Stepmothers: Forgiveness

9 02 2011

Yesterday afternoon I watched Oprah. It was a heart-stopping show about three young girls who suffered sexual abuse at the hands of their father and older brothers. At the end of the show Oprah passed along advice to them that she received from one of her mentors. She didn’t mention who it was but it took my breath away so I wanted to share it here. She said, “Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different.” Whoa. It’s not about condoning anyone’s behavior or inviting them back into your life or even wishing them love and peace.

Does that resonate or what?

Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different.

For us stepmothers perhaps one place to focus this powerful thought is on our husbands. (Do you secretly wish he’d never been with another woman or had children with anyone else?) Another place: Our exes. Another place: Our own childhoods.

This week I’m meditating on that phrase: Forgiveness is letting go of the hope that the past could have been different.

Your Questions Answered: First Family Blues

1 12 2009

My divorce is 15 years old. I’m on my second marriage since my divorce and I’m still not over #1. It’s more the first family ideal. I’m still jealous when the kids see him, and they do. My children are adults!!!!! I’m happily married, but still in mourning. Does anyone else have this problem?????? No one would guess, I’m a professional woman and appear to have it all together. YIKES!!!! I’m just sick of the pain!

Dear Reader:

Thank you for your honesty! This is a tough question because it’s about some deep rooted fantasies we all have. No one dreams of having a stepfamily or a second marriage when they are young. Society and our emotions tell us that we are supposed to want the perfect first family. Man and wife. Children. Until death do us part. The reality, of course, is FAR different than the fantasy. Very often we have a scenario in our minds that we wish could be. For remarried stepmoms like this brave reader, it can be the secret mourning of her first marriage. For stepmoms with no children of their own, it can be the secret mourning of the fact that they fell in love with a man who has kids. What you’re feeling is not unusual. You’re not a freak. You’re not alone. So then what, right? Here are a couple of ideas for you (and everyone reading this!)

Have a holiday plan.
This time of year is particularly hard on our fantasies. The holidays are when we’re supposed to celebrate our beloveds. We gather with our families and create traditions that give our family a sense of identity. These are the times when loving memories are made. It’s a lot harder to create loving memories when you’re schlepping kids all over town from one house to the other. And it can be pretty darn emotional to watch your children walk away from you and into their other parent’s house for the holiday. So have a holiday plan that will help you feel as supported and loved and yes, busy, as possible. Distract yourself. Instead of crying about what was, write a letter to each of your children (or stepchildren) about what they mean to you. Tell them what you’ve learned from them and what you hope your relationships will be.

Acknowledge your feelings and say goodbye.
Find some alone time and write down all the reasons that you wish your first family was back together. Then build a fire in your backyard or in the fireplace and say goodbye to that fantasy. Then make a list of all the reasons you love your current husband and your life together. Make a list of all the gifts your children have been given because they’re in stepfamilies. (Yes, there are gifts, too, m’ladies! As an adult child of divorce, I can attest to this fact.)

Create a behavior modification plan.
In my mid-twenties I lost 100 pounds. Yes, you read that right. When my parents divorced I turned to food, but when I hit my 20s I was able to turn things around for myself. (Read my book for more on that story). Even though most of my readers have not had to lose 100 pounds, I’m betting most of you have been on at least one diet in your lifetime. When you diet, you have to modify your behavior slowly but surely. Every time you want chocolate, you substitute something else to satisfy the craving. So. Every time you have thoughts of longing for your first family, jump on the treadmill and listen to REALLY LOUD music or call up a friend and go to a movie or organize your closet. If you fall off the wagon, don’t beat yourself up, just keep at it and eventually you will change your thought patterns.

Spend lots of time with your current husband.
Plan things to look forward to with your current partner. For instance, plan a trip together that you both are excited about. Volunteer together at a local charity that makes you feel good. Take a class together so you both learn something new. The best antidote for holding on to the past is enjoying your present.

Your Questions Answered

10 09 2009

Hi, I am glad I came across your site. I am hoping for some insight. I had dated my husband for eight years before getting married six months ago. He has three children and our relationship has been nothing but full of love from the beginning. I do not have children and treat them as my own but understand and respect the fact that they do have a mother and I am not taking her place. However, just naturally, I have played the mother role when the kids are with us.

Everything has been great and six months ago before we got married, my middle stepson that lives with us, age 16, said that people said that things will be different and he said I don’t see how they will be different.

Well, he just returned from spending two months with his mom and I noticed since he’s been back something is different with him. He seems a little uneasy, very subtle changes but I am very intuitive of these things. On top of all this we are moving to a house and there is a lot of stress in the house which might be amplifying things.

Well, tonight things blew up he spoke disrespectfully to me, which he usually doesn’t do and my husband told him to apologize. He apologized and said that he is just going through something. It’s nothing that I am doing, he says it’s just that he is worried that I am going to become his mother. He is afraid of not being loyal to her and perhaps loving me as his mom since I am taking the mom roll day in and out.

I so feel for him and am not sure what to do to make him feel better and I dont know what roll to take. My instinct is to back off from him and be in outsider but I know that is not right. Please advise…

Dear reader:

What you and your family are experiencing are a completely normal part of stepfamily development. No matter how long you dated your husband before you married, things do change when you marry and live together as your stepson so wisely said. (He sounds very mature for his age, by the way! Few stepchildren can articulate what he did to you. What a gift!)

He is talking to you about what stepfamily experts call a loyalty bind. He fears that if he likes or even loves you it will be taking away love from his mother or make her hurt or even angry. The best way to deal with loyalty binds is for the adults in the situation to sit down with your stepson and say something like, “You know what, you can love me and you can love your mom and that’s totally okay. Your mom is your mom and always will be no matter what. She loves you. I’m your stepmom and that’s different. You and I get to figure out what that means to us together.”

If both of your stepson’s biological parents reinforce this message, it will make your stepson feel a lot better and quickly, too. Stepchildren are often discouraged to talk about their negative or challenging feelings out loud so the fact that you are already discussing this openly with your stepson is a BIG deal. Congrats to you.

As for your role. You are describing what is called role ambiguity. You are trying to find out what being a stepmother means to you and your family. Some women choose to occupy what Dr. Patricia Papernow calls an “intimate outsider” position. They are a part of the family, but they leave the bulk of the parenting to the biological parent. Some women choose a more active role. Some act like a teacher or a coach or an aunt figure.

How you configure your role in your stepfamily has a lot to do with what you are comfortable with, the level of involvement of the biological mother, the support you receive from your spouse, and what the children will accept from you. You can read more about this in my book where I devote quite a lot of space to the topic of role ambiguity.

 In the meantime, the best thing you can do is to continue to talk with your family about what it feels like for each of you to be a new member of a stepfamily. The more you can communicate in these early stages the better off you’ll be.

Legal Status of Stepparents

20 08 2009

Stepfamily law in America is a big hot mess. If you are confused about your legal status as a stepparent, don’t feel bad because everyone is confused. When I started doing research last week about what the laws are in Minnesota, I wasn’t suprised to find that as I stepparent I am liable for the kids while they are in my care but I have no rights. 

To find out more about the law in America, I’m interviewing stepfamily law expert Margaret M. Mahoney, professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, and the author of Stepfamilies and the Law for my Becoming a Stepmom podcast radio show. If you have questions you want me to ask Ms. Mahoney, comment on this post and I’ll try to fit them into our interview!

Attention Brides-to-Be

1 04 2009

Most of you probably don’t know this but in my professional past life I was the editor-in-chief of a bridal magazine. So I know a lot about what’s available to help brides plan their weddings. That job came in handy when I was ready to plan my own big day. I read The Conscious Bride and loved it because it was about the emotional journey of becoming a wife. But shocker: that book did not include any information for stepfamilies.

Emily Bouchard, the founder of and a frequent contributor to my blog, has just come out with a resource for brides who have stepmothers or stepfathers, but many of the tips apply to brides with stepchildren, too. Like The Conscious Bride, Emily’s eBook Meaningful Weddings with Step-parents in the Mix addresses the emotional needs of the bride but it addresses the complexity of planning a wedding day that includes blended family members. She handles the topic with great sensitivity and gives brides-to-be some concrete ways to help make the big day run more smoothly. Kudos Emily! And thanks for creating such a valuable resource.

If you’re planning your nuptials, check it out. Just click on the cover of the book and it will take you to more info.

Step Parents and Wedding Bliss can mix!

What counts?

25 02 2009

Ladies, I need to get something off my chest. And I hope if you’ve struggled with this one you will give me your ideas about how to deal with it!

I am frustrated with our other household right now, a.k.a the ex, because I can’t figure out what counts and what doesn’t on the financial tally sheet. We do not have a very good system worked out to keep track of who spends what on the kids and who owes whom. My husband has never had a conversation with his ex about what counts and so it is a guessing game. Because we have the kids exactly 50/50 (and I mean to the hour, people), my husband does not pay child support. Each household pays for the upkeep of the children when they are living there, and everything else is split, but only if it counts.

Some things we spend money on count toward this tally sheet in the ex’s head. Some things do not. For instance, any summer camps she sends the kids to count. Any summer camps we send the kids to do not.

If she has the kids for an extra meal at her house, we must pay for it because that counts. The cash we shell out to drive back and forth dropping the kids off at her house does not count.

But shouldn’t she be glad that she now has two more people in her children’s lives who contribute to their financial well-being? My stepchildren have a stepfather and a stepmother who now help support them. But who counts? Only stepdad? How about the dough I’ve forked over for summer camp to help them make friends and keep their butts off the couch all summer long? Why doesn’t that count?

The reason my book for stepmoms has won two awards is because I interviewed wise stepmoms across the country so I could learn how to be a better stepmother myself. I am a writer, a stepmom and stepdaughter, but not a Ph.D. I am stumped on this one, girls. The system we have can not continue into the future with cars, college, and weddings looming. Any advice would be deeply appreciated.

A Dad Speaks

3 02 2009

By Joe Kelly

Journalist, activist and father Joe Kelly co-founded Dads & Daughters® (DADs), the first national advocacy nonprofit for fathers and daughters. He is the author of many books including The Dads & Daughters Togetherness Guide: 54 Fun Activities to Help Build a Great Relationship (Broadway, 2007). Learn more about his important work at

Believe it or not, some people (including many men) continue to ask whether fathers matter all that much to children. Well, stop and ask yourself how your relationship (or lack thereof) with your father or stepfather affected your life. Ask almost anyone else you know the same question.  Give me the answers you get, and I rest my case.

Let’s be clear, fathers are not more important than mothers. Nor are fathers less important than mothers. It’s not a matter of keeping score about who is better or more necessary–keeping score accomplishes nothing in raising kids. Mothers and fathers are different, and when a child has committed, involved parents and stepparents, she is very lucky.  

Fathering is Good for Your Kid  

In the world of social science research, it’s hard to find unanimity on any aspect of human relations. It’s a lot like politics; people can find all sorts of reasons to disagree and statistics to show why.  One of the few things almost all psychological and social research agrees on is this: Children benefit markedly when loving and informed fathers and/or stepfathers are actively involved in their lives.  That is not at all to say that every child who grows up without close ties to his father (due to death, divorce, illness, incarceration, etc.) is doomed to a dreary life of endless failure. That’s nonsense.    It’s nonsense to suggest that every interaction between a father and child is good for the child-dads who abuse or abandon their children inflict immeasurable harm that can last a lifetime. All of us (men especially) must do more to hold such fathers accountable.  It’s also nonsense to say that father care is the only factor that gives kids an edge. Psychiatrist Kyle Pruett, MD, of the Yale University Child Study Center writes that fathering research is in the early stages of exploring “the sometimes murky waters of what father care does to effect development in children and why we think it works the way it does…We have just begun to understand how this works, and every time we get an answer, we unearth more (and usually better) questions.”

Pruett, in his great book Fatherneed (Free Press, 2000) says a father’s importance starts with his very presence: “[H]is smells, textures, voice, rhythms, [and] size promote an awareness in his child that it is okay to be different and okay to desire and love the inherently different, the not-mother entities of the world.” (p.57)

The odds that a child will grow up healthier and more resilient improve when dad is integral to her upbringing. Let’s take the example of a child’s first months of life. If a dad actively raises his child during her first six months, she will achieve higher physical and intellectual progress. Social science research suggests that a daughter with an actively involved father is also more likely to:

  • Learn to read sooner and better.
  • Be more comfortable with physicality and physical risk.
  • Be more sociable.
  • Develop a higher preschool IQ.
  • Have a stronger sense of humor.
  • Cope better with stress and frustration.
  • Have higher preschool math competence and be more willing to try new things.
  • Reach puberty at a later age.
  • Be better at problem-solving.
  • Act out less.
  • Be more comfortable with and accepting of people who disagree with her.
  • Graduate high school and attend college.  

Several studies indicate that when fathers read to their children, kids develop higher verbal skills than when their mothers alone read to them. Particularly during the first year of life, avid father participation in child-rearing strengthens the infant’s cognitive function.  Unfortunately, there has been less media coverage about fathers who are equal parenting partners than about “deadbeat dads” who abandon their kids. Sensationalistic and simplistic press coverage doesn’t paint an accurate picture-and it doesn’t really help fight the scourge of intentional father abandonment and abuse. The number of intentionally absent fathers if far, far greater than it should be and than it has to be.  

Keeping in mind the tendency toward over-simplification in “father absence” research, we can find some patterns which suggest that a daughter without an actively involved father is more likely to:  

  • Grow up in poverty.
  • Have more rigid gender stereotypes.
  • Display aggressive, disruptive behavior.
  • Become sexually active at a younger age.
  • Get pregnant before adulthood.
  • Drop out of school.
  • Have more difficulty with internal control.
  • Develop depression.  

This is just the beginning of why it’s good for dads to be fully involved in a daughter’s life as early and as often as possible.   

Better than Broccoli  

Believe it or not, even with all the demands and the steep learning curve (see What Little Boys Learn), actively involved fathers are healthier and happier than the average man. Yes, fathering is very good for a man, and (at least in my book) it’s a lot more fun than eating broccoli. Not that dads and moms shouldn’t eat broccoli . . . it is good for you, too.  According to fathering researchers, involved fathers are more likely to be productive at work, take fewer sick days, and move up the career ranks. Fathers who continue to learn and get better at managing the demands of child-rearing tend to do better managing other life demands, and feel good about themselves as a result.  Ask a veteran father if he’s learned anything from his children, and you will almost surely hear a big “Of course!” From day one, our children teach both moms and dads amazing things about the world, our families, themselves, and ourselves. Now that this individual child has entered your life, you two parents may even reveal miraculous new things about yourselves to each other on a regular (if not daily) basis.  Veteran dads also say that the more a father nurtures his daughter, the more he will feel nurtured by her in return. Especially in the first year, involved dads crave the times that the baby responds to him because it makes him feel euphoric and deeply content.

Good for Her and the Two of You    

Dads and daughters are not the only beneficiaries of active fathering. Statistically, the mother is more likely to be happier and healthier. And to top it off, the relationship between Mom and Dad tends to be happier and healthier when Dad is sharing the parenting equally.  For years, mothers have told pollsters and researchers that their biggest stress is managing all the demands of child-rearing, even if they don’t also have to handle the demands of a paying job. So, the more parenting responsibilities a father takes on, the greater the chance that his partner’s stress level will drop, making her a happier camper.  Not only that, some research indicates that mothers are better at their mothering when fathers share the everyday parenting. These moms show their children more patience, emotional openness, and flexibility.

That makes sense, because a daughter generally happens to two people. The more those two adults share the responsibility (and opportunity) of child-rearing, the more likely that the job gets done well.  It also stands to reason that reducing stress for someone in a marriage or other partnering relationships reduces stress in the relationship itself. That opens the door for more happiness for the two people in it. There might be some chicken-and-egg forces at work here, too, since men who are happy in their marriage are more likely to be actively involved fathers, and reinforce the whole circle of good stuff that comes from making that commitment.  To top it off, some research indicates that siblings interact with each other better when their father is active in child-rearing, which means his involvement may make the entire family a better place to live and grow up.  Do fathers and stepfathers matter to their daughters and their families? The answer is a resounding “Yes!”-just as it would be if we asked if mothers and stepmothers matter to their daughters and families.  So, should we encourage and promote active fathering? The answer to that question is clear.   

Adapted from The Pocket Idiot’s Guide to Being a New Dad by Joe Kelly and used with permission.