Your Questions Answered: Becoming a Stepchild at 52

6 10 2010

Dear Jacque,

My Dad got married 10 days ago. I have lived with him for the past 25 years, part of that time taking care of my mom and then sharing the house with him after she died for 13 years. I am having a hard time letting go of my responsibilities in the house and I refuse to call my dad’s new wife my step mom. I should share with you that I an 52, and the house prior to the marriage was willed to me. Now that is all up in the air as well as my emotions. My question is do I have to recognize her as a step parent? I just want to call her my Dad’s wife.

Thank you for sending in this question! Your email illustrates something we can all learn from. The dynamics at play in stepfamily life happen no matter how old you are. Why? Because ultimately when a new stepfamily forms, it throws all sorts of things out of balance. It raises questions that family members have rarely asked each other before: Who are we as a family? What does family mean? Who is on the “inside” and who is on the “outside?” Will my father’s feelings change for me? What will this mean to my inheritance? These are all valid questions. And scary questions.

When there are end-of-life issues at stake, we don’t want our loved ones to feel like we’re being greedy, so it’s even more awkward.

My advice is almost always the same on issues where confusion has arisen due to stepfamily dynamics: Talk about it. As uncomfortable as it might be, it is important that you have a conversation with your father about how this is going to change the will. And it is only fair that he be open with you about it. Death is not something we like to talk about. And talking about what will happen to our assets when we go is not fun either, but it must be done. You are going to have to deal with this when he passes. And if your father’s new wife outlives him, you will have to work with her. You might use language such as, “This is not going to be a comfortable conversation, but this new marriage raises many questions for me. Instead of walking around wondering, I think we should have an open conversation about end-of-life issues.”

Change is difficult. As scary as it might be for you to contemplate a different kind of life, I will ask you this: What good can come out of this for you? If you don’t get the house or decide to move out and have to remake your life into something that looks very different from what you thought it would be, it will be scary. But sometimes the scariest things we face are the best for us.

As for the name question. You should call your stepmother what you feel comfortable calling her. You are both adults and this is a relationship of choice. She’s not going to be raising you or parenting you. Again I would advise having an open discussion about this. “You know what, it makes me uncomfortable to call you stepmom. How about if I just call you by your first name? What do you think?”

Eventually everyone will figure out what the new normal is in your family.  Best wishes to you during this tumultuous time.

Stepmothers: Your Anger Could Kill You

16 06 2010

The day I decided to write a book for stepmothers remains vivid in my mind. I was working on a story for a magazine about how challenging it is for childless stepmothers to move in with a man and his children. While researching the story, I interviewed several veteran stepmothers who had been in their stepfamilies twenty years or more.

One stepmom who described herself as a successful, happy stepmother told me about how wonderful her life was and how well everyone got along. “Really?” I wondered. I asked her a few more questions. Perhaps because I was the first person who listened to her challenging stepmom feelings with understanding and without judgment, a flood of anger burst from her heart and the raw pain and chronic stuffed anger of decades came flowing out.

That interview has stuck with me all these years because I have discovered after talking to stepmoms around the globe that anger is a job hazard for stepmothers. Because we often parent from the back seat, play second fiddle to the kids and the ex wife and sometimes the in-laws and ex in-laws, and feel powerless and voiceless in our own homes, it’s no wonder so many of us are pissed off.

Still, just because we have a clear right to be angry in many situations, doesn’t mean it’s good for us. During the last two decades researchers have conducted a multitude of studies which suggest that anger, hostility, and stress have a direct impact on our health. These emotions can lead to heart disease, inflammation, and even life-threatening diseases such as cancer. And that’s only one side of the story. Anger and hostility also does damage to our overall sense of happiness, well-being, and quality of life. It can lead to alcohol and substance abuse and overeating. It destroys intimacy and marriages.

I could have told the researchers that anger harms our bodies. In the early days of my stepfamily life I often allowed myself to fall into the whirlpool of negative thoughts. For instance, if I was angry because no one spoke to me during dinner, I would furiously clean dishes feeling like the hired help while everyone else sat companionably at the table. The more I allowed my thoughts to churn through my anger, the angrier I became. My heart rate sped up, my breathing became ragged and by the end of the night I had a horrible headache.

So what can you do about angry and hostile feelings?

View anger as a sign.
If you’re angry, you’re angry. You don’t have to explain it or feel badly about it. Anger is a feeling that you can use as a signal that something is not right. It is often a mask for other emotions. You can use your anger to begin exploring your deeper feelings. Ask yourself questions such as: Are my feelings hurt? Do I feel betrayed or taken advantage of? Do I feel like I am losing myself because I have no voice in this house? Do I feel left out?

Find your own patterns.
Take a moment to think about your life. When do you get angry? Can you identify what happens to set you off? Pay attention to the language you use to describe what is happening. Oftentimes we stepmothers are angry because we feel such a lack of control over our own lives and that is a proven stress producer. “All of our clinical and animal research confirms that the perception of not having any control is always stressful,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, a clinical professor of medicine and psychiatry at New York Medical College and president of the American Institute of Stress in Yonkers, N.Y.

Change your perceptions.
As Dr. Rosch pointed out it’s the perception of not having control that is so stressful. So how can you change your perceptions? One stepmother I talked with consciously switched from feeling angry at her three teenaged stepchildren for making her life hell to feeling compassion by choosing to turn on her empathy about their situation. She shut her eyes and envisioned them as wounded soldiers in a field hospital. She cast herself in the role of nurse and healer to these kids who were clearly so deeply pained about their parents’ divorce that they made her the target of their anger even though she’d never done anything wrong. She carried that mental image with her so that every time one of the kids directed hostility at her, she responded with a calm demeanor that eventually broke through the kids’ pain so they could create positive relationships.

Calm your body before you speak.
Sometimes it’s not necessarily a good thing to vent anger because by yelling at your spouse you are focusing on the anger while in an emotional state and instead of feeling better you can actually increase your feelings of anger. Experiment with calming your body before you let the negative words rip. Do whatever you need to—take ten deep breaths, go for a run, take a hot shower, tell a joke—then return to discuss your feelings when you’re feeling calm.

Learn communication skills.
Take advantage of the many resources available to learn strong communication skills. The tools you learn can help you with every relationship you have. I highly recommend picking up Harriet Lerner’s classic book The Dance of Anger and any of John Gottman’s books for married couples. In the early days of my marriage, I had to learn how to use softer start-ups and “I” language. Clearly saying something like, “You are such an idiot for marrying that woman!” is not an effective way to start a conversation. Instead, stay firmly in your own feelings. “I am feeling jealous today that you had children with someone else.”

Arm yourself with positive emotions.
Another army of scientists have spent the last few decades researching how positive emotions affect our health and well-being. And the results are impressive. By cultivating positive emotions you can dramatically improve your social relationships and physical and mental health. Armed with positivity you are more resilient when bad things happen, you’re a better problem-solver, and you’re more equipped to deal with the ups and downs of stepfamily life. This is why I am constantly telling stepmothers to have fun! Lighten up! Enjoy yourself! This simple advice is backed by serious research so plan something fun right now.

In the end, as more and more research shows, anger can actually kill you if you live with it long enough. By choosing to learn new ways to cope with your feelings so you aren’t a victim of your negative emotions you can head off the long-term affects of chronic anger.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepfamily coach and educator, the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins), host of the popular Stepmom Circles Podcast and co-creator of The Stepfamily Letter Project. This article originally appeared in Stepmom Magazine.

Taking Things Personally

28 10 2008

Stepfamily experts tell us to not take things our stepchildren say personally. Sounds easy, but when you’re listening to a stepkid shout that they hate you and wish you’d never met their dad, it’s next to impossible not to feel hurt. Try one of these tips for maintaining a cool head when you’re the target of a kid’s emotional pain.

1) Acts of kindness. Maintain a positive, supportive attitude instead of joining the child in a fight. Show empathy and kindness instead of anger. For instance, if a child shouts that you can’t tell her what to do when you ask her to pick up her room, instead of responding with anger, calmly tell her that she knows the house rules and she must abide by them. Make sure to include statements such as, “I know this must be hard for you to have two houses,” or “It’s a bummer that you have to follow the rules of our house and your mom’s, but someday you’ll get to make your own choices about how you live when you get your own apartment!”

2) Forget about it. When you’re hurt or outraged by something your stepkid said, it’s easy to replay the comment in your mind until your anger escalates into a grudge it’s hard to let go of. Try noticing the next time you allow your thoughts to increase your anger and instead consciously soothe yourself with positive self-talk, an outing with friends or an appointment with your massage therapist.

3) Practice self-confidence. If a child is being disrespectful, tell him you understand how he feels but that he is still not allowed to treat you poorly. Remember that you are influencing those children, and by demonstrating your own self-worth, you are teaching them something important.

4) Be gentle with yourself. Repeat this mantra whenever you are feeling attacked: “I am doing the best I can. I am doing the best I can.”

5) Imagine your stepchild’s life. Think about your own childhood. Did your parents divorce? Did you have to go back and forth between two homes? Did you have to listen to your parents badmouth each other? Were you a witness to violence or were you confused when your parents suddenly announced their divorce? Or are you from a happy home? Compare your upbringing with your stepchildren’s and see if you can find compassion for these people who are experiencing something that is painful, confusing, scary, and will change their very identities.

Your Questions Answered

27 10 2008

My husband turns into a different man every time the kids come over. Our entire relationship changes. We don’t have sex. We hardly talk to each other except about things related to the kids. I have gotten to the point where I dread the weeks we have the kids and I’m starting to resent my husband more and more. Help!

This is an issue that every couple who has kids living in the house struggles with. How can you maintain your identity as a couple while you are hit with all the stressors that raising kids entails? It’s important to maintain a sense of togetherness even when the kids are over. That usually means you have to consciously create those moments together. You both have to realize how important they are to the marriage. But those moments of connection don’t have to take a lot of time.

Perhaps setting the alarm clock an hour early so you can get up together and have a quiet cup of coffee every single morning before the kids wake up can help you feel more intimate. If you tend not to have sex while the kids are over, maybe you should both be more conscious of other kinds of touch, such as holding hands or a shoulder rub at the end of the night. Send your spouse an e-mail or two during the day to let him know how much you love him. Spring for a babysitter once a week, or take advantage of having the kids part-time and stock up on your date nights when you don’t have the kids.

I feel like my husband and his ex are using my stepson as a way to get back at each other. They don’t seem to see what they’re doing to him. But I can see it. They make him choose sides, which is totally unfair! For instance, they’ll say, “Honey, do you want to spend the weekend with Mommy or Daddy?” Why can’t they just stick to the schedule? They make him get in the middle of their arguments. I’ve seen him go from a happy kid to a sullen kid in one year. What can I do to help him?

What a heartbreaking situation! This is a popularity contest and a who-has-the-last-word battle at the expense of the mental health of this child. You’re right to be worried about your stepson. Do you remember when Alec Baldwin’s phone call to his 12-year-old daughter was leaked to the press? The pictures of that little girl tell you everything you need to know about that story. She has the look of a kid whose parents use her in a game of tug-of-war.

So what can you do to help your stepson? Be that angel on your husband’s shoulder constantly whispering into his ear. Help him see, gently and with great kindness, how his anger at his ex is hurting his son by placing his child into a loyalty bind. He can’t be asked to choose between his parents. He loves them both. And when one parent badmouths the other, a kid takes it personally because he is the child of that person, too. It’s no surprise that a bulk of the stepkids who really act out as teenagers come from this kind of family where mom and dad are still battling it out.   Many adults I’ve talked to who grew up in stepfamilies talk about this dynamic. Many say they will never get married because they don’t trust people. They’ve never seen a healthy model of a relationship. And if something goes south with a boyfriend or girlfriend, they just leave. Of course there are those kids who swing to the opposite side and choose to become the best partners in the world because they’re so scared of divorce. Either way, when parents put their kids in the middle like this, it causes lasting harm.

Overcoming Resentment of Your Stepchildren

27 10 2008

1) Find the Good. Write down the good qualities you see in your stepchild. For instance, you might jot down smart, witty, a survivor. Then add the lessons you’ve learned from being a stepmother. How has this experience made you a better person?

2) Schedule a Play Date. Find something that you and your stepkids love to do, then find a time to do it. For instance, if everyone loves a spirited game of charades, play it as a family. It’s hard to keep a frown on your face when you’re doing something fun; laughter has bonding power.

3) Imagine Another Life. If you were to put yourself in your stepchild’s shoes, how would you describe their life? Can you imagine what it’s like for them? It’s easier to find your compassion when you’re thinking about how someone else must feel instead of allowing yourself to spiral into the self-focused thoughts generated by negativity.

4) Vent Your Anger. Ask your best gal pal to let you get everything off your chest. But before you do, make your friend promise to remind you that once you’re finished spewing all the anger, you need to come up with an action item that will help you feel empowered.

5. Pamper Yourself. Be kind to you. It’s easy for stepmoms to feel ashamed of their resentments, anger, hurt feelings. But shame is a destructive emotion. It’s OK to feel resentful toward your stepchildren. It’s natural. It’s not OK to let the shame direct your actions. Accept your feelings and find a way to move to a place of peace with your stepchildren by doing one small thing every day to combat the bad feelings.

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.

You Talkin’ To Me?!!!: Anger Management is a crucial skill for stepmoms.

27 10 2008

I wrote a book about becoming a stepmom because I was scared. I wanted to talk to as many people as I could to make sure that I did it “right.” And I learned so much from the many brave stepfamilies I interviewed for the book. I found out what worked. I wrote it all down. I practiced it in my own home. But there are still days when I can’t handle stepmotherhood with much grace at all.

Some days I am in such a bad mood that I am not fit for human company. Those are the days when my thoughts spiral down into negativity. When I feel claustrophobic in my own home. When I feel taken advantage of because I am providing free daycare to kids not my own. When I feel assaulted by the noise and chaos. When the last thing I want to do is sit down for a stepfamily meal to bond with my stepkids; I’d rather jump off a bridge, thank you very much.

And the resentment builds.

Even when I am volatile and cranky and just plain burnt out, I know I don’t want to keep resentment in my heart. In five years or 10 years I don’t want to be mad about something that happened today. I don’t want to explode someday because I’ve never gotten my anger out. So in this post I wanted to write about anger and the things that stepmoms can do to dissipate resentment because I need to learn how to do it, too.

Escape Clause
Head out for a weekend getaway alone or with a close friend. Changing up your daily routine can help you, your spouse and the kids get a fresh perspective.

Play Time
Do something you really love to do. When was the last time you actually took time to do something you love? Americans are taking fewer and fewer vacation days. So what if you just took a day off from work or taking care of the kids and took care of yourself? What if you took today off? Or tomorrow?

Anger 101
Be mad. Be hurt. Be outraged. Acknowledge your feelings. If you’re mad, tell a trusted friend you’re mad. Write it down. Get it out into the open air. Swear if you need to. Name the feelings you’re having. Write a letter to the person you’re mad at. Tell them why. Tell them what they could do to make you feel better. Destroy the letter, send the letter, or call the person you’re upset with and have a discussion about what happened. Even if you’re upset, make sure to use compliments and gratitude to ease the tension so you can have a real conversation, and not a fight that ends with either of you saying hurtful things you can’t ever take back.

Body Building
Stretch out on your bed, the couch or the floor and tense your entire body. Tighten your hands into fists, make an angry scowl. Hold your breath and hold the position for as long as you can. Then let all your muscles relax and breathe out. Do it a few times. If you’re daring, add a scream when you tense and a big, loud sigh when you let the pose go.

Creative Solutions
If there’s something happening at home that bugs you, be as creative as possible to find ways around the issue. For instance, with three kids in the house, there were A LOT of stinky shoes cluttering up the front hallway of our home. It drove me crazy. I hated those shoes. And for a few days I didn’t do anything about it but complain to my husband and get madder and madder. I had just tripped over a set of sneakers on my way to the car and was about to go on a rampage when my eye caught two sets of metal racks in the garage that were holding an assortment of junk: tools, baseballs, bicycle helmets. And I had a stroke of genius: I could use those racks! So I lined them up in the garage right by the door and gave each kid a shelf to put their shoes on. They sometimes leave their shoes next to the racks instead of in them, but at least they are out of sight and don’t present a danger to anyone coming into our house.

Take time out for deep breaths to nourish your body with all the oxygen it needs.

Now you: What strategies do you use when you’re feeling angry and resentful?