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Jeannette Lofas on Stepparenting
Jeannette Lofas’s mission is to guide people through the challenges of stepparenting. Lofas has been helping stepfamilies thrive and live happily ever after since 1975, when she founded the Stepfamily Foundation, an organization that continues to provide resources and counseling for stepfamilies. A year later, she co-authored Living in Step with Ruth Roosevelt, one of the first books to address the challenges that stepfamilies face. She went on to write Stepparenting: Everything You Need to Know to Make it Work and Family Rules: Helping Stepfamilies and Single Parents Build Happy Homes. In 1995, President Clinton and the 103rd Congress recognized Lofas by giving her the National Parents Day Award for “strengthening step relationships in families across America.” Through her work and personal experience as a stepmother, Lofas offers her insight on what you may expect in the first 30 days of stepparenting.
What are some of the feelings and emotions that people experience in the first 30 days of stepparenting?
As a new stepparent, you may be initially filled with positive anticipation that you will all be one big happy family. I remember feeling really excited about the prospect of getting four daughters who had always treated me with kindness and affection. This was when I was dating their father. But once we were married, reality set in quickly. First, they adored me and then they hated me. Where did my great girls go? The answer is that it’s normal for children to react negatively when a stepparent officially joins the picture. I didn’t know that at the time. They just want the old family back together. Divorce destroys the child’s family and in their eyes, you are the vehicle who destroyed it, even if you didn’t know their dad then. At the ceremony, you and your spouse may remain blissfully unaware that the kids are, in fact, scowling.
While children are dealing with their own mixed emotions, the stepparents too may experience feelings including frustration, confusion, anxiety and anger. What’s worse is that the stepparent may not receive the comfort and support [needed from a] spouse because [he or she is] busy trying to appease the children. It’s a recipe for disaster. For example, if a father only sees his children a few times a month, his focus may be on winning his children’s love rather than manners and discipline. As a result, his wife, the children’s stepmother, may find herself feeling quite frustrated.
How can stepparents work on these feelings in the first 30 days?
The best way to overcome these feelings before they arrive is to prepare to be hit in the head at least a couple of times. Anticipate that there are going to be conflicts. There just isn’t another way around it. The forms and norms that work in a biological family are not the same for a stepfamily. You are going to need to learn how to use a whole new set of managerial tools to make things work in your new home. At the Stepfamily Foundation, we teach clients about establishing house rules, manners, duties and responsibilities, as well as communication strategies such as allowing others to finish their sentences and avoiding the use of words like “don’t.”
What are the most important things to do to ensure an easier transition into stepparenting?
Have a good parenting plan in place. Ideally formed at the time of divorce, this agreement should detail how the children would be cared for as well as how the parents would communicate, i.e., parents will remain polite and not bad mouth each other, especially within earshot of the children. If a parenting agreement has not been established at the time of remarriage, every effort to create one now should be made. If your spouse’s ex is resistant, tell [him or her] that the counselor suggested the plan in order to ensure that [his or her] wishes are being met.
A second thing to do is to have a conversation with your spouse about the role that you should play in the children’s lives. Discuss the current rules of the house. Then, sit back and observe how he or she manages childrearing. Now is not the time to make any major adjustments in his family’s rules and routine. Simply observe what happens and make a note of how you are feeling. Mindfulness is key.
How should you handle an ex-spouse in the first 30 days of stepparenting?
While he or she may be the enemy of your husband, she doesn’t have to be yours. Consider developing a relationship with an ex-spouse for the purpose of better parenting the children. When I was first married, I asked my husband’s ex to meet with me to talk about the children. What did I have to lose by trying? From that encounter, we were able to co-parent the children together. By establishing an alliance, I was able to attain valuable information about the children, not to mention my husband. She, after all, knew all of his bad habits.
What kind of mindset should a new stepparent have in the first 30 days?
Be gentle, yet proactive. While your instinct might be to act like a fun friend to your stepchildren, your first order of business should be for you and your spouse to come together and establish the house rules. This will help to develop some sense of order for you and the children. Keep in mind that your spouse has been running the household a certain way. Coming in to set up a whole new system right away will backfire.
Also, if you haven’t tapped into your spiritual side lately, there’s no time like the present. Do what feels comfortable, such as praying or meditating in order to keep calm and centered.
How can stepparents work on and improve their relationships with their spouses during this time?
Chronicle your first fight as a married couple. Instead of getting angry, ask yourself what it was really about. Try to keep in mind that you’ll probably be feeling more sensitive than usual and take everything more personally. Remember that your reality is probably different than your spouse’s. For example, you may feel hurt that his daughter ignored you before she went to her room. Your spouse, on the other hand, may believe that she nodded at you before she went to her room.
What are the phases that a new stepparent may go through during this first month?
First, the stepparent may feel happy in anticipation of a Brady Bunch-style family. Then, the first hit will come as the dynamics of being in a stepfamily come to light. For example, the children will ignore you no matter how much you try. You may also have disagreements with your husband, as you and he try to reach common ground, especially when it comes to parenting his children.
The next phase will be to search for answers through books, web sites and support groups. You and you new family may need counseling by this point, if not well before any conflicts arise. As you develop a greater understanding about the nature of stepfamilies, you may be able to orchestrate positive behavioral changes in yourself and your family members. Let your children know that they don’t have to love you or even like you for that matter. They just need to respect you as you respect them. Finally, you’ll discover a renewed love for your husband and mutual respect for your children.
What can a stepparent do beyond the first 30 days to ensure that she has a happy blended family?
Any time you have a fight, think about it as something you need to know. Try to take a step back so that you can analyze what is really happening. Keep in mind that you’ll make some forward progress and then take two steps back. But get the problem solved. Walking away from it would be like leaving a sore open never to heal.
Remember that despite the negativity that the children may be exhibiting now, in the long run they’ll likely remember the good times over the bad. When I remind my stepchildren how they behaved when I first married their father, they’ll tell me that I’m crazy, that they always loved me. They’ll say, “you made that all up.”
What is the belief you personally go to during times of change?
During times of change, I try to visualize a goal, how ultimately I want things to be. Then, I take steps to gather the appropriate information toward achieving that goal.
The best thing about change is...
…it allows you to grow. You have to grow to meet [change], even if that means developing a new belief system.
What is the best change you have ever made?
Deciding to live and go to school in America in the 1960’s after growing up abroad. I have great respect for myself for doing that.
For more information on Jeannette Lofas, visit www.stepfamily.org.