Tips to help stressed stepparents navigate the holidays.

20 11 2009

Check out my guest post: Five Tricks to Help Stressed Stepparents Enjoy the Holidays on Wednesday Martin’s Psychology Today blog. Thanks Wednesday for the opportunity! And if you like what you see, listen to my conversation with Wednesday on the free podcast: Stepmoms Circles: The Stepfamily Mix.

Here’s a preview:

As Thanksgiving approaches, instead of feeling the warm anticipation of a day to spend with family, stepmothers across America are downing antacids. And really it’s no surprise. “All of our experimental and clinical research confirms that the sense of having little or no control is always distressful,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College and president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y. … READ MORE.


Your Questions Answered: Difficult Exes

19 11 2009

Hi Jacque,

Could you offer some advice (or point me to the right place) for how to handle an extremely difficult ex-wife/bio Mom? In our case, my dh’s ex-wife is stunningly cruel and disrespectful. She sends us horrible emails with all sorts of untrue accusations and we are also convinced that she makes my stepdaughter fully aware of her feelings towards us. We have never retaliated with disrespectful behavior and we have, on several occasions, asked her to join us in therapy sessions so that we can learn how to better co-parent. She refuses. With this said, I have come to understand that I cannot change her behavior but I can change how I respond to it. Unfortunately, lately I am doing an awful job and I am allowing this behavior to occupy my consciousness much more than it should (ruminating thoughts, etc.). I have practiced some of the excellent tips that you offered to me in the past to disrupt the ruminations. I am now wondering if you have any advice that is geared towards this very situation (or, again, if you can point me to the right place for some thoughtful guidance/support). Thank you very much!

Dear Reader: You raise a lot of issues in your short email! Unfortunately as so many of you know, the more challenging the ex is the more difficult it is for stepmother and dad to create a stable stepfamily home. Putting together a system that works for you and your family will largely depend on the particular dynamics in your home mixed with old-fashioned trial and error.

Take the 100-year view. You didn’t mention how old your stepdaughter is, but remember this: Someday she will be 18. You will still have to deal with the ex but it will be a lot less than you have to now (assuming your stepdaughter is younger than 18).

Create a sanctuary in your home. Make your home a relaxing and fun place to be for you, your spouse, and your stepdaughter. When stressful things happen with the ex, turn toward your husband, not away. Find ways to spend time together. A good relationship with your spouse is the strongest antidote to a tough ex.

Develop a thought-management plan. For a few days, carry a notebook and jot down the times you think about the ex. What sparked it? What did you think? Write down what those thoughts make you feel. Now, make a deal with yourself. Allow the thoughts about the ex only at certain times. (For instance, for a half hour on Saturday at 2 p.m.) Then on Saturday at 2, rant and rave about the ex. At all other times, practice training your brain to stop the nasty thoughts. Here are things that might help:

  • Distract yourself with something else. Call your best friend, go for a run, walk your dog, turn up your favorite music really loud, send a prayer of gratitude to the ex for signing the divorce papers.
  • Practice gratitude. A simple thing really, but research has proven that by making lists every day of the things you are thankful for it can really help alleviate the negative spirals we get ourselves into.
  • Ask yourself who you would be without those thoughts. This is straight from Byron Katie’s wonderful theory which she calls, “The Work.” You have the power to choose the direction of your thoughts. It takes practice, like anything else, but you CAN do it.
  • Add a ritual or reward system that reminds you of your intention to think less negatively about the ex. Every time the ex pops up in your head, do some physical ritual to help you remember. For instance, light a candle and blow it out. When the light extinguishes, so do the negative thoughts. Or track the number of times you successful banish negative thoughts. Then set up rewards when you hit certain numbers. The 10th time you start thinking, “That B*&(#!!” and end up wishing her peace or distracting yourself with thoughts of the day’s tasks or a newspaper story you read, then reward yourself with something wonderful.

Employ your empathy. People are not all good or all bad so work to find something about the ex that you can empathize with. Try putting yourself in her shoes to see if you can understand why she might be feeling threatened. Remember she’s a woman who has been through divorce (even if she wanted it) and that is painful. She likely feels guilt about the breakup of the family and how it will affect her children. She could be scared to be a single mom or afraid that she’ll like your house better than hers. Find your compassion for her and it will make giving up negative thoughs much easier.

Other resources: Besides Byron Katie’s work, you might check out Positivity by Barbara Frederickson and The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Both authors are researchers who have tested out their theories on hundreds of people.

Your Questions Answered: A Surprise Stepchild

19 11 2009

Dear Jacque,

A few months after I met my now husband, he discovered (through paternity testing) that he had a child from a relationship 9 years prior. The child’s mother waited for 9 years to seek child support and never established contact between my husband and her or the child (they lived 2,000 miles away).

This past year, the child’s (now 14) mother established contact with my husband and ultimately my husband has finally talked to his son online, over Skype and emails. Father and son seem to enjoy their talks and my husband is planning a trip to see him in the next few weeks. I don’t plan on going mostly because this boy hasn’t even met his father yet; bringing along an extra “mom-type” wouldn’t be fair to anyone.

I have done everything in my capability to be a good stepmom to the two kids that we share custody with with his ex-wife. In fact, some would say I’ve gone above and beyond the Stepmom call of duty. I love my stepkids and consider them like my own.

What perplexes me is that I can’t seem to wrap my head (or heart) around liking this third kid. I want to consider him part of our family, but I’m struggling with that. I admire my husband for stepping up and wanting to establish a relationship with this kid but I feel like a horrible person because I don’t want to deal with the new extension of our stepfamily.

Our custodial kids don’t know about their half-brother and we have no intentions of telling them at the moment. Both kids tend to have behavioral issues when confronted with major upheavals (as could be expected).

Any advice for how I can maintain my sanity while I warm up to an “extra” stepchild?

Dear reader: As a custodial stepmother you’ve already worked your tail off. It doesn’t seem fair that you are now faced with yet another emotional hurdle to jump, one that could potentially disrupt the hard-won stepfamily harmony you’ve already established at home. I do have some thoughts for you.

Allow yourself to have an emotional reaction.  Of course you’re going to react emotionally to such powerful news. Give yourself the time and space to cry or scream. Get it out. Embody your hurt or feelings of betrayal fully so that they don’t continue to sit in you and fester into something that will then leak out of you over time to poison you and your family. Search your heart for what is so painful about this revelation. If you can’t have children of your own, does it rub salt in an open wound? Does this make you feel differently about your spouse, as though you’ve been cheated on? React. And remember that anger often covers up the true emotions underneath. Be brave and seek out the truth in your heart. Be honest about your feelings with your husband. Get your feelings out on the table so you can look at them, deal with them, and move on with your lives.

Take it slow. I was glad to hear you didn’t jump on a plane and rush out to be part of yet another stepfamily structure the second you heard about this new development in your family. This really is your husband’s responsibility. He’s going to have to take it slow with the boy and you can take it even more easy. Allow your husband to figure out what kind of relationship he’s going to have with his son and then together the two of you can figure out what your approach will be.

Be open to unexpected gifts. In the classic hero’s journey recorded in the myths and stories of cultures around the world, there is always a moment where the hero faces a trial that she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to overcome. But she does somehow. And in the morning she finds out something amazing she never would have learned if not for the dark night of the soul initiation rite she passed through. Entertain this idea for a moment: What if this boy has entered your lives to teach you all a valuable lesson or give you a generous gift?

Be extra kind to yourself. I am serious about this. Time after time I coach stepmothers who promise they will make sure to include self-care in their daily regimen and don’t. They put everyone else’s needs before their own. (You know who you are!) So take out your calendar and schedule time EVERY DAY to do something that makes you feel good. Even if it’s only five minutes, or five deep breaths, you need to be gentle with yourself right now. If this is hard for you, listen to the Stepmom Circles Podcast in which I interview Pilar Gerasimo who clearly spells out the research-tested, doctor-approved reasons why we MUST include self-care as a regular activity.

New Podcast: The Smart Stepmom AND a Contest for Free Books!

12 11 2009

stepmomcircles3Tune in the Stepmom Circles Podcast to listen to my conversation with Ron Deal and Laura Petherbridge, the authors of The Smart Stepmom, a wonderful christian-based resource for stepmothers that is filled with practical information that can help your stepfamily thrive. The book includes prayers for stepmoms as well as research-based strategies for new stepmoms. During our talk we discuss disengaged dads, how to deal with ex wives, and the realities of stepfamily life.

BONUS: Listen to this episde of my free Stepmom Circles Podcast for a chance to win an autographed copy of The Smart Stepmom. I’ll choose two winners from the people who comment here with the correct answers to the following questions. Hint: Listen to this episode to hear the answers!

Question #1: According to Ron and Laura what is one thing that makes a stepmom smart?

Question #2: Can you have a happy marriage even if your stepchildren hate you?

Question #3: What did Ron tell the woman whose boyfriend was doing things behind her back?

Good luck!

Your Questions Answered

12 11 2009

Hi Jacquelyn,

My name is Jeff. I am happily re-married to the most wonderful woman in the whole world. We have 5 (15, 13, 11, 7, and 5 years of age) children from my previous marriage, she had no children. Every other weekend the children come stay with us and once a week we go see them and it takes about 50 minutes to get to the children (one-way). My wife says she loves me and has no problems with me and our relationship. However, she is wanting to leave due to the ex-wife being in our lives. I have put forth great effort to minimize any contact with the ex and have been quite successful just dealing with the children. The children adore their stepmom and love her more than myself (which has been great) due to lack of the proper attention at home. She (stepmom) has been a source of security and stability for me and these 5 children. She is tired of the monotony and seeing 1/2 my pay check go to a woman who does nothing but sit in her chair, watch tv, talk on a cell phone, and then leave the kids a few times a week and spend money on herself. My wife is a hard worker and sharp as a tack. She is angry for letting herself get into this situation, angry because of the wasted money, and has quite frankly had it.

I am not a stepmom. I have read a couple of books and can see where she is coming from. Issues of how society treats her, how is she supposed to act, not being herself etc. I try to stand in her shoes, I have treated her like the queen she is. I help with the house, laundry, cooking etc… She gets flowers once a month, cards, notes, daily hugs n kisses, thank yous and appreciation. I love her more than anything in this world ( I am not saying I am perfect, though. I am male ;)). How can I help relieve her anger and frustration? I try to get her to focus on us / me rather than the ex and future issues. She seems to go through a cycle where we are doing great and then she is walking out the door. This cycle used to be monthly and has now been not as often, around every couple of months since the beginning of the year.

We have been to counseling that was superb.

She is tired and I am hurt because she is hurting.

Any suggestions?


Losing My Soulmate 😦

Dear Losing My Soulmate:

If only all stepmothers had a man as aware and engaged as you! (Sorry dads, but stepfamily life really asks dads to step up to the plate like never before.) It’s tough to know exactly how to advise you because I don’t know enough of your particular situation but here are a few general rules of thumb that you can share with your wife that will hopefully help alleviate some of the pressure you both feel.

Lighten up. I don’t mean to be flippant here. I really mean that. Have some fun! Since you don’t have the children all the time, go out and have some inexpensive fun. Laugh together. Create a list of activities that would interest both of you so you can build some really strong, wonderful memories together. Do this with all the kids, too. Create some fun rituals so that your stepfamily can begin to create an identity.

Hire a financial advisor or take a money class. We all know that with the economy the way it is, money is tighter than ever. Join a stepfamily and Dad’s money now goes to support two families. Though this is a tough concept for a stepmom, she really just has to accept that you are sending money to the other household. You are financially obligated to support your children. (She knows this I’m sure.) If mom is really not using the money on the kids then you always have the option of going back to court. (Though I would HIGHLY recommend mediation first because the courts rarely handle these cases intelligently, well, or fairly. Little rant there.) Check out these books for a place to start:  

For Richer Not Poorer: The Money Book for Couples, by Ruth Hayden. A money class in a book that helps couples learn to view their financial lives as a partnership. Hayden doesn’t address stepfamilies specifically but her approach to dealing with money as a couple is fantastic.

Money Advice for Your Successful Remarriage: Handling Delicate Financial Issues Intelligently and Lovingly, by Patricia Shiff Estes. A guide to financial systems, options, and solutions that work in remarried households as well as how to deal with the complicated emotions connected with the subject of money.

Create boundaries with the ex. It sounds like you’ve already set up the ways you two will handle your ex wife and that’s great. Sit down with your wife and brainstorm together ways you think you should handle the ex as a couple. The more you do the job of co-parenting, the better off your wife will be in the long run. If she is feeling jealous of the ex or angry at her for intruding on her family life, then tell her to write me a letter so I can help her by knowing more of the facts. It sounds like this is your wife’s biggest issue. Depending on what kind of ex you have, this can be a major stressor. Is she open to co-parenting? Or is she angry and bitter and in your faces? That makes a big difference in how things will go in your house.

Thank your lucky stars. The fact that your kids love her should make your wife jump for joy! There are so many families who are struggling because the kids are resentful of and angry at stepmom.

Chin up. You didn’t mention how long you’ve been remarried, but I want to toss this out there: The two of you are not going to figure out everything all at once. This is why that lighten up section is so important. Balance the icky parts of stepfamily life with fun times and lots of laughter and intimacy and you’ll be just fine. (If you’ve read my book then you know about John Gottman’s research: 5 positive interactions to every one negative interaction equals marital longevity and satisfaction!)


Your Questions Answered: Getting Started in a Stepfamily

12 11 2009

Dear Jacque,

I (26) am in a serious relationship with a girl (20) who has never been married or had kids. I have one of my own who is 5. We have recently been discussing a possible future together with kids and marriage. I have also never been married. My son’s mother and I found out she was pregnant after we had split up so marriage was never on the table. My ex has full custody, but I have him pretty much any weekend I want and for extended periods over the summer. My girlfriend expressed some serious concerns about her role as a stepmom to my son and how our future kids and my son would handle a blended family situation. She is also concerned about her role now, as my son’s dad’s girlfriend, and what amount of time spent with my son would be appropriate. I am ashamed to say that I did not have any good answers for any of these questions. Neither of us have any experience with blended family situations. Can you please give me some advice? I guess the main questions I would like addressed are the following:

*Should I segregate myself and my son from my girlfriend (while she is still just my girlfriend) when he visits? If not what level of involvment would be appropriate. How much of a say should my ex have in regards to this question?

*How is my future wife going to have any authority over my son. Is it ok if she derives this authority through me (for example: Don’t do this or your father will ground you.)?

*How should we handle jealousy that my son might have toward future kids?

Thank you very much, and any input would be extremely helpful and much appreciated.

These are all big questions! Bravo for searching out information on stepfamilies. That will serve you extremely well in the future. You and your girlfriend can do a few things to prepare so you have some idea what to expect. The first resource I would offer you is to sit down with your girlfriend and read my book together. It’s for women who are in her exact position: women who don’t have kids of their own who are dating, engaged or married to a man with kids from a previous relationship. You can read the first couple of chapters for free on my website. Check out the “Browse inside this book” on the right hand side of the page. I address a lot of the topics you are worried about.

It is absolutely okay to have your girlfriend meet your children if you are sure that this is serious with your girlfriend. If you are planning to marry her, it’s even more appropriate and in fact, important. It’s a mistake to introduce the kids to your significant other shortly before the wedding without giving everyone a chance to get to know each other.

Your ex wife does not have a say in who you introduce your son to when he’s with you. This is a hard pill for biological moms to swallow (and dads too, when the kids are with mom), but that is part of blended family life. You have to give up a certain amount of control when it comes to your kids. This is not easy!!!

As for your girlfriend’s authority, your instincts are right on. It all has to come through you. You set up the rules (see the house rules section of my book) with input from your partner and then you present them to your stepson along with the consequences for not following them. And then you tell your stepson that your partner has the authority from you to uphold those rules when you’re not around. It is a mistake to have her be a disciplinarian to your son right away until they develop a strong relationship. The bottom line is slow and steady wins the race. Take your time. Stepfamilies take a long time to feel comfortable and stable.

The jealousy issue is best handled by treating all of the children who live in the house the same. There will be things that a child will naturally feel jealousy about (a new child has more time with dad, for instance) and so the best thing to do is continue to spend time with the older children one-on-one and sending messages of love and acceptance.

You might also try these resources for more education about stepfamily life:

National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC)
A vast resource for stepfamilies, the National Stepfamily Resource Center develops educational programs for stepfamilies and the professionals who work with them. Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder, director of the Center for Children, Youth, and Families at Auburn oversees the NSRC, which serves as a clearinghouse of information for stepfamilies that links family science research on stepfamilies and best practices in work with couples and children in stepfamilies. The organization’s website includes links to resources for stepfamilies, frequently asked questions, and research summaries.

Stepfamily Living
Stepfamily expert Elizabeth Einstein has created this site which lists her books, DVDs, and workshops for stepfamilies.

Successful Stepfamilies
Author, speaker, and marriage and family therapist Ron Deal’s site with books (including The Smart Stepmom), DVD programs, free articles, and links to support Christian stepfamilies. Includes a list of conferences and workshops for stepfamilies.

Your Questions Answered: A Cherished Stepmom is a Strong Stepmom

4 11 2009

Hello! I am 31 years old and the mother of a great 7 year old daughter. I have raised her by myself for the last 7 years since her father left me while I was pregnant and never showed up again. Don’t worry, it was not a big loss. He was abusive and would probably be abusive to my daughter as well so I’m glad this relationship is over and done.

I dated this guys 5-6 years ago who also had a son. At the time, his son was 4 years old. He had just divorced his wife and although I had been raising my daughter for a few years and thought I was over the whole thing of separation, it seemed that both of us could not handle it. His relationship with his ex-wife was complicated and his guilt feelings towards his son were just too intense to deal with. My feelings against men and how they can be jerks did not help. We mutually decided to part ways and moved on with our lives. We did click big time however and were both sad about it not working out. We kept in touch, mostly through news and events. He published a book and sent me an invitation, commented on the pictures I posted on Facebook and I did the same. We always wondered about each other but never made any moves to reconnect.

Until a year ago where he invited me to dinner. I accepted, not knowing what to expect. That night was magical. We were in love instantly. We dated for months and spent every minute we could with one another. Introducing the kids (they were now 7 and 9) was not all that easy. They argued and fought and we were both a bit discouraged, both taking the side of our own kids. Dad’s apartment was small and although we tried to sleep there so that it would be equal for the kids, it just made no sense. My daughter had to sleep on the couch and we just had no privacy. My house was bigger, had a yard and an extra bedroom for his son. Although this was better, our children would argue. My daughter would resent having to share all her space with these two new guys in our lives and his son would cry to go home every once in a while. We were torn.

Dad has his son one week out of two so the week he did not have his son, he would spend it at my house. It just made sense. I started seeing a little family unit building up and I was ecstatic! My daughter was bonding with him and he started teaching her to ride. My bonding experience seemed more difficult to me but I try my hardest. Then came the New York trip. My new boyfriend explained to me that him and his ex were in business together and had to go to a conference together to New York for a weekend. I had been dating him for two months… what could I say? I felt awkward about the whole thing but decided to say nothing and forced myself to smile and pretend I was happy for him. After all, she is remarried and has another kid with her husband. They would never cheat, right?

That was one of the worst weekends of my life. I became this needy pathetic things that cried and imagined them together. Their car ride together made my stomach turn. What would they talk about? Would he share intimate details of our life with her? For the first two months when he told me about his relationship with his ex, I was amazed. They had managed to work out their differences for the sake of the child. They were even able to be in business together and have supper as a new family unit. Surely I would fit in there and everybody would be happy… I was not so sure anymore.

Christmas eve came and he spent it in her family, as he did every year. It allowed him to see his son and he joined me right after. It felt very awkward to have to tell my family: he is with his ex’s family, to see his son and then he’ll join me… but everybody smiled and said what a great father he was to accept this and do it for his son. So that was ok…

We went to his mother’s for the first time and it was incredible. You should have seen the look on his face. He was beaming. He was so in love and I felt so loved. I left my daughter with my parents that time because I thought it would be awkward for her but after meeting his mother, I couldn’t wait to introduce this new amazing woman to my daughter and have them bond.

But then, trouble started… Dad calls his son every day. He talks to him for a few minutes. It bothered me. I did not want it to bother my but it did. It seem to break the bubble we were in. Why was I so selfish. I had a daughter, I could understand… but we would go away together to these getaways and he would ask: is it ok if I call my son… I said sure, what else could I say. But it just broke the moment for me. Inside was conflict. How could I be this selfish person? How could I resent a father calling his son. It irritated me and I could not explain why. I would become silent after the phone call. He almost always called him in front of me and I felt awkward. I felt like I was in the intimacy of someone. As if I needed to leave the room. I felt all weird.

Dad had always done some activities with his ex-wife’s family and although I felt very awkward I decided to give it a try. We went to a movie first. We walked in and his ex-wife was there. Meeting her was intimidating. She seemed much older than me (no this is not a nasty comment), I felt like a kid. She seemed so composed, so mature. Then her and my man started teasing each other, about his weight and about her spending and I just wanted to run and scream. My daughter was standing by my side, not knowing what to say and Dad’s son simply walked away from us and entered his own world. I could feel my daughter feeling left out and tried to make up for it but everything seemed fake. We watched the movie and my man squeezed my had a few times. That made me feel better somehow. But the look in his eyes was tough to bear… It said: Please be ok with this, please allow this to continue… pressure mounted.

One weekend we were asked to bring his son to his grandmother’s, from his mother’s side and after a family activity that went relatively well, we dropped him off. My daughter was disappointed because at this point she was getting along with the son and could not understand why he had to leave to be with his grandmother when he was supposed to be with us. I could see Dad would have liked me to get out of the car and meet the grandparents. But they were his ex’s parents. How could I? They would never like me. They would judge my every move. But how selfish of me not to do this for my stepson and my man. I could see how happy it would have made my man but how could I. I suffocated at the idea. I let him get out of the car and stayed inside with my daughter. But the grandmother came right out to great me and give me kissed. I smiled back, wanting to crawl somewhere deep into a cave!

Then came a puppet show. Dad’s ex had tickets and invited us. I could not refuse could I? This was a nice gesture on her part. I did not want to go and would have much preferred walking on hot coals than feel this awkwardness again but how could I say no. So we went. And it was just as awkward as I imagined. Was I making it worse? How could I change my attitude to make it better. I looked at Dad’s kid, who barely acknowledged our presence and wondered why we were there. He did not care about us. It did not help us bond. I seemed to only relieve Dad, who could keep the peace with everybody. So, I was doing it for him? I looked over at my daughter and felt my heart break. She would just stand there. Dad’s ex did talk to her, everybody was nice. But Dad’s son was playing with his actual brother. They are boys, they played boys games, nothing my daughter was used to.

Time passed by and we decided to try to move it together. As soon as my house (which was too small for all of us full time) sold, I started regretting my decision. It was so difficult ripping myself in two. One week I would feel blissful and happy with my man. We would have long conversations over wine while my daughter played by herself in her room and I felt I was neglecting her. The next week was a family type of weekend: movies, outings, fun suppers. We bought the house. We fought over little things all the time. Tension was building all the time. When we actually signed for the house I wanted to cry… of terror not joy. How could we do this. I did not even know how to be a couple with him… how could we be parents together? His ex-wife and her family was more present than I thought it would be. Phones calls for forgotten shoes, discussion of business. The day I moved out of my house… to go into storage, she called 4 times while he was sitting with me, waiting for the movers. And he had to leave me to go to his son’s baseball game… I was resenting her, him and his son. How could I resent a 9 year old. I could I? My parents were divorced. I hated that feeling of resentment from my dad’s girlfriends. How could I do that to a kid. What kind of a person was I?

We moved in, and I figured things would get better…they didn’t’ I try to get involved in the decoration of the child’s room. I figured it would help me feel closer to him. It didn’t. Then came all the little things. He had snacks before bedtime, I didn’t allow them. Dad insisted on clearing the plates, I didn’t see the point. Everything was an argument. There was baseball practice 3 times a week, the games etc. All these with his ex present. What would we be doing there? Dad’s child did not seem to care. My daughter was resenting all this energy placed on Dad’s son and started acting out, talking back. Dad started resenting my daughter. We were getting nowhere. Then the ex started joining in, the resentment… Booking things during our weekend, choosing the extracurricular activities without consulting us etc… I started to resent ex/mom. Dad did close the business and did realize that activities with me and my daughter were not possible but what about important moments in his son’s life? Did he have to choose between us? Son’s birthday was held at her house and although I tried talking to her, seeing what I could do to help out, I was not needed. I did not go to the birthday party. That may have been a mistake but I just felt so left out. I didn’t want to fight. I didn’t want to have to kick and bite to have a place in my man’s life. Wasn’t he supposed to fight for my place and say: We want to be included… but he never did. He did not want the confrontation and so I started resenting him.

Everything became an imposition. We found out about an appointment the night before, about a game the day before…we cancelled plans, reorganized our lives. All that for Dad’s son. I felt resentment for everyone around. I watched my daughter, follow with her bad attitude and complain and wondered where it would end.

Then my brother told me about his wedding and how my dad was uncomfortable coming. Mostly because of a fight with me but also because of the divorce and my mom being there. Was that my future? Feeling left out of my man’s life? Spending Christmas apart… birthdays… how would this work.

So that’s where I’m at. I’m lost. I don’t know what to do anymore and I don’t feel good about myself. I don’t want to feel resentment at my stepson. I don’t want to feel guilt for my daughter. I don’t want to feel both guilt and resentment towards my man. I’m not happy… will I ever be. We talk and talk me and my man but it never seems to end. We go through one crisis after another. And in the end, he will always do what is best for his son. How can I blame him… but can’t we find what’s best for his son, my daughter and for me? Why must we choose one person?

Does it get better. I’m I too impatient? Do I want too much? How do I keep the right balance of sacrifices and self-respect? How do I keep the love of my life… without losing myself completely…

Dear Reader,

Oh, honey! What you describe is an introduction to Stepfamily Life 101. My heart goes out to you and to your family. The good news is that you’re not alone. The dynamics happening in your home are classics. So what do you do about them? I’ve got a couple of ideas for you.

You and your man. There is a reason you’re feeling resentful of your stepson and the ex. I would say that your husband has not clearly marked a line in the sand in regards to his love and committment to you. It is tempting for all of us with children to put our kids before our spouses but this is a mistake. It is an even BIGGER mistake in a stepfamily. During conflict, stepfamilies tend to break down biological lines, which you described above. That means that when there is a fight, all the blood relatives gather together to face down those who are not blood. But in a stepfamily your relationship with your spouse is the weakest link. And it MUST be strengthened for your marriage to survive. If you felt that he supported you 100 percent, then you wouldn’t feel so insecure about the time he gives to his son or that he spends with the ex (more on that in a minute). If you felt secure in your relationship you would be less resentful, and more open to learning how to feel comfortable with the various extended stepfamily members. It is a mistake to think in terms of kids first, then marriage. You have to know he is committed to you and to the marriage and you both have to prove to each other that you’re in it for the long haul. Instead of thinking “kids OR us,” you both need to be thinking “Us AND the kids.” It’s a subtle distinction. But your marriage is in danger if you are continually feeling betrayed by your spouse. Committing to you does not mean that he’s not committing to his son.

2. The ex wife. It sounds like your husband has not set up clear boundaries with his ex wife. This is problematic on several fronts. First, he needs to make his committment to his current relationship if he wants to stay in it. Second, when boundaries are not clear between divorced parents, children get very confused. And this can be really painful for children and it makes accepting a stepparent difficult because they are holding out the hope that their parent’s will re-marry. Even though she is already remarried, I would bet that your stepson still thinks his parents could reunite. Look! They spend Christmas together! Look how they laugh and tease each other! This kind of camaraderie between exes can develop over time and kids can adjust to it just fine, but in the early days when your relationship is still on shaky ground, this can be detrimental to all involved. Your man should have a conversation with his son that goes something like this: “Honey, I know this might be confusing since your mother and I get along so well, but we just couldn’t be married. And we’re never going to be together in that way. We both love you so much. But I am with (YOUR NAME HERE) and I love her and I need you to be respectful of her because she’s an adult in this house.”

3. Your stepson. Let’s just assume for a moment that you’re a good person. Let’s say that you are hurting, and overwhelmed, and feeling betrayed and scared. Your resentment of the time your man gives to your stepson is understandable when you are coming from such a shaky place. It’s clear you don’t want to feel that way, so what do you do about it? Try to put yourself in his shoes. Really open your heart to what it must be like for him to live with you and his Dad and his Mom and Stepdad. Why does he cry at your house? What is making him so sad or scared or hurt? Be curious about his personality and what he is going through. How will this experience with you shape his entire life? Ten years from now what will he have learned from you? We are all human and doing the best we can with the cards we’ve been played. Forgive yourself.

4. Lighten up. Have some fun together! Positive experiences are the things that help new stepfamilies bond. So have some fun as a family and as a couple. Do something enjoyable with your daughter. Then take your stepson out just the two of you. Laughter has tremendous healing power.

Your Questions Answered: My Stepdaughter’s Wedding

4 11 2009

Hello –

I am at such a loss of what to do. I am a kind and caring person, when I remarried 6 years ago my world turned upside down. I am automatically the wicked witch of the west and nothing I do is right. I have never in my life been treated so poorly by other human beings AND they get away with it.

A little history, we have 9 kids between us. Husband has 5 and I have 4. He raised 3 of his kids, living with his parents. His ex-wife raised 2 kids, took them back to Iowa, remarried. End of that story. The two girls that lived with her basically hated it because they missed out on everything, plus they lived in an attic. The first year I married him we spent the whole year trying to get custody of the two girls, 24/7 that is all he was about.We did not get them, $10,000 later. I took my 3 kids out of their safe environment moved in with him and his two kids, what a nightmare. My kids and I were treated poorly by two spoiled brat girls.

Fast forward. Oldest daughter of my husband gets married, I am asked to handle EVERYTHING. From altering the wedding dress, making bridesmaid dresses, reception, food,etc. Had two months to plan it. Her mom pays $300 towards the wedding dress then writes a note to my husband that she cannot do any more than that.

Everything was planned around the mother, her comfort was the most important, the whole reception was moved to another town because she did not want it have it where the girls live, it made her feel awkward. So breaking my back I did everything I could in the time frame I had. Of course the mother comes and she is all that. I think my husband and I were in about 5 pictures, which we paid for and still to this day have not seen. Totally ignored by the daughters that day. My husband and I sit on the grooms side at the very end of the table because there is no room by the bride. My husband, my daughters and my husband were the only ones that stayed to help clean up.

Doing the wedding did not change anything about my relationship with his daughter, she still does not give me the time of day.I feel like any time doing anything for his children is a wasted effort and takes time away from my children. We just have my 13 year old at home now with us. Two of my children moved out months earlier than they should of because of poor treatment.

Fast forward again. Second oldest daughter is engaged a week ago. Wedding in two months. I am asked again by the daughter to do the wedding. Her mom calls the newly engaged daughter, I cannot do anything to help she tells her. Bypasses the dad because he called her and asked what could she do to help. But she will show up again and be all that.

So I am sitting here, how did I get to do this again? The grandmother mentions, why is her name even on the announcement, she never does anything. So I mention it to my husband, proper ettiquete is those who contribute, their names are on the announcement. The mothers name should not be on the announcement. So word gets to the daughter, I won’t do the wedding unless the mothers name is not on the announcement. Wow, I am the bad guy already and it hasn’t even started.

Important part of all this, my husband has been unemployed, just got a job a week ago, we have been on assistance from our church. We don’t even have enough money to pay our own bills. Christmas is coming…I am so overwhelmed at this time.

Another important point is that I have been in therapy for a few years off and on because of a lot of issues being remarried, being treated poorly and I have discussed the issue about the wedding and he says not to put myself in that position again. My husband says, it will make me look better than the mother. Who cares? I feel used and abused again, it is expected of me to do this and just let it be that. I can’t enjoy the holidays and just knowing that I have to be doing all this during the holidays makes me sick to my stomach. It doesn’t seem fair, and I do realize, being a stepmom, nothing is fair but knowing that I will do everything again and have the mom prance in like she did everything makes me very angry.

Help??? Any advice for a stubborn, abused stepmom?

Dear Stubborn, Abused Stepmom:

Before I write a word I want you to close the door to the room you’re in so you’re all alone. Once you’ve done that I want you to sit in a chair with your feet flat on the ground and your arms in a comfortable position. Close your eyes. Then take five deep breaths all the way down into your abdomen. Seriously. Do it right now. Here’s a message to all of us stepmoms: STRESS CAN KILL YOU. It is impossible to think clearly and creatively when your body is in a flight or fight response. So take a walk, calm your body, quiet your mind.

Now. Here are my thoughts.

1. Start with what’s working. You are still with your husband. Why? What are your family’s strengths? What really works well between you and your husband? I ask you this question first on purpose. Research by pioneers including John Gottman and Barbara Frederickson has shown that if you have more positive emotions in your life you are FAR more resilient, creative, and energized to get through tough times. So what is going right at this time? What are you grateful for even in the middle of this painful period of your life?

2. Connect with your husband. Do everything in your power to get some alone time with your spouse. Before you share your feelings about the wedding, talk about a memory you both have that was really fun for both of you and made you both feel loved by the other. Then share with him how hard this wedding is for you. Share your hurt feelings and anger with him. Tell him that you are struggling to let go of the anger you have at his children because your feelings are hurt. Use the all-important “I” language. Tell him what you told me, that you don’t know if you can go through this again. Ask him what the first wedding was like for him. Be curious and open to his experience and opinions. Brainstorm TOGETHER ways to handle this second wedding so that you turn toward each other instead of away. Be a team.

3. Stop the rumination. You were hurt at your first stepdaughter’s wedding by her and the rest of the family’s treatment of you. (Understandably.) But this one event has fueled your memories of pain from past events as well and they have built on each other. So, I want you to try to let go of rumination, which is when we think about a painful thing over and over again until it builds and builds until it sucks you down into a spiral of negativity that is very hard to recover from. Focus on the upcoming wedding. That is the issue at hand.

4. Set up boundaries. You were hurt before. You don’t want to be hurt again. This makes sense. Your human! And stepmothers have it especially hard at weddings. If you are too hurt and angry to participate, then explain to your stepdaughter that you want to help her but you also don’t want to be hurt again. Before you have this conversation make sure you know what you would feel good doing for her and what you will not do. It’s perfectly okay to protect yourself.

5. Look at it from her point of view. Weddings are tough on everyone. Stepkids are usually stuck in the middle of some really tough situations on a day that is supposed to be on of the most special in their lives. They’ve got to worry about Stepmom, Stepdad, Mom, Dad, siblings, half-siblings, the groom’s family, and the extended families too! It’s enough to make a girl want to elope. Cultivate your compassion for her, even though she’s hurt you in the past.

6. Forgive. The anger you are carrying around in your heart is real and understandable. But research shows that anger is a killer. It does terrible things to our bodies and our mental health. It is in your best interest to practice forgiveness. Every time an angry thought comes up say to yourself, “I forgive you.” If you believe in God or a higher power, then every time an angry thought comes up say, “I forgive you and I wish the best for you. May God be with you.” Do it over and over again and eventually by choosing to let go of the anger with intention, you will feel so much better.

7. Be kind to you. Don’t wait on other people to praise you or thank you for all your efforts. That’s victim thinking. Instead, give yourself the comforting and pats on the back you need! Find ways to expand your self-confidence and self-love by spending time doing things you enjoy.