Boundaries 101: Lessons for Stepmothers by Mary Kelly-Williams
Today I’m running a special guest post by Mary Kelly-Williams, MA, a therapist and stepmother in Boulder, CO about boundaries. You need them if you’re a woman with stepkids, but sometimes it’s hard to know how to maintain them, how to assert them, for fear of being disliked or perceived as wicked. Here’s Mary on how and why it’s important to have your boundaries in the stepfamily, and protect them. Otherwise, you’ll likely find yourself exhausted, depleted, and resentful. Have a read…and leave a comment!
BY MARY KELLY-WILLIAMS, M.A.
It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel exhausted and depleted. It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel misunderstood, used, taken for granted, and the scapegoat when things don’t go well in the stepfamily system. It is not uncommon for stepmothers to feel more like posers and actresses than actual human beings.
And all this exacts a price that no stepmother should or needs to pay.
Because the role of “stepmother” is so vague and ambiguous for most, and because our need for love and approval runs so deep, many stepmothers try to overcompensate, fix their spouse’s or even ex-spouse’s messes, be perfect and loving every second, take on the role of family and marriage counselor, and negate their own needs in the process. But there is a solution and it comes in the form of two simple words:
Yes, boundaries connect. I learned this 2-word mantra many years ago in a training program and I’ve used it ever since, for my clients and myself.
It’s important to have boundaries in our lives, especially when one is a stepmother. But this is tricky business, given the stepmother is the one with the invisible target on her chest that screams, “Blame me for everything!”
Stepmothers need to know when it’s okay to put up the bright red stop. They need to know when they’ve done enough conceding, enough “gutting” their way through their weeks and days. They need to recognize the warning their bodies give them when it feels like someone is stepping on their chest and it’s hard to breathe.
You know that feeling…that feeling you get when you agree to something that you really don’t want to agree to? That moment when you say “Yes”, and it’s as if you can feel all your essence, all that is you, slip down and go down the nearest sewer drain.
That feeling when you walk away and you want to kick yourself. That moment when you’ve said, “Yes” when you meant “No” and you blame the other person for “taking advantage of you.”
Why do we do this?
To keep the peace?
To avoid the conflict?
To get the ex-wife to like you?
To look like the good guy?
To make sure the stepkids love you?
To be a saint?
To be the perfect stepmother and wife?
To make life easier?
To ensure the smooth yet elusive “blended family”?
I thought so.
And you know how that feeling just sits in your psyche and you feel anything from slow burning resentment to out and out rage?
Usually when we get to this point, we also tend to get into a bit of a victim mode. We are being taken advantage of, we aren’t being appreciated, we aren’t being valued, we aren’t being seen.
Some of the most valuable lessons about how to maintain healthy boundaries in our stepfamily situations may come from other areas of our lives where we feel more self-confident. I finally learned the invaluable lesson of “Boundaries Connect” when one of my daughters was 15 years old. We were on the way to get her driver’s permit. Now, this daughter had been testy and feisty and difficult to get along with (Duh, 15).
I asked the unforgivable question, “So, how was your day?” ‘WHY DO YOU HAVE TO BE SO NOSEY MOM? WHY DO YOU ALWAYS HAVE TO ASK ME THESE STUPID QUESTIONS???!!!”
Quick background. I was recently divorced from her father and full of divorce guilt and how my divorce was going to screw up my children for life, and how I was accepting perpetual rude behavior from this one in particular because I had put her through this divorce and would be forever more making up for it for all eternity.
Well, I had just learned about the power of the mantra “BOUNDARIES CONNECT” and the two words came screaming at me. I had had enough and I made an illegal U-turn in the road and headed the car back towards home.
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING? WHERE ARE YOU GOING? THIS IS THE WRONG DIRECTION!!!”
Me, in extremely calm mother voice: “You are not getting one more thing from me from this point on until you learn to speak to me with respect in a civil and polite tone. I will never apologize to you again about the divorce. It happened. It’s done.”
The screaming and ranting continued with the expected, “HOW CAN YOU DO THIS TO ME? I NEED MY DRIVER’S PERMIT AND I NEED IT NOW, BLAH BLAH BLAH.” No no. Wasn’t going to do it. Wasn’t going to turn around. The verbal barrage continued. We got home and she ran into her room slamming the door, threatening to run away, go to her fathers’, call Social Services.
I handed her the phone.
From that point on, our relationship changed drastically. It moved into a relationship of love—my daughter stopped her ranting, her demands. And if she slipped, I’d look at her and say, “You’re not getting one thing from me until you speak to me in a way that is respectful.”
It didn’t take long.
Stepmothers recoil when I tell them this boundary connects concept. It elicits fear. “What if I give a boundary and I get rejected?” “What if my husband pushes back?” “What if my stepchildren hate me for sure?”
I try to reassure. I can’t tell you the times that the “Boundaries Connect” in action gives people more love, more respect. It’s not about being stubborn or rigid. It’s about being true to yourself and holding fast to the anchor of your being.
Ultimately, it’s better to disappoint another to be true to yourself. And it’s like that airline analogy. You know the one…you need to put on your oxygen mask first before you can help others.
We can’t model self-love to our children, our stepchildren, our spouses, or our friends if we aren’t self-loving.
So experiment today. Pick one small thing you’re tempted to relinquish. And don’t. See what happens…take a chance.
Tags: blended family, boundaries, divorce, divorce with children, family, Mary Kelly-Williams, remarriage, remarriage with children, stepfamily, stepfamily difficulty, stepmonster, stepmother, stepmother advice, stepmother role, stepmother support, wednesday martin