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Brittany Lynch, RN, BScN, CSC Presents: Stepqueen by The Whole Stepfamily

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Stepmom Sanity Savers: Managing Expectations Part 1

May 6, 2018

My husband likes to make fun of me because I say things like, Oh! This is my favourite song! about 467 different songs. I say, Oh, this is my favourite movie! about 98 different flicks. I say, Omg, this has got to be my favourite food! about literally every food under the sun. I just have a really hard time picking my actual favourite things, ok! Why can there only be one favourite?! I’m a very enthusiastic person!

But when people look at our stepfamily and ask me, How does your stepfamily make it look so easy? When a lady from my fellow stepmom tribe approaches me and says to me, Wow girl, your family is so happy and that’s so rare in a stepfamily. When my stepmother girlfriends are sending me SOS text messages whilst sobbing in their bath tubs with a glass of wine so full they have to sip it from the top so it won’t spill (hey I don’t judge!), asking me for advice on how they can make it through one more weekend with their stepchildren, or handle one more interaction with their stepchildren’s mom, or get their husbands to see things their way just one time, I say something to them like this:

My favourite tip on how to be happy in your role as a stepmother — also known as How to be a Stepqueen (click here for more tips!) — my absolute favourite advice for any stepmom who is feeling challenged in her fragile stepfamily and is looking for some help, is this: learn to manage your expectations. From my experience, there are some pretty clear areas of conflict that stem from expectations a stepmom has. These include expectations she has of her stepchildren, expectations she has of her husband, expectations she has of the mom, and expectations she has of herself. (I really wanted to say trifecta there but I’m not sure what the -fecta is for 4. Ok, I Googled it. It’s quadfecta. Not the same ring as trifecta is it?!). The same is true for the opposites: expectations her stepchildren, husband, and bio-mom have of her. In this post specifically, we will only focus on the expectations the stepmom has for the people in her life; in part 1 we will look at expectations of stepchildren and of our partner while in part 2 we will examine expectations of the ex-spouse and of ourselves.

I should probably start by clarifying what exactly I mean by expectations. An expectation is any way that someone believes someone or something else should behave, look, respond, or otherwise exist in their lives, in order to be considered satisfactory. For example. I have an expectation that the auto-timer on my coffee machine goes off when I set it for the mornings. I have an expectation that Amazon delivers my packages on time. I have an expectation that my dogs stay on a mat at the back door when their feet are muddy. Having higher expectations does not make someone a harsh or unfair person. Having lower expectations does not make someone a flake. But managing your expectations to be reasonable, now that’s the ticket to a happy life — especially when you live in a stepfamily.

Expectations of Stepchildren

If you’re anything like I was when I entered a stepmom role, and you are a woman who did not have kids when she became a stepmother (“The Childless Stepmom” though I don’t love that term — I prefer Childfree Stepmom.), I can totally relate to having tiny humans come and blow up your life for X amount of days and then leave again. Note — I consider that I was a stepmother before my husband and I were married. There are many differing opinions on this but in my view, if you are cohabiting with and cooking meals for and cleaning the toilets of and sharing holidays with your partner’s children, then you are a stepmom.

If you are a woman who prioritized her career over having children, is unable to have children, has chosen not to have children, doesn’t have children yet but would like to, then I think this role is much harder to adapt to than someone who understands the innate dynamic in which a child and his parent interact. Another note — not having biological children does not make you less of a woman and does not negate your value as a stepmother. More on this later.

If you already have kids, then you know sometimes kids can just be jerks. If you don’t already have kids, then when a kid is a jerk, it’s easy to assume this is an abnormal event. That said, if you are a woman who has children from a previous relationship who begins a relationship with a single father, I understand that this includes a completely separate set of dynamics and challenges. Whether you are a stepmom who has or has no children by birth, one is not better or worse than the other, and neither discredits the fact that raising someone else’s babies is exceptionally difficult. (Click here to read why I never wanted to be a stepmother.)

Now, having expectations of our stepchildren is a slippery slope. Mostly because these expectations tend to differ quite substantially than those of their bio-moms and bio-dads. For example, I expect my stepson to clear his dishes following his meal, while my husband happily clears his child’s plate with no concerns. I expect my stepchild (age 10) to be able to put himself to bed at night, while my husband finds it perfectly acceptable and quite enjoyable to spend an hour or longer making snacks, brushing teeth, reading stories, laying together, and solving the world’s problems before turning the lights out. I expect my stepchild to stay in his room all night long after his lights are turned out, while my husband finds it endearing when he shows up in our bedroom an hour or two later. These are all examples of ways I can let my stepchild’s behaviour, and my expectations of that behaviour, drive me absolutely mad if I choose to let it. But as with all things stepfamily — I must choose the hill I want to die on.

When my stepchild acts in a way I think he shouldn’t or doesn’t act in a way I think he should (expectations) I have started to ask myself to follow this rule:

1) Breathe. I do not skip this step. Count to 10. Count to 100. Count to whatever number it takes to count up to until feeling less emotionally charged.

2) Examine if this is a fair expectation. Is it feasible to expect a child of X age to follow X expectation X amount of the time? If yes, then I discuss with my husband and we hold a family meeting. If no, then I examine why I am experiencing an emotional response (feeling angry, anxious, etc).

Example: I expect a 10 year old boy to clear his plate 100% of the time: Fair, but not happening even 10% of the time; discuss at family meeting that this is a way in which he contributes to the household. State When you do not clear your plate after supper, it makes me feel unappreciated. Is there a reason you do not clear your plate? How can we remind you in a way that does not feel like you’re in trouble? Can I count on you from now on to make sure you help out with this? Really listen during these moments. He may be afraid to drop his fork on the floor and make a mess. He may be absent minded. He may just actually not realize that this is something that is important to his contribution to the household. As roles and responsibilities between households will be different for stepchildren, it is absolutely imperative that the children have a clear set of house rules to follow when at your home. “In this house, we clear our plates and say thank-you after supper.” Easy peasy. Communication is crucial in every relationship, not just in a marriage.

Example: I expect a 10 year old boy to do his own laundry — without being asked — at least 50% of the time: I think this is fair but my husband thinks it is an unrealistic expectation. Why does this make me upset? Is it about the laundry or is it because my husband doesn’t agree with me? Am I feeling overburdened at the extra responsibilities that come with having a stepchild? What is MY ROLE in this expectation and how can I get over it? Should I have to get over it? How can I communicate this with my spouse in a productive way so that my feelings are still validated? I find it extremely helpful to phrase my challenges in the following format. When ___ happens, I feel ____. Example, When extra household responsibilities all fall on me, I feel overwhelmed. This, I have learned, will get me to a place where my husband both wants to listen to me and want to find a solution with me. If I were to phrase my challenge like this: When your kid doesn’t pull his weight around here I want to scream. This will cause my husband to become automatically defensive, which in turn will not lead to a solution, which will in turn lead to me feeling as though my husband has chosen his son over me. I doubt any stepmother is unfamiliar with such a feeling, the feeling of being runner-up, of never coming first. Approaching house rules is a team effort meant to be decided upon with your partner, and then presented to the children for discussion. I repeat — listen to what the kids have to say; house rules should not be dictated, but rather, agreed upon by all. This will minimize resentment on everyone’s parts.

3) The 5/5/5 rule: I ask myself: Will this matter in 5 minutes/5 days/5 years from now? If yes to years, then I release from the emotion so that I am not feeling angry/sad/emotionally charged before I confront the situation. Once I feel calm and can approach with a logical mind, I have a discussion with my husband before we hold a family meeting.

Example: Stepchild has a bad dream and shows up in our bedroom. Will this matter in 5 minutes? Likely not, as I can have empathy for him looking for comfort.

Example: Stepchild shows up in our bedroom at least 50% of the time after bedtime and is unable to put himself to bed without my husband. Will this matter in 5 years? Probably, as the issue has been ongoing for years already. I have an expectation that he is able to go to sleep on his own. It is prudent however to have this expectation met. Sleep issues are very real and are very common in children of separated parents. Children do not grow out of being bad sleepers. These are facts, not my opinions. Strategies include encouraging gentle sleep training and/or setting up an appointment with a professional to work through anxiety issues surrounding bedtime. Ensure to include him in the plan that will be implemented in his learning bedtime independence.

Please note that the above are simply examples. What is acceptable and unacceptable from household to household varies greatly. As parenting styles differ immensely between parents, stepparenting styles will also vary. There is no instance in which one way of parenting or stepparenting is better or worse than another way. There are no right or wrong household rules, though there are appropriate ways to manage your own expectations, be realistic, and keep emotions and feelings out of the process to find peace. What works for individual families can only be determined by those who live within the walls of their home.

Expectations of Husband

Please know when I use the words Husband and Marriage, I only do so for sake of ease. I have appreciation for the many, many forms of romantic relationships that people can have with each other and do not consider marriage to be the only way in which someone becomes a stepparent.

Now. I have certain expectations of a romantic partner. These include honesty, transparency, loyalty, and trust. Bonus points for being a babe. (Kidding! Kinda.) I expect to be treated with respect. I expect to be safe from physical and emotional harm caused by a partner; having myself survived an abusive relationship, I hope everyone has this expectation of their spouse. But other than expectations to be treated as I, or any human deserves to be treated, my expectations for my husband end.I believe this to be one of the main reasons that we have such a strong relationship.

Managing my expectations, replacing expectation with appreciation, and focusing on the things my husband does, rather than the things he does not, is a really good recipe for a happy marriage.

I appreciate, rather than expect, when he helps me around the house. Although it is both of our responsibility to keep our household running, I do not expect him to perform specific duties, nor does he expect the same of me. If the grass gets a little bit too long, if the dishes are left on the counter for the night — that’s okay. I do not expect him to be perfect, nor does he expect me to be perfect. If he folds the towels differently than I do, I don’t nag him or go behind him and re-fold his handiwork (anymore). If there is something specifically that he isn’t doing that would really help me out, then I communicate this with him instead of expecting him to read my mind. “You never take the garbage out when it’s full” is a lot less productive than “It would really help me out if you could take the garbage out when you notice that it needs to be emptied.”

Here is a simple recipe for turning expectations into appreciations:
1) Husband does X that annoys me because I have en expectation that he does/doesn’t do X. (Leaving the toilet seat up)
2) Ask myself, what is the opposite of X? (Putting the toilet seat down)
3) Pose the following to husband: “Honey, I would really appreciate if you could help me out by (insert #2). (Honey, I’d really appreciate if you could remember to put the toilet seat down)
4) When he does this, reinforce your appreciation by expressing your gratitude. (I’ve noticed you’ve really made an effort to remember to put the toilet seat down, thank you so much! Now I don’t fall in in the middle of the night!)

Notice the difference from: “UGH, what is wrong with you?! Why do you always leave the toilet seat up?! Don’t you ever think of anyone but yourself?!” Which would you prefer to respond to?

Toilet seats are an easy example, but this recipe can be applied to parenting, co-parenting, dealings with ex-wives, finances, household responsibilities, and every other expectation you can think of. Try it, I pinky swear that it works.

I do not expect him to have zero social life outside of me. It is often me doing the encouraging that he does things like go to a hockey game or drop in for a beer with his friends. My husband works out of town for 10-day long stretches before he rejoins our family for 4 days at home. He spends less than 100 nights per year in his own bed — less than 100 days per year spending time with the people he loves. Now add in the juggling act of his first son whom he shares custody with, a brand new baby, and a Pisces wife — the man has his hands full. Yet, he never complains. He makes time for everyone both individually and as a family. It is so important that he realizes that making time for himself is just as important as making time for all of us.

Other unfair expectations I’ve come to identify that I have learned to manage: Expecting to be his only priority. Expecting his ex-wife and his financial obligation to her to disappear. Expecting his son to disappear. Expecting him to not have had a life before me. Expecting him to parent the same way that I do. Expecting him to discipline the same way that I find appropriate. Expecting him to talk poorly of his ex-wife (he never has, and I imagine he never will); this has been one of the best things that could have happened in our relationship as I realize now that trash-talking his ex won’t change a single thing about whatever it is that I have my panties in a knot for. Will rolling my eyes each time she gets her alimony change the fact that she is entitled to it? Will mocking her for whatever I perceive to be her shortcomings make me feel better about myself? Blowing out someone else’s candle won’t make your flame burn brighter.

I’m sure I could list 100 more expectations that I have learned to manage over the years. Learning to manage expectations within the dynamics that make up our stepfamily has become one of the most valuable tools in maintaining the happiness within our home. If I find myself getting annoyed, I simply ask myself “Is this an unfair expectation?” If yes, then I try to let it go. If it is an expectation then, as a family, we find a way to solve the issue. 99% of the time, this is through the simple (but not easy) means of communication.

 


How have you allowed your expectations set you up for disappointment? Can you identify one or two expectations, either with your stepchildren or your partner, that you can either let go or work through so that you are no longer negatively affected?  As Stepqueens, we are committed to ending negative Stepmother associations. How have you recently risen above the Stepmonster label? Comment below with your thoughts, or click here to drop me a line!

 

One Response

  1. Thank you so much for this article. I have struggled being a stepmother for 16 years and now realise why – I have simply unreasonable expectations of the now adult children to do things right 100% of the time when I don’t expect the same from my own daughter. i had never understood why but now see that I was viewing it all wrong and need the 5/5/5 rule in my life. I can honestly say this is the first time I have read something that totally resonates. I absolutely loved the strategies and the stuff about it never being the same as being their bio mum no one has ever articulated this in a way that says they get it. I totally align to your thinking and attitude. Brilliant piece.

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