As I read Arianna Huffington’s fabulous piece: Microsteps: The Big Idea That’s Too Small To Fail, I couldn’t help but think how readily it applies to the moment-by-moment life experience of the stepmoms I speak to every day as moderator of a social media group called The Spectacular Stepmom.
I too have a mission; to end the epidemic of emotional burnout among stepmothers by changing the way they think and feel about their role in the family and how they interact with their partner’s children.
According to the US Census Bureau, approximately 2 out of 3 second marriages end in divorce. Half of all children will live in a blended family before age 18, and more than half of those will experience the dissolution of their family a second time. I find these statistics tragic.
There is too much riding on getting this right to just rely on Google to help us sort it out. Women need the tools with which to quickly master a family situation for which they are not prepared by either historical experience or contemporary example. It also wouldn’t hurt to have something of a tribe; in fact, most step-moms say that they don’t know another living soul who is living with the same challenges.
My research, combined with personal experience, shows that there are basic principles that can be learned and applied to benefit all blended families despite the obvious uniqueness of each individual situation.
I believe that looking “upstream” for opportunities to take tiny steps and make micro-changes is not just wise but essential. Downstream is where the major damage ensues when nature dashes us on the rocks of reality as a reminder that there is nothing “second-nature” about building a second family!
The success of the millions of stepfamilies depends on the very type proactive habits that Arianna Huffington mentioned. I’ll address just a few of the specific small habits that any stepmom can adopt to keep ahead of emotional burnout that often signals a point of no return for her family relationships.
For better discipline:
Make it known that all the rules are dad’s rules.
Kids naturally seek approval from their parents, and they need to decide if, when and how they choose to transgress as they pass through normal stages of development. They want to test his ability to hold limits for them, so it doesn’t really help them if you are the better disciplinarian. It’s not a typical nuclear family where the parents can take turns – when it comes to discipline, dad needs to be the final authority every time.
Let dad dish out any consequences for bad behaviour
The kids have an unconditional bond of love with dad that will withstand an appropriate level of reprimand and a consequence for breaking his rules. Their connection with you is more fragile by nature, and you don’t need to test it by taking your turn playing bad cop. If he doesn’t think a consequence is in order, you don’t get to over-ride him. Let it go. (There’s a song about that you can sing to yourself if that helps!)
For more appreciation:
Stop doing one thing that isn’t being appreciated.
You can’t expect kids to thank you all the time for things that are normal adult caregiving activities like cooking, cleaning and driving, but you can definitely expect thanks from your partner on a regular basis for anything you do to help him care for his kids. None of it is your responsibility, as they are not your children. What you do for them constitutes a favour to your partner and he should recognize it as such.
On the other hand, if you choose to do certain things from the goodness of your own heart which are met with “attitude”, the correct and loving thing is to just stop doing at least one of those things. If that doesn’t make a difference, simply stop doing another one. Nothing says love more than an important life lesson, delivered with an open heart.
For a better sense of belonging:
Print, frame and hang a photo of your new family somewhere everyone can see it
Many stepmoms waste a great deal of emotional energy trying to become part of the family with dad and his kids. No doubt these women have their heart in the right place, but they don’t understand that asking kids to make room for two moms in their family is like asking them to grow another arm. We’re just not wired to love two moms at once – at least, not moms who don’t also love each other!
Fortunately, we are wired to belong to two families – it usually happens when we get married, but the wiring is there so we might as well make use of it. There are lots of ways to do this, but one really great one is to archive fun moments all together and start framing photos of those times and hanging them on the wall. It won’t happen overnight, just take it one group-selfie at a time.
For more peace in your home:
Block bio-mom on your phone
I hesitate to suggest this, because a good working relationship with the mother of your step kids is a precious and highly desirable thing, wherever possible. If the bio-mom is not challenging your peace of mind, consider yourself very lucky and don’t change a thing!
However, if you often find yourself in the middle of your partner and his ex via text messages or voice calls, it’s OK to take yourself out of the game and block her number. There are some great parenting communication apps such as Talking Parents and Our Family Wizard that help put excellent and courteous boundaries around all the necessary co-parenting communications.
Keep all electronics out of the bedroom.
This might seem obvious, but you deserve some hours of the day where you’re not waiting for a message alert. Put all your phones to bed and charge them in another room at night. This is also a great way to keep teenagers from surfing when they should be sleeping!
For more self-respect:
Practice saying “This is not OK”
It’s a small thing, but it packs a punch. This phrase is a great way to announce your boundaries and draw a firm but gentle line in the sand. It’s a phrase that doesn’t place any blame; it just announces how you feel without judgement. You’ll find it equally useful when dealing with adults or children.
For better nutrition and easier mealtimes:
Let them eat cake!
OK, that’s the title of a video series I did for the step-moms in my online community, but I really mean it. Let them eat whatever makes them happy, whatever helps them to feel a sense of autonomy in your home. If nutrition is really important to you, you have my permission to trick them just a little by making and serving regular nutritious snacks, delivered precisely when they’re most likely to start feeling hungry between meals.
Restore harmony to mealtimes by letting go of your expectations around food and just let suppertime be about sitting together and enjoying each other’s company. You’re all getting a lot out of supper if you just use that time to connect. According to the website thefamilydinnerproject.org , family meals are a greater predictor of school outcomes than any other intervention.
For more happiness:
Start a gratitude journal
Oprah Winfrey says that starting a gratitude journal 18 years ago completely transformed her life. She was already a pretty big deal 18 years ago, so listen up!
There is no quicker, easier way to bring massive goodness into your life than to write down 5 things you feel grateful for every single day. This can be easily done in 5 minutes. If you want a quick-start guide, grab my free template here.
It’s important to rest a while in that grateful, joyful feeling because that’s where the magic happens. You will start to spontaneously notice more and more positive things around you, and others will be positively affected by a change in your overall vibration. This stuff really works.
Start small. Pick just one of these microsteps. It doesn’t matter how small the steps are as long as your feet are pointing in the right direction!