Before I start, I want to say “Happy New Year” to all my stepfamilies. I am stressing the “Happy” part because an awful lot of us have had a difficult time dealing with the last few years and COVID. A new year always gives us hope for life to become better than the last one. It hasn’t started off very well but still, here is hoping. It just has to get better! Hang in there!
Last night, in the middle of the night, I asked myself, “What helped our stepfamily get through day to day life, the ups and downs, good times and bad times?” This is what came to mind and I thought it was worth sharing with all of you.
1. Positive thinking = more happiness
This is likely the most important point I will make. We all know it but we all have to work at it. Let me tell you about a lesson I learned twenty years ago from a good friend.
My dear friend Joyce was very ill with cancer. One day she was in the doctor’s office and the Oncologist asked her how she was feeling. She replied “ first, I want to tell you all the good things that are happening in my life.” That is about as positive as one can get! She said often “ you have to chose to be happy.” She was a great role model for me.
Berne Brown in her book Atlas of the Heart defines the state of happiness as feeling pleasure often related to the immediate environment or current circumstances. Therefore, as Joyce was saying, we have to work at being happy and the way to start is to find the positives in our lives and thus our stepfamilies.
The first few years I was in my stepfamily I worried a lot. I wanted my family to be united and like a “real family.” I didn’t realize that stepfamilies don’t work that way. My thought process was all around trying to make everyone happy. I would say things like "oh dear so and so is unhappy and I have to help them.” I wanted everyone to get along and if that wasn’t happening it was “nothing is working out, oh no.” Guess what? I was emotionally exhausted. Acceptance that my stepfamily was going to have two families living together as well as acceptance that this family couldn’t be. just like a “nuclear family” really helped me. It took awhile but my thinking began to change to “ oh well, it is ok.” Or “don’t worry, things will get better, at least everyone is talking to each other today.”
My friend Judy got out of bed this morning and heard her children and stepchildren arguing. The first thing she did was yell "can’t you guys stop that?” and then she said to herself “here we go again.” She wanted to get back in bed and pull the covers over her head. We all know how that feels. Instead, what if she had said to herself, “ all children argue sometimes. Mine too.” We know she would have felt better and by the time she got downstairs the children may well have sorted things out themselves.
If things aren’t going as planned be sure to remember the things that are going well and don’t forget to mention them to yourself as well as your family.
2. Laughter = a lighter mood
I have to admit I am not all that funny and am not all that skilled at telling jokes. However, my husband David is funny and makes me laugh all the time. It is in the little things he does like hearing a song he likes and jumping up to do a little dance to it, or making silly faces at me whenever I need a lift. He can tell funny stories that make everyone laugh. He can turn a bad situation into a funny one before he gets down to solving the problem. We all can’t be like that but we can try to see the lighter side of things. Give it a try.
Our children can be very funny too when they all get together. They set each other off by turning a story about themselves into a funny situation. You should hear them tell about their adventures in Peru! It was an adventure gone badly but when they tell it we laugh our heads off.
If we just try to find humor in life it will help us get through the hard times. I guarantee it!
One thing that really works for us as a family is using a family Whatsapp. We stay connected through it by showing pictures of what is happening in our lives, or giving advice to help each other. The comments are complimentary and supportive and sometimes they are so very funny. We all live in different places now, so it unites us as a stepfamily. It also gives us some daily laughs or at least a smile.
3. Giving Love = less fear
There is a terrific book called Feel the Fear and Do it Anyway by Susan Jeffers. In this book Susan writes. “When we care from a place of love, rather than a place of expectation, more love usually comes back to us than we could ever have imagined.”
If you can see your stepfamily through loving eyes you won’t fear that things might not work out. I know how this works from counseling clients. If I feared that I wouldn’t be able to help them, then I couldn’t help them. The same holds true for a stepfamily.
A stepmom I know was terrified that her stepchildren would never like her. She was nervous around them and would always stand back and wouldn’t get involved in the family. One day her stepdaughter walked over and gave her a big hug for no reason at all. She realized then that she could just be herself and stop worrying about fitting into this family. It would take awhile for love to grow but at least she could show how much she cared about them.
It is amazing how your love can grow for your stepchildren if you stop fearing that they will never love you back. Children will not love a stepparent the way they love their biological parent. That is a given.
However, there are many kinds of love and we have lots of room in our hearts. Look for little hidden ways children say they care about you. It could be the way they sit with their feet touching yours or the way they bring you tea when you aren’t feeling well. You just have to be aware.
Young children need love from everyone. They are like little sponges. If you are not afraid to spend time being involved in their lives, they will like being around you too.
Also, I might add, once adult children see that you are fair, caring and interested in their lives they will begin to care about you. Adult children are sometimes intimidating. If they don’t accept you at first always leave the door open to them. Don’t be afraid of them. Just be your wonderful self.
4. Saying you are sorry = calm
There was a really sad movie in the 70s called Love Story. The motto in it was that you never had to say you were sorry. I guess because we all make mistakes and it is automatically forgiven by those involved.
I am not a big believer in that theory. I think that one of the most important words in our English language is “sorry.” Of course as long as it is said with meaning, it can be a game changer. Telling someone you are sorry will calm an argument and make hurt feelings better. Saying sorry can sometimes be difficult because we are a defensive bunch. You might have to be a role model on this one and less defense yourself but you will see how well it works most of the time in your family.
The stepsister’s school project was sitting on the floor near the door ready to be delivered to school the next day. Her big brother was angry and kicked the project out of the way as he rushed out the door. Timidly the brother came back within the hour. He knew that he had better fix things and he did say “sorry.” Of course that wasn’t enough and he helped put the project back together again. As it turned out the project looked even better after her brother was finished helping. He said sorry again and gave her a hug. Phew!
5. Letting the past go = hope for the future
There is learning that comes from past mistakes so you don’t make them again. After that, we all know we can’t change what happened in the past. Pouring salt on old wounds only hurts us and keeps us from moving on in our lives. Letting go is hard but so necessary if we are going to love again and move on. Except for issues with your children, here is no room for that ex- partner in your new life no matter how miserable he/she was and might be now. Going over and over the past can make you depressed and most of all it takes you away from dealing with what is happening right now. It certainly saps the energy you need to put into your stepfamily. You don’t need those ghosts living with you. There are enough people in a stepfamily already!
Therapists teach their clients ways to stop those thoughts before they take over your life. They suggest wearing an elastic band around your wrist and snapping it when you realize you are off in the past world. My favorite is just clapping my hands to move my thoughts on. You may find your own ways to stay focused.
I think this is a good time to remember just how brave you are to love and make a family again. As Berne Brown says, “ The brokenhearted are the bravest among us- they dare to love again.” And they never give up their hope for a better future. So to heck with what happened in the past! The future awaits.
6. Keeping boundaries = respect
We all know that each person in your stepfamily deserves respect. We respect them by giving them space to be themselves. Personal space is allowed by knowing your boundaries. It will all depend on the age and stage of the people in your stepfamily of course but you can be respectful no matter the age of the family member. You can teach children to be respectful of all family members as well.
Some examples of boundaries might be: Knocking on the bedroom door before entering, speaking softly when asking others to do something, not listening to phone conversations or reading emails that aren’t yours, not going through belongings that don’t belong to you, keeping your distance when someone wants to be alone, returning things that were borrowed, not taking things that aren’t yours etc.
House rules are an example of boundaries too. If you make some of the rules together you will find children will keep them more often. If the rules are not too hard to follow you will have a better chance of children following them. If the curfews are reasonable they will usually get home on time. Following the house rules shows respect for the parents and for the others in the house. Sometimes as parents you have to insist the rules are followed. That’s what consequences are for.
7. Communication = understanding
How many times have you said to your child/teen/husband, “ I don’t know what you want unless you tell me?” Or “ Why are you angry? Please explain it to me.” We can’t guess, and we sure don’t want to assume we know what someone else is thinking or feeling. Yet we want to understand the ones we love.
There are many books written on how to communicate in relationships and within families. Chapter 12 in my book gives you three very easy steps to help you communicate simply and efficiently within your stepfamily. Let me remind you of them.
These steps are not complicated but they work:
Step 1. Start with the words “I think or I feel or I hope etc.
Eg. I feel frustrated because…
Step 2. State what you need from that person.
Eg. And I need you to ….
Eg. Is it possible for you to help with this…
I might add that anger can get in the way of communicating. I think it is important to let the angry person have some time out or away from the situation. The most important thing is for everyone to be calm in order to use the steps above. I might add that the angry person should not avoid discussing the issues though… either that day or soon after.
8. Taking time out for yourself = one happier life
Remind yourself that it is not “selfish” to look after your self but it is “self caring”. Honestly. And I am mostly thinking of all you mothers and stepmothers out there.
I was lucky to be able to travel, to go to a spa, to see my girlfriends, to have some weekends with just my husband. All of that took planning but it was worth it. Those times were important to staying healthy for my family. However, times like reading a book or meditating for a few minutes, going for a walk or just sitting in the back yard watching the sunset worked well for me too.
Stepfamilies are busy anyway and with working from home now and with children homeschooling it can be a wild time. Find ways to get away from the chaos even if for ten minutes. You might have to lock yourself in the bathroom but it doesn’t matter how you do it. As the saying goes, “Just do it.”
You are important to your stepfamily. Burn out is common these days. Taking care of your partner and your children is very important. Try to remember the oxygen mask theory. You must put your oxygen mask on yourself first in order to help those you are travelling through life with.
I have more thoughts on ways that helped us with our stepfamily. However, this is a start. Our stepfamily was by no means perfect. We learned a lot over the years believe me. We had help from knowledgeable people who were in stepfamilies. If I can pass it forward and help any of you, it would make me very happy.
All the best
Please stay safe and have a great new year.