Category Archives: Counselling

The Shake Up

The Boys have been in Our City for the holidays for nearly a week, and it’s past time for a shake up of their rules and responsibilities.

Some things they’re doing well; dishes are mostly getting put into the dishwasher with few and sometimes no reminders, and shoes are staying in one big pile near the door rather than being scattered across the deck.

In the lounge, though, comics, cushions, toys and food wrappers have collected to form a chaotic compost of boystuff that drives me to the edge of my tolerance.

The bathroom is likewise a scene of horror, with chunks of toothpaste adhered like lazy snails to the basin and toiletries, and toothbrushes, towels and discarded clothes strewn about randomly.

The “stupid” houserules have mysteriously disappeared from their place on the fridge.

The Lovely Man doesn’t seem bothered by all this, or even to notice it most of the time. In fact, he admitted when I asked that he had taken down the houserules after the Boys’ last visit. Whattha?!?!

We discussed the Boys’ contributions to the household last night. It wasn’t heated, but we weren’t wholly on the same page, either.

Unsurprisingly, he is less than keen to take on the resistance and conflict of making the Boys do more regular or more sustained chores. After all, given that he’s not bothered by the mess, why would he go to enormous efforts to change it?

The houserules are a puzzle. We went to a lot of trouble to draft them – a group discussion with the counsellor, a house meeting, input from the kids.

All I can think is that really, the Lovely Man is not that comfortable with structured rules, perhaps equating them with harshly authoritarian parenting styles.

(Whereas I see them as an essential framework for creating healthy boundaries and familiar expectations within which everyone in the house can – hopefully – flourish.)

Also, I think the Lovely Man tends to overestimate the Boys’ current contributions and underestimate their capacity for more meaningful contributions.

I said to him last night:

Do you really think that at 8, nearly 10 and nearly 12, the little they do now is all they are capable of doing?

He must have seen my point, because this morning he announced that the Boys will have three new chores to share between them each morning – picking up food from the floor beneath the dining table, tidying the bathroom and tidying the comics.

There was moaning and grizzling and general resistance, but not too much. As the Lovely Man pointed out, each task takes about three minutes – hardly an oppressive degree of exertion.

And the rules? I’ll be reprinting and reposting them tomorrow.

What could do with a shake up in your step household?


Filed under Communication, Counselling, Kids, Lovely Man, Stepfamily Life

Warning signs for stepmothers

Ask a stepmother what advice she’d give to another woman deciding whether to get involved with a man with kids, and the cliché is that she’ll screech:

Run! Run like the wind!

I’ve been tempted to trot this one out couple of times, like when a close friend told me that her new guy had her stay at his house for three days without ever admitting to his full-custody thirteen-year-old daughter that they were dating. And that he referred to this same daughter as “My Special Princess”.


Mostly, though, I resist sounding the fire alarm in these situations. Despite the challenges of stepfamily life, I’m very happy with the Lovely Man, and the Boys certainly keep life interesting.

In any case, we all know what the honeymoon phase of a new relationship feels like; warnings, however justified and well-intended, tend to fall bounce right off the warnee – and generally, rebound to hit the warner schmack! in the face.

Six months in, the warnee may well realise that indeed, it’s not ideal that her partner douses his breakfast cereal in scotch each morning, or has a penchant for wearing garments made from the pelts of stray cats.

Six weeks in, though, when the lust – ahem! – love is still coursing unhindered by pesky reality, funny little details like that get dismissed as merely eccentric, and the warner is written off as simply small-minded/intolerant/jealous.

Nonetheless, here is my list of five things you might want to pay careful attention to as a new/potential stepmother.

Scrape off the love scales and look around.

Look again, harder.

If more than a couple of these are going down, consider keeping your exit strategy dust-free and in good order, because you might need it.

Or at least have a good stepfamily counsellor at the ready.

(Cue Jaws music…)

1. Many months – or more – into the new relationship, things are serious, you’re talking marriage/moving in, but he seems ultra-resistant to the idea of you meeting his kids.

Actually, he seems terrified. He may have made and broken a series of promises with excuses like:

We’ll just wait until the kids graduate kindergarten/high school/college/finally get all their wisdom teeth through/finish learning to fly.

You’ve got to wonder, is he afraid you’ll morph into a fairytale wicked stepmother? Does he feel like he doesn’t truly deserve to have a partner or be happy? What’s really happening here?

There’s no real consensus about the appropriate time to introduce a new partner, except that it probably shouldn’t be before you are seriously committed to each other and have spent enough months together to genuinely know what being committed to each other means, the bads as well as the goods.

For many men, though, there is so much fear of and for their kids rolled up in the “all-important” introduction that they leave the woman they say they want to build a life with feeling like a dirty little secret – for many months or even years. Not a good look.

2. On the other hand, be wary if he wants you to instantly meet the kids.

(Especially if there’s talk of babysitting! Does this guy want a wife/mother replacement or a partner?)

Flattering as it may seem, your trouble-on-two-legs sirens should be blaring if he talks in any way that implies you will be a “new Mummy” to his children, or make up to them for alleged poor mothering by his ex.

Why? Because anyone who thinks their child’s biological parent can be replaced so seamlessly is not only deluded, but almost certain to expect that you’ll love his kids “like your own”.

Holy Recipe for Misery and Disaster, Batman!

3. A related concern would be where you’ve met the kids, maybe even moved in and he wants you to take charge of discipline.

Orangutans at the local zoo could tell you this isn’t going to work, but it’s incredible how many women launch in, determined to shine the Holy Light of Reasonable Boundaries on an out-of-control, rule-free-zone stepfamily.

As Wednesday Martin says in Stepmonster, this is a nothing but a cop-out. In theory, he wants his kids to benefit from better discipline but only if he doesn’t have to be the bad guy. He’s sacrificing your chance of a good relationship with the kids to maintain his own parenting comfort zone.

And worst of all? When you try to implement the agreed consequences, he’ll almost certainly trot out the sensational climax of the Daddy Rocks Popularity Revue by over-ruling your efforts because you’re being “way too tough” on his little darlings.

4. Another valid basis for a freak-out is if you notice that when his ex says “jump!”, your bloke says “how high?” (or, even worse, “off what?”)

Sometimes it’s because he’s desperate to keep the peace; more often, I suspect, it’s because whatever his legal status, his emotional divorce is incomplete. Sure, he might be keen to start again, but he hasn’t really left his marriage behind – guilt, unprocessed sorrow and unacknowledged loss tangle together, tying him emotionally to his ex.

Not precisely what you signed up for, although it may not be the end of the world.

If it doesn’t wind up quickly, though, you risk blinking out of the love haze to find that your relationship is a hotbed of emotional adultery, with all the consequences that entails for intimacy, for trust, financially and in a million other ways.

5. Finally, if the man you’re seeing seems to want his kids’ or ex-wife’s seal of approval on his decision to date you, be very, VERY afraid.

For instance, if his teenage daughter boasts about having had power of veto over his past girlfriends, or a four-year-old seems to be calling the shots on how long you are “allowed” stay out at dinner….

Or if he tells you his ex has a “No skanks around the kids” policy (a verbatim quote from a separated mum I know – quelle horreur!) and insists on popping you into the hot seat to face twenty [thousand] questions from her on what was meant to be your fourth or even your fourteenth date….

Run! Run like the wind!

Ruuuuuuuunnn – while you still can!

What other warning signs should a new stepmother/woman dating a man with kids keep in mind?


Filed under Counselling, Linkety-Link, Stepfamily Life, The Ex, What I Wish I'd Known

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.


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

Stepmother mantras

Reading this post from stepmama metamorphoses (who has been so inspiring as she works through the process of stepping back from her husband’s ex’s dramas) as well as Sherri’s weekly affirmations at Too Many Toasters, I got thinking about the unspoken mantras that help me cope with the Boys and their Mum when things aren’t going so well.

The first is something I remind myself before every visit to or from the children.

How this goes is up to me.

Obviously, I can’t control what happens during our time with the kids. But I find that my sense of satisfaction is almost entirely linked to how well I feel I respond when challenges come up (and there are always challenges!).

So, for me, it works to remind myself that success, in these terms, is actually something I can control.

Boy A can be as sullen or even as actively rejecting as he likes, the other Boys can be behaving like orangutans on stimulants, the Lovely Man can be grumpy or tired or shut in the office, but if I manage my responses/reactions in a way I’m happy with I can still feel like I’ve done well.

What this involves has varied over time; it used to be that my benchmark was “keep your mouth shut and keep smiling” but increasingly, and with the help of our counsellor, I’m recognising that it’s more important to be authentic and voice my concerns and boundaries than to be a perfect Stepford Stepmum.

The second and third mantras are questions I ask myself.

What is this person really saying here?

This helps me to listen for the true interests and concerns buried in another persons’ words or actions, and hopefully to address those directly rather than get distracted by the emotions or information that we all sometimes use to “top-dress” our communications, for whatever reason.

And finally,

What is my truth here and how can I speak it?

This has been a big barrier for me. As much as I say I believe I matter in this family, I have tended to not speak up about things that bother me or assert my boundaries, mostly through not wanting to burden the Lovely Man or create extra drama, or through fear of nagging and criticising.

What I’ve found, though, is that one way or another the stress comes out.

And it’s better for me to clearly say how things are for me as they arise and ask for what I need than to have a sobbing conniption at 10pm ostensibly because the Lovely Man is late home from work.

So, when Boy A next tells me or says in front of me, for what feels like the eleventy-billionth time, that his Mum is very intelligent, instead of just repeating “Yes, I know” like an automaton I can hopefully say something like:

Yes, I know she is, Boy A. You’ve said that before. It’s great that you’re proud of your mum, but I’m not sure why you think it’s important to be telling me this?

(As suggested by our counsellor, who says it’s time to for me to start insisting on respectful boundaries in these situations, as opposed to my previous style of just putting up with any old shit in the name of being positive about the Boys’ Mum.)

And while it’s not exactly a mantra, I’ve found in general that waiting to respond to something that is upsetting until I’ve taken time to think about it from the perspective of the other people involved makes me a lot less likely to react in anger or out of pain.

As well, I’ve learned to be watchful about getting dragged down into a spiral of negativity. When I find myself making negative comments or statements about the Lovely Man’s ex or the situation generally to people, then feeling bad or disloyal about what I’ve said, it’s a cue that I need to address my underlying unhappiness, and usually, that there’s something I’m not speaking up about.

What mantras and reminders do you use to get through?


Filed under Communication, Counselling, Family, Kids, Me, Stepfamily Life

Under the surface

On our overseas trip earlier this year, the Lovely Man and I met up with some friends, a couple who’ve been together about the same length of time as us, F & G.

Like us, they are a few years apart in age.

The guy, F, works in the same industry as the Lovely Man, so they have a lot in common there.

We all share some interests, but although we’ve been on holiday with them before, I’ve never felt that I knew them very well – they were really nice acquaintances rather than close friends.

When we met up with them this time, I went to give G a hug hello and immediately noticed a stonking great rock on her engagement finger. This thing was MASSIVE – when it glittered in the light I felt like I had been beamed, in a kind of “roo in the headlights” way. But it was very beautiful and tasteful. Exquisite, in fact.

I immediately thought:

Aha! Got an announcement to make then, guys?

And, sure enough, a few minutes of my valiantly trying to avert my gaze into the conversation, they kind of wriggled a bit bashfully and went pink and said:

Oh, and we’ve got some news, by the way. We got engaged!

No shit, Sherlock.

G was obviously a bit self-conscious about her new bling but very happy to relate the story of how F had smuggled the ring into his holiday backpack by completely wrapping it in gaffer tape and telling her it was a piece of work equipment he needed to claim a duty refund on while they were out of the country.

They are lovely people, and I really enjoyed spending time with them. But I couldn’t help thinking, looking at G’s husband-to-be and her happiness, that I wished things could have been so straightforward for me and the Lovely Man.

I never imagined, for instance, that well over two years into our relationship, he would still legally be married to somebody else.

As pleased as I was for my friends, it was all too easy to feel a bit wistful by comparison.

One day, though, the Great Blokey Men went off to do Death-Defying Man Stuff together and so G and I headed out to get lost on the mountain have some adventures ourselves.

We were talking about her relationship with F, as you do, and how happy she was, and how great he was, and how they were thinking of having kids soon, and where they were going to go for their honeymoon… when she totally dropped a bomb.

Haltingly, she told me a story that made me quadruple-take and completely cash in my assumptions about their so-called easy road.

While F may not have kids from a previous relationship, perhaps even more bogglingly, he “co-parents” three dogs with his ex-partner of ten years.


As it all came out – the crazy ex, the way she wanders into their house uninvited, the unscheduled late-night handovers, how she uses the dogs to stay connected to his life, F’s inability to set firm boundaries, the huge amounts of money she guilts out of F for “the dogs”, the way she phones constantly and manufactures dog drama to get attention, the threats to take the dogs away and never let F see them again that paralyse him with fear – all I could think was:

That sounds about right.

G went on to say how the situation had driven her to the edge of her mind, the constant encroachments and feeling second in her relationship to a trio of spoilt dogs and a vindictive, crazy-making ex eventually landing her in counselling.

She said that her friends and family couldn’t really understand, that they tended to minimise the difficulties of the situation and say totally unhelpful things like:

Can’t you just ignore it?

G even said that she felt terribly guilty at not being able to love these dogs that were so important to F.

Yep, sounds about right.

I guess co-parenting drama is co-parenting drama whether the young ‘uns involved have feathers, fur, fins or feet.

And as much as I love dogs, I can understand G feeling ripped off that despite F not even having kids she is still experiencing the joys of stepfamily life, navigating unbreakable ties formed before she was around and dealing with a trouble-making, boundary-free ex with a penchant for encroachment and manipulation.

At least the Lovely Man’s Boys are worth the dramas. I’d have a VERY hard time if we were going through all that for a trio of naughty, floor-weeing canines.

G was clearly relieved to share her situation with someone who all-too-easily understood the emotional toll it was taking, while I got a timely lesson in the grass not always being quite as green as it looks.

And, incidentally, for the first time I felt like we made an emotional connection that went beyond just doing stuff together.

We’ll be going to their wedding sometime next year. I’ll be looking out for something like this:


Filed under Counselling, Random, Stepfamily Life, Travel

Making rules…

…but for pity’s sake don’t even think of calling them “family rules”! I can almost hear the reaction now, echoed back from eleventy million step households: “You’re not my family and you don’t make rules for me!”

[Sarcasm switches off]

Anyway, the Boys arrive tomorrow and I’ve been attempting to negotiate our first formalised set of house rules with the Lovely Man.

Rules and boundaries generally seem to be touchy topics and getting to this point has taken ages; the first time I raised the idea of house rules was nearly eighteen months ago! Even talking about it has been delicate, particularly the bit about introducing set bedtimes.

I gather that lots of separated parents, and especially dads, really struggle with firming up on boundaries for their kids. One blog I particularly remember described a dad saying to his wife, the stepmother of his two children, that he was “OK with having rules but not comfortable with there being consequences”.

And doesn’t THAT sounds like a hiding to nothing and nowhere for the unfortunate stepmother trying to get some kind of grip on the behaviour of the kids in her house?

The more superficial stepparenting books suggest that it’s a bad idea to “assume” an authority figure role with your stepkids, but I’m convinced those authors must have full-time nannies at their disposal. If not, there will be situations when the stepparent is forced to be the adult in charge and needs to direct the kids in some way. I try to minimise it, but basically, if the Lovely Man wants to work while we have the Boys, it’s inevitable that I have to step up from Wingman to Maverick status sometimes.

I described being an adult in charge in our hitherto (mostly) “rule-free” house to the Lovely Man as “a bit like trying to herd lobsters underwater”. That’s right, I think it’s harder than herding cats.

Not being one of the Boys’ parents, I don’t have natural authority with them, other than a little with Boy C perhaps. And yet there are many times when I need them to do what I ask, like when I’m doing the school run, when they’re hurting each other, or when I can’t in good conscience do one more speck of cleaning up without them contributing.

And those times are when I hit a brick wall, because without either (a) the natural authority that blood parents take so much for granted OR  (b) clear house rules fully backed by the Lovely Man, I often may as well sing to whales as expect the Boys to obey me.

So, rules are good. Ultimately, of course, they’re at least as necessary to our stepkids as they are to us. Our stepfamily psychologist reminds me that rules help stepkids feel that they actually live a normal life with their other parent, rather than just being occasional visitors. And that despite the whingeing, that sense of normality, of having a place and a role, is something children of divorce crave.


Whether it’s about Dads wanting to avoid being the bad guy, feeling afraid of losing the “popularity contest” to a more permissive mother or just wanting their limited time with the kids to be all fun-fun-fun, it seems that setting and enforcing even simple rules is a fraught process in many stepfamilies.

So far the Lovely Man’s and my rules list is running to about four pages and is full of fluffy abstract concepts. Not exactly a collection of snappy ideas that I’d choose to post on the fridge, then.

It needs whittling big time. Like with a chainsaw.

So I’m wondering:

Do you have specific house rules in your stepfamily?

If so, what are they?

And how did they get put in place?


Filed under Communication, Counselling, Kids, Lovely Man, Me, Stepfamily Life

Divided loyalties

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.


Filed under Counselling, Stepfamily Life, Writing