Among my stepmom files is a folder labeled “Difficult Conversations.” It’s one of those expandable file folders and, just over four years in, it’s already overflowing. This folder could also be aptly named, “Surprise! Stepparenting is Hard!” because (a) it is, and (b) this, somehow, still surprises me. Despite a few years of experience, despite finding comfort in talking with other stepparents, despite reading more and learning more and (supposedly) knowing more, all I really know is that I’m pretty sure I’ll continue to be surprised by the challenges that will inevitably come my way.
Like all of us, I’m doing my best. Like some of us, that means that I push aside those uglier feelings that come with stepparent territory. I talk myself out of feelings of irritation, impatience, and discomfort. Of course, pushing aside doesn’t mean ridding myself of such feelings or actually dealing with them, so they pop back up when I least expect them to — like when my husband and I are trying to plan a family vacation and, “Surprise, Stepmama! You have unresolved feelings about family vacations! Let’s talk about them now.”
I’m caught off guard, but there they are, bubbling up to the surface and before I can stop them, they escape out into our family universe.
And this is how an entry for the difficult conversation file is created.
I knew I had reservations about family vacations, but I hadn’t allowed myself any time to consider why. What was it about a vacation that made me uneasy? Why did I feel hesitation? And why didn’t I call it what it really was — a little feeling of dread?
That initial difficult conversation on the topic, albeit messy and a little ugly, brought about some clarity for both my husband and me. Turns out, we view a family vacation differently (shocking, I know). He sees it as a get-away, a chance to take ourselves out of our daily routines and explore and relax and enjoy time together. I see it more like camp, an opportunity to try new things and create bonds and make memories. Ideally, my view would be more like my husband’s…but it’s not. For me, it’s not exactly relaxing to live out of a hotel room, the three of us. I need more space and I want the option to go to bed braless without scarring my 12-year-old stepson for life.
There’s an intimacy inherent in traveling that can cause anxiety for a stepparent. At least, for this one. But now my husband and I have talked about it openly and honestly, and together we’ve come up with ways to make family vacations a more enjoyable experience for all of us. Here are my notes on the Family Vacations entry in the Difficult Conversations file:
1. Talk about your different experiences. In what’s perhaps my silliest move as a stepmom, I continually forget that my husband has no idea what it’s like to be a stepmom. We’re living life together, but we’re experiencing it in vastly different ways. I can’t expect him to understand my perspective unless I share it. And, quite often, I don’t completely understand my perspective until I try to explain it. So it’s important to have the conversation, even if it’s difficult. Start by acknowledging that your experiences are different.
2. Determine how family vacations can be more enjoyable for you as a stepparent and share that with your partner. If you’re lucky enough to have a wonderful partner like I do, they may be able to help you figure this out. My husband offered to book suites instead of regular hotel rooms whenever possible to give me a little more space. I can’t tell you how appreciative I was just to hear that this was an option.
3. Continue to talk about your feelings and needs. The best part about a difficult conversation is that it opens the lines of communication. And communication is so, so, so important in any relationship. So take advantage of the payoff from your hard work. Plus, every trip is different. New challenges and needs will pop up — and don’t need to catch you off-guard if you’re regularly communicating.
4. Forget the coulda/shoulda/wouldas instilled in you by society. A family vacation doesn’t mean you have to do everything together. Maybe you sneak away to a bookstore while everyone else checks out some quirky landmark. Maybe that’s just my dream. Maybe it doesn’t matter as long as it works for you and your family. (Maybe I’m including this tip so I don’t forget to heed this advice in the future.)
Enjoy your families, enjoy your vacations, and enjoy your family vacations.
Amy Menzel is a high school English teacher who lives and works in Waukesha, Wisconsin. She’s also a writer, a coach, a wife, and a stepmother, and strives to be better in each role every day. She’s an avid reader and an avid runner and aspires to be a more avid blogger. She blogs at Recalculating: a life.