Monday, February 4, 2019

The accidental family on purpose: the stepfamily

I was struck recently by a drawing in the novel The Best We Could Do, by Thi Bui, who sketches herself in the maternity ward taking in the magnanimity of having just birthed a human being:

"FAMILY is now something I have created -- and not just something I was born into."
However people meaningfully craft their lives, whether it be with kids, fur-kids, foster kids, step kids, or with friends, partners or whoever we spend time with, it's a creation. That can make it seem purposeful, since we're conditioned to feel like we control what we create. But the second you open your life up to sharing it with another being, you remove any semblance of mastery.

Most parents already know this but nowhere is it more true than the accidental family on purpose: the stepfamily.

The adults are together because they chose but the kids did not. They're thrown into the mix. They have even less control than anyone else in this scenario.

There's no guide book on rebuilding after divorce (except maybe for Dr. Duana Welch's wonderful science-based book, Love Factually for Single Parents [& Those Dating Them], an excellent read covering every possible aspect of starting anew with a family in tow) but a lot can be done to make things more welcoming as a household.

Stepfamily tips:

-- Remember that the kids haven't had a chance to get to know their parent's partner. Parents could have been off dating and romancing their partners for a long time before the kids are introduced. This makes sense from an adult point of view as most parents wouldn't want to bring kids into the picture until they were more confident the union will last but it also means less time for the kids to be acquainted before things start to become more serious. So adults experience a "courtship" phase where they slowly get to know each other but the kids don't. Be mindful of this and don't rush familiarity. It will grow over time.

The general consensus is that it can take about 2 years for a blended family to feel more natural. It may never feel normal or like home. It will depend on the kids, the adults, their ages, their experiences, everyone's personality and so many other factors.

-- Consider seeing a counselor with your partner before blending households in order to ease the transition.

-- It's important for kids, no matter the age, to have time alone with their parents.

-- Kids may have conflicting feelings. For example, liking a stepparent may feel disloyal. This is normal and shouldn't be taken it personally but parents should try to help kids grapple with the myriad complicated feelings that can arise. Keep lines of communication open.

-- It's important for parents to talk with kids about the divorce and how it affected everyone. A huge amount of healing can be had with processing, especially when hurt is brought out into the open.

-- Respect privacy for the divided lines kids must now hold for two separate households. Don't pepper them with questions about "home" or the bio parent or anyone they haven't volunteered for conversation.

-- Challenge your own thinking. If it hurts because the kids aren't warming up to you the way you'd like, find gratitude in the honesty. Let them feel what they feel and don't force things otherwise.

-- Some stumbling blocks stepfamilies face may not always be unique to stepfamily life. The same issues "regular" families face can appear in any household. Challenges may not necessarily be the result of the divorce. Living with humans can just be messy sometimes.

-- If you notice the kids need something, talk to their parent but be careful not to sound like you're criticizing. Criticizing makes people feel small. Relationships thrive when we help each other feel cherished and valued, not small.

It's okay to discuss what you need or how you feel, just refrain from targeting character.

For example:

     NOT: "You're not making little Billy scrub the floor with a toothbrush, you're too lenient!!"   

     Try instead: "Do you think little Billy can help with some cleaning?"

 -- If you have your own kids, be conscious of fair treatment. Step kids can tell if priorities are uneven.

-- Feeling like an outsider can be painful at first. It will get easier. Maintain an active life with friends and activities that nurture you. The best prescription for a bad day is TLC.

-- I once read somewhere that parents often look at their kids through the lens of love while stepparents often look through the lens of responsibility. If you are a stepparent and you notice this happening, reframe by asking yourself, "would this feel different if it were my own child?"

-- Always let connection take priority. The connection is what matters over the long run. Do you want to win or do you want to understand? It's not usually possible to have both. Also consider the roles you may be playing in any friction. It can be hard to take an honest inward look but putting yourself in the other person's skin helps you imagine how they might feel and what might be going on for them. Empathy is the first step to solving problems.

-- You know that feeling you get when you visit a good friend and you feel welcomed and cherished? This is the best case scenario all humans can offer each other. Let the blended home be a place the kids feel welcome, as much as possible. They may never feel like it is "home" but let them make their space their own, have a key, try to have food they like in the fridge, etc. Give kids privacy, respect, and free reign.
"Please don't be nosey and hover and comment on a kid's movement through the house, as in 'Oh, did you take a banana? Where are you going? What are you doing?' It would be annoying if a parent did that, so 100x more for a stepparent." ~Love Factually
Divorce is really tough. The flip side is that adversity builds resilience, and resilience is the number one factor for happiness in adulthood. Love through the hard times, learn to forgive yourself, and get extra support. It will take work, but the reward is worth the effort.