The other day one of my best friends, who is both a mother and stepmother, made some comments that seemed to suggest she was experiencing some intense doubt and internal conflict about her 13 relationship with her stepdaughter. Recently, she said, she was finding herself being more and more affected by her stepdaughter’s (and her stepdaughter’s mother’s) words, thoughts, and actions. My friend’s self esteem and sense of self appeared to be feeling bruised, wounded, and battered. Her faith in stepfamily relationships was wavering, causing her question her role in her stepchild’s life. Unanswered questions seemed to be nagging at her heart: Does my stepdaughter love me for just being me? Does she truly consider me an integral part of her family? Does she value or appreciate everything I try to do for her? Is it worth it?
In a similar vein I had another good friend (who also happens to be a stepmother) say to me that raising her stepchild was feeling very much like she imagines it feels to be pecked to death by a chicken whilst the rest of the farm yard animals watch on with feigned indifference. Battered and bruised seemed to be an accurate representation of how she was presently feeling too.
Over the years I have seen both of my stepmother friends work very hard to weather the storms of stepfamily life, not to mention the problems and challenges that have arisen as their respective families have expanded and their stepchildren have grown and cognitively developed. I have been exceptionally proud of the way each of them have, in their own way, kept adult issues away from the children and worked hard to establish appropriate boundaries, not only within their families, but in their relationships with their husbands’ former spouses. Pessimism and doubt is not either friend’s usual style. So why all of a sudden where each of them seeming to be experiencing a crisis of stepmother faith?
I don’t know. But tough times in which our faith in stepfamily relationships waivers, happens to all of us. It’s par for the course. After all high statistics revealing that second or later marriages are much more likely to end in divorce are high for a reason. No matter how strong or confident a stepparent we might be, tough times are inevitable: brutishly forcing their might on us, causing us to question ourselves and our relationships. Those tough times tend to make an appearance when we encounter the less rosy, more challenging aspects of being a stepparent, including noticing that a number of decisions in your life are being dictated by an ex-spouse; that your partner seems to take your efforts for granted; discovering that those that are a part of our stepfamily or of our stepchild’s extended family can be hateful, calculating or unkind or even when our stepchild’s behavior is punishing and does not match up with our expectations. Some times tough moments also seem to coincide with us feeling vulnerable because of life events such as the death of a loved one or illness or perhaps an unexpected redundancy. As strong and brave as we can feel one day, we can feel just as small and as insignificant as humanly possible the next. We can experience feeling like an outsider with our stepchildren or like our partner doesn’t have our back. If we are not careful this can turn us cynical or leave us feeling despondent or even stranded in that farmyard, surrounded by hungry chickens.
The hardest part of these inevitable tough times would seem to be surviving them with your “faith” in tact. Now, I am not getting all fanatical here and the word faith is not subtext for religion – in this type of context, another name for faith could be resilience – so let me reword that and say, perhaps the hardest part of tough stepfamily times is, in the face of overwhelming odds, finding a way to maintain your resilience.
Resilience (noun) or Resiliency (noun) Able to recover quickly from misfortune; able to return to original form after being bent, compressed, or stretched out of shape. A human ability to recover quickly from disruptive change, or misfortune without being overwhelmed or acting in dysfunctional or harmful ways. Definition from Al Siebert Resiliency Center
If (or when) you find yourself experiencing tough times or feeling a little jaded about where your stepfamily is heading or about being a stepparent, here are some things to bare in mind or to try, to try to restore your faith and remain resilient:
1. Know that you are not alone. Your feelings are not uncommon and to be quite honest, are normal responses given your situation. Thinking about ending the marriage, about not liking your step-kids or that stepfamily life is too hard, are all thoughts (and feelings) that are acceptable, even when you don’t like them and/or they scare the hell out of you. Thinking those thoughts will not somehow make them come true (nor does it make you a terrible person).
2. Sometimes a stepchild’s affections can come when we stop wanting it or needing it so much. Sometimes the affection might never come. It helps to try to relax; to just be yourself and to give your self permission not to care so much.
3. Do your best put some limits on what you worry about and try not to to take on big emotional stuff that isn’t yours and/or doesn’t belong to you or that you have not control over. If your partner/spouse is feeling guilty about the impact on his daughter of his having left her mother (well before you ever arrived on the scene) don’t carry that guilt for him – nor should you let him take his guilt out on you.
4. Take timeout to recharge yourself. Make it a priority. Recognize the costs of energy-depleting behaviors and then take responsibility for changing them, regardless of the unique challenges you are facing. Regularly find a moment or a space or a time to reconnect with yourself – this might be retreating to your bedroom to read a book for 20-30 minutes each evening after dinner or going and sitting outside in the sun in the garden for 15 minutes in the morning or even taking ten minutes each day to write in a journal. If you work in an office perhaps leave your desk for lunch and take a walk outside.
5. Just because your faith, resilience or energy is depleted today doesn’t mean it will be tomorrow. Set an earlier bedtime, get some sleep, eat your green vegetables, cut yourself some slack and don’t apologize for having a weak moment. You’re human. It happens.
6. Accept that when you are dealing with people and relationships, they will sometimes fall short of your expectations but that does not always equal betrayal, duplicity or deception. They may have just stuffed up or misread or misunderstood a situation. They may not have been thinking about you at all. After all they’re human too.
7.Hang in there and wait it out. Harbor gratitude and remember to breath.
8. Don’t be a martyr. You don’t have to go it alone. Look to others for support – be it friends, family members, your GP, support groups or even a good counsellor. It’s not a sign of weakness to acknowledge that you need help and that you don’t have all the answers. Other people can not only help you put things in perspective but can also help you look at things from a different perspective.
9. Try your best to strengthen your emotional boundaries. These boundaries protect your sense of self-esteem and ability to separate your feelings from others’. When you have weakened emotional boundaries, it’s like getting caught in the midst of a hurricane with no protection. You expose yourself to being greatly affected by others’ words, thoughts, and actions.
10. Maintain your sense of humour at all cost. It’s true that laughter is really really good medicine. It can relieve stress, elevate mood, enhance creativity, and makes you more resilient.
11. And finally, if you feel that you are losing faith in stepfamily relationships. Don’t. Keep holding onto hope – hope that your step-kids do (or will) accept you and consider you a part of their family. Hope that even if they don’t, they will learn to respect your role in their father’s/mother’s life. Hope that your stepfamily will find (or regain) it’s equilibrium. After all hope is a crucial part of dealing with life problems and maintaining resilience in the face of obstacles. Even a glimmer of hope that our situation can (or will) turn around, can keep us going.
My advice to both of my friends? Hang in there. On particularly rough days, their respective track records for getting through bad days and tough times so far is 100%. And that, I think, is pretty good odds.