was one lovely moment, though – I had made umpteen slices of toast with strawberry jam, which had been delivered to the table and duly devoured, and was standing at the sink trying to get the post-breakfast fallout cleared away.

Suddenly, a little pair of arms wrapped around my waist from behind and hugged me, and Boy C said:

Thankyou, B. You’re *really* nice to us!

He’s such a sweetie, and my smile persisted even after I looked down at where his hands had been and saw his little jam-sticky paw prints on the front of my cream dress.

That’s the other side of parenting, I guess, and I like it, jam and all.

6 Comments

Filed under Family, Food, Kids, Me, Stepfamily Life

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”?

14 Comments

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

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