One of the hardest lessons that I personally learn and relearn as an adult and definitely with my family is to allow people to be themselves.
When I do this and when I do a good job of this there’s a lot less conflict around me.
It’s sometimes kind of stunning to me how many layers there can be in this lesson. I guess that’s why it comes up for me and for others over and over.
To try to boil it down to one little nugget of inspiration it’s this: I think that most of us have a deep desire to be seen by others as we see ourselves, heard and valued for what we say and to feel loved by the people in our family.
That’s three big things.
Seen, heard and loved.
An alternative title for this article could have been a parenting and stepparenting lesson from Popeye, the sailor man. If you remember he would say, I y’am what I y’am.
Why is it so hard to let people just be who they are?
My husband is going to be who he is.
His first wife will be herself.
My stepkids will be themselves.
I will be myself.
My kids will be themselves.
The mail delivery person is going to be who they are.
I think that this is true for all of us and each of us.
So then why is this so hard?
Because it just is.
Also because we change a lot.
It’s harder when we live with these folks and we have to interact with them in close quarters. This is my opinion based on personal experience.
If somebody acts in a way I don’t love and I don’t know them I just shrug and walk away. When my children or stepchildren interact with me in a way that doesn’t feel good I can have strong feelings and reactions about that.
One of the things that makes this so hard is that most of us are all changing all the time. I’m the same person I was when I was 5 that I am today at 48 and I’m also different in a million ways.
Sometimes we can learn to expect some types of change in our stepkids and kids in our lives by learning more about developmental phases. Like for example, kids tend to walk independently within a specific range of time. There’s also a phase where a lot of kids will figure out how to lie … and that’s a tough phase.
Who is this new and different person living in my house?
When I was pregnant with my first child I cried a lot. It was very disconcerting to me because it was a total shift in my personality. I remember once I just started crying at work and a coworker asked what was wrong and I honestly said, “I don’t know … I’m just crying.”
A little bit later I decided to go home and rest and my husband asked what was wrong and I said nothing. Which was true. It was very strange and I am guessing it was tough for him to figure out how to interact with me because I was behaving differently than I had before.
Pregnant women are famous for this temporary transition but my experience is that we are all shifting our personalities in small ways all the time.
Teenagers are also famous for this rapid shift in personalities. Sometimes from minute to minute. Cheerful and outgoing to dark and sullen.
This can make it super hard to interact with each other.
I wish my husband knew what I wanted without me having to tell him.
A third thing that makes this insanely complicated is that what others know about us is limited completely to what we tell them and show them.
I have long wished that my husband was a mind reader and he could just know what I wanted without me telling him … but as of today it hasn’t worked not even once.
What’s worse … sometimes when he guesses he gets it wrong. He’ll come home and say I thought you might want me to get this at the grocery store and I’ll think to myself … oh geez why …why would you think that?
The way I phrased this is fairly heteronormative …probably because that describes my relationship. I think this point still rings true if you replace husband with wife or partner. Let me know if you disagree.
These kids should know that these are the rules!
One of the ways this shows up is that adults often think that children know and understand things that they do not.
This isn’t just true for children but children have fewer tools than adults so it’s often more dramatic with kids.
Their skills and abilities advance before they know the customs and the rules. But the adults know the rules and we think they should too.
They don’t know. Until we tell them over and over and over.
A kid can hold a juice box before they know not to squeeze it and how to clean up the mess. We might think they should know that from watching us do it for them. They don’t. They just don’t.
As a new stepparent there was a long list of things I thought my stepkids should know and do which they didn’t.
That made me very frustrated.
I was wrong about almost all of them but I didn’t know that at the time. I realized this as my kids were young and as they came of age and I experienced the same frustration but this time I could see that it was age-appropriate development. What’s even more is that when I think back I can sometimes remember people telling me that I was perhaps in the wrong and I still made myself miserable.
It was me – not them.
One huge thing that was easier for me as a stepmom
As a stepmom, especially a new stepmom,I actually had more distance on the situations between parent and child. This is not true in every blended family it just happens to be what the situation was in my blended family.
In the beginning, I was quite literally an outside observer. That changed over the years as I got more interwoven into the history and fabric of the blended family.
However, it was easier for me to see when there was a disconnect between what the children were trying to say to their parents when it wasn’t being heard. It was also easier for me to see when the children were going through small identity shifts as they aged.
Sometimes this was helpful and other times … well it was not always easy to tell my partner this.
Once when my stepson was young my distance allowed me to see that he was sick a lot more than he should be. His parents were very used to his sniffles and allergies. I was not. So I noticed what they were already conditioned to seeing everyday.
When I spoke up my partner totally dismissed what I told him. That was okay. Really it was. I was not really in a role of being a full-time caregiver for his kids. For some reason he did go ahead and mention it to his ex and it turned out that her partner had said the same thing. I know … what are the odds. It turned out that this little guy desperately needed his adenoids and tonsils removed. So that was really helpful that the stepparents on both sides had an external view. This is a time when my distance as a stepmom allowed me to see something a little more clearly.
Later as his kids were getting older and looking for more teenage independence … well that was also a bit easier for me to see as well. That might have been that it wasn’t a message the parents wanted to hear quite yet. Part of it may have been that I had that little extra distance that they didn’t.
Sometimes the kids are ready to grow up before we are quite ready to let them grow.
What we see others do … we might be doing to that too
Sometimes it can feel like people are changing around us.
One of the layers of awareness here is that we are also changing but since we’re a part of that change we aren’t always aware.
We are changing all the time and so is everybody else.
Thinking about all this simultaneous changing can be kind of a mind-melting activity.
If we think that nothing is changing sometimes it will seem like the changes are happening in big jumps. Like when you don’t see a child for a year and while they were gone they grew a few inches.
They didn’t grow in one step. It was little by little but you didn’t see the little by little.
The same thing is happening with preferences and identity roles and all kinds of things.
The change is not always the problem sometimes it can be the resistance to the change that can be a problem.
One day your baby lies on a blanket. You always know where they are. Then one day that’s not true any more they can move and you have to keep your eye on them more diligently.
You think it’s cute but you very quickly learn that it’s exhausting chasing small moving humans who seem intent on finding danger.
Your life quickly becomes completely absorbed in baby gates and penned in enclosures and finding big spaces where they can walk and run without bothering anybody. It’s a lot. And most of us parents will do our fair share of complaining.
Stop that. Don’t go there. Don’t climb that. Overnight you feel like you become a machine that only says “NO!” and it feels weird.
I remember once at a dinner party we were all relaxing on the deck and my friend sat down with a sigh and said … remember when they didn’t walk yet and we always knew where they were?
We did remember.
We laughed and laughed at this.
Every parent wants their kid to walk. It’s a big moment of celebration. Which it should be because there are children who don’t walk and milestones should never be ignored.
So why do we complain?
If it’s not clear the complaining is the resistance.
We complain because it’s work. We complain because it’s scary. We complain because we complain. There’s nothing bad about the walking but it does change everything about a parents life.
Sometimes change brings resistance.
The resistance can be the problem.
In Buddhist philosophy they even have an entire category of suffering dedicated to change. I’m not a buddhist practitioner although many of my most helpful books that I love do happen to be written by or about buddhists. In this philosophy one way to look at life is that life is change and resistance to change is suffering. If you are curious I got that from the book, The Art of Happiness.
What’s the opposite of resistance?
So the opposite might be a slight overcorrection.
I like to start with curiosity.
A good question can be, what’s going on here?
In my coaching practice I teach a technique called unpacking. That can be helpful.
And then I try to practice acceptance. Acceptance can be a really hard thing to do. Especially if we don’t like something. We might not want to accept it.
Yup. This adulting thing can be hard. If you want some help here’s how you can find out more about working with me.