As the daughter of an entrepreneur, it was always expected that I would create my own life path. My dad would tell me that people could achieve amazing things and although I had my fair share of hurdles, by my late twenties I was happily working for myself in a rewarding portfolio career. The academic in me loved the detail and ambition of the hypotheses I set myself and I was hungry to test out my ideas. I like plans; because without a plan, how can you measure your success?
This is not a post about how becoming a stepmother changed me and taught me compromise and patience. The qualities that make me good in business were not something I was willing to be flexible on. I have high standards and I wasn't about to surrender to a messy home with chaotic bedtimes, a lack of personal space and feeling like an impostor. I loved my boyfriend but I was very clear that I wasn't going to be the kind of stepmother that wrote forum posts out of exasperation at her partner mollycoddling brats and kowtowing to a woman he left in order to get out from under the thumb.
It was clear to me I needed some kind of plan but here was a situation where one of the largest stakeholders in my business (aka my new family) was someone I had never interviewed, let alone approved (the ex-wife). As for the co-founder (my husband), while not without his own charms, he was unconditionally attached to the junior members (my stepsons). With the organizational chart set in stone, I was evidently going to have to use every ounce of my creativity to find a mutually beneficial structure.
Kathryn's Stepmother Plan:
A stepfamily which was harmonious and loving with the same nuclear family format that I grew up in. The parents are in charge together, backing each other up on all occasions. This mutual support is based upon absolute trust that each of them want the best for every member of the family.
To meet the demand for a family unit which nurtures each individual whilst maintaining a focus on the overall good of the organization.
3.1 Have a working culture based upon mutual respect and cooperation.
I'm something of a home girl but that means I like arranging flowers next to the sofa and curling up with a good book. I'm nobody's maid! Everyone in the house helps out with housework but everyone gets a say. Given that my toddler can load the dishwasher, I have unwavering faith in the capabilities of my stepsons. That faith is applied to their ability to choose where we go for the day just as often as it is to their ability to put laundry away.
3.2 Enable the personal goals and advancement of each individual
As a single parent my husband would have my stepsons together. One of my greatest contributions to our family has been giving them one to one time. My stepsons are very different people and enjoy different activities. Having their father entirely to themselves has been great for both kids. It also helps them appreciate that we like our time alone as well. We do not treat the children equally but we treat them with equal love.
3.3 Develop consensus for key values
I believe the three values which generate the most happiness are gratitude, living in the moment and developing meaningful relationships. I began asking the children to list three good things that had happened to them that day when I collected them from school. At first they struggled, but now they regularly point out things to me which make them happy. While never seeking to stifle their feelings, I was a fan of 'Let it go' long before we saw Frozen. They rarely complain about petty things in the past these days as they hate my singing (thanks for that one Disney!). As for meaningful relationships, I listened. Hard. I learned about them and looked for interests we could share.
I believe people are happiest when they have things which are their own; projects, space, belongings. As such, I sought to take on board the opinions of my stepsons from a very young age. I cut them the slack you would an apprentice but made it clear that I expected them to take responsibility for themselves. As they grew within our new family, their tasks and rewards increased.
My worst boss was inconsistent, overly emotional and lacked vision. For my new team I knew that these were the characteristics I would most need to avoid. I don't always get it right (I'm not sure I ever get it right!) but I know the boys view me as fair and reasonable. I apologize when I make mistakes and I never lie to them. They respect me because I work for it not because I demand it.
4.3 Team spirit
Prior to the arrival of my biological son, we were a gang. I haven't let that fade. I make the effort for us to do things still as a foursome such as board games that are beyond their little brother's understanding.
5. Action Plans
The number one plan within my plan is regular meetings at both board and company level with a safe space for discussion. Topics which have been covered include the meals we eat, where we'll go on holiday and the "intern's" behavior (the consensus was that the baby could stay).
This plan is an utterly simplistic summary of the last six years and as my eldest stepson begins to show hints of puberty I'm certain that I'm going to have to adapt fast. But I do believe that while we cannot plan a family, we can plan our behavior within it and for now I just appreciate that I haven't been fired!
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