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.

Guest Post: Carolyn Grona of The Grown Up Child

21 10 2009

Wondering what your stepchildren are going through? I am not only a stepmom–today I have my ADOC hat on. (That’s adult child of divorce for you ladies from intact families of origin.) and I came across this post that Carolyn Grona wrote on her blog The Grown Up Child. She nailed it. I invited Carolyn to talk with me for my Stepmom Circles podcast, too. She talks about what her experience was like as a rebellious teenage stepdaughter. So make sure to check it out for another perspective that can help you understand your stepkids.

Feeling Wanted

by Carolyn Grona

As a child of divorce I’ve lived my life with one enormous fear. The fear of not being wanted. It still haunts me. I’ve seen it haunt others. Like a monkey on our backs that lays dormant for a while but wakes up at the slightest hint of confirmation. I wish it wasn’t so. I wish I could shake it. I’ve even thought I had from time to time until something has triggered my fear and the monkey has raised it’s head from my shoulder. Whispering in my ear, “See? You were right. You weren’t wanted after all.”

I’ve always tended to be logical; a linear thinker. It always made me pretty good in math and not so good in the creative arts. And as a young kid, my logic went like this: If my parents no longer love each other and don’t want the life they created together, how could they possibly want me? Wasn’t I basically the sole representation of the life they had created and now wanted away from? If it’s children that turn couples into families and my family was broken, didn’t that mean I was too? And who wants a broken kid to lug around? I wouldn’t.

Of course my logic was never supported. My parents would tell me outright how much they loved me. How wanted I was. But that damn monkey wouldn’t go away. And a toxic script would run through my head at the slightest trigger. A missed phone call. A raised voice. A scowl. An off hand remark.

My internal dialogue would sound like this: They loved each other and created me. I am half of each of them. But now they don’t love each other, so how can they possibly love me? Maybe half of me. That I could understand; but never all of me. Not the parts that come from the other. But I can’t be split in two, I can only be one whole person. And if they can’t stand half of me, it’s not possible for them to love all of me. Maybe I can hide. But I can’t help being the constant reminder of the marriage they didn’t want. I can’t help always requiring an explanation. Wouldn’t their lives be easier if I just didn’t exist?

And the monkey would agree wholeheartedly.

It’s a scary thing. Worrying that the only two people in the world that are required by nature to love you, might not. Because if your own parents can’t love you, than who can? These are questions no child really wants the answers to but also wants answered most of all. And so the dance begins. Pushing and pulling. Testing and trusting. Seeing if they will hit their breaking point and admit what you’ve been so afraid of hearing and then feeling the flood of love and admiration when they don’t. This is what kids who are unsure of their relationships do.

But as I got older I did something else. And I’ve watched a lot of my ACOD friends do it too. I pulled back as most teenagers do. But I never really came back. A defensive action. My internal dialogue changing. It became: One day they might realize I was a mistake and get tired of being reminded of the union they severed. Tired of seeing their ex partner in me. And when that happens I’ll be ready. I won’t want them as much as they won’t want me. I can’t let them hurt me like that.

I’ve seen this so often and I did it too. Trivializing my parental relationships. Forming insignificant attachments with my most significant others. I had to be strong enough; indifferent enough. Because if it all came crashing down, that’s what would make it survivable. I thought of it as a preparedness measure. No different from stocking up on water and canned goods in case of emergency.

And the monkey would agree wholeheartedly.

It’s incredible how comforting the feeling of being wanted can be for a child. And how destabilizing the fear of losing that feeling is. The feeling becomes like the ground beneath your feet. One can focus on so much more when not preoccupied with the idea it might turn to quicksand. I’ve tried to build strong relationships all around me. Things I can point to and say, see? Look at all these people who love me, my parents would be crazy to not do the same. Also serving as, See? Look at all this support that I have. I’ll do just fine without them. A feeble attempt to firm up my ground.

In my adult life I have had times when I’ve felt close to my parents and times when I didn’t. Times when I’ve felt embraced by them and times when I’ve felt rejected. I still find myself distanced; struggling to trust. Even when the monkey is silent I find myself analyzing their reactions to me. Questioning the solidarity of our bond. And those are the moments the monkey loves.

He says “Be careful. They could destroy you. Remember when? Don’t give them the chance.”

Sometimes the monkey wins. I agree and I put up my front.

But sometimes the relationship wins and I tell the monkey to just shut up and go back to sleep. Maybe one day if he gets told that enough, he’ll get mad and move out all together.

What a liberating day that would be.

Guest Post: The Ex is an Ex for a Reason

13 10 2009

Today’s guest post is by Peggy Nolan. She’s a stepmom and the blogger responsible for The Stepmom’s Toolbox. But she’s also an ex-wife and biological mom. Visit her website during the month of October to meet the authors of some of the top stepfamily books. You can also listen to the conversation I had with Peggy on the Becoming a Stepmom podcast.

The Ex is an Ex For a Reason

By Peggy Nolan

I have an unhealthy need to ensure my daughters have a good relationship with their father, my exhusband.


I. Said. It.

This need has caused me grief from the time he and I divorced in 2003. I’m a daughter and I know what it’s like to have an amazing relationship with my dad. I also know what it’s like to believe that I wasn’t good enough and had to prove myself before my dad would love me. In my early 20’s I set out to conquer my world and become the best at everything I did.

It wasn’t until I got divorced and had my run in with breast cancer that I realized that my dad loves and approves of me. He always has. He always will. No matter what hair brained idea I come up with.

So it is within this warped dynamic that I view my daughters’ relationships with their father. A man hard to please. A man full of judgements and criticisms. A man who has a nasty streak as deep as the Grand Canyon. His bitterness runs deep. His words are his weapon of choice…and look out because if you’re in his way, he’ll slice and dice you and leave you with a gaping hole in your heart.

After our divorce, I healed my heart. I repaired myself. I learned “not to throw pearls at swine.” I found my own happiness and grew my own love story.

Today I know that I can no longer carry this unhealthy need to ensure that my daughters have a good relationship with their father. I have tried. Boy. Have. I. Tried. It’s like herding cats, nailing jell-o to a tree, squeezing blood from a turnip. It’s an exercise in futility and I’m tired of repeating it. Oh gosh, what’s that saying?

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again expecting different results.

That’s it! I’ve been INSANE!

In three weeks, my oldest daughter is getting married to her fine lad from Ireland. The Red Head (well, they both have red hair, but I’m talking about my daughter) tripped over herself when she announced her engagement via Facebook in May (while I was on vacation in the Turks and Caicos no less) and that did cause quite a rumbling between her father, her sister, and me. The Red Head originally wanted to get married on the beach in Lagos, Portugal – which I was more than ok with, if she could wait ten months. Words were said. Emails exchanged. Some not so nice, some even not so much nicer.

But The Red Head and I have something her father does not have with her – a relationship. And we both make deposits into this relationship. Our arguement withdrawal didn’t even dent want we had stored up in our mother-daughter account. We talked on the phone. We made peace. A week later, she called me and asked if it would be OK if she and my future son-in-law could get married when they came home in October. To say I was thrilled is an understatement.

In my excitement, I started planning her wedding. In doing so, I commited the worst offense imaginable – I tried to include my exhusband and his wife. In three months I sent three emails. I didn’t hear back from him and even asked my youngest daughter if he changed his email. She clued me in. He thought I just wanted his money.

I don’t give a rats pa-tootie about his money. It was the farthest thing from my mind. With him I’m either damned if I do or damned if I don’t. I’d rather DO and be damned.

This past Friday, I sent one last email giving him an update on the wedding plans. I stated that his silence was a bit confusing but it is what it is. I apologized if I offended him or his wife in any way.

His response is the old X that I remember so well. Mean. Nasty. He thinks the wedding is a joke. And that he’s giving The Red Head money instead of participating in something he thinks has been overblown. The money he gives her will come with hidden strings…it always has. I can only hope she searches deep within her soul before accepting his money.

As I sat with his email, sadness overwhelmed me. I am sad for my daughters. I am sad that they have such a bitter, negative, miserable father.

Sadness turned to anger. And I did the only thing I could think of. I put on my running shoes. Instead of walking or riding the bike like I normally do (because I’m fond of my knees), I flipped my iPod play list to Albannach and took off running. I’m not a runner, I don’t like running…but I had to transfer my anger somewhere and kickboxing isn’t until later tonight. There’s nothing like a rebel Scottish band, heavy on the drums, to trash your knees to.

I kept running. And running. My second lap around the duck pond, I started praying. I asked God how I could best help my daughter have a beautiful wedding day. I asked God how to deal with the knowledge that her father thinks her wedding is a joke. I asked God for an answer.

As I rounded the corner, I noticed I wasn’t alone on the path. A thirty something male dressed in black pants and a blue shirt was strolling along, most likely taking advantage of the gorgeous fall weather that was pretty much lost to me as I ran my heart out. I glanced over at him and he was talking to me. The drums of Albannach drowned out the sound of his voice. I took my right earpiece out, “What was that?” I asked.

“It’s a beautiful day for a run,” the stranger replied.

“Yes…yes it is,” I said, more than just a little out of breath.

“Temperature is just right and the sun is shinning,” the stranger went on.

“You are so right,” I said. I smiled and waved at him as I continued to jog past him.

And I smiled. A big smile. Because God answered me through a stranger.

It IS a beautiful day. Enjoy the moment!

It’s not my job to ensure that my daughters, who are now 25 and almost 22, have a good relationship with their father. I’ve done all that I can do. I don’t own his relationships with them or theirs with him. I am only responsible for the relationships I have with each of my daughters.

And both my daughters know that I love them without reservation. Without conditions. I love them for who they are and who they are becoming.

Interview with Stepmom Author Izzy Rose

29 04 2009

izzy-roseOn May 5, stepmom blogger Izzy Rose’s book The Package Deal will be available in bookstores nationwide. Read my interview with her below. Then visit her website to watch the book trailers and pre-order your copy. It’s a fantastic read that will make you want to invite Izzy to your house for drinks.

When you first started your blog Stepmother’s Milk,you were searching for support for stepmoms. Were you surprised at how little there was available?

I was surprised once I learned some of the statistics– that there  are something like 15 million stepmoms in the country today! I thought, if there are so many of us, why isn’t this a mainstream discussion? Why aren’t we on Oprah? Since then, I’ve watched in amazement as our online community has grown. We’re everywhere now! It seems like every day, I discover a new stepmom blog or stepparenting site. It’s very encouraging to see so many women reaching out to each other, connecting and offering advice.
Your book describes your first year as a stepmom. How have things changed since then?

I’m more relaxed. I no longer refer to myself as the Ruler of Cleanliness and Order. I just couldn’t keep that role up. I was outnumbered– a husband, two boys and two male kitties! In addition to adjusting to filth and fur, I’d moved across country, given up my career and left friends and family behind. Needless to say, I was a little on edge. Two years later, the newness and panic has worn off. This is a good thing– for everyone’s sake.
What three things do you think a new stepmom has to have to survive the first year of stepmotherhood?

  1. A surplus of wine
  2. A sense of humor
  3. Lots of therapy (with you and your man, alone, and maybe with the kids, although you might want to wait on the whole family combo deal until they unpack).

Do you still have full-time custody of the kids?

No, my oldest stepson, The Tall One, is the only kid living with us full-time now, and you’ll have to read the book to find out why.
What has been your greatest challenge as a stepmom?

Balancing my own needs with those of the kids. I’m sure every mother struggles with this, but because I married into my parenting role and don’t have kids of my own, I’m never quite sure how much I’m expected to give and compromise. To be honest, it was really tempting early on to shirk some responsibilities because I was “just the stepmom.” But, the reality is that if kids are living full-time under your care, you’re responsible. My stepmom rule is to compromise, but not sacrifice myself. I’m a big believer that if you don’t take care of yourself, you’re no good to anyone else.

There’s been a large debate going on about stepmoms who blog or write books about their families and how it will affect their stepchildren and relationships with their husbands and the ex. How do you decide what you’re going to write about? Do you share your writing with everyone in your family?

I’ve made jokes about moving to Mexico or going into hiding once the book came out to avoid a family mob attack, but truthfully, I think the need for that is slim. In writing The Package Deal, I worked hard to be fair to everyone involved and I made drafts of the manuscript available for family members to read throughout my writing process, and I encouraged them to speak up if something felt wrong or icky.

That said, I’m very honest and I suppose you do run the risk of offending people when you expose your insides. But when you start self-editing to please the crowd, you lose your voice.

Have you ever had someone in your family object to or been hurt by something you’ve written?

Not that I’m aware of and I hope that’s because I’ve made a conscious effort to be respectful. Before I started my blog Stepmother’s Milk, I asked my stepkids if they would be okay with me writing personal stories about our family. It was really important to me that they be on board. Every step of the way, I’ve reminded the boys to come to me if there’s something they don’t want me to write about or if they’ve read something they don’t understand. I’m constantly mindful of their privacy and how far I can push the boundaries.
What have been your greatest rewards as a stepmom?

As someone who thought she was missing the mom-gene, it’s been a sweet reward to realize I’m capable of taking on someone else’s kids and not failing horribly at it. The boys showed me a reserve of love I didn’t know was there. I said yes to a marriage proposal and I ended up with a family. A pretty good deal, if you ask me.

If a dear friend told you she was marrying a man with kids what would you say?

Welcome to the club! Becoming a stepmom is so “in” right now. One might say– stepmom is the new black.
Do you think you made the right decision when you said yes to your husband, moved to Texas, and signed up to be a custodial stepmom?

Absolutely! I’m in love with my husband, Austin is a fantastic town and in addition to their entertainment value, the kids have helped me grow up. That said, I didn’t always feel that way. There were many days early on when I wanted to scream, WHAT WAS I THINKING! HOW DID I END UP RAISING ANOTHER WOMAN’S KIDS?  My therapist (and yes, every stepmom should have one) helped me realize that in order to survive, I had to adjust my expectations and be willing to reinvent myself. That’s powerful stuff. I remember thinking, OK, I can shift. I can do this.

What advice would you give to a stepmom who is struggling?

Seek out one good girlfriend who is willing to listen to you spill the good, the bad and the revolting. And then spill. I truly believe that laughing and groaning over our shared stories is one of the best antidotes for warding off insanity. It’s worked for me.

A Father Speaks

11 03 2009

Bill has three kids from a previous marriage. He sent in his list of things he needs from his wife and the stepmother of his children.

  • Understanding that sometimes the kids are going to have to come first.
  • I apologize for having an ex-wife.
  • Understanding that scheduling is going to be hell and it will be for years to come.
  • I think the father needs to be a buffer between the stepmother and the bio mother if that’s possible.
  • I understand frustration about bio mom but would appreciate it if you don’t make comments about her in front of the kids.
  • Thanks for being understanding about my relationship with my kids because I know you will never feel the same way I do about them.
  • Communication is very, very important.
  • Divorce is not an easy way out. Let’s work through this.

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 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.