Remember the 3 Little Pigs? Of course you do. We all grew up learning why we should mock the one who decides to build his house out of straw, but let’s be honest, it’s totes the easiest, fastest way to put a roof over your head!
Then there’s the little guy who goes for a wooden house, and you know, it seems like a pretty good compromise. I mean, the wolf is coming, right? Who knows how long you have to actually make the walls and a door that locks. I’m probably a Little Pig Number Two at heart. Wood is decently strong, and you can always spray the exterior walls with stucco for that extra air of sturdiness. Every suburb is full of new homes made this way.
And of course, when the big bad wolf comes a-huffin’-an’-puffin’, the first two pigs hi-tail it to their friend who’s probably anal about everything he does. He chose the winning risk/benefit strategy and spent a lot of extra time, money and energy making an impervious house out of bricks, unlike his misguided friends. He saves their bacon, pardon the bad pun.
Why am I writing about a kids’ story? Well, after 3 years of working pretty much full-time with stepmoms and their families, I keep seeing the same pattern playing out over and over and I have a new perspective on what’s going on.
What I keep seeing is stepmom burn-out. Literally, these wives and girlfriends are becoming so exhausted and feeling so hopeless, they don’t know how much longer they can go on. What is it about blended family life that can suck a woman dry in mere months?
I believe that what’s really wearing them out is the effort of trying to hold up the walls of a house that’s made of anything but bricks. I’m knee-deep in this metaphor now, so I’ll stick with it. Walls made of straw or wood just aren’t strong enough to stand up against the hurricane of hi-conflict behaviours. The rain’s coming in and stepmom is running around trying to plug the holes with her bare hands. No wonder she’s burned out!
So, what decides which kind of house you get to live in?
I believe it’s parenting styles. Dad’s parenting style is what creates the structure of your family. Your parenting style isn’t really relevant – I don’t mean that it doesn’t matter how you relate to your step kids, but only dad’s parenting is creating structure.
You might have heard me refer to the 4 types of parenting styles – here’s how they apply to this problem:
Authoritarian parenting (“Because I said so!”) creates the wooden house. It looks pretty solid at first glance, and it’s quicker and easier to put up than a brick house, but the walls can be kicked out from the inside by kids who figure out that they can actually say no. They’re only learning to be afraid of dad, and at some point they realize that they have more power than they knew. They get old enough to either rebel and call his bluff or to just walk away.
Permissive parenting (“We’re buddies, your wish is my command!”) makes a straw house. Literally, the kids don’t even feel safe inside this house because there’s no Alpha dog. Nobody is the boss, there’s no leader. It might be because dad doesn’t want to come on strong the way his own dad did. In some cases, Dad can’t hold up any boundaries in his own house because he’s afraid his kids won’t want to come over any more.
The Neglectful parent (“You’ll figure it out, you don’t need me for anything”) doesn’t provide a house at all, he just kind of throws his kids a big blue tarp and a piece of rope. He provides the most rudimentary kind of shelter – better than sleeping out in the rain, but not by much.
The brick house is only built by Authoritative parenting, the kind where dad is warm and loving but also shows up as a leader in his family. He says “You’re safe, you’re loved and I see you. And because I love you, I won’t let you get away with that shit.” Even if it’s not easy, he’s able to make the limits they need and hold them effectively. He understands how difficult it is for his kids to have parents living in different homes who may not agree on how to raise them, but he takes a long view and consistently looks for ways to make the impact he wants to have in their lives.
When the bio parent is authoritative, the stepmom is not left holding the parenting bag. She’s not constantly overstepping because there’s no gaping parenting hole to fill. She’s not being blindsided by expectations that she didn’t know about or sign up for. She can instinctively feel that dad has it under control and she can trust him to pick his own battles, giving him space to try and fail and try again in the process of learning how to raise his kids in this complex family dynamic.
How do you get to be an authoritative parent if it doesn’t come naturally to you? The first step is to recognize your own parenting style and then give yourself a pat on the back. Parenting is some hard shit, even for dads who aren’t divorced. You’re doing the best with the tools you have.
Next, get out there and get some more tools! You don’t have to make big changes all at once, but little steps in the right direction will become the little bricks that make your house immune to every kind of challenge.
If your family is dealing with exceptional challenges like parental alienation, I have a resource that could get you started repairing your parent-child relationships so that you can make the impact you desire. Grab it here:
Wanna be pen pals? I’ll send you an email every Sunday evening. You hit reply whenever you feel like it and tell me what’s up in your world!
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