Advice and encouragement for stepmoms, on marriage and helping to raise his children.
|YOU’RE NOT MY MOM!
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Copyright 1999, 2003, 2018 Bobby Collins, all rights reserved
YOU’RE NOT MY MOM!
Those words, screamed by a 6-year-old or a 16-year-old, can cut to the quick! Of course, you’re not their mom! If you were, they’d act a lot different than they do now! But even knowing that they may not mean it quite so strongly, hearing it still hurts especially after all you’ve been through for them.
If you’re reading this book, with this title, you have probably said at one time or another, “How did I get into this mess??!!”
You may have even said it more than once, and I’ll bet there were tears involved at the time. So, how did you get in this situation – trying to build a loving relationship with a new husband, while struggling to provide the right amount of nurturing and love to your own kids, while trying to determine what kind of relationship you’re supposed to have with his kids (the kids he had with another woman!); and while having to figure out how to deal with someone you never intended to even encounter – his ex-wife (the other woman)?
Suddenly your everyday life is starting to resemble the complicated messes in the soap operas that you used to have time to watch: 1) there's a whole new cast of characters this season; 2) the problems are over-dramatic; 3) and people you’re sure were supposed to be dead keep popping back into the story line.
And you're not even the star, just one of those pathetic minor characters they bring in to be a scapegoat. The one that everyone accuses of the latest murder.
How did this happen??!
Simple – you let yourself get pulled into it. If you’d had any kind of an idea before the marriage how hard this was going to be, you would've had the common sense to avoid all the pain, frustration, and humiliation involved in a stepfamily. Right?
Or would you?
Probably not. Because there's some sort of desire inside most hearts which draws people to lay aside their own self-preservation in order to pull someone else out of a ditch. And wasn't that kind of what you had in mind when you said, “I do”? You may have seen the opportunity to act as rescuer and heroine to a battered, broken family that needed your love.
But you quickly found out that this cast of characters wasn't looking for a heroine. (Truth be told, you suspect that what they really need is matching ensembles of straitjackets, padded rooms, and soft food. ) You've tried everything you know; you've given and given; you've taken and taken; and nothing seems to help. It's like trying to put out a forest fire with little bitty cups of gasoline.
And so, you may have come to the realization that you must get out of this mess you’re in. But how to get out? As appealing as escape may sound, you're not really ready to go through another divorce, are you? And despite the fact that these ungrateful kids are begging for you to leave (in words and/or actions), you still hate to give up.
You’ve got to get out of the pain, but you don’t want to run out on your new family. Which leaves you with the single option of staying around and cleaning up the mess.
But before we get into emergency battlefield surgical techniques to save this patient, we need to examine the wound and determine how it got there. In other words what in the world happened to lead to this?
In the beginning...
In the beginning, it all looked so nice. He was sweet and considerate (and everything that your ex-husband wasn't). You knew that he had kids, but you had to admit that they were about the best kids you'd seen – at least in small doses, which was all you ever got of them.
Most likely, he re-awakened your heart, while granting renewed value and status to the rest of you. The two of you dreamed of a lovely future caring for each other's needs (and each other's children). When troubles did come along back then, they seemed small and fleeting. Your love could see you through anything!
If you're like most stepmoms, you'll have to admit that he was your “knight in shining armor,” charging in on a beautiful white stallion to rescue you from hopelessness.
Then the wedding came and passed, and real life hit you right in the face. And the funny thing is, you should have seen it coming. You're a big girl who had been around the block, but it still came as a surprise. One day you're the Queen, the next day you found out that you are really the scullery maid and you have to clean up after the knight's stallion ... and him ... and his kids!
What’s more he came with all this background of a life before you that he was still attached to. And his background included another woman! Not some vague, misty memory, but a real, live, flesh-and-blood member of your family. She is either your worst Tasmanian Devil nightmare or an absent memory your stepkids cling to.
And your stepkids bring in their own special brand of excitement. Very few act like the “Brady Bunch” children, smiling and giggling with you as you look forward to helping them grow into perfect young adults. Instead, most stepkids actually seem to resent a stepparent’s efforts to become a loving, helpful part of their miserable lives.
And there you have it – “This is your life!”
You’re not alone!
Well, you’re not alone at least. Depending on which sources you look to, there are somewhere between 20 and 30 MILLION stepmoms in America alone. And most of them are going through the same struggles and fears you are. Some fail. But many survive – and actually succeed at developing a healthy, happy family.
Let’s begin by looking at some other, real stepfamilies. These glimpses into others’ homes come from some of our support group members. Just average stepmoms trying to deal with blending their families together.
Our local support groups average five to seven couples at a time, meeting face to face in Fort Smith, Arkansas. We meet weekly and cover a planned course of topics ranging from couple’s communication strategies to ways of handling rebellious stepkids.
Our on-line support group runs around 200 members and is made up of mostly stepmoms. This dynamic group of steppers is located across the United States and around the world, with members on almost every continent. They present problems and questions to the group at large and the members chime in with advice, support, and encouragement.
In neither group are stepkids allowed, since much of what is discussed deals with handling situations involving the stepkids themselves. Husbands – some of them stepdads, some bio-dads married to stepmoms – usually attend the local groups with their wives. But the on-line group is over 90 percent ladies.
In both types of group, we’ve seen the value of meeting regularly with other stepparents to share. If nothing else, just discovering that there are others in your situation helps most steps to cope.
Beyond that, meeting in person is extremely helpful. We have helped start other local support groups in home towns, working with individuals or organizations. We can help you start your own local support group, too.
Our loving stepchildren!!
Since the stepkids are reportedly one of the primary source of trouble in stepfamilies, let’s begin by looking at them.
One member of the on-line group wrote this:
This stepmom is looking for some way to establish her place in this new family of hers. That’s to be expected. No one wants to feel like an outsider in their own home. She has a competitor – her husband’s daughter. And that is pretty natural, too.
Many stepkids, like this one, form an especially strong relationship with their custodial parent. In fact, that was a great deal of the problem in my own stepfamily. Before I married Jo Donna, she and Jennifer had been through some rough times together. First through the marriage, then through being abandoned in the divorce, then through learning to work together to survive as a single mom and daughter. They became more than parent and child. They became partners and friends.
Part of the reason that Jennifer was so rebellious during the first three years of our marriage, she tells later, was because she felt that her mom had "abandoned her for that man." Now, bear in mind that all I had done was step in to their family and try to love them. If you've read any of our other publications or if you are a subscriber to our newsletter, you are probably familiar with the extremes to which Jennifer went in an attempt to shake me out of their family – from rebellion, to suicide attempts, to threats to kill her mom and me. She says that she did all this because she felt I was an intruder, coming between her and her mom. I’ll later get into what we did to turn Jennifer around.
In the above situation with the stepmom and the rebellious 14-year-old, that same sort of resentment could be what's going on.
Notice one thing, however. The stepmom above says that she needs to learn to accept the way her stepdaughter acts. That's not necessarily so. If a stepparent comes into a family with the frame of mind that she must accept and get along with everything the stepkids do, she has a great probability of failure as a stepmom.
Yes, compromises must be made and a wise stepmom will proceed with caution, but she must remember that she is an adult partner with the stepdaughter's dad. And as such she is entitled to expect respect, if not love. But how she gets that respect is crucial.
A stepmother may fight back against a hostile stepkid in several different ways. She may get tough in order to show who's boss. Unfortunately, this much-used tactic usually winds up with someone hurt and often with the family torn apart. When the battle lines are drawn, war is declared.
A better approach
In any war, sides must be chosen and there is usually one winner and one loser. That means all the other players – husband/dad, the other kids in the family, and extended family members – must side against one party or the other. This creates even more tension and division. And if there's a winner there must be a loser, often many.
A better approach would be to work for no losers and all winners. In order for that to happen though, everyone must be on the same side. Idealistic? Not necessarily. A jealous stepchild may think that their goal is to get rid of the stepparent, but what that kid really wants is security and peace and to get their own way. You can turn that to your benefit.
When Jennifer speaks to our local stepparent support groups, she lays herself bare. She lets them know that they can ask her anything they want. Inevitably someone asks why she rebelled so viciously against me. She answers, "I hated him. I felt like he was stealing my life. Before he came along, Mom and I were doing just fine. We didn't need him, we were good friends. Then, after Mom married him, her whole world turned into ‘Bobby this’ and ‘Bobby that’. So I wanted him to just get out of our lives."
Jennifer used every standard tactic at her disposal to chase me off. She argued, she back-talked, she made accusations of abuse, she threatened to kill us, and finally she attempted – almost successfully – suicide. Through all that, through the confusion and frustration and fear and anger and panic, I told her over and over again that I would never stop loving her, no matter what she did. I told her that she could make me sad, she could make me mad, but she could never make me stop loving her. I had made a commitment to her and her mom and God, and I would not back down.
The more I said that, she says, the madder she got. Until one day, she says she just gave up. "He wore me out. I gave up, accepted that he was going to love me, and loved him back," she says.
I turned her deep desires into realities. What she really was asking for was proof that I would not leave her like her dad had. She pushed to see if I’d run. She wanted a safe home. I gave her one, and she responded with love.
Maybe this is similar to what you’re facing in your own home. Look at it as a challenge or as a moral commitment, but never back down. If you are going to win you must make them win, too. Give them a stepmother who loves them no matter what.
Lay a foundation
Another stepmom tells of her own hot button:
Yes, usually it does get better. Eventually.
Here is another common problem that stepparents face in a new family. In the excitement of courting, many couples fail to discuss the nuts and bolts of blending their two families. Part of this may stem from a reluctance to rock the boat, and part may come from a naive hope that, once you're married, everything will “just work out.”
A majority of the couples we work with eventually admit that they did very little serious discussing of how they would handle the basics of the new life. The basics include among other things, determining your combined parenting style. One reason this may be overlooked is because you didn't have to worry about it with your first marriage ... there were no kids. However, stepfamilies come with ready-made kids, so they need plans for dealing with those kids.
It is extremely important that every couple who considers blending two families into one should sit down together and plan their house rules. A couple who hasn't agreed on how to parent their kids should not be surprised when problems arise.
This is part of the reason I developed STEPprep©, a marriage preparation program for couples heading for stepfamily-hood. I tried to find a marriage preparation program that addressed the special challenges stepfamilies face to recommend to our members, but I couldn’t find anything. Out of the hundreds of marriage prep programs listed on the Internet, none helped engaged couples to plan for back-talking stepkids, manipulative ex-spouses, or dealing with old wounds from previous relationships. So I just created my own.
In our workbook, “The Rule Book,” which is used in STEPprep© classes, I provide a listing of the most common subjects where stepfamilies need to set house rules. Space is provided after each subject for a couple to list their own personal house rules and consequences. Some subjects are: who will perform which chores, how the couple will divide or share income, curfew for the kids, when they get to date and guidelines for dating, drinking, drugs, and many other potential problem topics.
Why would it work, you might ask.
The purpose is preventative medicine. First, the act of discussing your common house rules should lead to a better understanding of each other's ideas. Then, having the rules written down will solve a lot of confusion over exactly what is and what is not allowed.
NOTE : any listing of rules is worthless if you are not willing to enforce these rules consistently.
If, for example, your stepson comes in an hour after curfew, you don't necessarily have to play the heavy. You can fall back on a comment such as "Well, I think that's covered in the rules, isn't it? Let's look. Yes, here it is. Sorry, but according to The Rule Book you're grounded for a week." You can lay it on the house rules, rather than on your own head.
Also, if your kids are aware of the rules and the consequences of breaking those rules – you might even want to have them sign that they understand the rules – they may be slower to break the rules. At least it will be in the back of their mind that there is, as in the example above, a set time to be home.
It's never too late to establish your household rules. Drawing them up may lead to some tension but in the long run you and your husband will have agreed on parenting techniques. That will make it easier on both of you and your kids.
Fun with ex-es
Ex-wives usually come in two varieties: the first is a conniving, manipulative shrew whose every waking hour seems to be devoted to making your life miserable. If this is "your ex-wife," then you're familiar with her screeching voice on the telephone, her glaring eyes when you've met her, and her intruding influence in all your family plans. She never has enough money for her needs or enough time for her kids (who she fought for tooth and nail in the divorce).
Here’s something one of our local members asked for help about concerning her husband’s ex-wife:
Here is an interesting phenomenon: the way that so many mothers can override their normally nurturing natures toward their own children in order to attack an ex-spouse through them. Not only is the ex-wife bitter toward her new rival, but she seems to count it a mission in her life to ruin her ex-husband. We see this occur whether the husband or the wife ended the first marriage.
While it is sometimes necessary to stand up to vindictive ex-wives, the only approach I have ever seen to be completely effective in securing a peaceful home in relation to the ex-spouse is to reach out in love.
Now, calm down! I’m not throwing flowers around and saying everyone will get along together if we just hug each other. But I am saying that it’s pretty much impossible to fight with someone who won’t fight back.
I’ll fall back on some sage advice which says that, “If we only love our friends and hate our enemies, how are we any better than them? But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you.”
Granted, it’s harder to reach out and try to be sociable to a woman who has continually cut you down. And it’s not as satisfying as getting in a good cut on her, but is that what you want to teach your kids and stepkids; how to fight dirtiest?
Look at it this way, if you simply react to her attacks every time she says something about you, who is in control of your life? She is. And she will use that to her best advantage. However, if, no matter what she says about you or does to you, you refuse to stoop to her level, you insist on acting in a superior manner, you are still in control of your mind and life – not her.
Jesus wasn’t teaching, in the above passage from Matthew, chapter 5, that we are supposed to be wimps. On the contrary, it takes much more courage and character to answer an attack with an attempt to make peace. It is harder, but it is more rewarding.
In our own stepfamily, I decided to approach my wife’s ex-husband with a suggestion that we needed to work together for Jennifer’s good. He resisted a little – and your mate’s ex may resist more or even outright refuse – but if you can work together, even in strained cooperation, you and your stepkids will have a much easier time. If she refuses to work with you, you and your stepkids will know that you tried. Therefore you will have won.
Again, the only way to win is to get all sides on the same side.
The invisible Ex
The second variety of ex-wife is not physically or verbally intrusive at all. In fact, you may have never even met her or heard from her. But her presence is felt daily. Her children compare you to her constantly (and you never come out ahead). You find yourself having to clean up after a woman you never wanted to deal with.
This is what one stepmom says of her rival:
So often, the parent who ran out on their family is hard to pin down to share any of the responsibility of raising them. A stepmom finds herself thrust into the full role of mother to someone else’s kids. Usually without any prior warning.
In a case like this, you cannot force the parent to care for her kids. And if you do force her to accept visitation against her will, you run the risk of harming the children. She may neglect them while they are in her care, or more probably she may use the visits to try to turn the kids against their dad and stepmom. A court can force a parent to pay child support, but they can’t make her care about her kids.
All a stepmom can do here is to continue to love her stepkids more and more. A stepmother can never replace a mother’s love, and she shouldn’t hope to.
However, you can be there as a solid, comforting presence when the hurts come home.
Stay firm with extra measures of patience, because very likely the kids will take their pain out on you, rather than on the one who causes the pain. They do this because they are afraid of losing what connection they may have with their mom. They can’t strike out at her, so they attack you. Understand that they are only children (especially the ones who look like young adults), and don’t know how else to handle their hurts. Give them what you would want if you were in their shoes.
Is it ever worth it?
On a final note, a stepmom sent in an e-mail, talking about her frustrations of dealing with a cranky ex-wife and unloving stepkids. She closed by saying:
And she’s right on two counts: 1) it is hard to believe, and 2) kids aren’t dumb.
A stepparent is one of the most important people in the life of a child/teen/adult. How you deal with the stresses of blending your family will be part of that child's memory, and therefore their personality for the rest of their life.
Stepmoms demonstrate remarkable love and sacrifice as they take on the responsibility of raising a child not their own.
Many of these kids have witnessed their parents treating each other terribly. As a stepmom, you have the opportunity to show your stepchild how a real woman loves her husband and children, how she deals with conflict, how she responds to rude insolence from her stepkids. What you show them will shape what kind of parents and spouses they will be.
You have one of the most important jobs in the world. However,
if you give up and quit; or if you respond to attacks with attacks; or if you allow the situation to make you bitter, you will teach that to the kids. A stepparent, just like a bio-parent, who walks out on a marriage and kids teaches that it is OK to ignore vows and that the kids aren't worth the effort of putting up with a less-than perfect marriage.
Society says that, if you're not happy in your marriage, or if everything isn't easy, you owe it to yourself to just dump everything and run away. Think of yourself, they say.
But who said it was supposed to be easy? Who said you should be happy all the time. Life is tough. Sometimes it stinks, but that doesn't mean it's OK to just walk away.
Remember that children are a gift from God, where ever you get them. They are depending on you to show them the Way, to love them no matter what they do, to not be one more person who just walked out on them.
You have a chance to teach them about Mercy and Grace and Forgiveness.
Only God can lend these gifts to you, and it’s your responsibility to not only find them, but to pass them on.
(Step) MOTHER IN THE WORLD
We had the meanest mother in the whole world!
While other kids ate candy for breakfast, we had to have cereal, eggs, and toast. When others had a Pepsi and a Twinkie for lunch, we had to eat sandwiches. And you can guess our mother fixed us a dinner that was different from what other kids had, too.
Mother insisted on knowing where we were at all times. You'd think we were convicts in a prison. She had to know who our friends were, and what we were doing with them. She insisted that if we said we would be gone for an hour, we would be gone for an hour or less.
We were ashamed to admit it, but she had the nerve to break the Child Labor Laws by making us work. We had to wash the dishes, make the beds, learn to cook, vacuum the floor, do laundry, and all sorts of cruel jobs. I think she would lie awake at night thinking of more things for us to do.
She always insisted on us telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. By the time we were teenagers, she could read our minds.
Then, life was really tough! Mother wouldn't let our friends just honk the horn when they drove up. They had to come up to the door so she could meet them. And while everyone else could date when they were 12 or 13, we had to wait until we were 17.
Because of our mother we missed out on lots of things other kids experienced. None of us have ever been caught shoplifting, vandalizing other's property, or ever arrested for any crime.
It was all her fault.
Now that we have left home, we are all God-fearing, educated, honest adults. We are doing our best to be mean parents just like Mom was. I think that's what's wrong with the world today.
It just doesn't have enough mean (step)moms anymore.
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