This is a repost by author, stepmom and all around awesome superchick, Wednesday Martin.
Many of you asked me to elaborate on the topic of “Barnacle Syndrome,” which I touched on briefly in a recent article for StepMom Magazine. Barnacle Syndrome may be especially acute during the holiday season, so here goes.
If you’re feeling like you just got “tacked on” to your husband’s life–that it’s all about the way he and his kids do it, that you have lost your connections to your traditions, your family, your strength your identity, your self–and are experiencing it especially over the holiday season, here’s what’s likely going on…and what you can do:
1. Feeling like a Barnacle means there is an imbalance of power in your marriage or partnership with a man with kids. Stepfamily and gender researcher Jamie Kelem Keshet writes about how women with stepchildren are more likely to be married to men who are older and more established; to move into his place “because it’s easier for the kids” or because it’s bigger; to move away from their families of origin/relocate to be with their husbands (who sometimes move to be closer to their kids); and, if they are themselves childless, to feel special pressure to take on a “maternal” role with his kids. I’m personally a poster-child for Barnacle Syndrome. When we married, my husband was seven years older, much more established, living with his adolescent daughter. I was younger, single, more mobile. I lived hundreds and hundreds of miles from my family of origin, was less established in my career, had no kids of my own. And so it only made sense for me to sell my car and most of my stuff and move in with him. And become a mother-like figure to his daughter. Right?
Holy inequalities, Batman, what a recipe for potential disaster! I remember looking around “our” house one day and realizing my contribution was a couple of throw pillows and a lamp. Meanwhile, my husband’s daughter already had a perfectly good mother and didn’t need another one, thank you very much. She was also an adolescent and like all healthy adolescents, felt the need to separate and differentiate far more acutely than the desire to have another quasi-parental figure in her life. My feeling of losing myself and my past and my very identity, and feeling overwhelmed by a role I didn’t even understand, came to a head as our first Christmas together approached, and my husband informed me that his plan for Christmas day was to spend it driving six hours round-trip to pick up his daughters from their mother’s place, “Since that’s what I’ve always done.” Cue tape of confused, frustrated wife and stepmother going postal (my husband, to his credit, listened to me and realized this was not an auspicious way to begin our annual Christmas tradition as a couple. He opened up his mind, and we made a plan that worked for both of us, and for our marriage).
Feeling and being “tacked on” like a barnacle to your husband’s previous life is common–but it’s not a normal, inevitable, or natural state of affairs. It’s a sign that you and your partner need to reset the balance, and get to a place where you feel like and are true partners, equals in the household and the relationship.
2. If you’re feeling like a barnacle or outsider, make a priority to change that, and do it stat, since power imbalances create resentment. In fact, you might say that the road to divorce is paved with power imbalances! Whether it’s an unequal distribution of household work, a sense that his kids have more say than you do in the family, or a feeling that you are living in a “haunted house” since you moved into his place, Barnacle Syndrome is a sign that you and your spouse have work to do. It’s not the end of the world. In fact, it’s exactly the opposite. Once you give this feeling of imbalance and being on the outside a name, you are in a much better position to address it!
3. You might need help from a professional when dealing with the charged topic of feeling like a barnacle or outsider in your own home. Until you and your partner get there, though, there is plenty you can do. Let your partner know–without a trace of anger or resentment in your voice (I know, it’s hard, but let’s be strategic here!)–that you want this holiday to feel balanced, festive, and comfortable for everyone. To that end, let him know you’d like to have your own family, your own friends, anyone who helps you feel supported and understood, around a lot this holiday season. Avoid situations where it’s just you, him, and his kids. Not only because you will feel better, but because the research shows that often, when stepparents, parents, and step/kids all come together without others around, it activates everyone’s anxiety about being an outsider. His kids of all ages will likely feel relieved if your friends and family are there to make things a little more interesting, and cut down on the sense that you’re all trying to feel like a “real family,” whatever that means. With that pressure off, you might find that his kids are open to some one-on-one time with you (stepfamily members also bond well one-on-one).
4. In addition to bulwarking yourself with supportive friends and family during the holiday time, consider doing less. If his kids are in a loyalty bind, the less you do on their behalf, the less they will have to feel indebted to and ambivalent about you. Rather than being a martyr who bends over backwards to cook all their favorite foods, for example, set the bar at being welcoming and appropriately open to interactions with them, based on their cues. It can make the difference between feeling depleted and drained and enjoying the holiday.
5. Finally, remember to get out. We’re so stuck in the “first family head” when we think about what’s best for stepfamilies. Guess what? Experts agree that stepmothers especially need time away from their husbands and stepkids when they’re around. It helps us rejuvenate and reset, and prevents stepmaternal burnout. In addition, you will seem like less of a “Dad hog” if you let the kids of any age have alone time with their father while you’re out doing something you really enjoy.
Wednesday Martin is the author of the highly recommended and surprisingly honest book, Stepmonster. In it, she tells the truth about being a stepmom, backed by solid research and personal experiences. Wednesday Martin has worked as writer and social researcher in New York City for almost two decades. She has been a stepmother for nine years and lives in New York City with her husband and their two sons. Please visit www.wednesdaymartin.com to learn more.