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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.

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