Sunday Herald Sun - Body and Soul

“Few step-families are quite as sugar and spice and everything nice as The Brady Bunch”

Step-parenting expert and author Karalee Katsambani­s offers some words of wisdom on how to traverse this tricky terrain and not come out looking like the wicked stepmother


While stepfamili­es are more common than ever before, few are quite as sugar and spice and everything nice as portrayed in old episodes of The Brady Bunch.

Even at its happiest, blended-family life is still far more complex than people on the outside could ever imagine.

When I became a stepmum to two pre-teens, I had no children of my own. Unlike Mike and Carol Brady, I also didn’t have a housekeepe­r like Alice Nelson. Forget Alice’s washing, cooking and cleaning skills – what I needed was her sage advice on how to navigate the complicate­d world of step-parenting. Finding the right strategies to cope with juggling the diary arrangemen­ts for visits during schooltime and holidays, dealing with the emotional roller-coaster of exclusions from special events like birthday dinners, school graduation­s and sports matches, and of course the always painful “you are not my mother!” outbursts.

Now, 15 years later, having come out the other end as a mother of three pre-teens and stepmother of two well-adjusted young adults, I wanted to share the tough lessons I learnt for others navigating this tricky territory.

There’s not much I haven’t seen or experience­d as a step-parent – from arguments over last-minute change of plans that appear spiteful and calculated, to tackling a former partner who refuses to have any communicat­ion even when a child is sick and may need special treatment. Sometimes there are children from both partners’ previous unions involved and often a new baby, or a few, come along. For us, the arrival of a new baby brought the most unexpected challenges, the hardest of which was the refusal of my stepchildr­en’s mother to allow them to meet their sibling until “our weekend”. It was emotionall­y draining for everyone, especially the kids.

It’s understand­able that you’ll want to create that ideal of the happy family, but don’t rush things. Be realistic about how long things will take to evolve. It can take substantia­lly more time than people think for stepfamili­es to bond and build trust. So just take it one day at a time.

Step-parenting is about commitment, compromise and compassion. The biggest thing to remember is that it is not a competitio­n. Don’t pit yourself against their biological parents or try to one-up them, and never badmouth them in front of your stepkids. Remember that while they may be your partner’s ex, they will never be your stepchildr­en’s ex. But at the same time, it’s OK to set boundaries

in your home and your relationsh­ip, and don’t be afraid to say no.

It’s not wise to overcompen­sate by buying loads of presents in the hope of winning a stepchild’s love, approval and smile. As hard it may be, just show interest in them and be there for them, even if they remain distant or conflicted for some time. Keep in mind that while you may be ready to be a step-parent, your stepchildr­en may not be ready for you just yet.

My stepkids are no longer kids. We have a mature and healthy adult relationsh­ip despite living on different sides of the country. They know that I am still there for them if they need me, in good times and bad. At the end of the day, a parent or step-parent isn’t there to be a best friend to the child – they’re there to help raise a person who will be self-confident, know that they’re loved and make a great contributi­on to society when they grow up.

Has something like this happened to you lately? As you’ve done countless times before, you’re sitting opposite your best friend, having a coffee and listening to them lament over their latest break-up/work worries/ fight with a mutual friend. But this time, something is different: you’re genuinely struggling to feel sympatheti­c.

It’s understand­able why you’d be concerned about your lack of caring, but you’re not alone on this one. It’s a situation healthcare workers know well, given they spend much of their lives seeing, hearing and dealing with other people’s suffering. You’re probably experienci­ng “compassion fatigue”, which is characteri­sed by emotional

(and sometimes physical) exhaustion that leads to a reduced capacity to feel compassion towards others.

According to psychologi­st Briony Leo, “It occurs when someone is overworked, unsupporte­d, doesn’t have the chance to process or recover after exhausting events, or has other emotionall­y draining things happening in their lives – like relationsh­ip issues, a family illness or parenting issues.”

Blame it on our chaotic lives, the seemingly never-ending list of problems we all face at work and at home on a daily basis, financial strains and parenting. Throw in a global pandemic and it’s hardly surprising that we’ve all been stretched to our limits. “Considerin­g the things we are seeing on TV and in the news, we can tend to get overwhelme­d, and feel helpless and upset by the suffering of others,” Leo says. “But being constantly exposed to this suffering can also mean that we harden over time. This is especially the case when we ourselves are stressed or anxious – we only have a finite amount of emotional resources and these can get gobbled up easily.”

If you’re nodding along and are worried your compassion levels could be a little on the low side, thankfully, the warning signs are easy to spot – and Leo has some suggestion­s as to how you can start feeling like your old, caring self again.

“A sign that you could be approachin­g compassion fatigue is when you respond differentl­y to a situation that would normally have inspired empathy – instead of feeling concerned and sad, you may feel annoyed or angry. You may also notice that you’re more cynical or judgementa­l in general,” she says. “Compassion fatigue occurs when our emotional resources are depleted – we feel like we have ‘nothing left in the tank’ for others.”

For some of us, refilling those tanks doesn’t require much – things like a weekend away or having a massage can often do the trick. For others, though, especially those who have dealt with compassion fatigue long-term, some more substantia­l lifestyle changes may be necessary. Leo recommends getting good sleep, spending time in nature, exercising, speaking to a therapist and surroundin­g yourself with supportive and understand­ing people.

“If you’re feeling burnt out and annoyed, it is a sign that you do need to do something differentl­y,” Leo says. “We all have different ways of decompress­ing or resetting, but it is important to be able to ‘close the chapter’, so to speak. This might be taking a day to reflect on the past year and write some ‘lessons learnt’, as well as goals and priorities for 2021. When we recharge our batteries – whether that is by taking time off, looking after our health or decompress­ing – we then have more space to respond to the needs of those around us.”

 ??  ?? STEPPING UP Karalee Katsambani­s with her husband Peter and their three youngest children, Zoe, 9, Andrew, 12, and Angelica, 11.
STEPPING UP Karalee Katsambani­s with her husband Peter and their three youngest children, Zoe, 9, Andrew, 12, and Angelica, 11.
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