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Disengaging

Please keep in mind that "Disengaging" is NOT for everyone. Many of you have DHs who are TRULY supportive - which is not the same as DHs who only THINK they're supportive.

I've found that for my friends with whom I've shared this, understanding some background is sometimes critical for real "Disengaging" to begin. A lot of this is opinion, intuition, and a lot is also experience. Please keep in mind that the people in my "model" are not psychotic. They are relatively normal people with good intentions, husbands and wives who love each other and want to stay married, in SPITE of their step kids!

I believe that men and women convey different facets of life to their children. Women tend to be concerned with socialization: manners, morals, respect, appreciation, cleanliness, thoughtfulness, etc, as well as physical and emotional health. Men tend to be concerned with results: touchdowns, batting averages, spelling bees, "accomplishments" in general. In normal (not critically dysfunctional) nuclear families, this arrangement works pretty well. The children develop bonds with their parents which permit the parents to maintain the "moral authority" to deal with their kids. Most of these men think they've been great parents, and have terrific kids who could be loved by anyone. Then they get divorced and eventually marry us second-wives, expecting everything to function in the same way that it did in the first marriage. The problem is, they have no idea beyond their own personal, limited "parenting" what is involved in raising kids. One stepmom on one of the boards made the remark "I just don't understand how his 4 year old son can be sitting directly between him and the TV, and he doesn't see the kid playing with a lighter!" I believe he doesn't see because he's never had to. There has always been a woman in his life who takes care of "that stuff."

When we as stepmoms come into the lives of these people, many of us already mothers to our own biokids, we assume that we can expand our mothering role to include our new SKs, intending to keep on doing what we've been doing. Even those who have never had children of their own have those "mothering genes." Our problem is that we don't have the bonding with these kids that is required to give us the "moral authority" to parent our SKs.

The only way we can get that "authority" is through DH, and he must give it to us by expecting and demanding that his kids respond to us with obedience and respect, or at least respectful behavior. THAT is what is meant by a supportive DH. Most of them THINK they are supportive, and many of US think they are supportive. But unless they are willing to discipline their children every single time they speak disrespectfully to us, or ignore us, or disobey us, they are giving their children permission to continue and sometimes escalate, this behavior. And because our DHs have NEVER had to be mothers, they don't know what we're talking about when we try to get their help. They are still being the same parents they were when they were married to their exes, things worked out ok there, so they assume that the problem is US!

The more we "nag" and point out what's wrong with their kids, the more convinced they become that at the least, we have no parenting skills, and at the worst, we are child abusers. The more we are determined that these kids ARE GOING TO MIND US, the more parenting we do. And the more parenting we do, the less our DHs have to do. Which is exactly the way they want it. They would rather we didn't scream so much, but we're getting the job done (the kids brush their teeth when we are red in the face, they go to bed when we are spewing spittle). Dad can just keep on being a father, which means he doesn't fool with this stuff. But he's still thinking we're crazy, and can't understand why we're so mean to his kids. In addition, our "criticism" of his kids is seen as a criticism of him.

DH is not a mother, has never been a mother, and doesn't know what it means or requires to be a mother. DH is content being the same parent he has always been, and thinks his kids are fine the way they are. He's just as confused as we are about why we're having so many problems with our SKs, but in his heart, he believes that we are at fault.

Now we come to the kids themselves. Here we have children who, for the most part, have been raised by two parents with whom they are bonded and for whom they accept the power of their bioparents authority. We stepmoms come into their lives with no bond and with no authority. But we blindly assume the role of mother in our own homes, and all the responsibility involved. After the "honeymoon" with the kids is over, if we even have that period of peace and tranquility, the kids begin to test the waters. Now, keep in mind, they do this with their bioparents too, but quickly submit to the authority of these people for whom they have respected, admired, and depended on since birth. They look to DH to see what they can get by with, because they have no intention of submitting to our authority until they are made to do so. DH has never involved himself in these struggles between his ex and his kids, because she can handle it herself. He doesn't see the problem. The kids don't know that he can't see the problem. They think he is giving them unspoken permission to defy us. And so they do. The struggles become more angry, more bitter, more frustrating.

And another amazing thing occurs. In some cases, we give these kids their first real taste of power. With their parents, they are willing to submit, because if nothing else, they fear the loss of their parents' approval. They feel no such need to have our approval. They find that with the mere shrug of a shoulder or a rolling of the eyes that they can turn a big strong adult into a raging maniac. By this time, we have become so frustrated, everything they do infuriates us. And in getting by with disrespectful behavior (and they get by with it because DH doesn't stop it), they are encouraged to even greater heights of disrespect, and they hone their cunning on us, gaining an even greater sense of power. We end up handing these kids tremendous power over us, on a silver platter, and they love it.

There we are, doing all the work (laundry, grocery shopping, cooking, chauffeuring, supplying needs, the list is endless),doing everything reasonable to maintain our family as we had envisioned, and these kids are treating us like bugs on the soles of their shoes. We are raging to our DHs who can't understand why we're so angry, and we're wondering what we're doing here, working our rears off, trying to raise these children, feeling abused and unappreciated by DH AND his kids. Sometimes we think about divorce.

Now it's time to disengage.

In order to successfully disengage, you have to accept some realities. They are:

 

  1. Your SKs are not your children.
  2. You are not responsible for overcoming their previous "raising."
  3. You are not responsible for what kind of people they are.
  4. You are not responsible for what kind of people they become.
  5. You are not obligated to become an abused member of the household just because you married their dad.
  6. You are not responsible for raising your SKs.
  7. All the responsibility belongs to your DH.
  8. Your DH is not a mother.
  9. Your DH is not going to raise his children the way you want him to.
  10. Your SKs are not going to turn out the way they would if DH supported you.
  11. What all this means is this: You must stop parenting your SKs. You must stop telling them what is expected of them. You must stop disciplining them. You must turn over all responsibility for them to your DH. You must allow DH to make whatever mistakes he makes.

But first, you must explain to DH and SKs what is happening. This is what you say: "Everyone is unhappy, our home is miserable, and I'm completely frustrated and angry all the time. You kids are angry and frustrated with me, and it's getting worse. Someone has to do something about this, and I decided that it will be me. I have decided that I will no longer be responsible for getting you to bed on time, or getting you up in the mornings. I will not tell you to wash your hands before dinner, and I will not tell you to brush your teeth or take a bath. (You must list all those things for which you have assumed responsibility, whatever they are). I am no longer going to do anything that will give you the opportunity to treat me with disrespect. In the future, if you need anything, you must ask your dad. I will no longer take responsibility for (whatever, getting your school supplies, shopping for your clothes, doing your laundry, taking you to basketball practice, etc.) What I hope to accomplish is for us to begin to get along with each other, and the only way I know to do that is to let your dad be the parent."

And every time they ask you for something, or ask permission for something, you say "Go ask your dad." Your SKs may end up missing out on some terrific things because of your Disengaging, but it was a choice they made when they decided to make your life miserable. Never give them the opportunity to treat you disrespectfully.

Many of you may be saying, does all this mean I have no rights? Absolutely not. You must choose your battles, and to disengage, your battles should be about those things that DIRECTLY affect you. For example, you have a right to keep your home with the degree of neatness and cleanliness that you desire (just leave the SKs rooms alone and concentrate on the communal areas). You can say, "From now on, I expect everyone to put their stuff away by bedtime. Since I will no longer be asking you to do it because I don't want to argue with you, anything that is left out after 9:00 will be disposed." Period, no discussion, just do it. If it's important to DH for his kids to keep their "stuff," HE will parent his children, or do it himself. "If you don't clear the table after dinner, I will not set a place for you at the next meal." Period, no discussion, just do it If it's important to DH for his kids to eat, HE will parent his children, or do it himself. "If you leave your dirty clothes on the floor in the bathroom, they will be disposed." Are you getting the idea? If DH chooses to do his children's chore, let him. The aim is NOT to straighten out your SKs deficiencies, it's to get your DH involved with his children, in whatever way he chooses, and to lessen your work load. If the kids are going to be unappreciative, let them be unappreciative of their dad.

You see, the REAL problem is not between you and your SKs, it's between you and your DH. These children are HIS responsibility and if he wants good things for them, he will parent them. If he doesn't care (believe me, he really does!), why should you beat your head against the wall?

My son ALWAYS had a bedtime, my SSs NEVER had a bedtime. Now I tend to my son and let DH tend to his. If he wants them to get a good night's sleep, he will parent them. If it's not important to him, I don't make it my concern.

My DH goes to work at 5:30 AM, which leaves me the task of getting everyone up and ready for school. It used to be a nightmare getting my younger SS up, he would growl and yell and scream and roll over and go back to sleep until I was screaming my lungs out, jerking the covers off. Every day started like that and I was miserable every evening, thinking about my next morning's task. So....I just stopped. I told DH to get him an alarm clock. And I told DH that if he wanted to help his son start his day well, he might consider making sure that SS goes to bed at a reasonable hour, but that I would no longer make it my concern. SS missed 2 days of school because he wouldn't get up and I refused to make a second trip to take him there. DH decided to parent his son. He did it without being home by using consequences if his son did not get up in time to get ready for school.

The point is this: DH must decide what is important to HIM. You must be willing to put up with some degree of inconvenience to "allow" him to parent his children. But whatever inconvenience you suffer will be minor compared to the conflict that might be part of your life right now. My DH stepped up to the plate. Your DH might not. But that's HIS decision. Don't expect him to agree with your "new position." He doesn't agree with your current position. Don't expect him to like what you are doing - or to be more precise - not doing. The less YOU do, the more HE must do and that will not make him happy. You must remember that he has no right to expect more parenting from you than he is willing to do himself.

You may be thinking, this is nuts! We agreed to be "parents" to each other's children. Yes, but he also agreed to be a parent to his OWN children. None of this means that you can't do ANYTHING. It's very likely that DH will need your help. That's OK. The issue here is that DH must ASK you for your help, instead of what you've been doing - assuming the responsibility and being unappreciated for it.

When DH needs something done that he can't do himself (a ride for one of the kids while he's a work, for example), first, you have already told the kids "Go ask dad." So DH is REQUIRED to become involved in his children's lives. He now must THINK ABOUT what's involved in raising his kids, and we all know it's a lot of work. And you can agree to help out, only if DH asks. BUT, to disengage, you must be willing to withdraw your agreement to help IF the kids, between now and the event, treat you disrespectfully! And you must refuse to assist next time if DH and the kids don't say "Thank you." You also have a RIGHT to have your efforts appreciated.

When you begin to value yourself in this whole relationship by expecting to be treated with respect and appreciation, you'll feel a lot better. When I say "to value yourself" I mean that if your efforts are not appreciated - don't do it! Sometimes the SKs will think, "Well, we're in the car on the way to the ballgame, now I'm home free to be disrespectful!" BAM! They smart off to you! Well, turn that car around and take them back home - don't raise your voice or act insulted or point out how ungrateful they are. Just say "I'm sorry you've decided to treat me disrespectfully. I must withdraw my offer to take you."

BTW, these are also good methods of getting your OWN children's respectful behavior!

I know, from my own experience, just how hard it is to "let go." But it's up to you to make the choice - "Am I going to continue to live in this awful situation, or am I going to do something about it." While you fear what will happen to everyone when you "disengage," as if the family will fall apart, you will be surprised at the change in your own life. I can't guarantee that everything will turn out the way it has for me, but I can guarantee that you will no longer feel angry, frustrated, resentful, and hurt. The HARDEST part is giving up the need to straighten out these kids and "change" them into the children YOU want them to be.