My Spouse or My Kids?

My Kids or My Spouse?

You married for love. You married forever. But you never expected your marriage would involve having to choose between your new spouse an...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Stepparent Start-Up Time

So, I'm sitting in the World Headquarters for STEP-Carefully! - Panera Bread, having my morning whole grain bagel and hazelnut coffee(s) when I notice a newbie employee shyly working the tables. One of the reasons I frequent Panera is their extreme friendliness, which makes a newbie really stand out.

As I watched her keeping her head down and cleaning the tables without making eye contact, I wondered just how long it would be before she caught the spirit of the place and opened up. That led me to thinking about being the newbie and feeling like an outsider. Which led me to, naturally, thinking about stepfamilies...

Most employers will allow a few days or perhaps a few weeks for a new employee to get familiarized with their surroundings and the secrets of the organization. How come stepfamilies expect a new stepparent to be up to full speed from the first day?

Remember when you first faced the kids after your wedding? You probably felt a little excited, a little anxious, a little nervous. Just like our newbie waitress. But the difference is she gets a probationary period - say two weeks - where she is not really expected to know the ropes or to remember where everything is or to know every customer's name. For a couple of weeks, she is allowed to make mistakes without blame because she is new, she is just learning.

So why can't new stepmoms and stepdads get the same probationary period? Yes, there is the dating bit, where you generally learn as much as you can absorb about the family and their rhythm, but that's kind of like eating in the restaurant before you fill out the job application. Yeah you know the food is good and the staff is friendly, but you haven't a clue where the forks are kept or who's the mover and shaker. You have to be "inside" to know the real deal.

Just like in a stepfamily. You go out on planned dates with the kids (who have been coached by their parent to be on their best behavior) and you visit the home as a guest and see that the bathrooms are neat and tidy. But, until you're "inside" you don't know the most important facts. Like which of these little angels is really the little ... well the child who will square off with you to show you they own the territory. Or where all the private areas are that you need to stay out of. Or which first aid treatment is preferred and which results in screaming and near death fits. Or ... on and on and on.

I hereby propose a one month probationary period for new stepparent.

That's one month after the actual wedding, not after the first date. One month for a new stepmom to learn everyone's names and nicknames and least favorite foods. One month for a stepdad to find out which toys should not be "lost" by being put away too well, or which child is least prone to rage over your attempts to help with homework.

One month of free time to make innocent mistakes would take a great deal of the pressure off us, don't you think? One month of "do overs" for pet issues or food flops or nighttime-ritual slip ups. A whole month to memorize the youngest's stuffed animals' names. A whole month just to settle in to the flow of this whole new family.

Gosh, wouldn't it be great! Well now you have a tool to use for your own probationary month. Take this article to your minister before your wedding and ask him to make the probie period part of your ceremony. Show it to your soon-to-be and ask him or her to implement it with their kids.

If you're already well-married, think back to your own first month with your new family and share those memories with a friend who is thinking of marrying into a stepfamily. Show them this idea and urge them to push it with their own minister and fiancé. And whatever you do, support them like you wish you had been. Help them make it.

God bless your whole family,

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Benefits of Stepparenting ...

  1. no more single parent loneliness
  2. no questions about how you are doing today - everyone tells you
  3. no more wondering if you're equal to the task
  4. health benefit: flexibility increases as you bend over backwards
  5. a new model to aspire to - the ex
  6. free cooking lessons ("my mom always makes it different!")
  7. health benefit: deep breathing to avoid exploding
  8. lots more family to remember names of and send cards to
  9. dates with you hot new spouse
  10. free advice from new in-laws and ex-in-laws and in-law-exes
  11. health benefit: regular blood pressure checks
  12. a second round of wedding shower gifts
  13. a second honeymoon (eventually)
  14. freedom from responsibility for out of control stepkids (those are NOT my kids!)
  15. health benefit: free facial as you practice grinning insincerely
  16. your own kids begin to look much better by comparison
  17. your ex-provides free babysitting service (?)

... what else? ...

Monday, July 14, 2008

Get Away for Good!

Jo Donna (my sweetheart girlfriend to whom I'm so happily married it's silly) and I took off out of town this last weekend, ostensibly for a nephew's wedding, but really just to run off together. As is the trend this Summer of the Gas Panic, we decided to see what was right under our noses. The wedding was just about an hour and a half away, in Rogers, Arkansas. Rogers is located in the heart of the area known as Northwest Arkansas, home of WalMart, Tyson Foods, JB Hunt Trucking, and several other global-sized corporations. Much like Ireland during the Celtic Tiger days of the 1990s, NWA has seen a tremendous boom in employment, housing, and all the goodies that come with those.

Last time Jo and I were up the mountain was just three years ago, but we were stunned by how much the entire area had developed. We stayed in the Hyatt Place hotel of Rogers, very nice accommodations at a decent price ($79 per night for a mini-suite). The room was quite nice - Hyatt just took over and completely refurbished this property a year or so ago, so all is still sparkling new. (How new is all this we visited? Google maps still shows all cow pastures in all the places described here!)

Our room and board taken care of, we went out for a mind-boggling dinner at Osegueras (see the review below) on Friday night. Saturday was pretty much all wedding excitement, after sleeping late, enjoying the complimentary breakfast, fitness center, and pool. And that night was sheer laziness as we watched movies and played on the Internet.

Sunday, after a slow morning (yes, we played hookie from church, first time this year, thank you very much!), we headed over to the shopping ... community we'd been hearing all about since arriving. Pinnacle Hills Promenade is one of the most impressive shopping/dining/hanging-out-at venues I've ever seen. Tulsa has some nice areas, Houston and Dallas are worth the visit, and Chicago is Chicago. But nowhere is prettier, more comfortably laid out, and more entertaining to stroll through that the Promenade. (IMHO) Every cobblestone street led us to another neat area to explore.

Worn out and happily satisfied, we climbed into the car to head home. Just between the Promenade and the highway was a station with fairly cheap gas, so I pulled in to fill up. Jo, as usual, headed inside to grab a Dr. Pepper and some snacks. She came back out grinning like a cute crocodile. "You've got to see this! Park the car and come inside." Naturally, I whined. "I don't want anything, I just want to get on the road!" So, naturally, I parked the car and followed my wife inside the White Oak Station ... the "gas station."


Some gas station! It's a gourmet grocery store with a high end meat market and hand made gourmet pizza shop. I was absolutely blown away. Remember, now, the last time we were here was just three years ago and there was nothing ... nothing in this entire area. (Check Google maps here - nothin' but pasture land.) We spent over an hour in that "gas station," drooling over delicacies and eating some of the best veggie pizza around. We left with imported Irish and English goodies, olives, breads, and definite plans to return soon to do it all over again.


What's this article all about? Well, it's not about NWA or Hyatt, Promenade, or even the first gourmet gas station. It's about getting away. Together.

You see, when you are in love - really in love with your spouse (as you all should be), it shouldn't matter where you are or what your surroundings are. Because ours were just the hills of Arkansas. What should matter is who you're with. Jo and I have been on Fifth Avenue in New York, in a cottage in Adare, Ireland, and in a gas station in Arkansas, and we've never been happier in one place than another, because we're together.

Marriage is what you make it. Make yours great.

The Hyatt Place hotel
The Pinnacle Hills Promenade

Tuesday, July 1, 2008

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.]

Show your STEPfamily Pride!