Your Questions Answered: From a Stepdaughter

21 10 2009

Dear Jacque, My dad and stepmom have been married for 15 years. I am now 30 years old and she and I still have an entirely broken and bitter relationship. Can you recommend any books specifically for healing adult blended families (particularly with a long history together)? I am on the verge of giving up.

Thank you for sending in such a great question. I have to give you major kudos for wanting to work on your relationship with your stepmother. I don’t know of any books that speak directly to your question but you might check out Making Adult Stepfamilies Work by Jean Lipman-Blumen and Grace Gabe. It’s more about what to do when families get together later in life so it’s not an exact fit. If anyone has ideas of other books, please respond to this post and help our reader out.

I’m guessing that your early years with your dad and stepmom were challenging simply because you were 15 when they got married and that is a tough, tough age. (Correct me if I’m wrong!) You raise an interesting point that not only do children have to come to terms and with and heal from their childhood, so do parents who live through a high-conflict time. Here are a few things I would offer you wearing both my stepmom and stepdaughter hats:

Compliment her. Pointing out the positives about her role in your life can have MAJOR healing power. Compliment what she did for you and the positive parts of her personality or her relationship with your dad.

Ask your stepmother and dad what that time was like for them. It can be hard for adults to accept that their kids and stepkids have changed as they’ve grown to adulthood. They hang on to what we were like back then. Your stepmother could be holding on to the girl you used to be. Asking her what it was like for her and listening to her with an open heart can have a powerful effect on relationships that need healing. And of course, if you haven’t done so, share with her what it was like for you.

Apologize for your part and ask for an apology. Make the past the past by apologizing for your part in the conflict. It’s true that our parents “were the adults” and “should have known” to do things that would not harm us, but the fact is our parents are human just like we are. So apologize for your behavior. Then ask for an apology back so you can all put the past in the past and move forward.

Find common ground. Are there things you both like to do that have already provided you with a sense of camaraderie or at least a sense of peace? For instance, a lot of adult stepchildren and stepparents are able to heal the wounds of the past when grandchildren are born. Playing with a child or doing something fun together like attending a play or having a cup of coffee at a favorite coffee shop can provide a new way for you and your stepmom to bond.

Spend one-on-one time. Get your Dad out of the picture. Spend time alone with your stepmother and talk to each other. Learn about her life. Tell her about yours. Even if you’ve heard all the stories before, you’ll hear them differently now that you’re an adult and vice versa.

I hope you’ll keep us posted on how things work out for you and your stepmom! It can take hard work to let go of the hurts of the past but it’s worth it.

Stepmoms Speak

2 12 2008

The L-Word

Guest columnist Izzy Rose is stepmom of two boys, The Tall One and The Young One. The following post is reprinted here with permission from her excellent blog at

Earlier this summer, The Young One claimed he was suffering from “separation anxiety” (his words).He hadn’t seen his mom for months and he was missing her with intensity. His dismal mood was made evident by slumped shoulders, apathetic table manners and a dramatic display of affection. The kid was oozing with emotion, of the Soap Opera variety. For example, when his dad went out to the garage, The Young One would treat it as a formal departure.

“Bye, Daddy. I love you.” 

“I’m not going anywhere. I’m just going to the garage.”

“I know. I just love you, anyway.”

He started throwing that L-word around like it was losing popularity.

“Bye, Daddy. I love you. Bye.”

Poor kid. Heartbreaking times. His nerves were fried. He’d reached his threshold of ten-year-old bravery. It had been too long. He needed his mom, the original, not the step. Mama Bird was still living in California and we’d moved on to Texas. Video-chat was not cutting it. He was tired of talking to her forehead.  

The husband recognized that his little man was no tough guy, and indulged him. “Love you, too.” With that, he’d close the door to the bathroom and leave The Young One standing in the hall, waving a tragic goodbye.

I know. You want to take him under your bird wing and let him cry it out, don’t you? Well, this essay is actually not about separation anxiety. It’s about the L-word.

 Let’s talk about love.

I noticed during The Young One’s mini-crisis that his freedom with the L-word left me feeling very uncomfortable with my own reluctance to release the sappy sentiment. Why was I withholding?

A recent story in New York magazine asks, do parents really love their adopted children differently than their own offspring? A similar question can be posed to stepparents. Can stepparents really love their stepkids like they were their own flesh and blood? I’ve got to be honest. I think the answer is yes and no.

This love business. It’s a tricky thing.

I believe that with stepchildren, falling in love isn’t always instant. Just because you adore their father doesn’t mean you immediately fancy his kids. Or them, you. Why would this relationship be automatic? Women screen men for years before they find one to truly cherish. Our love is selective, isn’t it?

As much as I like the blissful act of letting go, of finally giving in to love with reckless abandon, I don’t say the L-word until I really mean it. Not only is this my rule for the man; it’s my rule for his kids, too.

I believe that with stepchildren, falling in love isn’t always instant.

I’ve always felt like society expects women to feel tenderness for anything with a heartbeat. Just because I have lady-parts, I’m supposed to love all of humanity? How did this ridiculous rumor get started?

I admit it. This confession makes me wonder if I’m missing a maternal gene. Perhaps my DNA is botched. Whatever the case, I hope my honesty here gives me a little absolution.

When The Husband and I got together, there were many who assumed that I’d fallen for all three of them. They expected that since I’d become an overnight mother of sorts, my natural, maternal instincts kicked in. Again, sorry to disappoint, but I did not feel this way. I wasn’t going to donate a kidney should either one of them get sick. Not right away.

Now, let me be clear, I thought the boys were lovely and I was very fond of them. But neither party was gushing l’amour. We were not living out a fairy tale. It was awkward. And, I thought our hesitation made the situation very real and strangely, comforting.

It wasn’t until over three years into our relationship that the words escaped my lips. One evening, I sat on the edge of The Young One’s bed, feeling sad for him and his nostalgia for the way things were, and it just hit me. I love this kiddo. I said, “Hey weirdo, I love you.”

And instantly, I knew I meant it.

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, 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 for more about the art of smacking down the Inner Critic.

Big Changes

1 11 2008

I am excited to announce some big changes! I will no longer be sending out the Becoming a Stepmom newsletter. Now you can find all the archived stories from all the newsletters up on this blog at I will be adding new content every week so you’ll still be able to read the newsletter, but in blog form! We’ll be able to connect with each other in a more direct way with online conversations. I hope you’ll feel free to comment, ask questions, suggest topics, and give others advice about what worked for you. I will also continue to build a resources page that will ultimately contain books, therapists who specialize in stepfamily development, organizations, and websites. If you’ve got favorites send them along!

The blog will continue to have advice from marriage and family professionals, ideas from veteran stepmoms, and summaries of the latest research and how we can apply success strategies to our own families.

If you’re new to Becoming a Stepmom, you can sign up to receive new posts in your email inbox. Just click the link at the top of the right-hand navigation. 

In addition to the blog at, I am also working on a new book series called 101 Smackdowns for Your Inner Critic: Knock out your doubts and create the life of your dreams. Check out the blog at and let me know what you think! Your feedback is always deeply appreciated.

Questions? Feel free to email me at becomingastepmom (at)

Here’s to building stepfamilies that last a lifetime.



The Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmum

31 10 2008

This article originally appeared in Image Parenting magazine, in Ireland

When I turned 30, I had a fantastic career and a lovely flat. A perfect life filled with friends, holidays, yoga, and dinners out. When I returned home after a day’s work, the television remote control was right where I left it. The dishes in the sink were mine. The shoes in the middle of the living room belonged to the lovely man I was dating. Yes, he had kids. Three of them, but I hadn’t met them yet. I was just having a wonderful time dating a man who just happened to be divorced.

When I decided to marry him, life changed, to put it mildly. Suddenly, there were dirty socks on the kitchen counter top. There were toys wedged between the sofa cushions and plates of half-eaten food left on bookshelves.

As women continue to marry later in life-often after they’ve established their professional careers and their own well-run busy social lives-more and more are meeting grooms who come with ready-made families. Yet, despite this, nowhere could I find advice to help figure out what was going on in my own home. Why could I no longer recognize myself or my kitchen? Why did I keep crying in the laundry room? What had happened to my lovely world? The answers weren’t clear so to figure out how to transform myself from single girl to stepmum, I talked to as many stepmothers, stepfamily researchers, and marriage and family professionals as I could find. Eventually, I discovered a simple truth: the skills I’d developed as a career girl were exactly what I needed to become a stepmum. Here’s what I learned:

Gain Market Intelligence
Women who are aware of the particular dynamics of stepfamilies are much more prepared to deal with the challenges. Kay Christie, 56, is stepmother to four children who were between the ages of 18 and 27 when she married their dad in 1996. She took a four-day class to learn how stepfamilies are different from first families. “Without it I would have given up. At least then I knew there were cycles a stepfamily goes through. I learned that the couple bond has to be preserved and take priority.” 

Analyze the Existing Structure
Most of the research done on stepfamilies shows that when a new stepmother enters a family and demands sweeping changes, chaos ensues. At the beginning, while everyone’s getting to know one another, it is important to sit back and observe how things work, essentially to honor how they have chosen to live before you came along. 

“Stepparents need to be respectful and observant,” says Patti Kelly Criswell, a clinical social worker who often works with children in stepfamilies. “Instead of saying ‘this is intolerable,’ make suggestions and ask questions: ‘I would like to see the house a little cleaner. How can we live together in harmony?’ If you’re a natural leader, it’s even more important to be really careful in this respect.” Still, it’s important not to feel powerless and voiceless in your own home. That’s where Dad comes in.

Delegate Authority
Dads in new stepfamilies really have to do a lot of work to help the newly formed family succeed. He’s the middle man. He’s the one everyone-the kids, a new stepmother, the ex-wife-are all looking to for guidance. The more you and your spouse can work as a team, the better off everyone will be. In the early days, create a list of house rules together that everyone must live by. The list should include rules the kids already live with. However, you can add a few of your own that are important for you to feel comfortable in the house. Dad then presents this list to the kids, outlining the consequences of not following the rules and explaining that you can enforce them when he’s not home. That way, in the eyes of the children, you clearly have the support of Dad but are not solely to blame for any changes. 

Build Community
Just like any relationship, to build strong bonds, it’s important to spend one-on-one time with each member of the stepfamily. “I was never pushy about acceptance,” says Julie of her four stepchildren, who were ages six, eight, 13, and 15 when she met their dad over seven years ago. “I never had any kind of preconceived notion that I would replace their mother. I figured the relationships would develop the way they would. I’ve always been a kid person and I play a lot so that made it easier. We played and had fun and I didn’t put pressure on the relationships.” 

Create a Structure of Support
Stepmothers often report feeling like outsiders in their own homes. Allison remembers how awful she felt when she became a stepmother to three teens. “In the beginning, they made a point of not including me. They’d tell inside jokes, have family discussions about their holidays together. There were times at the dinner table when literally not one person would address me, not even my husband. Even though I was taking up a chair, I didn’t exist.” 

Women like Allison who have rocky beginnings but end up happy stepmothers are usually adept at surrounding themselves with people, a career, and hobbies that make them feel good.

Kay, the stepmother of four now grown-up children, reports on the things she did to stay balanced through the difficult years. “You have to do something to keep your sanity. I wrote in a journal to relieve the stress and a friend of mine, another stepmother, and I talked every couple of days at length. I have always been a person who exercises so I was going to my fitness classes or walking. When I knew the boys were coming home for two to three weeks, I would schedule a massage weekly.”

Working women say that keeping their careers when they join their new stepfamily helps them maintain a sense of identity during a sometimes traumatic transition period. Lauren and her husband Tom have been married for 25 years. Tom had full custody of his three young boys when they met and the couple later had three more children together. Right from the beginning, Lauren knew she had to continue to pursue her desire to be a doctor. “I needed my career for my own ego, identity, and self-worth,” she says.

Interview the Participants
Keep in mind that kids whose parents are divorced or who have lived through the death of a parent are often wounded. They are likely to be experiencing grief, fear and anger because their lives have changed in a way they have no control over, so go easy on them and try to see things from their point of view. Allison struggled with her relationships with her three teenage stepchildren in the early years of her marriage. “Since I had never had children of my own, I was looking forward to the experience. Little did I know it would be full of landmines, that when kids have no room to vent their anger and hurt and can’t really rail at their parents, you become the target.” 

Eventually, she understood that the kids, and even her husband, were working through old divorce wounds. “I had to be the adult and remember that sometimes their reactions were coming through a huge filter of hurt. I couldn’t be tied to the outcome. I went at them consistently with kindness and no attachment to their reaction, and eventually they came around. But I couldn’t give up; you can’t give up.”

Tend Your Relationship
Ultimately, no matter what a new stepmother does to build a bond with her stepkids, it is her marital relationship that is the most important. Divorce rates for remarriages are higher than first marriages so to maintain the health and longevity of the relationship, a new couple must make their union a priority.

Kay and her spouse made sure they created many happy memories together. “My husband was always good at making time for us to go away. In the early years of our marriage it was about once a month. We do it quarterly now and it has helped bond us and keep the romance alive.”

Career girls-turned-stepmums know that juggling a job, a marriage, and stepkids can be a challenge. But they’re also brilliant at setting goals, building camaraderie and solving problems with creativity and passion-exactly what it takes to build a successful stepfamily.

Jacquelyn B. Fletcher is a stepmum of three, mum of one, and the author of A Career Girl’s Guide to Becoming a Stepmom (HarperCollins 2007).