A Holiday Message From Jacquelyn Fletcher

23 12 2009

In the 1980s, Patricia Papernow, Ph.D., a psychologist, stepmother, and author of the award-winning book for therapists, Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families, identified seven cycles stepfamilies pass through as they build a life together. Starting with a fantasy and illusion period, they run through immersion, awareness, mobilization, and action as everyone tries to find their place in this new entity, and finally, in some cases after 12 years or more, end at resolution — otherwise known as stability and commitment. According to Papernow, the rare families who go through the stepfamily cycles quickest can successfully establish their new household within four years — but a majority of stepfamilies don’t even make it to the fourth year. And of those stepmothers who slog through years of hard work, many of them still hold deep resentment in their hearts. Is that really a successful stepfamily?

Something is not working. The current strategies and workbooks, the therapy and support groups are not working because most families don’t even know these resources exist. And to make matters worse, according to Margorie Engel, Ph.D., retired former president of the Stepfamily Association of America, stepfamilies don’t consider themselves a stepfamily until there’s a problem. Up to that point, they define themselves as simply a nuclear family. But overlooking the ways in which stepfamilies are different often leads to disaster and heartbreak.

The shiny happy family we’re all supposed to emulate is a complete fabrication. The instant love and feelings of connectedness and home are not automatic in a stepfamily, so we feel like failures. And yet, we stepmoms often are not willing to do the work it takes to succeed in building a strong stepfamily. We often are unwilling to feel uncomfortable in the moment as we work for long-term success. We sometimes act like victims and don’t take responsibility for our part in creating conflict in the early stages of stepfamily development. And in the chaos of the first years, it can be hard to put yourself in your stepkids’ or husband’s shoes.

Stepfamilies are here to stay, and it is crucial that stepmoms learn how to address their challenges in a way that promotes positive growth for everyone involved. In order for stepfamilies to thrive, it is imperative that stepmothers do not feel like strangers or prisoners or outsiders in their own homes. Women must feel like they have a say. However, that doesn’t mean steamrolling the stepfamily into doing only what the stepmom thinks is appropriate. It’s a balancing act — one that takes a great deal of maturity.

There is an upside. Stepfamily life can be a rip-roaring good time. Since none of the former models of family life are working, we get to create a new kind of dynamic in our homes — one that fits us and sustains us. Think of the power! All it takes is creativity, education, the willingness to look at the big picture and ride out the tough times, and the commitment to be present in each moment and each new experience. Easy, right?

Joining a stepfamily can be incredibly scary. The learning curve is so steep it can bury a woman. Consider this. In the first year of marriage, a stepmother feels she must learn how to live with another human being (or several), learn how to be married, learn how to be a stepmother, with all its thorny issues, find her place within a family that has already been together for years, figure out how to assert herself, learn how to support and communicate with people who are wounded, and learn to deal with the ex. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So what’s the big payoff? Why do it? Why are there 15 million stepmothers in America and 1,300 new stepfamilies forming every single day? Why are we marrying these men with their broods and their ex-wives?

 Simple. Love and hope.

This holiday season I wish you and your family LOTS of love and hope. Blessings to you brave women.





4 responses

23 12 2009
Eyes Wide Open

This certainly brought a smile to my face! I love the way you ended the post. Hope really is what keeps us going.
Happy holidays!

24 12 2009

Thanks, Jacquelyn, for always having the right thing to say at the right time! This time of year we especially think of peace and hope and you delivered that message beautifully! Many wishes for a happy, healthy, peaceful, hopeful year for all the stepfamilies out there.

Happy Holidays!

28 12 2009
Peggy Nolan

Hi Jacque,

I loved this post. How daunting becoming a stepmom really is. No matter how well we think we are prepared!

I hope you had a lovely Christmas with your family! I can’t wait to talk to you later this week and have you on my radio show!


6 01 2010

In my view, we always have to end with hope! Even with all the challenges and realities, hope can be the candle that lights our way.

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