Sunday, January 15, 2012

Who am I? Making sure step/life doesn't consume you.

It's getting close to the five-year mark over here at Tara. Yes, that's right - I've been a Step/Mom for almost five years now. However, I'm thoroughly convinced that Step/Mom Years are like dog years, so that means I've been a Step/Mom for 35 years, right?

Being a stepmother is definitely not for the faint of heart, but I can say with absolute certainty that it's been an overall rewarding experience so far. A question I get often is, "How do you do it? How do you have such PEACE about it? How do you not let it overwhelm you?"

Well, there were definitely times where it DID overwhelm me. There were times when I did not fully understand the magnitude of the responsibility I hold. There were times when I wanted to lock myself in my room with a bottle of wine, a fluffy blanket and Alanis Morrissette on repeat. There were times when Ashley and I both had questions as to whether our relationship could survive every awful test that was thrown at us. There were times - and STILL ARE - that I question if I'm a good parent. But, there are some keys to not only surviving, but thriving through these times. I'm very thankful to be blessed with a wonderful husband and a great life, and I'm excited to see what the many years ahead bring us. I joke sometimes about how I should be a saint for surviving step/life, but the truth is I really love my life and wouldn't change it. Here's what has worked for me in thriving through step/life.

1) A solid relationship with my husband. Let's face it. You're going to have enough issues with a step-situation; the key is to minimize drama with your partner as much as possible. As a Southern belle, I am prone to dramatics, so sometimes I have to remind myself that picking a fight with my husband because I'm aggravated with the kids, with work, with school, whatever is not going to solve anything. I also have to remind myself that sometimes even when I know best (which is most of the time), I have to keep my mouth shut and let him figure it out on his own (he usually does).

There are two main components to our marriage working, and I personally feel that a lot of the responsibility in a relationship or marriage where there's a step-situation relies with the bio-parent - We put our marriage first. The belles know that they are important to us obviously, but the best way we can show the girls the importance of a healthy relationship is to demonstrate one. If we are not meeting our duties as a spouse, it can cause a lot of resentment and tension that affects the entire family. He has always respected and demanded respect of my role. Whether it's been with the belles, the bio-moms, or the in-laws, Ashley has never wavered in making sure everyone involved understood that I have a valid, important role in the girls' lives and that I was not to be treated otherwise. Now, whether or not I have always been treated that way by the others in the step-situation....I'm sure you can guess as to how that turned out. But, his disapproval of any disrespect toward me was duly noted!

Mostly, however, we make sure that our life doesn't revolve around the step-situation. This is of course much easier now that we are (hopefully! *knocks on the closest piece of wood*) done with the trials and tribulations of Family Court. But our life revolves around doing activities and outings with the kids, taking vacations and spending time with each other, discussing sports, politics and religion (all of which we argue about), and enjoying each other's company. We don't discuss the step-situation that often anymore, usually only when necessary, and that allows our relationship to be about us and not being comrades in battle. There's a definite peace and sense of normalcy that comes with that, and it's very freeing.

2) I genuinely like the belles and enjoy my role in their lives. I know this one isn't always easy, and I don't think it's a requirement, but it definitely makes step/life easier if you can achieve it. Even with Oldest Belle, with whom my relationship with has changed dramatically in the past 2.5 years, I try to remind myself of the good times and her positive attributes (of which she has many). As for the younger belles, well now that I'm Mom for all intents and purposes, it's made it a lot easier for me to be a Step/Mom. In fact, I often forget I am "just" Step/Mom, seeing as I've been raising them for so long. This doesn't mean that we're always happy with each other or that I always get along with them. It does mean there's an overall solidity to our relationship, and that's important.

I more than anyone know that sometimes it can be difficult to enjoy your role in your stepkids' lives. I wish I had the opportunity to still be the involved Step/Mom I once was to Oldest Belle before PAS took over (PAS is a deeply involved topic that will be discussed in a separate post). Sometimes, no matter how hard you try however, it simply isn't that way. Which leads me to my next topic.....

3) Accepting it for what it is. This is something that has taken me a L-O-N-G time to get to. I still have my struggles with acceptance every once in a while. But it is so important and a key to your sanity. I have come to realize that acceptance is not allowing yourself to be a doormat and letting everyone else have a say in your life. It is having conviction that you are doing the best you can in the situation you've been given, and the understanding that the only person you have the power to change is yourself.

I cannot change the negative feelings others have about me and my role as a Step/Mom when they do not understand the full situation. I cannot go back in time and make the younger belles' bio-mom care enough about her unborn children to not abuse drugs during her pregnancy. I cannot force Oldest Belle's bio-mom to recognize the important and crucial role my husband holds as their daughter's father, especially during these teenage years. I cannot make my Oldest Belle appreciate her father's contributions to her life. I cannot force other people to understand the importance of fathers and equal parenting. I cannot change the broken and corrupt family court system in this country. I cannot make my in-laws sane. AMEN!

BUT, I can change myself. I can accept those things that I cannot change, and I can try my hardest to enact good out of the bad. I can educate others about step-situations, I can offer support and guidance to others in similar situations, I can donate to causes I believe in that may change these situations for families like ours in the future. I can't change everything, but I can appreciate the lessons the challenges have taught me and I can use these lessons to make myself a better wife and parent.

4) Having a solid support system. I have been immensely blessed with a strong support system of other women who are also Step/Moms. These women have offered prayers, hugs, guidance and a cheering section when I needed one the most. There have been times when no one else could understand how I felt, but they did because they had been through it themselves. Knowing others who "get it" is something that cannot be understated. It's sustained me when I didn't think things could get any worse. It's rewarded me when I had people to share the wonderful positives with. Their friendship and love has been so crucial to me that I can't begin to fathom how other women go through step-life without such a support system.

5) Not defining myself as only a Step/Mom. Being a Step/Mom takes up a LOT of my time, but I've always tried to ensure it doesn't take up ALL of my time. I'll be honest - I'm not a huge fan of women who only define themselves as "Mommy." Being a Mom is definitely one of the most important roles I'll ever have, but I didn't stop being Southern Step/Mom just because I became a parent. I'm a wife, a daughter, a granddaughter, a cousin, a friend. I'm a sorority sister, a coworker, a graduate student. I'm a dancer, a writer, a reader, a singer. You get the idea. I've continually pursued other interests throughout my step/life that have nothing to do with being a Step/Mom because it's important. I want my girls to know that there is so much more to being a woman than being a parent.

6) My faith. I'll admit. I'm not the type of person you'll find screaming praises everywhere. I'm the first to say I'm not anywhere close to being the perfect Christian. There have definitely been times where I've lapsed, where I've shaken my fist in anger at God for the situations we've been thrown in. However, I can't discount the significant peace I've gotten from quiet reflection, prayer and mediation. Sometimes when I can't get a handle on the acceptance I preached about earlier, I turn it over to a higher power because I can't handle it by myself. I don't think a particular faith is a prerequisite for surviving and thriving in step/life, but I do think that having some type of faith or moral code to turn to is important.

Are there some tips from the pros you'd like to share? Things you agree or disagree with? Feel free to let me know!

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Didn't survive the holidays? Tips for next year!

I think it goes without saying that getting through the holidays as a Step/Mom can be one of the most draining, dramatic facts of steplife you'll ever encounter.  Most of the time, getting through the holidays (and endless custody exchanges) is enough to send any sensible woman running and least to the nearest bottle of wine.  How do you fit in time with the kids and your families while also making sure everyone is supposed to be when they're supposed to be there?  Will the bio-mom follow the custody order, or will she make a last-minute attempt to change the game plan?  Can you and your husband or significant other make it through the holidays without killing each other?  These are all important, valid questions in steplife.

The first step - as with almost any step-situation - is to ensure you have a workable custody order that is painfully specific.  So many times, attorneys and/or judges will throw in vague language such as "The father is entitled to reasonable holiday visitation."  What is reasonable?  Who defines it?  I can almost guarantee that most people get divorced or break up because neither one can agree on what is reasonable in any situation.  Why then would you assume that you can both agree on reasonable after a divorce?

I'll give Ashley and Oldest Belle's bio-mom credit where credit is due.  They have a pretty solidly defined and reasonable custody order when it come to holiday visitation.  The issue has always been getting Oldest Belle's bio-mom to actually follow the custody order, but bless her heart, she tries.  That's what I tell myself in my finer Christian woman moments at least.  But, the idea for the parents to "swap" holidays every year is a pretty good one in my opinion.  Basically one parent gets Christmas, for example, with the child every even year, and the other parent gets the child on the odd years.  This plan ensures no day of the holiday custody exchanges.  This is good for two reasons - everyone gets to enjoy the full holiday without being in a car all day, and you don't have to see your ex (or your husband's ex) on a holiday.  You have to see the goodness in the little things, right?

The second step is to stick to the plan.  I will admit that in some step-situations, both sets of parents (the bio-parents and their spouses or partners) get along wonderfully and can easily deviate from the custody plan without too much commotion.  However, if you are in a step-situation where one party does not want to work with the other or takes advantage of the situation (e.g. always asking to change the schedule but never agreeing to changes the other party proposes), it is simply best to stick to the plan.  You may think you're being reasonable and you're showing the child or children involved that Mom and Dad can work together.  Well, that's good in theory.  But, in practice, it's not always the best approach.  I am a huge believer in boundaries.  Boundaries are so critical in any step-situation (I promise this is a topic you will get sick of me discussing, but it's because it is so very important).  The court order is there for a reason - follow it!  It serves everyone's best interests because it ensures the child or children involved are getting the time they deserve with both of their parents.  When you deviate from the plan, it opens the door for more deviation in the future, usually on an increasingly larger scale.  At what point do you say no?  Don't let yourself get into that situation - say no from the beginning, and you'll never have to worry about your good nature being taken advantage of.

It really can be a peaceful and happy holiday season.  You just have to plan in advance.  And if plans still fall apart......well, in my opinion, there's nothing a nice bottle of Moscato can't fix.