A stepfamily is a never-ending second chance. Make it count.
by Karon Phillips Goodman
(Taken from A Stepmom's Guide to Simplifying Your Life winner of the 2003 National Parenting Publications Award, EquiLibrium Press, 2002. Used with permission.)
Before my son was born, I thought I was a busy person. Afterward, I wondered what I’d done with all the spare time I’d had before I was a mom. When I became a second wife and stepmom to two more sons one hot September afternoon, I again marveled at what used to be. How simple and uneventful my life must have been!
Compared to the tumultuous, pull-you-under-at-every-breath tidal wave that I was now living, my earlier life looked like a slow-motion seascape. Just by becoming a stepmom my world, and my grasp on it, were turned upside down. Sometimes, I felt as if I couldn’t breathe, that there was no air around me.
I loved my new husband more than anything, and our boys got along well. So I was stunned by how much my new marriage scared me. Each imperfect moment was a reason question myself. I felt fear and uncertainty at every turn and often wondered what I had gotten myself into. I was terrified of failing, but had no idea what to do first. When there was even the tiniest bump on the road I had mapped so carefully, I crumbled. How would I ever make this work? What if I had been wrong? What if this marriage was the biggest mistake of my life?
I now realize that many of our early problems were my fault, because I spent my time obsessing over the hurtful past, agonizing over the present, and desperately trying to control the future. I was never thankful for a small victory in the battle to become a “real” family—I wanted to win the war, immediately. When that didn’t happen, I resolved to find a way to make it happen. My insecurity was so tangible that at times it literally took my breath away.
I don’t know if I believed that choosing a simpler life would save me, but I knew that I had to change. Either I had to find some peace in my life, or I would have to find a different life. My choices became very easy when I got to that point.
When I finally was able to step back, relax, and simplify my life, the same problems were still there. The kids still argued. My husband still failed to understand me now and then. My fears didn’t disappear overnight. But at least I could breathe. Through the chaos, I could see promise and possibility.
My life hadn’t changed; my approach to it had. Everything looked the same, but I was different. When I learned to appreciate more and control less, I was stronger. I now could truly believe that the health of my family didn’t rest solely with me. When my approach changed, my life changed, too, for the better.
If you are a stepmom, you may know that frightening, suffocating feeling. The life you had before your marriage—the one you thought was so complex—must seem almost convent-like now. You said two tiny words and your life became about as simple as interplanetary travel. Any simplicity that you’d managed to incorporate into your life was obliterated when you arrived in a stepfamily. For better or worse, you will never be the same again.
The list of complications in a stepfamily is long and seems to gets longer all the time: stepsibling rivalry, finances that keep getting tighter, getting used to the new people living in your home (whether full or part-time), worrying about your stepchildren’s mom’s impression of you and her influence on the kids, your parents’ reactions to new grandkids and in-laws, the relationship between your husband and your kids, the relationship between your husband and your ex-husband . . . It just goes on and on, and that’s on an easy day!
In a second (or subsequent) marriage, you’ll work feverishly to turn all of these random-seeming elements into a family. It seems so implausible, but it’s not impossible. By simplifying your choices, you can build a better, more satisfying life. In these pages, we’re going to find ways to make your stepfamily a success. In fact, we’ll make that not only possible, but probable.
Against all odds
We’ve all heard that about half of the first marriages in the United States end in divorce. Second (and later) marriages fail at an even higher rate—about 60%, according to the Stepfamily Association of America. I don’t doubt that statistic, and I’m sure you don’t either. Anyone who has attempted to succeed in a marriage that came with a ready-made family knows how incredibly hard it can be.
Among the choices we freely make in this life, deciding to be part of a stepfamily is surely one of the most irrational. And yet we enter into our stepfamilies with such glee! You’d think we’d achieved the fantasy life we dreamed of when we were twelve years old. We fling our hands nonchalantly and roll our eyes, dismissing the dreary statistics. So what if others have failed? We’re not like them. So what if stepmoms are stereotyped as “wicked”? We’ll shatter that myth with our perfect stepparenting. Former spouses? Our relationships with them will be models for generations to come. Our mistakes of the past are, well, in the past. Only goodness will grace us from now on.
But wait. Something’s happened since you walked down the aisle. Things haven’t exactly worked out the way you had in mind. Where is the life you planned, and why does it look so different from the one you’re living?
Reality has hit—and hard. Your family-forming plan is a relic of the past. Your schedule has gotten way off track, and your family’s progress is falling miserably behind your time line. You feel like you’ve lost control. Don’t worry; you can get it back. You can find the peace you need when you simplify, starting today. You can make choices that will get you and your family moving forward and growing together.
TALES FROM THE BLENDER
I was totally and blissfully ignorant of how complex, confusing, and strange it would be to become a custodial stepmom to a teen and non-custodial stepmom to a 7 year-old. I never realized I’d be robbed of most of the newlywed/honeymoon period by having his son in our home, not to mention lots more commotion, chores, and lack of privacy! Quite a culture shock, believe me. -- Cindy L., Nashville, Tennessee
My husband and I dated for two years, so I thought I was prepared for taking care of kids. The big difference is that after we were married, I could no longer go home to get away from it. I was living it. Now, when the kids made a mess and tore things up, it was my house and I had to be there to fix it. Now, when I was tired and wanted some peace and quiet and time to myself, I had nowhere to go to find it. It was difficult at first not to feel resentful and selfish. -- Brenda, Ohio, stepmom of three
My own childhood was a nightmare. I survived anorexia, I had three stepfathers, and was divorced at 22 following the death of my best friend. But nothing prepared me for the feeling of total lack of control that stepparenting has given me. I feel despair setting in for at least three days before they visit. My weekends used to be lazy affairs with visits to the cinema, restaurants, and beaches, lunch with friends, and drunken nights of fun. Now I spend them babysitting someone else’s kids, who wreck my house and make me feel like the wicked woman from the film Matilda. -- Lucinda Green, United Kingdom
“I can’t simplify this mess my life is in,” you wail, hands wringing, arms flapping. Yes, you can, if you choose to, even though complications will always be there—bickering children, financial concerns, petty ex-spouses, and everything else. Make no mistake about it: you will simplify your life, either within your stepfamily or out of it. Here’s why: unless you find some peace and simplicity in your life, you won’t have a stepfamily.
Bringing peace and simplicity into your life doesn’t mean that you’ll wake up one morning and find that all of your problems have been solved (although that would be a wonderful surprise). Rather, simplifying means coming to terms with the issues your family faces, so that all of you can grow in spite of them.
If you are jealous of the time your husband spends with his kids, you’ll have to find a way to reconcile those feelings. If your stepchildren are rejecting or resisting you, you’ll have to face that before it overpowers you. These are very real problems, ones that have the potential to destroy your new family. You can’t solve all of them by yourself, but you can make progress in the areas that you can control. You can understand the limits of your role and not take on things that are someone else’s responsibility. This means making the choices that are yours to make, and it can start here and now. So choose simplicity, and defy the oddsmakers.
It won’t be easy. In fact, it may be one of the hardest things you’ve ever done. But if you’re prepared and committed, you have a much better chance of success. Make that choice now, and prepare for a long, difficult trek. By taking tiny steps each day, you’ll eventually get up that mountain.
If you’ve ever felt even the ember of a can-do spirit, fan its flames now. By believing in yourself, you’ll be able to effect positive change in your stepfamily, and to simplify your life. Your family will stand a good chance of surviving, even thriving.
What does it mean to choose simplicity?
The simpler life that you’re going to create won’t look very different on the outside than the life you have now. You’ll still have the relationships that complicate your every waking moment, unpleasant commitments and changed plans, conflicting schedules and difficult personalities. Simplicity comes not from your surroundings, but from your approach.
Choosing simplicity begins and ends in your mind, with believing that you can improve your life one step at a time. Ultimately, it’s all about recognizing what you can control—and what you can’t control. It’s about saying yes to the choices that will bring you fulfillment and peace and saying no to the choices that won’t. That’s a pretty amazing power.
Let’s be very clear about something right up front: You will never have a stepfamily life that’s free of complications. Every family is complicated. For that matter, life itself is complicated, because there are other people in it with you. Our relationships, and everything that flows from them, enrich our lives—and also complicate them. The trick is to savor the enrichment while reducing the stress.
Choosing simplicity means coming to terms with the everyday struggles in your stepfamily. Some struggles you can eliminate, some you must learn to tolerate, and the rest you can manage on your own terms.
What is it that makes your life seem such a mess? I realize that that must seem like a ridiculous question, but humor me.
Take a moment and make a list of the top five complications in your life. I know that you need more space, but remember, we’re simplifying. For now, just think about five of your biggest hassles. We’ll come back to this list in a little while.
The biggest complications in my life:
Now we have a starting point, but don’t get too excited. We have a lot of work to do.
Stepmoms suffer from a very strange affliction. It’s as if our veins are wide open, allowing everything that happens in our families to shoot straight into our hearts. Then we accept responsibility for all of it, and feel a need to control everyone and everything around us.
I think it’s fear of failing that makes us feel a need to control the world. We may feel as if our family has “failure” stamped on its collective forehead and that defeat lurks around every corner. Starting a new life that way is a terrible disadvantage. So we think that if we can just compartmentalize and organize and streamline every detail about everyone in our lives, we’ll keep all the bad things away. There will be no more unhappiness or anger or frustration or emptiness in our families because we’ll be in charge. It makes sense—but only in our minds.
In the real world, our misguided efforts to control everyone only produce a vicious cycle. When something doesn’t turn out as we want, we just try to control more. So, for example, we may try to force a bond with a stepson who isn’t ready, because we’ve decided that’s what he needs. When he doesn’t respond, we figure we just didn’t try hard enough, so we push some more. The result is even worse, leaving us frustrated and hurt because we tried so hard and failed. The disappointment is heavy and draining. Now we’re even more afraid of failure in the next issue we take on.
Seeking total control almost guarantees unhappiness. Absolute control isn’t possible in anybody’s life, and especially a stepmom’s. You’re dealing with a history you may not completely understand and a current life that may defy logic. Besides, whether you know it or not, your need to control is taking a toll on you. When you try over and over to control every single situation in your life, you’re going to be overwhelmed by the enormous weight on your shoulders—and it doesn’t even belong to you.
Are you really that greedy? Put the weight down. Unburden yourself of what isn’t yours. Accept the responsibility that is yours. That should be enough to occupy your time, and that’s all that you can hope to control anyway. Most importantly, that’s where your true security and power lie.
TALES FROM THE BLENDER
The biggest mistake I made as a stepmom was going overboard. I was so upset that the kids’ mom didn’t have a bigger part of their lives that I made sure everything was done, that all their projects were lined up. The result was that the kids blamed me when they didn’t take responsibility to do their school work or if I knew of a situation that blew up out of control. I became the scapegoat, and felt betrayed, and standing alone. The bad part was, I did much of this damage to myself. -- Michele M. Holder, Louisa, Kentucky
I spent a lot of time being angry with my husband’s ex-wife and all the anger did was make me feel miserable! It took a long time, but I was finally able to let go and realize that the only person I can control is myself and my reaction to those around me. I learned that you have to let go of thinking you can change or control someone else. You only have power over yourself, and you have the ability to change your reaction to those around you in an attempt to maintain balance in your own life. -- Ann, stepmom of one son
I was getting too involved with all of my stepson’s problems and tried too hard to help him, when he didn’t want or need me in a parenting role. When I finally detached from the situation, I could concentrate on getting to know him again. I also made his father take a more active role in his son’s life. When I stopped nagging about all the bad things my stepson was doing, it helped me become more positive. It hasn’t necessarily made me happier, but has given me back a little sanity. -- Mother of one, stepmom of one, from Illinois
What do you spend your days trying to control?
Earlier, we listed some of the situations that stepmoms and second wives commonly face: juggling the kids’ schedules, helping our parents adjust to their new roles, financial woes, and so on. These can be overwhelming, and it’s perfectly natural to want to impose your own order on them. What are you thinking, and what do you do, when you try to take control of these situations?
Think of the things you feel the need to control, manage, or orchestrate your way. List five of those things here. Come on—be honest.
Things I feel the need to control:
You may feel obligated to take on the responsibility for everything related to your stepfamily—again, fearing that if you let go of even one tiny thing, the entire foundation will collapse. But as you now know, you’ll never be able to have complete control.
Believe me, I tried—in every possible way, never relenting for a second. But I finally learned that many of my problems resulted not from lacking control but from seeking to impose it at every turn.
It’s a wonder that I didn’t alienate my stepsons completely. They were infinitely patient and amazingly tolerant of my attempts to reform them quickly and completely. Of course, I always told them that I loved them and explained myself with logic, but I was focusing on all the wrong things. Had I controlled my reactions more and attempted to control theirs less, I would have had more time to laugh and less to cry. I would have lived a simpler, more peaceful life sooner rather than later.
I suspect that a lot of your time and energy, too, are directed toward things that you can’t control. Simplifying your life starts with relinquishing some of the control you think you’ve just got to have.
Look at your “need to control” list. How often are you able to control everything on it to your satisfaction? How many of those things are truly yours alone to control—and how many involve another person’s (or even your entire family’s) decisions and choices? How many of these things can you change and improve with your time and energy alone?
My point is not that everything is out of your control, but that you must direct your efforts to what is in your control—your reactions and your feelings. You are only responsible for how you act and feel, and not everyone else. Learn to focus your reactions toward growth for you and your family. Keep it simple, take your time, and make progress, bit by bit. Like the racing tortoise of fairy tale fame, slow and steady is the best plan for stepmoms, too.
TALES FROM THE BLENDER
I did everything for the kids in the beginning. I washed their clothes, hung them up, fixed snacks, cooked dinner, and even cleaned their rooms for them. I guess I thought if I did all those things, they would like me and want to live with us. Wrong! I just worked myself to death. They rarely said “thank you” and never a hug or “I love you.” Eventually I started losing myself and resenting them. Now I do things when I want to, not to make them want to stay, because I know that doesn’t work. I do them because I care. -- Chris, mom of one and stepmom of three
I was childless and eleven years younger than my husband, who had two children from his previous marriage. The kids were crazy about me until they realized that Dad and I were “together” and that it wasn’t just them that I was coming to see. I did everything I could to try to reassure them that I was also crazy about them, but it just got worse. That was seven years ago. Slowly, over time, I learned that I didn’t have to try so hard to be a parent. You don’t get points for how effectively you discipline or pack a box lunch. I learned that the kids needed a friend more than a parent. They already had two who were really good at that job. When I realized this, I started having fun, they started having fun and now we are very happy. -- Brenda, Alabama, stepmom of two
What’s yours and what’s not
Just because you’re the stepmom doesn’t mean that you must be everyone’s keeper. (Do you actually think that’s what they want you to be?) The mom in you wants to fix everything, smooth the edges, and control the fallout. It sounds reasonable, but it’s not. In a stepfamily, and in any family, this simply can’t be done and shouldn’t be attempted, unless you want to spend the rest of your days in a comfortable room with a garden view and regular visiting hours. You alone cannot repair all that breaks around you. Instead, you need to allow your family to experience growing pains.
Growing pains—yes, they are painful—but they also lead to growth. They signal that, through trial and error, you’re adjusting to each others’ personalities and temperaments, agendas and insecurities. Don’t be afraid of growing pains. Don’t try to intercept them, even when they make you uncomfortable. Instead, learn from them. Don’t make it worse by trying to control reactions and events for others. Instead, control what is yours.
Take a look again at the list of the things you feel the need to control. Now, make a new list. What five things, related to your stepfamily, do you have absolute control over? It doesn’t matter whether they are big or little, but they must be things entirely within your power that don’t need approval or acceptance from anyone else.
For example, on the “need to control” list, you may have written something like “relationship with my stepdaughter.” But that is not something you alone can control. You need your stepdaughter’s participation and agreement. The corresponding entry on the second list might be: “Stop arguing with my stepdaughter. It takes two, and I can choose not to argue.” That’s something you can control, all by yourself.
Are you starting to recognize the difference between what you can control and what you can’t control? Go ahead; make your list.
Things over which I have complete control:
Now look all the way back to the very first list you made, the list of complications. Without knowing what you listed, I’m sure that most of them are things outside of your control. I’m also confident that each one of those items presents choices. Each one has some part you can control. Take your time looking at each item, one by one. Think about the choices they offer you, even if several other people are involved. When you simplify your reactions and try to control only what is within your power, you simplify your life.
It’s easy to take on far too much as a stepmom and second wife. If you had a hat for every one of your responsibilities, you’d be able to protect the entire population of a small country from sunburn. But taking on the maintenance of everything in your world will only destroy it in the end. And your happiness will be the first casualty.
Finding happiness in a stepfamily isn’t always easy. Trying to manufacture happiness is nearly impossible. Relax and simplify. Relieve yourself of the pressure to do the impossible, to control everything that happens in your family. Instead, avail yourself of the opportunity to do the remarkable—to build a family where none existed before.
Growing yourself and your family is not an event. It’s a process. You try, you fail, the world doesn’t end, and you try again. Every step that guides you toward your family and toward happiness instead of away from it is a good step. Sometimes you’ll stumble and will just have to feel your way. Like an infant learning to walk, every stumble means you’re trying, reaching out, learning as you go. It’s part of the never-ending second chance to make your family work.
Simplifying your life is about making choices, nothing more. When you understand, down to your soul, that you have the power to make decisions that will simplify your life, you’re ready to begin. With a frame of mind based on strength, a belief that you have the power to make your life better, and the courage to make simple choices that are yours to make, you can overcome the odds against you. All you need is a plan and the conviction to carry it out. Make up your mind now that you are going to have the simpler, more positive life that you will choose for yourself and your family.
Being a stepmom means added challenges. Your power to grow your family lies in the kinds of choices you make to deal with them. Ignore the challenges and you will be buried in an avalanche of complications. Seize them and you reach the mountaintop. You may be winded and weathered from a few storms, but you’ll be victorious nonetheless.
Start with what is right in front of you—where you are and the opportunities that lie before you. After all, you willingly chose the life you are in. Your world may not resemble the one you once planned, but it’s yours. You wouldn’t be here if you didn’t love your man beyond reason and believe that the two of you could build a happy life together. Now, make another choice—simply choose to make it better.
Everything you do to promote and enhance your life as a family is a choice. Everything you do to damage and restrict it is a choice. These choices are yours to make.
Choose simplicity. It is the path to growth.
A TALE FROM THE BLENDER
My happiest moment as a stepmom was one day when my stepdaughter and I were digging in the flower bed. She looked over at me and said, “Ya know what, Jodi? You’re a pretty good ol’ stepmom.” It brought a tear to my eye. I replied that she was a pretty good ol’ stepdaughter. There have been numerous occasions that made me proud to be a stepmom, but by far, this one made me the happiest. -- Jodi Staten, Arkansas
The Stepmom's Guide to Simplifying Your Life is winner of the 2003 National Parenting Publications Award.
About the author: Karon and her husband began their stepparenting journey in September, 1996, bringing themselves, her son and his two together to form a family. They made a lot of mistakes along the way, but by the grace of God, they never lost sight of their goal. Today, their family that came late--their family of "yours" and "mine"--is a family of choice and love.
Karon writes about stepfamily life for several publications, publishes a monthly online newsletter, and has published a number of books for stepmoms. Find more: www.karongoodman.com. Order The Stepmom's Guide to Simplifying Your Life; also consider her book A Stepmom's Book of Prayer.