When Stepmothers Attack: Finding harmony in the journey.

28 10 2008


The first time I ever heard a really modern piece of symphony music performed by a full orchestra at Carnegie Hall, I thought, “What the heck is this crap?” I had an impulse to get up and walk out until the noise was over, but I decided I would be tough and stay until the end.

First, I tried to pick out a melody, and failed. Then I strained to understand the words, and couldn’t. Wait…was that the same little three-note riff I’d heard a minute ago? I struggled to find some beauty in the strange piece and, I’ll admit, I was getting a bit frustrated. In fact, at one point, it was so loud and seemingly pointless that I felt attacked by the music. I gritted my teeth and held on. When the final triumphant chord echoed in the acoustically perfect room, tears came to my eyes. The resolution was so beautiful, so right that it sent a ripple of chills through my body. Here was the reason for the noise. This feeling. This relief. This bliss.

I thought about that experience at Carnegie Hall when we made our first-ever stepfamily trip. My husband, three stepchildren and I traveled from Minneapolis to Washington, D.C. for my own stepmother’s 50th birthday party. We stayed with my family and spent downtime just hanging around the house. But I knew what was coming and dreaded it. Soon, we would all get in the car and take a tour of the historic sights. Originally, the thought of schlepping my three stepchildren, at the time ages four, seven and nine, between one monument and the next sounded like a surefire way to blow up what relationships we’d managed to forge thus far.

I vividly remembered my own first stepfamily trip with my two brothers, dad and my new stepmom. I was sullen and uncooperative. I didn’t want to look at the sights. I couldn’t have cared less about what old fogey did what. While the rest of the family blasted on ahead in the fast-paced, long-legged stride known as the “Fletcher Walk,” I strolled behind at a leisurely pace and pretended I wasn’t with those people. The scowl on my adolescent face showed up in every picture.

And here I was two decades later with stepchildren of my own preparing to see the sights.

I kept trying to get out of going on the tour. “Why don’t you guys go and I’ll stay here and work?” I suggested. They said I could work later. “Hey, it’s a perfect day for a special outing with your dad, don’t you think?” I offered. They didn’t buy it.

“You have to go, Jacque,” my seven-year-old stepdaughter pouted and held on to my hand.

“I’m sitting in your lap!” the four-year-old shouted.

My husband just looked at me. I knew what his look meant. I knew he knew I was trying to chicken out. Blast! I thought. Who are these people? Why aren’t they crabby like I was as a new stepdaughter? Why don’t they treat me like an outcast so I can stay home and read a book in the tub? I succumbed to the peer pressure and got in the car, but a part of me crouched, waiting for the proverbial s&*% to hit the fan.

The eldest, my stepson, was ecstatic. He loves learning about the history of our country. He knows how tall the Washington Monument is and that the original White House burnt down and had to be rebuilt. As we drove around the city, he regaled us with a running commentary about the significant sights punctuated with exclamations as he saw things he’d never seen before in person.

My stepdaughters played in the back seat and occasionally looked out the window. As the day wore on, one of them started getting a bit grumpy, and I could feel my shoulders start crawling up to my ears. Would she throw a tantrum in public? Would she behave like I had? True, she hadn’t hit adolescence yet, but still. I constantly checked the rearview mirror to look at her face. Was she scowling yet? I was looking for any reason to tell my husband, “See! I told you I shouldn’t have come. Turn this car around and take me home!”

Truthfully, I expected them all to hate me, for my life to be miserable. I figured it would be hell for at least the first 20 years. And then maybe, just maybe, we’d all sort of get along. In my stepmom support group when all the other women voiced their fantasies of an instant family, I came down on the opposite side. Though in all other areas of my life I am an optimist, I assumed my life would be horrible as we formed a new stepfamily, and so I worked to sheath myself in armor.

As we approached the Lincoln Memorial, we climbed the steep marble steps and my middle stepdaughter walked ahead without us. It snowed in Washington that weekend, and she was cold. She wanted the camera to take pictures. Could she have a souvenir? And then the mantra began. “Daddy, I want…Daddy, I want…DADDY, I WANT!”

I kept out of the fray, letting her daddy deal with her downward spiral. And though on the outside I looked like a woman enjoying herself, on the inside I was hardening myself against these little creatures. Not just one of them for having a meltdown like any kid does after a long day of sightseeing, but all of them. I felt like this justified my instincts to protect myself from my stepchildren who, truth be told, were open and loving and constantly seeking attention from me.

After taking pictures with the giant statue of Abraham Lincoln, we followed each other down the steep marble steps, slick with slushy snow. Near the bottom, my stepson asked from behind me, “What would happen if I jumped over these steps?”

“You might fall and break a leg,” I said.

“I already jumped over them and I didn’t break a leg,” he replied.

“Oh yeah?” I turned and grabbed him then feigned pushing him over. He yelped and giggled as I tickled him. When I righted him and let him go, he stood very straight with a serious expression on his face. He pretended to hold a microphone in front of his mouth.

“When stepmothers attack,” he intoned in a dramatic voice. “Watch tonight at 8 p.m. to see stepmothers gone bad.”

I howled with laughter and my stepson snickered self-consciously. He’d made a joke and was very proud of himself. I couldn’t stop laughing and had to wipe tears from my eyes as we made our way to the car.

My tired stepdaughter reached out and took my hand. She was still cranky, but she wasn’t doing it to get back at me for marrying her father. Instead, I realized, we are building a foundation for a friendship that will be strong enough to weather the jarring sounds of her teenage years and the dissonant notes of my own bad days.

When we returned to my dad and stepmom’s house everyone had a chance to relax before we dressed for the birthday party. When we all sat together at the dinner table, I looked around at my half-, step-, and full-blooded relatives laughing and chatting and I felt the discord of the day melting into a delicious chord that resonated through my bones. I was beginning to see a pattern emerging from the random notes and realized that perhaps I wouldn’t have to wait until my stepchildren had all left home to feel the payoff for marrying a man with kids. Perhaps I could feel the mini-resolutions along the way and take strength and faith from them.

I raised a glass to my stepmother: “Though we are not related by blood, we are family, bound by our experiences, tears, and laughter. A stepmother is a special thing. Everyone should have one,” I said.

Again I thought about that trip to Carnegie Hall. I realized that stepfamily life is like a piece of complicated, beautiful music written by a genius that only a few listeners ever manage to really appreciate. But those dedicated few who hang on through the discord and look for beauty and meaning within the cacophony – they hear the final triumphant chord when the notes finally all come together, and know the true meaning of harmony.

A Stepmom’s Resolutions

27 10 2008

For the past five years, two of my girlfriends and I have gotten together for an annual visioning summit. We’ve gathered at a cabin, one of our homes, a hotel room in Santa Fe to spend time working on our professional and personal goals for the future. First we spend time filling each other in on what’s happened in the past year. Then we close our eyes and spend time imagining what we want our lives to look like. Sometimes we choose specific parts to visualize: a relationship, a family, a book deal, for instance. We think about all the things we need to achieve the dreams we see for ourselves so we can accomplish them and live happy, energetic lives right now, too. Then we spend time mapping out the little steps we need to take in order to get to the vision we saw.

When I closed my eyes and saw my name on the cover of a book for stepmoms, for instance, I had to start listing all the action items I would need to take in order to actually publish that book: find an agent and interview stepmoms, stepfamily experts, marriage and family therapists. I had to write down the things I needed to do to give me the energy and courage to start and finish such a project: exercise, time reading good books. Otherwise, A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom would have remained forever a fantasy instead of reality.  

Since that first session five years ago, all three of us have made giant strides in creating the lives we want to live. And it’s amazing to look back and see that the roadmaps we’ve constructed have actually led to the places we envisioned or to destinations even more rich than we could have ever dreamed of.  

This year’s summit was no different. We dreamed, we planned, we applauded each other’s successes. This time, we spent the day enjoying music by Marina Raye that was so relaxing, I felt like I was getting a massage just listening to it. We ate delicious food, talked, and laughed. I always leave with rich insights and fresh enthusiasm. I encourage all of you to give yourselves the gift of time spent dreaming about what you want your life to look like. Then break it down into the smallest possible steps to make that vision come true.  

Some of my resolutions were:

Start each day with ten deep breaths.

Learn something new.

Do at least one thing I’m afraid of.

Tell my husband often that I appreciate all the little things he does for me, for us, and for our family.


Spend time with friends who make me feel vibrant and alive.

See live dance performances because they make me happy.

Take each of my stepchildren out on dates one at a time.

Make a list each evening before I go to bed of all the things in my life I’m grateful for.

Send a wish out to anyone I might have challenges with that they find peace and have a happy life.

Read something enriching every single day.

Savor the food I eat, the feel of the clothes I wear, the aromas I love.

Eat dark chocolate often.

Spend a few hours sitting in a greenhouse.

Play with my dog.

Have lunch with my mom.

Visit a place I’ve never been to before.

Take time to go deeper if one of my stepchildren has a problem they want to talk about.

Pay attention.

Listen to beautiful music with my eyes closed.

Take a vacation from assignments, duties, bills, obligations and just be in the moment with my family.

Give back by helping others have better lives.

So what are your dreams? Where do you want to be in five years? What do you look like at your most energetic, your most fulfilled? How will you make that dream a reality?

Welcome to Becoming a Stepmom!

26 10 2008

Welcome to the Becoming a Stepmom blog! You’ll find valuable information that can help you become a happy, peaceful stepmother. Here is some of what you can expect to see: 

  • Inspirational stories from veteran stepmoms
  • Educational tools and tips for you and your family
  • Advice from leading marriage and family professionals
  • Stepmom Q & A’s
  • A place to connect with other stepmoms

There’s no doubt about it. Becoming a stepmom is one of the more challenging things a woman can do. And there are times when you might feel stretched to the breaking point. But there are resources that can help. In a country where the stepfamily structure is believed to be the dominant family form, you are absolutely not alone

I want to help you find a way to achieve harmony with your stepchildren. I want you to feel at home in your own home. I want you to create a solid bond with your partner. You can do it! And I hope this blog will provide you with the concrete tools you need.

As a stepmother of three kids ages 8, 11 and 13, and as a stepdaughter, I have spent a lifetime making family out of step-, half-, and blood relatives. I have seen what works in stepfamily life and what the common mistakes are. I have studied the research. I have interviewed stepfamily professionals and stepfamily members across the country.

Today I’ll share with you the single most important thing I’ve learned a stepmother must do to create a harmonious home life: You must believe it is possible. There is such a thing as an empowered stepmother. You can be one. It’s not impossible. You have a voice.

I hope you enjoy this blog. If you have questions you’d like to see addressed in Becoming a Stepmom, post a comment or email me directly. Let’s see how we can help each other. Let’s learn how to smackdown the Inner Critic that tells us we’re second best, that makes us feel guilty, that makes us feel like bad people simply because we’re stepmoms. Enough!

For those of you have received my newsletter in the past, you’ll see archived stories here plus new content and resources. Better yet, you’ll have a place where you can ask questions of me or other stepmoms, brainstorm better solutions to your sticky issues, and connect with women who can help you feel empowered. We can do this. We can create home lives that feel good. Let’s do this together.

Best wishes,

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher
Author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom and 101smackdowns.