Broken Ornaments Better Than Broken Hearts

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

Opening Christmas presents might be what the kids look forward to the most, but it’s decorating the tree together that builds memories that last.

If you celebrate Christmas, it’s likely your kids are already bouncing off the walls with excitement, counting down the days to Christmas morning when they get to tear into their packages. The anticipation is often more exciting than the day itself (which is why our family goes to see a movie on Christmas day now, to give us something to do when all the excitement is over).

Leading up to Christmas, though, is when you can build the most memorable moments with your kids. Whether you put up one tree or you’re crazy enough to do several (like we are) letting the kids help with the decorating can give them lasting memories about the holidays.

This only works, though, if you can chill out about broken ornaments and tree perfection.

Unfortunately, when Dave and I shared our first Christmas together back in 1997 when Derek was 10 and the twins were 7, I wasn’t so good at that. I’d never really been around kids, and suddenly there were three of them underfoot.

While Dave and the kids had always had the tradition of going out and picking the perfect live tree and loading it with Hallmark and homemade ornaments, I had amassed a collection of glass treasures that were carefully placed on a white fake tree every year.

What a collision!

Rather than any of us give up our trees, we did both, one for the living room and one for the family room.

Kira especially wanted so much to help me with the fancy tree…and I’m afraid that first year I was more worried about ornaments breaking than a little girl’s heart. What a jerk I was, worried about some silly glass ball breaking instead of creating special memories.

It took me a couple of years to really chill out and realize that the ornaments could – and would – be easily replaced. Luckily, the kids were quite forgiving, and now, putting up the trees (the first of them starting the weekend of Thanksgiving, then more throughout December) is something we all look forward to sharing.

Read Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle or request a review copy.

The Challenges of Being a Stepparent

Getting Real With +Shadra Bruce, Owner of +MomsGetReal

Parenting, as rewarding as it is, can be a tough job. There are a lot of demands and pressures that go with raising kids, but they are often offset by the enormous fulfillment that comes from raising children.

Stepparenting is even harder.

Stepparents often do all the things parents do – providing emotional and financial support for the kids, participating in and encouraging the child’s success, and putting their own needs aside to meet those of the children. You do the work of a parent, in most cases, either full time or part time, but get none of the recognition. You raise the children, love the children, financially support the children, and guide them through life, mostly from an unseen and under-appreciated place. Stepparents do not even get a line on the family tree!

It’s not about recognition, of course, but it’s never easy to make efforts that are not recognized or appreciated. It’s no surprise that some stepparents end up feeling as though the efforts are not worth it. More than once I’ve worked with a stepmom who is so overwhelmed by playing the role of mom while being treated like the unwelcome intruder that she is ready to give up. It’s really, really hard to be still in the building phase of a new marriage while having extra people to care for whose needs and wants are complicated by their insecurity about the changes that are happening in their lives.

 No wonder so many end up divorcing again. Stepparenting is HARD.

There are no easy answers. Successful blended families happen because the biological parent supports the stepparent, because the adults act like adults, because the families embrace open communication and mutual respect, because of deep commitment and a willingness to persist, and because of luck. Most of all, though, successful stepparenting comes from being willing to put your heart out there, even when it might get stomped on a bit.

Avoiding the Holiday Custody Tug of War

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

I was in the store the other day and they’re already clearancing costumes and preparing to put out Christmas trees and ornaments. It’s September, but if you’re a blended family, that can simply mean the stress season is about to begin. The holidays are all about spending time with family and continuing traditions. However, just because the holidays remain the same each year does not mean that the family does. It can be incredibly stressful for everyone involved deciding when, where, and how holiday festivities are going to take place, especially after divorce. It can be a very difficult time for kids in blended families, and a balance must be struck. The last thing you want for your kids is for them to feel like they are being cut up and passed around like the Christmas ham.

We all want the perfect holiday for our family but you must keep in mind that the ex-spouse most likely feels the same way. Fighting is not productive and all it will do is frustrate your kids and sour their memories of the holidays. It is imperative that all of the adults involved set aside their wants and needs and find out what it is that your kids wants out of their holiday. It is ok to let your kids know your desire to spend some time with them, but you can also show them that you understand their need to spend time with other people they love. As hard as it may be to share parts of your family, your support will make matters easier for everyone involved.

Just because the family is not the same entity as it was does not mean the traditions are not still important to your kids. Let them celebrate in a way that makes them happy, because your children’s happiness is what is most important. Uneasy feelings might surface if it was a tradition that reflects a family that is no longer together, but there is no harm in it. It may be something your kids find comfort in, and your support could mean more to them than you could ever possibly know.

Once you have mapped out what your kids want for the holidays it is time to begin the negotiations with the ex-spouse to make those accommodations work. It is your job as the adults to keep clear and unbiased opinions of the situation. If the ex-spouse is unwilling to compromise you must continue to do whatever you can to make it an enjoyable holiday. Threatening custody rights is not going to make the matters any better. Communicate with your kids to assure them that you are doing everything in your power concerning their best interests. Hopefully everyone can work together to come up with a game plan that satisfies the holiday needs of all who are involved.

Being a stepparent during the holidays is not an easy feat either. Now you have multiple families vying for the children’s attention and as a stepparent you need to be flexible and understanding. Also keep in mind that family is not tied together with DNA. Each child, no matter who’s they are specifically, should be treated equally.

The holidays are not always easy. If you want the best holiday for your family that you can possibly give, you need to be willing to compromise.

Is Your Mama a Step-Mama?

Getting Real With Elizabeth Sanchez

They say you don’t really appreciate your parents until you become a parent yourself. I fully experienced that feeling twice. Not because I gave birth to two children, which I did, but because I became a step-parent and then later became a parent.

And my mom knows exactly how that feels.

Every time I want to kick somebody because after introducing my children, they inevitably say, “Ooooh, so he’s not really your son.”

Every time someone asks, “Wow. You really love him, don’t you, even though he’s not yours?”

Every time someone gives me a dirty look because he looks too old to be my son, which clearly means I am a high school dropout with three kids in tow. (Note: I look young for my age and he looks older for his age; it’s the perfect combination.)

Every time I want to scream in frustration, I call my mom. She has five kids, four of which she gave birth to. She also has four grandchildren, three of which are mine.  She has heard everything I’m hearing now, and nowadays she also gets, “Oh, so he’s not really your grandson.”

Uh. Yeah he is.

My mom has always had a thick shell, and when people criticize her, her superpower is the ability to deflect it as if she was wearing Wonder Woman’s bracelets. She’s my role model for so many things, and I’m so grateful that I have someone to learn from when it comes to loving all your kids. ALL of them.

Wonder Woman, aka my mom, taught me that the relationship between you and the son that was your husband’s family before you were is sacred. Sometimes people want to point out that my brother isn’t really my brother, he’s only my half-brother. My mom brushed those comments aside with such ease that it was always easy for us to do the same. She was always a listening ear when he was little. She was a constant voice of reason when he was a teenager. And she remained supportive when he became an adult and a father himself.

Just like in “Is Your Mama a Llama?” by Deborah Guarino, my mama is his mama, too.

Loving my oldest son ever since the very first time I laid eyes on him is as effortless as loving the babies I held in my arms in the delivery room. But then again, it never occurred to me not to love him. Thanks to my mother, there was never anybody in my life that taught me otherwise.

On the contrary, I learned all about how to be a step-mama because my mama is one, too.

StepMom Reflections

by Shadra Bruce

June 15, 2011. Today, my two youngest stepkids will turn 21. I’ve had the privilege of being a part of their lives since just before their 7th birthdays. Their bio mom gave up her share of custody when they were 5, and my husband Dave was doing a great job as a single dad when I met him. Although he had given up his job in order to be with them when they were not in school and was working in a low-paying restaurant job as a prep cook, the kids were happy.

When I first met the family, I was barely 26 years old and still mostly a kid myself. I was in a fairly volatile marriage, going on my 7th anniversary, but had never had children – and never planned to. I had met Dave online in a chat room and knew he was a single dad. We’d met in person at get-togethers for the members of the chat. Over time, as I came to know more about his situation having sole custody of the kids and his frustration at finding someone reliable to watch them occasionally, I offered to babysit and came to meet the kids.

Had I been someone Dave was planning to date, I would not have met the kids, because he was very protective of them. But I was going to be the babysitter. I did end up caring for the kids quite a lot, but never in the capacity we’d intended.

This is an excerpt from Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.

A (Step) Mom by Any Other Name

Getting Real With Elizabeth Sanchez

We sat down for breakfast in our second week at my in-law’s house, and as usual I was stuff my face with something delicious when I saw my father-in-law laugh as he was looking outside at the kids playing Uno.

Suddenly my stepson, Eddy, walked in flustered and frustrated.

“Chivet,” he yelled, exasperated, calling me by my nickname, “They keep saying that you’re my mom, and you’re not my mom! They don’t listen!”

I peeked outside and the girls were all staring toward the doorway. They couldn’t believe he would dare say that I’m not his mom. More importantly, they couldn’t understand how I could possibly NOT be his mother. I was married to his father. I was Gabi and Meike’s mom, and Gabi and Meike were Eddy’s brother and sister. What was going on here?

Mi’jo,” I said, looking him in the eyes, “It’s okay. They just don’t understand. Tell them I’m your madrastra. Your mami lives in Chicago but right now you’re with me and your papi. Madrastra is stepmom.”

Needless to say, it didn’t help.

It never helps when we’re in Mexico.

For some reason, everyone related to my husband wants me to call myself Eddy’s mom. More than once we’ve had people say, “Just tell them you’re his mother. He’s still a kid. He doesn’t know.”

Trust me that I love this child as if he were my own, but he’s not a baby. He fully understands that I’m not his mom, as much as I would like to be.

I’m Chivet, and that’s okay.

Two years ago, his mom threw him a big birthday party, with friends from school, a Spiderman cake and the works. As he was ready to blow out the candles on his cake, he stopped. He wanted to talk to Chivet. My phone rang and I got to hear first-hand all about his cake and his friends and how it was his birthday. I wished him the happiest birthday ever, and then we hung up with an, “I love you.” His mom said that made his day.

More than once, his mom or his aunt have called on a Friday night or before 8 a.m. on Saturday morning because he wants to go to Chivet’s house. I don’t have to be his mother for him to know that he’s my son. He knows I love him “a lot. A lot, a lot. Like, for 18 months” (his words, apparently 18 months equals forever).

To his cousins, the word madrastra sounds too sinister to describe our relationship (thanks to every single fairy tale, ever). To the adults, it doesn’t make sense for me to love him like a son if he doesn’t call me mami.

But to us, it’s perfect. Chivet doesn’t mean mom, but it still means love.

(Note: It’s pronounced chee-VET)

It’s Not Always Easy Being a StepMom

First Mother's Day with my new family

I often write about being a stepmom from the point of view I have now. Right now, I have three step kids, ages 20, 20, and 24. Right now, I am the only mom in their life and we consider ourselves an integral and closely connected family. Right now, I don’t even think of them as step kids but as my own, children I love and cherish as much as the two I gave birth to. And truly, after almost 15 years together, we’ve made it through the rough stuff.  I have legal guardianship of Kyle, who has Down syndrome, and I’m working to legally adopt Kira at her request. While Derek is on his own, in the military, and far away in Japan, he chooses to spend all of his leave time with us, wherever we happen to be. That’s right now. Sounds pretty idyllic, doesn’t it?

It was not always that way. We have had our share of frustrations and growing pains to get to this point. In fact, there were times when I honestly didn’t know if I’d be able to make the whole step mom thing work. It’s not easy, and it takes a huge commitment that will make you at times question your sanity.

This is an excerpt from Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.


In the Eyes of a Child – My Journey to Becoming a StepMom

We’re thrilled to welcome our newest Getting Real With, Elizabeth Sanchez.

Eddy with little sister Meike

The cliché goes that “eyes are windows to the soul” and the state in Mexico that my husband is from is known for just that: the people have amazing eyes. My husband’s eyes definitely mesmerized me, and we started dating a month after we met.

About a week later, my then-boyfriend told me he had something very serious to talk about. He said there was a girl who just had a baby and she claimed it was his child. He didn’t believe her, but had never seen the baby because the mother said she wouldn’t do a paternity test out of spite for him not believing it was his child.

Well, it turns out that in Illinois, if you want state-aid, you need to give information for the father of your child, he must be served with papers and go to court to determine (and then accept) paternity so he can pay child support. When my then-boyfriend was served, he freaked out, but he also became curious.

Around that time, the mother lived three houses down from my husband and his aunt and uncle, whom he was living with at the time. The rumor mill was churning non-stop and they had heard that the baby was the spitting image of my husband. His uncle was friends with the mother and one day they ran into each other when he was coming home. He came in that day saying he had another nephew because there was no doubt that kid was a Sanchez.

Still freaked out but now equally curious, my husband decided he couldn’t wait two more months to go to court. He wanted to see the baby. Since he and the mother weren’t on speaking terms, his uncle went over to ask her if the baby could come to his house. My husband invited me for moral support, and probably also to see my reaction.

Everyone that was there, his aunt, two cousins, himself and me, were almost exploding with anticipation. When his uncle walked in, we set the car seat down in the middle of the room and stared at it, with no one really daring to take off the big blanket that kept the cold December wind off the face of this innocent child we all had. Finally, someone did. And as the blanket slid off the car seat, it was as if someone took a time-machine gun, turned it back to age 3 months and shot it right at my husband.

Those eyes.

They were the same size and shape, with the same dark, long eyelashes that framed the almond-shaped brown eyes that I turned to look at in awe. No one could move. We stood there transfixed, staring back and forth between my husband and this mini-me he was meeting for the first time.

Eddy just started back at us. He won us over with an innocent grin that is still his trademark, six years later. Since no one could move, I went over and picked him up, earning the honor of being the first one of the family to hold the baby that would one day become my stepson.

After that, the paternity test was a formality, mainly for the judicial system. There was no doubt that this was his child. He was worth fighting with the mother for visitation rights and going to mediation to learn how to get along. He was worth turning his back on all the rumors started by people who didn’t understand how much he loved his son. He is worth being patient, painfully patient, when  his mother succumbs to the voices in her ear telling her she shouldn’t get along with us.

If I refer to him as “my stepson” and “my husband’s son,” it’s only out of respect for the woman who gave birth to him and who takes on the world to make sure he has everything he needs. I am so grateful that she allows me to be a part of her son’s life, but I also know that she does so because she knows that in my heart, he’s no different from the two children I gave birth to. When he doesn’t come home for a weekend, it throws off our balance. Our entire family beings to wander around like we’re missing a piece of ourselves. The piece that makes us whole.

And if anyone needs any proof that the children are siblings, not half-siblings or step-siblings, just look at their eyes.

4 Steps to Resolving Issues in a Blended Family

by Shadra Bruce

Building a successful blended family can be a very difficult process for everyone involved.  I often suggest that stepparents need to talk to their spouses – that open communication is the best path to resolution – as often as possible.  However, when you are talking to your spouse about his or her children, some approaches work better than others do.

In talking to biological parents who have remarried, one of the most difficult problems they have is when their spouse has a problem with their child and, rather than focus on the problem, attempt to make it personal.  You love your spouse.  He loves you, but he loves his children, too, so when you attack them, he will defend them.

Stepchildren young and old are coping with a new situation involving a parent, and may not necessarily be on their best behavior, but taking their behavior personally can be very damaging to your marriage and your ability to have an eventual relationship with the child.  When there are problems, you need to approach your spouse with an open heart and an open mind.  These tips will help you navigate conversations about the kids:

  1. No matter how angry you are about something that has happened, don’t speak in absolutes: your stepchild is not “always” bad or will “never” behave.  When you speak of your stepchild this way, your spouse will become defensive and not listen to the real issue.
  2. Understand that children, right or wrong, will try to soothe their insecurities in any way they can, especially if they have experienced a volatile divorce, death, or separation from the other parent.  They will see you as a threat.  This is normal behavior on their part.
  3. When you talk to your spouse about an issue with your stepchild, focus on the issue, not the child.  Speak about how it affects you: “When Johnny tells me he doesn’t have to do what I say, and you don’t correct him, it undermines my authority and makes me feel like I am not part of the family” works better than, “You let Johnny get away with murder all the time!”
  4. Pick a time to talk to your spouse when you are not angry or upset.  Think about what you want to say first.  Make sure you know why you are upset, because sometimes we stepparents are still working through our own insecurities and see the kids as a threat, too – and that’s something we need to resolve within ourselves.

You and your spouse can work through many of the issues you have with building your new family structure, but it takes time, patience, and love.

Have you read Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle? Read more or request a review copy.

Being a Good Stepparent

by Shadra Bruce

Becoming a stepparent can be as nerve-wracking as becoming a parent for the first time.  It’s not much different: there are expectations, a role to be performed, and a child’s life influenced by your decisions, actions, and behaviors.  Unfortunately, when we aren’t with a child from the day he or she is born, we often don’t feel the same connection or sense of responsibility.  In fact, it happens quite often that we see our stepchildren in an adversarial way: they are what stand between us and the man or woman with whom we want to share our lives.

Being a good spouse and partner to the person you love, however, means being a good stepparent to your spouse’s children.  It’s not easy – you are the interloper, the ultimate symbol of the dashed hopes of a child who wants his parents to reunite, the reason everything is changing.  It takes a great deal of strength to become a good stepparent.

Being a good stepparent starts with letting go of the adversarial view that you might have of the children.  The child is not the enemy, the wall between you and your spouse, or the excuse for failure.  Get to know the kids.  Talk to them about how you feel about their parent and be open with them about your own insecurities.  Respect them as people.  Even if you and your stepchildren have had a rough start or years of difficulty, it’s not too late to recognize the value of developing a healthy relationship with each other.  Imagine the joy your spouse will feel at not being torn between you.

Being a good stepparent also means treating both the stepchild and his or her biological parents with respect.  This is not always easy – often, there are valid reasons why divorce happened in the first place and it can be difficult to remain silent about the more negative aspects of the biological parent you replaced.  Bite your tongue. Don’t show disrespect about your stepchild’s parents; vent to a friend or family member if you have to, but recognize that your stepchild’s very identity is shaped in some part by their biology, and your lack of respect affects them.

In the end, it’s simple: you love your spouse; your spouse loves his or her children.  The better the relationship you have with your stepchildren, the stronger your blended family can be.  Being a good stepparent can have a lasting impact on your life and theirs.

Have you read Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle? Read more or request a review copy.