Stepmoms Speak

23 12 2008

Ann Orchard, Psy.D., is a licensed psychologist who provides individual, couple, and group counseling through her private practice in Edina, Minn. Ann has also published research on stepmothers and has led stepfamily support groups. She is a stepmother of two.

 Time Heals 

By Ann Orchard 

Who would have imagined 20 years ago that Bob, my husband, and I would be celebrating my stepdaughter Elizabeth’s 30th birthday with Bob’s ex? And happily so! Twenty years ago we were enmeshed in an acrimonious custody battle. Bitter words were hurled at each side, resulting in lasting hurt and anger.

My relationship with Bob’s ex – I’ll call her KB for short – had started amicably enough. By the time I came on the scene, KB had already moved east to Boston, leaving Bob with their two kids, Elizabeth (age 7) and Ben (age 5). When Bob and I became engaged after a year of dating, KB was one of the first to congratulate me and wish me the best. However, soon after Bob and I were married, the relationship between KB and me soured. Bob had been trying to amend the original divorce decree to reflect the change from joint custody to his now having sole physical custody. There would then be a legal record of his entitlement to child support.

All hell broke loose. After one year of an intense and expensive custody battle, I found myself depressed and extremely angry. The part I resented the most was her intrusion on my marriage and her contribution to making my first year of marriage the absolute worst year of my life. No honeymoon period for me. On our first anniversary, I even said to Bob, “We’ve been married for a year now- just you, me, Elizabeth, Ben, and KB.”

The custody issues were finally resolved, yet the bitterness remained while the kids progressed through middle school, then high school. The two sides were civil to each other (with some blowouts along the way), but no love was lost.

The “big thaw” started with high school graduations. Enough time had passed, and I felt it was just time to let go of my anger. I believe we each have a choice how we’re going to live our lives, and that anger is toxic. By the time we hit graduate degrees for each child, we all were having a good time at our joint celebration dinners. The dinners included the two kids, KB, KB’s second husband, Bob, me and other family members. Of utmost importance was the inclusion of KB’s mom and my mom – the “neutral parties.” A little bit of wine also helped.

Once we were done with graduate degrees (and no weddings in sight), I realized I genuinely missed our joint celebrations. So when Elizabeth turned 30 last fall, I was thrilled to receive KB’s invitation to travel east to help mark Elizabeth’s milestone birthday. It was truly an act of graciousness. Bob and I went and had a wonderful time at the celebratory dinner. No, I doubt KB and I will ever be best of friends, but I feel good about how our relationship has grown. As I said, who would have imagined?

The Doctor Is In: Joshua Coleman

27 10 2008

Guest columnist Dr. Joshua Coleman practices in San Francisco and Oakland, California. His new book, When Parents Hurt: Compassionate Strategies When You And Your Grown Child Don’t Get Along (HarperCollins) came out last year.

Dr. Coleman is an internationally known expert in parenting, couples, families and relationships. Sign up for his FREE monthly e-zine at

Stepmothering: What You Need To Know

Being a stepmother is hard and sometimes thankless work. While some are able to establish close and comfortable relationships, many struggle with the role. In addition, children are typically more tolerant and accepting of stepfathers than of stepmothers. Here are some important reasons:

1) Loyalty Factor
Children often have intense feelings of loyalty to their mothers after divorce. Professor Linda Nielsen, author of an excellent book titled “Embracing Your Father: How to Build the Relationship with Your Dad that You Always Wanted” conducted a 15-year study of daughters in college. She found that most college-educated daughters discriminate against Dad when it comes to giving him the same chance they give their moms to get to know one another, to talk about personal matters, to have meaningful conversations or to allow him to express sadness or grief. Dad is still more likely than Mom to be treated as a critical judge and a banking machine. These feelings of loyalty to Mom can directly interfere with a stepchild’s desire or ability to bond with the stepmother.

2) High Expectations of Self
For better or worse, women come into marriage with the expectation that they should be loving, nurturing, and supportive. A stepmother who tries to be close to a stepchild who is uninterested or unwilling may walk away feeling resentful and rejected. One of the largest, best-controlled studies of divorce (Hetherington, 2002) found that one fourth of grown stepdaughters carried intense feelings of negativity about their stepmothers and only one-fourth described their relationship as close as adults. 

3) High Expectations from Husband
Men are likely to hold their wives to the same standard that women hold themselves to. That is, they often believe that their new wives or girlfriends should be able and eager to step into the mothering role. This is both unrealistic and unreasonable. 

4) What to do?
Be a friend, not a mom, to your stepkids unless it’s completely clear that mothering is what they really want from you.  

Let your husband do the disciplining, not you.

Be assertive when you need to be. Your stepchildren may test your limits. While you can’t assume that they’re going to want to be close to you, you can hold them to the same standard of respect that you’d expect from anyone else. Therefore, they can’t call you names, they can’t take your stuff without asking and they can’t boss you around.

Take the long-term perspective. Your partner chose you, his children didn’t, so it may take them quite a while to adjust to the divorce and accept that dad’s primary love interest is no longer their mother. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a good (or tolerable) relationship with stepchildren. Typically, it takes years, so try not to get too discouraged by the inevitable ups and downs.

Your Questions Answered

26 10 2008

What’s a good activity for that first meeting with the kids? 

The first time you meet the kids who may become your stepchildren in the future is to plan something fun. The less pressure, the better. Ask Dad what his kids like to do. When I met my stepkids, we went to the park across the street and played. You could also have dinner and play cards or go for a bike ride. Watch out for activities that take up too much time. For instance, an all-day trip to an amusement park is probably a bit too intense for a first meeting.

What’s the best way to help discipline your stepchildren in a way that establishes you as an authority in the house but doesn’t step on the biological mother’s toes? 

Dad is your best resource. He needs to make it clear to his children that you are another adult in the house and that he expects them to be respectful of you. Then you and Dad set up the house rules together, away from the kids. The list should include mostly rules the kids are used to living by and some new ones that make you feel at home. Then Dad presents the list to the kids so you aren’t the bad guy. Because they are house rules, when you enforce them, kids are more likely to respond. If possible, the kids’ biological parents should be talking to each other so the rules in both houses are fairly similar. If you are conscious of Mom’s feelings and respectful of the way she has chosen to raise her children, hopefully conflict will be minimal.

Can you recommend ways to meet other women in similar situations so I can find people to share stories and advice with? 

There are several stepmom websites where women go to look for advice and discuss issues on the forums there; just beware the negativity you’ll find in some of them. You can also check out the stepfamily therapists and counselors in your area. For instance, in Minneapolis, Dr. Ann Orchard runs stepmom education classes. Many of the women who meet in her classes continue meeting for support and camaraderie afterward. Check here for a list of resources.