Children of Divorce and Stepmom Resources

3 06 2010

Two things caught my eye today: The June issue of Stepmom Magazine is out. A big thank you to Brenda Ockun, the one-woman show who puts together such a great collection of writing from stepmom experts, stepmothers, and counselors from around the globe.

AND this video is only the beginning part of the film but it still made me cry. Joyce Borenstein of Illumination Animation has made an animated documentary film in which thirteen children from the ages of 8 to 18 describe their experience with divorce. Check it out:

I See You

18 03 2010

My daughter is learning to talk and one of her favorite things to say is “I see you!” She says it to her stuffed bunny, her dolly, her cow figurine, and me. Every time she says it to me and looks me in the eyes, my heart fills up and I want to laugh and hug her tight.

Being seen is a basic need for many of us. And as stepmothers that need is challenged on a daily basis. One stepmother wrote me that she could stand in the middle of her living room and scream and no one in her family would notice. Another wrote to tell me she feels like a ghost every time she walks through the door of her home.

With children who look past us to find their biological parents or only speak directly to us if we’re the only ones home it can feel like we’re earthbound spirits tortured by those who have access to the life we want.

I have to admit that when my daughter says, “I see you!” it is a balm on a part of my soul that is bruised.

Today I want to say this to you, dear Stepmom: I SEE YOU.

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.

How does divorce impact a child’s health care?

14 04 2009

Fellow stepmom Theola Labbé-DeBose is a reporter at the Washington Post. Check out the article she wrote in today’s edition: Split Decisions: Vitamins? Flu shots? The smallest health questions get complicated when parents divorce.

The article showcases a subject that is not often brought up. How does divorce impact a child’s health care when a child is switching between houses and parents who might not co-parent well together?

Theola will be co-hosting an online discussion today at noon EST with marriage and family therapist expert Elayne Savage. Click here to send in your questions and to join the discussion.

One item that struck me was the child who only has one inhaler and has to carry it back and forth between houses. Two of my stepchildren had braces a few years ago and had to wear retainers. They were only given one and if they forgot it at our house or their moms, they had to go without it until they were next at the other parent’s home. It caused a great deal of stress for the kids and put the pressure on them to remember. I worked to get in the habit of asking them before they left if they had their retainers with them, but if I was out when they packed up for the week at their mom’s house, then they usually left them on the counter in their bathroom.

Has this kind of thing happened in your homes? Have you had to fight over medical issues? And if you’ve resolved them, how did you do it?

The Doctor Is In: Yvonne Kelly

29 01 2009

yvonneGuest blogger Yvonne Kelly, MSW, RSW, founded The Step and Blended Family Institutein Tottenham, Ontario in Canada with her husband Rick. She is a certified Stepfamily coach and counselor. Her latest project is on Step Dating, which I’ll feature more of in later posts. A teleseminar and educational materials  on the topic will be available on her website soon. Yvonne acquired two stepdaughters when she married her husband Rick, and they later had three more children.

Beyond the Holidays

by Yvonne Kelly

Welcome to the New Year – 2009. For many of you I’m certain you found the holidays to be a time of stress (quite normal in stepfamilies I might add) and for others it was a time of rest and recuperation. I’m certain for some, you are still wondering “where is the R and R, after the holidays?” Regardless of what camp you find yourself in, it is time to pick up and move on into this NEW YEAR ahead of us. At The Step and Blended Family Institute, we want for all of you to experience this next 12 months ahead as a year of renewal and change. This doesn’t mean making 12 New Year’s Resolutions, one of which you might actually keep. It’s about deciding that if there is anything you want to learn more about, anything you need support around, or anything you can do to change things for the better, you take the steps to do it. And I will actively applaud you when you take the first step towards doing so. Small changes, efforts and taking initiative are the first steps to improving one’s own life and the world around us. Even when the circumstances around us seem less than adequate, or maybe even downright offensive, there is always at least one thing we have in our power to do, to make it better. Sometimes, that one thing might be simply accepting what it is that we’re facing instead of fighting against it, resisting what is really happening, and thereby increasing our frustration and immobilizing us from taking any action to improve things.

I would challenge each and every one of you to stop, think about just one thing that you could do, or one thing you could say to another person, that might actually bring some relief or resolution or peace to whatever situation you are currently experiencing. I know that for the majority of you visiting this site, you are doing so because you are trying to find the balance in what can be a very complex life as a stepfamily or blended family. I also know first-hand what many of you are experiencing as I am entering my own 15th year in our blended family. So when I say, stop, breathe and decide on even just one thing YOU can do to make a positive change in whatever situation you are dealing with right now, I can say that because I know it works and because it’s what I aim to expect of myself on a daily basis. The other reason that this is the most effective way of helping yourself in any situation, is because each one of us can choose to make changes for ourselves – we have that power; we don’t have that power over anyone else. However, when we do our part, take that first step, utter that first word or make that first gesture, so often we find that our very actions and gestures, positively influence the very individuals we had been hoping would change all along.

The families we live in are complex and constantly changing – there is just no arguing that fact. Most of us at some point, find ourselves facing challenges we had never expected in our lives with very little experience or the answers we feel we need to deal with these situations. But there are answers, there is support and there is a tremendous amount each of us has to offer when we adjust our mindset and start to look at what we can do (instead of what we can’t do) to make our relationships and situations better. That’s where it begins and when we can do that, it will be much easier to invite and engage with other people in improving any situation. So I invite each and every one of you reading this to: decide the things that are not to your liking, can improve. Decide there is a role you can play, and be the one to make the first offer or the first step. And believe that even the smallest forward movement is significant and will lend itself to the next positive movement and before you know it there will be momentum for important and lasting change.

So without having to make too many resolutions to yourself, make one decision – that this will be a better year than the previous one because you have the ability to make choices and to find things that can make it better, even one small step at a time. And if support is necessary for you in a given situation, ask for it, and if there are things you need to learn, then seek out that information.

 Do whatever it takes to move things forward and create the life you want because it certainly isn’t going to happen to any of us otherwise.

Stepfamily Letter Project

13 01 2009

Ladies: I’ve teamed up with Erin on a fun website called the Stepfamily Letter Project and we need your input! Here’s a description from the site:

In the Fall of 2008, Erin  wrote an open-ended letter to her stepdaughter on her blog. The letter was filled with things Erin wished she could say to her 12-year-old stepdaughter but didn’t. From future hopes and dreams to the intricacies of teenage angst, the letter was one stepmom’s heartfelt approach to communicate with her stepdaughter without actually “communicating.”  The letter went on to capture the attention of other stepmoms across the Internet. 

One of those stepmoms, Jacque, had heard of The Mother Letter Project, a compilation of letters that a husband has been collecting his for wife as a Christmas present. 

The letters, written for mothers, could be about anything so long as it was addressed to a mom. At the same time, Jacque popped open her computer to begin her annual holiday letter to her family. Each year Jacque, her husband, and her three stepkids write a letter to each other that describes the previous year’s ups and downs and hopes for the upcoming year. Then they read them out loud to each other. It’s a tradition that Jacque’s dad and stepmom started when Jacque was a teenage stepkid.

And so an idea was born. Why not create a site where blended families could write anonymous letters to a member of their family. Stepmoms, stepdads, stepkids, husbands, bio-moms, half-siblings — we wanted to create a place where blended families could write letters to the people in their families  — be it heartful and  joyful to angry or sad.

If you would like to add a letter to the Stepfamily Letter Project, there are a few steps to follow:

  1. Compose your letter. We’re taking all kinds of letters: Happy, sad, angry, sweet — it doesn’t matter. We only ask you don’t threaten any harm in your letter. We won’t publish those. 
  2. Send your letter. You can send your letter within the body of an e-mail, in a Word document, a text document or Google Doc.  All we ask is that you send it to We’ll try to publish the letters within 48 hours of receipt. 
  3. Include your name and e-mail. Obviously, because you’re e-mailing your letter, we’ll have your e-mail address. Please also include your first and last name somewhere in the email . We will not publish your name or e-mail address on the website; however, should we need to contact you for any reason, we’d rather not have to start out with “Hey you with the letter.” 
  4. Spread the word. If you know someone in a blended family who you think would want to participate, let them know about the site. We’re happy to answer any questions about the project. We’ve event created this fabulous button (175 pixels x 175 pixels for your web-savvy folks out there) that you can post on your own blog or website.


    5. Check back or subscribe. If you have an RSS feed reader or aggregator, sign up for an RSS feed for the site. This way, you’ll be alerted when we post a new letter. 

Stepmoms Speak

12 11 2008

Christina Hines is the author of Navigational Skills for Stepfamilies. The following is an excerpt from her book. Used with permission.

Lack of Awareness

When we navigate without awareness, we still remember the “Wicked” Stepmother in our Cinderella stories. We live inside the lingo, the language of “Broken Homes” and “Step” and everyone suffers on all levels. “Broken” takes on a tone as If there is something fundamentally wrong that will always be fundamentally wrong. Step has a tone as if someone is stepping on someone else’s toes or property, as if by stepping “in and on” you are doing something morally illegal.

Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…. 

We teach our children that love has conditions. “You are free to love everyone! Except the woman who now lives with your father.”

We provide our children with “Disney Land” weekends to ease the guilt we feel inside of us for not being there in the day-to-day.

We get divorced and cling fiercely to making sure our children experience “family traditions” only we don’t stop to understand what we are really doing to them.

Let’s see how this works. We tell our children “Get dressed, brush your teeth, eat breakfast, put your jacket on – you are going to Dad’s for three hours to have his tradition. Next, while you are in mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on, come back home, we’ll drive to grandma’s and have our tradition (notice, at Dad’s you had HIS tradition but when you are with me, you are having “Our” tradition.) Take your jacket off and then mid-play, you will need to put your jacket back on. Next; we will get back in the car, drive to our house. Take off your jacket it’s time for bed! Now wasn’t that fun?

Children literally spend half of the day in the car. A quarter of the day taking their jackets off and putting their jackets back on.  A quarter of the day just digging into a wonderful play experience only to have it cut short once again.

Family traditions start to take on a tone of hurry up, let’s go, wasn’t that fun and we do this for your sake. Children’s little heads spin. They can’t remember whom they are playing with and everything feels to the child like there isn’t enough time. We literally teach our children how to not focus fully. We teach our children how not to experience something fully and then we label and medicate them when they can’t seem to focus.

More of what’s Inside of this broken stepping on toes limited thinking…

We send them over to the other parent’s house exclaiming “Oh I will miss you so much while you are gone,” and then the child spends half the time at the other parent’s house worrying about how lonely and upset the other parent is with visions of the “missing” parent crying missing them so much and unable to enjoy their time fully because they are too busy worrying about the other parent’s experience. We teach our children to always feel like something is missing.

We get out of one relationship to get right back into the “same” relationship with someone else or we go for someone completely different and spend all our time comparing, complaining and “pining” for what we no longer have when we didn’t enjoy what we had when we had it. Never fully enjoying our present moments.

We watch a child grow and develop and we have reverence for the process yet we have no tolerance and lack reverence, time or patience for the emotional evolutionary process of growth and development that needs to happen inside of marriages or inside of divorces or our remarriages.

We treat our children like partners and our partners like children.

We ignore our pain, bury it, pretend it doesn’t exist and we hide behind children using them as an excuse on why we can’t move on or worse, we use them like bait on a fishing rod to attract a potential parent for them verses trying to attract a partner for us who will eventually be a good stepparent.

We set our new relationships up to be stressful and chaotic because we didn’t take the time to process our emotions and then we get mad at our new partner for expecting us to be fully present to them.

We expect our new partners to love and accept our children and us unconditionally while we don’t accept and love them unconditionally.

We set the stepparent up by sabotaging their relationship with our children by bending the rules when the stepparent isn’t home or by blatantly coming out and saying, “I don’t mind but your stepmother is on my back.”

We set our children up to feel abandoned and to resent the person who does what we do for our children – by allowing our children to sleep in bed with us at night and then “kicking” them out when an adult comes into the picture.

We blame the “other” parent when our children lie, manipulate or act out on our time with the children. We say the children are doing that because of who the other parent is and oh what a great parent we are.

 We blame the stepparent for pointing out our children’s behaviors and focus on the stepparent instead of focusing on parenting our children 

Women walk around comparing themselves to each other while competing for who’s better, prettier, has a better body, looks younger, makes more money, has a better house. As if a child cares about any of those things. (Who is that really about?)

Men are so confused, not knowing who to listen to, the biological mother or the stepmother. Knowing perfectly well that he’s completely screwed either way, lying to each woman causing more problems for themselves crying, “Women are crazy people!”

We haven’t learned to “play nice” inside of our adult relationships while we tell our children to “play nice” with others. Or, we no longer care about teaching our children how to play nice, we would rather they think of only themselves. We haven’t learned to share the joys of child rearing while we tell our child to share or, we tell our children that they don’t have to share. We haven’t learned to respect each other while we tell children to respect others or, we don’t care if our children respect others and enjoy our children’s ability to be fully self expressed to the point of pure rudeness. We play a lot of ego oriented superficial games and waste our time and life energy on things that do not matter and have absolutely nothing to do with our children.

With all or half of this going on inside of the lives of stepfamilies, it’s easy to see why there is so much stress involved. Most of it has nothing to do with being a parent or having a child. Children are not the problem at all. Most of it has to do with our inability to navigate the issues that belong to us.

Stepmoms Speak

28 10 2008

Dads Are People Too
By Gina Shuster

Gina and her husband married in September 2000. Together they have two sons, 6 and 3. Gina works from her home in New Jersey. Gina’s husband has joint custody of his 12-year-old daughter. The schedule itself can be challenging, but otherwise, Gina gets along well with her stepdaughter’s mom, which means she has less conflict in her life than many stepmoms have. Although Gina has a relatively good situation, she has still found that life in a blended family definitely has challenges: her sons not getting to see their sister every day, nor she them; dealing with planning; adjustments to different parenting styles in each home, to name a few. She is the founder of an online forum for stepmoms:

Historically, mothers are viewed as the nurturers and fathers are viewed as the breadwinners. When couples with children divorce, there are many assumptions:

– He left his wife, presumably for a “younger model”
– He doesn’t want to be a full-time father
– She is now left alone, saddened and penniless

…as well as many other stereotypical assumptions.

While this may certainly be the case in some situations, it’s most definitely not in all, and in fact, is true in the minority rather than the majority of families.

Time was when even the court system saw fit to provide custody of the children to the mother, with the father allowed every other weekend visitation and told to pay child support. It wasn’t the norm for children to live with their father, and joint custody was something most of us hadn’t heard of until recent years.

Welcome to the 21st century!

News flash: Fathers want to be parents, and in fact, are parents. Many people forget that in a divorce situation. Many look to the mother to make decisions, even simple ones such as getting a child’s haircut or what clothes the child should wear.

As the owner and an active member of Stepmom Station, I’ve seen many situations, running the gamut of custodial schedules and support orders. More often than not, I’ve seen fathers who want to be involved, who want to love their children, who want input, but are often met with resistance from the ex-wife and even from family members and outsiders.

When parents divorce, they divorce their partner; they do not divorce their children! No one knows the full extent of any situation except for the two parties involved, so the automatic assumption that it was his idea to divorce or that he cheated is unfair. In fact, in my own blended family situation, it was my husband’s ex-wife who wanted the divorce. (And no, she wasn’t cheating.) It’s also completely irrelevant to his parental status.

Fathers aren’t bad guys. Maybe some weren’t the best partner, but that can be said for some ex-wives as well. I see too many fathers kowtowing to their ex and her whims for fear of losing their children. Why? The children are his too. She doesn’t get to decide if he can be their father. He is their father. One does not lose their parental title by virtue of divorce. A dad should still be there to provide love, discipline, financial and emotional support and everything else that he was providing up to that point.

It’s high time that society recognizes the equality of fathers as parents in more areas than just the wallet. That would be best started by these fathers recognizing as much. Hey guys, you may not be Mommy, but no one else is Daddy.

Have advice to share? Email Jacque.

Children of Divorce: Understanding your stepkids can make stepmotherhood easier.

27 10 2008

I am a child of divorce. That means I come at being a stepmom from the angle of someone who has lived with her own parents, siblings, stepmother, stepsiblings, half-sister, and stepdad. That’s part of the reason why I tell stepmoms that it’s critical to try to see the kids’ point of view, no matter how horrible and snotty the children are.

Over the years I’ve spoken with and received many letters from stepmoms who hate their stepkids. And I mean hate. Some won’t allow the kids to come to their house (read: their dad’s house). Some don’t want their own biological children to associate with their stepchildren. And typically there is a heart-wrenching reason for this exclusion.

Now, I am the first one to say that stepkids can be absolute jerks. We can be so awful that all you can do is think about how long it’s going to be before we move out. But there is usually a reason for the behavior. For the acting out. For the screaming, swearing, lying, stealing, alcohol-drinking, drug-taking, sex-having, law-breaking. For children of divorce, it basically comes down to what happened to us as kids. We were split in two. We were forced to become more mature, more responsible for ourselves, our siblings and sometimes our parents. Everyday activities became identity crises.

Here is a passage from a book I hope finds its way into all of your hands: Between Two Worlds: The Inner Lives of Children of Divorce by Elizabeth Marquardt. The book is a result of a study conducted by Marquardt and a colleague that included 1,500 young adults from divorced and intact families.

“Katy spent most of the year living with her mother, stepfather, and grandparents. During the summers and school holidays she lived with her father, who remarried twice after her parents’ divorce. Katy’s parents had many differences. Her mother was religious and her father was not. Katy was the center of attention at her mother’s house but felt more peripheral at her father’s house, though she knew her father loved her. But some of the most confusing situations for Katy occurred when she confronted her parents’ competing values in everyday situations.

“Katy’s mother was a penny-pincher and at her home, Katy remembered, they would ‘conserve every little scrap of paper.’ At her father’s house money flowed more freely. ‘That was a little hard for me,’ Katy said, ‘because the leftovers on the table would get thrown out at my father’s house. And I was very used to the way my mother did things.’ She remembered, ‘One time at my father’s house I ate everything on my plate and then ate more so that it wouldn’t get thrown out.’ In fact, Katy ate so much that night that she ended up with a bad stomachache. She did not say anything about her father and stepmother’s practice of throwing out leftovers because it ‘would be rude.’ But she also had difficulty tolerating it. Her mother valued thrift and her father valued abundance. Katy was caught silently in the middle, stuffed and uncomfortable.

“Everyone has ended up at times in uncomfortable social situations, not wanting to offend someone. But for children of divorce the differences between our two homes were between not just any two people but our parents, the earliest and most important role models we had. These crossed signals about right and wrong went to the heart of our identities. Katy’s confrontation with the leftovers was only one of the many times she felt caught between two competing value systems in a way that was largely invisible to her parents. After their divorce, her parents no longer had to decide together what to do with the leftovers, nor did they have to discuss or argue about the deeper values their decision might reflect. Yet the need to sort out their different values did not disappear. Instead it fell to Katy. …

“…In that one place in the world in which any of us should be able to let our guard down – our home – children of divorce have to keep their magnifying glasses up and their thinking caps on. For children of divorce, even benign, everyday decisions – ‘Should I answer the phone? What should I do with the leftovers?’ – become fraught with tension and moral drama.” 

I know exactly how Katy feels. I have often called myself a fractured person because I can fit in to my mother’s world and my father’s world but feel at home in neither. We children of divorce are chameleons. We learn how to grow up fast. We wrestle with big moral questions early in our lives. We keep secrets to protect our parents from each other.

For a long time I kept quiet. But when the anger and hurt erupted in me, I became one of those hateful stepchildren that I get letters about. I know it’s hard to have an angry, sullen, spiteful, manipulative child in your home. But please, no matter how awful it gets, remember that kid is going through something in his formative years that will stay with him the rest of his life. Please dig deep for your compassion. Even if your stepchild is not exhibiting negative behaviors, she’s still caught in the middle. But you have the power to change a kids’ life. You have the power to help her build her self-esteem and express her feelings.

The fact that I am a child of divorce continues to inform the person I am. Still a chameleon. Still keeping secrets for my parents so their feelings don’t get hurt. Still an outsider.

So what can you do to try to see the world from your stepchildren’s point of view? What support do you need in your life so you have the strength to be a stepmother?