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Like any job, parenting requires tools.  Not of the hammer and wrench variety – more of the managing other humans variety.  As a manager of people, avid reader and life-long learner, I read quite a few books on managing people.  I figure that I can never get enough information or ideas on the subject, and that quest means I have read both amazing and annoying books.  But the good news for you is – I can save you time by telling you about some of my favorites.

In the workplace, one of the things that really gets in the way of productivity is drama.  In a family, drama gets in the way of learning, meaningful conflict, time to connect, and purposeful conversations.  How?  Drama creates a lot of noise in a household but not a lot of great results.  I’m going to start with a scenario, then explain how reducing drama has created some real results.

The Problem

When my DH and I first started dating, there were a couple of things that I noticed happened regularly.  These things involved drama, and the fighting and whining was just painful to my ears.  Usually someone cried, usually DH raised his voice, and usually the kids weren’t talking to each other by the end.

The first one involved bath time, and specifically, the bath order.  The conversation usually started during dinner, in which one person, usually the oldest, declared her position (“I am second for bath tonight”), which was followed immediately by “I want to be second” or “You were second last time” which THEN became a conversation about the last 10 bath times and the order.  DH would try to be peaceful, but as the fighting ensued, he would get impatient.  The bath order would then be fired off arbitrarily, and in the end, someone would cry.  All in all, dinner wouldn’t have been spent in a way that helped the kids build their relationship with their dad or each other.  And remember, these dinner/bath scenarios usually played out on the three nights DH had them overnight every other week.  He would be doubly frustrated because he didn’t want to spend the time fighting with them.

The Solution

As we approached the first time I was going to go on vacation with DH and the kiddos, I realized that spending every night for 7 days arguing over bath order would put a damper on our trip.  We were going to the beach every day, and the kids were going to need showers.  And so, I devised The Shower Schedule.  I created the order, with every person rotating to the next position each day.  I sat the kids down, and said “Look – I know everyone wants to be fair, and no one wants to fight with Daddy or me or each other over bath order.  So let’s try something new when we are on vacation so everyone can have fun!”  The kids were 4, 6, and 8 at the time, but they were willing to give it a try.  After a thorough walk-through and review of the printed document they agreed to try the schedule.

Amazingly, this worked like a charm.  There are days when switching may occur between siblings, or sports schedules dictate someone goes first while we wait for others to get home.  Overall it made our evenings better by:

  • Removing ambiguity. Especially for our oldest, the rigor of a schedule really helps them know what to expect.  This was especially important early on in my relationship with their dad, then later when we moved, and even when we went on vacation.  (Yes, a paper copy of the schedule accompanied us on vacation the first year or so.)
  • Moving from negotiating to interacting. Instead of bidding and arguing for their spot on the schedule, dinner was now used for talking about school, about our day, and generally enjoying each others’ company.


The Inspiration

The idea to create a shower schedule was inspired by a popular book by Cy Wakeman called “The Reality-Based Rules of the Workplace” and the idea of standard work in lean thinking.  In her book, Wakeman encourages the reader to understand how to best add value in the workplace.  In the scenario above, I made the decision that I was not going to join in the argument, nor was I going to put down my husband and how he was handling the kids.  Instead I decided to succeed anyway.

In some of the lean manufacturing leadership books I had read, I knew that creating “standard work” – that is, a list of the work that was expected from employees, was a great way to make sure people are focusing on the right task.  Creating schedules or blocked time, checklists, and other tools help ensure success.

Neither of these two things are particularly ground-breaking on their own.  But there are many things that we do in life before we are stepparents that we can draw upon to solve the dilemmas that come up in our everyday lives.  Once you find something that works for your family it is helpful to apply that to other areas of your life.

In my next post, I’ll show you how I made one simple change to help foster an environment of accountability and ditch another perpetual argument!

What areas of your life have you drawn on to help you get through a difficult situation as a stepparent!  Share your experience in the comment section below!!

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“Holy crap! Three kids – you’re becoming an Insta-Mom!”

The refrain above was often the response to announcements about my engagement to my now-husband. As a person without any children of my own, most people were surprised that I would be marrying someone with three kids. I love kids, but had not had the opportunity in my life to have my own. Being a stepkid, I also knew that the introduction to stepparents can be a difficult time for kids.

Beginning a relationship with a person with children means taking on more than one relationship at a time. At the beginning, it can feel like something to address far into the future. After all, you are newly in love. Yes, you may need to work around time your new love has their kids, but it’s totally worth it. As your relationship gets more serious, questions begin to arise, both in your own mind and from others. “What is my role?” or “Where are the boundaries?”

Below is a list of questions that you can work through as you begin to think about and define expectations for yourself. Some of these are things I discussed with my partner as we planned our engagement and I was spending more time with the kids. Others came up later and required some examination on my part.

No matter where you are in this journey, remember, the only role you have to fill is the one defined by you, your partner, and your stepkids. The questions below are meant to act as a jumping off point in a journey that you will spend the rest of your life defining and revisiting. One of the best ways I know of to reduce drama is to be pro-active, talk about expectations and get aligned before a crisis hits.

In my case, the first crisis on my own was my then 9-year-old Oldest StepDaughter (OSD) deciding to test all the boundaries by refusing to eat the dinner I prepared, refusing to do the things I asked her to do as an alternative (go to her room), and then trying to get her dad on her side when he got home. Luckily, my Dear Husband (DH) and I had talked about many of the things below, and so what I didn’t have to do that night was worry that he wouldn’t agree with my approach or decisions. When he got home, he listened to OSD’s story, and with great empathy reminded her of my role when he wasn’t there – essentially backing me up. OSD agreed at that point that she was aware of those rules. Things were handled calmly on my DH and my side, and we were a united front, which is crucial.

So – here is the list, with some additional prompts after each:

• Are you a bio-parent?
In my case, I was not, which meant the learning curve was steep, and I had never really thought about my role as a parental figure in anyone’s life.

• What is your partner’s custody agreement?
It is helpful to think about how much time you will be spending with the kids. Take into account sporting events, choir concerts, or other extra-curricular activities you may attend. Understanding the amount of time you’ll be spending with the kids will help you better understand and be ready for the fact that building a relationship takes time – especially on an every other weekend or every other week schedule.

• How old are the kids?
Little ones (under 5 years old) will definitely have a different response to you in their life than bigger kids, tweens, teens, and adult children.

• What is your partner’s relationship with their kids?
Spending time with your partner and understanding their parenting style can be useful for a couple of reasons. One, you will see how their parenting aligns with their values. Also, you will be able to see how their parenting style differs from yours – in which case your parenting styles will complement each other! You just need to talk about it. One thing to be aware of though – you likely aren’t going to change your partners’ parenting style, so make sure you are comfortable with it. You may influence it, but changing it is a big ask, and may be confusing to the kids. There are plenty more to say on this, but this is just to get you started.

• What do you see your role as being?
Think about all of the parental figures in your life: parents, aunts & uncles, grandparents, and others. How did they support you and help you feel loved as a kid? It’s important to understand this, especially headed into the next question.

• What role does your partner see you playing?
Here is where it helps to have defined, on paper or in your mind, your role. You and your partner can see where your expectations differ. It is a lot easier to do this before you have to, even if it feels awkward!! One area that partners must agree on is discipline – who will do it, how will they do it, and what requires it. There are a lot of great posts out there on that subject, so I’m not going to tackle that here and now. But being aligned on their expectations will help boost your confidence too. And chances are, even if they haven’t thought about it specifically, there are expectations built in. You just need to uncover them and talk about them.

• Do your partner and their ex co-parent together now?
Co-parenting occurs on a spectrum, just like stepparenting and parenting. The right situation for them is one upon which they both agree to the terms (either through a formal custody agreement or their own personal relationship). As you begin to think about parenting their kids, ask yourself if you want to join the co-parenting relationship they have, or if you plan on just co-parenting with your partner. Do you plan on communicating with the biological parent and potentially another stepparent? I’m not going to include a lot of additional questions on this one, because once you get an idea, it is best to talk it over with your partner too.

As I said above, preparation can be the key to reducing tension and conflict later in your relationship. While not easy, beginning a parenting journey with a baby means that the baby can’t understand what you’re talking about during calibration or alignment discussions. But with a stepchild that is 6, 10, 14 or beyond, you don’t have that luxury. Spending time thinking and talking about it can reap huge benefits in the heat of the moment.

The questions above are based on my experience – so what am I missing? What questions were important for you to ask yourself (or others) when defining your stepparent role?
In my next blog, I’ll talk a bit about my choices and how I am defining my role.

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Our journeys to this place, as stepparents, are probably as diverse as any other human experience.  Perhaps you have had the pleasure of falling in love fast and imagined your love would conquer all.  Maybe you fell more gently, into a deep and satisfying love that feels supported and long-lasting.  Or maybe you are still in the beginning stages, and dating someone with children, and you see it getting serious.

However, you arrived at your step-parenting journey is a story I look forward to hearing.  No matter how you got to this blog and to this place in your life, one thing remains the same: raising stepkids is different.

I created this blog because, three years in, I know there are things I wish I could have had help with at the beginning.  My hope is that this blog serves as a place where step-parents can support one another through taking a positive look at what we can (and can’t) control, give each other tips and hints, and support each other through the journey.  The community here is inclusive of all.

I have three stepkids, SS8, SD10, and SD12.  Their father and I got married in November of 2014.  I do not have any biological children of my own.  We live within ¼ mile of the kids’ mom and I think we do a good job of working together to raise the kids.

New posts will go up every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday.  Sign up for my email list to receive monthly updates and offers!

So – as we begin I have two questions:

  1. Seasoned step-parents: what advice to you give to those just beginning their journey?
  2. New or soon to be step-parents: what do you need or want to know from people who have been in the game a bit longer?

In solidarity,

Amy

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