Wednesday, June 1, 2016

Climbing The Step Ladder

When I married, now a long 35 years ago, I not only acquired a husband but also ‘inherited’ two small boys, aged 3 and 4.  Young, impressionable and still believing in the ‘living happily ever after’ fairytales of my childhood, I attacked my ‘new job’- that of a stepmother - with energy and gusto. The first hiccup occurred when the children’s biological mother, who had been an inconsistent but important presence in their lives, decided that she really wasn’t needed any more and simply disappeared (not to be seen again for 14 years). This threw the children into confusion, distress and grief – feelings, which took many years to resolve. For me it was merely the beginning of a long and sobering journey through every conceivable emotion (mostly painful ones!). I felt overwhelmed, cheated and despaired. I was convinced that I was a failure at this mysterious thing called mothering, was resentful at the many difficulties that step-parenting seemed to present, was angry with my husband, the children, the vanished ‘ex’ and most of all with myself. I wanted to run away, declare this whole step-parenting thing a big mistake and start over somewhere, somehow - ALONE.  Instead however I chose to struggle on, until about 10 years into my marriage and two natural sons later when, physically exhausted, emotionally drained and spiritually bankrupt, I decided that if anything was going to change in my family life experience, the change would have to begin with me. This was the turnaround and the first step that led me onto a different journey – one of self discovery, personal growth and development. The following LIFE SKILLS were birthed throughout this time and helped make the second half of my step-mothering experience a much easier and more pleasurable one.

Life skill 1- Honor yourself

Do you know that you can only give to others that which you have yourself? For instance, if you don’t possess a coat, you cannot give it to someone else who might be freezing. Likewise this is true for your internal treasures and possessions. You cannot give love, compassion or nurture to anyone else if you do not have them contained within yourself. As most of us never question whether we possess these treasures until we are called upon to share them with someone else, it can come as a terrible shock when we discover our own emotional bankruptcy. If this has happened to you, do not despair. It is never too late to acquire these treasures  – in fact, right now is a good time to begin.

Honoring yourself means listening to your own needs, desires, hopes and dreams. It means treating yourself with the kindness, caring and love you would extend to your very best friend. It means cherishing your body, soul and spirit and providing for each what they need in order to be healthy, well fed, balanced and content.

Honoring yourself means learning about yourself – discovering who you are, your good sides as well as the ones you aren’t so proud of and to accept them all as uniquely yours.

Practical ways you can honor yourself as a stepmother:  
  • Realize that you have chosen a difficult journey.
  • Examine your expectations of how it should be and accept the reality of how it is.
  • Make a list of the things you enjoyed doing pre step-parenting and ensure that you continue doing at least some of them.
  • Make time for yourself (to nurture your soul!) – paint, write, play tennis, work out at the gym, listen to music - do something daily  (no matter how small) that pleases you.
  • Tune in to your feelings. Realize that disappointment, anger, hurt, confusion and rejection are feelings that are common to the step-parenting experience.
  • Talk about these feelings to someone you trust – don’t bottle them up!
  • Ensure that you release your stress in a healthy way - meditate, listen to relaxation tapes, jog or do whatever has worked for you in the past.
  • Discover the positives in your situation and re-affirm them when the going gets tough.
  • Celebrate every joyful moment!

 Life skill 2 – Honor your partner

Honoring the person you have chosen as your partner is of second importance only to honoring yourself. By choosing him you have taken a very important step that changes everything in your life. Instead of focusing solely on yourself, you now need to shift that focus onto another, whilst at the same time continuing to honor yourself.

Honoring your partner means sharing yourself with him – giving him entrance to your physical, emotional and spiritual being. It means giving him permission to show himself to you (warts and all) and accepting him unconditionally (despite his imperfections). It also means allowing him to know who you are (the good, the bad and the ugly) and giving him the opportunity to love and accept you unconditionally (despite your imperfections).

Honoring your partner means giving, sharing and compromising. It means being open to learning, to growing and changing as you travel through life together.

 Practical ways to honour your partner in a stepfamily situation: 

  • Recognise the importance of time spent alone together – away from your step-parenting responsibilities.
  • Daily - find 15-20 minutes to talk about your day – share coffee, a pre-dinner drink, go for a walk … 
  • Weekly – spend an evening together (without the kids) - go to the movies, eat at a restaurant, share a candle-lit dinner at home…..
  •  Monthly – spend a day together - roam the city, go boating, fishing or swimming…..
  •  Yearly – Take a holiday together (without the children).
  •  Romance your partner. Be aware that romance is often the first victim in a stepfamily situation. Write love notes. Tell him how much he means to you.
  •  Let him know your feelings (about him, about the stepfamily situation, about life). Don’t hide your upsets, whether they are to do with him or to do with other issues. Be sure that you communicate in a non-blaming self-responsible way for instance “When you give your children all your attention and time, I feel left out and that hurts”.
  •  Remember that conflict is part of life – so don’t be afraid of it. Use the opportunity to discuss and work out your differences.
  •  Support each other.

 Lifeskill 3 - Honor your stepchildren

Although it may be difficult and seem like a thankless task, it is important that you honor your step-children. It was, after all, you who chose to step into their lives.

Honoring your step-children means accepting them for who they are. It means challenging the expectations you may have of them and shedding any unrealistic ones.

Honoring your step-children means giving them time – time to come to terms with the many changes in their lives,  time to grieve their losses, time to get to know and perhaps like you.  It also means giving them space – space to express their feelings without being shamed for them.

 Practical ways to honor your step-children: 

  •  Remember that it wasn’t them who invited you to become part of their lives.
    • Accept that your step-kids may not like you and that you may not be too fond of them either. 
    • Give them and yourself time to establish a relationship.
  • Encourage them to express their feelings, whatever they may be and remember that they don’t need you to “fix” them, they just want you to “hear” them. 
  • Don’t take any hurtful things they say, or their difficult behaviour, personally.
  • Get as much information as possible about the challenges you are likely to encounter as a step-parent. 
  • Learn about the stages of child development, parenting and step-parenting. 
  • Seek out step-parenting information and/or support groups.
  • Be patient and kind to them, even if they are hard to take. 
The discovery of these life skills have made even the toughest parts of my journey worthwhile. They’ve not only helped me survive but have helped me become secure in myself and in my relationships. They’ve also been useful to many of my clients (step-parents and others).

Nobody’s journey is easy. Learning to honour ourselves, our partners and anyone else with whom we have a relationship is a vital skill that help us create an enjoyable life. Why not try and see for yourself?

About the author:

Sonja Ridden is a stepmother of 35 years, a counselor/psychotherapist and the founder of The Step Stop, a non-profit Sydney/Australia based website that is dedicated to the provision of information, education, resources and support to stepfamilies. She is the author of “Hell…p, I’m a stepmother”, a book that validates step-parents experiences, honors their feelings, addresses their concerns and offers helpful suggestions. Her web address is and she can be contacted by email at

Copyright © Sonja Ridden 

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