The Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmum

31 10 2008

This article originally appeared in Image Parenting magazine, in Ireland

When I turned 30, I had a fantastic career and a lovely flat. A perfect life filled with friends, holidays, yoga, and dinners out. When I returned home after a day’s work, the television remote control was right where I left it. The dishes in the sink were mine. The shoes in the middle of the living room belonged to the lovely man I was dating. Yes, he had kids. Three of them, but I hadn’t met them yet. I was just having a wonderful time dating a man who just happened to be divorced.

When I decided to marry him, life changed, to put it mildly. Suddenly, there were dirty socks on the kitchen counter top. There were toys wedged between the sofa cushions and plates of half-eaten food left on bookshelves.

As women continue to marry later in life-often after they’ve established their professional careers and their own well-run busy social lives-more and more are meeting grooms who come with ready-made families. Yet, despite this, nowhere could I find advice to help figure out what was going on in my own home. Why could I no longer recognize myself or my kitchen? Why did I keep crying in the laundry room? What had happened to my lovely world? The answers weren’t clear so to figure out how to transform myself from single girl to stepmum, I talked to as many stepmothers, stepfamily researchers, and marriage and family professionals as I could find. Eventually, I discovered a simple truth: the skills I’d developed as a career girl were exactly what I needed to become a stepmum. Here’s what I learned:

Gain Market Intelligence
Women who are aware of the particular dynamics of stepfamilies are much more prepared to deal with the challenges. Kay Christie, 56, is stepmother to four children who were between the ages of 18 and 27 when she married their dad in 1996. She took a four-day class to learn how stepfamilies are different from first families. “Without it I would have given up. At least then I knew there were cycles a stepfamily goes through. I learned that the couple bond has to be preserved and take priority.” 

Analyze the Existing Structure
Most of the research done on stepfamilies shows that when a new stepmother enters a family and demands sweeping changes, chaos ensues. At the beginning, while everyone’s getting to know one another, it is important to sit back and observe how things work, essentially to honor how they have chosen to live before you came along. 

“Stepparents need to be respectful and observant,” says Patti Kelly Criswell, a clinical social worker who often works with children in stepfamilies. “Instead of saying ‘this is intolerable,’ make suggestions and ask questions: ‘I would like to see the house a little cleaner. How can we live together in harmony?’ If you’re a natural leader, it’s even more important to be really careful in this respect.” Still, it’s important not to feel powerless and voiceless in your own home. That’s where Dad comes in.

Delegate Authority
Dads in new stepfamilies really have to do a lot of work to help the newly formed family succeed. He’s the middle man. He’s the one everyone-the kids, a new stepmother, the ex-wife-are all looking to for guidance. The more you and your spouse can work as a team, the better off everyone will be. In the early days, create a list of house rules together that everyone must live by. The list should include rules the kids already live with. However, you can add a few of your own that are important for you to feel comfortable in the house. Dad then presents this list to the kids, outlining the consequences of not following the rules and explaining that you can enforce them when he’s not home. That way, in the eyes of the children, you clearly have the support of Dad but are not solely to blame for any changes. 

Build Community
Just like any relationship, to build strong bonds, it’s important to spend one-on-one time with each member of the stepfamily. “I was never pushy about acceptance,” says Julie of her four stepchildren, who were ages six, eight, 13, and 15 when she met their dad over seven years ago. “I never had any kind of preconceived notion that I would replace their mother. I figured the relationships would develop the way they would. I’ve always been a kid person and I play a lot so that made it easier. We played and had fun and I didn’t put pressure on the relationships.” 

Create a Structure of Support
Stepmothers often report feeling like outsiders in their own homes. Allison remembers how awful she felt when she became a stepmother to three teens. “In the beginning, they made a point of not including me. They’d tell inside jokes, have family discussions about their holidays together. There were times at the dinner table when literally not one person would address me, not even my husband. Even though I was taking up a chair, I didn’t exist.” 

Women like Allison who have rocky beginnings but end up happy stepmothers are usually adept at surrounding themselves with people, a career, and hobbies that make them feel good.

Kay, the stepmother of four now grown-up children, reports on the things she did to stay balanced through the difficult years. “You have to do something to keep your sanity. I wrote in a journal to relieve the stress and a friend of mine, another stepmother, and I talked every couple of days at length. I have always been a person who exercises so I was going to my fitness classes or walking. When I knew the boys were coming home for two to three weeks, I would schedule a massage weekly.”

Working women say that keeping their careers when they join their new stepfamily helps them maintain a sense of identity during a sometimes traumatic transition period. Lauren and her husband Tom have been married for 25 years. Tom had full custody of his three young boys when they met and the couple later had three more children together. Right from the beginning, Lauren knew she had to continue to pursue her desire to be a doctor. “I needed my career for my own ego, identity, and self-worth,” she says.

Interview the Participants
Keep in mind that kids whose parents are divorced or who have lived through the death of a parent are often wounded. They are likely to be experiencing grief, fear and anger because their lives have changed in a way they have no control over, so go easy on them and try to see things from their point of view. Allison struggled with her relationships with her three teenage stepchildren in the early years of her marriage. “Since I had never had children of my own, I was looking forward to the experience. Little did I know it would be full of landmines, that when kids have no room to vent their anger and hurt and can’t really rail at their parents, you become the target.” 

Eventually, she understood that the kids, and even her husband, were working through old divorce wounds. “I had to be the adult and remember that sometimes their reactions were coming through a huge filter of hurt. I couldn’t be tied to the outcome. I went at them consistently with kindness and no attachment to their reaction, and eventually they came around. But I couldn’t give up; you can’t give up.”

Tend Your Relationship
Ultimately, no matter what a new stepmother does to build a bond with her stepkids, it is her marital relationship that is the most important. Divorce rates for remarriages are higher than first marriages so to maintain the health and longevity of the relationship, a new couple must make their union a priority.

Kay and her spouse made sure they created many happy memories together. “My husband was always good at making time for us to go away. In the early years of our marriage it was about once a month. We do it quarterly now and it has helped bond us and keep the romance alive.”

Career girls-turned-stepmums know that juggling a job, a marriage, and stepkids can be a challenge. But they’re also brilliant at setting goals, building camaraderie and solving problems with creativity and passion-exactly what it takes to build a successful stepfamily.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepmum of three, mum of one, and the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007).


Stepmoms Speak

29 10 2008

Diane Fromme is a writer and 13-year veteran stepmom to Brittany (22) and Ian (20), who were six and four when their mother died. Her upcoming book, Stepparenting the Grieving Child, offers an insider’s guide to navigating the unique joys and challenges of living with a child whose parent has died. For more information and to sign up for her newsletter, go to You can also check out her blog. Here is the opening excerpt from her book. Printed with permission.

How Did I Get Here?
By Diane Fromme 

“We must be willing to let go of the life we planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” – E.M. FORSTER

Fall, 1993

The blue of seven-year-old Brittany’s eyes matched that of the cloudless sky over the softball field. I had offered to watch Brittany and her younger brother Ian at the playground adjoining the field while Brian, my fiancé and their father, played a tournament game.

 It was the first time I’d ever looked purposefully into her eyes. I think I was afraid of what I might find there, just one year after the children had lost their mother to cancer. But in Brittany’s eyes I saw an unexpected calm. Only the slight, purplish-grey smudges underneath yielded a clue of strain; dark crescents in the soft, ivory skin.  When the sunlight would flicker across her eyes, I also saw questions. Unspoken questions and no answers.  Ian’s eyes were a little darker than Brittany’s: seawater blue. He was so active that I couldn’t get a deeper look. Ian was five and if he showed any sign of mourning it was masked by his nearly constant motion.  The kids dug around in the wood chips near the swings, climbed on the geo structure, and played a fantasy game concocted from the depths of their imaginations. Sometimes I let my gaze wander over to the action on the softball field, but most of the time I studied the children. I was taken with the creamy perfection one finds in the faces of the young. Their constant jabbering amused me.  I wondered what they’d been through, losing their mother. I couldn’t connect from my own experience – I had just spoken to my mother that morning – and so felt a distance from any understanding of their pain.  When Ian asked me to take him to the bathroom, he didn’t look at me but he did grab for my hand. I wasn’t used to being around children in recent years. The little hand felt strange at first, but overall warm and good.”We could get used to each other,” I thought. “This could work out just fine.”    


I clearly recall that when I was considering marrying Brian, everything lined up in my logical view of the world. I liked children: as a teenager I had been a youth leader and a day-camp counselor, and in my mid-twenties I mentored an at-risk, ten-year-old girl.  Now, close to thirty, I had met a man who was kind, intelligent, and sensitive, and I was actually eager to help him and his children move forward in the aftermath of his wife’s and their mother’s death.

What I didn’t know anything about was the distinct nature of stepfamily formation, its singular undulations and patterns, coupled with the effects of grief and the possible ways grief can manifest over the years. So without much further study than snapshot observations of the children, I launched optimistically forward into “I do,” which became a union of husband and wife and two children, not to mention two dogs and three cats. I also didn’t realize that Brittany and Ian’s mom, though deceased, was an essential part of our new family.  

In many ways, my blissful optimism was healthy: When you’re moving into the role of stepparent, it’s beneficial to become educated and gain assistance early on, during a time when you’re feeling positive and hopeful. And when you’re adding the challenge of stepparenting after a parent has died, some level of grief education is also vital. Of course it’s not too late to shore up your knowledge. Thank goodness, because I didn’t seek help right away.  

After many years of “let’s try this” stepparenting, followed by many years of research about what the experts recommend, my formula for successful stepparenting after a parent dies looks closest to this:  

Willing Attitude + Stepfamily and Grief Education + Support Resources = Sane Stepparenting   Grab hold of the opportunity to explore all parts of this equation, while at the same time reflect on how you arrived in a family where a child’s parent has died.

Dealing with difficult children

28 10 2008

1) Stay calm, cool, and collected. There’s no point in blowing up at a kid, especially as a stepparent. It will only add tension to your relationship. Instead, stay cool when a kid deliberate tries to provoke you. It’s only fun for them when they can get a rise out of you and attract the negative attention.

2) Avoid power struggles. One of my stepdaughters recently complained about how her parents both biological and step are always telling her what to do. I pointed out that it’s not that we enjoy bossing her around but it’s our job as her parents to teach her how to become a successful adult. Because there wasn’t emotional baggage attached there was no power struggle. And instead of arguing with me, she shrugged and did what I asked her to do.

3) Understand what’s really happening. When a kid is acting out it’s important to know why they are behaving badly because there is always a reason. Last week my nearly eleven-year-old stepdaughter was fighting over the television remote control with her eight-year-old sister. We’d had a long, tiring week with a funeral and a wedding within days of each other. When we finally arrived home and settled in to take a night off, the girls started fighting over the remote when the younger wouldn’t give it to the older. The older girl bit her younger sister on the arm in a complete act of regression. Though she was punished for her behavior by getting a week with no screen time, her father and I understood that she was exhausted and not her usual self.

4) Blow off steam. There aren’t very many people stepmoms can vent to without getting an earful back about how you “should” be the adult, etc. etc. etc. Find at least one other pal who you can talk to if you’re feeling like you wish those kids wouldn’t be coming over this week. Make sure it’s a pal who understands how you feel and doesn’t think you’re a major jerk.

5) Don’t take things personally. It’s good advice but it’s easier said than done. How can you practice non-attachment? How can you keep your feelings safe when a kid calls you names, yells at you, or steals your things? Come up with several strategies to help you remember that a child’s behavior is usually not about you. It’s more often fueled by pain from the divorce, or anger at a biological parent.

S.M.A.C.K.s: In the Bedroom

28 10 2008

This month, do something to make your bedroom feel like sacred space. Install a lock on the door. Find new, luxurious linens. Blow up a picture from your wedding and find a special frame for it then hang it on the wall. Add some delicious smelling candles. De-clutter your closets. Then make sure the two of you spend time alone together appreciating the sanctuary you’ve created. 

Visit my other site for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.


The Payoff: Sometimes it’s hard to remember why you said, “yes.”

28 10 2008

You get to choose what the payoff for joining a stepfamily is going to be for you. It starts with what your priorities are. What do you want in the long term? Do you want a strong friendship with your husband? Do you want to have your stepchildren come to you for advice and camaraderie? If you and your husband have children together, do you want all of the kids to love and protect each other? What do you want?
You can build something beautiful with your stepfamily over the long term. Studies indicate stepfamilies that make it have a huge positive impact on the children and adults. Children learn about flexibility and about how to learn to get along with different kinds of people. Adults are reportedly more satisfied with their second marriages if they do the work it takes and learn from the past. But you’ve got to get through those tough years, as you do in any union. We have the power to see our lives exactly the way we want to see them, even if from the outside it looks like we’ve got it pretty bad. You get to choose. The thoughts you think every day are what give you power to either sink yourself into depression or uplift yourself by making you feel that you have purpose and meaning.
So pay attention. When you write in your journal about your stepfamily, what are you writing? Is it mostly negative? How do you talk about them to other people? Do you slam them regularly or talk about their good qualities? Can you work to put more positive things in your journal or your thoughts every day? Can you have compassion for the other people in your stepfamily? Can you walk a mile in their shoes?
Right now the reason you’re in a stepfamily is because you fell in love with that man you married. In the first years of marriage to a man with kids, when life is like a three-ring circus and the marriage is at its most fragile, it’s hard to see what the benefits are, especially after what you’ve given up to be in the marriage. And your commitment is immediately tested, even though you’re still in the process of building a foundation of friendship and lasting love with your partner.
So how do you find happiness and joy when you feel like you’re constantly battling just to keep from bursting into tears? I interviewed stepmoms who have been in their marriages from two years to more than twenty to see if they had some advice about what they got out of marriage to a man with kids.
I Did It All for Love
Love. That great elixir. It moves people to do things they can’t imagine themselves doing – such as marrying a man with a handful of kids who are bruised and battered from divorce or death. It’s what we’re all here for in our marriages. The love stories we’ve all heard since we were kids are something to aspire to, but the tales usually end with a first kiss or wedding, and totally leave out what it takes to protect and maintain love.
“For a long time I used to beat myself up,” says Beth. “What the hell did I do? I used to date young lawyers, guys with nice cars and money. One guy I dated on and off just got married, and he doesn’t have any kids. I think I like challenges, because I got one. I believe every marriage is tough. We do have a strong relationship now, but we had to go through hell and back to get here. And now, to see how happy my stepdaughter is, it was worth it.”
Lisa’s struggle to find her place in her stepfamily is over, but sometimes it’s still difficult for her. When I asked her what the long-term payoff for her is, she said, “The payoff is twofold: One, I now have strong relationships that have sustained the test of fire. Two, I am a much better person because I hung in there and didn’t run away.”
Tracy and Andrew have developed a strong partnership, and the kids have only added to their relationship. “The ultimate goal is to share my life with a wonderful man. And I look at his kids as being a benefit on top of that. You can learn a lot from kids if you’re open to it. There are always good things about kids.”
Even though times have been tough for Georgianne since she married T.J., she knows she was meant to be with him. “My husband’s an amazing guy. At 43, I had never been married. I am a pretty strong-willed individual and finding a guy who wasn’t threatened by that was really hard to do. He is my soul mate. I knew when I met him. I had one of those cosmic flash-card moments, which is not to say we don’t have issues. But we’re so much on the same page about so many things.”
My dad and stepmom often talk about how strong their partnership is now that they’ve spent a few decades working together to form a solid marriage. “In the normal course, marriages are fragile,” Nancy says. “In the normal course, if you have biological children, there’s a risk. It’s greater when you have stepchildren. There’s a time in a marriage when you are tested, and after that you know it’s going to last. It’s usually after you’ve had some trouble. That’s when the awareness of being separate evaporates and your family becomes just part of who you are.”
Arne is a good husband. He is the reason I am able to be in yet another stepfamily. He makes it possible for me to be a stepmother who has developed strong bonds with my stepchildren. At the very beginning, Arne showed the kids how it was acceptable to treat me. He was open to my talking about how it felt to be a stranger entering into his family. He was willing to hash out the details of a new stepfamily. We answered all the questions I posed to you and your husband in this book. And perhaps more than anything, he made me feel important. Without a doubt, he loves his kids with every part of himself, but he doesn’t ever make me feel left out of decisions. That way, I never feel like the kids come before me or I come before the kids. I am his partner. We are the adults and we both make decisions that affect our family together. And I love Arne with all of his imperfections and his past. His presence in my life has helped me clarify my values.
My top five priorities are:
1. My spiritual and personal development and contribution to the world.
2. My husband.
3. Our commitment we made when we said our vows.
4. Raising the children to be healthy, contributing, and confident adults.
5. My family.
So what are your priorities?

Adapted from A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007)

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Teach your stepchildren something they don’t know.

28 10 2008

This month, teach your stepchildren something. Show them how you do your job. Take them to a museum so you both learn about a new topic. Read a chapter of a book to them before bed. Take them outside at night with a map of the stars and a flashlight. Do an experiment from a science book. Go for a nature walk with a guide who knows about plants and wildlife. Take a tour of a local manufacturing plant. Visit a greenhouse. Teach them a song you know. If they’re older, talk about what you’ve learned about your career or dating or college.

(I took my stepkids to see an Elvis impersonator to introduce them to the King’s music.) 

Visit my other site for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.

iParenting Media Excellence Award

28 10 2008

I am thrilled to announce that A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom has won a 2008 iParenting Media Excellence Award! The book was chosen out of thousands of products for parents. My deepest thanks to all the stepmoms who participated in the project and for those who have since read the book and passed it along to your stepmom friends. I am deeply honored to know that the book has helped.

Re-Energize Your Stepparenting

28 10 2008

I don’t know about you, but sometimes I get tired of being a stepmom. It just takes so much energy to do all the things we’re supposed to do. Besides giving my all to my career, I have to maintain a household, pay attention to my husband, raise my daughter, exercise, relax, find time for friends, and stepparent three children just entering their teen years. Yikes! I’m tired. Here are the top five ways I’m going to re-energize my stepparenting. 

1) Take naps. If you’re rested, you’re less irritable. Simple as that.
2) Appreciate your stepkids’ personalities. Make a list of the things you like about your stepkids. If you have more than one, do something with them that makes the parts of their personality you enjoy really shine. For instance, my stepson loves learning about disasters. So he and I went to the Pompeii exhibit when it came to Minneapolis.
3) Be honest about your limits. Everybody will tell you ways you can be a better stepmother, but at the end of the day, you’re the one who knows what will work for you and your family. For instance, it’s common knowledge that families are supposed to have family dinners together. And we do, a lot of the time. But sometimes we don’t because I don’t want to. I’d rather let the kids eat in their playroom while their dad and I sit at the table on our deck.
4) Commit to your self-care. It’s easy to let your self-care slide when things are chaotic at home. But it’s crucial that you continue to do the things you need to do to feel good about yourself. Get that facial. Buy your favorite lotion. Take a yoga class. Have lunch with your best friend. You may have heard me preach about this one before, but even decades into stepfamily life, this is always the first thing to go when stepmoms are stressed.
5) Remember your influence. Even if your stepkids are not giving you any indication that they even like you, they’re still soaking up your moods, habits, and opinions. Even if they say they don’t care, they still want your approval. Even if they say they hate you, they still want you to pay attention.

What about you? Have any strategies you want to share?

Back to School

28 10 2008

Florida State University sociologist Kathryn Harker Tillman has published some disturbing information in the Social Science Research journal. She analyzed data from a nationally representative study of 11,000 U.S. adolescents in grades 7 through 12 and found that kids who live with stepsiblings or half-siblings do worse in school than those who live with full siblings only. Not only do these kids have lower grades, they also have more behavioral problems. And boys do slightly worse than girls. Interestingly, if kids have stepsiblings and half-siblings in the house, they fare a bit better than if they have only one or the other.
Tillman goes on to say that grades do not improve with time. “We cannot assume that over time, children will naturally adjust to the new roles and relationships that arise when families are blended,” Tillman said. “This research indicates that the effects of new stepsiblings or half siblings may actually become more negative over time or, at the least, remain consistently negative.”
This is scary stuff, ladies. There’s more. This is from the press release issued by Florida State University about the study: Tillman says: “Part of what makes stepfamily life difficult for young people is the complexity, ambiguity, and stress that come with having nontraditional siblings living in the same home. Stepsiblings who are living together may also engage in, or at least perceive, more competition for parental time, attention, and resources than full siblings.
 In addition to stressful life changes and ambiguous family roles, stepfamily formation leads to the introduction of a new parent-figure who may be less willing or able to invest in a child’s development and academic success. Stepparent-child relationships tend to be more conflict-ridden than relationships with biological parents, and stepparents tend to offer children less parental support, closeness, and supervision. The presence of a stepparent also generally leads to a decline in the amount of attention and supervision children receive from the biological parent with whom they live.  

Furthermore, stepparents generally report feeling less of an obligation to provide financial support for stepchildren’s postsecondary education, and both biological parents and stepparents report actually providing less support for children’s education when they are living in a stepfamily.
Lower social and financial investments may signal to children a lack of parental interest and lower expectations for academic achievement and college attendance. In turn, youth in stepfamilies may be less likely to get academic assistance when needed, less likely to work for higher grades and more likely to act out at school.”

Wow. We live in an age where your education determines everything. Your income, the type of job you’ll be able to get, the neighborhood you live in, your social standing. Education is crucial. It’s a ticket to freedom of choice. If there is one thing I lobby for it’s education.
And yet I have to say when I read this it made me uncomfortable because as a stepparent, I certainly have been less involved with my stepkids’ education than I could be. Of course, there are reasons for that. Their mother is the one who is in charge of their education. I don’t feel like it’s my place to stick my nose in.
Still, could I be more active in making sure they understand the importance of school? Yes. Do I treat their education differently than I will treat my daughter’s when she’s old enough? Yes. Do I help them with their homework? Yes. Will I help pay for them to go to college? Not sure. It depends on our resources. Will I put my daughter through college? Yes. Is this fair? Hell no. Do I feel guilty? Yes. Will I lobby my husband and his ex to teach the kids the importance of going to college and even graduate school? Yes. Do I try to open their minds by teaching them the importance of learning? Yes. But I don’t feel like it’s my place to ride them about school as hard as I will certainly ride my own child.
This study has sparked heated debate among stepfamily professionals as you might imagine. And the emotions are hot in stepfamilies on this topic. It’s a ripe arena for anger and jealousy to brew. In a perfect world, all the kids in our house and the kids’ mom’s house would receive the same kind of education about education. They would have the same opportunities. But it’s not equal. It’s not the same. And that’s part of what makes stepfamily life so complicated.
As the beginning of the school year approaches, I’m going to reassess my approach to my stepchildren’s education. How can I be more involved? How can I make sure they feel supported? How can I pass on to them how important good grades are? What will you do this year to help your stepkids do better in school?

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Ask for what you need.

28 10 2008

Since becoming a wife and stepmother, I have said, “I’m sorry,” more than ever before. I’ve had to apologize for letting a comment about one of my stepkids slip out that made my husband feel bad. I’ve had to hold out olive branches to our other household. I’ve had to tell my stepchildren I’m sorry I was in a bad mood or fell asleep before I could tuck them into bed or had to skip the family walk to take care of the baby. But sometimes, I’m not sorry. Sometimes they need to apologize to me. What’s one thing that you think your spouse or stepkids need to apologize for? Instead of holding it in, tell your spouse what you need. Calmly share your feelings with your stepkids and let them know they’ve stepped out of line. The more real you can be with your family members, the richer your relationships will grow.

Visit my other site for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.