I was reading this book called The Buddha, Geoff and Me, a book by Edward Canfor-Dumas. Geoff says in the book that “everything comes down to three things: Wisdom, Courage and Compassion.” What he means is that “we need to have the wisdom to know what to do, the courage to do it and the compassion that through the action everyone will benefit.” It was an “Ah ha” moment for me! Because… those are the exact qualities partners have that live in a stepfamily. They have to have those qualities to make their family work. And I will tell you why.
Let’s start with Courage.
These are some of the ways that show just how courageous you are.
1. The most obvious example is of course that it takes courage to raise another person’s children, even if you love your partner very much. Or, it takes courage to deal with adult children who are not happy about this new reunion. Sometimes we don’t even know how hard that will be until you are fully into the new family arrangement. Then it requires working hard and finding the courage to keep the new family going.
2. It takes courage to enter into a close relationship at all, especially after having attempted a partnership once before. This is difficult also if your first partner has died. Grief can smother you until you have the courage to give a new relationship a try.
3. Those of you who have packed up and moved to a new house know the amount of courage that took. Then moving children and starting new schools for them required courage not just for you but for the children too. (I remember standing in the schoolyard trying to keep my courage up and not cry.)
4. Missing your children when you share them with their other family requires courage. All of us find that hard, but we cope with this the best we can.
5. The amount of change necessary to start a new family is huge. No one likes change because it takes us out of our comfort zone big time. Therefore, never underestimate what you have achieved and the courage it took to deal with all the changes.
During my counseling years there were many examples of people who dug down and found the courage to make the changes they needed for a happy life with the person they loved.
Here are two examples:
A young woman married a man who had a physically handicapped child from his first marriage. She learned how to care for that child and how to manage her job at the same time. She and her new husband shared the responsibilities with his ex-wife and all three of them found the will to work together. They all reaped the rewards of loving such a beautiful child, but it wasn’t easy.
Another example is a man who had two children and married a woman with four children. He had a serious career as a CEO of a large company. This job meant that he had to travel a great
deal during the week. After a few months he decided that he couldn’t manage both this job and this big family. So he asked for a different job within the company with fewer hours and of course less pay. You can imagine the courage it took to give up that position, but he said that he was less stressed for sure and much happier to be part of his family now.
Now let’s look at Compassion:
No one can last in a stepfamily without having compassion for the family members. This is one thing that all successful stepfamilies have in common. Edward in The Buddha, Geoff and Me says “Compassion means caring about someone. Their ups and downs. About what they’re going through. Their happiness.”
It is compassion we feel when a child comes home from school crying because he/she wasn’t invited to a birthday party like all his/her friends. We then try to find something special for our child to do that day. It is compassion we feel when our spouse has been working on her/his computer all night and we offer to make coffee and breakfast.
People in stepfamilies open their hearts. They are always trying to understand the feelings and needs of their partners/children/stepchildren/adult children by listening carefully in order to help. This means facing one's own feelings in order to find the right response to help each member of the family, or at least let them know that you care about them.
The thing about being compassionate is that it is a win win for everyone in the family. The kind actions that show love have a domino effect throughout the family.
Here are some examples from my counseling:
A newly married couple explained to me that each of them has a girl the same age from their first marriages. The two girls were always fighting. The parents were taking sides with their own child and then they were becoming angry with each other. The parents decided to have a private conversation with each other’s child and to listen for the pain that was lurking under the anger. Both of the girls explained why they were so unhappy/angry. The stepparents couldn’t help but feel worried about their stepchild because they cared about them also. After that they were able to help both their girls and they were not so defensive of their own child. Of course, this helped all their relationships.
Another example is about the partners who came in to see me because they were so busy with the children’s need that they were unable to find time for their own relationship. Therefore, they felt they were growing apart and were worried the new family wouldn’t make it. Both of them said they felt unloved and misunderstood. They worked on ways each of them could show compassion for each other. They learned the different ways each felt loved. Also, they understood after listening to each other just how important it was to make together time each day.
I am mentioning this last example, because we don’t want to forget just how important it is to have compassion for each other, not just our children. The partners are the foundation of a stepfamily and the role models for the children.
Compassion might not make the situation go away, but it definitely eases the troubles knowing someone in the family cares.
What about Wisdom?
Obviously, all of you in a successful stepfamily know that wisdom is something you have to earn. If your goal is to have a happy stepfamily, you will keep trying to do the right thing for your family members. Wisdom comes from learning what the right thing is in each different situation.
Those who live in a new family need time to make mistakes and learn from them. It seems to be a continuous process. Trial and error is the way we do that. It takes perseverance when things go wrong. Avoiding the issues never helps. We just have to practice getting it right, anticipating and preparing ahead. Being committed, emotionally present, and willing to say “ tell me how to make things better” is necessary to gaining the wisdom needed. This takes time and won’t happen overnight. But if you can try to learn from each situation as it happens, you will gain confidence and the wisdom will come.
Wisdom comes from taking some sort of action – no matter how small. Of course you can’t do that without having compassion and courage. If we want our stepfamily to live in some harmony, we need to deal with issues as they come up.
Here are some examples of how wise parents have dealt with situations in the past:
This clever mother knew that when her eleven- year old boy stayed at a neighbors house every day after school and didn’t want to come home he was avoiding something. His mother went to get him and they discussed what was going on. She discovered he felt left out at home and that no one noticed him when he did come home. (Stepfamilies can be very busy places.) The mother decided to take a break from work and to sit with the children after school while they had a snack. She found this was nice for her also and her son started to come home most days after that.
Clients reported to me that they couldn’t get their teen children to help with any of the chores around the house without getting angry or punishing them. They decided that they would buy them nice headphones so they could listen to their own music while they cleaned. It worked like a charm.
A stepfather noticed that his stepdaughter would sit alone on the stairs with her hat pulled down over her face most mornings. The whole family tried to ignore her without any results. So instead the stepdad would sit with her without saying anything until it was time for school. About a week later she turned and hugged him. After that, they just sat together on the stairs together now and then.
A sixteen- year old girl decided to change houses and live with her mom after being with her dad for two years. She tried everything nasty to try and separate her mom from the rest of the family. Needless to say, the house was in chaos for everyone. Nothing they tried seemed to make a difference with this young lady until her mother sat her down and told her
“ You are number one in my heart and always will be, no matter who lives in this house.” They made a special time each week for just the two of them. Now the daughter was able to cope more easily with sharing mom.
A quote in The Buddha, Geoff and Me, is “compassion is the mother of wisdom.” Really caring about the members of the family and taking action to help does lead to the wisdom you need in a stepfamily. Luckily, I have found those of you in a stepfamily have tender hearts! I can’t tell you how proud I am of all the stepfamilies I know and all the families I saw during my many years of counseling.
Each family, although different in makeup, had the compassion and the courage to deal with problems as they arose. That alone shows wisdom!!
You don’t have to be old to be a wise owl!
All the best,