Hello and Welcome to Stepmoms and their partners. This is Chapter 1 from my new book, “Stepmoms on a Mission: A Compassionate Exploration to Find Answers, Options and Hope.” It’s such an important and impactful topic that I’ve decided to offer this Chapter and the Chapter on “The Loyalty Wars” to the public. It is posted right below this article. May they have some value to you on your Stepmom Journey.
Practical and Empowering Expectations for a Stepmom on a Mission
I have yet to have a woman tell me she grew up wanting to be a stepmother. In fact, no one—male or female—has ever said to me that they grew up imagining a happy life with a partner who has kids from a previous relationship. Whether you’ve been a Stepmom for years or days, being aware (and wise) about your expectations is going to support you and your partner through stressful situations. Expectations are an important emotional component of achieving a goal, yet it’s common to hear experts and family members telling stepmothers under stress to lower their expectations. They act as if it is a simple task without negative impact. That’s not been my experience.
Initially the advice to lower our expectations seems sensible, but as a Stepmom myself, I found it depressing and a little annoying to think I had to give up my dreams of a happy family to supposedly reduce disappointments and temper stressful situations. So, I went to work to study the topic of Stepmom expectations believing I could find some that are realistic, achievable, supportive and even empowering.
Picture this scenario: A man with children from a previous marriage and a woman willing to embrace them all fall madly in love. With a strong sense of connection, the couple believes and fully expects that the power of their love will get them through the tough times. These positive aspirations make them feel very good as they begin their lives together. It’s an exciting time. It’s a time when passion, confidence, empathy and mutual support are palpable for these two committed people. However, if there are difficulties with the stepkids or their bio-mom, couples like this one—no matter how strong, committed or prepared—can begin to feel tension between them. It’s uncomfortable. It can even be a bit scary. This is when action-oriented and energetic Stepmoms often seek out information for how to make things better and build further on the connection they share with their partner. With this book as a supportive resource, I want to help you and your partner.
You Don’t Have to Accept a Lower Standard
The idea that we shouldn’t expect too much in the future isn’t an easy one to swallow, and for good reason. Many of us cling to our bright expectations because we fear that lowering them means we have to give up on what we’ve hoped for—specifically, our dreams of a happy stepfamily life. Who wants to imagine their future with flat or pessimistic expectations? Who wants to accept that emotional turmoil is going to become a way of life? Who wants to be told that the pain of being excluded, disregarded or disrespected is just something we have to live with? Not me, and hopefully not you! There is another way to approach the stepmother experience, and in this book we’ll walk through it together, beginning with acknowledgment of your hopes and expectations.
So make your list: What are your expectations as a Stepmom? Do you know what your partner’s expectations are? How do your expectations differ from your partner’s expectations? It’s helpful to take a moment to jot them down. Have you two actually shared expectations with each other out loud? Expectations, like beliefs, are very powerful influences on our choices and reactions to life situations. It is a valuable exercise to make them conscious, share them with your partner and make the adjustments that best suit your lives together.
How Expectations Impact Your Well-Being
At some point we create an expectation (positive or negative) about an upcoming situation. From that point forward we compare our present reality with the future we expect. Interestingly, expectations for our future have a lot more influence over the present than most people realize. When our view of the future is positive, we feel better in the present moment, even though our future hasn’t happened yet.
The mere thought of a positive future event creates an immediate sense of happiness and well-being. Conversely, when we expect a sad, painful or scary event in the future, it makes us feel terrible immediately. That’s how impactful our expectations of the future are in our daily emotional lives. Good and bad expectations for the future impact our feelings in the present. That’s why expecting good things feels great, right now, and expecting difficult circumstances in the future doesn’t feel very good, right now. Given the choice, we can understand the desire to have and hold on to good expectations. When current circumstances conflict with our imagined goals, we can feel sad, angry, disappointed and anxious. When people tell a stepmother to lower her expectations, it’s treated as a magic formula for avoiding upsetting feelings. In my view, people say that because they don’t know what else to say or how to help us, or that’s what they’ve always been taught. But does that make it true? I believe there’s another way.
Here’s a thought: What if the answer isn’t in lowering your expectations but is in creating wiser, broader, deeper, new expectations? Let’s look at some common expectations and then review some new ones that have proven more realistic, achievable and supportive of a happy, balanced stepmotherhood.
Rookie Stepmom Expectations
- My stepkids will get used to having two homes. They’ll eventually get used to two different sets of rules and enjoy being with each parent and their partners.
- My stepkids’ bio-mom will get over her anger/bitterness/neediness if we just give her some time. Eventually she’ll become at least civil and cooperative with us so one day we can be parenting allies.
- My stepkids’ bio-mom will follow the agreed-upon rules and guidelines just as we will.
- My stepkids’ bio-mom will respect any differences she and her ex-husband have. They will not bad-mouth each other or any stepparents involved because that’s the right thing to do for the children’s emotional health.
- If applicable: One day my stepkids will realize that their bio-mom has waged a Loyalty War against me and they’ll stand up to her, realizing that they have the right to love their stepmother without being punished by their bio-mom.
- My stepkids will grow to love, respect and appreciate me for all I do (and have done) for them.
- My partner will appreciate all I do for his kids and express his gratitude regularly.
- We’ll have lots of fun family parties, events, vacations and experiences together.
- Once the shock of the divorce or remarriage wears off, everyone is going to want to make an effort to get along so we can all be involved in the stepkids’ school activities, celebrations and other important life events. It will be worth all my efforts to achieve this goal.
- My partner will no longer be influenced or manipulated by his ex-wife.
- My partner will make decisions about his kids without being influenced by any fears or guilt from the divorce and I will find it easy to support his decisions.
- My partner will seek and value my opinions whenever he’s not able to see things objectively and he’ll appreciate my wisdom and perspective. Together we’ll do the best we can for his kids.
- If we have to go to court, everything will work out fine because we’re honoring the divorce and any co-parenting and custody agreements. We keep our promises and an accurate log of events. We pay for professional and expert opinions and always act in the children’s best interest even if it’s difficult for us. We expect the court system will be fair and side with the dad when the facts and evidence support that decision.
- As I take on more responsibility for my stepkids’ care, I will be included in more childrearing decisions and given appropriate authority where needed.
- My partner is going to be compassionate, patient and supportive about how his ex-wife and children impact me. He’ll take action on my behalf whenever I need him to and he’ll stand up for me as his partner.
- Teachers, coaches, friends, members of my partner’s family and the community will eventually come to treat me as a respected and important member of the stepkids’ parenting team.
Because you’re here, chances are good that some of these expectations are on your list and that you’re not seeing the results you had hoped for when you first created them. I know how disheartening these unfulfilled expectations can be for stepmothers. But what are the options? What are some realistic, healthy and wise expectations for stepmothers? What’s the alternative to having low (or no) expectations?
- Expect to do your best (and be your best self) when you face each new situation.
Recognize that your best will vary under different circumstances. Mute the voice of your inner perfectionist. Turn on the faucet of kindness and expect to shower yourself regularly with huge doses of patience and compassion. Expect challenges to your self-esteem and use that emotional stress to become stronger so you can count on yourself when necessary. Do your best in a thoughtful, respectful and fair way so you can feel good and be proud of yourself at the end of each day and in hindsight.
- Expect that your partner will stand up for you to the best of his ability within the reality you’ve inherited. Imposing impossible-to-live-up-to superhero powers onto your partner really isn’t fair. Remember he only has control over his own actions and not those of his kids or ex-wife.
- Expect that due to the complexities of childrearing issues, you and your partner are likely to have differing views on how to handle and deal with his kids and previous partner. When this happens, do your best to defer to his decisions and ask for (and expect) your partner to appreciate you for this consciously loving choice of making your connection with him and your own well-being more important than getting your way or pressuring him to do things your way.
- Expect that your partner may not be willing (or able) to abide by some of your wishes and suggestions if he has a strong need to minimize conflict and any retribution from his ex-wife or if his childrearing beliefs disagree with yours. As you and your partner begin your life together, find out what he is (and is not) willing to do to support your involvement in his kids’ life, public and private. Talk specifics even if it’s uncomfortable, and even when you’re both under stress. See Chapter 18 for an approach to deal with any conflicting needs and strategies when handling stressful situations.
- Expect that your partner’s beliefs, experiences and feelings about the divorce will impact how he believes he should treat his children and their bio-mom. His fears and guilts may unintentionally and intermittently blind him to the impact of his choices on you. This is not personal. Be as supportive and compassionate as possible because this is very painful for many dads. Expect that you can find ways to help yourself and your partner deal with these stressful feelings. See Chapter 25, Supporting Your Partner Through Divorce Guilt and Fears.
- Expect to change and revise your childrearing beliefs so you can create a more powerful, applicable, customized version that better suits your present stepfamily situation and enables you and your partner to handle stepfamily situations as a conscious, loving team.
- Expect that there will be times when you have to find new ways to stand up for yourself because sometimes your partner will not be able do so to your satisfaction.
- Expect to defend your personal boundaries and expect that sometimes you may need to completely defer to your partner’s needs, wishes and fears about his children, for the sake of your relationship and well-being. This is the dance of intimacy. See Chapter 19, His Kids: His Call.
- Expect that your experience with your stepkids’ bio-mom at the beginning of your relationship is how things are going to be between you. If your stepkids’ bio-mom is angry or vengeful with your partner or upset he has another partner, expect that this will be reflected in her interactions with you. Listen to your partner. He can help you save time so you can approach her from a wise, self-protected and powerful position. If she comes around over time and decides to be cooperative, terrific. Treat this change of behavior as a bonus, rather than an expectation. See Chapter 32, Sounds About Right.
- Expect to seek and find comfort in the compassion, validation, camaraderie and ideas from other stepmothers. There will be times when your partner can’t relate to your feelings or support you in the ways you need—not because he doesn’t love you—he does love you. It can be a Mars vs. Venus thing, an innocent misunderstanding or a case of two different perspectives unable to see common ground—yet. Getting the support you need from other stepmothers who understand what you’re feeling will help you get back into your adult self, find your own balance and create a plan to feel better. Helping yourself in this way takes a lot of pressure off your partner, non-stepmother friends and family who want to help but just don’t know how.
- Expect that your partner will need your help because he may not always understand—nor be upset about—the same things that concern you. Take responsibility to teach him more about your feelings. When you don’t understand why he does what he does, interrupt the urge to judge and instead have more empathy for him. As Marianne Williamson teaches from The Course in Miracles, which I paraphrase, “give to him that which you’re looking for from him.” This approach is very impactful and can help a couple increase compassion for each other.
- Being a stepmother may turn out to be the most difficult job you’ll ever have. With this in mind, expect that you’re going to have moments when you question your sanity about getting into, and staying in, this relationship.
Know that having these thoughts is usually an attempt to numb present pain or anger. Questioning your own judgment about getting into a relationship when you’re feeling out of control, outraged and/or in deep emotional pain is a reactionary pain-numbing tactic. It’s a judgment so it numbs your feelings—temporarily. Numb feels better than pain, rage, hurt, etc. This is not bad or wrong, just important to recognize and honor. When you have this feeling it’s an indication that some things need to change.
- Expect that you may feel out of control, angry, resentful, hurt or left out at some point. Being a stepmother gives you an opportunity to deal with unprocessed feelings that you brought into your relationship. By expecting these feelings you can look for ways to support yourself faithfully every time something happens that triggers a strong reaction.
There’s so much to be learned from the stepfamily situations that upset you. Be proactive. Learn healthy ways to process your feelings and to heal from emotional wounds. Seek support resources and get excited about learning new ways to respond to recurring situations that upset you. Find ways to make yourself feel better and use your creativity and energy for self-care strategies and tactics.
- Expect that there will be power struggles between:
- You and your partner
- Your partner and his kids
- Your partner and his kids’ bio-mom
- You and your stepkids’ bio-mom
- You and your stepkids
By expecting them, you can watch for them and stay out of (or step away from) any power struggles, saving yourself immeasurable stress. If you realize you’re caught in a tug-of-war power struggle, make your well-being and commitment to your partner more important than the allure of winning or the desire to avoid losing. Make the conscious choice to let go of your end of the figurative rope so you can refocus your attention, time and energy on your highest priority—feeling good and having a loving connection with your partner.
- Expect that your relationship with your stepkids is impacted by their bio-mom’s willingness or resistance to allowing them to have a relationship with you. Depending on their bio-mom’s attitude and behaviors about your existence in their lives, your stepkids may balk at your requests or ignore your instruction, claiming you have exceeded your authority as the “woman of the house” or their father’s partner. Be willing to do your part to have a relationship but if they’re unwilling or disinterested in getting along, do your best to accept this reality. See Chapter 28, The Loyalty Wars, and other chapters in Section Five for more about dealing with your stepkids in effective, empowering ways.
- Expect that your stepkids are going to be emotionally shaken up (to varying degrees) by the divorce and perhaps by your presence on the scene.
The younger stepkids may soak up your lovingkindness. This gives you a wonderful opportunity to get to know them and help them through difficult changes they had nothing to do with or any choice about. However, they may also misdirect their anger at you when they’re feeling upset or powerless about their circumstances. When this expected possibility happens, redirect your attention to supporting yourself, your own well-being and your relationship with your partner.
- Expect there may be times when you become the rage target for angry, hurt stepkids. Stepmothers are sadly often the parental figure stepkids feel they can most easily afford (or desire) to lose. As hurtful as that can be, when you expect this reaction from them and realize it’s just the best they can do as kids, you’re less likely to be caught off guard or feel crushed when it happens. Understanding that your stepkids are under tremendous pressure, even if you can’t see it or don’t understand it, will help you have more compassion for them. Do your best to take their actions less personally. See the Second Agreement in The Four Agreements by don Miguel Ruiz for a description of how to take nothing personally.
- Expect there will be grief, rage and other feelings to handle if you’re unable to have the relationship you desire with your stepkids or their bio-mom. Get the help you need to release these powerful emotions and process the loss of the happy family memories you will not get to experience so they don’t have to cause you illness or stress in your relationship. For more support on this, see Chapter 31, The Stop Trying So Hard and Start Lovingly Ignoring Your Stepkids Plan, and Chapter 33, When Your Stepkids’ Bio-mom Doesn’t Want to Get Along With You.
- Expect to be flexible and creative with the details of your own personal happy family dream with your partner. “This or better” is a philosophy that can help you keep the faith when things are not working out as you originally envisioned. Cultivating and maintaining a positive attitude about your ability to find solutions to each situation makes it easier for you to keep your heart and mind open to new ideas.
- Expect you and your partner can love and appreciate each other through any situations that occur by doing your best to stay in your adult self vs. your unconscious child-self. Agree to share whatever you’re thinking and feeling in honest, compassionate ways. Expect that you will each have different emotional hurdles to get through and that it will be easier if you work as a team.
Being in a stepfamily can create many emotional hooks of distraction that can test and strain a loving couple, especially when they’re already under previously unexperienced forms of stress and trauma. As you and your partner continually affirm your overarching goal of maintaining a loving connection, you’ll be inspired to make choices that may surprise you. You and your partner can avoid untold stress, pain, rage and anxiety with this strategy.
- Expect that you and your partner will be challenged by experiences you’re unprepared for. When this happens, stay positive, look for sources of new skills, new ideas and emotional support. Expect that you and your partner can figure out ways to handle everything that happens to you as long as you make your relationship and your well-being your highest priority. This is a repetitive theme because it’s often forgotten when you’re under stress and because it’s also the key to the greatest success as a Stepmom/Divorced Dad couple.
- Expect that you can (and will) handle whatever happens. Be confident. Expect that you’ll become a stronger, wiser, more aware, more skilled and more compassionate and more empowered woman as a result of dealing with (and learning from) all the difficult stepfamily situations you face with your partner. Keep a positive attitude that things are going to work out, even if you can’t yet see how. Keep looking for new ideas and more answers. It’s easy to get swept up and blown away by all the stress and intense emotions being a Stepmom can bring into your life. When you expect these situations and frame them as learning, healing and growth opportunities, you’re going to have quite a life-changing adventure with your beloved.
As you become wiser and more awake, you will be less impacted by “EX-ternal” forces. As you handle outside influences more quickly and confidently, it’s easier to hold on to the love and joy you share with your partner. You’re trying to do the right thing for everyone involved. These intentions are a powerful force.
In spite of what many experts tell us, you can have your expectations and be realistic too. How? You can do this by looking into the specifics of each expectation. You can be realistic and optimistic. You can place a higher value and more attention on what you can do to stay connected to your partner. You can consciously nurture your self-esteem and well-being while events involving your stepkids and their bio-mom occur. Ideally, you have expectations that make you feel prepared and positive about your future. I don’t believe it’s about raising or lowering your expectations. I think it needs to be less about the ideal family fantasy you may have initially imagined and much more about the feelings, experiences and journey you take with your beloved partner one day at a time.
What expectations are you and your partner holding for your family? For each other? Where have they been unmet or caused you stress? How do your expectations compare with potential expectations outlined in this chapter? Wise expectations can make you feel realistic and optimistic. Instead of trying not to be disappointed, you can feel prepared, open-minded and confident that you can handle any inevitable challenges (whatever they are) and still create a joyful life. This confidence helps you feel better about your future and therefore better each day.
Copyright 2018 Cathryn Bond Doyle. All rights reserved.