Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Can parents and stepparents be friends to their kids?

I read a really insightful opinion piece on CNN.com today that made me want to stand up and cheer.  Columnist LZ Granderson talks about the....interesting way most kids dress nowadays and why parents need to be parents.

Parents, don't dress your girls like tramps

The column is blunt to be sure, but raised some very good points.  Yes, retailers are making clothes dressed more and more trashy for kids to wear, but these clothes wouldn't be selling if parents weren't buying them for their kids.  My middle belle-in-training sometimes gets mad at me because she doesn't think her clothes are "trendy" enough, but darn it, she's a kid and I refuse to dress her like anything other than a kid!

Incidentally enough, I was listening to Steve Harvey's morning show as I was driving to work today when Steve and Shirley were reading a listener's letter asking for advice about her daughter.  Steve said, and I'm paraphrasing here, "Parents need to be parents.  I tell my kids, 'I am not your friend.  We can do friendly things, we can have fun together, but I am your parent, not your friend.'"

Now, you may be asking me, "Southern Step/Mom, why are you bringing this up on your stepparenting blog?"  Well, that's an excellent question!  Just from my observations, I've noticed divorced parents do this often with their kids because they are so afraid their child is so emotionally damaged from the divorce or breakup, or because they want to be the "cool parent" that their child chooses as the winner in this war that they neglect to actually parent the kid.

Of course, intact nuclear families do this too, and there are many single parents who don't - my mom included who was very strict with me (thanks, Mom!).  But, it seems that you notice the worst in parenting skills when you're in a step situation.

This always has and always will be one of my biggest pet peeves with my oldest belle-in-training's mother.  From age 12, OB (oldest belle-in-training) would show up to exchanges in short shorts and makeup.  The hemlines grew shorter and the makeup caked on further through the years.  It got to the point where I would cringe as soon as she'd get out the car, waiting to see how much older she would look this time.  My Ashley and I were united on this front, and we would make her change and wash her face when she got to our house, but when you're noncustodial, your influence can only go so far.  You have to pray that what you are doing and showing them those 4 days out of the month might make at least a small impact on this impressionable child you are in charge of.

This is why I don't advocate stepparents being "like a friend rather than a parent" to their stepchildren.  No one should cross discipline boundaries of course, but you are still an adult.  When you live together or are married to the child's parent, you are still an adult in charge in that household.  How are you going to earn that child's respect if you treat them as you would a friend?  What kind of example are you setting?

Maybe refusing to let my 8 year old middle belle (MB) wear skin-tight jeggings like her friends wear makes me an uncool Step/Mom.  Oh well.  I'd rather be an uncool Step/Mom than a Step/Grandmom before I leave my thirties.

Gift Suggestion:  Did you know Stepmothers' Day is the Sunday after Mothers' Day every year?  Don't forget to celebrate that special woman in your life - she deserves it!  Check out this cute t-shirt to wear to honor her, or maybe get her a bottle of wine if that's more her style.  :)

Friday, April 8, 2011

Stepmoms vs. Stepdads - is it really equal?

A friend of mine whose husband is a stepfather to her daughter brought up a good point to me recently.  Some of my prior posts can be applied to stepdads, but in my mind, there is a vast difference between being a stepmother and being a stepfather.  Women who have no biological children of their own ("childless stepmoms") almost always have an even tougher mountain to climb in step-life.  Early on in my own stepparent journey, I struggled greatly with this.  I think most childless stepmoms have a harder path because "You're NOT a mother" is something society constantly reminds us of.....and sometimes it is said right to our face - by in-laws, the biological mother, and sometimes complete strangers.

My own dear Ashley, in his genuine attempt to be compassionate, once told me he could sympathize with my step-plight because he had been a stepfather twice before.  I told him it was vastly different from being a stepmother, especially a childless one.  There are different expectations, and different emotions.  Here are a few:
1.  The "Maternal Assumption" - Many people, our own significant others often included, assume that since we are women, we automatically have that "maternal instinct."  This expectation to automatically bond with our stepchildren, and to take over the "womanly" duties of the house, is just that - an expectation.  We didn't have 9 months to prepare for this baby; we didn't have the joys of bonding with our stepkids as infants. Does this mean that we won't love our stepkids, even love them as we would our own?  No, not by a long shot.  But it takes time and a tremendous amount of energy.  I went from living alone and only worrying about myself and what I wanted to do to being responsible for little people and listening to Disney Channel nonstop. It was a transition, to say the least.  Stepdads rarely have this immediate expectation for instant bonding because they're men.  Sexist?  Of course it is.  It's unfair to stepmoms too.

2.  The custodial factor - Since the family court circus is what it is in the United States, most moms have custody of their children. Therefore, most stepfathers spend more time with their stepchildren than the fathers of those children do.  It's not because the fathers don't WANT to spend time with their kids in most cases - "That's just the way the cookie crumbles," the judges say as they shrug their shoulders.  It's a lot more praise-worthy in our society to be a custodial stepparent than it is a noncustodial stepparent.  I've even noticed this disparity just in my own situation.  People generally speak positively of my role as a custodial step/Mom to the younger belles-in-training, but I can probably count on one hand the amount of times people praised my role as a noncustodial stepmom to my oldest belle-in-training, even though I invested a lot of time and energy into being a good stepmom to her as well.  I planned fun outings, I encouraged her interests, I helped her with her homework - why were not as valuable of a contribution to her wellbeing?

3.  The Mother - Let's face it; mothers are territorial.  This is not a bad thing, per se - look at Mama Bears, right?  But, it has been shown statistically that mothers are less likely to encourage their children to embrace - or at least respect - their stepmother than fathers are with stepfathers.  Even if they don't actively badmouth the stepmother, mothers will often not make it clear to their children that they don't have to choose between Mom and Stepmom - that loving one doesn't mean not loving the other.  This was - and still is - the major problem I encountered with my oldest belle-in-training's mother.  By outright pretending that I didn't exist, she sent the clear message to my oldest belle that I didn't matter, I wasn't on an equal level as her stepfather.  Furthermore, it made my oldest belle feel guilty and conflicted when she realized - surprise! - I wasn't so terrible and she liked me.

I am a firm believer that if the mom and stepmom can put aside their differences for the kids, everyone will benefit.  I always encouraged my oldest belle to respect her mom and never talked negatively about her anywhere close to earshot in front of her.  I may not have always agreed with her parenting decisions - or agreed with her on really anything - but I acknowledged that she was her mom and we both had a mutual interest at heart.  How the story could be different for all these kids if moms and stepmoms alike could learn, appreciate and practice that lesson.

Movie Suggestion - "The Blind Side"
This blockbuster hit isn't about stepmoms of course, but about children of the heart.  I was so moved by this movie, and so excited to see a woman who steps up to the plate to parent a child who isn't hers biologically celebrated and revered in this movie.  Of course, the added bonus was Sandra Bullock, who was at the time a childless stepmom to her now ex-husband's kids.  She is one of my childless stepmom heroines!