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Monday, May 31, 2010

The Sting of Hurtful Words

My stepson compared me, in a negative sense, to his biological mom this week-end. His mom died over five years ago and the wounds are evident everyday. The words he spoke pierced my heart. I wish I could say it didn't matter to me, but it did.

I have been an active mom in his life for almost 15 years and I would like to believe I have positively influenced him. But he made it clear to me that my opinion of the choice he was making didn't matter because his "real mom" would have been fine with it and it was time I butted out.

Since my stepson turns 20 years old this summer, I recognize his disregard of my opinion. But I believe he is making a choice with negative long-term consequences and I couldn't let it go without expressing my thoughts on the subject.

My stepmother mantra immediately came to mind, lower your expectations for now. In other words, get off your pity pot and let it go. If he chooses to ignore your advice, it is his loss. You cannot control his hurtful reaction but you can control yours.

The challenges of stepparenting seem to ease up at times, only to resurface at other times. It is not uncommon to take a step forward and two steps backward. It feels like my stepson and I took a step backward this week-end. But I'm thankful for the opportunity to start again, continually striving for a positive difference in my stepson's life.

Have you experienced hurtful words lately? How do you cope with it?

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Friday, May 28, 2010

More Summer Break Suggestions

When our kids are home during the summer, it presents a challenge for me to get much work done as a freelance writer and piano instructor. Frequent interruptions, additional meals, extra laundry, and non-stop activities with friends over means I need to be available and attentive to what kids are doing.

So, I've learned to work less and lower my expectations during the summer months. It usually means we have to watch our spending closer, but somehow it always works out.

I'm also aware of the example I set with my children, stepchildren, and their friends during the summer. It's not unusual to have several teen-agers at our house and I believe they need to see a stable role model. I like to engage them in conversations on their faith and moral behavior as a young adult. I want to continue to influence them through their teen-age years as much as possible. I know that I cannot do that if I am preoccupied with my own agenda and to-do list.

I believe our stepchildren watch and learn from our example more than our words. If I want to make a difference with my stepchildren, I need to act in a way that sets a Christ-like example. I ran across a poem recently that speaks of the importance of our example.

Here's part of the poem, written by Edgar Guest (1881-1959)

The eye's a better pupil and more willing than the ear
Fine counsel is confusing, but example's always clear.

I soon can learn to do it if you'll let me see it done;
I can watch your hands in action but your tongue too fast may run.
And the lecture you deliver may be very wise and true,
But I'd rather get my lessons by observing what you do;
For I might misunderstand you and the high advise you give
But there's no misunderstanding how you act and how you live.

When our stepchildren come for extended visits over the summer, it's a great time to show them unconditional love and acceptance through our behavior. It may not be easy and it may not be given in return, but our actions could have life-long effects on impressionable children.

Have your stepchildren come to visit for the summer? What thoughts do you have on making it a memorable visit?


Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Creating a Summer of Serenity

One of the challenges of summer with stepfamilies can be the long-term presence of stepchildren in our home. When they visit every other week-end throughout the school year, it's easy to maintain a friendly relationship. But living for several months in our home changes the relationship dynamics.

A helpful tool to begin the summer with and commit to on a regular basis is a family meeting. Coming together as a family offers everyone the opportunity to express their opinions about basic functions of the home including: chores, activities, and cooperation with one another. Begin the meeting with encouragement of the family unit and offer positive ideas on problem-solving and decision-making.

Holding a family meeting regularly throughout the summer gives family members the chance to resolve issues as they occur and present opposing sides to challenges that take place. If children know a meeting occurs every week at a certain time they can be assured of the chance to speak their mind regarding difficult interactions.

For family meetings to be successful, they must be consistent and intentional. Older children may resist them at first but will soon see their value. Allow the children to rotate who is in charge of the meetings and encourage everyone to participate. As parents, we should have the final say in decisions but can empower our children to brainstorm ideas for family activities and seek solutions to family disagreements.

End the meetings with a fun activity as a family. Go out for ice cream, play a board game, or enjoy a round of putt putt golf together. Solicit fun ideas that offer relationship building while creating family identity.

Have you tried family meetings? What other ideas can you offer for creating a summer of serenity?


Monday, May 24, 2010

Summer Break Fast Approaching

With the end of school upon us, many stepfamilies face a new schedule for the summer. Stepkids may come visit for an extended period and our biological kids may leave for several weeks. So, how do we cope with the challenges summer brings?

For the next few posts, I want to offer some specific thoughts on how to manage the changes that go along with a different summer routine.

First, we must learn to embrace flexibility.
That is not easy for me because I like order and schedules and want to know exactly what to expect every day. But I can't expect that to happen at our house with a blended family of five children. So I've learned to make an intentional effort toward flexibility with our schedule and the expectations of our children.

During the summer months, every week is different at our house. During the early years of our marriage there was alot of back and forth with my stepchildren and my biological children. As the children have gotten older and circumstances changed, the schedule has become more constant. But the kids still float in and out of the house regularly due to mission trips, sports camps, and various other activities.

When kids are going back and forth between homes, there is usually more interaction with ex-spouses. So, our flexibility needs to include an open attitude toward more communication with our ex or our spouse's ex. If that relationship is strained, it is harder to negotiate the summer schedule. But it helps to be proactive. Get the summer calendar out and look at what dates you want to negotiate having the children with you. Or find a week you would like to spend with your spouse and negotiate time with the kids at the other home. Summer is a great time to enjoy some time alone with your mate if you can work the schedule accordingly.

We also need to be flexible toward the behavior of our stepchildren. There may be anger outbursts or periods of withdrawal as they adjust to a new routine in a different home. We need to recognize the changes they go through also when they move from home to home. Leaving friends behind or adjusting to different rules creates additional stress for them. We don't have to allow disrespect or unkindness, but we can be sympathetic toward their feelings.

Summer brings on new challenges for stepfamilies. I'll give additional thoughts on how to adjust to the changes next post. What suggestions do you have?


Friday, May 21, 2010

When to Ask for Help

I spoke with two stepmoms this week who were covered up with too much to do and too little time to do it. With several kids at home, a full time job and constant household duties, it's easy to feel overwhelmed and underappreciated as a stepparent.

So, where do we find help? The first place to consider is our spouse and children. For some unknown reason, society has dictated that women are primarily responsible for the household chores. But if we're working full-time and trying to manage the household by ourselves, we will drown.

After staying home with our kids for many years, I returned to work a few years ago. I had been accustomed to doing most of the chores at home because I was home more than my husband. But suddenly, I found myself suffocating from too much to do. I was irritable with my kids and angry toward my husband. I expected him to figure out that I needed some help.

Finally one day, with tears spilling down my face, I admitted that I was tired of being Supermom and needed someone else to pick up the slack. We held a family meeting and talked about what needed to change. We split up the chores and asked everyone to do their part to keep the household running smoothly. It took several reminders to get it going but finally worked into an agreeable schedule.

As stepparents, we cannot afford to expend all our time and energy working inside and outside the home. When we reach the end of our rope, the relationship with our stepchildren suffers. I heard a comment from Ron Deal, founder of Successful Stepfamilies, that resonates with me, "Stepparents must shave off their rough edges. Kids will love an unlikeable parent, but rarely even like an unlikeable stepparent."

When I have too much to do, I become an unlikeable stepparent. I'm quick to snap at my stepkids and grunt at my husband. Therefore, I'm constantly aware of my need to discern what activities and extracurricular events I will be involved in. I know when to ask for help if I begin to feel overwhelmed.

How do you keep your household running smoothly? Do you need to ask for help?


Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Character that Counts

I picked up a book last night that my husband is reading by Tony Dungy, Uncommon, Finding Your Path to Significance. I read a few sentences that immediately captured my attention, and left me thinking about the importance of character.

If you're not familiar with Tony Dungy, he was the first African American football coach to take a winning team to the Super Bowl when the Indianapolis Colts won it in 2007. He is only one of three men to win the Super Bowl as a player and head coach.

In the book, Tony Dungy talks about what character is. "Character begins with the little things in life. I must show that I can be trusted with each and every thing, no matter how trivial it may seem."

He goes on to discuss character on the football field, which can also be applied to our character as stepparents. "When it comes to character, the game of football can be a real test for our players. Will they decide to do the right thing, even when they know doing so will be difficult?"

"Character is tested, revealed, and further developed by the decisions we make in the most challenging times. We have to know what is right, and we have to choose to do it. That is how character is developed - by facing those decisions and choosing the right way over and over until it becomes second nature."

I think as stepparents, we usually know the right thing to do. We know how to treat our stepchildren and we know how to be a capable stepparent. The question becomes, "Will we do the right thing, even when it's difficult?" Will we choose "the right way over and over until it becomes second nature?"



Monday, May 17, 2010

Co-Parenting with Clear Vision

I distorted my vision yesterday by accident. I was having trouble seeing and decided I needed to change out my contacts. Since I serve as a piano accompanist at church, it's important that I see well on Sunday mornings.

I had already put my contacts in but as I practiced my music, it appeared blurry. So, I went to put in a different pair but noticed that only made it worse. I began to panic as I needed to be at church in 20 minutes but I needed to be able to see!

I considered putting the original lenses back in and as I looked at the counter, I noticed there was only one contact there. I realized I had not taken one contact out and had two contacts in one eye, thus creating a horrible problem! (Crazy, huh?)

Sometimes we create our own problems with co-parenting due to poor vision with an ex-spouse. We may be convinced that since they were not good marriage partners, they are not good parents. And we spend too much time trying to control what goes on in their home instead of working harder at what goes on in our home.

There are many different ways to parent. Sometimes children benefit from different styles of parenting. The important factor is for each parent to be consistent in their own home. If there are concerns about parenting issues, they should be handled in private, outside of the ears of the children.

Old marital issues need to be set aside and emotional ties severed for co-parenting to work well. It may be necessary to offer forgiveness for unresolved issues.

Co-parenting with clear vision means we let go of the differences that resulted in divorce and work together for the sake of the children. We resist competing with our ex-spouse or creating hidden personal agendas, which complicates the goal of successful co-parenting.

Children have the right to continue a loving relationship with both parents after divorce. They can easily move back and forth from one home to another when effective co-parenting exists. But it will not happen without concentrated effort with all parties involved.

What strategies do you use to make co-parenting work for you?


Friday, May 14, 2010

Co-Parenting with a Difficult Ex-Spouse

How we co-parent with our ex or our partner's ex has a significant impact on our children and stepchildren. When that person is difficult to get along with or unhealthy emotionally, it creates a challenge for all those involved.

But there are ways we can manage our relationship with an ex-spouse to protect our children from further pain by our actions.

I've mentioned in previous posts that my ex-husband is an alcoholic, which ultimately cost him his family and his career as a medical doctor. Because of his hostile reaction to our divorce, I resorted to a restraining order immediately following our separation. I took a firm position with his tendency toward drugs and alcohol and told him early on that he would not be allowed visitation with the girls if he showed signs of impairment.

Educating myself about the disease of alcoholism taught me effective communication skills to use when co-parenting with my ex and the need to establish ongoing boundaries with him. It allowed me the freedom to take appropriate action to protect the girls while maintaining a relationship with their dad.

I also needed to look at my part in the continual conflict we had in the beginning. I wanted to change his behavior and found myself berating him constantly for his poor choices. When I finally let go of how he was choosing to live and began focusing only on parenting issues with him, our relationship improved, allowing smoother co-parenting.

When I re-married, my ex-husband struggled with the relationship the girls formed with my husband, Randy. We believed there needed to be open communication between my ex-husband and current husband, if possible. We finally opted to speak with my ex about his angry comments and hostile attitude toward my husband. Randy let him know that he wasn't trying to replace him as their father, but wanted to be an additional parent and support for the girls.

Co-parenting with my ex has changed over time because he plays a much smaller role with the girls than in the beginning. But I still have to co-parent with him at times. I manage each situation on a case by case basis, focusing only on the parenting issue and the challenge presented.

Every re-marriage comes with different issues with ex-partners. When the interaction is strained or conflictive, it makes it hard on everyone.

Learning to successfully co-parent may require professional counseling or further education, particularly if you're confronted with addiction or mental illness. But for the sake of the children, it's important to keep working toward effective co-parenting.


Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Co-Parenting Collisions

I was talking with a stepmom recently who described a frustrating scene with her husband's ex-wife. She was caught in the middle trying to help with the kids and collided with the ex-wife's irresponsibility.

The end result was an unnecessary disruption in everyone's schedule. Unfortunately, the scene she described is more common than we'd like to admit in stepfamilies.

So, how do we deal with co-parenting collisions? Over the next few posts, I would like to offer some suggestions. I would also love to hear from you on how you make co-parenting work.

My husband and I have had far too many co-parenting collisions with either his ex-spouse or mine. Some of them could have been prevented. Some of them could not.

But one thing I learned early on was to keep the kids out of the middle. If we treat our kids like a rope in a tug of war game, we fail. If we try to negotiate the visitation schedule with our children instead of our ex-spouse, we lose. It's okay to ask how our kids feel about the schedule or what their preferences are, but negotiating and decision-making regarding the schedule should be handled by adults.

Stepchildren are unnaturally pulled between two homes with parents they love in both homes. Asking them to make a choice or take sides with one home over another is hurtful.

Co-parenting works best when we keep the interests of our children at the center of our parenting. If we disagree with our ex-spouse over parenting issues, we need to discuss it in private. If it is difficult to have civil conversations with our ex, we might need to use the phone or e-mail instead of face-to-face interaction.

Co-parenting can be an ongoing struggle, particularly when dealing with a difficult or unhealthy ex-spouse. I will tackle that challenge in my next post.

What suggestions do you have on co-parenting?


Monday, May 10, 2010

Steering Our Stepchildren Toward Christ

My heart aches today from a unforeseen loss that occurred over the week-end.

A star athlete in high school, our friend was well respected by his peers. A great-looking kid who comfortably related to others, it appeared he had a great future ahead.

A previous classmate with my stepson and friend to my daughter, this young man had been at our house several times, always courteous to me and my husband. My daughter had just mentioned seeing him on campus last week at the college she is attending, a recent transfer from another school, it seemed.

But Friday night my daughter learned of a tragic choice he made. For reasons we will never understand, he chose to take his life. An overdose of pills ended it for him. I can only imagine how his dear mom endured Mother's Day yesterday.

Thankfully, we believe this young man was a believer and has a better destination after life, but it grieves my heart to consider his loss. Why did he believe suicide was the answer?

Those we love make choices we don't understand and can't control.

But we can control our own choices. We can make intentional choices about steering our children toward Christ. We can continually point them to God's Word for direction. We can pray for their heart to be open toward spiritual matters and look for opportunities to show Christ to them through our actions.

I believe our deepest needs can only be met through a relationship with Jesus Christ. I may be rejected or criticized for my beliefs, but I will never quit trying to influence my stepchildren toward a daily walk with Christ.

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Friday, May 7, 2010

More Mother's Day Thoughts

I couldn't resist sharing this picture of Momma Bear and her cubs. Motherhood seems so simple in the "wild," compared to the complications we've created in society.

I want to offer an additional suggestion today for celebrating Mother's Day. Perhaps instead of insisting the focus be on us, we can turn the focus to another well-deserved mother. Here's an example:

My stepchildren lost their mother over five years ago after a year-long battle with cancer. Both of the children had been living with her during her illness and were there when she passed away. It was a very difficult time and my husband and I could offer little help or support as we lived over 300 miles away.

During their mom's illness and after her passing, a nearby neighbor offered the children constant love, nurturing and support. It was an incredible act of kindness and selfless devotion. This lady is a working mother of two boys herself but she offered her heart and committed her time to take care of the needs of my stepchildren during this difficult time.

Earlier this week as I was thinking about Mother's Day, I sent this kind woman (who has since become a good friend) a note to thank her for her "mothering." It was short and sweet without any grandiose words, but a simple note of appreciation for her time, love, and acts of service that filled a gap for my stepchildren during a tumultuous period. I wanted her to know her Christ-like actions would always be remembered, particularly as we celebrate Mother's Day.

She sent a note back, simply expressing it "touched her heart" to know she made a difference. She has little contact with the children now, but is thankful for the chance she had to meet a special need as an additional mother when one mother could no longer meet the needs.

Do you know a mom who could use an extra dose of appreciation on Mother's Day? Maybe it's another stepmom or a mom of a special needs child. Today would be a great day to reach out and recognize her, offering your thanks for her acts that may go unnoticed by her children.

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Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Stepmothers - How to Honor Mother's Day?

With Mother's Day only a few days away, it's likely you're thinking about how your stepchildren will handle the celebration. It tends to be an awkward holiday for many stepmothers, including myself at times. We don't know whether to expect anything from our stepchildren or let the biological mom get all the attention for the day.

Personally, I believe if we have played an active role as a stepmother, we deserve some recognition. But that doesn't mean we will get it from our stepchildren. We may need to ask our spouse (the father of those children) to honor and acknowledge us on Mother's Day for the difficult role we play.

Stepfamily authority Ron Deal includes a statement from a stepmom in his recent article, "I Dread Mother's Day." The stepmom says, "I get all the grief of parenting, but I don't get to enjoy the pleasures associated with being a mom." As a stepmom, I've had days I feel that way too. But thankfully, it's not everyday.

I've learned to enjoy Mother's Day with no expectations from my stepchildren. If they offer me a gift or choose to honor me in some way, I'm thrilled. But if they don't, I know my husband appreciates what I do and lets me know that regularly. I also believe God put these children in my life to care and nurture and I want to be obedient to His calling.

In my next post I will talk about other ways we can celebrate Mother's Day as stepmothers. What ideas do you have? I would love to hear them!


Monday, May 3, 2010

Coping With Stepfamily Storms

Over the week-end, we braved severe storms with damaging tornadoes in Central Arkansas. My family and I retreated to our "fraidy hole" more than once to seek protection from our frightful surroundings.

As I listened to the blare of tornado sirens and attempted to comfort my tearful 9-year-old son, I reflected on what options we have during storms. I compared weather storms to emotional storms that oftentimes occur in stepfamilies. I thought about ways we can cope during stepfamily storms that allow a healthy outcome without a lot of damage. Here are a few steps to consider:

1. Stay calm - don't overreact. During times of conflict, it's easy to raise your voice and exaggerate the severity of the situation. When emotions are heightened, solutions don't emerge naturally. It may be necessary to take a time out and leave the scene of the conflict. However, be sure you agree to come back later to discuss it.

2. Pray for wisdom and guidance for the situation. Find a time and place to be still and listen for God's direction. James 1:5 tells us: "If any of you lacks wisdom, he should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to him."

3. Brainstorm and talk through your options with another person. Seek out an objective party who can help you sort through your emotions and solutions for the conflict. Find a pastor, counselor, or friend who has your best interest at heart and can offer a healthy opinion.

4. Wait it out. Many times, storms dissipate with time. Don't jump to conclusions or insist on taking steps that might make matters worse. When my stepson chose to continue living with his stepdad after his mom died, we were devastated. My husband could have demanded that he come live with us right after the funeral, but he believed it would alienate his adolescent son and cause further pain. We waited out his decision, tormented with some of his choices over the next year. Finally my stepson called and asked to come live with us, recognizing the dysfunction of the home he was in.

5. Take one step at a time when the conditions are right. As solutions emerge, move slowly toward resolution. Take the next healthy step toward reconciling with those involved. Don't expect harmony overnight but do your part to mend relationships.

6. Maintain a positive attitude and trust God for the results. We may not see an end to our storm, but we can trust God is in control. We may not understand what's happening around us but we can choose to "Let Go and Let God."

Storms are frightening and devastating at times. We won't always react as we should or take the right steps, but if we refuse to give up on our stepfamily relationships, we will find solutions in our storms.

What steps do you take during stepfamily storms?