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I wanted to share this wonderfully brave and honest blog post — well worth reading!

 

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Last year I wrote this short post about the different roles of mothers and fathers, commenting how stepmothers often seem to play the father role.

My suspicions were reinforced in marriage counseling class today. The topic was gender differences in parenting, and my professor reinforced all the ways that (typical) fathers differ from (typical) mothers. How many of these do you stepmoms recognize in your own stepparenting?

Fathers often…

  • teach children about how to strive for independence and function well in the outside world
  • enforce (or, in our case, want to enforce) rules and discipline
  • tend to be stricter
  • play with children more than nurture them
  • have an easier time connecting with the kids while doing an activity together

I’ll raise my hand here—guilty as charged. (Except for playing, at which I am not the greatest.) The good news is, both kinds of parenting are needed, and whether this stuff comes from mom, dad, stepmom or grandpa, it’s all good.

What I find fascinating is how often in stepfamilies, the biological father ends up playing the more lenient, nurturing “mother” role, while the stepmother becomes the “father.” (My professor says, by the way, that this is an astute observation. Go me.) But what I didn’t tell him was how unsatisfied I am to be a woman and play the father in my family. Though it might feel right for many, I’m not one of them. There’s an emptiness there that fostering independence in my stepdaughter just can’t fill.

I’m also very curious to know how women who start out as stepmoms, and play the father role, change when they have biological children. Do they revert to full-on mom-style parenting? Do they remain, essentially, fathers? Or do they blend the two styles? If I had to hazard a guess, I’d wager that the latter option is probably the most common. I know if I had my own child, I’d do far more nurturing than I do as a stepmother. But I also believe very strongly in independence and boundaries, and can’t imagine letting that go. Anyone who’s been there, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

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According to my couple therapy professor, three things change a relationship permanently: children, infidelity, and domestic violence.

I don’t dispute the claim. I can see how all of those would indeed change a relationship forever. But I have to wonder where that leaves people who begin a relationship with children already in it. It’s almost like we experience that same kid-transition that everyone else does—only we have to face it right at the beginning, years earlier than couples who start without kids. We go through that permanent change without ever having experienced the stage that comes before!

I know this is a sad realization for many childless stepparents. They mourn not having any carefree years before children. They know they can never have that just-us-two life that so many others take for granted.

Yet there’s probably a positive in this, too. I imagine that, when we childless stepparents have kids of our own, the marital transition is less earth-shattering than it would be if there were no kids at all. After all, we’re used to sacrificing, shuffling around our lives, and making time for our marriages in the midst of hectic life. We know what it takes to make a relationship work with kids in the picture.

(One last note. It’s funny how the assumption still seems to be that most people meet, get married, and have children—in that order. All we hear about in the media is how blended families are now outnumbering first families, but in my classes I definitely get the feeling that no one would mention stepfamilies if I didn’t. And this is amongst ever-sensitive therapists at a very highly regarded school! Nuclear families are always discussed as though they are the vast majority. So either the statistics about stepfamilies are just wrong, or my professors don’t find it necessary to discuss our peculiar plight. I just don’t know.)

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In my child therapy class, I read this great article about preparing kids to transition into new foster or adoptive homes. One of the techniques often used is making something called a “life book” with the child. Just as it sounds, it’s a chronicle of the child’s life—where he’s lived, whom he’s lived with, and why various transitions have occurred. It can come in scrapbook form or any number of creative configurations.

Making the book has many functions. First, of course, it’s fun and creative. Second, it helps kids who lack a sense of continuity and clear identity to feel grounded; it gives them a coherent life story that they can refer back to in difficult times. Third—and most important for my spin on this topic—it prepares kids for a new living situation and helps them accept what has happened to them so far.

This last function made me see how valuable this technique could be for a stepchild who is struggling with her living situation or the loss of time with a biological parent. Because the purpose of the life book is to help the child accept a new home life, one of its primary goals is to squelch the child’s tendency to fantasize about the return of a biological or previous foster parent. When children have concrete facts about the situation, they are less likely to keep hoping for the return of an absent parent, and more likely to turn in a positive direction toward the parents or caretakers they do have.

When sharing this information, it’s important to find that middle ground between consideration and honesty. Of course we don’t want to be cruel, but our tendency to be vague—”your mom was sick and she couldn’t take care of you”—is probably not clear enough. The child might then fantasize about the mother getting well and coming back—or worry that other caretakers might also get sick. It’s also not recommended to paint the absent parent’s actions in rosy terms:

Also avoid glowing comments like, “Your mother couldn’t care for you, but she loved you so much she gave you up for adoption.” Such an explanation does not ring true.

Here’s an example of the level of detail that can be helpful for a child:

You lived with your mom and dad until you were four and a half. Your family had happy times like Christmas and birthdays and when you got your dog. It would be nice if things could always be happy but you had troubles too. Your dad had a hard time growing up. His mom and dad mistreated him, and he did not learn how to treat children. He was worried about grown-up things like money and his job. When he worried, he would drink too much to try to make himself feel better.  When he drank too much, sometimes he would hit you and your mom. Your mom was not able to protect you or herself. This made all of you very sad. You were very afraid of your dad. Now, it’s every child’s right to grow up safe. Because you were in danger, the court asked the social worker to find a home where you could be safe.

Of course, in a stepfamily situation, the information would probably focus on the circumstances surrounding the divorce or the sudden unavailability of a parent.

Naturally, another key goal of the life book is to make it clear to the child that he was not to blame for the loss of the parent or change in circumstances. This is a tough one, because most children assume some personal responsibility. Explaining that the missing parent could not care for any child—not just this particular child—and that all children deserve to be cared for, can help with this.

The underlying message here is that talking through life events with children can help them adjust, stop fantasizing, and accept the love of the people in their lives. When we avoid these difficult topics, we only let the feelings fester. The article said it well:

Adoptive parents fear loss of the child—that doing a life book might rekindle a child’s interest in the birth family. A child’s silence about feelings or family is often interpreted by parents as a sign that all is well. A more accurate interpretation is that the child is denying the situation or that the child is aware of the parents’ discomfort in talking about the issues. It is easier for the child to fantasize about the facts than to risk the parents’ displeasure.

Helping a child work through feelings about the past can actually help the parents claim the child.

I can see the life book being an enormously valuable tool in helping struggling stepchildren make sense of their lives, form more realistic visions of themselves and their parents, and move forward into positive futures. For more information, contact me for the article or search for life book resources online.

References

“Making Life Books with Foster and Adoptive Children” by Joann Harrison

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Today in my child therapy class we were talking about issues that come up for adopted kids or those in foster care. My professor shared that, in his experience, adopted children tend to have a more difficult time moving through adolescence. It’s a time of questioning identity and trying to form a self, so this is exactly the time when many adopted children start to lash out against their adoptive parents.

My professor told a heartbreaking story about a couple who basically “lost” their son to fantasies of his birth mother that began cropping up in adolescence. The child—who was raised from his very first moments by his adoptive parents—cruelly rejected these people, particularly his mother. I don’t know if that rift was ever mended.

Honestly, it makes me want to scream. I so want to believe that people can successfully parent children that are not their flesh and blood. I so want to believe that love and care and devotion and effort trump DNA. And I so want to believe that somehow, someday, adoption might be a happy option for me. (I’m not sure why, since I don’t think my husband has any more desire to adopt than to have another biological child, but there is just something about caring for a parentless child that has always appealed to my deepest spiritual side.)

Yet it’s just so obvious that any kind of parenting that isn’t biological is just so much more difficult. Obviously, there are exceptions. In the main, though, it’s a tough row to hoe.

It just doesn’t seem fair. I feel like people who take on greater challenges—stepparenting, adoption, foster care—should get greater rewards. But the hard reality is that playing it safe and simply having biological children is more likely to result in positive parenting experiences.

At the end of our lives, will we look back and feel a greater sense of accomplishment for taking on these less common parenting situations, for loving and nurturing kids that will not carry our genes into the next generation? I sure hope so. It’s an immense and selfless task. But however I feel at the end of my life, I know that today I feel a huge swell of respect for those who let their love go beyond biology. In the wake of Mother’s Day, my hat is off to you.

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When I hear the term “family triangle,” I always think of the Oedipus complex—that stage in childhood when Billy wants to get rid of Dad and marry Mommy. I’ll admit, I’ve always been a skeptic—do kids really feel this? My current professor—a fantastic child therapist—seems to think so, but, given his Freudian background, he’s hardly trustworthy on this point.

So I was delighted when he offered up a broader definition of the family triangle that really made sense of some common stepfamily dynamics. Rather than always manifesting as a mother-father-child situation, he explained, this same triangle can emerge with others, even people outside the family. The child might, for example, be smitten with his first grade teacher, only to feel guilty for the perceived betrayal and go home and tell his mother how much he dislikes the teacher that he actually adores.

Sound familiar? At risk of sounding like a broken stepmother record (too late!), in class I dared to raise my hand and explain that stepfamilies often deal with these same kinds of triangles. Many of us have learned the hard way that our stepkids are willing and eager to deny their affections for us in order to comfort an insecure biological parent.

Yet I’m left with a big question: why does this happen? In the stepfamily world, I have always assumed that such behavior resulted from one parent trying to undermine another. Those efforts may be overt—”You can’t love your stepmom; she’s not your mother”—or even just a subtle change in expression or tone that clearly tells the child I am not okay with you liking this person. The child understands that there is insecurity afoot and begins to placate and play the anxious parent’s game.

But if the family triangle is a normal developmental stage—as my professor feels it is—it suggests that kids instinctively pit their trusted adults against each other, even if no parent is sending the child these messages. It suggests that it’s not just Parental Alienation Syndrome that places child-raising in a competitive arena.

For me, it’s really food for thought. I have long maintained that parents are not supposed to demand exclusive affection from their children—raising children is, by nature, a multi-person endeavor, and to resent additional trusted adults (stepparents or otherwise) is just missing the point. But it seems that there is some built-in competitive awareness in the human being; from a very early age we feel—and learn to manipulate—the tensions and jealousies that exist between the adults we love. What is in us to do this? Why would we ever feel guilty for loving more than one caretaker, rather than embracing every (healthy) source of love that comes our way?

I don’t know the answer. But it makes me sad. I’d like to think that if we could just educate parents on Parental Alienation Syndrome, and revoke custody from those who refuse to stop the bashing, our kids would be free to love all their parents, all their caretakers, without fear of reprisal or guilt. Yet maybe there is truly an instinct that tells us we have only one mother, only one father, and to love others as much is some kind of wrong.

Still, there is a potential positive here. If some kids are instinctively silencing their expressions of affection for their stepparents, it may be that there is actually less parental alienation going on than we might think. I’ve always been sad that my stepdaughter felt she had to keep silent about her life with me and her dad. (And yes, I’ve been resentful that she isn’t constantly crowing out my multifarious merits in her mom’s presence. But from day one she was too smart to do that!) So maybe there’s no need for me to worry about her: when she omits my name from the conversation, she’s just doing what comes naturally—protecting her mom’s feelings and herself from guilt.

But, of course, it still hurts.

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A good mother, according to a wealth of findings, is one who can 1) at first attune herself completely to the needs of her infant, and 2) gradually withdraw her perfect caretaking, as appropriate, as the child begins to develop independence. This delicate balance produces a child secure in her mother’s love but also able to form her own identity.

I’m sad to report that the mothers around me are flunking.

At the first step they are masters. At the second they are hopeless.

D. W. Winnicott, a psychologist and pediatrician writing some 60 years ago, described a state called “primary maternal preoccupation,” which occurs in the last weeks of pregnancy and the beginning of an infant’s life. It’s the state that allows the mother to be completely focused on her child, to attune to her baby at its most helpless. According to Winnicott: “It lasts for a few weeks after the birth of the child. It is not easily remembered by mothers once they have recovered from it.” (“Primary Maternal Preoccupation,” 1956)

And yet in our culture it seems to go on and on and on—with mothers not only remembering it but clinging to it with a death grip.

Is this cultural—the product of a child-obsessed world and its accordant parenting pressures? Or is motherhood, really, the impossible task?

Having never been there, I can’t say for myself. But as a stepmother I know I am much better at fostering independence than my stepdaughter’s bio-mom is. My husband lies somewhere in between. There does seem to be something about “primary maternal preoccupation” that lasts and lasts, making the mother weep when her “baby” graduates from kindergarten or goes off to college. Those moments are supposed to be joyful—for they are, after all, signs of the parents’ success.

Yet of course those moments are bittersweet. Society elevates the role of motherhood above all others available to women; every message suggests that to separate one’s personal identity from that role is cold and criminal. We ask mothers to subsume themselves in their children—and then we ask them, 18 years later, to stop. How could any but a few make the transition gracefully?

But it’s society that’s got it wrong. Research shows that the best mothers only relinquish their identities for a few scant weeks—not months or years. Within the first year of a baby’s life, mothers need to begin encouraging independence, a process that continues in baby steps until the child is fully grown. Difficult, still? Of course! But it’s a lot less unreasonable than the model we are slapping on mothers today. And it produces a heck of a lot better children.

Somehow the culture has distorted this healthy trick for evolutionary survival—primary maternal preoccupation—into a lifelong slog that mothers are supposed to wear as a badge of honor. But it’s not healthy for these women or the children they raise.

Motherhood is never going to be easy, emotionally or otherwise. But if we could realign our goals and behavior according to the research on what our kids actually require to grow up healthy, it need not be the impossible task.

*

For further reading:

You can try the work of D.W. Winnicott, but he’s pretty dull, so I’d actually recommend his successors in the field of object relations theory. For some modern explanations of the importance of both sides of the mothering spectrum (love and fostering independence), check out:

Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt
Being and Loving by Althea Horner

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If you’re like me, you first heard the term “attachment parenting” from a scary, bleary-eyed zealot who tried to convince you that babies forced to nap, or allowed to cry, grow up to distrust their parents.

And if you’re like me, you backed away nodding and smiling and went out to find new friends.

But it turns out that attachment parenting concepts are actually supported by a great deal of research on early experience. As scary as their practitioners may be, the basic lessons are right—and, when presented in a psychological context, they actually make good sense.

Basically, responsiveness and attunement are the best things any parent can give a baby under a year old. When the baby is crying, comfort him. When the baby is feeling frisky, play with him. And when the baby is ready to nap, let him be. Get in tune with the baby and respond to his needs: it’s that simple.

But somehow, these ideas have gotten warped into a parenting model that seems to glorify the self-effacement of parents and the lifelong placement of children at the center of the familial solar system.

Clearly these parents have the best of intentions. But here’s where I think it gets twisted in common practice. Responsiveness and attunement are what’s required with infants. But as those babies start to gain mad skills, it’s up to the parents to back off and start promoting independence, as well as consideration for the needs of others. It’s a delicate balance, to be sure—comforting the child at certain times, encouraging him to branch out at others—but it has to be done. Providing love and fostering the child’s personal and social identity are both required to produce emotionally healthy children.

Maybe I’ve misunderstood them, but the attachment parenting believers I’ve met seem to be focused entirely on the first stage—and that’s almost as dangerous as skipping it altogether. Kids who are never encouraged to be independent, who never learn to trust in their basic competence, tend to be pathologically needy in their adult relationships and lack that (all-important) self-esteem.

I’m sure many attachment parents do understand and fulfill both of these requirements, but it’s not always easy to articulate. So, chances are, you may hear some weird shit from them that makes your eyes bug out of your head. Never fear! I am here to translate the seemingly bizarre statements and couch them in psychological data. Here goes.

“Babies shouldn’t be allowed to cry” – What they mean is that babies under a year old are incapable of manipulating anyone. They’re crying for a reason, and it’s the parent’s job to figure out the problem. When children get older, however, and learn to use tears to manipulate, parents shouldn’t keep up the coddling.

“Parents should conform to what the child wants to do” – What they mean is that babies whose parents are attuned to their moods tend to do the best. It doesn’t mean that good parents are groveling slaves as long as the child shall live. It means that they don’t force an agenda on an infant, over-stimulating him with a rattle when he’s tired or demanding he eat when he’s not hungry. This does not apply to rambuctious toddlers who really, really want to go nuts in a museum, or kids who would rather go to Disneyland every weekend than learn to do the dishes.

“Children not raised this way don’t trust their parents” – What they mean is that babies who are repeatedly not comforted, or comforted inconsistently, can develop a series of psychological and even physiological issues—sad but true. Babies (who, let’s face it, are barely human when first born) can’t regulate their own emotions; they need their parents to calm them. When comfort isn’t forthcoming on a regular basis, babies can develop a basic distrust in their caregivers—on whom, remember, they are utterly dependent. This isn’t like mistrusting the government or mistrusting the shifty-eyed guy at the bar. It is not something the growing child would be able to articulate. It goes much much deeper, down to an unconscious place where relationships themselves become suspect—because this, after all, is the child’s first and only experience of what relationships are.

Let me just close by emphasizing that babies whose parents are usually responsive do not suffer adverse consequences if those parents slip up once in a while. In fact, it’s preferable for the parent to be “good enough” rather than perfect, so that gradually children do learn to build their resilience and deal with disappointment in a safe and manageable environment.

For further reading that makes sense of attachment concepts and how they play out in both babies and adults, try these fascinating books:

Why Love Matters by Sue Gerhardt
Being and Loving by Althea Horner

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How adept are your stepchildren at forming and keeping relationships? How secure are they in their ability to relate to others, in their essential worthiness as human beings? Do they perceive intimate connections as valuable, necessary, soul-sustaining?

Do they connect to you? To others?

Whatever your answer to these questions, you may have the biological mother to thank—or blame.

A preponderance of research now points to the incredible significance of early experience—of early relationships—in shaping emotional health. Without getting into all the nitty-gritties, the relationship between the infant and the primary caregiver often sets the tone for later relationships. Get a responsive, in-tune caretaker, and you’ll probably be primed for the nourishing give-and-take of positive relationships. But get a depressed, overwhelmed, or abusive caretaker, and the effects upon your psychological, physiological, and emotional health can be lifelong and extraordinarily damaging. In short, that first relationship often plays a vital role in determining the nature of all those that follow it.

That’s a lot of pressure placed on primary caretakers—usually biological mothers. While most get it right, somewhere around 30% of children at any given time are considered “insecurely attached,” leaving them more susceptible to a host of unhealthy relationship patterns, self-esteem issues, even conditions such as depression and anorexia.

So where does this leave us stepparents? Where does it, for that matter, leave biological fathers, who rarely trump the  mother as primary caretaker in a child’s first year of life? Do we matter at all?

The answer is—of course we matter. Certainly those caretakers involved with an infant, even not in a primary role, still play a huge part in setting the child off on the right path. Those stepparents fortunate enough to know their stepchildren as babies can be as influential as either biological parent.

But the reality is that most of us don’t know our stepchildren in their first years. We come in later—at age 3, or 6, or 13, or 24—when those foundations are long set. We experience, then, the people the biological parents have shaped. And in many cases we must live with the damage that was delivered before our time. Is it possible for people, and patterns, to change? Certainly—but it usually takes more than just the appearance of a friendly stepparent. Children who have not been properly nurtured often lack not only the ability to connect to others in a healthy way, but the very inkling that such a thing would be possible or valuable.

So many loving stepparents, so many wounded children, and yet most of those children still long for the biological parent who hurt or deserted them. If my stepdaughter were one of these, I don’t think it would be possible to express the intensity of the fury I would feel toward the parent who’d shattered her.

But that’s not the case. My stepdaughter is a confident, thriving teenager who loves not only her biological parents, but her stepmother and her friends. And I have no doubt that, as an adult, she’ll be able to form healthy relationships with romantic partners as well as her own children, if she chooses to have them.

So I must be grateful for her biological parents—both my husband and his former wife—and their careful tending. And I certainly am. Because of them, I can have the positive relationship with my stepdaughter that I do.

Yet the feeling is bittersweet, too. How much they mattered—how little have I!

Still, I remind myself that these early relationships merely start the path; they don’t finish it. Every moment I share with my stepdaughter serves as a distinct sight, a special scenic route, on the same course her biological parents carved out in the very beginning. And I am honored to have joined the hike.

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Some interesting factoids:

“In a study comparing university students who lived with their parents with those who lived away from home, those who lived away from their parents experienced more daily life challenges, but they also used more effective problem-solving strategies to address those challenges. In comparison to students who lived at home, those who lived away from their parents had made more progress in the formation of their personal identity, suggesting that the pressures toward self-reliance may contribute to the clarification of values and commitments.”

and

“Many students who attend college away from home begin to have more positive thoughts and feelings about their parents. …Students who live at home while attending college tend to continue to be preoccupied by concerns and thoughts about their parents based on their actual daily interactions, and the quality of their relationships is viewed as more conflictual. …in the United States, later adolescents who live at home and have frequent daily interactions with their parents tend to be least close to them.”

and

“…children living with their two biological parents are likely to leave home later than are children living in a stepfamily.”

Way to go, stepparents! Our kids are more likely to leave home sooner. Whether they do so because we promote/model independence, or because we’re sooo mean, this makes them not only more independent but actually closer to us. So tell that to your spouse next time s/he wants to keep your adult stepkids living at home forever!

(All quotes are from Development Through Life by Newman and Newman, 368-371.)

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