The Ex Wife: Book Giveaway

24 06 2009

I’m thrilled to announce that I have four signed copies of No One’s The Bitch: A Ten-Step Plan for the Mother and Stepmother Relationshipby mom and stepmom team Jennifer Newcomb Marine and Carol Marine to giveaway to my readers! This passage is from the introduction of the book:

“It’s a nasty word, BITCH.

It’s one thing if you’re standing up in the face of injustice to do the right thing–who cares if anything things you’re a bitch? But being thought of as a bitch in general is another thing altogether.

No one wants that.

And yet, here’s the setup between ex-wife and stepmother: The other woman, no matter which side you start from, is automatically a bitch. You’ll find plenty of ammunition to lob from friends, family, and coworkers–heck, from people you barely even know. Start out any story about “the ex-wife” or “the stepmother” and people have already helped you pull the pin, ready to take her down. The land stretching between mother and stepmother is littered with such landmines. Good luck tiptoeing around them.

And isn’t it irritating to know the other side is almost certainly calling you a bitch?!”

The book is filled with ideas to help manage this challenging relationship. To win a free copy of the book, comment on this post by Friday, June 26, with your best strategy for dealing with the ex or the stepmother in your life and I’ll randomly choose four people to send the book to.


Loss of Control

18 06 2009

In a culture that increasingly teaches us that the individual is greater than the collective, it’s no surprise that one of the reasons stepfamilies are so challenging is each individual’s loss of control. A child loses control of their space and their things. Each visit they leave things behind or lose them under a bed.

A stepmother loses control of her home environment each time the children visit. Father’s lose control of the decisions that are made by their ex-wives about the children’s lives. Mothers lose control of their children when they leave for Dad’s house.

Everyone feels out of control, which equals FEAR. To begin alleviating fear, find ways to give everyone a sense that they have a say in what is happening in their lives.

Give the kids space. Even if you don’t have a room for each child in your home, consider giving them at least some corner that is theirs. If it’s a drawer, assure them no one will open it while they’re gone. Give them complete control over what happens with that space.

Figure out what you do have influence over.Stepmoms, try this. Make a list of all the things you can control when the stepchildren come over. Your list is probably a lot longer than you think. A stepmom in a bad mood is a powerful, though negative way, that stepmoms control their environment. In what positive, proactive ways can you influence what happens in your home? For instance, in our house we know that transition days are tough so instead of forcing everyone to sit at the dinner table and suffer through a tense meal, we take the night off the family dinner and resume the next night.

Let your children experience their lives. Giving up your kids to the other household when it’s time for visitation can be extremely challenging for bio parents. You have no idea what your kids are doing in the other house. You aren’t there to comfort them when something happens. It’s scary and heartbreaking to give up that control. This might be cold comfort, but remember that our children have their own paths to walk. They have their own lessons to learn and mistakes to make. They will see things and do things at school, at camp, at a job, at college that you have no control over.  The best gift you can give your kids is a relationship with their other bio parent.

Ask for input.If you give everyone in your stepfamily a voice, that can go a long way toward combating the fear that results from a loss of control. If you’re going on vacation together, ask each kid to be responsible for coming up with an activity the family can do together. Ask for ideas about what should be on the menu or in the fridge.

Your Questions Answered: Measures of Success

10 06 2009

Q. Dear Jacque, I just read this and it’s very concerning:

The Children’s Society contributes to the existing body of research on absent fathers with a finding from their own study of U.K. runaways, noting that “children living with one birth parent are twice as likely to have run away and children in step families are three times as likely to have run away as those living with both parents.”


 I think at some point you had cited a statistic about academic achievement for children in stepfamilies being lower than for children in single-parent or dual-parent families (can’t remember if this was grades, test scores, college attainment, or what). But now this statistic about child runaways has got me thinking: do kids in stepfamilies have worse outcomes on EVERY possible measure of life success? I’ve been living with my boyfriend for a while now and we plan to get married eventually. Does my mere presence in his household bring down his kids’ success rates? It’s extremely disheartening! I want to know the “why” behind these statistics. I want to know what commonalities are shared by the families where these kids are running away. Is this only happening in families living out the worst stereotypes – the wicked stepmother or abusive stepfather? Or is the “slightly baffled by children but very well intentioned non-wicked stepmother” a good enough reason to make the kids get out of dodge?

A. What a fantastic question. It is extremely challenging to get at exactly why kids who are living in single-parent or stepfamily households are behaving the way they do, but you’re absolutely right. The research is stacking up that says kids from divorced households don’t fare as well in all of the categories used to measure the well-being of children.

I have seen research and articles coming at this topic from many angles. Some writers argue that kids are faring so badly because they don’t have access to their fathers. Some think it is the nature of single-parent households–there are fewer people with much less time to look after kids to make sure they are okay. Other writers say that it’s the nature of stepfamilies causing it–that the common stressors of stepfamily development mixed with the anger and grief over a divorce or the death of a parent cause children to act out in dangerous ways. Kids in stepfamilies can fall through the cracks a lot easier when parents feel guilty and act permissive and stepparents don’t feel like they can get involved. It’s enough to make your head spin.

So what can you do about it? The fact that you are conscientious enough to be worried about the kids leads me to believe that your stepchildren will be just fine, but here are a few tips that can help up your stepkids’ success rates:

Pay Attention. Kids need parents and stepparents who are paying attention. They need their parents to pay close enough attention that when a kids smells like smoke, they ask if they had a cigarette and demand to talk about it.

Continue Parenting. Kids need their moms and dads to parent them the same way they always did–riding them to get their homework done, expecting polite behavior, etc. They need rules and boundaries, not ice cream and trips to Disney Land. It is extremely difficult to parent and stepparent a troubled kid. A teen who is already exhibiting destructive behavior needs you, but you might not ever see any thanks for the efforts you put in. And the bio parent should always take the lead with a troubled teen.

Read About Stepfamilies.I know I say this one all the time, but it’s absolutely critical in my mind. If you know what is normal behavior for kids in stepfamilies, you won’t overreact when it happens to you. Plus, you can tell the kids that whatever they’re going through is normal. They’re not freaks. And it will pass.

Encourage One-On-One Time With Dad.I’ve heard from a lot of adult stepchildren who said they felt their stepmothers were jealous of the time they spent with their dads. I’ve also heard stepmoms admit to feeling that way. But the research is really clear. Kids do FAR better when they have a strong relationship with their dad. Send the stepkids off for a fun day with dad while you hit the spa.

Reduce Loyalty Conflicts.Kids from divorced families often feel stuck in the middle of their bio parents and duel households regardless of anything you say or do. Still, do what you can to mitigate loyalty conflicts for the kids and it will help in the long run. Don’t badmouth Mom. Don’t make a kid chose between Mom and Dad. And remember, sometimes loyalty conflicts are hidden. One stepmom couldn’t understand why her stepdaughers were so angry that she replaced the living room couch. Turns out it was one of Mom’s favorites.

Stepmother Water Torture

10 06 2009

Hello M’Ladies:

We had a submission over at the Stepfamily Letter Project that I felt really spoke volumes about what it’s like to be a stepmom. Check it out:

Dear Husband,

I would never leave you. Not in a million years. But I would consider leavingeverything you bring to the table. Especially on the days when my efforts go unappreciated. Especially on the days when I feel taken advantage of by you, your ex wife, and the brood the two of you had together. There are days when I hate what you bring to the table and I feel so trapped I can’t breathe. So many people are pulling on me asking things of me wanting a piece of me and then criticizing the parts of me they do get because they’re not enough that I don’t know how long I’ll be able to withstand the pressure. I am strong. By God, I am the strongest f-ing person I know. But even mountains crack when the plates constantly shift beneath them and the water wears at them day after f-ing day after day. I have to leave. For a day. For a weekend. I have to vent the pressure building in my chest or I’m afraid of what I’ll do.

Many of us have been at this point at one time or another. It’s amazing how you think you’ve got the stepmotherhood thing down and then something comes along to knock you off your feet.

In stepfamilies, those of us who are not related by blood do not give each other the benefit of the doubt. Even if things have been even-keeled for years, if there’s an emotional upheaval, we assume the worst. Stepmothers assume the children hate them and are behaving that way just to get at them. Stepchildren assume stepmothers are being manipulative so they can have more of Dad’s attention. Ex-wives assume that stepmothers are harming their children even after years of service.

Please. Let’s give each other a break. If a kid tells us something the other household said, let’s not jump to the conclusion that it’s a message from the ex-wife. It could be that the child misinterpreted something that was said, or that the child is the one who is trying to stir things up. Let’s not assume that a snotty kid is trying to get back at us. Perhaps she had a crappy day at school.

I have to admit, I am terrible at this. I am probably lecturing myself in this post. I make assumptions about what is motivating behavior in my stepfamily and usually it makes me more miserable than just talking to the person who I’m having a challenge with to find out what’s really going on. 

But when you’re in a low point and the stepmother water torture so aptly described in the letter above is getting you down, it’s hard to maintain your emotional intelligence. Usually if I give myself a few days to calm down (aided by dark chocolate and a glass of red wine) I can see the situation more clearly.

Your Questions Answered

3 06 2009

Q. Hi, I finished your book about 2 months ago, and I want to tell you that it’s the most relevant book I’ve ever read. As a new step-mom I have so many questions, concerns and unexplained (and unexpected!) feelings. I am so thankful for your book! I have been married 4 months, after dating my husband for a year and a half and my step-daughter is almost 6. We have her every Friday night, and then every other full weekend, as well as split holidays. My step-daughter and I get along wonderfully, but my husband and I have no communication with bio-mom whatsoever, and I don’t think that will ever be possible (her choice), though they split up before my step-daughter was even born. We do our parenting completely blind to what happens in the rest of her life when she is not with us, but we present a united front as far as rules, etc. goes, and work very hard to show her a secure and loving home environment. I have some questions that I think you may be able to offer some feedback on. First, what should I say when people ask me things like “Is this your little one?” when my stepdaughter is out with me? When I’m with my stepdaughter, I just say something along the lines of “yes, this is my stepdaughter” and that seems to be ok, but it that ok for her? She always tells me that she’s my daughter, but never tells me that I’m her mother. I want a response that I can be comfortable with, but that will also make her feel good about herself and our relationship.

A. I think it is always best to ask your stepdaughter what makes her feel comfortable. Ask her if she wants you to correct someone in public when they say, “your daughter.” Ask her if she’d rather you not explain your exact situation because the only thing that matters is that you and she know that your her stepmom and you love her. Sometimes kids are more embarrassed when we try to tell a stranger about our complicated families.  We put our stepkids in a loyalty bind when we ask them to call us “mom” or some variation of that and it makes them feel uncomfortable or they get flack about it from their Moms. When I asked my stepkids what they wanted me to do when people asked, “Is that your mom?” or some other related question, they said, “Just tell them your my stepmom.” And that was the end of it. Now when people ask, I’ve gotten used to saying that and it doesn’t have any negative connotations in my mind because it is simply a descriptor that other people understand.

Q. What about when my husband and I are out together without her and people ask if we have kids? This is the absolute worst—as soon as I say that my husband has a daughter, I’m dismissed completely, and the situation becomes uncomfortable. Bio-moms seem to have no respect for a stepmom and they don’t really know what to do with us. Again, I wonder how I can be honest in this situation without making people (especially me!) feel uncomfortable, while at the same time expressing the value the my stepdaughter, my husband and I place on our close relationship. I am more sensitive to reactions than my husband is, and maybe I’m just too sensitive in general, but it seems like they then find you lacking and completely loose interest. If I am asked when I’m alone if I have kids I just say that I have a stepdaughter, and while they loose interest almost immediately then too (unless they happen to be a stepparent) it seems less uncomfortable. Why is this?

A. People are uncomfortable with stepparents for two reasons in my opinion. First, because the stepparent feels uncomfortable and we transmit those feelings. Second, because stepfamilies are different, and people don’t know what to say. Because stepfamilies are formed in the wake of sorrow after a death, affair, or even a “good” divorce, the negative connotations that go along with the title “stepparent” are absolutely real. I know first-hand the discomfort you describe. We have four kids in our home. When people ask how many kids I have, what do I say? Four? One? One and three stepkids? After much trial and effort I came to a response I feel comfortable with most of the time. “I have a daughter and three wonderful stepchildren.” When you admit to a social group that you’re a stepmom it can feel like you don’t belong, but I bet if you started asking around you would see that plenty of people in the room either are stepparents, are married to one, or had one themselves. Rumor has it stepfamilies outnumber first families in the United States. So think about that the next time you feel like the odd-woman out. It might help!

Q. How do I talk to my husband about some of the things I feel because of my role as a stepmom? I can’t share your book with him because he would panic, terrified that I don’t want to be with him because of all these tricky emotions. That’s not the case at all, but he doesn’t really get that. I already tried to express some of the difficulties I face with adapting to this new role, but it didn’t go over well, so now I just keep it to myself. Could your blog incorporate some articles for husbands of stepmoms to read?

A. Yes! I will work on some articles for the blog that stepmoms can hand to their husbands, but in the meantime you can show him this. It is incredibly important that you are able to talk to him about your feelings–the good, the bad, the ugly. All of the research on stepfamilies show that a couple who are able to talk about their experiences within this new stepfamily in an honest and open way have a FAR better chance of making it. By not allowing you to talk about your negative feelings, he is basically living in denial and it absolutely will come back to bite him in the tush. When we suppress anger or hurt feelings for a long time, they come out eventually. And your husband is not alone in his reaction to your feelings. Most men have trouble hearing negative things about their new family or their kids or even the ex wife because they are living in their own fantasty land. They want this new marriage to work. They don’t want to be divorced again. But the reality is that remarriage divorce rates are higher than first marriages. The inability to talk openly about the COMPLETELY NORMAL stepfamily challenges often leads to divorce. If he won’t read my book or any other book about stepfamily development, then read him the sections in my book where other stepmoms talk about their experiences or read a post from a blog by another stepmom. Perhaps that will help him see that what you’re going through. Hopefully he’ll be able to see that what you’re family is going through right now is part of the deal during the first years of stepfamily development. You might also check out Patricia Papernow’s helpful book: Becoming a Stepfamily. It does an fantastic job of showing the stages stepfamilies go through so you don’t think you’re going crazy!

Stepmom Book Club: Musings of a Divorced Dad

3 06 2009

40YROLD.COVER3There’s a new book out this month by Joel Schwartzberg called The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad.The essays in this memoir are sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, sometimes absolutely heartbreaking. It’s an interesting read for stepmoms because Schwartzberg details his experience as a divorced dad, single dad, and then remarried dad. I love how the book shows his feelings for his kids and documents those little awkward moments that come with life after a divorce. The stories about dropping his kids off at school and attending parent-teacher conferences are especially touching. Many of the essays in this collection are not about divorce or remarriage, and I wished there were more of them about his transition to remarriage. Overall it was a charming read. Check it out and let us know what you think!