Step-Parenting: Five Things I’ve Learned.

BoysEdited (1)

“Love is a verb, not a noun.”  – Many

I can’t find a direct source for this quote, but it’s the one thing that comes to mind when I think of step-parenting. And, I wish we had a better word for step-parenting, step-moms, step-dads, etc. I hear “bonus” used a lot in place of “step,” which is nice, but still doesn’t hit exactly home for me. If it works for you, that’s what matters.

Five years ago I met a really great guy. I wasn’t in the market for two really great kids, but they just happened to come along with the package. I had never once thought of taking this kind of package on either. Despite the fact that my age was making that a greater possibility in terms of the men I might meet, and that I had the experience of having step-parents myself as a child.

I assure you that I could probably write multiple posts on this topic given the experiences I’ve gained.  While I’m always hesitant to tout any kind of expertise, I will say that I’ve sought the advice of many, consulted books and other resources, and continually evaluated myself on this journey, recalibrating as I need to do so. The one thing I will say to those who do step-parent, and to you, if you are considering this route, or just beginning it, my hat is off to you because you are taking on something of huge proportion. It is no easy task and some days are easier than others, but it is ultimately incredibly rewarding.

Having now experienced the birth of my own child and step-parenting, I will tell you that I often think step-parenting is harder. We, as step-parents, are called to parent  – provide guidance, routine, warmth, love, kindness, aid development – when the children are in our home, because we just are, but we are also always trying to walk the line, find the boundary, know our place. All of this without that one piece that gives us a primal drive to do this:  biology.

Here are five of the top things I’ve learned:

  1. Ease into your role. If at all possible, wait to meet the kids of your new significant other until you both feel that this relationship is for the long haul.  Children don’t need to be included in mom or dad’s dating life until it’s someone that really counts. Some people feel a year is the marker for this. I will say that my husband and I didn’t wait that long, but I think we both felt sure it was right and so I did meet them fairly early on.  Remember that you are going to be an adult that this child becomes attached to in some way. If you think it’s not for you, don’t meet the kids.  When you do meet the kids, remember that slow and steady wins the race, and really there is no race. Get to know the kids as people. What do they like? What do they dislike? What is their relationship like with each parent? Allow them to warm up to you in their own time and in their own ways.  Don’t go heavy on affection – hugs – and allow children to take the lead on this, especially the older they are when you meet them.  As the relationships develop and as your commitment deepens to your partner, you may become a “step-parent” or have another endearing nick name the kids give you, but don’t push it. Let the kids lead this. Allow their parent to be the disciplinarian, and when you are more firmly established in a parental role, you may take some of this on.
  2. Show up to their lives. While children will not always articulate it, you are an important adult figure and caretaker – especially as time goes on.  They look for you to be a part of their lives and their activities, most of the time. Again, much depends on age. At the very least, show an interest in what they are doing. Ask them about school or sports or their friends. Listen to them and make eye contact while doing so.
  3. Articulate and display their importance at big milestones. Keep conversations at age-appropriate level for kids and tell them things about these big steps that are relevant to them.  The younger they are, the more brief these conversations might be. Ask them if they have any questions. When my husband and I got engaged, we told the boys about it the next day.  When I asked them what they thought about it, they smiled and said they were happy, but then the youngest asked if we had other kids whether we’d love those kids more than them (ask me how I tried not to cry).  Remember, this is a child’s mind and a child’s question. I told him that all kids would always be equal in our home.  Then they both smiled and said, “Ok, can we go home and play now?” At our wedding, we included them in the ceremony and during my pregnancy with our daughter we kept them guessing each week at her size, with fruits or vegetables, and asked their input on what we should name her or what they thought it would be like when she arrived. When she did arrive, we made sure they could see us and her as soon as possible and stay with us so that they could also bond with their new sibling.
  4. Accept your role. Know that you will never be this child’s number one, nor should you ever try to be. Their mother and father will be, and that’s the way of the world and the way it should be. But you do have an important role to play as an adult, mentor, and friend in their lives. I think of it as a “trusted advisor” or a “steward.”  You will not be one of the primary decision makers for them, unless called upon to do so by both parents, but you will be someone that can be viewed as a consultant for opinions and thoughts. Your experience matters, but you just may be more of a “wing-man.” And, that’s ok. It’s still an important role to play.
  5. Create tradition in your home. Kids (and adults) crave routine. They want to know it’s safe and safety is known to kids through routine and consistency. As much as possible, be steady with your routine. Get home from work and spend time together as a family, develop rituals and tradition around meal times and find favorite places to go out to dinner. At birthdays and holidays, determine what your traditions will become, and include the kids in doing this.  For a while we never had an Elf on the Shelf at our house, but the kids asked us one day why the Elf wasn’t at our house. So we thought, well, better get an Elf. Clyde Jr. (Clyde is the Elf at their other house) thus made his appearance on the scene.

In terms of the child’s other parent, always be kind, courteous and respectful toward them, no matter how they treat you.  And, never speak ill of that parent in front of their children. That person makes up one half of that child, and remember, your spouse had children with them, so they can’t be all that bad. It puts children in an awful predicament to hear negative things about their parents. End story. The only exception to these rules is if there is abuse or neglect going on, and that should be handled with the proper authorities and with the right direction on how to speak to children about such matters.

Finally, go easy on yourself and take care of yourself.  Realize that it’s ok for you to set aside some time for yourself when the kids are in your home.  For two reasons: one, they need time with their parent alone and, two, you need time to be YOU. For your sanity and the sanity of everyone else.  Every so often you might feel like the kids are visitors or intruders, and this is a normal feeling, but remind yourself that you want these children to feel like it’s their home too, to feel safe, secure, wanted and loved at the end of the day. The same way you wanted to or did feel as a child. Dig deep if you have to, because some days you will have to dig deep, and that doesn’t make it any different than parenting of any kind. The fewer expectations you have of what it should be like, the less disappointed you will be and bear in mind that all step-families are different. What works for one person, doesn’t always work for another. If you need it, get some support from people who have walked the road ahead of you, a good therapist, or find a good book on the topic.

Sometimes I joke and say that the boys were my “training wheels” for parenthood. They have taught me so much about myself as a person. About my limits and my shortcomings, but also my ability to overcome those limits and shortcomings and where I can lean into my strengths. They’ve made me a better person, and I had no idea any of that was coming my way the day I met their dad.

 

 

 

 

 

Becoming.

“People are just as wonderful as sunsets if you let them be. When I look at a sunset, I don’t find myself saying, ‘Soften the orange a bit on the right hand corner.’ I don’t try to control a sunset. I watch with awe as it unfolds.” – Carl Rogers

(Side note: I am back after a hiatus that included an extended family summer vacation and setting up a new office space – please see my post just before this one with photos of my new space!)

At my daughter’s 4-month old appointment with her pediatrician I said, “I don’t know, she’s just not laughing a lot yet.”  The pediatrician turned to me and said dryly, “Guess you guys better work on your material.” This is precisely why we chose this pediatrician, after working with another for a couple of months who just wasn’t a good fit, she tells it like it is and she doesn’t stress much about our child’s development. I trust she would if there was a reason to stress, but she suits us well. And, she caught me in that moment.

She caught me thinking my daughter “should” be a certain way that she was not being. For the self-aware person, if you want to quickly see how one easily projects ideas and expectations onto the behavior of another, look no further than child rearing. Fortunately, I can catch myself in these moments – most of the time, because hey…I’m not perfect – and realize my daughter is becoming exactly who she is meant to become without my dictation. Sure, maybe she’ll do and say some things like me or her dad or her siblings, and some of that does come from the nurture side of the nature/nurture equation. But, I’m inclined to believe that these little humans show up with some things, perhaps even many things, that are just who they are.

More recently, she was working on her rolling skills – back to tummy, that is – and our older children were cheering her on.  The youngest of the older sibs, said, “We believe in you!” as she kept struggling to turn over. I realized he said this because it’s something that I often say to her when she’s learning a new skill.

I wish that we could all view people with this more tender approach. In fact, it’s how I show up to my clients. If we could just accept that people are becoming who they are intended to become at the evolutionary rate they are intended to become it, and if we could just believe in them a little more, the world might be a gentler and easier place some days.

Evanston Office – Now Open

I am officially taking on new clients in downtown Evanston at the University Building: 1604 Chicago Avenue, #9, Evanston, IL 60201. This location is close to public transit and Northwestern University as well as Sheridan Road, allowing easy access for those coming from further north or Chicago. You can reach me to book an appointment and/or for a brief 10-minute phone conversation to find out if working with me might be a fit for your needs: jennifer.hains.lcpc@gmail.com or 917.434.7558.

I look forward to hearing from you!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Acceptance.

“When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” – Maya Angelou

Once upon a time, a woman was in couples therapy and she looked at her therapist when her partner was briefly out of the room and said, “But….what if I can’t accept him for who he is right now?” The therapist looked at her and smiled. At least, that’s how she remembers it. It was in that moment that she knew it wasn’t going to work. There were fundamental differences in their value systems and behavioral approaches to life that just didn’t jive.  She could sit around waiting for him to change, but people generally only change when they want to and not because someone else said they should.

These lessons are sometimes learned quickly, and sometimes slowly, after many years of trying to make something fit. Perhaps even, with many people. Not that anything is wrong with this, and from my own personal experience and the experience of working with other people, it’s important not to settle when it comes to a life-long relationship. I think for some people they feel their time is running out and so they better “get a move on” or they feel that they’ve been with someone for so long that it’s the right thing to do, despite doubts, and then a few years down the road they come to regret that decision.

If  I had any words of wisdom to share it would be that it’s never too late to start over again and also be as close to 100% sure as possible that this is the right match for you. A right match is different for everyone, but I’d say it’s a mix of shared values and beliefs combined with the right chemistry. You both don’t have to love downhill skiing, but it’s problematic if you want the dream of a family in a home in the suburbs and your partner wants to live like a wanderer in the world.

In my own experience, I was married once in my late twenties and divorced. I was really disappointed by that outcome at the time, but it was the right outcome for us, and very thankfully we had no children. But what I learned between that marriage and my second marriage, twelve years later, was that I needed to date. I needed to meet people and understand what was right for me in a partnership. I needed to learn to part ways when it wasn’t right – sometimes I did that well, and initially, I probably didn’t. It also took me a while to realize that I could accept a person for who they were, but that didn’t mean I had to have a relationship with them. They were still a good person despite not being the person for me. You can’t expect a lemon tree to give you oranges.

When I first got divorced in late 2005, I was sitting with someone who counseled me at the time and I said, “This feels like it’s going to take so long to meet the right guy.” And she said, “It could take you five years, who knows.” At the time, I think my mouth dropped open and I looked at her and said, “Five years!?! I don’t have that kind of time to wait.” This person advised me not to settle, not to take what was just possibly good enough, but to wait for what was best for me.

It took eight years. But in that eight years, I learned a lot about myself and a lot about other people and it made me the right person for my right person.

 

 

Thoughts.

“The good life is a process, not a state of being.” – Carl Rogers

I was listening to  a recording of the great cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, give an interview. The interviewer, Krista Tippett of On Being, said to him that it sounds as if he chooses joy as a way of being after he shared with her that he believes optimism to be a philosophy.

Our thoughts, emotions and behaviors intersect and impact each other.  We also have the capacity to change any one of these things, if we so choose to, so that we can affect the other two.

In my meditation tradition we call this correcting one’s intellect.  In the therapy world, we might put it under the umbrella of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), but it’s really at the heart of many therapeutic techniques. If I continue on with the meditation example, I can tell you that not only does meditation help us gain a greater acceptance of our thoughts as simply thoughts and allow us to not stick to any one thought so rigidly, but meditation also clears stress from one’s physiology. So perhaps I’ve changed a behavior, but what happens if I haven’t changed my thoughts? Let’s say I’m still pretty grumpy about much of what happens in life and have an overall negative lens on most things. Well, I’m just adding more stress to my physiology, creating more work for the meditation. And so I’d probably say, you’re not really getting anywhere are you?

It’s a little like trying to lose weight. Ideally, what’s needed is healthy food, good exercise, an affirmation and acceptance of oneself in the moment and a belief in one’s ability to make progress.  In my personal experience and observing others, this generally works. People lose the weight. But what about the ones who keep the weight off many years down the road? As we know many people gain the weight back. They are the ones who have fundamentally changed the way they THINK about being healthy and a healthy lifestyle. They do it because they want to increase their health span (how long one lives in a healthy state vs. life span, simply how long one lives) and they know that good health underlies almost everything else in their lives.

So when people say they want to be happy, I think, yes, you can DO many things to bring you happiness, but it is a process and it is a choice every day. Choosing joy is not always easy and it’s not just covering up the hard stuff that’s going on, but it’s re-framing the hard stuff and looking at it from a different point of view.

 

Connection.

 “It’s the relationship that heals.” -Irvin Yalom

I met an old friend for coffee yesterday. In person. For coffee. Somehow this is a rather novel idea these days with social media fooling us into believing we’re more connected to others than reality would say. Don’t get me wrong, social media has its pros. I have friends around the world that I simply can’t just pop in to have coffee with on any given day of the week, and so it is nice to see some portion of their lives from time to time.  But, that said, the downside of social media is that we can often believe we know our friends, or know what’s happening in their lives, by just a few brief posts or photographs.  Perfect example, just last week, I happened to post something and someone in my family said to me, “I had no idea you felt that way about that.” Hmmmm….this led to a real pause for thought, and a re-commitment to using social media in the way I feel most comfortable.

Irvin Yalom is basically the godfather of group psychotherapy, and I’m a big fan of many things he’s had to say over the years. He states it’s the relationship that heals and when it comes to therapy, I can tell you all sorts of modalities I might practice. Some of them may be meaningful to you, some may not, and at the end of the day, the thing that’s going to make therapy with me most useful to you is that we form a relationship, there is a good fit, and you trust me enough to help you walk the path. Training is important, yes, but what I find most draws people is authenticity and presence.

This is why so many forms of recovery, that are based on group models, work. It’s less about the dogma and the literature and more about the relationships that are formed that help people transform their lives. It’s about connection, and the kind of connection that brings meaning to our lives. This is why therapy works when the fit is right between therapist and client.

As I sat across from my friend yesterday, I realized how little I knew about her life beyond a screen showing me photos of her life, and just how lovely it was to see her face, the expressions on it, the voice, and the emotion that lies behind that. For this reason, I often have days where I’d like to just chuck the smart phone in a bin because I feel like they remove us from these very tangible experiences. We simply need more in-person connection because the world needs more healing.

 

 

 

 

Disruption.

“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone.” – Neal Donald Walsch

This quote was on a magnet in my old office when I worked in Human Resources. Much of HR is discomfort, because it is just the nature of the job, and so it was a reminder for me to lean into the discomfort on a daily basis. The discomfort often had something to teach me, and admittedly I learned a lot about myself and other people as a result. It’s a little like learning to use that paddle board. You have to go through the discomfort of falling in a few times before you find just the right balance to stay on top.

I was recently directed to the podcast, Disrupt Yourself, so I listened to my first episode yesterday as I made a drive downtown. The premise of the show, as far as I can tell at least, is that each episode is an interview with someone who has made a major change in their life. They’ve created disruption – whether that be a change in themselves, their workplace, or their lives – and ended up on the other side, for the better. The episode I listened to was an interview with Pat Flynn, who lost his architecture job and became a successful online entrepreneur and digital marketer.  I finished the episode feeling inspired and reminded that we need to set big goals for ourselves and take the baby steps – and big leaps – to get there

But, I also contemplated what it is about disruption that scares most people?  The go-to answer might be a fear of failure, but I would also argue that it is often a fear of success. We don’t always believe that we deserve the best and so we keep ourselves locked into a mediocre “good enough” space because, yes, it is comfortable. But evolution doesn’t come from staying comfortable, it comes from putting ourselves in situations where we have to experience discomfort and exercise our skills of flexibility and resilience.

What is it that you’re too comfortable in at the moment?  A relationship dynamic, a career, a way of living? And, what do think it is that keeps you from disrupting the status quo?

I challenge you to consider how you might create a disruption in order to make space for creation to operate and something better to take hold. Set one big goal for yourself with a finite time frame and see what you can accomplish. Learn to fail. The worst that can happen when you fall in the water is that you just get back up on the board again, with more experience.