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Let's Talk Stepparenting

Don’t Use “Step” As an Excuse: Are You Family or Not?

Getting Real with Kira Hazledine

I know this is a bit controversial. I promise I don’t mean to offend, because every family is different. People do what works for them, and they use the terms that make them comfortable. “Blended” is a subtle way to phrase what is more common than ever these days, as families fall apart and fall together again. As much as I love that step-parents are “stepping up,” I really wish we would consider them exactly what they are: parents.

My mom happens to be my step-mom, but few would know the difference. She is my momma, and has been a part of my life since I was six years old. She was front row at my high school and college graduations, seen crying at my wedding, and was present at the birth of my daughter and her first grandchild. You’ll never see us make the distinction about how her step-daughter did this and did that, in comparison to her son and daughter who are making similar achievements. We are family, and honestly, I would be devastated if it were any other way.

Perhaps it’s easier for us to forgo any mention of “step.” My biological mother has not made herself present in years, and it’s easy to forget that she ever was a part of my life. I don’t mourn the mother I never had, because I do have one, and have had an amazing mother for many years. I imagine for those families that have multiple parents going on that the distinction helps. Good for you! Glad it works. I just worry that “step” creates a barrier to children who desperately need caring adults in their lives.

I say this because my mother could have done things very differently. She could have insisted that we not call her “mom” and she could have referred to myself and my brothers as “step-children.” I promise you, she would have alienated me from that very first day and we would never have built a good relationship. I would have called her my “step-mother”, and that would have been that. I would have been a child completely without a mother, convinced that two different people had decided I wasn’t worth the time. That’s heavy for a little girl, let me tell you.

Instead, I was given a choice. As the child, I was given the decision to take control over the relationship that I had with my momma. At the time, my biological mother was still in and out of the picture, so I was very confused. She still held the mom-title, only because she had given birth, so I called the woman I consider to be my mom today by her first name. I did that until I was 18. Clearly, my momma is very patient, because it couldn’t have been easy. Grumpy teenagers use their parent’s first name, yet this is just what I did and had always done.

What’s surprising though, is that by the time I was about 8 years old I was already referring to this new person in my life as “mom.” When I spoke at school, I never mentioned a step-mother. I talked about the person in my life that was in the mom role, so it made sense to refer to her as my mom. I continued to have a personal battle with where these two women fit in my life, but at the very least, I had this one person who was always showing up. Every chorus concert, every soccer game, every cheerleading competition. Guess who was there? That evil step-mother of mine. Crazy, right? I can’t believe she had the balls to care, and treat me as if she had birthed me.

To love a child, you don’t have to be biologically related. It’s not that I have an issue with step-families or that terminology. I have an issue with those terms being given to the children, without so much as a discussion. What if they like having two moms or two dads, and want to pay homage to both? What if they have an absent parent and are desperate for you to be the person they need, but you’ve already drawn a hard line in the sand? I’m not saying kids can’t love their step-parents with the “step” title. Some children may be most comfortable with that phrasing, so that they don’t feel like they must choose sides. That’s great. But please, don’t make the decision by yourself, especially if you consider it an out.

I mostly have an issue with parents who feel like they don’t have to be responsible for their step-children. It’s shameful to marry into a family with no intent to love the children that were there before you. Even if you keep the title of “step-mom”, you still need to love and parent that child as if they were your own. If you want to be a family, just be one. You could change a child’s life by taking the “step” out of parenting. My mother changed mine.

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Stepparenting

Stepmoms: Just Be There with an Open Heart

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

It was heartbreaking for me watching our older kids wait for phone calls that never came, visits that never materialized, and relationships that never happened with their biological mother. I wanted nothing more than to magically go back in time and make them my own biologically. It was difficult to cope with, because in my head, they were my kids. Yet here was pain I couldn’t take away.

For whatever reason, not every biological parent expresses an interest in being a part of their children’s lives. It’s not a decision I can even pretend to understand, and it is one I still get angry about whenever I think of the pain our kids endured because of that choice.

For children, it is a devastating experience, creating feelings of guilt and low self-esteem. As a stepmom, you can’t help but feel powerless yourself.

There are definitely challenges with being a stepparent, especially when it comes to custody and visitation. Most of the stepmoms I talk to struggle more with the frustration of negotiating where children will go when and with whom they will spend precious moments. It can be stressful for all involved as you play tug-of-war.

In our case, we never really had to play that game. Instead, we were often spending holidays and birthdays doing our best to soothe aching hearts when their bio mom chose not to be involved or simply forgot. (How can you forget your child’s birthday?)

But I did learn that a stepmom cannot simply exist as a replacement. The best thing you can do is be supportive and assure your stepkids that they are loved — and that they are not responsible for the choices the adults make.

As a stepmom, what you can do is focus on making your relationship with your stepkids stronger, and with time and effort, you will be able to create something very special. Don’t try to replace the previous parent.  You can’t do it. But you can make your own space in your step children’s hearts.

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Love

Blood Doesn’t Equal Family

Getting Real with Shadra Bruce

Think of the first five people that you would call in an emergency. Are they blood relatives? If they’re not, do you consider them to be part of your family? Family is not just about who you are tied to biologically.

Blood may be thicker, but your body is still made up of 70% water. You can’t live without either substance, and the makeup of your family probably isn’t much different. Unfortunately, there is still a misconception that biological ties are stronger than others. Family may be blood, but those who are not biologically related can still be family.

There is no clear definition anymore of what a family is, particularly with the way things are changing. Same-sex marriages are becoming legalized all over the country; high divorce and remarriage rates produce blended families. Adoption is common for all types of couples. And this isn’t even counting the “aunts” and “uncles” who aren’t really related but still an integral piece of the family unit.

I have learned firsthand that a family consists of those who care about and support you.Unfortunately, this doesn’t always mean blood relatives. Many of the people who are my family share no blood connection to me whatsoever, including two of my sons and one of my daughters, my brother-in-law, and some dear friends who are as close to me as my own siblings.

Families come in all shapes and sizes, and blood ties are optional.

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Stepparenting

Mom is Just a Title

Getting Real with Shadra Bruce

I started seriously dating Dave when Derek was 11 and Kyle and Kira were almost 7. Since being first introduced, the kids had called me by my first name. Kyle called me mom almost immediately; but for a while, he called every woman mom. Derek started referring to me as “mom” at our wedding.

Kira, however, did not call me mom. It was taken in stride and never allowed to be an issue. As long as she treated me with respect it didn’t matter if she continued to call me by my first name. It wasn’t until several years later that she would directly call me mom, but it didn’t really matter.

As Kira grew up, people would often tell us how much we looked alike and we would just look at each other and smile. She would discuss her family with her friends and I transitioned from “step-mom” to “mom” early on. At some point, others never knew the difference and just assumed I was her biological parent, and we rarely corrected anyone. Despite the fact that at home she would call me Shadra, I was and am her mom. As a stepparent it can be hard to decipher the role you play in your step-children’s lives. For me, it was not about whether the kids called me mom or not. It was about the relationship we built and the time we shared.

The definition of mother is “a woman related to a child to whom she has given birth,” but mothering is the act of bringing up a child with care and affection. That is much more important than a biological link, and it is up to you to decide the role that you’ll play.

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Stepparenting

Stepparenting Is Parenting without Preparation

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce
When you have a baby, you have 9 months or so to develop an idea of what parenting will be like, to get your mind ready to be a parent. You have time to read books about pregnancy and babies and the terrible twos; there is time to prepare for the major life-changing event that is parenthood. However, if you marry into an already-existing family, whether you have the kids full-time or part-time and whether or not you are step mom or step dad, you do a lot of jumping right in.

Instead of being able to get to know your child’s personality and quirks as he or she grows, you are often dealing with a child whose personality traits are already somewhat developed. Depending on the age at which you enter the child’s life, those personality traits may be well developed – and add to the challenge of success in your relationship.

Yet becoming a stepparent is no different than becoming a parent in many ways. You are taking responsibility for providing guidance and protection to someone; you are committing to be a supportive part of that person’s growth and development. And, just like with your newborn, you are making a promise to be there – not just until the child turns 18, but as an important and integral part of that child’s life forever.

Being a stepparent comes with its own set of challenges; not only do you have to overcome the “intruder” assumption, but in addition to trying to build and foster a new marriage, you are presented with the added difficulties of custody issues, child support, and children who are often stuck in the middle of it all.

While the relationship-building with your stepchildren hopefully began long before the wedding bells chimed, there are things you can do to make your new role as a stepparent one that you will enjoy. Remember, relationships don’t develop over night. Just as the relationship with your new spouse took time to blossom, so will your relationship with your stepchildren. Be patient when things go wrong, and remember that it’s a tough adjustment for all of you.

Open communication helps. Think of how many things have changed in your stepchild’s life; from a child’s perspective, things happen quickly and they have very little control, which makes them feel insecure. Talking about what will be happening and including the children in decisions and events can help them feel safe.

Stepparenting can be rewarding and fulfilling; it can also be frustrating and heartbreaking. The relationships you develop with the children you bring into your life through your marriage can add joy, bringing you and your spouse closer together. It’s not an easy path, but it is a worthwhile one.

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Stepparenting

Adjusting to Life in a Blended Family

Probably one of the more notable challenges of living in a blended family is adjusting to the various lifestyles and attitudes each of us bring to the newly formed group. The kids were old enough, when their biological mother left, to remember some differences between her style (everything from clothing to discipline to attitude) and mine. Dave had been a single dad for almost two years and was very independent about everything. His kids had been, from my perspective, somewhat coddled in the inevitable guilt that follows divorce.

While our differences were probably what made our relationship and marriage so much more successful than the first marriages we each had ended, it also challenged us (and continues to challenge us occasionally, even as the kids are now adults) to some degree particularly with how to handle child-rearing and parenting issues.

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

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Let's Talk Stepparenting

The Challenges of Being a Stepparent

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

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.

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Stepparenting

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.

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Let's Talk Stepparenting

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.

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Stepparenting

Disciplining As A Team

Probably one of the more notable challenges of raising kids is adjusting to the various lifestyles and attitudes each member of the parenting team (a married couple, a divorced couple, stepparents) bring to the table. My stepkids were old enough, when their biological mother left, to remember some differences between her style (everything from clothing to discipline to attitude) and mine, and their father had been a single dad for almost two years and was very independent about everything. The kids had been, from my perspective, somewhat coddled in the inevitable guilt that follows divorce.

While our differences were probably what made our relationship and marriage so much more successful than the first marriages we each had ended, it also challenged (and continues to challenge us occasionally) us to some degree – particularly with how to handle child-rearing issues. What is funny is that some of the frustrations I had with my stepkids when they were young Dave now has with our kids as they go through the same phases. (Yes, that makes me laugh a little).

We make every effort to stay consistent with discipline, not only because there is less commotion, over-reaction, and overall frustration (hence less household tension) but also because we want to become architects at keeping the focus on the issues.

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