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?