Why Aren’t I Comfortable Around My Stepchild?

Photo Credit: smarnad

Photo Credit: smarnad

Have you struggled with not feeling 100% comfortable around your stepchild? I’m not talking about when you first meet and things are awkward, I’m talking about years after you’ve met, even if you really like or love your stepchild, when they’re in the house you can’t fully relax?

I’ve written previously about many possible reasons: lack of reciprocity, general difficulties of being a stepparent, you’re an introvert, etc… But here’s another possible reason. Let me explain something first.

The Six Human Needs

In Robbins-Madanes training we learn that there are 6 universal human needs – and every action, belief or feeling is an attempt to meet one or more of those needs. The 6 human needs are:

  • Certainty – comfort, knowing, structure, safety, avoidance of pain, pleasure
  • Uncertainty/Variety – stimulus, adventure, excitement
  • Love and connection – feeling connected to others or being loved and loving
  • Significance – feeling important, unique, worthy of love
  • Growth – intellectually, emotionally and mentally developing, learning
  • Contribution – contributing beyond yourself

You can try to meet these needs in positive ways, such as building a business, donating to charity or meditating or in negative ways such as causing drama, having an addiction, overeating, overspending, etc…

Most people usually value two of the needs more than the others. As you can imagine, someone whose top need is Certainty will live a very different life than someone whose top need is Uncertainty/Variety.

Take a moment here to think about which are your top two needs.

Your Top Needs Determine Your Experience

Now, back to your stepchild. Let’s say for example that your top two needs are Certainty (safety, structure and comfort), and Love/Connection. If Certainty is more valued than Love/Connection – even by a hair, you’ll find it very difficult to give Love/Connection until your Certainty need is met. Herein lies the problem.

Because for many stepmoms living with a stepchild is anything but certain and comfortable. We watch what we say, how we dress, what we do. Maybe the kids don’t clean up after themselves, adding to your uncomfortableness in your home. Maybe the schedule is flexible and you never know when they might drop in. Maybe they’re difficult and you never know how they’re going to behave.

So as long as Certainty is valued most, and since stepfamily life is always Uncertain, your actions won’t convey Love or Connection, because usually we have to have our top need met before the others can be met.

When Love is More Important Than Comfort

But if you decide to put Love first- or if by nature you’re a lover but have unknowingly been putting Certainty first, suddenly the game changes. And I’d guess, from all the women I’ve met and worked with through the years, that love IS actually most important to you.

When Love is first, your heart is open. And when your heart is open you want to give. You want to say “yes” more often. You want to be more kind and loving. To be clear, this doesn’t require you to love your stepchild, it just means your actions are coming from a place of love – from an open heart. And you’ll find that loving or giving – without expecting anything in return – will actually fill you up.

And then you know what happens? Something very paradoxical. You won’t need the clean and/or the quiet house to be comfy, because that’s no longer your number one priority. Suddenly, you’re comfortable around your stepchild anyways! Because you’re meeting your most valued need of Love and Connection by giving it.

Here’s an Example – Shifting Priorities

Here’s an example of how this might play out. Let’s say your teenage stepchild wants to have a sleepover. His friends are good kids, but of course bring an added element of “uncertainty” (uncomfortableness) to the house: think noise and messes. So when you’re valuing Certainty more than Love (especially if Uncertainty/Variety is VERY low on your list), your initial instinctual reaction will often be to say “no” to the sleepovers, because sleepovers definitely DO NOT meet your Certainty need. But you might every once in a while begrudgingly say “yes”  – because you’re not a total jerk.

But when Love is first, your default is “yes” because your heart is open, you want to give and you want your stepchild to be happy. You’re also not thinking about meeting your need for comfort because Love is more important to you. You may say “no” once in a while if you’re extremely tired or had a bad few days, but the “no” will be coming from a different place and will have a different energy behind it.

Evaluate Your Needs

If you feel consistently resistant to new people and experiences or if you’re often on edge because you’re watching everything your stepchild does – or even anticipating his next move, you’re likely trying to meet one of your needs – which isn’t Love and Connection. Which need is it?

The thing to remember about love is that it’s not about getting, it’s about giving. If you focus on that first, you’ll find the resentment, uncomfortableness and annoyance sort of just… disappear.

Now think about what your top two needs are. How have they determined the course of your life? What would change in your life if one of them changed? What effect would that have on your relationships? On your happiness?

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Stepparenting and the Expectation of Unconditional Love

Photo Credit: Stockimages

Photo Credit: Stockimages

I’ve seen some really unhelpful and damaging advice given by parenting “experts” instructing stepparents to simply “Love the kids as your own, unconditionally.”

The advice, or rather, instruction, that you should love a child as your own is bad enough, but the addition of “unconditional” is just preposterous.  If most stepparents were actually capable of unconditionally loving a child who isn’t theirs, don’t you think they would? Life would be SO much easier with unconditional love!

Unfortunately, for most stepparents that’s just not possible.  (Yes, there are a few stepparents who claim to love their stepchildren unconditionally – and that’s GREAT for them and their stepchildren. Obviously this article isn’t for them – it’s for the other 99%.)

To expect someone to have the ability to love another’s child unconditionally, whom they’ve just met, and may or may not even like, is unrealistic.

Have you ever tried to love someone who is disrespectful to you? Who ignores you? Who your personality totally clashes with? Who lies about you? Who tries to push you away? Who wishes you didn’t exist? Good luck with that.

Even with a child you actually like and get along with, love can take years to grow, especially if the child is older. Unconditional love is something usually reserved for the parents who created the child.

There are certain exceptions, such as adoption, but I believe that’s because the whole purpose is to have the child as your own – as opposed to stepparenting where the purpose is marriage and the partner happens to have a child- who often already has two active parents.

I guess the real problem with this advice is the word “should.” It insinuates that if you don’t or can’t, you’re doing something wrong and bad. “Should” makes it seem like it’s the “right” thing to do, therefore if you don’t unconditionally love your stepchild, you’re wrong. Which is total BS.

Many stepparents who are told they should love their partner’s child unconditionally feel like failures when reality sets in and it doesn’t happen. This expectation also puts undue pressure on the child. The child doesn’t love you unconditionally either – how can they? They’re still getting to know you. They didn’t choose you and you didn’t choose them – you chose their parent.

So to all you stepparents who feel like failures because you don’t love your stepchild, never mind unconditionally, I’m here to let you off the hook. I’m here to tell you that it’s nearly impossible to do so and that you can still have a fulfilling, amazingly close, wonderful relationship with your stepchild – with or without the love.

Without the unrealistic expectation of having to love another’s child unconditionally, you’re allowed to be yourself. It takes the pressure off of everyone and gives the relationship space to evolve naturally over a matter of years. Remember, stepfamilies start to feel like family in terms of years, not months.

So forget the expectation of (unconditional) love. Instead, go for like. Go for respect. Go for compassion and understanding. Go for having fun and enjoying them. Go for finding things in common and cultivating a positive relationship with them. After all, positive relationships are created by everyday, little interactions and acts of kindness. Love, if it happens, is just the icing on the cake. Nice, but certainly not necessary.

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Guest Post: What Stepkids Wish You Knew

StepkidsIt’s not easy being a stepkid.  I know – it’s not easy being a stepmom or stepdad, either. But as much is often written for and about stepparents, an integral part of fast-growing blended families isn’t always truly addressed – the kids themselves.

As an only child but with nine step and half-brothers and sisters – who grew up in four blended families, with four different “father” figures – I’ve had a front-row seat to stepfamily scenarios.  I don’t know if anyone really realizes how powerless a stepkid can feel.  That’s what led me to create the first-ever stepkid anthology, Hey, Who’s In My House?, published by Motivational Press this past October.

It’s an incredibly odd experience for a kid (or for parents, too, probably!) to think “Hey, Who’s In My House?” Stepkids across the country answered my call for submissions. They had a LOT to say!  Some were hurt, some were happy. Some felt torn, displaced or ashamed. Some felt alone and some felt grateful. Some felt hopeful, and some felt helpless. Brave enough to share their vastly different stories, most, surprisingly, had these three things in common.

Little Things Mean a Lot

A new bed, a moved bed, or no bed because new furniture has been ordered. New foods, different foods, spaghetti sauce that’s different than mom makes. Fake vs. real Christmas tree traditions challenged. New rules about television before bedtime. Homework areas that become the hub of other people’s clutter. It’s not easy. And things will change when a blended family begins, adjusts and grows. But parents can acknowledge the little things and maybe go the extra mile to make sure some of a stepkid’s favorite things remain unchanged.

Stepfamilies Are a Strong Part of Their Identities –For Better or Worse

“I believe I am more open-minded since my mother’s remarriage,” writes 20 year-old Meghan Shenefeld, Hey, Who’s In My House contributor.  “I have learned to live with people who think differently than I do and accept things I cannot change.” Even in an abusive situation with her stepfather, contributor Hollie Gremaldi-Flores, decades later, recognizes her difficult days living in a blended family as a teen made her part of who she is today (which, by the way, is a strong stepmom to others!).

They’re Stronger

Contributor Rochelle Amour, age 27, is slowly orbiting back toward her mother after years struggling to grow up in a tumultuous blended family situation, with a trying stepfather and a feeling she belonged “nowhere.”  She hasn’t seen her real father in six years.  “Looking back, I have many feelings of anger, sadness and fear,” Amour reveals.  “But I do not have any regrets.  My childhood was lonely, but I was resourceful.  It was harsh, but I was strong.  It was overwhelming, but I matured early.  In the isolation that defined my childhood, I got to know the most important person in my life very well and early on:  myself.  I finally get to write a story of a hero that does exist – my childhood self.”

I hope the insight stepkids share will make an impact on blended families everywhere, so perhaps stepparents and parents can make some happy memories, and stepkids can know they are not alone.

Guest Post by Erin Mantz, Editor and Contributor, Hey, Who’s In My House? Stepkids Speak Out (Motivational Press October 2015)

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A Stepmom’s Guide to Being a Supportive Partner

Photo credit: ponsuwan.

Photo credit: ponsuwan.

It is easy to be a loving, supportive and kind partner when you are comfortable with how things are going. It’s easy to feel safe and secure when your partner is making parenting decisions that are in alignment with your values. But how supportive are you when he makes a decision with which you don’t agree?

Do you become difficult? Distant? Judgmental? Controlling? Do you feel the need to convince him he is wrong? If so, you are being what I refer to as a fair-weather partner. And it could ruin your relationship.

Why does this happen?

Most of us parent according to our values, and when our values are violated it can trigger a life-threatening feeling in us, causing us to react without thinking. When we feel like our survival is at stake, we try to convince our partner (through any means possible) that he is wrong. It can be a pretty ugly scene.

The problem with this is that your partner has his own values and is attempting to honor them. He has his own reasons for the decisions he’s making—reasons you may never understand. And if you repeatedly challenge him about his decisions, he will feel betrayed.

When a man feels betrayed, he becomes much less interested in meeting his partner’s needs.

What does your partner need?

If you want your relationship to last, your partner needs to know you are on his team even when his team appears to be losing. That’s called LOYALTY.

When you believe in him, even if he hasn’t given you much of a reason to, he often will start to become the winning guy he sees reflected in your eyes. He will trust you. And when he trusts you, he will repay you by making your relationship a priority.

He will be compelled to give you what you need. And he will come to know you as his constant champion—unlike his ex (who berates him when things don’t go her way) or the kids (who get angry when they are not getting what they want) or even his parents (who repeatedly give their unsolicited opinions). As the wife who stands by his side, helping him up when he falls, you will earn his trust and become his haven.

What do you need, in return?

You need to make sure you are taking care of your well-being amidst the many things
in your stepfamily over which you don’t have control. If a decision is being made that affects your time or energy, then your partner should definitely be discussing it with you and coming up with a solution that works for both of you.

If he chooses not to include you, then you need to create boundaries in order to protect your time and energy.

For example, if he and his ex decide (without asking for your input) that your stepchild should attend a new school and they expect you to be the one shuttling him back and forth and that doesn’t work for you, you need to let him know you won’t be available and he will need to find other means.

If he makes a decision that indirectly impacts you, like allowing his child to have unlimited screen time which causes meltdowns at bedtime, you can protect yourself by letting him be fully responsible for bedtime rituals or bowing out of attempts to soothe the child. You can be supportive while creating boundaries. I’ve outlined four ways to begin doing that below.

Let him be the father

It doesn’t matter if you have read all the best parenting books or have already successfully raised your own child. If you push your own agenda onto your partner, he will believe that you don’t think he’s a capable parent.

What you can do is ask your partner if he would like help brainstorming possible solutions to whatever problem he is facing. If he agrees, let him know what has worked for you or what you have learned by educating yourself. But if he doesn’t ask for you help, or if he chooses to go a different route, that’s your cue to let it go.

Give up the need to be right

Looking at decisions in terms of right and wrong will set you up for conflict and disap- pointment. Instead, every time you catch yourself judging your partner’s parenting as wrong, try to reframe it and tell yourself he’s just doing it differently.

Remember that just because your partner does not do things the way you would or wish he would does not mean he is screwing up his kids. And even if he does screw them up (because, let’s face it, all parents screw up their kids a little), then that’s part of their journey.

His parenting decisions may not be “right” for you or your child, but they are right for him—even if the results turn out differently than he intended.

Be a partner first, stepmom second

Know that your main job is to tend to your relationship, not to parent your stepkids
or judge and control the parenting of your partner and his ex.

When you feel an urge to control a situation that is not yours to control, ask yourself: Is it more important for us to have a happy, healthy relationship or is it more important that he raise his kids the way I believe they should be raised?

If you’re leaning toward the latter part of that question, you are going to have a diffcult time being a part of a stepfamily and might want to rethink your priorities.

Accept the reality of your situation

The stepmom is the lone family member who is greatly affected by decisions in which she often has no say. This is the truth of stepfamily life and one of the reasons why being a stepmom is so difficult.

It is one thing to have to live with consequences of your own choices but quite another to have to deal with consequences from choices that others have made. Having a husband who understands this and takes his wife’s feelings into consideration is often the difference between being in a happy or a strained marriage.

At the same time, you must understand there will be times when your partner makes decisions regarding his kids that will negatively affect you. In these cases, he likely perceives that tending to his kids’ needs—in the end—should take precedence over protecting your feelings. It doesn’t mean he is a bad husband. It’s just something he has to do. It is yet another piece of the challenging stepfamily dynamic.

What does being supportive look like?

Being supportive doesn’t mean being a doormat and it doesn’t mean selling yourself out. It also doesn’t mean you necessarily agree with the decision you are supporting. It means that you are choosing to respect your partner’s decision. You can show him support by doing the following:

  • Once a decision is made, stop bringing it up. Let it rest.
  • Don’t keep trying to get him to change his mind on an issue you disagree on.
  • Don’t be angry with him. If you truly support him, there is no anger there. There is only respect for his individuality and his right to parent his kids as he sees fit.
  • If his decision leads to a negative consequence, empathize versus criticize: “I’m so sorry, honey. I know this is hard. You did your best. You did what you thought was right at the time.”
  • Don’t ever say, “I told you so,” or any variation of that. Throwing his failures in his face isn’t respectful or supportive. It’s childish.
  • Don’t probe him about the situation. Let him come to you and share when he’s ready.

By being a supportive partner, as opposed to a partner who has to have everything go her way, you are doing your part to honor your relationship and ensure its survival.

You are showing up as a woman who respects her partner by being kind and loving as he grows as a parent and a person. And, most importantly, you are creating a space for both of you to make mistakes within the safety net of your relationship—a safety net that will serve as the foundation of a rock solid romance that will last long after the last child has grown and left home.


© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Tips for the introverted stepmom

Introverted StepmomThere are many stepmoms struggling to fit in and find peace in their families, not because they don’t get along with their stepchildren, but because they’re introverts in a family of extroverts.  And introverts and extroverts often have conflicting ways of being in the world.

According to Psychology Today, introversion is a personality trait defined as someone whose energy is drained by social interactions; they give energy away when interacting with others.

Therefore they need recovery time, which usually means solitude, to recharge and refill their energy tank. Whereas an extrovert gains energy when they spend time with others. Therefore they feel energized after spending an evening socializing.

Susan Cain, author of the book “Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking“ addresses the misconception that introverts are shy by noting, “Shyness is the fear of social disapproval or humiliation, while introversion is a preference for environments that are not overstimulating. Shyness is inherently painful; introversion is not.”

She also explains that “Introverts may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.”

Other common misconceptions about introverts are that they’re:

  • antisocial
  • boring
  • stuck up
  • lazy
  • selfish

These make sense when you look at them from an extrovert’s mindset. Extroverts are energized by being around others, so someone who thrives in solitude can seem uninterested or uninteresting. But it’s not so.

Introverts can be social and chatty and thoroughly love going to a party, but those activities will drain their energy leaving them with an empty tank.

Different degrees of introversion

There are plenty of people who fall in the middle of the introversion/extroversion spectrum. Some introverts really thrive in quiet spaces and are very quiet, whereas I’m a pretty chatty introvert. There are no hard and fast rules and introversion can look differently depending where you are on the spectrum.

But the one constant is that we all have our energy drained when interacting with others and require solitude to recharge.

For those who fall clearly on one end of the spectrum, living with family members on the opposite end of the spectrum can be challenging.

In regards to how introverts spend their time, most prefer:

  • small groups to large social events
  • reading a book to going to a party
  • quiet to loud environments
  • meaningful conversation to superficial small talk

Can you see how introversion really isn’t conducive to being around kids most of the time?

Parenting/stepparenting is an extrovert activity

The nature of the parent/stepparent – child relationship is often one way; very give – give because kids are self-centered and require a lot of care. Depending on the age of the child, a large amount of interaction with them is required; chatting, playing, etc… but they have very little to give in return, especially to a stepparent who usually doesn’t receive the love and affections that are afforded to parents.

Since an introvert’s energy is such a precious commodity, they prefer to engage in activities with a “high rate of return,” meaning they get something meaningful from the interaction, such as connection. This is why they prefer deep conversations to superficial ones.

So you can see how caring for kids can be an activity that is extremely draining to an introvert – with a pretty low rate of return. The introvert stepmom will give and give and give during her caretaking time with the child and if her tank is low to begin with, it’s sure to be empty by the time she’s done.

And since an empty tank can breed resentment, depression, anger and exhaustion, taking the necessary time to recover and recharge is crucial to an introvert’s well being.

How to educate your family about introversion.

Most people aren’t educated about introversion and extroversion personality traits, so they usually take offense when an introvert wants her solitude.

If your stepkids are extroverts or if their mom is an extrovert and that’s what they’re used to seeing, your introvert ways are going to seem foreign to them. They might think you don’t like them or that you’re boring because you prefer reading a book to entertaining the neighborhood kids. Laying this issue out on the table for all to see can be a real eye opener for everyone involved. 

  1. Have the whole family take this online quiz to see where everyone is on the introvert/extrovert spectrum. http://www.quietrev.com/the-introvert-test/  It can give your family a better understand of how each of you function differently.
  2. Have a conversation about introversion. Depending on their age,  you can use a battery analogy. They probably have a cell phone or gaming device that they can relate to, so explain that when they use the device the battery gets lower and lower until they need to charge it. And if they don’t charge it, the device will run out of power. Liken their usage of the device to your interacting with others.
  3. Have a discussion about how each family member’s introversion or extroversion traits show up. For example, you need to go to your alone zone after a school event where you had to interact with other parents. Or maybe your stepson or partner really thrive when the house is loud and full of people. You can even create a light-hearted way of acknowledging each other’s traits, such as saying “your introversion is showing” or “I see your extroversion is in full force.” This can serve to help family members stop taking the behaviors personally, and instead just calling it out for what it actually is: simple differences in personality.

Introverts need a plan

Introverts need to plan for recovery time because our society really isn’t introvert friendly. It’s assumed if you’re not going, going, going, then there’s something wrong with you. And if you take a time-out, then you’re obviously selfish and/or lack the skills to hack it. By being intentional and planning for solitude, you’re sure not to get caught up in society’s (or even your family’s) unrealistic expectations of you.

Here’s how:

Start by making a list of all the daily extrovert activities you engage in. By being aware of your inventory and energy requirements, you’ll be able to plan for recovery time appropriately.

Your list of extrovert activities might include:

  • kids’ sleepovers at your house
  • after-school activities where you have to interact with the parents
  • birthday parties
  • family dinners with partner’s family – or your own
  • your job

After you have your inventory, think about how much energy you’ll need to get through the activity without feeling like you’ve been run over by a bull dozer. Then schedule in time for solitude before that activity.

For example, if the kids are having a sleepover, let them know that the sleepover will be starting a little later in the evening. If your partner doesn’t support that, then make sure you go to your alone zone with headphones on. Once you feel recharged, you can make an appearance.

If you can’t find solitude before the activity, make absolute sure you plan for some afterwards. This is  non-negotiable.

You’re an adult, in control of how you spend your time. Learning to stand up for what you need will serve you greatly in these situations.

When you create your inventory, take into consideration the following:

  • The length of time of the event. If the event is longer than you’re comfortable with, can you make an early exit? If not, you may need to plan for extra recharge time before or after.   
  • Who’s involved? Will you be interacting with people you’re close to where you might experience a high rate of return? Or will it be mostly strangers and acquaintances, providing you with a lower rate of return?
  • How much interacting will be required of you? For example, an award banquet will require less social interaction than a party and therefore be less draining. 

These will help you determine whether the extrovert activity will yield a higher or lower rate of return. The higher the return, the less recovery time you may need.

A word about work

One of the most common areas introverts might not realize they’re extroverting is at work. Does your job require you to have face-to-face meetings throughout the day? Are you on the phone making calls all day long? Giving presentations? Interacting with people throughout the day? Most jobs require extroverting, so you’re going to be exhausted and need recovery time when you get home.

But then you get home and the kids are there and you’re expected to immediately jump into caretaker role, making dinner, watching the kids etc… Let your partner know that you need some recovery time before you jump into your stepmom role.

If you’re finding that’s impossible, then take a few extra minutes in the car on your way home.  Be creative and make it happen. No one benefits from you attempting to function on a low or empty tank.

How to live comfortably with extroverts

When it comes to living comfortably, everyone will have to do some compromising, since extrovert and introverts are in such conflict with what energizes them. Here are some suggestions that will help everyone get their needs met:

  • Each family member should have a place they can recharge. A quiet space for the introverts and a noisy space for the extroverts.
  • Instead of allowing kids to have sleepovers every weekend, try every other. Or they can sleep out.
  • If the rest of the family (majority) wants to watch TV or play loud video games, you can go to your quiet zone. Or if a single person wants to play a loud video game, he can use headphones.
  • On the days you have the kids, think about limiting your other extroverted activities. For example, can you schedule less face-to-face work meetings on those days?
  • Have a set time for extrovert activities that take place in the common areas of the house. “OK kids, you can play video games (noisy) for an hour , then I need you to put the headphones on.” That’s what a compromise looks like.
  • Always have an escape route. For example, if I’m going to a social function where I’ll be surrounded by either strangers or acquaintances, I know I’ll be good for 1- 2 hours and then I’ll start to get exhausted and will want to leave. Whereas my husband might want to spend more time there. So I might drive separately or he’ll plan to find another ride home,  so I won’t be stuck there after I’ve reached my limit.

Bonding with extroverted kids

When it comes to bonding with your extroverted stepkids, it will help for you to engage in activities that don’t completely drain you. It’s more important that you’re able to show up and be present for the kids to the best of your ability for a shorter length of time than it is for you to be “on” for hours but in an exhausted, depressed or resentful state.

Shoulder to shoulder activities can be great because they require less direct, face-to-face interaction. These might include cooking, teaching how to knit, coloring, watching a movie or going on a walk. It’s also okay to let the kids know that you’re happy to play for 30 minutes but then you need an adult time out.   

It may seem silly or even ridiculous that you have to plan for recovery time, but you can only benefit from doing so. Most people never think about introversion and extroversion being a reason for conflict or tension, but it often is. Being aware of these differences and having open communication on a regular basis with your family about them can ease some of the tensions and remove the misconceptions about each other.

When we stop taking behaviors personally, we’re free to respect and appreciate each other’s differences. And that makes it so much easier to live in harmony with those who are different than us.


© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

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Tips for becoming a full-time stepmom

Full-time stepmomI couldn’t have imagined that 3 years after marrying my husband who had 50/50 custody, we’d be moving 3000 miles away, gaining full physical custody of both boys (then 14 and 17), while mom stayed put. Nope, I did not see that one coming.

The thing with stepfamily life is you never what’s going to happen. You marry a man with kids who sees them half of the time and you assume it will always be that way. But nothing stays the same.

In my case, we moved in hopes of giving my older stepson a fresh start. So when I was faced with the move, I didn’t think twice, because I knew it needed to be done. But that didn’t mean I was prepared for it.

Going from part-time to full-time custody is one of the most difficult changes you can experience.

Some stepmoms love spending the majority of time with their stepchildren and truly miss them when they’re gone. For these stepmoms, going full-time won’t be as big a challenge – they may even welcome the change. But if you’re one of the many stepmoms who are childfree by choice and/or do the happy dance when the kids go to the other house, transition to full-time stepmom could be extremely difficult for you.

I was one of those stepmoms. Not because of anything having to do with my stepkids, but because I was childfree for a reason.

  • I loved my alone time in my house.
  • I loved that I could clean it and it would stay clean.
  • I loved that my sense of responsibility could shift to myself when the kids were gone.
  • I loved the alone time with my husband.

So if you’re like me in that respect, be prepared to sacrifice all of that.

As a side note, some people believe if you don’t want your own kids then you shouldn’t marry a man with them. I’d have to disagree. I’ve seen a lot of good come from my relationship with my stepkids – even though I never wanted my own.

And many women who didn’t want their own children make wonderful stepmoms. They’re caring and compassionate and can easily model a peaceful existence and healthy adult relationship for the kids – because they’re not looking to fulfill a fantasy of motherhood through their stepchildren – and it doesn’t make them jerks just because they do a celebratory dance when the kids leave.

We dance because we can finally relax.

Break? What break?

One of the most exhausting things about having the kids all the time is that you don’t get a break from being “on.” Many stepmoms don’t feel 100% free to be themselves when the kids are home. Watching what you say, what you wear, what you do – and most of all, that feeling of being responsible for a child – these are always present.

Sure, ultimately the child is your partner’s responsibility, but I believe we have an instinct to be on alert at all times when a child is in our home.

I tried to explain this to my stepson. Him being a well-mannered and very well-behaved 16 year old, can’t understand why I feel a sense of responsibility for him when he’s home – regardless of whether or not my husband is home. But I’m always on alert. What’s he doing? Where is he? What’s that noise? Is he cleaning up after himself?

He’s the most responsible teenager I’ve ever met, and yet I still have those thoughts running through mind, pretty much all the time.

You never know what’s going to happen

Remember when I said everything changes? Even if you have everything planned out, even if it’s written in a custody agreement, things don’t always turn out the way you planned.

Mom’s visits that were supposed to happen every so often stopped happening.

My oldest eventually moved back when he turned 18, but my youngest loved our new home and his visits back to his mom became few and far between (negotiated between him and mom) – which meant my husband and I got even less alone time than expected. And I got even fewer breaks than I had planned on.

It became more important than ever that we carve out the time to connect as a couple.

How can I prepare?

All the preparation in the world won’t fully prepare you, because you can’t know all the road bumps you’ll encounter until they happen, but there are some things you can do ease your transition.

  • Have a discussion about house rules – Talk about what roles and responsibilities all members of the family will have so that everyone is contributing. No more letting kids off the hook because of guilt or any other reason. The full-time gig will only work if everyone is willing to pitch in. And if the kids are resistant, your partner must stand up for you and enforce the rules.

Try this: Go through a typical day from morning to night and think of all the situations that can occur and what challenges might pop up. For example, do the kids usually put up a fight at bedtime, dragging it out for an extended period of time, exhausting everyone? You won’t have the bandwidth to go through that every night, so this is a situation that needs to be addressed and rules enforced around it.  But if your partner refuses to enforce a rule around this, then he can be the one to deal with the child while you put yourself to bed.

  • Plan for your alone time – There may come a time when you think you’re going crazy and just can’t take the pressure. In order to prevent that from happening, you need to be taking care of your own needs. You need to be seeing your friends and doing things you enjoy. This is non-negotiable. Have a plan for your own alone time and self-care. If you’re an introvert, meaning social interaction drains your energy and you need alone time to recharge, your self-care will be even more crucial. 
  • Schedule alone time with your partner – This should be as routine as the kids’ after-school activities and is another non-negotiable. If you and your partner don’t make time for each other, to reconnect and honor the intimacy of your relationship, you will start to emotionally separate. If that happens, your entire situation will go downhill because you won’t have the the strength of your relationship to support you through this.
  • Have a family discussion about what changes will occur and what it might be like to be with each other all of the time, with no break. Ask the kids if they have concerns. I remember light-heartedly saying to my then 14 year old stepson,“Aren’t you a little afraid to live with me full time, with no break?!” He looked at me, shrugged, and said “no.” And that was the end of the conversation. It was clear that I was the one with doubts. But it’s good for kids to know the door is open for them to talk about their fears and expectations. If your stepkids don’t typically open up to you, your partner may need to talk to his children alone to get their real feelings about the move.

Living full-time with a stepchild who exhibits extreme behavior

If the change in custody means living full time with a troubled child, for example one experiencing drug addiction or one who has mental health issues, you might find it very difficult to be around this child, finding every excuse to leave the house.

Do what you need to preserve your sanity.

Find supportive friends, see a therapist or coach who can help you manage your feelings and provide you with tools to survive this.

Your partner needs to understand that if it’s difficult for him to manage his child, it will be 1000 times harder for you. I actually got a second job just to get myself out of the house for the majority of the day.

If you have your own children, you might feel guilty that you’ve placed them in a difficult situation. Ask yourself what can you do for them.

How can you protect them?

Is it better for them to stay at the other house while you have visits with them outside the house?

What other options do you have?

And of course, never stay put if you think your stepchild is a danger to you or your kids. Depending on the severity of your situation, you may choose to live separately from your partner until he does what he needs to do with his child.

It’s not ideal, but it can save a marriage.

What does this mean for my relationship?

A change this drastic can make or break your relationship. There’s potential for separation, but also for closeness. As you know, the dynamic between you and your partner is quite different when the kids are present.

In order to preserve the romance and connectedness, you need time alone. And I’m referring to fun, stress-free time, doing things you enjoy, laughing!  Even if it’s just going out to dinner once a week – it’s vital to your relationship.

It’s easy to make excuses why you can’t get alone time with your husband like you planned to. But it’s more important than ever that you stick to these commitments.

We started having my stepson go to his grandma’s house every few weeks, just so we could have one night alone. He resisted at first as he’s a homebody as much as I am,  but I explained to him that all adults need alone time. And once he was there, he quite enjoyed himself and the spoils that came with it.

Aside from the fun date-night stuff, try to commit to having regularly scheduled time, just the two of you, where you can discuss the happenings of the household. Has something come up that isn’t working for you? Is conflict increasing between you two?

The goal is to stay ahead of any potential relationship wreckers.

You do this by making time for open and safe communication. Safe communication means allowing each other to speak honestly without getting defensive and instead, listening for what your partner is requesting. 

What is he/she asking for?

What isn’t working and how can you work together to help change that?

You must give each other the benefit of doubt and trust that intentions are good.

You’re not complaining for the sake of complaining. Each of you is simply saying that something isn’t working and are asking for each other’s help in finding a solution.

For the Kids

If the child is moving away from the other parent, it’s important to continually encourage a relationship between them and their other parent. Remind them to call or Skype. Depending on their age, how often they contact their parent will eventually be up to them, but it’s important they know you and your partner always support that relationship.

Equally important is that the child still have alone time with the parent they’re living with. This is the perfect opportunity for you to practice your self-care and have your own alone time.

The child may also be fearful of such a huge change. It might mean a new school, new city, new friends, etc… Allow them to express their feelings without any judgement from you. Empathize with them without trying to “fix” things for them.

Consider having them see a counselor if they seem to have trouble adjusting. Sometimes they just need a safe place with a professional who can help them process their feelings.

In the end

Although going full time has the potential to be extremely stressful, it also has the potential to be a gift.

For me, the upside is that my marriage survived the turbulent time with my older stepson and now I get to enjoy my younger one. And I have to say we’ve become pretty darn close.

He shares details about his life without any prompting (what teenager does that?) and I get to watch him grow as a person by leaps and bounds.

My husband and I are teaching him how to drive and have encouraged him to get his first job, so at 16 he became certified lifeguard. He’s becoming very social, independent, has a great network of friends and is becoming an amazing young man.

While I imagine it must be difficult for his mom to hear about these milestones that are occurring in her absence, I feel incredibly lucky to be present for them.

These are memories my husband and I will have forever. These are experiences my husband and I will be looking back at with pride for years to come saying “Remember when…?” 

These are the years that (I believe) are bonding my stepson and I for the rest of our lives. And for a woman who never wanted her own kids, that’s a wonderful, unexpected gift.

This article was originally published in the July 2015 issue of SM Magazine

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

I can help you resolve your stepfamily issues. Click here to see how!

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Stepmoms, step out of arguments between your stepchild and partner

Stepmom keeps the peaceDid you know that most kids will get resentful if their stepparent steps in when they’re having an argument with their parent?

Arguing with their parent is something they’ve been doing for years and it’s something they’re comfortable with. It’s something kids feel they have a right to do, and let’s face it, most kids are just trying to manipulate their parents in order to get what they want. You can imagine how upset they’d be at the person who threatens that, right? So if a stepparent intervenes, the child often thinks “Who the hell are you to get in my way? This is between me and my parent. We’ve been doing this long before you came along. Mind your own business.”

It can be hard as a stepmom to bite your tongue, especially if you’re triggered by their arguing style (loud outbursts, name-calling, raised voices), but unless you’ve known your stepchild for a long time, are well bonded with him and have a successful history of being the conflict whisperer, it’s best to stay out of it.

Stepping in will only cause your stepchild to resist your presence in his life, making your life even more difficult than it might already be – and your partner may also resent your intrusion. After all, he’s a big boy and doesn’t need you saving him. I get that you want to protect him, but he doesn’t need it. Let him handle arguments with his child his way.

I’m sure some of you are thinking “But I have a RIGHT to speak up in my home!” I agree, you absolutely have a right, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best course of action. Having a right to something doesn’t mean it’s what’s going to serve you best in the long run.

Think about what your end goal is: Is it more important for you to exert your rights and try to control someone else’s behavior, or is it more important to preserve future relationships with your family?

Instead, exert the power and control you have over yourself and protect yourself from unwanted behavior. Leave the house if you need to, or put on headphones to drown out the noise.

At a later time, feel free to have a family discussion or even a one-on-one with your stepchild, in a kind manner, about how his behavior affects you. But make sure you’re doing it after the fact, when everyone is calm and not triggered. And make sure your intent is to learn about your stepchild and simply share your experience without attachment to whether he changes or not.

Learning to step out of situations that don’t involve you will save your sanity and in the process you’ll be preserving your relationship with your stepchild. Ya know, for those days when he’s older, more mature and actually a pleasure to be around. 😉

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

I can help you resolve your stepfamily issues. Click here to see how!

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Stepmoms, is less parenting better parenting?

Photo credit: Marin

Photo credit: Marin

For most stepparents, especially stepmoms, it’s easy to fall into a parenting role. You’re helping out with homework, meals, shuttling the kids back and forth, taking them to appointments, etc… Along with that, you probably feel compelled to instill your values, exert your parenting style, and teach them what you think is important for them to learn in order to become responsible adults. But what happens when you suddenly (or not so suddenly) find yourself exhausted, unhappy, frustrated and dreading their arrival?

Here’s the thing: most kids don’t naturally see their stepparents as parents or authority figures. Maybe if the child was very young when you came into the picture, but otherwise, no. So if taking on a parenting role is taking its toll on your well-being and your relationship with them, it may be time to shift your mindset and rethink how you’re doing things.

If you’ve gotten to the point where you find yourself nagging the kids so often that even you don’t like yourself, how do you expect the kids to like you? You might be thinking it’s not your job to have the kids like you, it’s your job to raise responsible children who will become responsible adults. I’m guessing that sort of thinking is what got you where you are now – emotionally spent and having a strained relationship with your stepkids. Which means that way of thinking isn’t working for you.

I’m not saying as a stepparent you can’t teach the kids anything. You absolutely can. But by nature of the stepparent role, the kids are more likely to learn from you by watching your behavior, not by you constantly correcting them. But first they have to like and respect you enough to want to emulate you.

By taking on a role that the kids don’t naturally accept you in and one that’s causing you a crazy amount of stress, you’re missing out on opportunities to enrich your relationship with them. You’re so busy reminding them to put their dishes in the sink and to pick up after themselves that you’re passing up the chance to mean something more than an authority figure to them.

“This may work for others, but not for our situation.”

If you’re a full-time stepparent and/or your partner’s parenting style is permissive, you’re probably thinking this is impossible. You think being less disciplinarian and more relaxed and loving means the house will be a sty and the kids will be running around like maniacs.

Consider these two points:

1. When you relax, your partner might step up and start disciplining more. But if you’re constantly the disciplinarian, he doesn’t have to be, and he doesn’t want to be. Just as you’ve probably become stricter because you see him as too lenient, he likely sees you as too strict and therefore is more permissive than he might otherwise be. This requires a conversation with him. Explain to him that if he stepped up just a little more, you could step down, which would help cultivate a better relationship between you and his kids.

2. Think in terms of having more balance. You can still be relaxed and fun and ask the kids to put their dishes in the sink.  You’d just be doing it in a kinder, more loving way. And, when kids feel like you’re on their side, they’re more likely to listen to and respect you.

So ask yourself…

How would things change for you if instead of feeling your job is to raise responsible stepchildren, it was to teach them how to be authentic and at peace with themselves? What if your job was to be a safe place for them to land? To be kind and open with them? Accepting of them? To laugh more with them?  What if your job was to let the kids see you at your happiest, giving them permission to be at their happiest?  How would that change your life, and theirs?

© 2015 Jenna Korf    All Rights Reserved

I can help you resolve your stepfamily issues. Click here to see how!

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Marrying a man with kids: Planning the wedding

Stepmom wedding

Photo credit: arztsamui.

If you’re in the midst of planning your wedding and find yourself feeling guilty and anxious more often than excited, you’re not alone. Why? Because, if you’re like most couples, you’re likely trying to please everyone around you. Stepmoms, in particular, do more compromising and sacrificing during the lifetime of their marriages than they ever imagined possible. So, it’s really OK to take this one special day and make it all about you and your partner.


Trading In Your Dream Wedding for Child Support

Stepmoms can feel as if their dreams have been dashed now that they’re marrying a man with kids and who has likely already been there and done that. If you’re taking on the financial burden yourselves, instead of going the traditional route of having the bride’s parents pay for it all, money you thought you’d be spending on your dream wedding is likely being sent to the ex—in support payments—on a monthly basis. Ouch! After you’ve cried it out and punched a wall or two at the injustice, relax and know that there are ways to still have a wedding you’re both completely happy with (albeit on a budget). You’ll just need to think outside the box.

Enroll your friends and family to brainstorm DIY ideas and less expensive routes to the altar. From flowers and gift bags to the wedding cake, the possibilities are endless for having a beautiful wedding without the high cost. (Pinterest is a great place to start.) Even the kids can help with this. Put them to work filling gift bags or making homemade treats. If those end up being ugly or tasteless, people will see that as “charming”—since they were, after all, created by the kids.

At the other end of the spectrum, maybe you really just want to elope. Expect to have family and friends chattering in your ear about how rude that would be to the rest of the family. Then go for it anyway! Some people really prefer an intimate, let’s-get-this-done-and-get-on-with-the-marriage sort of deal. Honor your preferences and do what feels right. Remember: This day is for you—not them!

The Ceremony: Kids or No Kids?

Some women view weddings as purely romantic events. For them, the thought of involving kids feels very… wrong. Other women truly believe that when they marry their partner, they’re also making a vow to love his kids. That’s great, if that works for them. But many stepmoms-to-be don’t feel this way.

If you’re not head over heels for your stepchildren or are dealing with a lot of conflict where they’re concerned, don’t feel bad about not including them in the wedding ceremony. If making vows to them feels inauthentic, don’t do it.  However, if your own kids have a part to play in the ceremony, you really do need to incorporate your stepchildren, too. Including your own children while excluding his will label you an evil stepmom quicker than you can say, “I do!”

If you didn’t have plans to include his kids in the ceremony but it’s important to him, try to find a satisfying middle ground. Is there an alternative upon which you could agree? Could you involve them in a pre-wedding ceremony so they feel special and he feels good about it? Perhaps the kids can come up and light a candle during the ceremony. Something like that can be meaningful for one of you and still noninvasive for the other. Sit down and talk about what’s really important to each of you. Then come to an agreement with which you’re both happy.

The Wedding Party: Brace Yourselves

Talk about being destined to disappoint! There will be folks you hope will be involved but who will refuse. And there may be folks who you don’t want touching your wedding with a 10-foot pole but who will just assume they’ll take center stage. Boy, can this be awkward. If the groom’s friends or family aren’t interested in participating because they already took part in his first wedding, it’s the bride’s duty to not take it personally. You might feel hurt or judge them as being rude, but they get to decide what’s right for them. Their decision doesn’t have to mean anything negative about you. It doesn’t have to mean that they prefer the ex or that you, the bride, aren’t good enough. (Admit it: You know you went there.) It just means they’re choosing not to do this again.

But what about those who want to be involved? How do you turn down people who expect to be a part of your wedding? There’s no easy way to do this. Their feelings will be hurt. But, again, that’s because they’re making it about them and taking it personally. If they haven’t been supportive of you and you don’t feel particularly close to them, why should they be involved in such an intimate event and play such a large role in it? Because society says they should? Because they’ll be angry if you don’t include them? You can kindly let them know that you’re involving your oldest friends and family or that maybe you’ve just decided not to have any bridesmaids or groomsmen at all. It also might lessen the blow if you can think of a less direct way for them to be involved. Is there something you need help with that might help them feel important?

A Familymoon Is Not a Honeymoon

With first families, the couple usually bonds first and then has kids. Stepfamilies don’t have that luxury, as the kids predate the new couple. A honeymoon is the perfect time to celebrate your new marriage and solidify your own bond. Quality time and connection is the goal here. You might feel pressured, by those around you, to include the kids in your honeymoon. Maybe dad isn’t comfortable leaving the kids for a few days. Maybe his family (or even your family) is looking at you like you’re a monster for wanting some alone time with your new husband. That’s because they don’t understand the intricacies of a stepfamily. They don’t know that it’s actually better for your family if the two of you spend quality time together.

Then again, maybe you have no other options. If this is the case, just know that bringing the kids on your honeymoon will completely change the dynamic. Instead of a honeymoon, you’ll be on a familymoon—otherwise known as a family vacation. In this case, consider going to a place that offers kid-friendly options where the kids get to do fun things and are basically babysat for a good portion of the day. It might even be worth it to delay the honeymoon for a bit, but don’t delay it indefinitely. Make a commitment to plan a time in which the two of you get that honeymoon you so deserve!

Some kids won’t understand why their parent and stepparent left to go on vacation without them, not grasping the goal or tradition of a honeymoon. They may feel left out or rejected, especially if they’re being raised in a kid-centric household. It’s their parent’s job to simply explain that this is “a trip just for the adults” and that sometimes adults do things without their kids. Explain that it doesn’t mean they’re not loved and cared for. It’s really OK and healthy to tell your children, “No,” once in a while.

Decide for Yourself

It’s easy for me to sit here and tell you to follow your heart, even if that means you may hurt others people’s feelings. But you know yourselves, your friends and your families best. If you think they’ll feel snubbed and they’re known to hold lifelong grudges, maybe it’s not worth it to exclude them or the kids. Decide for yourselves what the lesser evil will be: Looking back on a wedding day that wasn’t exactly what you hoped for? Or dealing with family members who hold onto their hurt for years to come?  Just know that if you decide to sacrifice what you really want for the happiness of others, you must embrace that choice and let go of any anger or regret you might have about it. You’re not allowed to be angry with them later.

While planning to tie the knot, you will likely receive well-intentioned but misguided advice from family members and friends. It will probably be something along the lines of, “Don’t be so selfish” or, “You need to do things differently because now you’re a family!” Except, in this case, it’s unlikely they’ve ever been in your shoes. They don’t understand that it can take a stepfamily several years to integrate to the point where everyone is feeling and behaving like a family. Stepfamily relationships develop slowly over time. Choosing what’s right for you, in regard to your wedding, isn’t going to hinder that.

Showing each other and your children (biological or step) kindness and respect every day is more important than whether or not you include them in your wedding ceremony or take them along on your honeymoon. In the end, what’s most important is your marriage—not your wedding.

This article first appeared in the June 2015 issue of stepmom Magazine.

© 2015 Jenna Korf     All Rights Reserved

I can help you resolve your stepfamily issues. Click here to see how!

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