To the stepmom who is struggling right now
I feel you… I was there too. I too felt like an outsider, never feeling like I was part of the premade family. I wanted to belong and feel accepted too. I know what that pain feels like. I remember at a particularly rough time, feeling like I had been kicked in the gut and an elephant sized weight on my chest. My mind racing in shock and disbelief at what had happened. And my husband was stuck in the middle. I couldn’t control anyone else but me. So I did. It took intentional work. And to be honest, I wish I had a stepfamily coach to help me navigate that process to make it smoother, to acknowledge the pain and help me release it’s control and power over me.
It did take outside help to heal our family. Today, I will be celebrating the wedding of my stepdaughter. This day is a big one for our stepfamily. My relationship with my stepdaughter was a very difficult one for a long time. It was painful for both of us. I came into her life in 2004. That pain spilled over into our entire family. Seeing how it was impacting my bio daughters was the reason I pushed for outside help. It was having a heavy emotional, mental and physical toll on them.
Just three years ago, we finally came together. The one big happy family I had thought was so easy to have, arrived. Finally. After many years. A lot longer than what the research said it would (Dr Patricia Papernow’s research shows that the first seven years of the stepfamily is the most difficult to navigate- I wholeheartedly agree with the research) Ours looks different than the original version.
So I say to you stepmama. Hang in there, keep the faith. And here are five take aways from my experience to help you keep your faith.
- Boundaries, boundaries and more (clearer) boundaries. Know you are worthy to have them, to speak them and set them, and to keep them! They are not only for your mental and emotional health, but for the wellbeing of the rest of your family. Just say no, don’t take that on if it doesn’t feel right, and don’t sacrifice what you want and need to rescue someone else’s lack of fore planning leaves on your plate. You didn’t break it, you are not responsible to fix it
- Always prioritize self care. It’s critical. And an additionally critical piece to surviving- and also thriving- in the early years. Why? Because your health depends on it. You have to armour up with stress relief and prevention tools. It’s better to stay ahead of it, because the stress can trigger anxiety and depression. As stepmoms, we are judged by outsiders to our family as well as insiders. And often we judge ourselves according to unrealistic standards. Insulate yourself with self love practices, self esteem boosters, and self care routines to combat the inevitable challenges that come your way.
- Always take the telescopic view. Always. What is the telescopic view? It’s the bigger picture. For example his/her lack of parenting skills are there for a reason. These reasons may not make sense to you, but there are lots of really valid reasons for why your partner is choosing (even not doing something is choosing) to handle the behaviors his way and not yours. Understanding that these kids are your partners and they can parent the kids as they see fit to (excluding abuse and neglect), has no bearing on you as a person or a parent. That responsibility does not sit on your shoulders. You can only positively influence. How they “turn out” is not on you. There are variables that “good” parents have no control over in how their kids “turn out”. Teachers, coaches, friends, elders all influence your children. And that is only part of the vast array of variables at play. Remind your self – it even makes a great mantra to repeat. Not my kids, not my problem. Even if you love them. Not your kids, not your problem.
- Focus on your relationship with your spouse! I cannot emphasize that point enough. Once the children grow up and find their own partners and start their own families, you need to know your partner and you are still a solid team. As your stepkids age and move towards independence, the day to day dramas and power struggles dissipate and soften. Where your thoughts go your energy flows, so do not forget to take care of your partnership.
- Get professional help. It’s better to get ahead of the issues. But, if the 4 previous steps are not helping you get unstuck. It you are feeling that this is overwhelming and that the bad days outweigh the good. Do not hesitate to get outside help. Just ensure that the professional help is versed in stepfamily dynamics. I have heard time and again stepmothers getting the advice to be the bigger person and to love the stepkids as their own. Two very loaded pieces of advice that do not apply to complicated dynamics in stepfamilies. Therapists without the training compare stepfamilies to those nuclear, first time families. That comparisons sets you up for failure.
I look back on those times of turmoil and pain and wonder how I made it through without the help. I had my cheer squad of stepmoms in my online support group and that saved me. In looking back I could have set better boundaries, I did not realize how important self care was until I was suffering from insomnia as a result of anxiety. My anxiety was around the stress which then created a feedback loop I had a hard time getting out of. It took me a long time to learn to take the telescopic view, rather than focussing on the shit storm around me. Once I did it was a mid blowing “A-HA”. Then the focus came on my marriage and it was easier to keep the stepfamily noise separate. Separate was essential. But for sure, it was the professional help that made all the difference.
Wishing you peace and ease through these difficult times. Now I must get ready for my stepdaughters wedding and celebrating with my family.
(feature photo thanks to Nathan Dumlao – Unsplash)