Note to readers: As of Sept. 29, 2010, Boston.com/Moms will be syndicating content for In the Parenthood from my blog, Write. Edit. Repeat. You can find my older In the Parenthood and Child Caring posts (and comments!) here and here; more recent posts are archived at WriteEditRepeat.blogspot.com. Looking forward to continuing the great parenting discussions there! -- LMA
September 16th is National Stepfamily day, a great opportunity to honor your non-traditional family while acknowledging that parenting in general -- and stepparenting in particular -- is no easy gig.
With as many as 36 million stepmothers in the United States (when adult stepchildren are taken into account), some studies project that 40 percent of all women will be part of some type of blended family (married or not) at some point in their lives. If you're a step parent, it's unrealistic to pretend that your family is identical to a traditional family in every way. But you can still accept it as normal and celebrate what you have.
"Spending time with your stepfamily and fostering meaningful relationships is the best way to honor and celebrate it," says Dr. Rachelle Katz, "The Happy Stepmother" and founder of Steps for Stepmothers online forum. "Setting aside time for fun activities -- or even just mealtime -- with the whole stepfamily will give you the opportunity to celebrate your blended family."
Wednesday Martin, author of "Stepmonster," points out that even calling a stepfamily "blended" sets stepmoms, in particular, up for disappointment. "The metaphor of blending is a unrealistic expectation that makes normal stepfamilies feel like failures," she points out. "And it doesn't describe stepfamily experience accurately." (In an article in today's Globe, I've asked Martin, Katz, and author Joanne Pedro-Carroll what they think is the biggest mistake stepparents make -- and how to fix it. You can read my entire interviews with all three experts here.)
"The key to satisfaction, the research suggests, is to relax those expectations of "blending" and accept that stepfamilies and stepparents are all different," Martin says. "Depending on the age and temperament of the stepchildren, whether the ex wife or ex husband is supportive of the kids having a relationship with the stepparent, and how supportive the marriage is, relationships between stepparent and stepkids can fall anywhere on a wide spectrum: from very close and loving to polite and civil to prickly but workable."
"If the married couple (or life partners) lets go of the idea that it has to be all love, all the time, right away, they can figure out a stepfamily dynamic that works for them."
Another pitfall that step parents face -- and stepmothers in particular are vulnerable to this -- is the feeling that they are required to do all of the work that bio parents do, but receive none of the credit or affection biological parents can expect in return. "Ignorance and bias -- for example, our common belief that "If she's nice and a good person those kids wil warm right up to her; if they dislike her it's because she's doing something wrong or she's cold and mean" -- really takes a toll on women's self-esteem in particular," says JoAnne Pedro-Carroll, author of "Putting Children First." "So they bend over backwards trying to win the approval or the stepkids or adult stepkids. And become increasingly discouraged, even resentful."
There are several ways you can avoid feeling resentful, put-upon, or tapped out. Katz suggests trying to do the following:
1.) Enjoy your time with your stepchildren. "Stepchildren should be assets, rather than liabilities, to stepparents." Katz says. "Since quality relationships are built from one-on-one interactions, itís a good idea for stepparents to spend private time with each stepchild in meaningful and pleasurable ways. It is easier to develop a caring, loving, and friendly relationship with stepchildren when stepparents donít have the burden of all household responsibilities and can simply enjoy time together instead."
2.) Keep a gratitude journal. "Keeping a gratitude list is an effective way to release stress, and improves physical and emotional well-being," Katz says, citing research that shows that people who keep gratitude journals exercise more regularly, feel healthier, have more energy, are more positive, and feel more satisfied with their lives than people who journaled their negative or even neutral thoughts and feelings. "They also experienced more optimism about upcoming events and were closer to achieving their goals after a two-month period than those who did not keep journals," Katz points out.
3.) Disengage, when necessary. This is a difficult idea for most stepparents, who may feel that love will conquer all and, if they just try a little harder, their stepkids will love them in return. "Disengaging can be quite effective for those of us who are burnt out from excessive responsibilities, over-involvement in stepfamily crises, or enduring toxic relatives for too long," Katz says. Remember that other people's issues are not necessarily your responsiblity. "Disengagement is a process in which you pull back from some responsibilities or relationships," Katz points out. "When you limit your contact with difficult people, you are no longer in a position to be ignored, rejected, or taken advantage of."
4.) Reach out to other stepparents for support and acknowledgement. "Being a stepparent can be a lonely experience, even when surrounded by many family members," Katz says. "You may not feel comfortable sharing your difficulties with family and friends." But by connecting and networking with other stepparents, "You can release negative feelings by sharing them with those who understand what you are going through," Katz says. Consider joining a stepparent support group, either in your community or online, she suggests. "You will receive the guidance and encouragement you need from those who have 'been there,' as you embark on your journey toward a life of greater peace and fulfillment."
Lylah M. Alphonse is a Globe staff member and mom and stepmom to five kids. She writes about juggling career and parenthood at The 36-Hour Day and blogs at Write. Edit. Repeat. E-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org follow her on Twitter @WriteEditRepeat.