New Stepmom Circles Podcast: Ron Deal and StepDads

21 04 2011

Finally!!! A new Stepmom Circles Podcast is ready. Ron Deal is one of my favorite guests. In this show we talk about Ron’s new book, The Smart Stepdad. There are even fewer resources for stepdads than there are for stepmoms. Ron always has so much wisdom to share and this podcast is not just for stepdads. It’s for moms who have kids and married a man who became a stepdad to their children. It’s for stepmothers because is the advice he gives is applicable to all of us. Find Ron at http://www.successfulstepfamilies.com

Enjoy!





Stepmothers: Forgiveness

9 02 2011

Yesterday afternoon I watched Oprah. It was a heart-stopping show about three young girls who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their father and older brothers. At the end of the show Oprah passed along advice to them that she received from one of her mentors. She didn’t mention who it was but it took my breath away so I wanted to share it here. She said, “Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different.” Whoa. It’s not about condoning anyone’s behavior or inviting them back into your life or even wishing them love and peace.

Does that resonate or what?

Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different.

For us stepmothers perhaps one place to focus this powerful thought is on our husbands. (Do you secretly wish he’d never been with another woman or had children with anyone else?) Another place: Our exes. Another place: Our own childhoods.

This week I’m meditating on that phrase: Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different.





Marriage: A Petri Dish for Personal Growth

2 02 2011

When you meet the love of your life, it’s freakin’ great, isn’t it? My husband and I had so much fun in those early days before the pressures on us built. Little did we know then that our relationship would lead us to the darkest places we’d ever been. And how great we’ve been able to descend to the depths of ourselves to excavate all those unhealed places!! Marriage really is a Petri dish for personal growth. As a fellow stepmom said recently, you can grow disgusting moldy junk in there or a cure. You decide.

I also write novels (to be published soon, I hope!) and while taking an amazing seminar with Robert McKee, he said, “True character is revealed under pressure.” Isn’t that true of life, too? My character has certainly been revealed to me in the past few years as life pressed. And I’m so glad.

As another fellow stepmother friend once said, “Will you become bitter or strive to be better?”





Stepmothers: Getting to Yes

30 11 2010

I saw this today and thought of stepmothering. William Ury is the author of Getting to Yes and has helped navigate some of the most difficult conversations happening in our world today. His advice is something that we can use in our homes, my ladies! Conflict in your home? With a stepchild? An ex? Your partner? Then watch this. Ury believes the secret peace is to take the third side. Love it.

“In the last 35 years as I have worked in some of the most dangerous, difficult, and intractable conflicts around the planet, I have yet to see one conflict that I felt could not be transformed. It is not easy,  of course, but it is possible.” –William Ury

Stepmoms: Have you transformed conflict in your home? Share with us!





College-Aged Stepdaughter Moves in for the First Time

11 11 2010

Dear Jacque,

In your research and visits with others, have you come across the issue of a 21-year-old stepchild moving in for the first time after 18 years???? She is living with us while going to college part time. My step daughter and I have had a strained relationship for a LONG time. I gave it an honest effort in the beginning, but she and her mom have been best friends ever since she was in elementary school, besides the lack of boundaries between my husband and the ex. I won’t go into all the details of the strain things have been over the years. I just know that my husband is THRILLED to have his daughter living here on a daily basis and treats her like she is a china tea cup. Our 2 daughters get treated like the solid cappuccino mugs by dad. He even acknowledges that he treats her differently. He has much higher expectations of our daughters than his oldest. She only talks to me when I say “Hi” first or if I ask her a question. Other wise, she easily walks right by me without a word, or just leaves the room when I walk in. I am trying to be open with my husband on the issues at hand, but it just ends up putting a strain on us. I feel like I have to revert back to just not saying anything about his daughter, other than to my counselor. Working outside the home, or times when she is gone, has been my sanctuary. Thank you for your time on the website and podcasts. A friend of mine told me about them both, as well as the Stepfamily Letter Project.

Dear Stepmom,

You’re going through what many stepmoms endure during the first years of a new marriage but at a different stage in your life! Thank you for your letter. It’s a wonderful reminder for all of us that the most important thing in stepfamily life is: Flexibility. You just never know what’s going to happen. Once the first years of a new stepfamily are worked through, there are other challenges that will arise. That is the nature of life. How you respond to them is the real question.

In your case, I would go back to the basics of stepfamily development. Even though you and your husband have been together long enough to have two children together, you’re really back in the early stages of stepfamily life since your stepdaughter has never lived with you. Here’s my advice:

  • Work together. I know this is challenging territory for spouses. Dads get defensive. Stepmoms get hurt and angry. It can turn into a nasty cycle. But I believe it’s critical that the two of you work on this together. The Smart Stepmom by Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge has devoted several chapters just to dads. It’s my favorite tool for dads who are having a tough time discussing a child with a stepmother.
  • Understand your stepdaughter. It is not unusual for stepdaughters to move in with their dads at some point during their teens or early twenties. In fact the research about this is pretty incredible. Dr. James Bray saw this in his work, which he describes in the book Stepfamilies.  It is a time in their development when they need a connection with their father. My guess would be that your stepdaughter has some emotional healing to do and that’s why she’s living with you right now.
  • Define boundaries. You have every right to define the boundaries in your home to a 21-year-old girl who has just moved in. Have a discussion with your spouse about the rules. You might have to bend on some and he might have to. But make them the house rules so that they can be upheld by anyone. You might also discuss how long your stepdaughter will be staying with you.
  • Focus on your relationship with your stepdaughter not the rules. You’re not ever going to be a parenting figure to this girl so instead, why not turn on your curious mind? Consider what it’s like to be her. Find out what she likes/dislikes. You mentioned there has always been tension between you and that’s usually due to one party feeling like the other party has taken something away of value or is threatening to. What kind of relationship could you develop with her if neither of you felt threatened?
  • Take responsibility for your responses to tough situations. When my stepchildren don’t say hello to me, I sing out, “Hello!” like I’m living in a musical for the day. It’s so ridiculous that I avoid getting mad and spiraling into toxic rumination (negative thoughts that repeat over and over and over again). And sometimes the kids will say “Hi” back or they will roll their eyes or whatever, but it doesn’t matter as much to me because I kept my body and mind in a calm place (on my good days).
  • Chill out! Have some fun with your spouse. Get a babysitter for ALL the kids and take a night off every single week so you are continuing to build a strong marriage despite the difficulties occurring at home. I MEAN IT. This is tough. You need to have a lot of fun to balance out the hard parts.

Thank you so much for your wonderful question! Hang in there!





Stepmothers: Do You Turn Toward Or Away From Your Partner?

28 09 2010

We all know that conflict is a normal part of any long-term relationship. You’re going to fight. You’re going to get on each other’s nerves. You might even call each other a few choice swear words in the privacy of your own heads.

But at the end of the day, do you turn toward each other or away?

Over the last three months my husband and I have been stressed out. Big time. A whole bunch of challenges hit us at exactly the same time. For the first month, we turned away from each other. We were polite, but we suffered from the stress in our own little worlds. The second month, the stress started coming out in arguments and nasty comments. This month, we turned toward each other.

We acknowledged that we’re both stressed and began exploring some questions. How can we address this together? How can we feel proactive instead of reactive? And most importantly, how can we protect our marriage from the outside stresses it must endure? That is the challenge many stepcouples face. Scratch that. It’s a challenge that ALL couples face.

We came up with some things that are working for us:

  1. Be aspirational. Work toward a goal together that is fun and exciting. We decided to meet once a month for a day to visualize our goals for our future.
  2. Deal with the stress head on. We didn’t just sweep the stressors in our lives under the rug. We built strategies to help us manage the stress and move to a more easeful place with benchmarks so we can track our progress.
  3. Take a break! I know I’ve nagged you all about this one before, but my gosh–having fun is so important. We certainly can’t talk about our problems all the time. We need breaks! We decided that our breaks should include activities that build a positive emotional connection between us.

How about you? Do you have any strategies that you and your partner use to keep connected during challenging times?





Stepmothers: Protect Yourself

14 09 2010

There is a lot of advice out there on blogs and in books (including my own) that tell stepmothers what they need to do to make a stepfamily run more smoothly. There are lots of people to tell you how to make things easier for the kids. There are experts to show you how to co-parent more successfully. I, myself, have given you some of that advice. I’ve told you to cultivate an open heart and let go of anger. This is all good. However: You must also protect yourself.

It goes against our expecations of what family life is supposed to be like to think that we should protect ourselves from our family, but in stepfamilies it’s a skill you must learn.

When you’ve given your all to your stepkids and they turn on you it hurts like hell. When you’ve busted your butt to make your home a wonderful place to be for everyone and they hate it, it stings. When you’re ignored for the billionth time or your birthday is forgotten or your meal is hated or your help is denied, IT HURTS. In those times it is CRITICAL that you protect your lovely heart. Arm yourself. Do the personal growth work it takes to have a healthy and strong self-esteem. Surround yourself with friends who remind you who you are. Go on those date nights with your spouse. Read books. Take breaks. Go out of town.

A caveat: I’m not talking about total emotional disengagement. I’m talking about being more proactive in situations you know are going to hurt you. If you know you’re going to get angry tonight because you’ve cooked a beautiful meal and the kids are going to complain, ask your husband to cook. Get takeout. Tell the kids to trade off nights and let them cook. Order pizza. Make peanut and butter a jelly sandwiches and save the cooking for nights when they’re not with you.  See what I mean?

Some very well-meaning people call this owning your emotional response or taking responsibility or acting like an adult, but using those words can make us feel ashamed or silly for feeling what we feel. I call it protecting yourself.

Protect yourself, dear stepmother. You’ll be a happier human being, a more loving wife, and a far better stepmother if you do.





Your Questions Answered: Stepgrandmother and Grandpa Not Allowed to Visit Grandchild

16 06 2010

I have a 23 year old stepdaughter who has a 2 year old daughter. She’s living with her boyfriend and they are a couple. However, my husband and I aren’t allowed to babysit and the only time we see our grandchild is when WE invite them to dinner. In which case I have to clean, prepare, shop, cook and clean up which leaves me NO time to visit. She has offered for us to take the baby for an hour or two but only once and that time she called and said that plans had changed. This whole thing has made me put her on IGNORE. I don’t call or invite them over anymore. I feel used for a free meal in reality. What should I do? My husband is passive. He has said it is his fault and he should talk to her but he never does. He just tiptoes around the issue.

Dear Stepmom:

It must be so hard for you to see your husband being hurt by his daughter again and again. It is awful to feel so taken advantage of and disrespected as you cook, clean, shop, etc. Without knowing why your stepdaughter acts the way she does, it’s hard to say what is going on in her mind. How long you’ve been in her life and how close she and her father are make a big difference. Usually when grandchildren are born, it can change things dramatically because stepchildren can finally appreciate that complexity of what it takes to be a parent and stepparent. But that doesn’t always happen. Here’s my gut response to your tough question:

Tell your husband to do the shopping/cooking/cleaning/ordering take-out. Your anger around cooking/cleaning/shopping is a big red flag to me. It means there is an easy fix! When your stepdaughter and her family come over, DON’T DO all those chores you’ve set up for yourself. Tell your husband to take charge even if it means he will order take-out and he won’t have the house exactly like you would have it for visitors. Then you won’t become a stepmarytr over the chores that your stepdaughter likely won’t notice anyway. And guess what that means? You’ll feel less resentful. This is good! Stepmothers get into this mess again and again and again and for very good reasons but please hear me now all you women who are doing, doing, doing. Ask yourself this: Can the doing be done in a different way so I don’t feel so burned out and pissed off?

Build bonds instead of barriers. Depending on the relationship your spouse has with his daughter, there is a very real chance that you won’t be involved in your stepgrandchild’s life if she doesn’t want you to be. Decide what your big-picture goal is as a couple. Then work to build bonds with both your stepdaughter and her child. To work around the emotional land minds so common in stepfamilies, you might try to focus on doing activities outside either of your homes. Meet them at a park or the zoo or some other kid friendly location that no one has to clean, for instance. Plus if you’re doing an activity like walking around a zoo, it’s easier to talk and mend fences.

Make it all about the baby. When you’re in hard co-parenting situation, most ex partners and stepparents will make all communications ONLY about the children. That way conversations tend to be less volatile and remain focused on the facts: grades, schedule, braces, doctor visits, etc. You might try using the same approach to co-grandparenting. Keep conversations low-key. How is the baby doing? What milestones has she hit? Wow, she’s so cute! I miss her so much. How are you feeling, new mommy?

Compliment your stepdaughter. Having a young toddler is stressful for women who are in their 30s who have full family support and financial freedom. For girls who have children at young ages out of wedlock, you’ve got a 10 on the stress-o-meter. Compliment her on her parenting and her choices about the hard work she’s doing. Offer to help. New moms have it tough in those early years and it’s hard for them to focus on anything besides the baby. That means many new moms offend people without meaning to because they’re so tired they can’t think.

Put Dad in center stage. The relationship with his daughter is your spouse’s responsibility first and foremost. He needs to decide what kind of relationship he will have with his daughter now that she’s an adult. It’s a stressful transition for a lot of parents/kids to make. At one time their relationship was a matter of necessity. Now it is a matter of choice. And both sides can choose not to continue to try to build something. That’s the sad truth. But remember my Dad’s sage advice: At the end of the day, your family are usually the only ones who show up at your funeral. (And yes, stepparents, you count as family.)





Your Questions Answered: Missing My Stepdaughter

8 06 2010

Hi Jacque,

I guess I should give you some of our history. My husband is from KY and was married to his ex for 1 year before she began cheating on him again. They had a prior engagement that he broke off once he discovered her infidelity. However once he took her back she was magically pregnant shortly after that. They married after my SD was born and like I previously said the marriage only lasted one year with many separations in between. I had met my husband, he was here in MD for subcontractor work, the weekend before he split with his then wife. (My stepdaughter was 16 months old at the time.) We were engaged after 5 months and married on our 1 year. BM was in the habit of denying my husband from seeing his daughter unless it was convenient for her etc. so a court order was put into place. My stepdaughter began coming home every other month for two weeks and then an additional two weeks for summer vaca and alternating holidays. My stepdaughter and I love each other very much and are as close as can be expected. Her mother is a tyrant and she would rather live with us but unfortunately there isn’t anything we can do at this point to make the change.

My stepdaughter started kindergarten last year and the transition was very hard for all of us. Another court order was put into place to address our time with her since she was attending school. BM remarried at the beginning of this year. So my stepdaughter has had many changes to overcome and through out it all she has always seemed to enjoy our nightly calls or at least would talk for a few minutes.

The last month or so has seen a lot of bickering from BM, who doesn’t want to follow our order, and there has been a drastic change in stepdaughter’s disposition on the phone. Most of the time she barely answers the phone before saying bye and hanging up. A few times we have gotten her to talk but I just don’t know how to deal with this rejection. My problem is that I miss my SD terribly when she is not home but talking to her at night has sustained me. Now I don’t know whether she is depressed and doesn’t want to talk or she is receiving hand signals to hang up the phone. BM only has her cellphone in the house and I know she doesn’t give my stepdaughter open access to it to call us.

Do you have any tips for me to deal with this sense of loss when stepdaughter is not around? Thank You

Dear Stepmom,

I want to thank you for loving your stepdaughter so much. The loving heart of an adult is a gift to any child of divorce. You didn’t mention how much time you get with her or what your spouse’s relationship is like with his daughter, so I will answer this with some of the clues that I sense here.

Maintain a vision of love. Your stepdaughter is going through some challenging times. One of the great difficulties of stepfamily life is that we simply have no idea what is going on at the other house. We have to rely on our observations, the things the ex says, and clues left by the children, but it sounds like this girl is caught in a loyalty bind. You were right to point out that your stepdaughter is going through some tough transitions: school, a new stepfather. That alone is enough to cause a child to act out. If Mom is badmouthing Dad and you to their daughter on top of the changes, that can have a dramatic affect on how she acts toward you. You didn’t mention if her treatment of her father has changed but that would be another indicator of a girl who is caught in a loyalty bind. (She wants to feel loyal to her mother and so she must cut ties with you in order to do that, for instance.) During this time, maintain a vision of love for your stepdaughter that encompasses the big-picture view. Hopefully someday she’ll be able to return your love. But for now it sounds like it is far too complicated and far too painful for her to do so.

Be consistent. Children respond to consistency in action. They pay attention to what we do. And over time that has an impact on their sense of selves and their world-view. If it’s possible, continue the phone calls but instead of asking her questions about her life (this could make her feel like she is ratting out her mom) instead share things with her about you. Chat about an age-appropriate movie or book or world event. Tell her about your best Halloween costume. Take the pressure off of her and she’ll thank you in the long run. And if she doesn’t thank you, I’ll do it for her. THANK YOU!

Educate yourself about childhood developmental stages. You didn’t mention whether or not you have any children of your own. If you don’t, then do a little reading on the developmental stages of children. Believe me, it makes it a lot easier to accept and understand a kid’s bad behavior if you understand why it’s happening. Sometimes a surly face is caused by their age and stage in life and not because they’re mad at you.

Protect yourself by understanding stepfamily dynamics. All of the stepfamily folks will tell you “don’t take it personally.” And they are right. This girl’s behavior is not aimed at you. Or if it is, it’s not because of you. It’s because of the situation she is in. That doesn’t mean it’s easy to shut off our feelings! Nor should we. But you need to protect your own feelings by educating yourself about stepfamily life. (Read Between Two Worlds by Elizabeth Marquardt to understand children of divorce, for instance.) Work to develop other ways of finding validation and love besides your stepdaughter so that you feel like a whole, strong, lovable person NO MATTER WHAT. Even if she doesn’t want to talk to you (or can’t because it will hurt her mother,) you are still a glorious soul who deserves love and appreciation. NO MATTER WHAT.

Meet other stepmothers. Having other women to talk to can help normalize your experiences. Find a group of ladies who can help you brainstorm positive ways to overcome your stepfamily challenges. (The upcoming Stepmom Circles Retreat would be a great way to meet other stepmoms!)

Build positive experiences. When you do see your stepdaughter, have fun together! Work on ways to connect in the time you do have and she’ll remember those moments when she gets to make her own choices about who she is going to call or visit. And that day will come faster than you think.





Your Questions Answered: How much is my job?

27 05 2010

Dear Jacque,

I just found your great website, and will pick up your book today. Thanks for this service!

I have need some advice, so I thought I would write in. First a little background – we’re all a mess: My husband and I have full custody of his 11 year old daughter. We’ve been together since she was 9 (not long), and my husband has had full custody since she was 6 (Mom left). Mom is local and has visitation rights. My SD sees her most weekends for all or part of the weekend. Mom has health problems that got significantly worse last year: blood disorder, for which she takes the chemotherapy pill, and problems with her feet and back. She uses a walker and wheelchair, and was told recently that she will never walk again. She is now on disability. I’m 38, with no living children of my own. We were pregnant with a baby girl last year, but I missed carried at 20 weeks. Shortly before losing the pregnancy, I was also laid off from my job. And my change of lifestyle has resulted in losing some friendships. So I’ve been home with my stepdaughter full-time for the last year, managing our day to day life – homework, dinner, soccer mom stuff, etc., plus doing a little freelance work, and also going through a big grieving process of my own.

SD has been acting out a lot – of course! The last year has been very hard on all of us. And she has the teen years looming. She lies, sneaks stuff, whines, talks back, and is super emotionally manipulative. She puts little effort into chores or studying. When we ask for an attitude change or call her out behaviors that are impacting her grades, she cries and asks us what right we have to judge her and be mean to her (!). She accuses us of not loving her. We get the cold shoulder, the eye roll, the arguing, etc. Basically she cannot handle any discipline or critique without melting down. And It’s really not all doom and gloom around here. We tell her we love her multiple times a day. We both try to help her talk about her feelings about her mom and the divorce. Her dad is playful and affectionate with her, does lots of sports stuff with her. She and I have good after-school chats and sometimes go for treats or do yoga together. We pay for horseback riding lessons. But still. I don’t think anything we do for her will be enough to make up for her Mom being sick.

My question is: what should my role be in disciplining her and in helping to maintain the rules of our house (which are pretty basic: respect, pitching in, doing your best)? And also: what should I make of her behaviors? Are these normal developmentally? Are they normal blended family behaviors? Are they the products of loss and stress? And if the latter, is it my job to fix them? I want to support her emotionally and help her learn better ways to communicate, and I know she is going through some hard times. On the other hand, the way she talks to us and the way her grades are sinking is just not okay. On the third hand, I’ve gotten very emotionally wrapped up in this dynamic – bracing myself for the arguments and the whining and the blow offs and the blow outs. Sometimes it is just too much, and I want to say, “Who cares? You guys work it out. I’m going to a movie – see ya’!” I would never walk out, but sometimes it is tempting.

One of the extra stressors is that her Mom has totally different parenting values than us. She never says no, gives SD whatever she wants, lets her watch TV all hours, smokes in front of my SD, criticizes my husband, claims she is going to sue us for custody (never does), complains to SD about her money problems, and gives SD guilt if she wants to do something with her friends instead of visiting her. Basically she treats SD like her pal, or worse, her caretaker, and doesn’t do any of the tough work of parenting. I’m doing all that hard stuff voluntarily for her kid, and I do, I admit it, resent it sometimes. Especially when SD is so negative to me.

So basically – SD’s Mom has been really lax with her, and my husband is lax with her sometimes and strict with her sometimes, and she’s never experienced a real system of consquences for her behaviors. That’s what my husband wants for her now, and I agree, but it feels like a huge uphill battle. Up a hill of baggage that was here before I ever came on the scene. I want to back him up, and he needs my help to figure out a good system. And I certainly want SD to both behave better and feel better inside. But after my own losses, I need time and energy to get my health and career back on track. Am I allowed to have typical stepmom boundaries even though I have full custody? Even though her Mom does not mother her and somebody needs to? I love SD and don’t want to let her down. I also don’t want fights and constant negativity. How much of this is my job to fix? And if I don’t have a role in fixing it, how do I just live with it?

Thanks, Jacque!
Stepmom in Boston

Dear Stepmom in Boston:

Thank you so much for your eloquent letter and your amazingly generous heart and spirit. You and your family have been through a lot and the fact that you remain open-hearted is a major accomplishment!

I think you are correct in your assessment that your stepdaughter’s behavior is due to her relationship with her mother. It sounds to me that this girl is acting out because she is sad and scared about her attachment to her own mother. That could be why she is so needy with you and your husband. The fact that she is acting out the way she is says to me that she feels safe with the two of you. Safe enough to test you to see if you’re going to go away like her mother has. Safe enough to test your love for her (and her dad’s).

Children of divorce are often hungry for love and attention and it seems like no matter what you do they are never sated. Her behavior sounds very fear driven to me.

As a full-time stepmother you are in the unique position of being loved for your attention and hated at the same time because you are not her mother. It’s a hard place to live, especially when you are in your own grieving period.

I agree that the girl needs to have boundaries set up and real parenting done by you and your husband even if she whines and pushes back. Kids need boundaries to feel safe. The way to do this is to talk with your spouse about household rules and then he can present them to his daughter and tell her that you have the authority to enforce them when he’s not around.

Now a few questions for you. How can you be a full-time stepmother and feel good about it? She’s going to annoy you more than your husband because she’s not your biological child. You don’t have the same well of unconditional love. But she is still a child that is in desperate need of love and attention.

The rewards we see from parenting our stepchildren come in small little things like a smile, or an attempt at a connection by them in the form of a conversation, or maybe even a thank you. But some of us never get a “Thank you” from our stepchildren for how hard we worked. That leads me to a second question for you. What’s the big picture vision for you in this situation? When this girl successfully reaches adulthood with your help, how will that make you feel? Will you be proud of yourself?

Many veteran stepmothers cite their own personal growth as a major reward of the sacrifices they have had to make in order to be part of a stepfamily.

We all need boundaries. So when you ask if you can have stepmother boundaries, my answer is yes with a caveat. I don’t know what type of boundaries you’re asking for here. But you have the right to be treated with respect in your own home. You have the right to feel good in your own home. Since you are raising this girl, you have the right to parent her (with the support and authority of your husband backing you up). You also have the right to take breaks if you need them. At the end of the day, she’s not your biological child, but she is going to remember every thing you’ve done for her. She’s going to remember those conversations at the table after school and all the times you drove her to soccer and showed up in her life. Kids watch we do more than they listen to what we say.

Your role is something that you all need to figure out together. How much is your job? Your job is exactly as much as you can handle, as your husband helps you create, as your particular stepfamily defines. And you have a say in what your role looks like.

Bless you for your hard work, your huge heart, and your sacrifices.








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