New Stepmom Circles Podcast: The Happy Stepmom

12 05 2010

Listen to this week’s free Stepmom Circles Podcast in which I chat with Dr. Rachelle Katz. Dr. Katz is the author of a new book for stepmothers, The Happy Stepmom. We discuss some of the common challenges of stepmotherhood along with concrete action items you can take home and use with your family. Find out more about Dr. Katz at

Want to talk about today’s show? Join the Stepmom Circles group on FaceBook.

How Do I Listen? Click the link above for this show or visit HERE to listen to all the shows.


Your Questions Answered: Troubled Stepkids

5 05 2010

Dear Jacque:

I have written before in regards to my step son. To be honest I have reached the end of my rope. I am tired of the lying and stealing from him. He hasn’t been stealing “big” items…just little things taking and using things that belong to me (or other members of our household). It’s an issue of trust (or the lack of it with him!)
I had a cloth for cleaning my glasses and he took that (wanted to clean his trumpet with it!) he never asked if it was ok or if he could use it or have it.

I had purchased some chocolate truffles for my husband and he didn’t care for them at the time so I put them in a kitchen drawer for him for a later date…they disappeared the next day…My stepson took them and didn’t ASK and they don’t have permission to just “take food” from the kitchen either.

This morning I found one of my combs in the kids bathroom …when my husband questioned one of his daughters she said no that’s not mine it’s my stepson’s (and it wasn’t his comb, but mine that he confiscated)…again he didn’t ask if he could have it.

I do a lot of sewing and was missing a seam ripper for over a month and was looking and looking for it and couldn’t find it…it was driving me nuts wondering what had happened to it….here it was in HIS room – (why I have no idea).

I’m so tired of trying to find things and to find out that he took it! Then when confronted he lies about it…Oh I got that from a friend at school
We can’t trust him (or don’t) as he proves over and over he isn’t trustworthy and when talked to he get’s angry and defensive – or blames others.

I have asked his dad to send him to live with his mom and he won’t do that…so I resort to being unhappy, in tears nearly every day because I am worn out emotionally from all the lying, stealing, dishonesty. He was diagnosed ADHD and was given medication. Come to find out he was throwing out the pills after my husband handed it to him. This has gone on for weeks and many days I suspected that he wasn’t taking it and here he’d lie about it…oh I took it. I’m tired of the deception. I don’t enjoy being around him anymore. Last night I stayed at work until 8:00 so I didn’t have to deal with him (I’m too stressed) and I told my husband that I’m going to stay in a hotel this weekend…. I’m simply worn out and tired of it. I can’t live in a house where there’s deception, dishonor and dishonesty.

I grew up in a home of TOTAL respect for authority, my mom, adults etc. and he simply doesn’t have any respect. We went through counseling and he said I was way too involved emotionally in the kids and raising them and I needed to step away. It’s my husband’s job and his ex-wifes job to raise them. She basically has nothing to do with the kids. She sees them maybe every other month and went 2 years with no contact at all.

What do you suggest that we do? I told my husband if he is taking little things…just wait a few years…..he’ll be taking money, the car without permission …who knows what he’ll take…it’s like there isn’t a conscience. When given a consequence he gets angry instead of showing remorse like my stepdaughters do.
Thanks for your ministry.

Dear Stepmom:

What a tough time you’re having right now. I am so sorry that you’re feeling so emotionally depleted. I would like to offer you a few things to think about.

Find something good to focus on. Right now. Right away. Whether it’s how much you love your husband’s laugh or your favorite funny movie or your best friend. I don’t care what it is but the only way your brain will be able to come up with creative solutions to your issues is if your body is not under siege from the stress hormones you are pumping it full of right now. (Cortisol and adrenaline.) Have an arsenal of positive actions you can take that make you FEEL GOOD. It’s the only way to help yourself get light enough to float on up out of the muck.

Consider your therapist’s counsel. Your therapist was correct. Most stepmothers take on far too much responsibility for the children they live with full- or part-time, especially in the early days of stepfamily life. You didn’t mention how long you’ve been together, but my guess is somewhere between 2 to 5 years because what you’re describing often comes during that time in stepfamily development. Problems also flare up when kids turn into teenagers.

But at the end of the day, your husband’s kids are his kids. He does need to step up and take responsibility for them. But as women we find this incredibly difficult. We’re supposed to be the female head of the household. We’re supposed to be the ones in charge of the kids. Stepmothers come to the table with these expectations, but the fact is our stepchildren are not ours.

There are times when stepmothers do become more equal parenting partners with the biological parent: If you have full-custody for instance, or if Dad refuses to parent his children. However, research tells us that stepmothers do best parenting from the back seat with Dad’s full support of her authority. We also know that stepmothers who spend time bonding with their stepchildren in the early days of stepfamily life and who have Dad’s support, are the ones who end up moving into a more equal parenting role because the kids and Dad all accept it more readily.

I have a few questions for you: Have he household rules been made clear to all the kids? What are the consequences for breaking the rules? How does DAD enforce them. Not you. This child needs discipline (not punishment, there’s a difference). And he needs it from his Dad. Divorced Dads often feel guilty about having rules and discipline in place, but kids need them. It’s critical to their development.

And: What would happen if you backed off a bit and let Dad parent his kids?

Understand your stepson’s motivations. Your email is full of anger at your stepson and rightly so. But if you choose to continue to feel such resentment toward him, you’ll never be able to build a bridge that can help him turn his behavior around now before it gets any worse. My advice is to turn on your curiosity about why your stepson is stealing things and lying about it. Turn on your compassion for him. Sit down today and write a paragraph as though you are him. Write about what you think his life has been like for the past five years or ten years.

Children tend to act out when they are hurting or afraid because they don’t have the words or the emotional maturity to tell us what’s really going on. Our brains don’t fully develop until we’re in our 20s so it could very well be that your stepson is stealing things from you and his father because his mother is not there for him and he is heartbroken about her abandonment. That would be my guess, not knowing the full story. Children are always loyal to their mothers whether they are fully present, drug addicts, in jail, or have left them to start another family or move to another state. And because he can’t hate his mother without hurting himself even more, he has made you and his father his emotional targets for now. It could also be that he’s stealing from you because if he makes you leave maybe his mother will come back.

In your case, instead of focusing on what he’s doing wrong, I would ask you to start focusing on this boy’s pain. How can help him deal with his heartbreak and fear? How can you guide him? It’s a lot to ask, my dear stepmom. And even if you decide to work on coming at this boy with compassion, it doesn’t guarantee that he will ever thank you for your efforts. This is why your focus also needs to be on your own personal growth.

Define what you’re getting out of this. Personal growth is one of the top things women cite as a benefit of stepfamily life, especially women who have really tough stepkids or ex-wives. But here’s my take: You chose this man and this family for a reason. What is that reason? Why are you with them? What are you learning? How is your soul growing? Right now personal growth can be something you cling to. Later on it can become something you’re proud of.

My heart is with you and your family, Dear Stepmom.

A Holiday Message From Jacquelyn Fletcher

23 12 2009

In the 1980s, Patricia Papernow, Ph.D., a psychologist, stepmother, and author of the award-winning book for therapists, Becoming a Stepfamily: Patterns of Development in Remarried Families, identified seven cycles stepfamilies pass through as they build a life together. Starting with a fantasy and illusion period, they run through immersion, awareness, mobilization, and action as everyone tries to find their place in this new entity, and finally, in some cases after 12 years or more, end at resolution — otherwise known as stability and commitment. According to Papernow, the rare families who go through the stepfamily cycles quickest can successfully establish their new household within four years — but a majority of stepfamilies don’t even make it to the fourth year. And of those stepmothers who slog through years of hard work, many of them still hold deep resentment in their hearts. Is that really a successful stepfamily?

Something is not working. The current strategies and workbooks, the therapy and support groups are not working because most families don’t even know these resources exist. And to make matters worse, according to Margorie Engel, Ph.D., retired former president of the Stepfamily Association of America, stepfamilies don’t consider themselves a stepfamily until there’s a problem. Up to that point, they define themselves as simply a nuclear family. But overlooking the ways in which stepfamilies are different often leads to disaster and heartbreak.

The shiny happy family we’re all supposed to emulate is a complete fabrication. The instant love and feelings of connectedness and home are not automatic in a stepfamily, so we feel like failures. And yet, we stepmoms often are not willing to do the work it takes to succeed in building a strong stepfamily. We often are unwilling to feel uncomfortable in the moment as we work for long-term success. We sometimes act like victims and don’t take responsibility for our part in creating conflict in the early stages of stepfamily development. And in the chaos of the first years, it can be hard to put yourself in your stepkids’ or husband’s shoes.

Stepfamilies are here to stay, and it is crucial that stepmoms learn how to address their challenges in a way that promotes positive growth for everyone involved. In order for stepfamilies to thrive, it is imperative that stepmothers do not feel like strangers or prisoners or outsiders in their own homes. Women must feel like they have a say. However, that doesn’t mean steamrolling the stepfamily into doing only what the stepmom thinks is appropriate. It’s a balancing act — one that takes a great deal of maturity.

There is an upside. Stepfamily life can be a rip-roaring good time. Since none of the former models of family life are working, we get to create a new kind of dynamic in our homes — one that fits us and sustains us. Think of the power! All it takes is creativity, education, the willingness to look at the big picture and ride out the tough times, and the commitment to be present in each moment and each new experience. Easy, right?

Joining a stepfamily can be incredibly scary. The learning curve is so steep it can bury a woman. Consider this. In the first year of marriage, a stepmother feels she must learn how to live with another human being (or several), learn how to be married, learn how to be a stepmother, with all its thorny issues, find her place within a family that has already been together for years, figure out how to assert herself, learn how to support and communicate with people who are wounded, and learn to deal with the ex. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

So what’s the big payoff? Why do it? Why are there 15 million stepmothers in America and 1,300 new stepfamilies forming every single day? Why are we marrying these men with their broods and their ex-wives?

 Simple. Love and hope.

This holiday season I wish you and your family LOTS of love and hope. Blessings to you brave women.


Stepmom Circles Group Coaching: Still Time to Sign Up!

23 12 2009

There’s still time to sign up for the Stepmom Circles Group Coaching sessions that begin in January. Don’t miss your chance to join other stepmothers in a community of like-minded women led by Jacquelyn Fletcher whose inspiring and educational approach to stepfamily life has helped stepmothers all over the world.

Your Questions Answered: Difficult Exes

19 11 2009

Hi Jacque,

Could you offer some advice (or point me to the right place) for how to handle an extremely difficult ex-wife/bio Mom? In our case, my dh’s ex-wife is stunningly cruel and disrespectful. She sends us horrible emails with all sorts of untrue accusations and we are also convinced that she makes my stepdaughter fully aware of her feelings towards us. We have never retaliated with disrespectful behavior and we have, on several occasions, asked her to join us in therapy sessions so that we can learn how to better co-parent. She refuses. With this said, I have come to understand that I cannot change her behavior but I can change how I respond to it. Unfortunately, lately I am doing an awful job and I am allowing this behavior to occupy my consciousness much more than it should (ruminating thoughts, etc.). I have practiced some of the excellent tips that you offered to me in the past to disrupt the ruminations. I am now wondering if you have any advice that is geared towards this very situation (or, again, if you can point me to the right place for some thoughtful guidance/support). Thank you very much!

Dear Reader: You raise a lot of issues in your short email! Unfortunately as so many of you know, the more challenging the ex is the more difficult it is for stepmother and dad to create a stable stepfamily home. Putting together a system that works for you and your family will largely depend on the particular dynamics in your home mixed with old-fashioned trial and error.

Take the 100-year view. You didn’t mention how old your stepdaughter is, but remember this: Someday she will be 18. You will still have to deal with the ex but it will be a lot less than you have to now (assuming your stepdaughter is younger than 18).

Create a sanctuary in your home. Make your home a relaxing and fun place to be for you, your spouse, and your stepdaughter. When stressful things happen with the ex, turn toward your husband, not away. Find ways to spend time together. A good relationship with your spouse is the strongest antidote to a tough ex.

Develop a thought-management plan. For a few days, carry a notebook and jot down the times you think about the ex. What sparked it? What did you think? Write down what those thoughts make you feel. Now, make a deal with yourself. Allow the thoughts about the ex only at certain times. (For instance, for a half hour on Saturday at 2 p.m.) Then on Saturday at 2, rant and rave about the ex. At all other times, practice training your brain to stop the nasty thoughts. Here are things that might help:

  • Distract yourself with something else. Call your best friend, go for a run, walk your dog, turn up your favorite music really loud, send a prayer of gratitude to the ex for signing the divorce papers.
  • Practice gratitude. A simple thing really, but research has proven that by making lists every day of the things you are thankful for it can really help alleviate the negative spirals we get ourselves into.
  • Ask yourself who you would be without those thoughts. This is straight from Byron Katie’s wonderful theory which she calls, “The Work.” You have the power to choose the direction of your thoughts. It takes practice, like anything else, but you CAN do it.
  • Add a ritual or reward system that reminds you of your intention to think less negatively about the ex. Every time the ex pops up in your head, do some physical ritual to help you remember. For instance, light a candle and blow it out. When the light extinguishes, so do the negative thoughts. Or track the number of times you successful banish negative thoughts. Then set up rewards when you hit certain numbers. The 10th time you start thinking, “That B*&(#!!” and end up wishing her peace or distracting yourself with thoughts of the day’s tasks or a newspaper story you read, then reward yourself with something wonderful.

Employ your empathy. People are not all good or all bad so work to find something about the ex that you can empathize with. Try putting yourself in her shoes to see if you can understand why she might be feeling threatened. Remember she’s a woman who has been through divorce (even if she wanted it) and that is painful. She likely feels guilt about the breakup of the family and how it will affect her children. She could be scared to be a single mom or afraid that she’ll like your house better than hers. Find your compassion for her and it will make giving up negative thoughs much easier.

Other resources: Besides Byron Katie’s work, you might check out Positivity by Barbara Frederickson and The How of Happiness by Sonja Lyubomirsky. Both authors are researchers who have tested out their theories on hundreds of people.

Your Questions Answered: A Surprise Stepchild

19 11 2009

Dear Jacque,

A few months after I met my now husband, he discovered (through paternity testing) that he had a child from a relationship 9 years prior. The child’s mother waited for 9 years to seek child support and never established contact between my husband and her or the child (they lived 2,000 miles away).

This past year, the child’s (now 14) mother established contact with my husband and ultimately my husband has finally talked to his son online, over Skype and emails. Father and son seem to enjoy their talks and my husband is planning a trip to see him in the next few weeks. I don’t plan on going mostly because this boy hasn’t even met his father yet; bringing along an extra “mom-type” wouldn’t be fair to anyone.

I have done everything in my capability to be a good stepmom to the two kids that we share custody with with his ex-wife. In fact, some would say I’ve gone above and beyond the Stepmom call of duty. I love my stepkids and consider them like my own.

What perplexes me is that I can’t seem to wrap my head (or heart) around liking this third kid. I want to consider him part of our family, but I’m struggling with that. I admire my husband for stepping up and wanting to establish a relationship with this kid but I feel like a horrible person because I don’t want to deal with the new extension of our stepfamily.

Our custodial kids don’t know about their half-brother and we have no intentions of telling them at the moment. Both kids tend to have behavioral issues when confronted with major upheavals (as could be expected).

Any advice for how I can maintain my sanity while I warm up to an “extra” stepchild?

Dear reader: As a custodial stepmother you’ve already worked your tail off. It doesn’t seem fair that you are now faced with yet another emotional hurdle to jump, one that could potentially disrupt the hard-won stepfamily harmony you’ve already established at home. I do have some thoughts for you.

Allow yourself to have an emotional reaction.  Of course you’re going to react emotionally to such powerful news. Give yourself the time and space to cry or scream. Get it out. Embody your hurt or feelings of betrayal fully so that they don’t continue to sit in you and fester into something that will then leak out of you over time to poison you and your family. Search your heart for what is so painful about this revelation. If you can’t have children of your own, does it rub salt in an open wound? Does this make you feel differently about your spouse, as though you’ve been cheated on? React. And remember that anger often covers up the true emotions underneath. Be brave and seek out the truth in your heart. Be honest about your feelings with your husband. Get your feelings out on the table so you can look at them, deal with them, and move on with your lives.

Take it slow. I was glad to hear you didn’t jump on a plane and rush out to be part of yet another stepfamily structure the second you heard about this new development in your family. This really is your husband’s responsibility. He’s going to have to take it slow with the boy and you can take it even more easy. Allow your husband to figure out what kind of relationship he’s going to have with his son and then together the two of you can figure out what your approach will be.

Be open to unexpected gifts. In the classic hero’s journey recorded in the myths and stories of cultures around the world, there is always a moment where the hero faces a trial that she doesn’t think she’ll ever be able to overcome. But she does somehow. And in the morning she finds out something amazing she never would have learned if not for the dark night of the soul initiation rite she passed through. Entertain this idea for a moment: What if this boy has entered your lives to teach you all a valuable lesson or give you a generous gift?

Be extra kind to yourself. I am serious about this. Time after time I coach stepmothers who promise they will make sure to include self-care in their daily regimen and don’t. They put everyone else’s needs before their own. (You know who you are!) So take out your calendar and schedule time EVERY DAY to do something that makes you feel good. Even if it’s only five minutes, or five deep breaths, you need to be gentle with yourself right now. If this is hard for you, listen to the Stepmom Circles Podcast in which I interview Pilar Gerasimo who clearly spells out the research-tested, doctor-approved reasons why we MUST include self-care as a regular activity.

Your Questions Answered: Getting Started in a Stepfamily

12 11 2009

Dear Jacque,

I (26) am in a serious relationship with a girl (20) who has never been married or had kids. I have one of my own who is 5. We have recently been discussing a possible future together with kids and marriage. I have also never been married. My son’s mother and I found out she was pregnant after we had split up so marriage was never on the table. My ex has full custody, but I have him pretty much any weekend I want and for extended periods over the summer. My girlfriend expressed some serious concerns about her role as a stepmom to my son and how our future kids and my son would handle a blended family situation. She is also concerned about her role now, as my son’s dad’s girlfriend, and what amount of time spent with my son would be appropriate. I am ashamed to say that I did not have any good answers for any of these questions. Neither of us have any experience with blended family situations. Can you please give me some advice? I guess the main questions I would like addressed are the following:

*Should I segregate myself and my son from my girlfriend (while she is still just my girlfriend) when he visits? If not what level of involvment would be appropriate. How much of a say should my ex have in regards to this question?

*How is my future wife going to have any authority over my son. Is it ok if she derives this authority through me (for example: Don’t do this or your father will ground you.)?

*How should we handle jealousy that my son might have toward future kids?

Thank you very much, and any input would be extremely helpful and much appreciated.

These are all big questions! Bravo for searching out information on stepfamilies. That will serve you extremely well in the future. You and your girlfriend can do a few things to prepare so you have some idea what to expect. The first resource I would offer you is to sit down with your girlfriend and read my book together. It’s for women who are in her exact position: women who don’t have kids of their own who are dating, engaged or married to a man with kids from a previous relationship. You can read the first couple of chapters for free on my website. Check out the “Browse inside this book” on the right hand side of the page. I address a lot of the topics you are worried about.

It is absolutely okay to have your girlfriend meet your children if you are sure that this is serious with your girlfriend. If you are planning to marry her, it’s even more appropriate and in fact, important. It’s a mistake to introduce the kids to your significant other shortly before the wedding without giving everyone a chance to get to know each other.

Your ex wife does not have a say in who you introduce your son to when he’s with you. This is a hard pill for biological moms to swallow (and dads too, when the kids are with mom), but that is part of blended family life. You have to give up a certain amount of control when it comes to your kids. This is not easy!!!

As for your girlfriend’s authority, your instincts are right on. It all has to come through you. You set up the rules (see the house rules section of my book) with input from your partner and then you present them to your stepson along with the consequences for not following them. And then you tell your stepson that your partner has the authority from you to uphold those rules when you’re not around. It is a mistake to have her be a disciplinarian to your son right away until they develop a strong relationship. The bottom line is slow and steady wins the race. Take your time. Stepfamilies take a long time to feel comfortable and stable.

The jealousy issue is best handled by treating all of the children who live in the house the same. There will be things that a child will naturally feel jealousy about (a new child has more time with dad, for instance) and so the best thing to do is continue to spend time with the older children one-on-one and sending messages of love and acceptance.

You might also try these resources for more education about stepfamily life:

National Stepfamily Resource Center (NSRC)
A vast resource for stepfamilies, the National Stepfamily Resource Center develops educational programs for stepfamilies and the professionals who work with them. Dr. Francesca Adler-Baeder, director of the Center for Children, Youth, and Families at Auburn oversees the NSRC, which serves as a clearinghouse of information for stepfamilies that links family science research on stepfamilies and best practices in work with couples and children in stepfamilies. The organization’s website includes links to resources for stepfamilies, frequently asked questions, and research summaries.

Stepfamily Living
Stepfamily expert Elizabeth Einstein has created this site which lists her books, DVDs, and workshops for stepfamilies.

Successful Stepfamilies
Author, speaker, and marriage and family therapist Ron Deal’s site with books (including The Smart Stepmom), DVD programs, free articles, and links to support Christian stepfamilies. Includes a list of conferences and workshops for stepfamilies.