Monday, January 15, 2018

7 Step-Parenting Lessons That Changed My Life

"Winning? Is that what you think it's about? I'm not trying to win. I'm not doing this because I want to beat someone, or because I hate someone, or because I want to blame someone. It's not because it's fun. God knows it's not because it's easy. It's not even because it works, because it hardly ever does. I do what I do because it's right! Because it's decent! And above all, it's kind! It's just that. Just kind. If I run away today, good people will die. If I stand and fight, some of them might live - maybe not many, maybe not for long. Hey, maybe there's no point in any of this, at all. But it's the best I can do, so I'm going to do it. And I will stand here doing it until it kills me. You're going to die too, someday. When will that be? Have you thought about it? What would you die for? Who I am is where I stand. Where I stand is where I fall. Stand with me. These people are terrified. Maybe we can help a little. Why not, just at the end, just be kind?" 
- Peter Capaldi as the Twelfth Doctor, in 'Doctor Who: The Doctor Falls'

Well, I have to be honest, this post had been swirling around in my head unable to find the words to describe what I wanted to say for quite some time because most of the words don't seem to be BIG enough of BOLD enough and then as my husband and I caught up on last season's Doctor Who suddenly, right there before regeneration the Doctor stole my thoughts, twisted them and created a monologue that spoke directly to what had been swirling around in my brain. 

Despite the advice of my friends and family, despite knowing better and having the life experience to tell me "Do Not Enter!" "Turn back!" I still befriended my husband's high conflict ex-wife... again. It truly feels like it is no longer a testament to my character that I keep trying and instead a character flaw that I keep trying to fix broken people who don't really want to fix themselves. I once interviewed a Vietnam vet for a paper I was writing and he told me that he was angry for a while after he came home because he felt like he and the U.S. soldiers were fighting harder for South Vietnamese freedom than most of the South Vietnamese were. I truly did not understand the sentiment; how could I understand what he went through after coming home from a war I wasn't even alive for with a public outcry that tore the nation? When I simplify his statements, though, the thought of going to help anyone and then being angry because they wouldn't help themselves seems understandable although not truly a parallel to his experience. When I explored my own animosity towards the high conflict ex in my life, I think maybe at the root of things, I found myself fighting a war against inner demons that she wasn't willing to fight herself. 

This final push, my last ditch effort to be the matriarch to create a blended family, taught me lessons that surpass all that I have learned in the last three years of being in stepmom trenches and funny enough they come only 3 months after my stepmother status became official. I can't pretend that if I read the article I am about to create that I would have heeded any of the advice therein but I feel profoundly certain that it is worth sharing ALL of this if it helps just one honest, caring, and whole-hearted stepmother on her journey! In the irony of my hatred for numbered list articles, here are the 7 most important lessons I have learned in the easiest way to organize them (but in no particular order). And I like to think they could apply to all people, parents and step-parents alike.

1. There is a difference between being nice and being kind. Always be kind.
Fundamentally, this is the heart of something that I have always ALWAYS believed and had a hard time articulating. I am a kind human being, it is a part of who I am, but I can't always play nice. Sometimes to be honest with myself and others I have to be clear, concise, and honesty isn't always nice. I certainly don't effectively attempt to be mean but I am fair and honest and its easy to twist a story in that murky water. I am no bully, I treat people well (and often better than they treat me), and when my head hits the pillow at night I do not have regrets about my actions and words because I am thoughtful with my choices and don't act irrationally. That is a fundamental part of being kind.
That's the long and short of it. I can't always be nice but I can always always always be kind! 

2. There is also a difference between being mean and being angry.
The opposite of kind is not mean. Kindness is a virtue and with that as my start point I can say I am as justified as any other human being to be angry. You are allowed to be angry! You have a right in your life to be angry! Anger is a state of grief, and when we equate that to "being mean" we are not giving justice to what is really going on inside us.  I have a right to be upset and grieving when my children are not treated properly and I have a right to attempt to dispel my anguish by talking things out. Each of us has to find out what helps us through any step of the grieving process we may experience. I find that even if I get zero response or zero change there are times when I just need to speak my mind. I think on what I want to say for sometimes a few days before I let it out but I do that so that I am not being rash or mean, simply honest. I think on it until I feel better and ready and then I share. 

Most recently the high conflict ex-wife in my life, in an attempt to prove that one of her actions was not competitive and narcissistic, accidentally shared with my husband and I that she never gave the children the letter he wrote them when they first separated. As you could imagine, the kids and my husband were devastated to find out that she had withheld something so important that could have lifted them up so much at a time they were so sad. I was feeling pretty punchy, throat punchy to be exact, when I first found out. I took a few belly breaths and gave my head and heart time to process this before I reacted in a way that was nasty and mean. I was angry and I expressed this to her in a way that both let her know that her actions were foul and mildly disturbed but without the name-calling that would create a mean and aggressive exchange. There is no one I know that would have blamed me if I tore into her about it, I have friends who probably wouldn't have blamed me if I got myself arrested over it, but that is not me. I am kind and I get angry sometimes but I choose not to be mean.  

3. Discipline is beautiful when used as an adjective instead of a verb.
Yet another core definition that gets twisted is the word discipline. The high conflict ex has no rules in her home and prides herself on being the House of No Punishment. She once accused us of running our home like a concentration camp. (I refrained from correcting her historically inaccurate use of the term because I am kind and that would have been mean.) She does not understand that we have built a loving home on the foundation of trust, honesty, respect, responsibility, and shared pride in our family and household. Instead, she thinks it is easier to simply have no rules and no punishments and in turn the kids do not flourish there in any capacity. The kids have quoted her as saying "I have no rules and don't discipline you because I want you to like my house better." Besides the obviously demented life view in that statement, because a blended family does not have room for competition, she is missing a much greater point about discipline!

Punishment is a consequence for an action. We have expectations for the kids that if disregarded may end in some sort of consequence. For example, they know that they are to correct any school work that is returned NYP (not yet proficient) because if they don't we will have a consequence such as staying home on a Friday night to complete the work correctly so that they learn the required material. They also understand the value in that: I did not learn something or I rushed and I need to make sure I get the information I needed before I can move on. We are teaching them the discipline needed to be good students and good readers and good thinkers. Discipline can be a wondrous thing to teach kids! We have created a foundation of a yoga practice with the kids that helps them understand self-discipline on a deeper, fundamental level. Since this is another virtue we wish to instill in the kids and are happy to do so, we do not interchange the words discipline and punishment. We do not use the term discipline in the verb form here.

4. Setting boundaries is not failure!
The idea of boundaries has always been a struggle for me. I often say too much or do too much or try too hard in situations where I should have just built a wall. The greatest lesson I have learned when co-parenting with someone who is high conflict is that boundaries can be game-changers. I recently tried to turn the other cheek in my attempts to help create a blended family but I ran out of cheeks. This was so high-stress for me, being her "friend". It dawned on me that I had already known long ago that her own friends had turned from her, I had already known long ago that the kids no longer dreamed of one big happy family they really only wanted her to be stable, and I had already known that she did not take getting professional help seriously. What was I going to try and convince her to do or be? Why do I think my kindness and my affection could be a game-changer? 

I set a boundary when everything imploded and I didn't just make it a personal boundary, I said it out loud. I told my husband who had been telling me I needed to set a boundary because of how she has been so hurtful in the past. I told my kids who responded in kind, when I started the conversation my littlest said, "You should not be friends with mom, she is not a good friend," before I could even tell her that I was setting a boundary. And I told the ex! I text her, "It is clear that this is best as a business relationship only where the business is raising healthy, happy kids. We are open to blending things if you ever get real help in the future." And when she immediately followed this with foul behavior, I reached out with clear and honest clarity but also making sure to end our conversation with, "It reinforces why we have to set a boundary until you work on your issues with a professional. If that time ever comes, we’d be open to sorting things out." The reminder is not just for her, it is for me. My life has had a marginal percent of stress since I declared it time to build a boundary and it is clear this was both a long time coming and essential for my own peace of mind. I did not fail at blending our family, I did all I could personally but our family has many pieces and I can't play the role of both mothers. 

5. The only person you can fix is yourself and broken doesn't have to be bad, it can be beautiful. 
To my previous point, I am a fixer at heart- a helper- but I can't help someone who is unwilling to help themselves. I can look inward and reflect and make sure I am doing what is best for my children, my husband, my entire family, and also myself. Why do we so easily disregard ourselves in that scenario? I encounter so many people like me in my life, so many people who just want to be helpers but we have to know our limits (our boundaries) and you simply cannot compromise yourself in the process of trying to help or fix others. That is not the unwritten lesson we want our children to learn from us. If I am a flower and I constantly give away my own sunshine I will wither away and die. Its okay to share your sunshine but the secret to life is evolving, growing, and letting go. Sometimes what we have to let go of is our own withered leaves that we thought were so ugly but really enabled us to grow more beautiful in time. The scars we have from our stumbles can be our most beautiful assets. 

6. Life is not about how people THINK you live your life, it is about how you actually live your life each day.  
I tend to limit my time on some social media platforms because I see that they have become more about LOOKING as though you have a good life than actually LIVING one. Being inauthentic is something I have never really struggled with- I am the friend who will post the pictures where she looks ridiculous or leave the tag on the picture that shows my love handles. I was previously married to someone who was the complete opposite of this and, although I did pick up a little anxiety from him, I feel like his behavior reinforced the fact that at the end of the day if I want to go swimming I don't care if I look like a model in my bathing suit. In a world struggling with fake news there are millions of people faking their way through their lives. I struggle with understanding this new norm and try to be the person who journals a little on Instagram and has albums with limited view on Facebook. I don't need likes to validate my parenting or the way I life my life. I don't need views or hearts and when I rarely post to my snap story I don't often check to see who or how many people have looked at it. Join me. Stop worrying about how you look to others and just be. Find a way to be analog in a digital world, find a way to quench your insecurity without empty social media interaction, discover who you are meant to be and go be that person!

7. You cannot control the character you play in other people's narratives. 
When I sat down to write this all out, I stopped myself from using the first person and then went back and wrote more authentically from my heart. I feared that so many "I"s or "This is what I have learned to do" or "This is who I am now" in an article would make people believe that I was arrogant and preachy. Even in this moment of sharing the greatest lessons I have learned in step-mothering I doubted whether I had a right to take ownership of them without being judged. I had to really pause, take a break from writing and come back to this before I could convince myself that I deserved to be the voice in this post. I am not sure why I got stuck in my own head in this way but it was empowering to take ownership of the voice here and I am glad that I have!

If you have ever seen the play Hamilton, or heard the soundtrack, the finale song begs the questions (and answers it for Alexander) 'Who lives? Who dies? Who tells your story?' In the case of our founding fathers and in the case of our own lives we simply have NO control over the narratives of other people, only our own. In the story of my life, I can travel and paint the setting various colors on various continents, I can be kind and accept my feelings and use self-discipline and the lessons I have learned to surround myself in a cast of characters worthy of a timeless novel, and I can be the heroine who fights for who she loves and what she believes in. If someone else wants me to be painted a villain, if someone else wants to twist my words or actions to justify their own, I have zero control over that. I have to be okay with that. I have to relinquish control over the fact that I can be a good person and respect other good people but my relationship with them could be tarnished by someone else's insecurities. And, at the end of the day, I can give up that control and I can accept the truth of life that not everyone is going to like me when I realize that I have the most amazing cast of supporting characters that any protagonist has ever been blessed to encounter on their adventure. And that, my friends, is all that really matters.  

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