Stepmoms Speak

25 02 2009

 Rev. Peggy P. Wilkinson ipeggys an interfaith minister and pastoral care specialist. She’s also stepmom to Casey, Kelly and Christy (and happy about it). Check out her website, where you can sign up for a daily dose of her wisdom, humor, and touching stories. She writes here about how she used a creative solution to overcome tension with her stepfamily.                      

Using the Refrigerator to Thaw Things Out

When my husband and I married, three kids were part of the package. In the beginning, keeping track of what each of them liked to eat was just one more point of “overwhelm” for me. One would not touch milk. Another loved the stuff – but it had to be a certain brand, in a carton, not a plastic bottle. The other loved Gatorade, but not the original green stuff – the blue stuff. The other two loved peanuts but not peanut butter. I could feel myself tense up the minute the fridge was opened, at the outset of every weekend visit, as the kids surveyed the contents with deep sighs of disgust.

A couple of things occurred to me. One was that they should be made responsible for what they liked. And, two – I should make it easy for them to be responsible. The refrigerator could become the great common denominator between us. As it is in most homes, it could become the center of family info and fun.

And there was a third thing. Compassion. Have you ever gone to someone’s house and happened to look in their refrigerator? It in no way resembles the inside of yours. Even the same condiments feel foreign because they are not where you are used to seeing them. Kids are just so out of their comfort zone when they are getting acclimated to life in “Home B.”

So I took three brightly colored plastic placemats and cut them to fit in the shelves of the fridge. When the kids arrived, I asked them to pick their favorite color of placemat. I also put notepads in the corresponding color on a magnet, and attached each of them to the refrigerator door. Each kid now had a special place inside and out of the fridge.

Then we went to the grocery store together and they got their own favorite things. We put those items in their colored place in the fridge. When they needed more of something it was up to them to list the item on their pad on the refrigerator door. They loved it. I actually got a “COOL!” out of them.


What counts?

25 02 2009

Ladies, I need to get something off my chest. And I hope if you’ve struggled with this one you will give me your ideas about how to deal with it!

I am frustrated with our other household right now, a.k.a the ex, because I can’t figure out what counts and what doesn’t on the financial tally sheet. We do not have a very good system worked out to keep track of who spends what on the kids and who owes whom. My husband has never had a conversation with his ex about what counts and so it is a guessing game. Because we have the kids exactly 50/50 (and I mean to the hour, people), my husband does not pay child support. Each household pays for the upkeep of the children when they are living there, and everything else is split, but only if it counts.

Some things we spend money on count toward this tally sheet in the ex’s head. Some things do not. For instance, any summer camps she sends the kids to count. Any summer camps we send the kids to do not.

If she has the kids for an extra meal at her house, we must pay for it because that counts. The cash we shell out to drive back and forth dropping the kids off at her house does not count.

But shouldn’t she be glad that she now has two more people in her children’s lives who contribute to their financial well-being? My stepchildren have a stepfather and a stepmother who now help support them. But who counts? Only stepdad? How about the dough I’ve forked over for summer camp to help them make friends and keep their butts off the couch all summer long? Why doesn’t that count?

The reason my book for stepmoms has won two awards is because I interviewed wise stepmoms across the country so I could learn how to be a better stepmother myself. I am a writer, a stepmom and stepdaughter, but not a Ph.D. I am stumped on this one, girls. The system we have can not continue into the future with cars, college, and weddings looming. Any advice would be deeply appreciated.

Free to Be Me

18 02 2009

Here’s an exercise designed to help you see what your comfort zone is, to help you figure out what kind of stepmother you want to be. Consider the statements as jumping-off points, and if something rings true for you, follow it and see where it leads.

  • I want the kids to be able to talk to me about their problems.
  • I don’t want to feel responsible for their daily lives: their schooling, discipline, friends, allowance, guidance, etc.
  • I want to be an active participant in their daily lives.
  • I am an affectionate person and I love it when they give me hugs and kisses.
  • I want to tuck them into bed and read them stories.
  • I am more comfortable remaining at a distance, like a teacher who gives guidance but does not get emotionally involved.
  • I do not need my stepchildren to give me emotional support.
  • I want my stepchildren to make me feel loved and included in this family.
  • I can tell them what to do, like pick up their socks or dirty dishes.
  • I want us to be respectful of each other.
  • I want to be the ringleader of fun.
  • I want to be a role model.
  • I want to feel like they’re my kids.
  • I want to be a mother.
  • I have never wanted to be a parent.
  • I have no idea what I’m doing, but I’m willing to be open and accepting of my new experiences.
  • I’d like to be a warm and soothing influence on my stepchildren.
  • I want to be the “intimate outsider.”
  • I want to feel like I am a part of this family.

Figuring out your role within the stepfamily is a lifelong process. You, your husband, and the kids will negotiate it over time. You can create the role that fits for you and your family.

Excerpt from A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom

Stepmom Book Club

18 02 2009

waldmanAyelet Waldman has pulled off a magic trick – in her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits she has accurately portrayed the emotional life of a new stepmom even though she isn’t one. She’s a mom of four and married to the Pulitzer-Prize winning author Michael Chabon. But Waldman has clearly done her homework on blended family dynamics. From the opening lines you know you’re in the hands of a master writer.

The novel centers around Emilia, a stepmom who helped break up her husband’s marriage to his first wife. From the beginning we know that she has recently lost her baby to SIDS and we watch her struggle with her grief as she tries to learn how to be a stepmom to her 5-year-old stepson.

Emilia is about as flawed a character as they come. But she is so artfully drawn that I fell in love with her. I carried the book around with me for days. The tension that Waldman builds into the narrative kept me awake reading late into the night and it’s so true to what stepfamilies go through that it gave me a stomach ache and warmed my heart at the same time.

Waldman has been the object of some controversy because she wrote an essay called Motherlove in which she shared her opinion that she believes the marital relationship needs to come before all else, even the children. She got so much heat for the article that she ended up on Oprah to discuss her opinions. Of course, stepmoms understand what she’s talking about. If the marital relationship erodes in a blended family, we’re toast. It’s the weakest link. We must focus on our marriages or they will fail. That doesn’t mean we don’t love our children. This is not a zero-sum game.

I agree with Waldman. And I’m a stepmom and a mom. I must have a strong relationship with my husband or none of this will work.

If you want a heck of a read this weekend, check out this book, ladies. but I have a warning: Do not read this book if you are pregnant, trying to get pregnant, or have an infant in the house.

Looks like Hollywood is really catching on to the drama of our lives, girls. The movie of this novel will be coming out with Natalie Portman starring as Emilia.

Already read the book? Let me know what you think!

A Poll: Do you love your stepkids?

10 02 2009

The Care and Keeping of This Stepmother

10 02 2009

 Since it’s February, and one of the toughest months to get through in Minnesota (think cold, gray, Seasonal Affective Disorder, cabin fever), I am making a list of the things I need to get through the rest of the winter. When I spend weeks at a time fighting below zero temps (it hit -33 degrees on one particular night in January), I spend a lot more time indoors with the people I love than usual. Perhaps a few items on my list belong in my fantasies, but hey…you have to start somewhere, right?!!

Keeping me healthy, happy and sane is in my family’s best interests. Here is what I need from my fellow cold-weather inmates (husband, skids) to be the best stepmother I can be.

  1. Offer to help with chores or simply do them without asking me what needs to be done.
  2. Give me afternoons off to see my friends or get a massage.
  3. Tell me about your day after you’ve swallowed your food.
  4. Stay at your mom’s house for the month of February. (Haha just kidding.)
  5. Say “hi” to me when you come in the room I’m in, not just, “where’s Dad?”
  6. Smile or make a joke.  
  7. Remember that spring will eventually come and with it games outside, trips to the park, grill outs on the deck.
  8. Compliment me about something. Anything.
  9. Ask my advice.
  10. Thank me for the toilet paper, the groceries, the light bulbs in your bedrooms, the clean clothes, the heat in the house.

Stepmoms Speak

10 02 2009

Andrea Langworthy is a freelancer writer in Rosemount, Minnesota. She’s a columnist for the Rosemount Town Pages newspaper and Minnesota Good Age.

We Are Family

By Andrea Langworthy

I received an e-mail survey from a writer who was gathering information for a magazine article. Recipients were asked how they refer to their stepchildren and what the children call us, the stepparent. I have been married to my husband for nearly 19 years, but I’m still not sure what to call his son. At the time we married, my husband’s son attended college in another state and, since then, our relationship has been mostly long-distance. I’ve only heard him call me by my first name or, recently, the nickname used by family and old friends. I like that better because it makes us seem close.

Which we should be. After all, I’ve known him since he was a darling eight-year-old when his father and I worked together. With children the same ages, his dad and I often shared their exploits and accomplishments. Nothing too personal, as we were only co-workers and married to others at the time. I remember the day his dad came to work excited to share the news it was his son’s birthday. He and his wife had given their teenager Prince’s new movie, Purple Rain. “That’s expensive,” I said. He nodded his head proudly.

Summers, our families were together at company softball games. There were potluck picnics, too, where we all chipped in for hot dogs. The kids went swimming in Bush Lake and everyone ate too much potato salad, cole slaw and brownies. Some of the adults drank too much beer. The day always ended with a softball game, kids and parents alike running bases and chasing fly balls.

All this work-related togetherness didn’t prepare us to become relatives when my husband and I married years later during a blizzard. Weathermen had advised against travel and we worried about my husband’s son and his girlfriend who were driving from Florida for the occasion. We should have told them not to brave the elements but it was important all three of our children bless the union with their presence. No one had expressed any outrage, but still, you never know what emotions are bubbling under a cool demeanor. After the ceremony, we headed to a fancy dinner and family bonding.

I’ll admit: at first, I tried too hard. Tried to make us a big happy family, refusing to believe the word “step” was part of it. I envisioned merry Christmases, everyone singing carols around the tree and opening gifts. I arranged birthday celebrations at restaurants and brought party napkins and cake, trying to create a family with little-kid celebrations for kids who were grownups. We all went skiing one year, visited Disney World another, both trips fraught with disaster. Once I let go of my starry-eyed notions, though, it became easier.

I’ve grown to love my husband’s son. I applaud his every accomplishment and ache for any unpleasantness he encounters. When he and his father meet for a yearly Cubs game in Chicago, I cheer every home-run moment they share. When he scoured my newspaper columns searching for a Christmas gift idea and sent me a first edition of Death Be Not Proud, a book I had written was a favorite, I cried.

This weekend, he and his wife will be in Minnesota and we will celebrate his 40th birthday at brunch. I still don’t know what to call him. Stepson feels so distant, yet son, an imposition. As for what he calls me, it isn’t important. When he and I spoke on Thanksgiving, he ended our phone conversation with “Love ya.” That’s all that matters, isn’t it?

Call for interviews

6 02 2009

A fellow stepmom and reporter at the Washington Post is looking for people to interview for a story about how stepfamily dynamics affect children’s health care. The story will speak to parents who have never married and to divorced parents about how the physical health of the children is handled (or not handled as the case may be). If you’ve had issues around health care in your family (paying for it, making sure the kids get to the doctor, having philosophical differences with the ex around health care, etc., etc.) then email Theola Labbé-DeBose at

To my readers who are in the marriage and family professional community, Theola is also looking to talk with experts. If you’re interested, contact Theola by February 16. It’s an important topic and one that is rarely written about. Thanks for taking it on, Theola!

Another Award!

4 02 2009

bookcoverGirls, tonight I’ll be raising a glass of red wine to celebrate all of you! To those who shared your stories with me as I wrote and those who have read my book since, I’m beyond  thrilled to announce that A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom is a 2009 Gold Recipient of the Mom’s Choice Award! Thank you to all of the brave stepfamilies I interviewed and to the generous experts who gave of their time and expertise. And to my own family. I love you guys!

A Dad Speaks

3 02 2009

By Joe Kelly

Journalist, activist and father Joe Kelly co-founded Dads & Daughters® (DADs), the first national advocacy nonprofit for fathers and daughters. He is the author of many books including The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship (Broadway, 2007). Learn more about his important work at

Believe it or not, some people (including many men) continue to ask whether fathers matter all that much to children. Well, stop and ask yourself how your relationship (or lack thereof) with your father or stepfather affected your life. Ask almost anyone else you know the same question.  Give me the answers you get, and I rest my case.

Let’s be clear, fathers are not more important than mothers. Nor are fathers less important than mothers. It’s not a matter of keeping score about who is better or more necessary–keeping score accomplishes nothing in raising kids. Mothers and fathers are different, and when a child has committed, involved parents and stepparents, she is very lucky.  

Fathering is Good for Your Kid  

In the world of social science research, it’s hard to find unanimity on any aspect of human relations. It’s a lot like politics; people can find all sorts of reasons to disagree and statistics to show why.  One of the few things almost all psychological and social research agrees on is this: Children benefit markedly when loving and informed fathers and/or stepfathers are actively involved in their lives.  That is not at all to say that every child who grows up without close ties to his father (due to death, divorce, illness, incarceration, etc.) is doomed to a dreary life of endless failure. That’s nonsense.    It’s nonsense to suggest that every interaction between a father and child is good for the child-dads who abuse or abandon their children inflict immeasurable harm that can last a lifetime. All of us (men especially) must do more to hold such fathers accountable.  It’s also nonsense to say that father care is the only factor that gives kids an edge. Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, MD, of the Yale University Child Study Center writes that fathering research is in the early stages of exploring “the sometimes murky waters of what father care does to effect development in children and why we think it works the way it does…We have just begun to understand how this works, and every time we get an answer, we unearth more (and usually better) questions.”

Pruett, in his great book Fatherneed (Free Press, 2000) says a father’s importance starts with his very presence: “[H]is smells, textures, voice, rhythms, [and] size promote an awareness in his child that it is okay to be different and okay to desire and love the inherently different, the not-mother entities of the world.” (p.57)

The odds that a child will grow up healthier and more resilient improve when dad is integral to her upbringing. Let’s take the example of a child’s first months of life. If a dad actively raises his child during her first six months, she will achieve higher physical and intellectual progress. Social science research suggests that a daughter with an actively involved father is also more likely to:

  • Learn to read sooner and better.
  • Be more comfortable with physicality and physical risk.
  • Be more sociable.
  • Develop a higher preschool IQ.
  • Have a stronger sense of humor.
  • Cope better with stress and frustration.
  • Have higher preschool math competence and be more willing to try new things.
  • Reach puberty at a later age.
  • Be better at problem-solving.
  • Act out less.
  • Be more comfortable with and accepting of people who disagree with her.
  • Graduate high school and attend college.  

Several studies indicate that when fathers read to their children, kids develop higher verbal skills than when their mothers alone read to them. Particularly during the first year of life, avid father participation in child-rearing strengthens the infant’s cognitive function.  Unfortunately, there has been less media coverage about fathers who are equal parenting partners than about “deadbeat dads” who abandon their kids. Sensationalistic and simplistic press coverage doesn’t paint an accurate picture-and it doesn’t really help fight the scourge of intentional father abandonment and abuse. The number of intentionally absent fathers if far, far greater than it should be and than it has to be.  

Keeping in mind the tendency toward over-simplification in “father absence” research, we can find some patterns which suggest that a daughter without an actively involved father is more likely to:  

  • Grow up in poverty.
  • Have more rigid gender stereotypes.
  • Display aggressive, disruptive behavior.
  • Become sexually active at a younger age.
  • Get pregnant before adulthood.
  • Drop out of school.
  • Have more difficulty with internal control.
  • Develop depression.  

This is just the beginning of why it’s good for dads to be fully involved in a daughter’s life as early and as often as possible.   

Better than Broccoli  

Believe it or not, even with all the demands and the steep learning curve (see What Little Boys Learn), actively involved fathers are healthier and happier than the average man. Yes, fathering is very good for a man, and (at least in my book) it’s a lot more fun than eating broccoli. Not that dads and moms shouldn’t eat broccoli . . . it is good for you, too.  According to fathering researchers, involved fathers are more likely to be productive at work, take fewer sick days, and move up the career ranks. Fathers who continue to learn and get better at managing the demands of child-rearing tend to do better managing other life demands, and feel good about themselves as a result.  Ask a veteran father if he’s learned anything from his children, and you will almost surely hear a big “Of course!” From day one, our children teach both moms and dads amazing things about the world, our families, themselves, and ourselves. Now that this individual child has entered your life, you two parents may even reveal miraculous new things about yourselves to each other on a regular (if not daily) basis.  Veteran dads also say that the more a father nurtures his daughter, the more he will feel nurtured by her in return. Especially in the first year, involved dads crave the times that the baby responds to him because it makes him feel euphoric and deeply content.

Good for Her and the Two of You    

Dads and daughters are not the only beneficiaries of active fathering. Statistically, the mother is more likely to be happier and healthier. And to top it off, the relationship between Mom and Dad tends to be happier and healthier when Dad is sharing the parenting equally.  For years, mothers have told pollsters and researchers that their biggest stress is managing all the demands of child-rearing, even if they don’t also have to handle the demands of a paying job. So, the more parenting responsibilities a father takes on, the greater the chance that his partner’s stress level will drop, making her a happier camper.  Not only that, some research indicates that mothers are better at their mothering when fathers share the everyday parenting. These moms show their children more patience, emotional openness, and flexibility.

That makes sense, because a daughter generally happens to two people. The more those two adults share the responsibility (and opportunity) of child-rearing, the more likely that the job gets done well.  It also stands to reason that reducing stress for someone in a marriage or other partnering relationships reduces stress in the relationship itself. That opens the door for more happiness for the two people in it. There might be some chicken-and-egg forces at work here, too, since men who are happy in their marriage are more likely to be actively involved fathers, and reinforce the whole circle of good stuff that comes from making that commitment.  To top it off, some research indicates that siblings interact with each other better when their father is active in child-rearing, which means his involvement may make the entire family a better place to live and grow up.  Do fathers and stepfathers matter to their daughters and their families? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”-just as it would be if we asked if mothers and stepmothers matter to their daughters and families.  So, should we encourage and promote active fathering? The answer to that question is clear.   

Adapted from The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Being a New Dad by Joe Kelly and used with permission.