Stepmom Book Club

18 02 2009

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Power of Guilt

15 12 2008

journaldmIn blended families, there are few things more powerful than guilt. It is the emotion that fuels many of the negative things that happen in stepfamilies. It is the reason that Dads become permissive parents and allow their children to run wild. It  is often one of the reasons Moms are combative and challenging to co-parent with. In 2003, the Journal of Divorce and Remarriage published a study called Divorced Mothers’ Guilt. The study found that the guilt they felt for putting their children through divorce often kept them stuck in one emotional place and unable to move on with their lives.

Anecdotally, I can attest to this just from listening to moms during interviews. I have always been curious about the moms who originally ask for the divorce and then act as though they are the victims or become vindictive or angry later when they weren’t at the time of the divorce. It could be the guilt talking.

And so for all of us, how do recover from guilt? How do biological and stepparents move on from feeling guilty about an affair, or a divorce or a remarriage? If anyone has some good ideas, please feel free to comment. In the meantime, here are some of my thoughts:

Say your sorry. Take the children out for one-on-one time and apologize. Call or e-mail your former spouse and tell them you are sorry for everything that happened. Marriage researcher John Gottman describes in his books how repair attempts can reduce conflict in relationships. If the breakup of the marriage happened because of an affair, leave defensiveness behind, own up to your responsibility and say your sorry.

Look to the future. Instead of remaining stuck in anger and guilt about what happened in the past, focus on your hopes for the future.

Remember we’re alone. Each of us has our own particular path to walk in this life. A divorce and remarriage will affect children for their rest of their lives, but at the end of the day they will have to deal with it on their own. Give them the tools they need to move through their emotions in a healthy way instead of letting them manipulate you with your guilt.

Let go of what doesn’t serve you. Guilt is really a useless feeling. It doesn’t move you anywhere, just keeps you stuck in the past. Wouldn’t you rather choose to let go of the guilt? Challenging things happen to children. How they respond to it can build their character and yours if you allow everyone to move on emotionally.

Be true to your inner truths. Guilt can strip biological parents of their core values. For instance, if a parent would typically believe that boundaries are good for kids but lets them all go because he feels guilty, he is not only depriving his children of the parenting they need, he is abandoning his own belief system. Seriously, guilt is that powerful.

So what do you feel guilty about? How does the guilt of your partner or the ex affect the dynamics between all the members of your blended family?

The Wicked Stepmother: When Disney gives us our best-known script, it’s a miracle we make it at all.

27 10 2008

Friday, August 31, 2007 marked the 10th anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, and the world watched royal stepfamily dynamics play out in the international press. According to Reuters UK, Charles’s former mistress, Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall, was invited to Diana’s memorial service by her husband and her two stepsons, William and Harry. However, she decided not to attend after receiving a ton of flak in the press.  

Diana blamed Camilla for breaking up her marriage to Charles; in a 1995 TV interview, Diana said, “There were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” In the years following that comment, Camilla was made out to be an evil witch who broke up the family. Of course, this scenario meant Charles was innocent, and so was Diana.

Who knows what really goes on behind locked doors? It doesn’t really matter to outsiders. Stepmothers are blamed by the kids or the community for breakups or for parents not getting back together, even if the stepmom didn’t meet her husband until years after the first divorce was final. Fair? Absolutely not!

But a child simply cannot blame Dad or Mom because that’s far too painful. Kids already feel like they’ve lost their parent in the divorce; and to blame the parent would make it feel like a double loss. So stepmom becomes the wicked, evil target of all the anger the children feel about the fact that the divorce happened at all. 

Sure, there are women who have a hand in breaking up marriages. Yes, there are women who will do anything they can to get a man. Camilla was having an affair with Charles. I do not advocate affairs at all. The harm they do to children and biological moms (or dads) can last a lifetime.    

But most of the women I have interviewed across the country are real people, doing the best they can. They’re just like you. They’re just like me. They make mistakes. They do stupid things. But they’re not evil. And they do not deserve to be punished for the rest of their lives.  

This quote ran in an interview in the BBC News: “Prince Harry said the Duchess of Cornwall was a ‘wonderful woman and she’s made our father very, very happy, which is the most important thing. William and I love her to bits. To be honest with you, she’s always been very close to me and William…but no, she’s not the wicked stepmother. I’ll say that right now.'”  

At the end of the day, it’s those people living it who have to decide if they will listen to societal scripts or not. Even women who enter into a stepfamily after an affair can still find their place in the family. It’s certainly more challenging, but perhaps Camilla has proven her loyalty and dedication to her stepsons over time. Maybe they have forgiven her for her role in the end of their parents’ marriage. Having an affair is an awful thing to put kids through. But if it’s happened, then what? Where do you go from there? The people involved in situations like this have to move on – have to grow or remain stuck forever as the victims.  

Whether you had an affair or met your husband years after his divorce was finalized, you too, will have the whiff of scandal attached to you anytime you reveal that you’re a stepmother. People assume we’re guilty.  

No, in case you were wondering, I did not have an affair with my husband. I met him after his divorce. But people ask me, “So did you meet him while he was still married?” When they should be saying, “My gosh, you are one of the most generous people I’ve ever met to take on three kids who are not your own! I don’t know how you do it. You must be a saint.”  

Now that’s more like it.  

Perhaps it’s time for Disney to create a positive new role model of a stepmother: A woman who we can all aspire to emulate.