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Posts Tagged ‘Stepparenting’

I’m at the point in my education now that the university feels comfortable enough unleashing me upon actual people. For this exciting step, called “practicum,” I’m going to be working with a grief counseling organization. I’m really excited! (And not lying. This is why counselors are freaks. I was thrilled to get a 22-page assignment during training called “Personal Death Assessment.”)

Anyway, I’m going to be serving as a facilitator for the grief support groups for children aged 5-12. It sounds like it’s going to be about half grief work (through discussion, art, and movement) and half herding cats.

I felt strong during the training. Unlike most of my fellow volunteers, I have not had a serious loss, so I didn’t expect to experience triggers during the 5 training days. And for the most part, I was right.

Until one of the staff members started talking about his work with the teen groups.

He mentioned that one of the biggest issues for grieving teens is when their living parent begins a new relationship or remarries.

And all my hackles went up. I could just hear these kids:

Why does he have to date anyone?

I hate her. She’s trying to take down my mom’s pictures.

That bitch will never be my mother!

Oh, I know I’m being one-sided. But that’s the point, because everyone else in the world is on the other side. The reality is that of course grieving children need love and conversation and guidance during such a difficult transition—and many widowed parents handle these things horribly. It is admirable that these particular teens are working out their feelings in a positive, supportive group in which they feel understood and validated. All evidence suggests that they are wise, thoughtful kids who have the best intentions.

Yet I’m still triggered. Because I just don’t want to hear kids talk about how much they hate their stepmoms.

I have some work to do on myself, of course. I have some work to do before I can come to a grieving teenager as the pure and unconditional vessel I want to be. But for now, I’m just a little bit glad that the teen groups are not seeking any new facilitators.

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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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How do you ever get over the feeling of being a non-entity in your stepchild’s life?

I know, I know: Better to be neutral than evil. But is it? It’s more peaceful, sure. But the toll of feeling insignificant, valueless—in your own home—is devastating. The constant subtle reminders that you don’t really count, you don’t really register, perpetuate this slow steady siphoning of your self-worth.

And the kicker is that the stepchild is doing nothing wrong. The stepchild is perhaps a model stepchild, in fact, a kind and polite and friendly stepchild.

But this stepchild doesn’t love you as you want to be loved. And it’s the only child you’ll ever have.

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I will confess—I love going to B&Bs. I love all the hokey decorations and the faux Victorian stylings. But the one thing I don’t love so much is having to talk to the owners and other guests at breakfast.

I prefer my breakfasts quiet—just my husband and me—and (I have to be honest) I really don’t care about chatting it up with people I’ll never see again. But what makes every B&B breakfast ever so much more uncomfortable is everyone’s inevitable suspicion that I am a not a “real” mother.

It always goes something like this. The kindly owner asks about our summer. My husband mentions our daughter —he always says she is ours; I know some don’t like this, but I do. (So far so good.) Then he mentions that she plays competitive sports. (Cue the quizzical look.) Then he mentions that she is 14, or in high school. (They are openly looking at me now, sizing me up. “She’s much too young to have a daughter in high school,” I can hear their minds ticking. “She must be the stepmother.”)

And so I can feel the burning in my face, the shifting in my seat. I’m actually not too young; I’m twenty years older than my stepdaughter. But that isn’t the point. I look young, my husband looks older, and I know what people think. And the truth is that I hate even being thought to be a stepmother. I go on vacation, at least in part, to escape life. I can pretend to be a young mother or one half of a happy child-free couple.

Until the B&B breakfast.

I don’t really understand my shame. In reality there is much to be proud of in being a good stepparent. It is one of the most difficult roles in a family, and to take it on and do it gracefully should be considered by all to be a major accomplishment. Yet that’s never how it feels in the wider world. Stepmother, especially childless stepmother, equals “less than.” It means “not real.” And there I sit, blushing into my omelette, exposed as this lesser creature.

What would the world be like, I wonder, if stepparents were admired and praised for taking on the challenges we do? I close my eyes and imagine this: compliments, encouragement. Wow, that’s great! You must be very courageous. You must really love your husband to do such a difficult thing. Your family is lucky to have you! It would change my experience completely if I thought that people equated stepmother, especially childless stepmother, with “more than”—more bravery, more patience, more self-sacrifice, more thoughtfulness.

Maybe that day is coming. I wish I didn’t need it. I wish I could sit there and hope that my husband revealed my step-identity. I wish I could happily smack down my home fries, brimming with pride that I and my friends embrace this difficult life. Because the plain truth is that we are “more than.” And I don’t know why I let strangers make me feel like anything less.

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So in the therapy world there’s this concept of “informed consent”—providing enough information about the process, benefits, risks, and costs of therapy to allow a potential client to make an informed choice about whether to proceed with treatment.

The concept comes from the medical world, and as nice as it is, I can’t help but think how different so much of life would be if we had these kinds of documents for everything…especially stepparenting! Would anyone become a stepparent if presented with a true picture of its risks? I think not. Let’s face it, our partners rely on our romanticism and naivete to suck us in. Maybe it’s time we revolutionize the world of relationships, requiring a full informed consent document before we date anyone!

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