Stepfamily Stereotypes

You know, I just really don’t like fitting into a mold, being predictable, being a stereotype. It just goes against my well-developed sense of specialness! For example, this morning I’m sitting at my favorite coffee shop (Panera Bread), working on emails, lesson plans, and this message to you. And, just for the effect, every time I go back to the coffee station for a refill, I make a point of whistling “Deck The Halls With Boughs of Holly,” just loudly enough to be heard by … well most everyone I pass by. Why? Well, it’s supposed to be around 95 degrees (fahrenheit) here today and Christmas carols put me in a cooler state of mind, and because most of the folks here look like they could use a bit of a nudge toward a smile. That’s me – anti-typical.

But, as a stepparent, the vast majority of us do fit into predictable patterns. No, not the old Disney stereotype of Wicked Stepmothers and Evil Stepfathers. But there are patterns I’ve noticed over a dozen years of working with steppers. Some are beneficial; some are harmful; and some just are. See how many of these you recognize from your home:

1) Stepparents start out with unrealistic expectations. I’ve seen so many stepmoms and stepdads I can’t keep count, who are disillusioned and discouraged because their stepfamily – both spouse and stepkids – turned out to be less of a joy than they had dreamed they would be. “I just don’t get it. The kids loved me before I married their mom. Now they glare at me whenever I speak to them like I’m a stranger lurking in the shadows! What happened?” You married their mom, that’s what happened. With that one momentous ceremony, you moved from an interesting, fun friend of the family to a new authority figure who stepped in between their two parents ever getting back together again.

It’s a fact of life – stepparenting is the toughest job you’ll ever take on. The sooner you accept that your new family will be a challenge, the sooner you can begin calming their fears and helping them to accept you. And it is a long process. Nationally, it takes from FOUR to SEVEN years for a stepfamily to begin functioning like a team. So, if you are feeling let down by the lack of enthusiasm in your new clan – understand that it’s just part of being a stepparent.

2) Stepfamilies go through certain Stages. Almost 100 percent of the stepfamilies I’ve worked with have traveled the same developmental path:
a) the Dream Stage – before the wedding when everything seems picture perfect – or like it will be soon;
b) the Discovery Stage – soon after the wedding reality slaps you in the face and you see that the stepkids, the ex-spouses, the in-laws, and your new mate are not what they were before;
c) the Decision Stage – the point when every stepparenting couple chooses to give up and run away like scalded chickens or they knuckle down, get some help, and start building a real family;
d) the Determination Stage – here’s where the second, “knuckle down,” group digs in and starts growing together. NOTE: this is usually the most difficult time, as everyone makes their feelings known;
e) and finally, the Development Stage – the fights begin diminishing in frequency and in force, the couple develop reliable strategies for working together, the kids and ex-spouses begin to understand and accept that you mean to stay, and you start to have hope.

3) Stepparents forget to remember that this, too, is a real family. This one gets overlooked more than the others because it’s so quiet (unlike stepkids or ex-es!). You probably have adequate insurance and future provisions for your biological kids, but have you even thought about your new family? Granted, their bio-parents have the primary responsibility of insuring them, but what about the promises you made when you married their dad or mom? Didn’t you imply that you would watch out for them, too? Didn’t you indicate that you would help provide security and a future for them, too?

What have you done about your will, now that you have a whole new family depending on you? Or your life insurance? When you married bio-mom or -dad, you planned to live for a long time with them, right? And you planned to help them raise their kids, didn’t you? Maybe not providing the whole financial package for them (or maybe so), but you did intend to help your new mate with their family … didn’t you??? Well, what happens if you don’t live as long as you thought you would? One stepmom wrote in to tell that she was left with a huge debt from her husband’s death and his first family demanding the whole estate. Don’t let your spouse go through that. Take the time to sit down with your partner and figure out what would happen if either of you died suddenly. If necessary, get with a financial planner to get the calculations right, most of them don’t charge much for the service. After you decide what should happen, see what you can do to make sure it does happen.

4) Stepparenting couples who survive the first three stages, who stick it out through the tough times of the first few years tend to be much, much stronger than even first marriage couples. I’ve seen it time and time again. If you can make it through the challenges together, those experiences cement you into a powerful, reliable team. Husbands and wives who face rebellious stepkids, interfering ex-spouses, stand-offish in-laws, and their own fears and doubts, seem to have a quiet inner commitment to each other that can overcome anything the future brings.

So maybe sometimes it’s alright to fit into some patterns. If those patterns will lead you to success. If you need help with your particular challenges, don’t try to just tough it out. Email or call me for help, or talk to your local minister.

But don’t give up!

[NOTE: These ideas are covered in much greater detail in our resource ebooks which you can find in our on-line bookstore. I’ve kept the prices reasonable so you can get the help you need to keep your family growing. Every purchase goes directly to support STEP-Carefully! and keep our programs going.]

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