When I was younger, in an I need to try something new phase, I took classes to learn the Two-Step at a local country western venue. Though I was never a good dancer, I loved the grace of couples as they glided hand in hand down the wooden dance floor. With a good partner, dancing seemed effortless and though the twirling turns could make my head spin, they were a heck of a lot of fun.
Fast forward. I’m a stepmom, a former psychotherapist and the author of three heartwarming novels about a woman marrying a man with a twelve-year-old son. In this article, I’m not coming to you as an expert. I’m speaking with you stepparent to stepparent about the most important lessons I’ve learned over the years from taking on a role that can be both challenging and gratifying.
Several lessons I learned in my country music days apply to stepparenting.
1. You can’t learn to dance by reading about it.
You can’t read a book about the waltz and just swan off like Fed Astaire or Ginger Rogers. If you were like me when you took on the role, you read every book and article that you could to prepare to be the best stepparent in the world. (Ahem!) But no matter how conscientious you were in your preparation, you can’t learn stepparent unless you are doing it. You’ll think you know just how to handle the triangulating that children will do, and then you’ll fall for the old “But Dad always lets me…” or “At my Mom’s house…” You learn as you go. You’ll discover certain hard and fast rules but you’ll mostly end up doing what you find works best for you and your family.
2. Dancers glide and swoop effortlessly because they practice a lot, evaluate their performance and learn from their mistakes.
Because there aren’t many courses like Stepparenting 101, you learn many lessons by trial and error. You get consumed by parenting, and you learn to make a regular date night with your spouse. You start to lose your sense of identity, so you hatch a plan to reconnect with old friends. You try too hard and get resentful so you back off. You make a stand and decide next time to just let it go.
All of us want to get it right and to be the best spouse and stepparent we can be.
All of us want to get it right and to be the best spouse and stepparent we can be, but mid-course correction seems to be the norm rather than the exception in this role. For those of us who can be a tad perfectionistic focused, learning by mistakes is not our favorite thing, but it seems to be what’s real and what works best.
3. The best couples dancers are always communicating.
The leader gently presses your hand or touches your shoulder to tell you what’s next. The follower stays connected because having spaghetti arms gets your partner confused about where you are.
In marriages, you take turns leading and following, but the analogy still holds. Communication, both subtle and direct, is the key to operating seamlessly as a couple. If your partner is too strong in the lead, you won’t want to follow. If you don’t give enough cues about which way you are headed, he or she gets confused.
Stepchildren have the ability to sniff out situations when you and your partner aren’t on the same page, and nose right in to create conflict. When your teenaged stepdaughter back talks you, you give your spouse the secret high sign. If one of you is not keeping up, or veering off in a different direction than you’d discussed, your job is a gentle reminder. A facial expression, gesture, or quiet conversation in the next room can help you each remember how you’ve agreed to handle things and keep you both dancing in synch.
4. Be the first partner to say, ‘I’m sorry, darlin’.
In my dancing days, the instructor had all the men stand in a long line facing the long line of women. His instruction to the men was, “Because you are the leader, whenever either one of the couple missteps, your job is to say, I’m sorry, darlin’. That was all my fault.”
He had the men practice and the women just beamed at hearing twenty-four grinning men call out, I’m sorry, darlin’. It was all my fault. Watching was awe-inspiring, like seeing the tons of water plummet over Niagara Falls or standing on the rim of the Grand Canyon gazing at majestic red rocks.
No doubt the men would have enjoyed hearing the women call out the same phrase. In marriages, both members of the couple benefit from honestly acknowledging their part in a snag they’ve hit. As a stepparent, try to be the first to apologize even if your partner messed up big time and you’re itching to tell them why. You apologizing for your part in a miscommunication makes it that much easier for your spouse to own his or her part. Knowing how to diffuse conflict is an especially important skill when you’re raising someone else’s kids.
Knowing how to diffuse conflict is an especially important skill when you’re raising someone else’s kids.
5. In many dances, the steps are quick, quick, slow, slow.
Same with being a stepparent, except sometimes it feels like one step forward and two steps back. You’ll take a long, chatty walk with your stepdaughter, and feel thrilled about building an even stronger bond. Two hours later, she’ll be furious with you because you’ve asked her to empty the dishwasher. This kind of exchange happens every day between teens and their parents, but add an extra dose of volatility for stepparents because of stepchildren’s lingering resentment and sadness about the loss of their original family.
In an excerpt from my latest novel, Sweet Carolina Morning, new stepmom Linny is trying to help her stepson Neal with his chore of cleaning the stable, and he’s being balky.
Neal’s lower lip stuck out. “Why do I have to work? This is my summer vacation. I’m supposed to be relaxing.”
As she put away the pitchfork and shovel, Linny’s patience was thinning. He groused harder than he worked. She said firmly, “We all have chores in this family. Your dad and I give you an allowance for helping out.”
“I get an allowance but no chores at home,” he said sullenly. “And I need a raise.”
Linny tried to tamp down her irritation. “Neal, you and your dad talked about this last night, and the last thing he said to you before he left for work this morning was that you were to do as I asked.”
He whirled around and gazed at her defiantly, his fists clenched at his sides. In a voice hot with anger, he said, “You’re always bossing me around.”
Flashing on all the juggling and honeymoon curtailing they’d done over the past few weeks to suddenly make room for him in their lives full-time, Linny struggled not to counter his resentment with a little dose of her own. Willing herself to calm down, Linny gave him a level look. “Neal, your dad left me in charge with a very clear plan for what we were doing today. If you have trouble with that plan let’s get your dad on the phone and you two can clear that up.” Linny held up her phone, her hand shaking a little. She didn’t want to have to call Jack. She knew how busy he always was at work.
But Neal just stared at her defiantly.
Any of this sound familiar? I thought it might. For every thought or worry you have about whether you are doing this stepparent thing right, a thousand other stepparents are having the same concern.
In summing up, I would encourage stepparents to keep things in perspective and not to be so hard on yourselves. You are a wonderful person for having taken on this role. Expect trying times and tricky behavior, but keep communicating with your partner, take care of yourself and use that sense of humor of yours. The joys of being part of a family far outweigh the trials of stepmothering.
Oh, and remember to have fun. The best dancers are always the ones who enjoy the dance.
Susan Schild writes wholesome, friendly and funny Southern fiction. Her stories feature finding love after loss, the challenges of stepparenting, adventuresome women, sweet dogs, and happily ever afters at any age. Susan is a wife and a stepmother and has a professional background as a psychotherapist and a management consultant. She and her family live in North Carolina. SWEET CAROLINA MORNING, Susan’s latest novel, was released August 2nd, 2016. You can follow Susan on Facebook, Twitter and on her website or subscribe to her quarterly newsletter for inside scoop, sneak peeks and giveaways.