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TAKE THE "PARENT" OUT OF STEP-PARENTING

When you year the word "step-mother", what immediately comes to mind?  Be honest... even if you're a stepmother.

Evil, wicked, manipulative, selfish...destroyer of children...just a few descriptions that come to my mind.

Mythology has not been kind to stepmothers and this underlying belief is alive and well in the 21st century.

Stepfathers are better off.  The day they say "I do", they don't turn immediately into green scary monsters.

However, many stepmothers and stepfathers have learned the hard way, that the word "parent" should not be a part of step-parenting.

Thus the oxymoron.

THE OXYMORON THAT IS STEP-PARENTING

Studies show that children resent parenting attempts by their parent's new spouse, even when one of their parents is deceased.

Like many, I learned the hard way when I married my husband over 7 years ago.  He came with a 5-year-old daughter who was not thrilled with the prospect of having to share her father.

I didn't take it personally.  I came from a home with parents who loved one another and shared close to 40 years of maritalhappiness before one of them passed away.
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It's hard for me to imagine the type of resiliency it takes to go from one home to another, adjust to new stepsiblings, different rules, and seeing your dad with another woman—all at the tender age of 5.

It's taken a long time for my stepdaughter to accept me and I don't blame her.  She lives primarily with her mother, and has been witness to a parent struggling from time to time running a household without a partner.

Coming to terms with the notion that I had to take the "parent" out of stepparent has been humbling.  I thought I would make a great stepparent.  After all, I was a family therapist and the mother of four great kids.  

DON'T BE A BUTINSKI

I was constantly giving my husband advice...well, the truth be...I was constantly in his face shoving my opinions and "expertise" his way trying to be helpful.  Besides, between my professional and personal experience, I knew I was RIGHT.

One weekend when my stepdaughter was visiting, I offered what I believed to be helpful advice (and it really was).  An hour after she returned home to her mother, my husband got THE phone call.  I had shamed her daughter.  The ex-wife was mad at me and then my husband was mad at me.

I thought to myself, "OK, I get it.  I finally get it."  I knew there was nothing shameful about my advice, but I was being put on notice that when something went wrong, I was going to be the first one blamed.

It's when I decided to let go of my end of the rope.   I needed to respect that I am not the mother, this is not my child and there are two active parents involved in her upbringing, whether I agree with all of their decisions or not.

Things became a lot smoother after I decided to drop my opinions and my ego, and just let things be.  After all, I didn't marry my husband so I could be mother to his child.

INVITATION ONLY

The one exception to this rule is if the child actually INVITES you into their lives as a parent.  This would mean, and I mean this, they literally, vocally ask for your opinion and advice.  And I'm not just talking the occasional request to hear what your view is.  This is an implicit request that looks like:

—Will you be my parent?

—Of course, you are my parent.

Never assume because your step-children asks your opinion about something that this means he/she has invited you in to the world of parenting.  Tread very lightly.

Also remember, the choice is ultimately yours.  An invitation is just that—and it can be respectfully declined.

Recently my step-daughter, who is now living with her dad and I for a year because her mother is recovering from complications of surgery, told me that I was now going to be one of her 3 parents during this time.  

I told her carefully and graciously that while her mom was in the hospital, she was alert and conscious as was her father.  I would be here to offer my opinions and support if she wanted, but that was it.

Shortly after telling me she wanted me to be one of her parents, she declared that she wanted “belly piercing“.  She is 15 years old, and if she was my daughter, it would be an adamant no (I’d already been through this with my own daughters at that age).

I asked her what her mom thought and she said her mom was fine with it, as was her father.  This is when I told her the difference between a parent and an ally.  Her parents were fine with the belly piercing while I was not.  And there is no way I was going to walk on that mine field!  

Their daughter—their decision.

NEW RULES  

Sure-fire formula for step-parents:

1.Don't parent.

2.Don't try to be their friend but—be their ALLY.

3.Do try to see them, hear them, and be an adult they can come to value and respect.

4.Always model an environment of kindness and respect.

5.Keep your personal boundaries intact.

6.If you are invited to be a parent, think long and hard before you agree to it.  Ultimately, you are the only one who can decide what you are comfortable with and what you are not.

Mary

www.marriedwithbaggage.com



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Member Comments

    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Alanda Sikes wrote Jul 14, 2008
    • After becoming a step-mother to three, ages 17, 13 and 10, I understand the concept of not being their friend but ally.  As my husband has custody it seems I am the one who has to take care of the little things for two the three children.  The 17 year does not live with us.  The ten year old and I have formed an attachment to each other.  We don’t always see things the same and we are both stubborn, but he will tell me he loves me and I reply same.  The mother has very little contact with the two younger children and my husband works long hours, especially during the summer.  It is hard not to be a parnet figure to some degree.  Do you have any other suggestions for this situation?



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mary Kelly-Williams, M.A. wrote Jul 14, 2008
    • Beautifulat 40,

      Wow, you have your hands full.  Wonderful that you have formed an attachment to the 10 year old.  You don’t say much about the 13 year old.

      I believe that we are to be our step-children’s ADULT allies.  This means that you of course can offer structure and guidelines.  House rules are important and for this, you should have the same power as your husband and present them to the children as a team.

      As for the “parenting” part, this is an Invitation only scenario.  For example, my husband makes decisions for his 14 year old that as a parent I would not have made with my own children.  Those decisions really don’t affect me (although one could argue that any decision will affect us, but that could be an argument that goes round and round), so I accept that my husband has the right to make the decisions he feels are best.

      How sad for these children that their mother has very little contact with them.  What they need the most from you is love and a person who is willing to listen to them and be there for them.  And, let’s say, the 10 year old invites you to be their parent, while the 13 year old does not, that is fine.  Thirteen is a tough age, confusing in the best of circumstances.

      We are naturally parent figures just by being who we are.  It’s the unwise step-parent who forces their opinions and beliefs on children who are not their own.

      One house rule in our family that is non-negotiable is that there must be kindness and respectful behavior.   Don’t worry about the fine lines—the children will give you their cues.

      And, because you are the adult in charge, make mutual decisions with your husband that are explained to them by their father so there’s no potential of, “Well, I’ll talk to Dad about that“.

      Common sense is a good rule of thumb.  

      You know, in your situation, there really is a fine line between parenting and being an ally because you are in charge.  Just be sensitive to how the kids are reacting to you.  You are in charge, but you also want to be the one that helps build the bridge between them and their father,  especially with his long working hours.

      I commend you for your love and commitment to your husband’s children.  They are most fortunate!

      Mary

      www.marriedwithbaggage.com



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Alanda Sikes wrote Jul 15, 2008
    • No I did not say much about the 13 year old.  She is a special needs child and is very easy to take care of.  She just seems to go with the flow.  I do help her with picking out her outfits, combing her hair and try to take care of the things that her father should not have to handle.  She is happy most of the time and give us very little problems.  

      Thank you for pointing that out to me and thank you for your comments.

      Alanda



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mellamom wrote Jul 15, 2008
    • OK - I hear you. I do. And I WISH I could peacefully exist in such a home. But my husband demands that I “step-up“. When I tired simply being an ally, support, a warm hand to hold ~ he was very upset with me. He wants me to be her mom away from mom. He says she needs a mom like me to help balance out her bio-mom’s laid back parenting. He asks my advise on a regular basis. He wants me to be a part of the discipline and the rewards. My Step daughter has been very accepting of this - but it’s still so hard for all of us. I’m just the weekend mom.

      An example: my SD has a bit of a peeing problem. At nearly 6 I am concerned for her. It’s more than the occasional accident. It’s several times each weekend. It’s also at home and at school. I feel that we should take her to the doctors. But both her mom and dad feel it’s an adjustment period and she’ll grow out of it. It’s been over a year and is only getting worse.

      But yet I’m expected to help clean up the messes, and her. I’m expected to say calmly “it’s no big deal” - while I think it is a very big deal. She will pee on herself while wide awake, watching a DVD in her room. I’m afraid this is much more than an adjustment - could even possibly be a physical problem. I’m afraid it may lead to being teased in school.  

      Add to that a difference in boundaries. My husband like to share the bed occasionally. He loves to cuddle and sleep with her in the middle of us. I am immensely uncomfortable with this. But my step daughter has actually told me to “get over it” and to “be a family, together“. And lets not forget that she has a peeing problem... So MY bed gets peed in. I’ve moved to the sofa in such cases - but them the wee one and my DH think that I am over reacting.

      I feel like her mom, her dad and my SD herself look at me as the primary parent. The only one that seems upset about this is me.....



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Alanda Sikes wrote Jul 16, 2008
    • I agree it is hard being a weekend mom.  Maybe you should tell your husband that you are not trying to replace her mother and he should not ask you.  I do understand about cleaning up behind the child.  I am lucky that my husband agrees with me making the kids clean up behind themselves.  I have explained to the kids that I work all day and come home to cook and make sure they have clean clothes, the least they could do is pick up their mess.  As far as her peeing problem, maybe you should include her when cleaning up the mess and herself that way maybe she will be aware of what is involved.  I would question if she did this while at her mothers.  If not then maybe she is trying to get attention.

      Just to let you know, it is not always peaceful.  The ten year old can have a major attitude after being around his mother that he takes out on his father and myself.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mellamom wrote Jul 16, 2008
    • Thanks Beauti... I did tell myself this morning that I need to have a serious talk with my husband tonight - before the next weekend visit. I’m afraid I’m getting resentful and that will surely be evident to my SD and she doesnt deserve that. She is just being a kid and one in the very difficult situation of shuffleing between two homes with very different rules. But as far as the adults go - we have to get on the same page, whatever that page may be.

      I think what I’m going to propose is that where my bounderies and my “house rules” are stronger than his - maybe HE can take up the slack. For example: since he feels she is too young to help with the laundry, maybe he can wash her sheets when she soils them.  

      Thanks for letting me vent.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Alanda Sikes wrote Jul 16, 2008
    • No problem, as parents we all need to vent.  In my opinion she is not too young to help with laundry.  Have her help take the sheets off the bed or pick up dirty towels.  She is old enough to pick up her own dirty laundry.  He has to start at an early age to teach the importance of being responsible.  It will also teach her to be independent, which to me is a good thing, especially for girls.



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    • 0 votes vote up vote up

      Mary Kelly-Williams, M.A. wrote Jul 16, 2008
    • Mellamom,

      I’ve been mulling over your post and took a relook at my original article.  I grimaced when I saw the part “step up” when it comes to the invitation to parent.  Then I read your post and realized I had made a mistake.

      I will be writing more about this situation, but 2 months ago, my step-daughter’s mother had a risky surgery that resulted in terrible consequences.  She will now be in a rehab hospital for 9 months to a year meaning that we now have my husband’s daughter with us full time.

      One evening last week, I came home and my step-daughter and husband were waiting for me and saying that they wanted my OK on something.  I’ve always been clear about letting mom be mom and dad be dad and I am there as an ally.

      I told her that she didn’t need my OK, and what did her parents think (her mother can still be a mother from a hospital bed as she is conscious and awake and alert most of the time).  

      She then insisted that I was going to be her parent too for the next year.  I put a hand up and with a smile on my face, politically declined.  I again reiterated that I was there to be an ally and support, but the bottom line decisions rest with her parents.

      So, I misspoke when I said that if there was an invitation extended, we need to “Step up” and accept the invitation.

      An invitation is a request.  And we can make assessments about our capacity and our willingness and lovingly say NO, in the most gentle of ways.

      Your resentment is an indication that what your husband is asking is not resonating with your heart.  And you have every right to gracefully decline.

      Boundaries are so important.  The situation you describe with the 6 year old sleeping with the two of you wetting the bed is honestly not healthy for the child.  You verify this by saying that her problem is getting worse.

      As the co-adult in the household, you have every right to be clear about your boundaries, and sleeping with a bed-wetting 6 year old is not OK for you nor should it be.

      This child has too much power and it is stressful for children to have the power in the adult relationships.

      So, long story short, I apologize for giving the wrong impression, and encourage you to follow your heart.  Best of luck to you with your conversation with your husband.  And let us know how it goes.

      Mary

      www.marriedwithbaggage.com
      www.challengingtransitions.com



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