Monday, October 26, 2009

But really, *what is* punishment anyway?

The only form of "punishment" we used on the kids for a few years was talking. We would talk to them. Sometimes they would respond or talk with us, but mostly they remained silent, nodded their heads, looked away, or just cried even if they weren't in trouble.  My husband mostly would talk to them. Sometimes the talks were lengthy and important. Sometimes they were shorter and to the point. That was it. We told them we talk with, not yell at.

Then we realized the older daughter was having severe issues and didn't care about what we talked about, even though she would cry or nod and seem to be understanding. It was either all an act or she just didn't care, or could be both. We realized she would sit through the conversation, then go do whatever it was again. Then she started severely embarrassing and hurting her sister and completely ruining entire days, nights, or events for everyone- And given the small amount of time a partial custody father has, ruined time is literally painful. Then she stopped respecting every adult on our side of the family, and showed how much she didn't care about them. Around that time, we also realized that after years of being yelled at- she just didn't care unless you scared her like her mom does.

We refuse to simply yell like insane people over little things as punishment. We know they have grown up with it but we want to show them you don't have to yell. We'd point this out- that we don't just yell at them but try to talk to them. When we saw it wasn't working at all for the older daughter, my mom, a MFT, recommended removal from events or special activities.  Before an event, we warn her that if she does _____, then we will leave, go home, etc. If she hurts or uses others or doesn't listen to adults, she will not get to do the next event or fun thing. So at a church Christmas party we were so excited to take the kids to (at a Pastor's house, mind you) she attempted to make everyone miserable.  She was immediately removed from the event in front of everyone, her younger sister crying her head off from the humiliation she was served by her sister's hand in front of everyone at the party, and she went straight to bed when we got home.  Then one night, months later, she lied so much and about something very serious that she did get a little bit of yelling and the computer taken away. It was something serious enough that my husband just had to get through to her. Still, his yelling is simply raising his deep voice. I don't know that he really can yell... When she road her bike into a blind turn street, he yelled. Yeah, he yells when they run into streets... But a stern father's voice can be the same as yelling to a child because of how much power it has. Inside a house, that's all a child could need when they really need to know its serious. She knew how badly she'd crossed the line, and her behavior has improved overtime from the consistent event removal promise and our years of (compulsive) lying intolerance.

Somewhere along the line, the kids were convinced that our "talks" about things were lectures. So then they started telling anyone who matters how our lecturing bothered them and somehow hurt them. Yet, their mom's style of harsh punishments continued, and no one heard about that. The children's psychologist told my husband that the children "really don't like [our] lectures", in a disapproving tone at the beginning of the summer. My husband then asked her if she's heard about their mom purposely ignoring them, screaming her head off when they'd done nothing wrong to the point of making them cower, shake, and hide. No, of course not. She seemed rather surprised.

So, there's a difference in visions in punishment between the two houses... There also seems to be an acceptance of what biological moms are able to do for punishments, even if completely demoralizing and insane, versus what a partial custody father is allowed since he's not the primary parent. Most people assume a father is more harsh, except anyone who has grown up with a somewhat psycho mom. (Not referring to my own. In my 20s, I've had a lot of friends talk about how insane their mom is and how they don't want to be like them- and many of them realized why their parents got a divorce now that they're adults. I also work with high school youth, and many will tell you about the games their moms play on them or their dads.)

I see moms in stores grab their children, and quite literally throw them around. I see moms in public scream cuss words at their children, or completely ignore them- letting them physically destroy a store or even hurt their younger siblings (including babies). Then I know what my stepchildren have told me: they are simply used to the screaming from their own mother.

Let's put this back in perspective. I have a good example from my husband and youngest stepdaughter. He asked her one time why she claimed I was mean. She said that it was because one time, years ago, I had told her to eat with her utensils. ...Think about that for one second... Somehow, when I tell those 2 kids whom I've lived with for 3 years to stop something they already know they shouldn't be doing, I get a strong sense from some other adults that I do not have the authority, they think I am doing it wrong, or I should be more loving. And yet, I know that these same people are aware of how their actual mom punishes them.

When we were married, my husband asked me to help him. He asked for help parenting. He specifically stated he did not want me to sit in a corner and let him do all of the parenting. He said he would help me, and that I could only do what I was comfortable in doing. He said he trusted me and wanted his girls to be raised with someone intelligent and different from their mom (therein lies the ultimate problem, doesn't it?).  As situations came about, I had to take on more and more responsibility and authority.  Only natural, considering these 2 children live with me regularly and I care for them quite often. As I got to know them, I felt more comfortable. And what my husband and I have seen is that I only look harsh out of context or false twists of words. The children were encouraged to tell their mom bad things about us, and to please her, they spent years telling their mom things I never said.  Then, to garner sympathies from other adults and continue loyalty to their mom, they have exaggerated things to make me seem like a thoughtless stepmom who doesn't know them or understand them.  This works on many adults who already believe stepmoms are harsh or don't understand children.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

How will it go?

Recently, a family member implied that I need to open my heart to the children.  I only receive comments tied to assumptions that I am cold or unwilling from extended family members when I share completely logical thoughts or my very valid feelings. Yet my friends and people I talk to everyday- most of whom live here- are constantly saying how much I give, how they can't fathom my depth of compassion in this situation, and also understand the constant pain I deal with.  The day-to-day of my life and the bravery I've shown impresses everyone I know, including my husband, except for the extended family of my stepchildren. They seem to readily believe the children's complaints, rather than recognize that children in a stepfamily situation where their mom guilts them and severely punishes them for disloyalty may possibly effect their statements about a stepmom who tries very hard.  I was told yesterday by a psychologist and a stepmother of 3 herself that it is actually a compliment- that the children are able to complain about me but can't even voice thoughts about their mother, out of fear. In other words, they fear her but not me.

In the meantime, the children's comments or strongly influenced beliefs continue to hurt our relationships with them, our marital life, and my husband's opportunity to simply be their father. My heart is open. And hearts that are open, can also be bruised, scarred, and should be allowed healing time.

Friday, October 16, 2009


I haven't done any research on "normalization", but I've recently been told by a psychologist that this is what our household is going through right now.

It's common for stepparents, but especially stepmothers, to go through a period of trying their hardest. They are either trying their hardest to repair the parent-child bond, to show that they too can be a parent, to create a bond with the children, or just trying to make the family work. I would say that I was trying very hard to be a parent and make the family work. And the psychologist said that this ends and the normalization process begins after the stepparent is either massively burned or after one too many burns.

I'm still trying, but I'm conflicted and backing down at the same time. Not only is this normal, but it's also healthy. Working so hard for something that wasn't working and was apparently worthless to the children isn't healthy for me. When everything was reversed in court, I backed down on a lot of the effort I was making. I stopped cleaning their room, making their beds, putting away their clothes, cleaning up after them, making as many dinners, making lunches for school, and buying them stuff- fun or otherwise, unless necessary.  

The downfall of all of those efforts can be listed:
- I often cleaned up their room because I thought that this is what was happening at their other and past houses. I think I was wrong. Result: When I clean their room, they have no clue where anything is or even what they have.

- When I made their beds, they couldn't have cared less. They're barely in them anyways, and they seem to like dirty clothes and sheets anyways.

- I also assumed that others have always put away their clothes. Since I stopped, my husband discovered that in fact they always put away their clothes at their other house and nothing is folded for them. It's simply dumped on their beds.  Result of my actions: I put away their clothes, so they didn't have a clue of what clothes they even had. I was always reminding them that they have other things, which they would then sometimes wear out of guilt or thinking it would please me.

- Cleaning up after them is just stupid. Sometimes necessary, but it's the fast track to resentment.

- I'm still struggling with the making dinner part. I made dinners to give them other options, so that they can eat with us at the table, and we often used our meals to teach them about healthy choices (like sauces, butter, fresh foods, etc. since I can't eat a lot of bad foods). Dinners were also my attempt to show them my capabilities, that I can make food they like, and that I am also fully capable of doing a mom-like thing. It also was to allow for a setting very close to a real family. And, it took the burden of providing food or cooking off of my husband, so I've been doing this since we were dating.  I've been cutting back on that, because it sort of sucks to cook for them. I love cooking, and I like cooking for my husband and I. But the final sting was going out of my way (and price range) to cook them crab legs the night before court. They were so happy that I finally made them shellfish, which they knew I sometimes made and they wanted me to make for them. The next day they told the mediator that they didn't like being taken care of by me.  I'm never making shellfish for them again, unless it's frozen shrimp. (If I want it, of course.)

- Making lunches for them was along the same lines as making dinner. Showing capabilities, giving them healthy options that they chose or claimed to like, and showing that we can provide, just like a real family. I even decorated the lunch bags. I've been doing this for years now, and after at least 2 years, we found out that their mother had told them to just throw away my lunches. She provided them with money or possibly brought them other lunches while she wasn't working. So now my husband gives them money or I pick up some pre-made lunchables. I just don't care. I wonder if they'll forget the years of decorated lunchbags?

- I made it clear that I myself often provide for them, with my own money, just for them. I took them to get things they needed, had them in mind all the time, and helped them plan for events or occasions. I bought them fancy kid-coffee drinks and smoothies all the time as treats during time with me and then anything else that they needed. I bought them and took them shopping for sports equipment, last-minute panic-need-items, school things, clothes, bras, shoes, food they want, and on and on and on.  This obviously also helps my husband tremendously, lightening his burden. But I'm sick of giving.

Normalization is when the stepparent, usually stepmother, stops trying so hard. This then causes the kids to take on tasks that they should have been doing anyway, or normal family rules to be enforced more consistently when they should have been enforced all along. (Usually these things were not done because of fear of upsetting the children or pushing them away, because the other parent/household is more lenient by contrast.) Everyone adjusts to the stepparent being less a part of the picture and a new house order with more responsibilities for the children and biological parent.

I've been badly burned. My stepdaughter completely forgetting how close we'd been, the things we'd talked about, and things she'd loved- along with treating me like an almost stranger- was so hurtful, it repulsed me. I've never understood how parents can handle their children turning against them, but not being their parent makes this treatment similar to a betrayal by a friend you trusted. If you're in my shoes, it does not feel like "actions by an innocent child." It is a horrible, horrible feeling to bond with a child and then know that the child purposely or was convinced to either tear themselves from you or even tear you apart. It makes me doubt every other interaction and distrust every positive action. And then I feel sick and want to hide.

It happened in a different way with my older stepdaughter. She would report everything I said (or anything her dad said or did that she didn't like, turning it into something I did or conceived) to her mom in a twisted form, and then allow her mom and other family to twist it further, thereby embarrassing me and opening the door for harassment and confrontation by their mother. It created a distrustful chasm between my previously obsessed-with-me stepdaughter and I that still makes me nervous.  She's now pulling away in general, hopefully from everyone, because she's a pre-teen and has learned how to work situations to please whoever she's with. Makes her more pleasant, and I go along with the mostly fake behavior for the sake of temporary pleasantness.

And this is how you become an increasingly distant stepmother, internally conflicted by the love of your husband and the messages you receive from others that "children just need love." I'm getting a whole lot of other messages that say they don't need love from me. Maybe there can be less blame and less hurt if the target stepparent just backs out of the way more and more.

Psychology Today Article/Blog on the Hatred of Stepmothers

The Real Reason Children (and Adults) Hate Their Stepmothers

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What a Difference a Year Makes

Last year, our/my focus was making sure my oldest stepdaughter knew we would provide for her just like her mom's family does.  We didn't want the kids to make an argument that they needed to be with mom because she gave them the clothes they want or the gadgets they think they need. We don't need petty arguments like that crowding out the real stuff. We did a great job since the recession has been giving us ample opportunities at big clearances, store closings, and major discounts. We were able to get the kids brand name things for the same price as Target stuff! I, personally, find that to be a success. We were also clever in our gift giving. We gave them things with thought, to show them we know them. We mixed those with the gifts we wanted to give them for our own parental reasons and interests. Smart, right? Well, we didn't expect the people with a whole lot less money to buy her her very own flat screen TV for her room. In the long run, the TV and her own room win out over thoughtful gifts or attempts at perceived equality. 

Last year, I was home somehow and decorated the house for her birthday. I hung up blue streamers (fav color), made a chocolate cake, wrapped all those gifts... This year, I barely cleaned the house. Yet, we're going to see her for 2 extra hours (wow!) on her birthday. It just doesn't matter much. She's treated special almost all the time. On her birthday, she is happy to get a hamburger, steak, or ribs and some dessert. She is happy playing with her dad. She's a kid. She's bossy to her sister. She wants to get her way. Those are her priorities. Not anything I do. Not anything I give her. Whatever I give her, usually just upsets me in some way, anyways. It ends up lost, unused, misused, forgotten, or in a litter box (without an attempt to retrieve it). 

This year, she's just getting a few small gifts from us and then we'll take her and a friend to a fun theme park. She's of that age where "toys" are less important than digital things we can't afford or don't want to buy, so I remembered how I started asking for theme park passes or birthday parties at theme parks or special places. It works- her big gift is really a special day on our time. Her birthday party with her mom wasn't much of a party this year (one friend, 2 canceled, and a movie with her mom?) compared to last year's Halloween-extravaganza-boy-girl party, so a theme park should be memorable. Or so we hope. 

This posting illustrates "normalizing", common to a stepparent dealt a big blow. To be continued next time.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Does "youth" and "stepmom" go together?

Everyday, I feel very young. I feel too young. I'm not sure I want to know how often I think, "I'm too young to be dealing with this." Sometimes, I ask myself "Right?" as if I'm not sure I should ask that question.

I picked up the kids from school in the Spring twice a week. I worked from home in order to pick up the kids. I stood around with all the "real" moms. It was mostly awkward. I felt way too young (and professional-ish) to be standing at a school gate, with little children running around with brightly colored backpacks and kicking their lunch cases around. The amount of screaming and yelling is also something I wasn't used to. I have generally tried to avoid schools for the past so many years. They took on a new meaning when I moved to LA for grad school- Ridiculous side-street traffic. Mini-vans. Sudden stops. Jammed turn lanes. And I still feel that way about them, just with some more depth.

But then I think about how my old (not "older") friends are having babies now. Some of them have toddlers. Maybe I'm not "too young." But then again, I also am seeing that a lot of my old friends are just now getting married. I'm also not raising my husbands babies- I am helping to raise 2 older children. They are only sort of growing up with me but don't accept me as someone that has always been there. I have started later on the timeline, which means I face completely different issues than any of my friends with babies or new marriages.

I am still thinking of myself as "younger", "twenties", and recently out of college. The twenties part is definitely true, but when do you stop being younger? What's "recent"? They say that children of divorce are forced to grow up faster. Same thing for no-bio-kid stepmoms in a first marriage?

There have been plenty of instances where moms have given me dirty looks and teachers have expressed shock that I am a stepmom. Ridiculous, really, since there are many young moms and stepmoms out there, and all of the instances were in the latter half of my twenties. There have been only two times where I've been respected as a legitimate source of authority by others outside of family and close friends: First, as a soccer coach. The parents look to me for advice about soccer, injuries, and feedback about their children's progress. Second, a mother who decided to get over her prejudice told my stepchildren to respect me and say. "Thank you," when I bought them snacks in Target. Very gratifying, but moments that are noticeably few and far in between.

Is it really my age? Am I actually "too young"? Why should a stepmom be older? Moms are able to start young, and it's considered healthy. A stepmom picks up at a later stage, missing things no matter what age they are. Is there an expectation of age for stepmoms no one mentions? And besides all the societal ponderings, do my feelings of being too young actually reflect a desire to be less responsible and mature?