Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Absolute Best Stepparenting Advice

We can debate all day and night whether what's important to you should be important to your stepkids.

First, it depends on your "agreement" with your husband of what they will or should learn and how you are going to parent together. That always comes first and foremost, as long as your husband does actually discuss agreements with you and listen to you. (I know that many stepmoms out there are not in my lucky situation and do not have husbands that will listen or support your thoughts in many things, so this may not be the "first and foremost" for you given that situation.)

Second, your opinion and thoughts and experiences do matter. But the debate really comes in when you start to wonder, and second guess yourself, and argue with others about what should and should not be expressed or important to raising the stepkids in your home. That's the hard part.

We each have a lot to offer our stepkids, whether you, they, or your in-laws think so or not. You are in their life for a reason, as I posted in the past. But it still leaves a lot of us wondering, and even debating ourselves internally, about whether or not we should stress certain things to them or enforce certain rules to the extent we want to.

I'm hung up on that all of the time. Sometimes it's as an after-thought where I'm wondering if I should make such a big deal out of something. Other times, I'm thinking in that lull period between seeing them about whether it would be a mistake or not to confront (or attack) some certain issue.

At other times, I let others give their opinions. I welcomed feedback from my in-laws and others. But overtime and many conversations, I've realized no one is in my situation and their advice usually does not apply. I hear them and realize they are just wrong, sometimes. I can see how much they don't understand and what they are definitely not experiencing with me. This is not to say that what anyone else says it useless, but stepparenting is so weird... It really is an exceptional (as in rare, yet isn't) experience. I have met many, many other stepparents. But each situation is ENTIRELY different. Even the details in a stepfamily make every instance and situation different.

The best is simply relating to each other that it is a struggle and sharing some stories. That is the best we can usually offer. We can share our experiences to each other, but expect the other adult to make their own decisions or say what they need to say. Just like a regular parent would. Parents do things their own way, and stepparents, frankly, will as well.

I've come to realize it's much less an issue of making right choices or decisions on what to enforce and not enforce, what to talk about and not talk about, and more of an issue of acceptance. Many adults, like the kids, do not see stepparents as official authorities. And, I would say, not even secondary. I think many parents that were not stepparents themselves believe that stepparents should be somewhat voiceless bystanders. (Again, a situation in which if you summarized it in that way, the other person would completely deny.) In many of our situations, though, that is not possible. We are an assistant parent, if you will. We are often the only parent present. We are the one there. We are the one responsible for them. And if we have personal standards for ourselves or others in our home, then we will likely express them.

The absolute best advice I've ever received about making stepparenting decisions is: BE CONSISTENT. Within the same week or so, multiple stepparents/parents expressed this to me in different conversations. I was struggling with all of the mixed messages out there and how to live in my own home and *not* express or enforce certain things I wasn't sure about. Finally- and I really mean "finally"- those few individuals told me that the absolute best thing I can do, and with my husband, is to just be consistent.

So often, the parent with the problems, with more time-share custody or not, is the person who is in some way unstable...And therefore inconsistent. The inconsistency is what makes the kids so confused and effects them so badly. It causes so many problems. Yes, there are a lack of values and other significant concerns usually with a problem ex-spouse/bio-parent- but their parenting style is not *consistent*. Others have put it for decades as "kids need structure." And many parents know that structure includes levels of consistency for discipline, life, teachings, parenting, etc. It's a very good and simple way to explain a lot of the problems with the 2 household life. Kids are torn between two homes, with different values, standards, and even schedules.

But when I started expressing my confusion and second-guessing-myself troubles, those few individuals out there used the same words- That my husband and I can offer consistency. It's less about what you talk about and what you care about, they said, and much more about being consistent with what you care about and talk about. The kids may not value what we teach or may be told something different when we leave, but if they can expect the same things from us now and in the future, then it shows our character, makes it more clear to them who we are, and teaches those same lessons over time rather than sporadically like an inconsistent, unstable parent and household.

That gave me relief, and I wanted to share it with you. Be consistent. Try not to worry so much about what you do and don't say. You are awesome, can be awesome, and you have something to offer them whether they want to realize it now or later. Be consistent in yourself. You may need to rediscover yourself. And when you find yourself second-guessing, ask what's important to you. Don't ask your in-laws or non-stepparents. And if you have to ask, ask your husband or another stepparent in a similar situation.

Overall, be yourself. And that will be consistent.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Raise It Up- IMPACT

If you haven't caught the movie August Rush by now, it is time. I'm sure some people have called it a chick flick, but I would say it's a lot more than that. The music woven throughout the entire movie makes it not only a unique film, but gives every moment purpose and emotion.

There's a song in the movie that you need to hear. If you have great speakers, download it and turn up the volume. I found the song and lyrics on YouTube for you, though.
The song is perfect for the movie, which is about an orphaned boy trying to find his parents through music. The song is meant for another population of the poor and lost in society, but the lyrics definitely tie in with us as stepparents and the dads out there. 

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Stepmoms are a Blessing

If you read stepmom books or blended family books, you are asked to let things be and respect the other parents' place.

I believe that there is a difference in respecting the other parents' love and place in the child's heart and knowing that one parent blatantly misuses and harms the child.  It seems that quite a lot of people out there, that usually fall into the group of mediators and therapists, recommend keeping the children happy, not fighting, and not being upset about anything. I read so many posts about stepmoms feeling wrong or confused because they know that something horrible is happening yet they are told to feel guilty for not just letting the child be.

It is not wrong to teach children values, morals, introduce them to beliefs, introduce them to new things and new ways of thought, and generally be a parent to them. If you are their parent, you will always be their parent. If you parent in a way that is not illegal or abusive, you should be allowed to parent. That is what this state's law says (California).

Instead, court boils it down to which house the child enjoys more (which does not actually mean which house is safest or filled with the most love, parenting and care) and has little to do with parenting. Especially if the child is manipulated or confused and just wants the stuff or to please one parent, usually the parent who makes their love conditional.

If you are seeing that you stepchild is not taking medicine, should see a doctor, needs guidance, can use some cultural awakening, could be introduced to church or new things, can learn about hygiene.... Why should you be afraid? You are in their life for a reason, and they could benefit. The greatest benefit a child could have from a divorce is the introduction of new things from the new people in their lives. Sometimes they won't like the new things, but as any child development expert knows, exposure is key. Without exposure, we do not learn.

Of course, it's best to have your spouse cover as much as possible. But my husband often lets me do the talking when he knows I am more of the expert on a topic, or if something is a little more of a girl issue as we have two girls. I talk to her about bras, we both talk to them about make-up and keeping their bodies covered, we both talk to them about allergies, I primarily talk about food and fitness health, on and on. 

Then there are values. Who decides what to teach about hygiene and religion and morals? It only falls on social and child services when it's really too late. Who decides? Parents. If you are a parent, you stay a parent. Your say, your values, your opinions- They go to your child. It is your job. We all know and accept that, except for seemingly ex-spouses and their families. Oh, and family experts who just want the kids to exist and "have fun". The value of simple learning has fallen off the priority list in a lot of articles and books I read...I can tell you I didn't go to two of the best universities in the world by not learning any dedication and values from my parents. I am who I am because of the seriousness of my parents, their support of my hard work, and their encouragement to achieve more. I am very much defined by much of their instruction of values, and I am quite proud of this fact. Not to mention, I know *quite* a few adults and teens who wish their parents had been more value and instruction-driven in their lives rather that concerned about petty or selfish interests.

Your spouse needs to back you, or you need to discuss it first, but this is one of the few places in which sitting back and not taking action is one of the hardest things to possibly do. Why should you not ask your spouse to talk to the child, write an email to the other parent, or contact a doctor if you know that the children are taking the wrong medicine or being ignored in a certain area? The court may not care, but when you married your spouse, you promised to care about him. And with him, come his children. Sometimes you need to not care as much, and I understand that. But there will be plenty of times where children will need guidance and your type of love, whether they respect it or not.

You are a blessing to their life, though they do not know it most of the time or at all. You have a lot to offer, and that is why you are in their life. I'm clearly not advocating suffocation of your lifestyle, but I am tired of hearing and reading silencing messages from non-experts and experts alike. You are not a helpless bystander, but you are in fact tasked with sometimes, or all of the time, caring for these kids. You are important, and your knowledge does differ. They are lucky to have you.

Sunday, March 7, 2010


Moms teach kids almost everything they know about hygiene, right? Dads are the ones that teach them fun outside stuff? Moms teach manners, cleanliness, things like that, right?

A lot of stepfamilies find that that's not how things go at all. I think that couples fall into roles when they're together, but once separated and fully divorced, they start seeing holes in what they thought was typical upbringing. My husband assumed his kids learned all kinds of things from his stay-at-home ex-wife. Like learning to read. Learning how to get along together. Learning how to clean their rooms.

During the divorce, things were just rough. He just wanted to see his kids. He just wanted time with them. Then things start to fall into normal life, court fights and visits happen, structures are set. Then people start dating, introducing people into their lives... And the stepmom either doesn't care or sees lots of things kids are not learning.

This is where stepmoms become a threat, definitely. Moms are threatened by a stepmom telling their kids things like "you need to change your underwear" and asking why they still don't brush their teeth everyday. Kids are mad that a stepmom or "dad's house" tells them things like they need to wear belts so that their butt cracks don't show to the entire world anytime they go everywhere. They are mad and make glaring faces, as if to say, "how dare you tell me to not show my ass to the universe at-large!" If you tell them things about allergies and medicines, they might tell you, "That's not what my mom told me," even though you already know that their mom has never had any allergies but both you and your husband have lived with allergies your entire lives. The list goes on and on.

As a stepmom, you wonder what the heck a mom is like that doesn't have her children shower, doesn't tell them to change their underwear, doesn't teach them to brush their teeth everyday. Oh the hatred we have seen from these two girls when we've told them they need to shower. It's years later, and the hatred towards us plus the glares may have diminished, but the holes have not gone away. There are still somewhat to very disturbing things we learn these two growing girls, on the breach of teenage years, still haven't taken into daily actions, hygiene, or plain consideration.

At times I've figured that my oldest stepdaughter would just at some point be embarrassed and change her habits after friends told her her breath TRULY stinks or there's a funny smell whenever she is around. But, it's been a long time, and I guess not. I often can smell her from feet away and have to mouth to my husband "showers!!" in which we then find out they haven't showered for 3 days. Very typical for suburbia? No...

The older one still just lies about what she knows to do everyday. If you tell her to do something, she usually yells back or tiredly says, "I know!".... And then the toilet isn't flushed and you definitely didn't hear the sink turn on... The younger one says, "No, mom never talks about it."

We know their mom doesn't handle much, much at all. Like, she's working now, so that means we know that she's going to miss a lot of stuff. Her husband is bedridden and sick continuously...So we're not really sure who's taking care of them most of the time. We know they live in fear of their mom's dislike, so they act in order to avoid her wrath. Works most of the time for the important things, it seems, but they also just lie a lot to get out of things. And we can't imagine her husband doing much to stop her wrath considering he himself attacked his ex wife multiple times and was forced to take parenting classes.

But the courts don't care. We've heard lots of other stepparents and part-time parents say the same things about their kids- Wondering what they're learning about basic things, seeing holes in their kids' upbringing, wondering if they have ever been told about belts. This is one thing agencies and news stations don't talk about in their stats about divorced kids- How many don't shower? How many aren't learning anything about life? How many are ignored? Maybe we can use the latchkey stats to determine hygiene standards and values not taught? Quite a jump if you ask any researcher.

These seem like important to small things, depending on the person. Courts literally couldn't care less if you tell them your kids are gross and you're not sure that they really have a parent. It seems more like if the mom is alive and breathing, then they must be in good hands. Harsh to say, but anyone who's been through this knows I am speaking almost literally.

So if we follow courts, it's ok. I need to not worry about it. Their mom wants them to smell, so be it. But...I don't want them to smell. I don't want to see my stepkids' butts in public. I want to save them from embarrassment and let them know. And, I don't want people saying anything about the kids being on my husbands' time and a stepmom's, so that's why they're falling apart. So, we have to tell them about how to take care of themselves, I have to remind them that they can get bacteria buildups if they don't shower, and sometimes I have to deal with the faces they give me if I tell them they're rather smelly (though my husband has mostly taken over this direct duty).

But in the end, we're only with them 25%. We're not the "real" parents.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Concepts of Family

I lost a lot of grandparents when I was very young. My immediate family seemed to shrink, especially when my brothers moved away for college. Feeling like my family was so small, I liked to think of my church as a family as well, off and on. My parents also let my friends come over for holiday dinners when we were teens, and they also felt like my family was their family. And then there were my best friends' families, and their homes always felt like my second homes.

For some people, the concept of family is pretty concrete. It's those people you have to see at holidays or who call too much or who you have blood ties to. My family is very important to me- this one in my "adult house", then the one where I grew up and my immediate blood family members, then my in-laws. My family has definitely expanded, and I feel like all three of those are "my family." I `can't not include any of those groups.

I went on a senior high school trip this past weekend, and I was reminded of how important the church family is for teens. In a time where your family often seems to waver, or you're not sure if you trust your family, I don't know how other teens without churches even get through it all. I passed out my phone number and email to my cabin just in case- just in case they have to talk to someone different, just in case they need a ride, just in case of anything. I remember how important that was to me when a counselor told me I could call them anytime, or whatever.

Family should be a term that you can "spread out", if you will, when your own family is confusing. We joined a church so that my stepkids can have that alternate, somewhat unchanging family as they grow up, since we knew that their life was going to continue to be confusing and unstable. So although they won't know who to trust sometimes or what their family means, at least they will have a place to go to of people who have known them for years.

Thanks to Facebook, it's even easier than it ever use to be for me to keep in touch with the youth I've gotten to know over the past 3 years of my marriage and joining this new church. It's IM, board posting, picture sharing all in one. I can see how they're doing just from status messages, without them even having to reach out.

Then there's my in-laws. I'm pretty sure all of them are on Facebook. The moment I post anything, people from my husband's family that I don't even know are commenting on stuff or asking how it went. I also play games with them all, including some of our nieces that have sites mainly controlled by their parents and only for game use. I just love that I am technically playing with my 5-9 year old nieces everyday, exchanging fake stuff... Yeah, ok, strange. I still think its cool.

We'll be letting my oldest stepkid start her account soon. We're trying to stick to the 13 rule, as stated by the sites themselves and after she signed herself up on the YouTube pages as 23 years old. We'll also be sure to have our kids understand that Facebook is a connection to everybody- ALL their family, beyond and beyond. With that connection to all of these in-laws I've mentioned, maybe they'll start to see that their world is a lot larger. Then throw in the church people who can see what's up all the time and maintain a steady connection... And we've got a solid front finally coming from our family- or should I say "families"- but in a cyberspace sort of way.

Maybe its one new, big way to fight parental alienation and manipulation. Most manipulated kids just block the parent they don't know and their families, but my husband and I are the tech ones. We made sure to set them up with their first emails, laptops, Wekbinz, iPods, etc. first. My husband and I also know how to get around everything possible, even if we were blocked. Sneaky, that man I married.

I think one of our biggest hopes is that both kids see their family as larger than the divorce, larger than mom and dad, larger than their town. We've tried to get this across in a lot of different ways, from talking about how one day they could go to college in any number of towns where our families reside, to reminding them that there are many people outside of their mom's town who are their family. We have even used Facebook to show them that they have a ton of cousins they've never met. Family is everyone who loves you, who supports you. Family includes those who are different from you plus the ones that you barely see. Family is your church, family are the people who stand up for you, family is online. Family is bigger than just you, and any stories you may have heard. Family is bigger than court and the pain. Family is there, family is wide. And even if one family tells you to ignore all of the rest, the rest won't give up and won't shut up. We'll show up. =)