Sunday, February 26, 2012

How To Support Your Partner In Her Stepmother Role - Part 1

I wrote the following article many a moon ago. As it is still just as valid today as it was at that time, however, I've decided to give it another run and hope that it will assist you in gaining a better understanding of what you might realistically expect from you partner in how to support you as you struggle to come to grips with your stepmothering role.

Over the last few months I’ve received numerous phone calls and emails from step-parents who are struggling with confusion, disappointment, disillusionment and distress because they feel that whilst they are trying their very best to be the greatest, most understanding partner and step-parent they can possibly be, their partner neither appreciates their efforts, nor supports them in their difficult task.

Every time I’m asked how on earth I managed to survive my step-parenting experience – an experience that held a great many challenges, such as one of my stepchildren suffering from severe ADHD, the disappearance of the children’s biological mother, my husband’s busyness whilst climbing the corporate ladder and much more (as those of you who’ve read my book would be aware) - all I can say in response is: I survived because of my husband’s unwavering support. Without his total commitment to stand beside me, back me up even when I messed up, to honour me as the most important person in his life (which did not mean that he neglected his children) to respect, nurture and love me every painful step of the way, I am sure that I would have packed my suitcases within weeks of our wedding.

Most of us come into the step-experience with a great deal of insecurity. Whether we partner with the father of one or a number of children, whether these children live with us or merely visit on weekends and/or at holiday times, we are the ‘INTRUDERS’ into an established relationship and we are well aware of it.

Isn’t it true that at first you step very lightly around the children your partner seems to cherish with all his heart? You most likely do your very best to reach out to them, connect with them and strive to being liked and accepted by them. After all, they do have a ‘say’ in the matter of whether or not you become what you desperately want to be at this point - their father’s mate. Once the proverbial knot has been tied, however, it is not at all unusual to lose some of this initial fervour. Worn down by the everyday cares and concerns of stepfamily living, by the partner’s ex’s thinly veiled (or openly displayed) hostility, by the numerous inconveniences, annoyances, financial strains and other issues that arise as a result of partnering with an already ‘encumbered’ mate, you might have become quite disenchanted with the whole stepparenting "kit and caboodle". By now the initial insecurity may have turned into frustration, resentment and a sense of helplessness and the question of how you can best cope with this will be uppermost on your mind.

You read everything you can find on the subject, learn that there are many things you can and should do to improve your chances of succeeding with your stepfamily. Committed to the cause you try….and sometimes try and try and try again ... feeling worse and worse if things don’t improve, feeling as though no matter what, you just can’t get it right. If you have a partner who at this point wraps his/her loving arms around you saying: “Sweetheart, you are fabulous! You are trying soooooo hard and I am really grateful that you show such patience with my kids - what can I do to make it easier on you?” your frustration and fear just seems to melt away. Your hopes are restored and you are happy – right? If, however, you have a partner who sneers: “I don’t know what’s wrong with you? Why can’t you get things right with my kids? If I’d known what sort of stepmother you’d turn out to be, I’d never have married you in the first place” then all you’d want to do is crawl into a hole, hide under a blanket or better still, run away.

The saying that holds true for all couple’s relationships, ‘it takes two to tango’ is just as true in stepfamilies. Yes, as step-parents we do have to learn many things…but so do our partners. Without their full support step-parenting can be the hardest, most frustrating, most thankless parenting task one could ever find. So, this article, which is divided into a number of parts, is directed at your partner. Perhaps you can read it together, discuss the topics raised, share your thoughts and feelings and work out some strategies that ‘fit’ YOU.

In order to find a definition of the word SUPPORT I consulted the Concise Oxford Dictionary which states the following:

***Carry (part of) weight*hold up*keep from falling or sinking*enable to last out*keep from failing*give strength to*encourage*endure*tolerate*supply with the necessary*provide for*lend assistance or countenance to*back up*further*take secondary part to*speak in favour of*assist by one’s presence…..***

Now let’s focus on some of these words and see how they apply to the step-experience.

**CARRY (PART OF) THE WEIGHT**

As you are a biological parent who has experienced the loss of a partner either to death or separation and divorce you most certainly are no stranger to carrying a heavy burden. When you find another partner, your hope is that you not only find another chance at love, contentment and harmony, but also that this person is someone with whom you can share the burden you’ve been carrying on your own. This is a natural desire which is totally appropriate unless, in your relief, you now lay the whole burden squarely on your partner’s shoulders.

Relationship means SHARING THE BURDEN. You need to share your partner's and he/she needs to share yours.

In order to succeed at burden sharing you can ensure that your partner isn’t overburdened. To do this it will be helpful to:

Ask your partner whether they feel overburdened.

* If they say ‘yes’, find out why they feel this way and put your mind on devising suitable ways to relieve them of the overload.
* Take responsibility for your child/ren and ensure that they behave in a respectful manner towards your partner.
* Be there for your partner PHYSICALLY: don’t spend more time than absolutely essential at work.
* Be there for your partner RELATIONALLY:  spend as much quality time together as possible with your partner. This is essential to building a strong, satisfying relationship.
* Be there for your partner EMOTIONALLY:  listen and validate his/her needs (even if they are not the same as yours) and seek to meet as many of them as possible.

**HOLD (your partner) UP AND KEEP (them) FROM FAILING**

Sometimes your partner needs to be ‘held up’. He or she needs your supporting hand underneath them when they are about to stumble or are ready to crumble. If that’s already happened, your partner needs you even more to help him/her stand upright again so that they will not sink: into guilt….into fear….into helplessness…into feeling like a failure…into depression. They need you to hold them right by your side where they belong.

Step-parents who lack acknowledgment and affirmation can easily feel as though they are failing. They may feel that they are failing you, your children, even themselves. A partner who feels like a failure will rapidly lose his/her confidence and belief in themselves. Naturally such a partner is not a happy and contented one.

You can assist your partner’s success by:

* Letting them know how important they are to you.
* Acknowledging the difficulty of their position and role.
* Assuring them that growing into the role of step-parent takes time and that you are not impatient.
* Comforting them if your children’s response to them isn’t all they had hoped it would be.
* Listening to them when they share their feelings about the situation, the children and all their other concerns.

**ENABLE (your) TO LAST OUT**

If you’ve been in the step-situation for a while you’ve likely become aware that your partner may feel, at times, as though he or she just won’t last the distance. Whilst this may be frightening to you (after all you don’t want to lose yet another partner) it is a very normal feeling for them to have. Often they are plagued by feelings that you may not readily comprehend but which you should be able to recognise. Some of these could be:

* Feelings of jealousy – if you rave about your “darling” kids at every opportunity.
* Feelings of displacement - especially if your children only visit on weekends and you spend ALL your time with them.
* Feelings of resentment – if your mate feels like the chief cook and bottle washer whilst you are having a ball with your children.
* Feelings of anger - if your kids don’t show him/her the respect they deserve and you don’t correct them.
* Feelings of frustrated helplessness – if you take sides with your children against your partner.
* Feelings of hopelessness – if your mate feels as though you will never have the same strength of love for them as you have for your child/ren.

If you want your mate to last the distance, it is imperative that you become sensitive to his/her feelings and learn how to diffuse them. Some of these feelings can be diffused by communication. So, when your partner talks about his/her resentment towards your children, rather than leaping to defend your ‘poor little darlings’, it is much more helpful if you simply let them talk about their feelings. Once brought to the surface, being heard and not disputed, feelings tend to rapidly lose in intensity and you may well find that the next weekend will be so much happier now that your partner feels understood. If their resentment is as a result of the child/ren‘s rotten behaviour or for some other tangible reason, it helps to lay down the law to your children. Your mate deserves respect both from you and from your children.

Please join us again next week for the continuation of this article. 

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

such great advice! Step parenting is the hardest, most ambiguious and most under-rated job in the world!

Anonymous said...

I am that partner who partner show no support whatsoever, I feel so helpless. Yes it is true step parenting is a service so much under rated especially when your partner is selfish.

Sonja said...

I can so imagine that you feel completely helpless if you are in a stepfamily situation and don’t have the support of your partner. The trouble with feeling helpless, though, is that that it leaves you feeling as if you have no choice or power over you own life. Having done thirtysomething years of stepmothering and quite a few more years of life let me assure you that YOU DO HAVE A CHOICE AND YOU DO HAVE POWER. I very much felt like you in the first so many years as a stepmum. I felt cornered, unhappy and totally trapped. I went into a severely depressed state before I realized that I do have a choice. This realization finally gave me the power I needed to facilitate the changes that had to occur for me so that I could continue the step-journey.

Your issues may well be very different to mine but the bottom line remains the same: Unless you let your partner know IN NO UNCERTAIN TERMS what is acceptable to you and what isn’t, he will not take any notice of your pain. More often than not our lovely partners (the bio parents who left the previous marital home) simply do NOT want to rock the boat. It’s too uncomfortable, too challenging, too difficult etc. etc. and if you accept this all you’ll get is whatever he is willing to give. If you want more you’ll need to ask for more!

I hope you will so that you can enjoy the rest of your journey!
All the best,
Sonja ☺

Anonymous said...

hey Sonya

I have 3 teenage stepkids,and like their father, are incrediably sweet, caring and beautiful individuals, and i love them dearly and they me- yet i still feel overwhelmed by the stepmothering experience. Each time that I bring issues up to my partner, he automatically has a defensive reaction and then i get emotional and nothing gets resolved.

My partner and I both work full time and have saved hard for the last 2 years to take the kids on a family holiday overseas- we are leaving in a week and i dont want to go at all. Because we both work long hours, with my partner running his own business, we have had to make a lot of sacrifices to make this trip happen.For last few months,I have been telling my partner that I am emotionally exhausted and on the trip will have a low tolerance threshold for any teenage moodiness/complaints and that he needs to have a word with his oldest daughter, who can sometimes be prone to being a sterotype of moody teenage girl. My partner responded as he always does as in "we are the adults- they are children, you need to watch your behavior and reactions and not cause tension in the family" I found this incrediably hurtful- a complete shut down of my feelings and opinion "put-up-and-shut=up" statement. Why would i organise,plan and spend thousands of dollars on a holiday, just so i can ruin everybodys trip? I was simply trying to communicate to my partner my concerns and fears but it quickly escalated into fight and now I want to withdraw from holiday completely so as i dont ruin it for everybody.

My partner can be so loving and supportive in all areas, aside from his kids when he goes into Poppa bear mode at any negetive comment regarding his children. He works very long hours, pays child support and then some. I pay for a fair share of the kids expenses and are happy to do so, raising kids is expensive regardless if its a blended family or not, and I want these kids to have the best start posible in life. I dont resent spending my money on them, but i do resent the idea that I have to smile and just except certain situations are "just the way it is"

I knew at the start of the relationship what i was signing up for, I just didnt think it would be this hard. I feel like i shouldnt even be complaining because I have 3 beautiful stepkids who have been a dream compared to other blended family stories I read about- but I still find being step mother a lonely path. How can i make my partner understand how he is making me feel when he just trying to do the right thing by everybody in this situation?

Sonja said...

Hi anonymous,

Firstly, let me confirm that you are very lucky indeed to have such sweet, caring and beautiful stepchildren and that they are equally as lucky to have such a sweet, caring and beautiful stepmother. What a great recipe for success!!

You also seem to have a great and supportive partner who however, like most bio dads in step situations, is overly protective of his offspring. Whilst this is truly annoying and really very hurtful, it might help to understand that overprotectiveness often comes from fear. Even though everything seems to be running fairly smoothly in your step-household, step foundations can feel very fragile. You partner’s fear may well be that if something upsets one of his children the whole house might come tumbling down. Fear, of course, usually has a blinding effect, which could be why he doesn’t seem to see how hurtful his most recent insensitive statement has been to you.

My suggestion to you would be to, for the moment, ignore his comment, putting it down to him simply fearing that the holiday for which both of you have worked very hard and for which you’ve been planning very carefully, could be tarnished in some way. One day, however, during your holiday and once you both are in a much more relaxed state, sit him down and tell him in an unemotional and matter-of-fact (!!!) way just how much it hurts you when he goes into overprotection mode. Reassure him that you truly love his children but also need his understanding when YOU feel a bit fragile, insecure or overwhelmed and that you don’t need him to leap into HAVING-TO-FIX-EVERYTHING mode, just to show you some EMPATHY. My guess is that if you manage to do this in an unemotional way he will not feel threatened and therefore actually HEAR what you have to say. The less threatened he’ll feel the more able he will be to let go of his fears. Just be aware that even if he hears and understand what you are saying, it won’t be a quick fix but will be a more of an ongoing journey.

I often explain to people that fear and love cannot exist in the same space. The moment we function out of fear (no matter how realistic we perceive that which we fear to be) we no longer function from love. And when that happens it rarely serves anyone well because we are far less likely to achieve the outcome we’d been working, hoping and praying for. Once this is clearly understood it helps us stop trying to please all people all the time. Saying “no” to a child – or making one’s boundaries clear in whatever area seems necessary – does NOT hurt the child. Instead it sends a clear and important message that will stand the child in very good stead in later life.

I hope that this will help make a difference. If not with your partner, then at least in that it confirms to you that your request of being ‘heard and understood’ is not unreasonable….and to also have it confirmed that YES, stepmothering, even in the best of families, is really hard. Good on you for having such a positive outlook and I hope you’ll have an awesome holiday.

Best wishes,
Sonja ☺

Anonymous said...

Hi Sonja. I am at breaking point. I have a lovely partner and a lovely step son, but still feel like I cannot cope. I thought it would be easy to parent a child whether it be yours or not, however the only thing that I have gotten out of it is a sense of failure. I have been in a relationship with the father for about 20 months now and I love him dearly, but I cannot stand another minute of my life being dictated by his 11 year old child. I am now 32 years old and for a much of our relationship I undertook all the child's parenting as his natural mother is a halfwit with no standards. We have the child one week on and one week off and I find that everything I teach him, from hygiene to manners gets lost in the week he is with his mother. It has now put a massive strain on our relationship, as on the week we have my partner's son, I escape from the house every chance I get and refuse to be part of the parenting anymore. I did not imagine myself to be this person, nor for the situation to be as difficult as it has been. My partner is now more involved in his parenting role, but I feel a sense of resentment and anxiety. Help!

Sonja said...

Hi Anonymous, I wish there were an easy answer to your dilemma. If I understand it correctly you are generally happy in your relationship and you even think of your stepson as a lovely boy. You feel 'beaten', however, by what seems to you a futile attempt at teaching him basic life skills because all your efforts just get forgotten/sabotaged during the time he spends in his other home. I can imagine how very frustrating this must be for you and how helpless both you and your partner must feel given that you simply want the best for the child. This is a difficult dilemma: You have no power over what goes on in the boy’s other home; your hard work is sabotaged, which is neither the boy’s nor his father’s fault; your life most likely feels like ‘Groundhog Day’.

Because there is very little (if anything) you can do to change the circumstances, it is critical that – if you want to be happy in your relationship – you change your attitude and your expectations. Although there may be no recognizable signs of it just yet, I can assure you that your stepson is learning - he is learning a lot of skills, all of which will stand him in excellent stead in the future when he will remember them. You also need to take the pressure of ‘being successful’ off yourself! You cannot judge YOUR success by what you see today.

Perhaps you can view your input into your stepson’s life like you would consider a building project. Until the foundation is laid you can’t see anything much at all. Only once the walls go up you start seeing a bit of progress. When the winter storms come you might not be able to progress much further but when summer returns you can continue building, brick by brick until you can actually see the structure you have erected. And even then it might still be quite a while until you get the project finished and can admire it in all its glory. Building the life of a child is not all that different, it just takes a lot longer but all the blood, sweat and tears you invest now WILL most definitely bear fruit in its own good time.

So, don’t give up. It’s normal to feel discouraged, angry, frustrated, helpless and powerless in a step-scenario. But if you manage to hang in there you will reap the rewards!!

Good luck,
Sonja

Anonymous said...

Dear Sonja

I am at my wits end with my husband. I do not have a problem with his other children, but I do have a problem with the way things are handled. Specifically he gets them & just drops them off to me while he continues with whatever plans he has. He rarely spends any time with them. Instead they are left in the house with me & my kids ALL THE TIME. In addition there's on set arrangements so he just gets them whenever & they leave whenever...often staying WEEKS at a time. I've tried explaining that I need a break & some space but of course he got very defensive. Now anytime I try to talk to him about the situation he says I don't like his kids & I don't want them over. HELP!

Anonymous said...

I have been with the man I love for 2 years.He has 2 children 5 and 18 months. We have been living together for about a year and would get the kids every other weekend (if she felt like it) Six months ago the bm lost her children through DFS. we had a 24 hour notice before they moved in full time. I live them kids and are happy to see tem safe. But its so difficult adjusting to the constent demand of parenting. My bf works weekends so I become a single mother and its just so hard to find the patience to make it through the caos. I'm 25, a year ago I had all the freedom in the world! Some one help me: advice, words of wisdom , anything. I love him and I love his children butsometimes I get the urge to run from all the stress and responsibilities.

carol said...

Dear Sonja
I have been a step mom for 10 years. I am still struggling. My husband is very critical if I bring anything up. We have a SS who is 18 and steals and can't be trusted. I can't cope. I need to feel supported and loved. I don't. I provide the insurance for my skids and my husband. I don't care to do this anymore. Please suggest something. thanks

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I really enjoyed your post. I wanted to read part 2 but all I find is 3 and 4..? I'm I overlooking something?

Thanks,
ELiSa

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April Delph said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
April Delph said...

This article has been such an eye opener to me. Thank you so very much. I want so badly for my relationship to work and it has been so stressful and difficult blending our family. You have given me amazing insight to my mistakes and I feel this article is so beneficial to me! I'm sure our relationship is on the up and growing with my eyes opened up to the needs of my partner as the step parent.
Thank you!

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Exhaustedly apathetic said...

This article hits the proverbial nail on the head - depressed, frustrated, resentful step Mum (me,). If the biological father/partner is not supportive it will not work. Forget it, don't waste your time, heart, self-esteem, dignity, identity and sleep. I know, I've just walked away from a partner who treats his daughter like a Demi-God/spouse, and tells me that I am a tyrant because I did up a household chores list when she moved in and dared to ask his 17 year old to please hop off my bed and leave our bedroom as I wanted to go to sleep. If they worship their child and speak disrespectfully to you, it's done. And listening, validating, supporting me? Forget that ridiculously egalitarian and idealistic notion!

Now, just to find where on earth I left my self-esteem? I'm sure it's hidden within me somewhere!

Exhaustedly apathetic


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