Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Five Essential Step Mom Skills -

Few people think about being a step mom before they begin relationship with someone who already has children.  Even fewer can anticipate the true requirements of this weighty, oft-maligned role.  I love my step daughters!  I am grateful that my own girlie gets to experience a sort of sisterhood and she adores being lumped in with "The girls."

1. Notice the opportunities and and let go of the expectations.  I was looking forward to a relaxing afternoon, puttering around my garden and home but my step daughter surprisingly asked me to go shopping for a prom dress.  You bet I took that chance and we had fun with extravagant gowns and lunch together.  It's these moments to grab onto.  Later, when she didn't want to do something together, I remembered it's not always true that she would rather be alone.


2. Think about the needs of your step children first.  You cannot walk into their lives, move into their home thinking you will be their "Savior."  Remember the losses that brought you into their life.  That pain can be redeemed, but it will be a tender, confusing dynamic, especially for them.  Let gentleness rule and hold your tongue more than you speak.

3. Grow Thicker Skin. You are going to be taken for granted and taken advantage of.  Your opinion will be minimized or disregarded.  Your influence is limited and your control handcuffed.  All this will happen in your own home.  At times, you will feel like an outsider within the walls where you sought comfort.  You have great influence, but most likely very limited authority.  Let your husband take the lead in setting rules, household behavior and expectations.  Give him the security of your devotion to him, even when he sides with his children over one of your wishes.  This is wear you earn your battle scars, friends.  This is when you need a comrade in arms, look for support outside your family unit.

4. Stay in the game.  It can be tempting to withdraw when you feel you will always play second place to the bio mom, but it is important to keep reaching out, keep engaging and keep the lines of communication with your step children open.  It's not all going to go smoothly.  Sometimes you will feel snarky or selfish or jealous or whatever.  Sometimes your step children will push you away because they feel confused or conflicted or moody or just too busy to bother.  Don't let that be the rule of the day.  Stay engaged and keep supporting them.  Ask them to come along to the store, to get a manicure, to walk the neighborhood, to go for a hike.  Get on their Instagram, SnapChat, Vine accounts.  Watch their shows on Netflix.  Find ways to connect, not everyday but at least often enough to be aware of their world (this may be true for all teens).

5. Encourage your step children to spend one-on-one time with their dad.  Remind him to ask his girls out for a date (or to the game, if he has boys), give him cues as to when they may need an extra dose of attention or when one has had a rough week.  Don't expect all his attention and affection, let him love on his children.  Never put your husband in the place of having to choose between his children and you...no one wins.

BONUS: Be gentle with yourself.  Don't expect perfection.  There is a learning curve to becoming a step mom and you must be gentle with yourself as you navigate this territory.  If my step daughters know that I'm on their side, that I love and support them and that I will do what I can to help when needed, then I believe we have been successful.  Take care of you along the journey so that you can offer your best self to your family.

As a step mother, we have unique and challenging roles.  There is great sacrifice, but also great joy.  I encourage all step moms to join the Sisterhood of Stepmoms where there is laughter, understanding and support.  At times, it feels like you are facing hard things alone, but you are not.  You are on the front lines and are leading a winning force!  Are you a step mom?  Did you have a step mom?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Another Journal

The seasons are changing here as the harsh, blinding rays of summer lengthen to the golden beams of autumn.  My life is in a season of consistency and less change, too, and yesterday I completed the final page in my current journal.  I'm always a bit surprised to actually arrive at the last page...the story is not yet complete.

I remember the various seasons of my life by the journals I used to reflect upon them.  Those journals are treasures to me.  I get to start a new one today!  What adventures will it hold?  What concerns, what joys, what change?  I have given my life to be lived for Christ and as such the pages are His to write.  I anticipate the story ahead.

Do you journal? In what ways to you measure your days?  

Friday, September 19, 2014

Stepmom, You Can Contribute to Family Identity

I've been doing this step mom thing for just over a year now.  I certainly haven't learned all there is to know but I am determined to do my best to love my bonus/step daughters well.  I don't want to replace their mother, I want to be a supportive and loving grown up to supplement their growth.

When my three bio children and I moved into the home of  Mr. Wonderful and his daughters, we were floating in the blissful clouds of love.  Still, I knew it could feel like an invasion to two teenage girls if suddenly they were required to share a room, watch cartoons and babysit.  We have done some reading and I've talked to others who were raised in various sorts of blended/step/half relationships and these are some of the choices we made.
  • Keep as much of their personal space the same as is possible.  I remember the value of privacy as a teenage girl and I wanted the girls to get to keep their rooms.  This space has provided a sanctuary when the irritations of little children get to be too much.  It has been a place of consistency throughout their lives before, during and after the division of their original family. When they need a place to retreat, they go to their rooms.  The rooms are next to each other and connected which I hope provides a sense of companionship and camaraderie.  Do not move into your new home (their old home) and change up everything in their space.  Leave some of the decor, incorporate their childhood photos, make sure it still feels like home.  Over time, this can change but don't be the whirlwind that rushes in making your step child feel displaced at home.  This will damage your future relationship and create resentment.

  • Learn some of their favorite meals.  Like all the experts will tell you, I feel family dinners are important.  That time around the table, the give and take of conversation and the traditions will be remembered.  But I didn't cook for my step daughters prior to our wedding and and every family develops its own style.  I asked Mr. Wonderful and the girls about what kinds of meals were their favorites.  I was even handed a recipe written by their mother, and it's in my rotation of meals.  There is always special appreciation when I make the effort to cook from a menu that reflects their personal family history.  
  • Honor their traditions, even while building new ones.  Sometimes it takes two Christmas trees to bring cheer to the whole crew, sometimes it means trying new recipes, sometimes it means encouraging their goals when you had no part in molding them.  Sometimes it means keeping out the crazy sculptures from art class that were there before you arrived.  Anything you can do to honor the history will help create identity for these children who have experienced a great rift in their personal stories.  The crazy artwork doesn't have to hang forever, but I didn't want to be the step mom who barged in and changed everything to accommodate my taste and style.  Yes, I look forward to the day I will get to choose a new sofa and remove the photos of strangers (to me) from the refrigerator.  But those things can wait, they mean something to those who live here.
  • If possible, make a bridge with their mama.  There may be some awkward moments, but I promise your step children will be much more relaxed when they know they are free to love their mother first.  I don't want to compete for this role and do my best to support her (bio mom) at every opportunity.  If you are both at functions to support the children, be willing to be in the background.  Encourage your step children to reach out and to spend time with their bio mother.  When you truly want their best, you will see this is the best choice.
  • Don't force togetherness.  One of the things my step daughters say they appreciate is that we give them space and have let bonding happen naturally.  We do create opportunities for memories and have a few family excursions that we all loved, but mostly we have tried to let each individual set their own pace for connection. Sometimes a step child senses a closer bond forming, enjoys the deepening connection but then feels confusion and pulls back.  It's weird to feel closer to any woman than your own mother.  Your feelings may be tender and it's okay to be confused yourself, but don't make the step child responsible for your feelings.  Deal with it in another safe relationship and let it be like water off a duck's back.  The ebb and flow of connection will come back around in time.  You be the consistent one and give your step child the freedom to determine what is the most comfortable relationship for him or her.
I know I've made mistakes and will probably make many more (as a step mom and in life).  So it helps me to remember that I've tried my best with what I know at the time.  Along with the mistakes comes more experience and healthier, more realistic expectations.  Blended, step family life is full of complicated calendars, negotiations, lots of give and little returns in the short term. There are easy triggers of loss and pain, baggage and at the core are children both small and older who are shifting back and forth in loyalty and actually moving between homes.

As a step mom, we can provide stability, freedom, encouragement and support.  We can remind them that while their family has changed, many things have not.  They are loved, cared for, safe and have lots of grown ups rooting for them!  We can notice when one of our step children needs extra care, we can demonstrate selfless actions and encourage dad in his role.

You can be an outside voice and example to your step children.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Family Identity Begins At Home, Even in Blended and Step Families

Every child needs a place where they know they belong.  When they aren't included in the recess games or invited to the party, we can provide confidence that they are included and wanted in our homes, in our hearts - this is the privilege of family: Belonging.

Divorce complicates this because there is a division of loyalty among two homes.  The people who were once family (husband and wife) are no longer related to each other, but the child is still connected to both.  This is a difficult concept for children to grasp and it rocks the core of their security.  Many wonder if their own connected-ness can be as easily severed?

At the core of family identity is belonging, and we may not realize that a child moving between two home may not feel a sense of belonging in either place.  Belonging is about having security in relationship to a group of people and gives a sense of worth that translates to all other groups: peers, school, church, community.  It can help them deal with challenges and difficulties and creates an important foundation for their own family one day.

I think often about our home and ways to create a sense of belonging for my children along with my step daughters.  They have lived here for many years and we have been here for just over one.  Balancing the identities of everyone requires some thought, but it's doable.

  1. When I first married Mr. Wonderful, I was excited to embrace my new last name!  I am proud to be Mrs. Robinson and wanted to Monogram the front door, the fireplace, all our napkins, you name it!  But my children have a different last name.  They are sensitive to the fact that our names aren't the same.  If I put a big "R" on my front door wreath, they don't connect with that.  It makes them feel more like an outsider than a part of the unit.  So, I have a monogram in my room, but elsewhere I'm keeping things more generic.
  2. Routines create a sense of predictable, consistent peace for a child who needs to know what is expected.  Bedtime stories, family meals and even cleanup provide stability.  Chaos in the home can create chaos within a heart, so habits like making the bed, wiping the counter, putting away dishes remind children that they are part of the family, not just sucking its resources.  A phrase I use often is "We are a family and families help each other." 
  3. Consider Tagxedo art on display somewhere in the common areas of your home.  Each family member can contribute words and it they will be artfully displayed together.
  4. Celebrate individuality.  Display artwork proudly, embrace photos of unique moments, create
    holiday traditions.  Notice what makes each person unique and embrace that - make sure he or she knows that the family isn't the same when they are away.  Communicate in a positive way, not reinforcing that you understand the need to be a part of another home, but that there is a place for them here. Always.  "Our home isn't the same when you're not here," isn't a negative message, but reinforces that their presence is a welcome part of your space.
  5. I've always been a big fan of tradition and it is possible to merge two unique families into new, but familiar, tradition.  It's fun to learn how to do life together.
  6. Create opportunities for each person to talk, listen and be heard.  Mealtimes, bedtimes, and transition times between activities or school often provide space for this.  Emphasize the importance of courtesy, not interrupting and hearing others, too.  We don't have this skill down among my elementary children, yet, so I use phrases like, "I'm listening to --- right now, but I want to hear what you have to say in just a minute."  Or, "It's ----'s turn to talk, you're next."  
  7. Provide a sense of history.  My children beam when I talk about their baby days or relate a story from their grandparents.  Baby books, portraits, older toys and valuable heirlooms are important - perhaps more so in the families of divorce because so much of that feels lost as the original family disintegrates.  I can be intentional about rebuilding that sense of history and we get to write a whole new story from which these souls will launch.

The message that your child is valuable, respected and loved begins at home but resonates into the world.  By teaching them a positive sense of self and belonging we can encourage them to be confident wherever they are.  They can gain a sense of self, learn to voice their thoughts, make personal choices a shape their own futures as part of our legacy.

I'd love to hear your ideas about providing identity for your children,  as a family unit and an individual.  Do you think about this?  Are there any step moms who work to include non-bio-children?  That's what I'm writing about next.

Monday, September 8, 2014

My Son Thinks I'm Gorgeous!

I think that every woman has moments of feeling less than gorgeous compared to magazine spreads, fitness gurus, commercial beauties and even the lady down the row at church.  We innately want to feel beautiful, but sometimes we just don't.

Yet when I hear my son talk about me, it's enlightening to hear his mindset regarding his mama.  He thinks I'm beautiful.  He thinks I'm such a great cook that I should open a restaurant.  He thinks I strong and super-smart.  He hasn't yet realized that I'm making things up as I go through this life!  His confidence in me is strong and real and he inspires me to be my best self.

It's interesting that my inner voice can be so loud, unaccepting and critical.  Yet this boy who depends on me so much finds me completely adequate, fully capable and even gorgeous.  At ten years old, I think he's become more aware of women and I'm the first and most prominent example he will ever have.  May I wear the representation well - it's a gift to see myself through his eyes.

Has your view of self ever been altered by the perspective of another?

Thursday, August 28, 2014

Is Divorce Wrong?

My easy answer would be, yes, divorce is wrong.  It isn't the "ideal" plan for my life or anyone else's.  The real answer is more complicated.  There is little in our life that resembles God's original, ideal plan set forth in the Garden of Eden.  We live in a fallen world and the consequences of our brokenness are experienced in differing ways every day.  One of those consequences are broken families.  My marriage was broken long before the divorce.

The loudest voice of condemnation that I experienced was from myself. Because after repeated betrayals, I was the one who finally said, “Enough.” I asked him to leave. I filed for divorce.

I remember praying through that gut-wrenching decision.  I do not believe was sin, I came to the sense that God was actually preparing me for a different life – delivering me from the bondage of my marriage. I remember having to come to grips with the fact that if I was, in fact, making a horrible decision and sinning against the Lord, He would forgive me. My life would not be wasted, written off or over. Even if I was wrong, He would walk through the consequences with me.   

He will. He does. I am able to know now that I was not in sin, but I can never feel good about a choice that ends what we believed would last forever and which comes as the result of living in a fallen world.

The beautiful thing is that even in our fallen state, riddled with consequences of sin, God walks with us and draws meaning and beauty from that experience. It is His beautiful way of making good from that which the enemy meant for evil. Only our Lord could do this…It is His way, the calling card or hallmark of life lived with Him.

And whether the decision of divorce is yours or not, God will walk with you through the pain.  Hand the hurt to the Lord, feel it and learn from it as you build a healthier life.  Be open to whatever possibilities become of the loss and trust that you are never alone.

I felt like the article below articulated it so well.  What do you think?

Misconceptions the Christians Have About Divorce

Thursday, August 21, 2014

Mom Matters: Finding (And Keeping) a Great Babysitter

I have a great deal of experience with managing childcare.  I've gone the route of full time day care (didn't last long), paid preschools, enlisting family to help, Parent Day Out part time care, and the nanny/babysitter route along with hybrids of both.  For my current elementary aged kiddos, I only need childcare during the summer time.  Since we moved last year, I had to locate and hire a new summer babysitter for my crew.  I'm happy to say, we found a new sitter and a new family friend.

It can feel daunting, but you can set yourself up for the best results by sticking to the following steps:

1. Find referrals to locate a fabulous girl and be clear about what you need.

As you prepare to need a sitter or nanny, use your current contacts to ask about those who may be interested.  I have found the most reliable sitters through our church, but have also hired off Craigslist and the daughter of an acquaintance.  It makes all the difference in the world to have someone you trust give you the name of someone they trust, but still - do a background check.  I was able to get them for around $49 online.

Think about what you will need so that you can articulate to a potential sitter what you will expect.  For instance, can she provide transportation to classes or activities for all your children?  Is she willing to do work on learning skills?  Is she willing to prepare meals and help with cleanup?  How will she handle sick days?  Does she have any time scheduled to be away?

2. Establish a pay scale in your budget, then negotiate.

Do some research and find out what is reasonable pay for your area, determine if you can truly afford it.  Establish what you are willing to pay and then ask a candidate if she is willing to provide the needed duties for that compensation.

For example, my budget allows me to pay $75 per day (seven hour day).  My sitter needs to be able to transport three children to occasional activities, church functions or boredom-busting events like $1 movie morning.  The costs or fees are covered by us in addition to sitter compensation.

3. Set expectations and deliver what you promise

If promptness is important, make that clear, and be prompt about your return time.  If you come home a half hour early, compensation should not be adjusted.  In fact, if you suddenly don't need her for a day, she should not be penalized.  However, scheduled time "off" need not be compensated unless this is a full time position including paid vacations.

The way this works in real life may look like this: Sitter lets me know weeks in advance that she will be unavailable on dates x, y, z so she can attend a wedding.  I let her know at the beginning of the summer that we will be away for vacation for the week of ----.  These situations are planned ahead and noncompensatory.  However, if I find out that next week the children will be spending the night with Aunt Mindy and we don't need childcare, I let my sitter know, but do not dock her pay.  Another example may be that on Tuesday night I realize that I'll be staying home with a sick baby on Wednesday.  I'll call the sitter and she'll get the day off, but I will pay her for the time she was scheduled to come.

Communicating about these issues makes things so much easier for me and the my sitters have always appreciated it.  Loyalty is important when establishing a relationship with a sitter, so I have found that over-explaining is better than leaving questions out there.

On a final note, let her know clearly when you will pay her.  Will it be daily? weekly? monthly?  I need to track childcare costs for tax and support purposes and so I let her know up front that the income will be reported.

4. Endorse the sitters authority

My children know that when I'm gone, she is in charge.  She is aware of our family rules and schedule and I expect her to enforce them.  She children cannot try to side me against her, I will take her side and her word.

5. Begin and end each session with a realistic chat.  

In order to keep communication flowing, be sure to welcome the sitter with a plan and instructions for the day/time period.  For me, this included general schedule, menu, etc.  Upon returning, I go out of my way to ask if there were any troubles or discipline issues, then ask a few more probing questions: What can I do to make the time work best with the children and a sitter?  Especially in those first few weeks, I like to ask if there have been power struggles or sibling incidences. Are the children treating her respectfully?  Do they need more outdoor activities?  Are they cooperating with the menus and chores?  What does the sitter need from me?  Let her know you on her team for a good relationship with your children.

Ask about her life beyond your children.  Encourage her where you are pleased and be clear about areas you need her to step up.  It doesn't happen instantly, but the best sitters eventually become like extended family members. They add to the family support dynamic and provide you with the freedom to pursue things beyond your little ones.

If you find a sitter who loves your children, is reliable and communicate well - keep her around! Think of little ways to encourage her and communicate your respect:

  • Have the children do something fun for her birthday.
  • Provide a holiday bonus or gift card.
  • Keep her favorite snacks handy.
  • Provide great references, when she needs it.
  • Let her know your schedule well in advance.
  • Include her in family celebrations, if she lives far from home.

Do you employ a regular babysitter?  What do you do for occasional childcare needs?  Do you remember any fabulous sitters from your own childhood?