Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Questions Answered – May 11, 2010

I recently became step-mother to a 6-year-old boy. He's a great kid and we generally get along very well. Also, my husband allows me to act parentally toward his son, so I think we overall have a good thing going. That said, sometimes it is apparent that the child is really jealous of the attention his father gives me, and he physically pushes his way between us, or interrupts us and age regresses a bit to get his father to pay attention to him. I certainly understand... I mean, he's 6 and probably on some level I represent the fact that his parents are NEVER getting back together, and until I moved in, he always had his dad to himself when he was over.

Anyway, even though I do understand and don't blame him, I still wonder what would be a good way to handle it. Thank you, ladies!
--The Un-wicked Stepmother

Millie Answers:

First of all, congratulations on your marriage! Step-parenting has gotten a very bad rap, but it can be one of the most rewarding relationships of your life.

You’re right – your stepson is jealous of the attention his father gives you. This is completely understandable and developmentally appropriate, and some of the time you’ll just have to suck it up. (It may help you if you know that a six-year-old would be jealous of the attention his father gave you even if you were his birth mother.)

It’s up to your husband to make it clear, however, that you have every right to be there in the middle of this new family. He should not let the boy push his way between you; he can turn it into a “Family Sandwich Hug!” or pull the boy around to his other side, with a squeeze and a cheery, “There! Now I’ve got one for each arm!” Your stepson will soon realize that you are a permanent fixture if his father makes it clear to him.

You and your husband should decide very early (and in private) what the Rules of the House will be, and then call a family meeting (around the kitchen table – treats will help) to share them. (One of those rules should be that children do not interrupt adults when they are talking.) Note that I didn’t say DISCUSS them, as they are not up for debate. This first family meeting is also a good time to explain that the three of you ARE a family; that it doesn’t take anything away from what he has with his mother, but that it adds something new. Then have a discussion about something fun, like what movie you’ll see this weekend or where to go on vacation next summer, and adjourn; that’s enough for the first time.

You will ask for input, though, when the three of you talk together about punishments and consequences. It’s important, you see, to get it out in the open that the consequence for talking back is 5 minutes in the Time-Out Chair so that when your husband isn’t home you can send the kid to the chair without a lot of “my father wouldn’t do this!” back-chat.

In general a Six is a genial, happy little soul most of the time, and quite old enough to talk to if you feel compelled to do so. You can say to a six, “You know, Jimmy, I’m never going to try to take your mother’s place. I know you love your mom, and I know we both love your dad. It’s gonna be a little weird at first while we’re getting used to each other, but just remember: Now you have THREE adults who love you. Let’s go get ice cream.” (Because a good stepmother is never afraid to stoop to bribery.)

A few observations from my personal experience:

He might be very confused about what he should call you but may be too shy to ask. DON’T ask him to call you “Mom.” If you’re not comfortable with him calling you by your first name, work together to come up with some cute nickname that you can both live with. Half my kids call me by my first name. We banished the word “step” from our household, so since they can’t introduce us as “my dad and stepmom” or “my mom and stepdad” they say, “These are my Parent Units,” which makes us really memorable at parent-teacher conferences when they show up with 1 mom and 2 dads. For a while when Rocky and Joy were taking high-school French the kids called me “Belle-Mere,” which is “stepmother” in French and I totally adored, but alas, it didn’t last through the summer.

Occasionally we will make the decision to withdraw a curfew or suspend a punishment, and in the beginning my angel husband would sometimes tell the child, “It was against my better judgment but Millie talked me into it.” A stepmom can use all the good PR she can get.

During the brief period that Lance and Birtha shared custody, she spent a lot of time telling the kids they didn’t have to listen to me or follow our rules. The kids never believed that for a second, but it sure did infuriate me. I credit the family meetings and the frank discussions for the fact that our new family was stable right from the beginning.

Finally, I know it doesn’t always go this way but I got incredibly, incredibly lucky with my kids – I love all six of them with the same white-hot fervor. You may be astonished at how much you will come to adore your stepson. Your job isn’t easy and it may seem thankless a LOT of the time, but don’t give up. You set the tone in your new home, and if it’s a place of happiness, stability and fun, your stepson will come to love it – and you.

Even if he never says so.

The Stepmother’s 10 Commandments

Never show fear. They can smell fear.

You are not, nor shall you ever be, his mother. That doesn’t mean that being a stepmother is second-best. You might be better.

In all matters where you can’t agree or compromise over something relating to the child, the father must prevail.

You must never, ever lie to this child. He has been through enough. Even if he resents you he must be able to believe you.

The child does not have to love you but he does have to treat you with respect. It is the father’s job to ensure that he does.

You do not have to love this child but you do have to treat him with respect. It is YOUR job to ensure that you do.

You and your husband must present a united front at all times. Report to each other all conversations with the child, especially at first – he will test to see if he can play one of you against the other.

If you bring children to the marriage too, or if you and your husband have children together, be very careful to treat the children equally. Know up front that any given child will think that the others get special privileges no matter how equally you treat them.

Don’t do or say anything in front of this child that you wouldn’t do or say in front of his mother.

Forget Cinderella. You have the right to love this child.

Mollie Writes:

Amen to the Millie.  I haven't done the Belle-mere thing, but I certainly like that expression better than step-mother.  
A couple of random stabs at advice:  Can you volunteer in his classroom? He's six so he's either in first grade or kindergarten.  Being a parent unit (I like that one, too, it's so high-tech, so nerdy, so US) in a classroom situation will help.  His friends will bond with you, meaning that his ability to bond with you will be improved.  Seeing other adults (teachers, principals, other parents) interact with you as a co-parent will also smooth the road and lend credibility to your new status in his life.
Is there something important in his life that you can take up in yours?  Monster trucks and dinosaurs were subjects my kids couldn't get enough of when they were that age.  As a result, we spent a lot of time at Monster truck rallies, OMSI (a Portland area science museum) and related events.  Taking him to such an event, one-on-one, might also ease your admission into his inner-circle of loved and trusted adults.  Just a lunch out is special, if it's just the two of you.  
You haven't said if there are other kids in the household, or whether or not you work outside the home as well as inside the home.   Can you take him to work on "Take Your Kid To Work Day?"  Has he met your childhood family and does he have friendships with kids his age in that cluster of folks?  Having yet another set of grandparents is a big plus if your family is "into" your new family.  New cousins may also be a source of connection.
You are all one wonderful family unit now - so enjoy your new role.  Let us know how things go!

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much, ladies! I think I am on the right track here---or at least we are in agreement on many things!---and I think my husband is doing fairly well, too. Anyhow, great advice and lots to think about. I may even share this blog post with him. I'll let you know how things go over the next while!


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