What Should a Stepmother Expect?

22 09 2010

I’ve been asked this question many times: What should a stepmom expect? And this one: Am I expecting too much? I’ve asked myself those questions, too. Much of the research done on what makes stepfamily life so difficult indicates our expectations are what get us into trouble.

But the challenge is that there is no model for what a stepfamily “should” look like. A successful stepfamily structure might look very different from what we think a “family” should look like.

Happy stepmothers are:

  • Women who live with their stepchildren full-time and help to raise them.
  • Women who don’t ever see their stepchildren.
  • Women who at family gatherings cheerfully combine his, hers, and ours kids plus the ex-wife, ex-husband, their new spouses and all the various step-, half-, and full-blooded siblings.
  • Women who don’t live with their partners but continue to date until the children are raised and out of the house.

There are lots of different ways in which stepfamilies are successful. But sometimes we need to revise what we think successful means in order to find peace. Can you be a success if you and your partner have an amazing relationship but the kids hate you? Can you be a success if your marriage is strong but the ex-wife is in your face all the time? Can you be a success if your husband is your best friend but his parents don’t accept you? The answer to all these questions is: YES.

But you first have to decide for yourself and as a couple what success can mean.

Warning: Letting go of expectations (a.k.a. Dreams) can be an extremely painful process. But once you do it, you’re free to create the kind of life you want.

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.

A Poll: Do You Get Along With The Ex?

18 11 2008

After you vote, if you do get along with your stepchildren’s bio mom, please comment on this post and share your advice about how you deal with the ex!

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Interview your stepchildren.

2 11 2008

I’ve created a free guide 110 Questions to Ask Your Stepkids eBook filled with conversation starters to help you get to know your stepchildren (and your partner!) better no matter how long you’ve known them.

As a stepmother of three and as a stepdaughter myself, I have a lifetime of experience dealing with the day-to-day realities of stepfamily life. As the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007) and this blog www.becomingastepmom.com, I have interviewed blended-family researchers, therapists, and stepmoms across the country and learned how people just like you are making their blended families succeed every day.

As a journalist, I have studied the art of the interview, which is about how to connect with other people and draw them out. I decided to interview my stepchildren to learn about their likes and dislikes, their feelings, their beliefs. In other words, I asked them questions. In return, I shared with them stories about my life. It worked! It continues to work. As the kids grow up, they have new experiences we can talk about. New things happen in my life that I can share with them.

Click on the link above for my free ebook of 110 conversation starters. Then interview your stepchildren. Start asking them questions and you’ll make connections that will last a lifetime. After you give it a try, let me know what worked and what didn’t. Good luck!

Visit my other site www.smackyourinnercritic.com for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.

Connect With Your Partner

28 10 2008

1) Discuss a topic other than your stepfamily. Have a fun discussion about a play you saw, the latest episode of So You Think You Can Dance, a book you read, a trip you want to take, or the presidential race. 

2) Talk about sex. Buy a copy of Hot Monogamy by Dr. Patricia Love and take a quiz about your sex life. Then make time to implement some of the things you learn about each other.
3) Keep your mouth shut. Guys often complain that all we women want to do is talk, talk, talk. So do something active instead. Do a yoga class together. Rent one of those tandem bikes and hit the trail. Take a hike. Go skydiving. Swim in the ocean. Canoe down a river. Spend an afternoon golfing. Organize a touch football game with your friends. Lift weights. Challenge him to a race.
4) Kiss for a full minute every single day. Hold hands. Rub each other’s shoulders. With our busy lives it can be incredibly easy to let days slip by without touching your spouse. Make a point of connecting physically with each other every day.
5) Plan something special for your partner that doesn’t involve you. Sometimes the best way to connect is to spend time apart. If your husband has a hobby that he loves, send him off for an afternoon so he can indulge in his passions without feeling guilty. Meanwhile, you can do the same. When you meet back up for dinner or dessert, you’ll both feel refreshed.

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Talk to each other.

28 10 2008

Have an uncomfortable conversation with your partner. It could be about anything you’ve been avoiding or have had trouble resolving. Only attempt this challenge using the following guidelines.

1.) Listen to each other, for real. Make sure you can see your partner’s point even if you disagree.

2) Do not interrupt.

3.) No contempt, sarcasm, or criticism allowed.

4.) If things get too tense, make a joke or compliment your spouse.

5.) Take ownership of your baggage, assumptions, and victim statements.

6.) Brainstorm creative alternative solutions to your predicament.

And finally, remember that you love each other and you both have good intentions. Sometimes partnership is difficult, but there’s a reason you’re there now willing to go deep with your partner. Before you end this conversation, tell your partner at least three special moments you cherish from your time together.

Visit my other site www.smackyourinnercritic.com for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.

S.M.A.C.K.s for Stepmoms: Write a love letter.

28 10 2008

Write your spouse a letter telling him how much he means to you. Tell him all the ways he makes your life and the children’s lives better. Share with him the times you’ve been grateful for him but haven’t told him. Show your appreciation in a letter that he can keep and reread when things are tough.

Visit my other blog www.smackyourinnercritic.com for more about how to S.M.A.C.K. your Inner Critic.

A Message to Biological Parents

28 10 2008


If you are a biological parent, read this closely. If you are a stepparent, read it and then pass it along to your partner. When two people make a commitment to give their love a go, everything starts out so beautifully. Compliments come easy. But once the normal complications arise of learning how to live with another human being and his or her children, frustration often replaces the warm feelings that started this whole business in the first place.

Arguments about discipline, parenting styles and unequal treatment of the children in the house, can turn love to anger, happiness to aggravation and tolerance to criticism. But here’s the deal: If you are a biological parent who has given your children a stepparent, you simply must give your partner the appreciation he or she deserves.

Bestselling relationship expert John Gray, the author of Men are From Mars, Women are From Venus, has first-hand experience of blended family life. When he married his wife, Bonnie, he became a stepfather of two girls. Later, he and Bonnie had a child of their own. “First, stepparents need to understand that the child will always, especially at the beginning, resent the stepfather or stepmother for replacing their real parent,” Gray says. “It’s a conflict because they want their real parent to be there for them. It’s nothing personal, it’s just that you’re filling in and it’s as if you’re replacing the birth parent. A stepparent has to recognize that the children are not going to be extremely grateful for or appreciate that much because in a sense you’re always in the way. So the spouse needs to compensate and make sure that they give you lots of acknowledgement and appreciation.”

I’ve received many letters from stepmoms angry with a spouse who takes it personally every time she tries to suggest a change in how to deal with a child’s behavior. Instead of having a discussion about how a problem could be handled, biological parents who are defensive of their children will often quickly shut down a stepparent, refusing to listen to anything they might feel is a criticism of their children. Gray explains how a bio parent should handle this touchy situation. “If you, the stepparent, are frustrated with the kids, your spouse has got to realize that she shouldn’t take it personally. Here the stepparent is behaving like a parent and not getting any of the recognition a parent normally gets. And they’ll never get it in most cases until the kids grow up. When the kids grow up, they do appreciate you enormously, so it’s kind of like a job where you don’t get paid for many years.”

Stepparents are volunteers who have signed up for life. A new stepmother or stepfather can try to be a role model and teach your children skills they didn’t have before. Even if your partner does things differently than you do, it’s crucial that you give your spouse open appreciation for all she does for you and your children. Do stepparents sometimes go too far with demands that the household change to suit them? Absolutely. But if you work on creating a partnership in which everything is open for discussion, then it’s easier for a stepparent to feel included in the household. Make your partner feel she did the right thing by saying yes to you and your kids.

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?