When Stepparenting Isn’t What You Expected

I have a cracked tooth. I went to the dentist this morning and heard some unexpected news. Because it’s one of my front teeth and it has small cracks throughout the tooth, I was told I will eventually need to crown the tooth or consider veneers.

Instead of a simple filling to fix the tooth, I have to consider a completely different alternative – not a bad solution, just different (and much more expensive!) than what I anticipated.

The scenario reminded me of a poem my sister (stepmom of  three) mentioned to me recently. It was actually written for parents of autistic children, but is just as applicable for stepparents.

It illustrates the point that when we find ourselves in a situation that’s different than what we want, we can learn to appreciate the good about it or spend our time regretting what we wish we had.

If we’re constantly comparing our family to those around us in traditional families, we will never learn to appreciate the value and uniqueness of our stepfamily.

I hope you enjoy the poem as much as I have.

Welcome to Holland

When you’re going to have a baby, it’s like planning a fabulous vacation trip – to Italy. You buy a bunch of guidebooks and make your wonderful plans. The Coliseum, the Michelangelo David, the gondolas in Venice. You may learn some handy phrases in Italian. It’s all very exciting.

After months of eager anticipation, the day finally arrives. You pack your bags and off you go. Several hours later, the plane lands. The stewardess comes in and says, “Welcome to Holland.”

“Holland?!” you say. “What do you mean, Holland?” I signed up for Italy! I’m supposed to be in Italy. All my life I’ve dreamed of going to Italy.

But there’s been a change in the flight plan. They’ve landed in Holland and there you must stay.

The important thing is that they haven’t taken you to some horrible, disgusting, filthy place, full of pestilence, famine and disease. It’s just a different place.

So you must go out and buy a new guidebook. And you must learn a whole new language. And you will meet a whole new group of people you would never have met.

It’s just a different place. It’s slower paced than Italy, less flashy than Italy. But after you’ve been there for a while and you catch your breath, you look around, and you begin to notice that Holland has windmills, Holland has tulips, Holland even has Rembrandts.

But everyone you know is busy coming and going from Italy, and they’re all bragging about what a wonderful time they had there. And for the rest of your life you will say, “Yes, that’s where I was supposed to go. That’s what I had planned.”

The pain of that will never, ever, go away, because the loss of that dream is a very significant loss.

But if you spend your life mourning the fact that you didn’t get to Italy, you may never be free to enjoy the very special, the very lovely things about Holland.

Written by Emily Perl Kingsley

Can you learn to appreciate Holland or are you stuck in regret about Italy?

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Coping with Loss in a Stepfamily

“Mom, listen to this text,” my 18-year-old daughter, Jodi, said early yesterday morning. “My friend, Jacob Mulberry was killed in a tragic accident last night. His brother, Keith is seriously injured. There were two others in the truck – not sure of their conditions.”

The text was from a friend of hers about two brothers they go to school with. Jodi read other details about the wreck in shock, not believing that a boy she just saw in class is now dead. She learned later that the brother, Keith, also died later that evening.

Coping with loss is never easy. I can’t imagine how this family will deal with the loss of their two sons. Their lives will never be the same.

The loss experienced in a stepfamily is not the same as an unexpected vehicle fatality, but the losses our stepchildren encounter as a result of death or divorce is significant. And when we don’t acknowledge their loss or minimize their feelings, it hinders their ability to work through their feelings and adjust to stepfamily life.

So, how do we help our stepchildren with their loss? First, we allow them to talk about their other parent when they’re in our home. We might ask if they want to have pictures of their parent in their room, or other items that help them feel comfortable. We don’t compete with the other parent or try to replace that parent for our stepchildren.

It also helps to remember that loyalty conflict is a result of the loss our stepchildren feel. My husband and I had been married more than 10 years when my stepchildren lost their mother to cancer. I had a good relationship with my stepchildren but after her loss, my stepson became very distant for awhile. He struggled with how to integrate his grief over his mother’s death with his feelings toward me. As he worked through his grief with a counselor and allowed time to heal his hurt, he was able to come back to a relationship with me.

Loss can affect everyday temperament, causing mood swings and emotional outbursts. Some children naturally handle emotions better than others, but if your stepchild shows unstable emotions regularly, it might be time to consider professional help.

Stepfamilies are born of loss. Especially in the early years of marriage, it’s likely that stepchildren will struggle with a confusing set of emotions because of loss. Be sensitive and compassionate toward them, encouraging them to talk through their feelings while helping them process their loss. Don’t be reluctant to seek professional help if necessary.

Are you sensitive toward the loss your stepchildren feel?

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Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff

What’s stressing you today? Have the little things of life become big things because you’re having trouble letting go? Is your stepchild relationship experiencing a small leak that’s about to lead to a blowout?

How we react to what happens around us determines a hostile or peaceful outcome. If my stepson shoots a glaring look my way, I can choose to ignore it or I can let it ruin my day. If my stepdaughter challenges my thinking on something I believe in, I can spout off a defensive remark or I can stand firm in my position while shrugging my shoulders.

There are a multitude of things that happen every day in our stepfamily relationships that are not worth getting stressed about. When we identify which battles we want to fight, and leave the rest alone, we find more serentiy for our journey. 

My good friend and stepfamily authority, Ron L. Deal, says his whole perspective on life changed after he lost his son from a brief illness. He says he doesn’t stress anymore about a spilled drink in the living room or whether every paper gets put in the recycling bin. Life is simply too short to spend our days bothered over trivial matters.

In his book, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff… and it’s all small stuff, Dr. Richard Carlson says he plays a game with himself called the “time warp.” He says, “I made it up in response to my consistent, erroneous belief that what I was all worked up about was really important. To play “time warp,” all you have to do is imagine that whatever circumstance you are dealing with isn’t happening right now but a year from now. Then simply ask yourself, ‘Is this situation really as important as I’m making it out to be? Will this matter a year from now?’ Once in a great while it may be — but a vast majority of the time, it simply isn’t.”

So, next time your stepchild leaves his laundry in the washing machine and goes to school, leaving it for you to finish, remind yourself that it won’t matter a year from now. That doesn’t mean you don’t address the issue when he comes in from school and seek to correct it from happening again, but it does mean you choose not to stew over it the rest of the day.

Are you sweating the small stuff in your stepfamily relationships?

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“I thought I would naturally love my stepchildren as my own but the feelings are not there,” my friend, stepmother of two said. “I tried to deny my feelings for a long time, but I’m finally accepting them for what they are.”

You can’t control your feelings and if you allow yourself to feel guilty for feeling a certain way, it creates more bad feelings. It’s okay if you don’t feel love toward your stepchildren all the time. You might develop more loving feelings as your relationship develops, but you might not.

If we’re really honest, we must admit that some stepchildren are easier to love than others. In her book, Stepmonster, Dr. Wednesday Martin paints a painful, but realistic, picture of how stepchildren behave. “Our stepchildren do, in fact, frequently try to exclude us. They do things — consciously or unconsciously — that make us feel overlooked, left out, unappreciated. They send subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle signals that they wish we simply didn’t exist, that they’d like to erase us from the picture, or from the message on the answering machine.”

Dr. Martin goes on to tell a story “of a woman who was not invited to her stepdaughter’s wedding, after nearly two decades of marriage to the young woman’s father, ‘because it will be too difficult for Mom.’ Her husband told his daughter that they would attend together or not at all, but the stepmother never really recovered from her hurt and, not surprisingly, ceased making efforts with her stepdaughter for a long time.”

Hopefully, your stepchildren have not been that cruel to you. But, if you’ve been a stepparent long, I would venture to guess you’ve been hurt more than once by your stepchild. That doesn’t make it okay to stoop to his/her level and react with tit for tat behavior, but it is okay to acknowledge how those actions affect your feelings.

I learned early in our marriage that I would need God’s help to love my stepchildren unconditionally. It’s not easy and I don’t get it right all the time, but as I pray for God to soften my heart toward my stepchildren, I’m able to offer them my love and forgiveness. In our early years of marriage there were days that I felt my  stepchildren didn’t deserve another chance, but then I was reminded that I don’t deserve the love and grace God offers me either.

Feelings are not facts. They will change as your relationships develop. It’s okay to admit to feelings of hurt, anger, and disappointment in your stepparenting role. Just don’t get stuck there. Work through your feelings with a friend, a minister, or your spouse. Or seek professional counseling if you need help identifying your feelings and coping with them.

We can’t allow our feelings to control us. But we can seek to uncover their roots and deal with them appropriately.

What feelings are you burying, in hopes they will simply go away?

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“I refuse to get on that bandwagon and stay consumed with his problems. It’s a tough situation but I don’t want it to ruin every aspect of our lives.”

I recently spoke with a new stepmom who is dealing with some tough issues with her 16-year-old stepson. She recognizes the critical place her stepson is in but refuses to allow the strain of his problems to interfere with her marriage to his dad. I told her I was proud to see her separate the difficult parenting issue from the new marriage she and her new husband are building. It’s not an easy thing to do.

When we’re raising children in a blended family, we often get consumed with the negative issues surrounding the kids and allow it to interfere with our remarriage. It’s crucial for us to be aware of how an unfavorable stepchild situation can bleed over into resentment toward our spouse. If we see that happening, we need to make a conscious choice to separate the parenting issue from our marriage, and talk with our spouse about our feelings.

When I blamed my husband for difficulties with his children in the early years of our remarriage, he would tell me, “I’m your friend in this marriage, not your enemy. We can work this out together. But we have to be on the same side and I don’t sense you’re on my side.”

He was right. I was allowing my stepparenting struggles to interfere with my feelings toward him and create a strain in our relationship. I’m thankful he didn’t allow me to stay stuck in those feelings.

There will naturally be some overlap between our stepparenting role and our remarriage. But when we let negative feelings toward our stepchildren interefere with our feelings toward our spouse, we need to evaluate the situation and separate the stepparenting struggle from the marriage relationship.

Do you have difficulty separating marital and parenting issues? Does it affect your marriage relationship?

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If you struggle with feelings of doubt, resentment or insecurity in your stepparenting role, this video will be a blessing to you. It’s a powerful reminder of why we make unending sacrifices for our stepchildren every day.

I first saw this video on Meg Miller’s blog a few weeks ago. It spoke to me powerfully. I don’t usually watch videos that people recommend, but I believe this one is worth your time. 

Please leave me a comment and let me know what you think.

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