The Name Game

21 05 2009

I received a letter from a reader a few days ago. She’s a recently divorced mother of four children between the ages of 8 and 2. Her husband remarried within a year of the divorce. She says, ” My kids have refer to their new stepmother as ‘Mama HER NAME HERE’ which I feel is hurtful and disrespectful to me. Am I out of line suggesting they call her by her first name?”I have written about this very scenario in my book. I also wrote an article for Remarriage Magazine about how stepfamilies choose the names we call each other, which I also reprinted here. This is an excerpt from my letter back to this reader:

If you plan to bring it up with anyone, your ex-husband is the one to talk to about how it makes you feel. You could suggest to him that you’d feel more comfortable if they tell the kids to call their new stepmother by her name. I know this can be challenging because there is so much emotion here, but the most important thing is that the children do not feel caught in a loyalty bind. You are their mother and will always be first in their hearts no matter what. That’s just the way it is. What they call their stepmother, really has nothing to do with their feelings for you. As hurtful as your situation may be, if you can give your kids the message that it’s okay for them to like this new adult in their lives, then you will be doing them a huge service. The research is very clear on this. Kids who feel that liking their stepmothers hurts their mom are stuck in the middle. And they act it out in all sorts of negative and harmful ways as they get older. Of course, this is so much easier said than done.

On the flip side, we stepmothers have to be sensitive to the fact that if we suggest the children call us anything with Mom or Mama in the title, we might make the ex-wife angry and the kids defensive. My stepkids call me by my first name. They only use stepmom when they are introducing me to other people. What do your stepchildren call you?


What’s In A Name?

21 05 2009

A lot according to stepfamilies—anger, shame, pain, jealousy, loyalty. So what do we call each other?

By Jacquelyn B. Fletcher

Shortly after my husband proposed, my three future stepchildren asked me The Question. “What should we call you?” Up to that point they had always used my first name, but the fact that I would be marrying their father changed everything. “Are we supposed to call you Mom?” one of my stepdaughters asked.

I explained they already had a mom who loved them very much and they could just keep calling me Jacque. Then we all watched Cinderella together. After a scene in which Cinderella’s wicked stepmother was particularly horrid my then nine-year-old stepson said, “Thank goodness you’re not like that!”

A few weeks later, my stepson revealed he’d been working on the what-to-call-me problem because he felt I should be something more than just Jacque now that I would be part of his family. “How about S-Mom,” he said. “It’s kind of like Superman. But it’s short for SuperStepmom.”

My fears of being called the Evil One or Wicked Stepmother were laid to rest, and I was touched that my stepson had found a way to solve the name dilemma. And better yet, he paved the way for conversations we all had before my husband and I married. How did the kids want me to introduce them? What did they feel comfortable calling my family? And if someone, a store clerk for instance, mistakenly called me their mom, how did they want me to handle it? The discussions we had helped us work through some of the discomfort that is inevitable when a group of strangers becomes a family.

And because my stepson didn’t like the word stepmother and didn’t feel like he could just call me Jacque, he taught us a valuable lesson: We could come up with a language of our own. It’s a common occurrence in stepfamilies, according to Paul Dickson, the author of Family Words: A Dictionary of the Secret Language of Families. “We have the ability to create new language. Family words are the words that are used within families for their own particular needs. People are very creative about how they come up with names. Family words pop out of the fabric of a family and they become useful.”

Ask stepfamilies what they call themselves and you’ll find that people feel very strongly about what they refuse to call each other and what alternatives they’ve come up with to describe their relationships to each other.

A Step Back

The original use of the prefix step was to describe family connections that resulted after a widowed parent remarried. The very nature of the word stepfamily indicates there has been a loss of some kind, either the death of a parent or divorce. Many families object to the use of the word stepfamily to describe themselves because it is a word that is steeped in negativity. 

“There is a lot of turn-off to the word step because people want to deny it, avoid it, keep it a secret, pretend it’s not happening,” says Susan Wisdom, a counselor who works with stepfamilies and the author of Stepcoupling: Creating and Sustaining a Strong Marriage in Today’s Blended Family. “It’s okay to be a stepfamily. People can love each other and care about each other and be stepparents and biological parents. It’s all about a healthy attitude and behaviors.”

Diane, a stepmother of two grown boys, expresses what many stepparents feel. “I’ve always hated the word step. It puts those of us who fill the role on a different, lower rung.”

Julie agrees. She struggled with the step-terms as a stepmom to four children. “Stepmother felt like such an ugly word. Let’s face it, when we’re little and playing, no one ever wants to be the stepmom.”

There’s no doubt that the word step conjures up negative images from stories, movies, and urban legends. “Some of these terms such as stepmother have ended up with a negative feel to them over time,” says Dickson. “They have that fairy tale feel. Stepmother. Stepsister. The words have an almost harsh sound.”

 Negative connotations aside, the word stepfamily is used today by researchers, doctors, and authors to describe a certain grouping of people. And the meaning of the term is expanding as more people are living with stepfamily dynamics even though they are not in traditional remarried stepfamilies formed by a death or divorce—for instance, those couples who are cohabitating but not married and same-sex couples.

Blended Not Stirred

To combat the negative associations, some people choose to use the word blended to describe their family. It’s commonly used when both adults have children from previous relationships. But this word has complications, too.

“People in the stepfamily field object to the phrase blended family because it’s important to include absent biological parents who live elsewhere but are still parents to their children. If you get married to a man, take over his children and call it a blended family, what happens to the mom who created them and what happens to that relationship?”

Another problem with the word blended is that it creates an assumption that two families will easily and smoothly merge into one new family. But as members of stepfamilies know, it’s not as easy as pressing a button and everyone has found their place in this new family of strangers. “The reality is that it takes from two to seven years for stepfamilies to adjust. It’s more like curdling in the beginning than blending,” Wisdom says.

Other terms people have used are bonus family instead of stepfamily or gift kids in place of stepkids. Jodie and her husband merged two sets of children when they married. “We use the term extended family. Stepfamily sounds too harsh, but bonus family or blended family sound disingenuous; I am sure my stepkids don’t see me as a bonus, nor do they enjoy much blending.”

Words as Weapons

In stepfamilies in which members have a lot of anger toward each other or are uncomfortable with their role as stepfamily members, words—or the lack of them—can hurt.

When Andrea and her husband, John, married, they each had adult children. Both of Andrea’s children call John by his first name and refer to him as their stepfather. Their children call him Grandpa and he is treated the same as the biological grandfathers. John’s son calls Andrea by her first name. “I don’t recall my stepson ever introducing me and don’t know how he would. I doubt he would use the term stepmother. Usually, I refer to him as John’s son because I am not sure how the term stepson would feel to him. It might have been different had he ever lived with us but he has lived in other states almost all of the 18 years we have been married. Only my daughter ever lived with us and it was for a very short time after her college years.

“While my children remember to call John on his birthday and Father’s Day, that hasn’t happened with my stepson and me, although I always send birthday and holiday gifts and cards for him and his wife, signed by both of us, of course. They do not have children so I so not know if I would be called, Grandma or by my name.”

Some stepchildren don’t call their stepparents by any name. “My stepson, 13, tries not to speak to me at all,” says Jodie. “In the few instances he has needed to initiate a conversation, he calls me, ‘Hey.’”

In the early days when my stepchildren and I first moved in together and had yet to feel comfortable around each other, if I was the only one home they wouldn’t call my name to get my attention. Instead, they would say, ‘Is someone there?’ I would answer, ‘No, Someone is not here, but Jacque is.’

A classic distancing technique by stepchildren is to call their parent’s new spouse, “My Mom’s husband,” or “My Dad’s wife,” which can be incredibly hurtful to a stepparent. Equally harmful is when a child is asked to call a stepparent something that makes them feel disloyal to their biological parent. “The most important part in coming up with names is that stepmothers, stepfathers, stepparents, should not force something that does not fit,” advises Wisdom. “If you tell a child, ‘You must call me Mommy or Daddy,’ that’s very hurtful and confusing.”

Your Family is My Family

As if the stepparent-stepchild naming conundrum isn’t enough, kids also have to figure out what to call all those other people who come along with a new stepparent — the stepgrandparents, step uncles, step aunts, and cousins. Talking openly with the kids about what they would like to call everyone is a good place to start. My stepchildren call my parents by their first names and my siblings either by their names or their nicknames. Instead of an Aunt Kate, they have a Katie-coo. But they call their stepfather’s mother Grandma Barb.

Anne never called her stepmother anything but her first name, but now, thirty years after Anne’s stepmother joined her family, Anne has her own child. She feels guilty that her daughter calls her stepmother by her first name instead of Grandma. “I feel that’s insulting to her somehow, but I don’t know what I can do about it.”

What Anne could do is talk to her stepmother about what she would like her daughter to call her. By brainstorming nicknames together and turning the name game into a fun exercise, you can reduce tension between all the extended family members in your stepfamily.

Free To Be You and Me

Ultimately each family decides for itself what terms will be used when they’re alone together or have to describe each other to outsiders. And often it is the quality of the individual relationships that help determine what words a family comes up with.

Ann grew up with two stepdads. The first she called Dad because she was so young when he was with her mother. Now that he is deceased, Ann continues to refer to her first stepdad as Dad. Ann calls her current stepfather by his first name, Joe, but not because she doesn’t love him. “I wouldn’t define myself as Joe’s twice-removed stepdaughter. There was no question that Joe would be Joe. We had known him as Joe for so long before he and mom got married that it seemed strange to change after 10 years. It kind of was a habit. However, if you ask me straight off, who my dad is, I’ll say Joe without even thinking. I just don’t use the term dad when speaking to him or of him by name.”

Ann’s stepfather Joe adds his explanation, “I had always encouraged the girls to call me what ever they felt comfortable calling me. I suggested the first name because the three of them started out by calling me Sir. In the book To Kill A Mockingbird, Atticus, the father, allows his two children to call him by his first name as a sign of respect, as all people are equal.”

Because stepfamily life can be so challenging, some people come up with humorous words to describe each other. “Language is a way of coping,” Dickson says. “Language becomes a way of easing daily life.”  

My mother has three stepchildren who she has always had good relationships with and for years they called her stepmonster as a term of endearment. Jenny didn’t have a stepmom until she was in her mid-twenties and the adjustment was difficult. When Jenny is getting along with her stepmom, she calls her Bom, which is short for Bonus Mom. But when things aren’t as close between the two of them, she calls her by her first name.  

Words can help a stepfamily create an identity for themselves since it can be difficult for two separate families to figure out how all these new people relate to each other. Whether a stepfamily calls themselves a step, blended, bonus or just a family, the most important thing is that the members learn how to communicate and live together in peace without negating the histories of each person. “What stepfamily members call each other is very individual,” says Wisdom. “The best way to handle what to call each other is for the family to come up with creative names that work for them.”

Ideally, parents should discuss the names issue early on, even before a remarriage occurs. And the more fun you can make it, the more you’ll give your family the signal that this doesn’t have to be loaded with emotional baggage. Find out what your children or stepchildren would feel comfortable with when introductions are made at school or to their friends. When I talked to my stepkids about this I asked them if they wanted me to tell their pals I was their Wicked Stepmother or their Evil Stepmother. They all laughed, but the first time they each introduced me to a friend, they said, “This is my stepmom, Jacque,” with no embarrassment.

It’s also important to talk about names with your extended family members out of earshot of the kids so you’re not hit with an awkward situation on the first holiday you all gather together. When you bring up the topic, you give everyone permission to talk about it instead of letting the kids skulk around not knowing what to call your parents when they’ve only seen them a handful of times. And remember that any names you all come up with can change over time as your relationships grow.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepdaughter, stepmother, and the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins). Find more at This article first appeared in Remarriage Magazine.

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Air it out.

11 05 2009

Over the weekend I finished Wednesday Martin’s new book Stepmonster. Wow. It’s a great read. One of the things I loved most about it was how Wednesday gives stepmothers the permission to feel all the dark sides of being a woman with stepchildren. There were many things that struck me but I wanted to share this with you guys:

“Any feeling that we cannot air has to go somewhere, and too often when we hold it in or tamp it down, it grows aggressively beneath the surface, blooming into a dense thicket of resentment, fear, rage, and even depression.”

To that end, I invite you all to write an anonymous letter to anyone in your stepfamily structure about anything you want. Then burn it up and throw it out or post it on the Stepfamily Letter Project where no one will know it’s you but you. Think you can guess which letter is mine? Ha! You’ll never know! But I got out some good stuff that helped me detox my soul.

Visit my other blog for more information on how to S.M.A.C.K. your Inner Critic.

The Stepmother’s Theme Song

11 05 2009

Check this out. I think the fab Melody Gardot has come up with our theme song. Gardot was struck by a car at the age of 19 and used music therapy to recover her body and soul. In an article that ran in the Sunday Times, she is quoted saying: 

“Music is the thing that saved me. It’s the thing that gave me purpose…Music is my love. Probably the greatest love of all for me. Men are just my lovers.”

I have no idea if she’s a stepmom or not (perhaps not, judging by the above quote) but so many stepmoms I’ve talked to over the years have asked the question: Who Will Comfort Me? So there’s our question of the day: who does comfort you? (Shout out to Kara for introducing me to Ms. Gardot’s music!)

P.S. If you see a message that says “embedding disabled” or something like that, just click on the video box again and it will take you right to YouTube where you can watch the video.

A Stepmom’s Inner Critic

11 05 2009

There are few things more dangerous to a stepmom’s mental health than a loud and damning Inner Critic. I don’t know about you but sometimes all the “shoulds” about how I’m “supposed” to be that I beat myself up with are enough to drive a good woman to drink. According to the voice inside my head I’m supposed to be more maternal to my stepkids, nicer, more bonded with them. I’m supposed to have a cleaner house and a better relationship with my husband’s ex. I’m not supposed to get tired, be jealous or angry. I’m certainly not supposed to snap at my stepkids because I am supposed to make this family work!

Sometimes I really need to tell that Inner Critic to shut the hell up. Know what I mean? I’ve written several pieces for this blog on the art of smacking down the Inner Critic. You can check them out by clicking on the S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms category on the right hand side of this page. I’ve also written a new book with a friend of mine called S.M.A.C.K. Your Inner Critic: Knock out your doubt and live the life of your dreams.My agent sent it out to publishers on Friday! So I have a favor to ask, m’ladies! Please visit our blog at www.smackyourinnercritic.comand if you feel called to make a comment on one of our posts, I’d be deeply grateful! Drop me a line at becomingastepmom (at) to let me know you commented and I’ll send a free, signed copy of my book A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom to the person who writes the 25th comment we get starting now! Many, many thanks!

You’re Not My Child!

5 05 2009

Here is an excerpt from author and stepmom Wednesday Martin’s new book Stepmonster. This is from Chapter 4, “You’re Not My Child!: Jealousy, Anger, and Resentment” and I think you’ll see why I felt like I had to run a longer post than I normally do. I am currently reading Wednesday’s book, and I have to say, it’s right up at the top of my list of stepfamily resources, m’ladies. For your reading pleasure:

An excerpt printed with permission from Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)

All unhappy stepmothers are, in some way, alike. In large part, it seems, we have our gender to thank: women are relaters. We aspire to be the carpenters who put the dilapidated house of stepfamily dysfunction back into order, the “fixers” who bring “ex-children” back into the fold, the good guys who charm recalcitrant and resentful stepkids into Best Friends Forever. It is more than a desire; to us, such reality-defying acts feel imperative. Why on earth do we take on such Herculean and thankless tasks, even when we know better? Because we must. Experts tell us that a woman’s self-worth and indeed her very sense of identity are wrapped up in, even inextricable from, her success in relationships with others. University of Washington sociologist and family expert Virginia Rutter summarizes: “…a large body of research demonstrates that women’s self-esteem becomes contingent upon relationships going smoothly; it holds in stepfamilies, as well.”1 Simply put, we need to like and be liked, and anything less smacks of fault and failure—our own—to us. Our need to solve problems in a stepfamily setting, our sense that it is up to us , is deeply ingrained, the legacy of decades of lessons imparted by parents and society, and may be nearly impossible for us to resist. As Elizabeth Carter, , director of the Westchester Family Institute and co-author of The Invisible Web; Gender Patterns and Family Relationships, puts it, “Women are raised to believe that we are responsible for everybody. A stepmother sees the children as unhappy, or the husband as ineffectual…and she moves in to be helpful. Women move toward a problem to work on it—whether it’s theirs to work on or not.”2 Stepfamiles, we know, have an abundance of such problems, interpersonal snags and aggravations, giving us plenty of material for self-doubt, self-blame, and feelings of failure. In fact, Dr. James Bray of Baylor University found that stepmothers are more self-critical, and blame themselves more, than any other member of the remarried family.3

In this, we could not be more different from men. Studies show that stepfathers, in contrast to us, report much lower levels of engagement and involvement with their stepchildren—as well as significantly lower levels of conflict, stress and guilt.4 And so it is likely that whether they are stepfathers themselves or not, our husbands will be rather bewildered, at best, by our need to knit, and our keenly personal sense of devastation when we cannot. This gendered disparity in how they process stepfamily difficulty can act to drive the husband and wife apart, increasing the woman’s sense of disconnection and failure. We all know the feeling Brenda, the mother of two toddlers and stepmother to a teen boy, shared with me: “Sometimes I hate myself for not being able to handle it better, for not making us a family, for always fighting with my husband about his son.”

In short, failing to connect, failing to fix, is something women take to heart. Maybe that explains why, during my interviews, several women with stepchildren told me the same story, or a version of it, repeating each other’s concerns in uncanny ways. It was a story about communicating and not-communicating, about crossed signals and the intractable sense of frustration and resentment that so many of us find ourselves experiencing over and over—“Help! I’m stuck in a movie!” is how one woman with stepchildren described it to me—when it comes to dealing with his children and our uglier, more taboo feelings they sometimes elicit in us. The story goes like this:

A stepchild calls weekly, or a few times a month, and always leaves a similar message on the answering machine: “Hi Dad, it’s me. Hope you’re doing well, I miss you. Give me a call. Bye Dad.” In message after message, dozens of them, there is not a single hello for dad’s wife. It’s her voice on the answering machine. It’s her taking the message (okay, the stepchild doesn’t know this. But still). To make it worse, she may have lived with the stepchild for a period of time, may have picked him up from the train station on alternate weekends, sent him birthday cards, or helped the adult stepchild plan her wedding, or otherwise rearranged her life and her priorities over and over, for years, trying to forge a bond in acknowledgment of the reality that He has kids.

She does not consider herself a petty person, the woman telling me this story, but she has to admit, the messages bother her. How can she fail to notice the fact that her stepchild does not so much as acknowledge her, again and again? The worst part of the situation, the woman broods to herself at the time and tells me later, is knowing that even thinking about it, even having feelings about it—about his kid never saying “hi” to her in the message—makes her seem petty. It is a classic stepmonster set-up—nobody’s fault, exactly, but somehow, because she has feelings about it, it becomes her problem. She can just imagine saying something to the stepchild the next time he or she calls, “Hi, how are you doing? Great. Listen, there’s something I wanted to mention. I don’t know if you realize it, but when you leave messages here, you never say hi to me, only to your dad. It feels a little…hurtful. I’m sure you didn’t intend it that way.” She could never say this, she knows. Because if she did, it would merely provide fodder for the rumblings about her she has already sensed—that she’s a control freak, that she can’t relax, that she has to stick herself into everything, that she is incapable of letting stuff go. That she always has to insert herself between her husband and his kids. That she’s jealous.

No, the thinks, she won’t mention it to her stepchild. Instead, she mentions it to her husband in passing, not wanting to start anything, just hinting, hoping that saying, “Funny, every time Timmy calls, he says ‘Hi Dad’ but never ‘Hi Jean,’ even though it’s my voice he’s hearing” will be enough. Her husband nods. He seems distracted, or slightly irritated; he changes the subject. The messages don’t change. And after a few months of it, or a year, the woman is tempted to stop giving her husband the messages at all. Of course she would never stoop so low—she tells me this part of the story in a rush, defensive, afraid that I might think she would actually do such a thing, suspecting that, in spite of the fact that I am a stepmother myself, I will judge her for even thinking for one fleeting instant about doing something so classically wicked.

She is frustrated and hurt, it’s true, by this relatively little thing, which nonetheless feels, after all this time, like an intentional slight, a refusal (even if it is unconscious) to acknowledge her existence. But she is an adult, and she decides to be emotionally mature and direct rather than passive and resentful. Rather than letting it simmer and fester and become a bigger deal than it really is, she will speak to her husband about it again. Of course he will understand, she tells herself. Surely he will tell his child that this “oversight” is a little odd and that it is only appropriate to say “Hi Dad, Hi Stepmom, Timmy here” when he hears his stepmother’s voice on the answering machine.

“This again? You’re making a big deal out of nothing,” her husband responds instead, suddenly angry and defensive. “He’s hardly ever here, and yet you’re finding a way to be critical of him. You’re so sensitive. Why can’t you just let it go?!”

“I’m just pointing out his behavior. Why attack me?” the woman counters, surprised, disappointed, disoriented. Is she really so very critical? She thought she was just expressing her feelings, asking for his help. Why are they once again divided as a couple, sheared apart as a team, at the mere mention of something his child has done? And are her feelings irrelevant, self-indulgent? Is what she’s asking for unreasonable? She doesn’t think so, but now she’s not sure. Why is the burden on her, she wonders, to overlook and deny and pretend when his child does something she finds rude or hurtful?

The argument, even if it is short, feels lethal. It is their oldest, least productive dynamic, The Fight they have over and over, The Issue they seem never to resolve. And it feels like failure, like defeat, to be revisiting this wasteland of the bitterest emotions, the ones they forget for months at a time but that are apparently always there, even when things are going well. The woman married to the man with children begins to panic. She feels misunderstood, taken for granted, angry. Angry at her husband and angry at his child. Again. Again! It feels like a losing battle, all these years later, and she may feel, despondently, back at square one again. All over a stupid little message on the answering machine. For a moment, briefly, she hates her husband, hates his child, hates being a stepmother. She feels bitter. Then she wonders, How did I get this way? And, When will it get better? Jamie Kelem Keshet writes of these feelings:

When a stepmother feels she has reached out to a child, the child’s failure to reach back to her can be very painful. In some…cases this rejecting may cause her to question her worthiness as a person…Most stepmothers have ambivalent feelings about their stepchildren. A woman who is trying to acknowledge only her loving positive feelings toward the children and deny her angry and resentful feelings would be open to projecting her negative feelings onto them unconsciously.5

We need to allow ourselves to be less than all-loving all the time, and to forgive ourselves for responding like human beings rather than saints to the par-for-the-course slights and oversights from our stepchildren that often feel deliberate. “I feel like, to succeed as a stepmother, you have to be either really assertive about not being stepped on, or incredibly self-abnegating. I’m not really assertive, but I’m also not the kind of person who can say, ‘Oh, his daughter’s treating me like shit again. It’s not personal. Whatever, it doesn’t matter,’” a woman whose twenty-something stepdaughter veered from being prickly and stand-offish to blatantly hostile toward her, told me. What the woman with stepchildren seldom hears is that her feelings matter as much as anyone else’s in the family. Indeed, sweeping them under the carpet or tamping them down as we are so often urged to do (“Just let it go already!”) does more harm than good, exacerbating irritation and annoyance until it festers into full-blown, sometimes even explosive resentment. How to stop the cycle? To begin with, we might simply acknowledge that, whatever their ages, our stepchildren do, in fact, frequently try to exclude us. They do things—consciously or unconsciously—that make us feel overlooked, left out, unappreciated. They send subtle and sometimes not-so-subtle signals that they wish we simply didn’t exist, that they’d like to erase us from the picture, or from the message on the answering machine. I heard one story of a woman who was not invited to her stepdaughter’s wedding after nearly two decades of marriage to the young woman’s father “because it will be too difficult for mom” (her husband insisted to his daughter that they would attend together or not at all, but his wife did not ever really recover from her hurt, and not surprisingly, ceased making efforts with her grown stepdaughter for a long time). Another woman, visiting her stepson at sleep-away camp, noticed that he had taped family photos up on the wall next to his bunk—and meticulously cut her face out of every one of them. The pain she felt was made worse by the fact that her husband failed to notice, and then made excuses.

My husband said, ‘Oh really? Maybe he just did that because he knew his mom was visiting.’ Maybe. Still, I had put a big effort in with my stepson by this point. And he wasn’t six. He was sixteen. I was surprised and hurt by the way he literally edited me out after all we’d been through together. After that I realized that no matter what I did, no matter how nice I was, my stepson wasn’t going to embrace me with open arms, or consider me family. I can’t blame him. It’s true, I’m not exactly family. Anyway after that I realized I should probably focus on myself and my marriage more, and put myself out a little less where he was concerned.

At other times, as we’ve seen, our stepchildren may seem to be masters of splitting the couple, shutting us out and manipulating their fathers. Taboo it may be, but anger is a logical and normal response. It grows as we discover that our stepchildren have an uncanny aptitude for making us look bad when they are the ones misbehaving. Ayelet Waldman nails this particular aspect of stepmothering in her novel Love and Other Impossible Pursuits, the story of Emilia, who has lost a baby of her own and struggles to warm up to her husband’s precocious, sometimes perfidiously emotionally savvy five-year-old, William.

One frozen afternoon, she takes her stepson to see the Harlem Meer, a pond in Central Park. On this, the first day they have actually managed to have some spontaneous fun together, he slips near the water’s edge, muddying his boots in the shallow water. Running into her husband Jack in the lobby of their building a few minutes later, Emilia knows she is in trouble, and that William will milk this for all it is worth. She is right: the boy wails dramatically as he recounts the story of his stepmother “throwing me into the lake.” Emilia protests her innocence, but this is not, by now, the point. At issue is her husband’s perception that she just doesn’t like William or care about him. As father and son walk down the hall of the apartment to put the boy in the tub, Emilia feels shut out and set up, and decides she has to say something:

“Aren’t you going to tell him…he shouldn’t get so crazy over a little mud and water? We were having fun, Jack!”

Jack narrows his lips into a thin line… “You don’t even give a shit. He’s cold, and scared, and you couldn’t care less.”

“I do so care. But he wasn’t scared. You know William, he’s just being dramatic.”

[Jack] leans toward me and says in a low voice, “You have no idea what your face is like when you look at him, Emilia. You are colder than the fucking Harlem Meer.”

He jerks the door open and walks through it, slamming it shut behind him. Before, I was warming to his son, I was. But now his words and those unsaid have spilled over me like liquid hydrogen. It is his words that have frozen me, made me brittle and immovable. Colder than he even knows. I am white with cold.6

Emilia’s feelings—that her husband is taking his son’s side, that she is unjustly accused, but somehow ends up looking like a heartless, callow stepmonster who has mistreated His Poor Kid, and mostly her desperate fear and loneliness in this moment—are something many of us will recognize. What is not said to us and among us, what is not often enough acknowledged, what gets buried in the “you shoulds” and “you musts” and the “you’re the adult, so let it gos” is the simple fact that stepchildren are not always sweet victims like Snow White. Frequently, like William, they seem to be out to get us. Waldman is getting at another unacknowledged but basic truth of stepmothering, too: it can feel like a betrayal when our husbands overlook or refuse to acknowledge

something hostile a child or adult stepchild has done or said, or blind themselves to a child’s or adult child’s uncivil behavior, behavior unlikely to be tolerated by dad if it were directed at a stranger (this phenomenon will be considered at length in the next chapter, “Him.”) William’s melodramatic, divisive antics and his father’s credulous response (the duped father) are nothing compared to real-life stories I have heard: of a woman whose stepdaughter tried to push her down the stairs and whose husband accused her of “exaggerating”; a woman who was literally beaten by her young adult stepdaughters before her husband intervened and told them they were no longer welcome; a woman’s whose stepson only spoke to her in obscenities and whose husband told her he didn’t want “to get involved in your problems with each other.” Certainly these are among the more extraordinary instances of stepchildren’s unchecked hostility; but the combination of a child who misbehaves toward her stepmother and a father who fails to support his wife because he is passive or in denial about his kid’s behavior, thus encouraging more such acting out toward stepmom, is unfortunately all too common.

One option, of course, is to stick up for ourselves when our husbands don’t, or assert ourselves when they can’t, but such a strategy frequently backfires, or plays into the narrative that we are wicked, something we tend to want to avoid at all costs. Laynie, a doctor, mother of two, and stepmother of a ten-year-old boy describes it this way: “There’s a holding back and a level of consciousness all the time that there isn’t with my own kids. With [my stepson] Teddy, I have to think about everything. There’s always another process going on at the same time. Like with my own kids, they annoy me, they get a time out. With Teddy, there’s that extra moment. Will I? Won’t I?” Often we fear that something as reasonable as a time out will open a can of worms—between us and the stepchild, between us and our husband, between us and his ex. As stepmothers, we are expected to let it go—the rudeness and the hostility, the refusal to acknowledge us when we walk into the room, the mocking tone—often for years on end. If we can’t—if we complain or set a limit or tell them they’re not welcome if they can’t treat us civilly—we are petty, stereotypical stepmonsters. Caught in this set-up, we go silent; then we get angry and resentful, and finally we may lash out at his kids, completing the cycle, playing our role in a script we never wanted any part of. Brenda, who always considered herself a fun, likable person, found herself trapped in this dynamic. “I don’t know how it happened,” she confided to me miserably, describing the downward spiral: her stepson acted surly and provocative, she responded by complaining to her husband, her husband minimized her feelings and blamed her (“What do you expect, his parents are divorced! It’s hard for him, you should be more understanding!”) and Brenda became angrier and more snappish toward her stepson every time he exercised his unchecked power, power which had the effect of rubbing her nose in her own lack of authority.

Even if our situation is not as extreme as Brenda’s or the ones I describe above, such dead-end stepfamily dynamics can drive a stake right through the heart of our marriage. Our husbands, often either oblivious to our travails, or critical of how we handle them, seem to live for, to relish, these increments of time with their children, the very increments of time we sometimes find ourselves dreading. And this disparity between his experience of his kids and our experience of them builds what can feel like an impossible-to-scale wall between us. Inevitably, we are confronted with the simple fact, one that persists: unless we are extraordinarily lucky and circumstances are just right (see chapter nine, “Sadness and Depression”), we cannot like his children without reservation as he does, we cannot always feel enthused about their visit or the fact of them, and it is not always easy to disguise it. Paradoxically, admitting this charged truth is not what makes us bad. In fact, it will likely lower the bar and our blood pressure significantly, bringing a much needed sense of relief to what can feel like an endless struggle. Acceptance also sets the stage for us to explore just exactly what’s under the feelings that can seem so overwhelming, feelings that may sometimes seem to threaten to blot out the rest of the world.

Happy On Sale Day!

5 05 2009

There are a bunch of books I’ve been telling you all about for a while, and I’m happy to say that you can get your hands on them today! If you don’t see them on the shelf in your local bookstore, you can purchase them from any online retailer. I’m busy building my resources page and will add these books to my list but in the meantime, here’s a description of each to get you started:

bitchNo One’s The Bitch: A Ten-Step Plan for Mothers and Stepmothers by Jennifer Newcomb Marine and Carol Marine

What it is: A humorous, yet helpful take on navigating the minefield that typically exists between moms and stepmoms.

Why it’s relevant: Over a thousand new stepfamilies form every day! Imagine all those women out there, dealing with a stepmom or bio-mom and slogging through resentment, power struggles, miscommunication, a lack of shared purpose, and worst of all, boatloads of stress. We need a new model for partnership between the two women “stuck with each other” in this situation. When they work together, marriages are stronger, children are happier, and there’s less hair loss all around.

How it will help people: No One’s the Bitch is the kind of book we wish we could have read when we first met! Ten powerful concepts and true-life stories will walk readers past the point of traditional antagonism and into a revolutionary new approach. They’ll learn how to create harmony and cooperation with the other woman along a spectrum of successful possibilities.

As readers increase the sense of cohesion between the two families, they’ll also regain a feeling of control, mastery, and confidence. Helplessness will be replaced by tools for mastery, conflict will be replaced by communication, and both sides will be inspired by a new vision of an extended family that actually works for all involved.


package-dealThe Package Deal: My (Not-So) Glamorous Transition From Single Gal to Instant Mom by Izzy Rose

In today’s version of Sex and the City, Mr. Big would have kids, and Carrie Bradshaw would look and sound a lot like Izzy Rose, a hilarious and chic new stepmother trying to come to terms with “the package deal.” On any given day, 1,300 women agree to join the ranks of the 15 million and counting stepmothers currently living in the United States, and THE PACKAGE DEAL: My (Not-So) Glamorous Transition from Single Gal to Instant Mom chronicles one woman’s outrageously funny and poignant journey from sophisticated, single gal in San Francisco to married with (step)children in Texas, where she reinvents the stepmother role for a new generation of daring, confident women.

Falling in love turns many women’s lives upside down, but for the millions of women who fall for men with children from previous relationships, love often leaves them wondering how they ended up raising another woman’s kids. At 35, Izzy was a successful TV producer, living the good life as a “middle-class socialite” in San Francisco. She’s perfectly content to be unmarried and kidless—and then along comes Hank, an irresistible Southern gentleman with two kids of his own. In the parenting department, she’s a total amateur, but she does bring one strength to the new arrangement: she speaks the blended family language. She was a stepkid herself.

stepmonsterStepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do by Wednesday Martin

How many times have you picked up a book for stepmothers–only to find that its focus is how you can make things better for the kids and their dad? How often have you sought out support and sympathy–only to get an earful of “you shoulds”? Wednesday Martin, a parenting journalist, stepfamily researcher, and stepmother, believed it was time that someone explore stepmothering in a new way–from the stepmother’s point of view. Stepmonster asks how repartnering with a man with kids affects her — psychologically, socially, economically. It also sets out to explode the myths—like the myth of the blended family and the myth of the maternal stepmother—that have clouded our view of who women with stepchildren are and what they ought to be able to accomplish. Far more than mere replacement parents, Martin insists, women with stepchildren of any age are people first, with their own emotional and cultural baggage to bear.

Going far beyond the usual perfunctory recipes for “how to do it better,” Stepmonster is truly stepmother-centric. It offers real life stories of women with stepchildren gleaned from interviews; first-person confessions from an author who has been there; perspectives from fields like anthropology and evolutionary biology; and a readable synthesis of the psychological and sociological literature on stepmothering, allowing women with stepchildren to see themselves as part of a larger story that is rich in meaning and social significance. On a practical level, Stepmonster suggests, in an unexpected twist, that the Wicked Stepmother may actually be our single best tool for understanding ourselves, and for finding a way to navigate through the stepmothering difficulties that can threaten to overwhelm us. Whether you’re a new stepmother or have been at it for decades, Stepmonster is sure to surprise you—and provide the compassion and understanding you deserve.