Sunday, January 22, 2017

Guilt - A Common Emotion In Stepfamilies!

Guilt - A Common Emotion In Stepfamilies! 

We've only just had Christmas - a time that's difficult enough for a stepmum and now, of course, it's school holidays - a time that more often than not sends shivers down a stepmother’s spine. At these times of the year one can find them scurrying around the children’s rooms, tidying, dusting and making their beds; shopping for things that would not ordinarily be found in their pantries; generally preparing their homes, their nerves and their emotions for the imminent onslaught. THE STEP-KIDS ARE IN TOWN…AND THEY ARE HERE TO STAY FOR A WHILE!!!

It’s often at these times that stepparents feel as though they are on an emotional roller coaster. Some will look forward to the time they can spend with the children, others will dread every moment of it. Nearly all will (or have in the past) experience a sense of guilt which could be focused on: “I should be happier for the kids that they can spend time with their dad”. “I shouldn’t be feeling such a sense of dread.” “I shouldn’t be so angry at having to share my partner or be so jealous of them.”

The re-partnered biological parent doesn’t get off scott-free either. He or she might be plagued by thoughts such as: “I am so looking forward to having my kids around for longer than a day or two, but sometimes I wonder if it’s worth it. My partner might be cranky for days; will probably hound me to be stricter; send them to bed earlier; not let them do what they want…and just spoil everything. ALL I WANT IS FOR THE KIDS TO BE HAPPY (I hardly every see them anyway) AND MY PARTNER TO BE HAPPY TOO. But no matter how hard I try, it just doesn’t work. The kids are unhappy and my partner is miserable too. I just can’t win!!!” So as we can see, the re-partnered biological parent also experiences a sense of guilt that frequently is hidden under a mask of frustration, anger or resignation.

Throughout the years I have been working with people in step situations, I’ve found that guilt is the most faithful (albeit destructive) companion on their stepfamily journey. Guilt can promote healthy and helpful change, but often will do little more than load a burden on its carrier’s shoulder that can be so heavy it immobilises him/her. Unfortunately once immobilised, the carrier of guilt is unable to move in any direction - neither backwards to change the original causes of guilt, nor forward to make the needed changes to ensure a happier and successful future.

Because the issue of guilt affects both the stepparent as well as the re-partnered biological parent, this post is one that you will benefit from reading together and from making a topic of discussion. Yes, you SHOULD DEFINITELY talk about this!!!!

Whilst there are multitudes of reasons why stepparents and re-partnered bio parents feel guilt, I’d like to focus an a few that are raised time and again in therapy.

For the stepparent these are:

1. Not living up to expectations - their partner’s and/or their own.
2. Jealousy - Feeling unwanted, displaced and often negative about their stepchildren.

For re-partnered biological parents whose children remain in their original household these are:

3. Not being available to their children as they once were – being restricted in their input, time, attention and nurturing ability.
4. Feeling as though their new partner isn’t doing the right thing by their children.

Let’s take a closer look at these:

GUILT INDUCERS FOR THE STEPPARENT:


1. Not living up to expectations:

As a stepparent you can be heavily burdened by you partner’s expectations. They usually want you to be just as happy as they are when their kids arrive for the weekend or an extended stay. As they dearly love their offspring they may find it rather difficult to understand that you don’t share their feelings. They may be disappointed and distressed if you show or express your lack of enthusiasm. As you probably have a genuine desire to please your partner, this may cause you to think ……”I really should feel differently about his/her kids” and may well cause you to experience a painful sense of guilt.

The guilt can even intensify if you have an expectation of yourself to be “super dad/mum” to your stepchildren and find that you can’t…if you don’t really like them….if you don’t know how to handle them when they are around… if they don’t show any signs of liking you despite huge efforts on your part… if you don’t treat them as kindly as you know you could or feel you should, etc………..thus you might consider yourself to be a bad/wicked/nasty stepparent – a true failure!!

Suggestion:

Know and accept your limitations. It is not likely that you will love your stepchildren (certainly not straight away). It is equally unlikely that they will love you. If your partner has unrealistic expectations of you in that arena, these are vital to discuss and dispel. Do what you can to connect with your stepchildren; make every effort to see them in a positive light; and do all you can to make them feel at home - but don’t expect miracles. You don’t have to love them in order to make room for them in your life. What you will have to do is make some sacrifices, learn to deal with your feelings if they are overwhelming and negative and to make the times when your step kids are around as easy on yourself as possible. If you take the pressure off yourself, you’ll find that these times will pass more peacefully and are much less likely to leave all of you in emotional tatters.

2. Jealousy - Feeling unwanted, displaced and often negative about the stepchildren:

When the stepchildren are around, stepparents often feel like the fifth wheel on a car. Whilst this is not unusual, it is painful just the same. This feeling can be intensified by an overenthusiastic and insensitive partner, who may be blissfully unaware that you have neither been spoken to nor have you spoken for the last 20 minutes. In such a scenario it would not be surprising if you were wondering whether anyone would even notice if you just snuck out… disappeared for the duration of the holiday, or….simply died. Whilst not wanting to be overly dramatic, that’s what step folk sometimes share with me. They seriously question their place in their partner’s lives. They wonder whether they are truly loved and wanted for themselves or are merely there to fill the hole his or her children have left in their partner’s heart. Needless to say, this does nothing to warm the stepparent’s feelings towards their step kids. On the contrary, they may become consumed with bitter jealousy, obsessed with their partner’s behaviour when the children are around and rejecting of the kids – not a recipe for a happy home/holiday/relationship, but a nice mixture to cook up a large dose of guilt.
Suggestion:

Remember that it’s quite natural for your partner to go overboard with the children, especially initially and if he/she doesn’t see them all that often. They may not be aware what’s going on for you. In fact, they may be oblivious to your feelings of being displaced and unwanted as soon as the kids arrive. So, the onus is on you to tell them. When you do, be sure to use non-shaming and non-blaming language and to choose your timing wisely. Don’t raise the issue halfway through a special birthday dinner for one of the kids. Don’t raise it when you are overflowing with painful emotions…but be sure to raise it! Your partner needs to know how you feel. Explain your perspective and TOGETHER be as creative as necessary to find some helpful strategies and solutions that suit all concerned.

GUILT INDUCERS FOR THE REPARTNERED BIOLOGICAL PARENT: 


3. Not being as available to your children as you were way back when.....:

This can be extremely painful for you and induce enormous guilt, especially if the separation was caused or instigated by you. Your guilt is likely to be increased even further if your children are upset when they have to leave to go “home”… if you feel that they aren’t well cared for at their other home…if their behaviour towards you (and/or your new partner) indicates that your ex-partner is influencing them against you (and/or your new partner)…if they are unhappy.

Suggestion:

Remember that you cannot undo what’s already been done. Pouring energy into regrets, into “if only’s” or into attempting to control what goes on in your ex-partner’s household, their mind and emotions is counterproductive. Don’t focus on what you cannot do, instead put your focus and energy into what you can do!

YOU CAN explain the benefits of having two homes to your children – ensure you do this in an age-appropriate way that is meaningful to them.
YOU CAN confront your ‘ex’ if you feel that your children aren’t receiving appropriate care. It’s best if you do this after making every effort to establish whether your feelings have a factual basis. If you confront, be sure to do this in the least threatening way possible. Only pull out the “big guns” if absolutely necessary.
YOU CAN explain to your ex-partner what damaging effects it has on the children you both love if either of you malign the other. If he/she is not receptive to YOUR explanations, you may be able to enlist the help of relatives (or a professional) for this purpose.
YOU CAN refrain from playing power games with your ‘ex’ and ensure that you do not malign him/her in retribution.
YOU CAN tell your children at every opportunity how much you love them and care for them.
YOU CAN create healthy boundaries that ensure you don’t allow your children or your ‘ex’ to manipulate you.

4. Feeling as though the new partner isn’t doing the right thing by your children.

Be assured that this is very common amongst re-partnered biological parents and can be caused by:


* A sense of over protectiveness.
* Feeling that their new partner isn't welcoming or understanding enough.
* Being aware that their new partner does not share the feelings they have for their children and a fear that this might be harmful to their kids.
* Feeling as though they don’t understand or appreciate your children’s pain.
* Being concerned they impose too many and unreasonable limitations on your children
* Thinking that they are too strict.
* Fearing that their kids are missing out.

Suggestion:

Discuss this issue with your partner. Ensure that you let them know beyond any doubt that you love them just as much as you love your children. Listen to your partner’s grievances and concerns which could be such as: “When your kids are around, you completely ignore me.” “When I exert my authority, I feel like you really resent it”. “When the kids don’t listen to me and you don’t back me up, I feel undermined and invisible” etc……Discuss these issues (and any others) and don’t stop talking until you’ve come to some sensible and workable agreements. Your partner will be much more likely to embrace your children if he/she is assured of your understanding, love and support.

In summary, I’d like to really encourage you to get rid of any and all guilt you may be feeling because guilt leaves you wide open to manipulation. It makes you vulnerable to criticism and to being controlled. As a result of guilt you may fall victim to your ex-partner's emotional blackmail, may be tempted to give in to unreasonable and (sometimes even outrageous) demands. You may become blind to your children’s bad behaviour which will only enrage your partner and put your current relationship at risk. You may feel unable to create healthy and useful boundaries around you and your current family and…ultimately, you may feel so trapped and unhappy that you’re driven to actions you will regret later on.

Shedding guilt can be one of the most difficult tasks you will face on your stepfamily journey. However, as it is vital to the success of your second marriage, it is of critical importance. Once you’ve learned how to effectively deal with your guilt feelings you will be in a much better position to make healthy choices for yourself, your children and your new family. Your life will seem so much better and all concerned will benefit. As this can be such a difficult task I would encourage all of you who find this issue too hard to tackle without expert, to seek out professional assistance. Keep your eye on the website for my forthcoming article on the topic of Manipulation.


Tuesday, January 17, 2017

TAKE A DAY AT A TIME

Take A Day At A Time

Whenever I step into a new year it seems like I face an empty canvas, surrounded by pots filled with the most glorious colours. I visualise sticking my hands into the pots, applying one wonderful colour after another and creating a magnificent painting. I step back from it every now and then to see more clearly where the painting may need more attention  - a little more blue in the background, a touch of green over there, perhaps a splash of red over here. What excitement, what fun, how wonderful to create something new - I love it.

Sometimes, though, I get into a bit of a painting frenzy. As I believe that I have the ability to paint far more paintings than I’ll be able to fit into the remainder of my life, I want to paint, and paint, and paint until I drop. This, of course, isn’t a good idea as I also need to eat, sleep, play and do the multitude of mundane things that make up life. So, what to do? At the beginning of the year I set a variety of goals for myself and have found this to keep me, if not totally then at least reasonably focused on maintaining a sensible balance in my life. Although some of my goals are simply a progression from the goals I had the previous year, others are quite different. As I was writing them down the other day it occurred to me that some of them might also be useful to you. Since each one of them is worthy of exploration, I'll share them with you one-by-one in our coming posts. The goal I am going to look at today is:

TAKING ONE DAY AT A TIME

I don't know about you, but I have the tendency to think about a thousand and one things all at once - especially when I am excited about something. My thoughts might be running 5 minutes, 3 hours or even 2 years ahead whilst at the same time I might stand in front of the fridge wondering what on earth I opened it for. Frustrating, isn’t it? And although I am sure that we all do this at times, if we do it all the time it means that we aren’t really living in the ‘here and now’. We shortchange ourselves by not being in the experience, whatever that experience may be. If it’s excitement about some future event that occupies our mind, we at least sacrifice the moment for something pleasurable. If, however, we are in deep concern, worry or dread then we really don’t do ourselves any favours. Whilst anxious feelings can be pretty difficult to let go of, they usually serve no purpose at all. How many fingernails do we have to chew in order to avert some terrible event? How many worry lines will ensure that the dreaded incident is not going to occur? You get my drift? Will one ounce of worry change what the ‘ex-wife from hell’ will dish up next? Will any amount of dread stop the stepchildren from running wild and leaving all their mess for you to pick up after their weekend with dad? No, of course not. And yet, we all do it.

Given that no-one is exempt from this rather bad habit, perhaps learning the art of taking one day at a time is a great goal for us all. How do we do that? Let me give you a few ideas.

1.            We need to remember that this day, in fact this very moment, is the only time we REALLY have. As we all have a tendency to live life as though it were an endless journey, it’s important to remember (at least occasionally) that in reality this is not so. All we have at our disposal is RIGHT NOW. So, let’s make the best of it, whatever that means to each of us.

2.            Although it’s great and I believe, totally essential, to have long-term dreams, visions and goals that we can and should go after, it’s equally important that we don’t only invest in the future but spend some of our wealth (our time, our energy, our talents, our finances…) today. It’s not much good planning to taking that child-free holiday you and your partner desperately need in order to keep your love alive in 3 years time because by then it may be too late to rescue your relationship. It isn’t a good idea to put off communicating important things to the important people in your life. Say “sorry” to your partner now if you’ve hurt him. Tomorrow, the day after or a week from now the right moment may have passed and you may live to regret not having done it sooner. Tell your stepchild today what you like about him or her, you may not get another ‘perfect’ opportunity like the one that presents itself TODAY. Call your parents and tell them that you love them when you think about it. Don’t put it off or you may miss your chance.

3.            Don’t allow fears of tomorrow to spoil your today. Instead consider what you can do about the issues that cause your fears and tackle them head-on. More often than not it’s the things we feel are outside our control that cause us the greatest anxieties, insecurities and discomfort. Take charge of the things you are able to control and let go of the ones you are unable to control. Do something! Sometimes any action is better than no action.

4.            Take one step at a time. Yes, your progress may be slower that way but you can be far more certain that you won’t run out of steam before you get to your desired destination. Often when we try to take giant leaps instead of getting to the ‘promised land’ fast, we end up in a soggy puddle. As everything in step-situations progresses by different time frames to those that are usually considered the norm, TAKING ONE STEP AT A TIME should be a daily mantra for step folk.

* Stepchildren very likely will not rush into your welcoming arms the first time you lay eyes on them. Take it one step at a time. To begin with just settle for connection. Allow them to get used to you before you start looking for more.

* The relationship with your partner will not follow the reasonably predictable path that your first-time married friends may tread. Take it one step at a time. Remember that he has appendages (kids) that take an important place in his heart who will, whether you like it or not, affect every plan, every decision and, in fact, everything that happens in your life.

*  Even having biological children with your new partner will require a taking one step at a time approach. Think carefully before you take this mammoth step. Consider the effects this will have on everyone in your already existing step/family. If one of you may be hesitant about increasing the current  ‘mob’ wait until you both feel happy with this decision. Raising a child on your own, as you have possibly already discovered, is a difficult task. Raising a child on your own even though you DO have a partner but one who refuses to be emotionally or practically involved, is harder still. Don’t take that risk. Take one step at a time - think about it, talk about it and make a mutual decision or simply wait.  

5.            Live in the moment. Because my head is constantly filled with a thousand new and exciting ideas, I find this a particularly difficult stress-free as possible. Living in the moment means enjoying everything you do as you are doing it. Whilst you sit at breakfast allow your awareness to be on whatever it is you are eating and drinking. As you walk or drive your step/children to school use the time to communicate, to ask questions and to listen to the answers, to encourage, affirm and to be fully there - body, soul and spirit. They’ll sense if your mind is on whatever you are planning to do next. When you are at work, immerse yourself. When you are at play, play with all your heart. When you are with people, be there with every fibre of your being. Remember, it’s every new moment linked to the last that ultimately makes up your life.

I believe that learning to take one day and one step at a time is a challenge for most people. Often it seems so much easier to live in the past or in the future. There’s certainly nothing wrong with looking back or with gazing ahead. Remembering the happy times of our past can be very pleasurable. Remembering the difficult experiences of our past is sometimes essential in order to find emotional balance and healing. Dreaming of a wonderful future is important and becomes a powerful tool in purposefully pursuing a cherished goal.  Neither of these places is bad and I would wholeheartedly encourage you to revisit the past (when appropriate) and to envisage a future (ideally one filled with joy). Where I would advise caution, however, is for you to live in either of those places. REMEMBER TO CHERISH TODAY. YESTERDAY IS BUT A DREAM. TOMORROW IS BUT A VISION OF HOPE. LOOK TO THIS DAY, for it is the only day YOU HAVE. (modified).

And here is a little FOOD FOR THOUGHT:

*** Happiness is to be found along the way, not at the end of the road, for then the journey is over and it is too late. Today, this hour, this minute is the day, the hour, the minute for each of us to sense the fact that life is good, with all of its trials and troubles, and perhaps more interesting because of them. (Robert R. Updegraff)

***The key to change is to let go of fear. (R. Cash)

***It takes many inches to make a mile. We can only move by inches, one inch at a time. It's when we look miles ahead and wonder "how are we going to get so far?" that we fail to move forward at all. The paradox is that we can choose to live life "in the rear view mirror" and remain so far back that moving forward, even an inch, is most difficult. Most important, we must always keep in mind that anytime we suffer a setback while moving forward, it will always be just a matter of inches, and not miles. (Rick Beneteau)

*** Time is the coin of your life. It is the only coin you have, and only you can determine how it will be spent. Be careful lest you let other people spend it for you.   (C. Sandburg)


***It is each new moment linked to the last that ultimately makes up your life. Cherish the moment, for it is your life. (Sonja Ridden)

In the next few weeks I'll help you explore just how you can stay on target with planning for your future whilst staying grounded in the present. In the meantime why not grab a Stepmom Summit Interview Package, which features over a dozen coaches, counsellors, authors, speakers and fellow stepmums - including my good self - and reveals successful ways to deal with many of the challenges you will be likely to encounter along your path. To learn more about this package, click here. 



Monday, January 9, 2017

How To Make 2017 Your Best Year Yet

Most people want the New Year to be a whole lot better than the year that was. Some just hope fervently that fate might make it so, others cross this threshold filled with a whole heap of New Year’s resolutions that, in most cases, are forgotten or discarded by mid-January. Yet others decide to invest time in thinking and planning just how they would like things to be different in the New Year.

Having taken myself through this exercise at the beginning of each new year  throughout the past decade, I have discovered that it’s a great tool that helps me feel far more in control of my life and is an excellent way to create the changes I want.

So, what are the main questions I ask myself? They are very simple (...and remember:  simple is good!):

§  Where am I headed?
§  What do I want to achieve?
§  What do I need to do in order to achieve what I want?

In the hope that you might use this tool to make your stepfamily journey a more joyful and satisfying one - or for whatever other changes you may wish to make in your life - I’ll give you some basic examples. Here goes:

I. Where am I headed?

Given that you are reading this blog, my guess is that your answer would be something like this:

I plan to be:

§  in a marriage or live-in relationship with a partner who has children from a former marriage or relationship.
§  in the role of second wife/partner with or without children of my own.
§   in the role of part-time or full-time step-parent.

II.  What do I want to achieve?

Your answers to this question may be many and varied. My guess is that some of them would be:

(a)   A better relationship with my step children - That could be getting more respect; feeling more wanted; accepted; included; appreciated etc.....

(b)   Greater support from my partner - Feeling that he stands right beside me in my struggles to 'find' my role with his kids; getting rid of that uncomfortable '5th wheel on the car' sensation I have when his kids are around; knowing beyond doubt that 'he has my back' even when my thoughts about a stepfamily matter aren't the same as his, etc......

(c )  Less antagonism with my partner’s ex - Wanting her to understand that I am not the enemy nor am trying to compete with her; feeling less angry and frustrated about the way she seems infiltrate every aspect of our lives; wanting her to know that I am not an evil stepmother etc.....

III.  What do I need to do to achieve this, or in other words: What does this require of me?

This is a tough question as it places the responsibility for change squarely on your shoulders. So - I hear you think - does this mean that "I need to let everyone else off the hook?" No, it does mean that at all. What it does mean, however, is that you recognise and accept that the only thing over which you have complete control is your own attitude and behaviour.

To give you an idea of how this can work for you I’ve chosen a few possible answers relating to question II.

( a) A better relationship with my stepchildren may require:

§  That I demonstrate greater acceptance, understanding and compassion for them and their plight. 
§  That I recognise that they probably need more time to adjust to their new family circumstances.
§  That I let go of my pre-conceived ideas and expectations of them.

I imagine that right now you are thinking: A better relationship with his kids simply requires that they show greater acceptance of me and better behaviour towards me. And of course I agree that this would help a great deal, but I also know that no matter how much you might want it, you have no power to make this happen and therefore need to focus on what YOU CAN DO, rather than on what THEY MIGHT DO.

(b) To obtain greater support from my partner requires that I:

§  Have a clear idea of exactly what kind of support I am looking for.
This may involve:
Writing a list of my needs and deciding which of these needs can be met by me or my friends and which of them realistically can (and ideally should) be met by my partner.

§  Tell my partner clearly what I need from him.

This involves: 
Having courage. 
Getting my timing right.
Choosing words that don’t put my partner on the defense.
No judgments, recriminations or threats and definitely no huge emotional outbursts. 

§  Ask my partner what type of support he needs from me.

This involves:
Being willing to hear his truth and being open to his needs.
Exploring with my partner which of his needs can realistically be met by me.
Making a commitment to doing the best I possibly can to meeting his needs.

(c) What does having less antagonism with my partner’s ex require of me?

§  Do I have to express more goodwill towards her?
§  Should I make more of an effort to meet her halfway?
§  Might I need to let go of judgments, anger or feelings of resentment?

Again I can hear you moan: But she is impossible. It doesn’t matter what I do, she’s decided that I am ‘the bad guy’ and nothing seems to make any difference. She  is the one who needs to change, not me!!!

True, true….I totally agree!...but I also know that, short of a miracle, this is not likely to happen…well, certainly not in a hurry. So, in the meantime, in order to make your own life more satisfying, YOU need to do what YOU can to make the best out of a difficult situation.  If you’ve already done all you can, perhaps the answer to your questions needs to be:

§  Letting go of the expectation that she will ever accept, appreciate or like me.
§  Accepting the way things are, even though they are far from the way I’d like them to be.

I absolutely know that this is much easier said than done! Remember, I’ve been in these situations myself and I can tell you that, although not easy, it IS possible.

I hope that this process, whilst somewhat simplified for the purpose of this post, will give you some food for thought and that it might encourage you to take a little time to ask questions of yourself that only you can answer and, last but not least, that you will have the courage to answer them honestly. 

....If you need help with this process don't despair. Tune in next week to find out how you can go about moving forward with this without shedding too much blood, sweat and tears.....