Sane StepParenting Depends on Personal Power.
What is Your Source of Power?
What is Your Source of Power?
by Iishana Artra, PhD
A hallmark of sanity is possessing good judgment when faced with real life circumstances. As renowned expert Patricia L. Papernow, PhD, says, in stepfamilies, “What works is not intuitive.” In other words, good judgment here is largely a matter of stopping ourselves from stepparenting by reflex.
Instant family can be more like a head on collision than a walk in the park. That may not feel reassuring, but in fact your mind, now informed, will begin to formulate a way to deal with the challenges. Brain science consistently tells us that anticipating a challenge in detail (rather than being taken completely by surprise) can actually increase the chance of our adapting effectively to it.
Physiological changes (i.e. maternal hormones, stress hormones), psychological conditions (i.e. grief, childhood wounds), and a sudden increase in complexity to daily life (i.e. schedules, money, food choices, frequent hello's and goodbye's) demand a lot of our energy, resourcefulness, forgiveness, letting go, and other intentional adaptations. Stepfamilies simply have fewer shock absorbers in place before the road gets bumpy. So, what is our job? We must install shock absorbers into our relationship with our partner and within ourselves. Many stepparents and their partners who have made it through the obstacle course became stronger more resilient human beings along the way.
Seven years, according to Papernow, is the average time it takes to get the hang of stepfamily life. If we’re lucky? Four years. For some, surviving the learning curve is like climbing a 3,000-foot cliff in the rain, in winter, without shoes on and while dodging falling rocks. One sudden move could lead to all sorts of ruin. (That’s how I felt the first time I gave it a whirl.)
A sane stepmom, like a pro rock climber, relies on a strong inner core and control over her movements to trek a safe path. That’s how one million out of every three million stepfamilies make it: They turn pro, employing sound strategy to scale that cliff face.
Will a revised strategy work for you? Put these power moves to the test and find out!
To amp up the power, add your body to the mix. This is not just for kicks. Our body postures impact our mood and thoughts (embodied cognition). Your body can be a powerful tool! That is why each Power Move has a tip from yoga for creating inner and outer balance.
Have you heard of this frequent reminder in yoga class, “Don’t look to your neighbor for balance. Center yourself over your own feet.”? Well, this wisdom also applies to step-parents. Living a life you get excited about is up to each of us, no one else will do it for us, and this tool is here to help!
The Proven 4 Power Moves
1. Get Help - "Soften without collapsing. Breathe."
Be selective. Saying, "I would like help" can feel like a courageous step for a stepmom. Others reach out more easily. No matter how it is for you to open up enough to ask for help, it is crucial to remain in charge of it. Some help is life saving. Some "help" hurts. Be thoughtful when choosing whose guidance to take. It is quite common to hear a stepcouple say that their family counselor or friends gave advice that backfired because it was based on what works for other types of families, not stepfamilies. Seek experts.
Be resourceful. Household tasks can take a toll on stepfamily politics. A seasoned stepmom shared that by hiring and bartering for help with cleaning, cooking, and driving the kids, she spared herself and her partner from resentments. Another stepmother eased dynamics by inviting another stepfamily to join hers for a weekly potluck.
Be faithful. Prayer of all types can alleviate the feeling of going it alone, and, many believe, will bring aid.
2. Get Real - "Keep the feet firmly rooted to earth for stability. Breathe."
Be realistic. “Trying to be like a nuclear family blew us up each time,” explains a two-time father-in-step. When we are grounded in the reality of stepfamily life, then we can navigate it more effectively. Do a self-check-in. Ask, “What am I imagining the kids or my partner will do or feel?" for a specific situation. Then ask, “Is this realistic?” To know the answer, you can consider what you have read about stepfamilies.
Tip: Two of the most important things to get real about are love and discipline. Put plainly, love between stepchild and step-parent or stepsiblings may or may not happen, and if it does, it will look and feel different than between relations. Also, rarely does it work for a stepparent to discipline a stepchild who is not a toddler. For more details, do your homework. There is quite a lot written on and offline about these two topics.
3. Get a Life - "Stand firmly into the four corners of your feet. Breathe."
Be independent. The need for space in a stepfamily is normal; it gives everyone a chance to catch their breath. Build space into your daily life. Eat some meals separately, do activities on your own or with your own children, apart from your stepfamily. Then reunite. Creating a rewarding life outside of our stepfamily is a top priority for the stepmom who wants to get off the roller coaster of stepfamily dynamics.
4. Get Together - "Focus your intention while not hardening your mind. Breathe."
Be a couple first. To be honest, this is the lynch pin. Without couple strength, stepcouples do not survive. Stepcouples seldom hang in there past broken bonds, so a second chance is not likely. Choose battles carefully. The children are not the glue; it is the couple’s bond that holds a stepfamily together. Staying open to each other depends on feeling safe and honored, whatever the circumstances.
Be a team player. Conflict over child-rearing issues is the number one cause of stepfamily breakup (as opposed to ranking 6th or lower in original families). The more we negotiate and put in writing with our partner about manners, rewards, consequences, routines, and other matters ahead of time, the better. Writing down our agreements isn’t very sexy, but research shows it can save a sex life. Learn effective ways for stepcouples to negotiate with each other. Reach out for help from qualified stepfamily counselors and coaches.
Real Life Power Moves
When I feel inner tension or negative thoughts, I say to myself, “Get help for real life together”, a shorthand for all four Power Moves. It’s my checklist for sanity.
For example, I am most easily stressed by Fragile Connections (the second type of challenge). To downshift the intensity, I Get Help by talking with a friend who is a well-adjusted long-time stepmom, read step-parenting books and pray. To Get Real, I check in with myself about what I am expecting from interactions with my stepchildren and compare this to what is realistic based on what is common for stepfamilies and our history together. To Get a Life, I schedule activities for myself away from my stepfamily about half the time. To Get Together, I keep my end of discussions about child-rearing brief and constructive, reminding myself that agreement often takes time and that our bond is to be handled with care. The result is more peace within me and in our stepfamily.
Your Power Moves
* The Steps-4-Steps™ design draws from effectiveness studies published by leading clinician/researchers in the field, such as Dr. Patricia Papernow; Elizabeth Einstein, MA, MFT; Ron Deal, Francesca Adler-Baeder, PhD, CFLE; Jeannette Lofas, PhD, LCSW; and the Administration for Children and Families of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. An excellent summary of the current literature and recommendations for stepfamily couples education can be downloaded here.