Tag Archives: Wednesday Martin
I recently posted about Urban Stepmom’s dilemma regarding how much we should expect ourselves (and each other) to sacrifice for our stepkids. Wednesday Martin describes this set of assumptions and pressures (internal and external) as StepMartyr Syndrome.
It’s an interesting question, and as with everything stepfamily-related, there are starkly differing opinions out there. Married to Batman has a different take on it from me, for instance.
Lisa at Urban Stepmom has given the issue some more thought and come to a conclusion that will hopefully work for her and her family.
Here’s the start of her update; click through to read the whole post.
…Or Not Change Our Lives?
My last post got me thinking. Do the kids really come first? Is the greater good of this “family” more important than my needs? How much should I change my life to accommodate this stepmom choice? And I came to a couple of conclusions:
1) Who do I think I am, Mother Theresa?
2) You can’t do something for others and then resent them for “making you” do it.
I realized that over the course of the last six and a half years, since I met my husband, I sacrificed HUGE things in my life, for him, for the kids, for his ex, for them, for what I thought was “us”, for what I thought I was supposed to do.
Click here to read the full post.
I’m spending a couple of much-needed days away at the moment while the Lovely Man takes a week’s “Boy Time” in the kids’ city.
As much as I support the Boys getting time alone with their Dad, it wasn’t a plan I was particularly happy about initially – there’s nothing like feeling excluded from what I consider my family (even if the other people in it don’t feel the same way about me!) to reinforce those inevitable stepmother outsider feelings. The Boys actually get a lot of time with their Dad without me there, and the timing of this particular trip certainly hasn’t felt ideal…
But now, looking out of my hotel window at the blue sky and glassy river beyond, I feel very glad to be here, catching up with myself as I am outside and beyond my stepmother role.
Part of the “shutting down” feeling that I get from being depressed (and just as a reminder, stepmothers suffer stress and depression at significantly higher rates than other stepfamily members, mothers without stepchildren or women generally) has included a kind of distancing from spending time with people I love, so it feels like a big step forward to have invited a couple of friends and my sister to each spend a night with me as part of this mini-holiday.
And in between their comings and goings I’ve got hours each day to myself for walking on the beach, shopping, reading and writing. I also carefully chose the cheapest hotel I could find that had a gym so I can keep up with the all-important exercise regimen that’s been so helpful in lifting my mood and cutting the dreaded rumination cycle off at the knees.
I’m very lucky to have this option – lots of other women wouldn’t be able to get away from work, or couldn’t spare the extra cash that three nights in even an inexpensive hotel costs. As much as I love our home, the Lovely Man’s long hours and extra travel to see the Boys without me for two weekends in four means I spend way too much time alone there, so actually being in a different environment is a big part of the self-care investment of this trip.
Especially for stepmothers without children of our own, there’s an enormous benefit in getting away from our usual routine and consciously connecting with the things that make us who we are beyond our partner and his kids.
Common sense tells us there are real benefits to getting away, even if the best you can manage is sending your man and the children out for a day of Dad-Kid time and consciously taking that few hours to do something enjoyable that you have let slide away under the pressure of stepfamily life. Or for some women maybe deliberately setting out to do something new and different might be more nurturing – what about packing a book, a blanket, a sandwich and a drink, heading to the prettiest park you can find and turning your phone off for a guaranteed two hours of solitude? I’ll stow that idea away for the next time the Boys come to visit…
I’ve put so much energy into cultivating my relationship with the Lovely Man and with his kids that the most important relationship I have got neglected. It feels so good to be gradually getting back together with me again.
Over and over and over again, lately, I’ve been hearing women online and in person say that their husbands and partners get angry at them for not loving their stepkids enough. That they don’t know how to pretend they love their stepchildren when they don’t. Or that they just feel guilty for not loving or sometimes even liking their stepkids.
I’m very lucky that the Lovely Man doesn’t buy into this garbage, but it seems that many, many men do. I’d say it’s the single biggest criticism I hear of men directing at their stepmother wives and partners – that they “aren’t loving enough” or “you don’t love my kids like you love your own”.
My question is, do these men expect their kids to love the stepmum like the kids love their mother?
(This is a purely rhetorical exercise, by the way – the answer is guaranteed to be “Of course not!”)
Stepfamily writers and therapists agree that it is completely unreasonable for bio-parents to expect this love from their partners, and it just makes it harder for the stepparent to integrate into the family. There’s actually a psychological term for this problem: “The Myth of Instant Love”. Despite this, studies show that over half of men expected their wives to be “more maternal” with their stepkids than they turned out to be.
Not only is this expectation unreasonable – it’s misguided. Oftentimes kids in loyalty binds don’t want you to love them anyway! And the more loving, warm and appealing they find you, the more they will feel driven to reject you.
I experienced quite a breakthrough recently with Boy A on this issue.
It came about when we were all in the car together on the way out to dinner or something and Boy C announced, completely out of the blue (as he does):
You don’t love us like our mummy loves us!
I’ve always had an honesty bug when it comes to those moments of challenge, so without even thinking much, I replied:
No, I don’t love you like your parents love you, because parents love their kids in a different way from other people. I really care for you guys and want you to be happy, but I don’t love you the same way your mum and dad do. That’s their job.
There were no complaints or arguments from the backseat, just satisfied expressions. It made sense to them, and I suspect they actually liked hearing it – I think it reassured them that I wasn’t trying to take their mum’s place, if that makes sense. Boy A’s behaviour towards me improved dramatically from that point of the visit, and has continued to improve since. My stepmother instinct tells me that something about that conversation fell into place for him.
To his credit, the Lovely Man handled it well, too. I told him about the research that says that very loving, “mother-style” stepmothers are hard for kids to handle when there are loyalty demands placed on them. And the outcome kind of spoke for itself.
The thing is, I do have some quite loving feelings towards the Boys at times. But I am not going to pretend that those feelings are the same as a biological parent might feel. It’s just so obviously not true.
Nobody can wave a magic wand and make a stepfamily into a first family, however much some men wish it would happen. I think some of them expect their partners to love their kids mostly so they can feel like they’ve replaced the first family that “broke” and thereby “make up” to the kids for the divorce. Like so much else, it’s a guilt thing.
You may never love your stepkids (or you might love them differently from each other) and they may never love you. As long as you are fair and kind, that’s all anyone should expect. Hopefully you’ll eventually develop a relationship that feels ok for you and for them. And as Wednesday Martin says in “Stepmonster”, that’s probably a “good enough” relationship.
If you are copping pressure on the love question, a solution might be to do a stepfamily course together with your partner. The Lovely Man and I did one early on with Relationships Australia, and the group leaders really drilled it into us that demanding a stepparent love stepkids “like their own” is unrealistic, unhelpful and unnecessary.
And that was only one of the benefits – it certainly didn’t hurt for us to be told, over and over, that for the success of our stepfamily we needed to put our relationship first and have lots of one-on-one couple time…
Are you expected to love your stepkids, “like you own” or at all? Do you?
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.
For people who haven’t encountered the term, life listing is, predictably enough, the process of writing down the goals you wish to experience or achieve over the course of your life.
A different perspective on it might be to ask yourself:
At the end of my life, as I lie on my deathbed, what would I be disappointed not to have done?
What has this got to do with stepmothering, though?
I don’t know about you ladies, but one of the challenges I face in my stepmother role is not letting it descend like a gigantic sticky cloud, obliterating life as I know it and obscuring the person I am outside of supporting the Lovely Man through property settlement negotiations, planning handover schedules and doing the school run.
As women, we have a tendency to dive right in up to our corneas, trying-trying-trying, supporting-supporting-supporting, and while it might give us a sense of purpose, we can easily loosen our grips on the woman beneath who is not solely a stepmother/partner to a man with kids.
And when the kids and/or ex-wives hurt or reject us, if we’ve lost that grip, then who are we left to be?
Thinking about my life list reminded me that so many of the experiences I want to add to my life have nothing whatever to do with being stepmum of the year, in any sense. Some do, and this step-parenting gig has certainly added a lot of richness to my life. But the vast majority of items I’ve listed are about the separate me, the me I was before I met the Lovely Man and still am, underneath.
Looking through other people’s life lists, too, reminded me of all the amazing things I have done already, of how lucky I am to have been able to drink hot chocolate on the top of the Alps, snorkel with sea lions off the Galápagos Islands, watch tiny emerald kingfishers hover over Lake Srinagar in Kashmir, stand inside the Taj Mahal, and steer a yacht across oceans, watching the Southern Cross draw nearer night by night. Even with nothing added to my life lift, I am already so, so blessed.
That I’ve been able to do some of these things with the Lovely Man, my dear love and adventure partner, is itself a wonderful blessing. That some of them I did with my close friend and ex-partner, and that we can still exchange do-you-remembers together about the experiences we shared is also a rare privilege.
All those are very helpful things to remember when sometimes it feels like every conscious thought is in danger of being hijacked by stepfamily life. Think of it as the perfect antidote to stepmother rumination.
I haven’t yet finished my life list, but I’ll post it tomorrow shortly.
What would be on your life list?
Loyalty conflicts are perhaps the key to the challenging nature of life in a stepfamily.
Loyalty binds of various kinds for kids, a sense of loyalty imbalanced or even betrayed for step-parents, divided loyalties for repartnered parents.
Recently, I read a superb description of the problematic but central role of loyalty in stepfamily life in an article by therapist William J. Doherty, originally published in the Family Therapy Networker, May/June, 1999, pp. 32-38, 54.
Given recent posts on Wednesday Martin’s blog, and subsequent discussion in the comments, about the importance of finding a therapist who is knowledgeable about stepfamily dynamics, I found this article particularly topical.
Interestingly, Doherty notes that he has no personal experience of life in a stepfamily. That being so, all I can say is full marks for empathy!
I really, really recommend reading the full article.
For non-clickers, though, I have included several paragraphs that, for me, eloquently encapsulate the challenges and achievements of stepfamily life.
More than anything else, stepfamilies make us face the unpleasant truth that core goals of adults and children, and of husbands and wives, sometimes diverge in family life. We want a divorce and our children want us to stay married to their parent. We want to remarry and our kids want us to stay single–or remarry our original spouse…. We want our new spouse to love our children the way we do, and they are… counting the years till the children leave home. When stepfamilies nevertheless succeed in creating a nurturing life together, as many ultimately do, it is a striking human achievement.
Conceived after a loss and born in a love affair that represents the renewal of hope for grownups but not for children, stepfamilies strive everyday to reconcile that which cannot be fully reconciled… Stepfamilies are the moral pioneers of contemporary family life, showing us all how to love and persevere in the face of loyalties that multiply and divide but never fully converge.*
*This extract is quoted under the Fair Use doctrine of the Copyright Act 2009 for the purposes of criticism, comment and education.