U.S. Census data shows that more than half of our American families go through divorce. This means what we used call a traditional family now also includes those whose members change - and often increase in number - as a result of partnership changes. Now 50 percent of our nation's 60 million children under the age of 13 live with one biological parent and a stepparent.
And if that doesn't describe your family, it probably describes a close relative or good friend. It touches everyone's lives - whether someone dear to you or your child is in the throes of this change, or going back and forth between households and holidays has become habit.
This month our series of learning to manage this shift in family opens with attention on a stepmom trying to figure it all out. Stay tuned for more on this subject!
I'll never forget the day my stepson shot back at me, "You're not my mom, Gayla.
My mom would support my choice." I'd disagreed on an important decision he was
making and voiced my opinion—because I loved him. But he didn't see it that way.
Piercing words. I wanted to respond in anger but I chose to remain silent, recognizing the loss that haunted him as a result of his mother's death. I understood the feelings behind his words. What he was really saying to me was, "I miss my mom. I wish she were here so I could have this conversation with her." But she wasn't.
Stepfamilies come together as a result of loss. Some stepchildren have experienced multiple losses through death, divorce and remarriage, with little healing or understanding of how to relate to the new step relationships in their family. As a stepmom, your words and actions can aid or hinder the growth of your stepfamily relationships. Here are a few tips to help prevent the evil stepmom stigma and promote healthy relationships in your stepfamily.
1. Commit to the long haul. Decide that you won't give up when it gets hard, because it will get hard. Continuously strive for love and acceptance of one another, but don't expect harmony overnight. The average stepfamily takes seven years to integrate. Complex stepfamilies (when both parents bring children to the marriage) can take longer. You may take one step forward and two steps back, but that doesn't spell failure. Family identity is established through challenges, uniting the family in the long run.
2. Make your marriage relationship a priority. It's easy to put the marriage on auto-pilot when the parenting demands consume your time and energy. But without the marriage acting as a foundational piece, the challenges of stepparenting can tear a family apart. Stepmom Heather Hetchler, founder of CafeSmom says, "The marriage relationship has to come first. It's not at the expense of the children but rather for their security. Putting the marriage first by backing each other, being respectful and modeling love toward one another, positively impacts the children."
3. Don't take everything personally. We make our stepmom role harder because of our insecurities. We think we'll never measure up to the biological mom, competing with and comparing ourselves to her constantly—always coming up short. If we learn to spend more time improving upon who we are already, we'll be more comfortable in our stepmom role. If our stepchild can't accept us for who we are, that's OK—we are unique individuals. When we're secure in ourselves, it won't bother us when a stepchild questions our choices.
4. Consider it a privilege to impact another child's life. I remember clearly the day a counselor said those words to me; I didn't understand how to consider my stepmother role a positive aspect of my life. But if we learn to embrace a different perspective, we will create a positive outcome.
5. Work harder at being a friend rather than a parent, particularly in the beginning. Developing a relationship with your stepchild is the primary goal for a new stepparent. Find common ground that allows time together comfortably, doing things you both enjoy. Study your stepchild to understand how to relate to him. Let the biological parent take the lead in disciplining during the relationship-building period; moving into a parental role too soon will result in anger and resentment. Find ways for you to be the "good guy" as your stepchild gets to know you.
6. Recognize that your needs count too. Give yourself grace, space and understanding. Admit when you've failed in your role but don't get stuck there. During our early years, the shortcomings of my stepchildren irritated me. I reacted in favor of my biological children during times of conflict and was frustrated with my lack of patience and fairness toward my stepchildren. As I sought to forgive myself and learn from my failures, I could pick myself up and start again. Take a break from the stepmom role when you're feeling overwhelmed or defeated. Find a way to recharge over coffee with a friend or dinner with your spouse.
7. Create healthy boundaries with the other home. Define the needs of your home and communicate expectations to the children that create a cooperative environment for managing chores, homework, schedules, friends, etc. Don't allow the other home to dictate what happens in your home or seek to interfere with happenings in their home.
8. Live in the present—not the past or the future. Celebrate your successes as a stepfamily. Don't hold grudges over mistakes of the past or project challenges of the future. Live one day at a time, focusing on the needs of today. Maintain a positive attitude if possible, thinking good thoughts about your stepchildren and expecting healthy interaction.
9. Affirm the value of your stepmother role. Don't allow others to negate the importance of your role. Yes, it's a different role than the biological mom, but that doesn't lessen its value. A stepmom provides an objective view that a biological mom cannot. I learned to listen to my husband's objective opinion during my daughter's teenage years and found wisdom in his stepparenting advice.
10. Don't quit until you've arrived. The statistics of divorce in remarriage with children are staggering. According to marriage and family therapist Ron Deal, founder of Smart Stepfamilies, 25 percent of re-married couples with children divorce within the first two years and 50 percent divorce within the first three. The stepmom journey is difficult, but the rewards to your efforts are oftentimes at the end of the journey.
Stepparenting is tough. Mistakes are made. Misunderstandings happen. And variables outside our control influence step-family relationships. But there are new tomorrows. A fresh start to work through differences. Hope for harmony.
Gayla Grace is a freelance journalist, wife, mom and stepmom to five children, ages 12 to 28. She loves encouraging other stepparents on their journey.
See more in Part 2 of the series, Time, traditions and the stability of a blended family
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