Monday, December 12, 2011

Are Non-Married Stepmothers Really Stepmothers?

As tough as it can be to be a stepmother at all, it can be even tougher to be an unmarried one. The role is even more ambiguous and many people don’t extent non-married stepmothers the same level of respect and acknowledgment as married stepmoms.

My now-husband and I lived together for several years before getting engaged and married (both in the same year). I struggled with feeling like people in my life didn't respect that fact that I was, indeed, a stepmom--someone who changed diapers and kissed boo-boos and gave time-outs.

Then when I got married people said things to me like, "how do you feel about becoming a stepmother on Friday?" One person even said, "gosh, on Thursday you'll be a single girl and then on Friday you'll be a stepmom." These comments all came from people who had known me and my family for years.It seems like a lot of the step-parenting material out there is aimed at married stepmoms.

That’s why I’m so excited by a new book I just started reading: Teach Yourself Successful Step-Parenting by Suzie Hayman. In the first chapter Hayman writes,

“What is a stepfamily? A stepfamily is any household that includes children who are related to one parent but not the other. You may feel that partners have to be married for one of them to be a step-parent, or that the children need to live with you full time for them to be stepchildren. The truth is that all the emotional needs and problems that go with stepfamilies kick into play whether the adults concerned are actually married or not.”

I think Haymen hit the nail exactly on the head--whether you’re married or not, you still have to face the same issues.

How about you--do you agree or disagree? While I feel very strongly about this, I've also women who feel very strongly that you're not a stepmother until after you've both said your vows. I’d love to hear what you think.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

How to not Look Like You're Trying to Replace their BioMom, Part I

I mentioned before that I’d signed up for a step-parenting newsletter. I was a bit suspicious when I read this installment:

“You are not the parent . . . Making attempts to take the place of your stepchild’s biological parent, no matter how little contact the child has with him or her, will likely backfire. That’s what David Caldwell, a 52-year-old father of two stepchildren and three biological children in San Francisco, learned when he married his wife.‘The main thing is not to overreach,’ he says. ‘I had to remind myself that the kids already had a father. No matter how little he was around, I needed to respect his position.’”
I agree and disagree. I agree that the role of a step-parent is not to replace a biological parent. Our place is not to convince our stepchildren that their biological parents never existed or that our relationship with them is better than the one they have with their parents.

At the same time, though, I believe that being able to be a parent in your own home—that is, to be an equal partner with your spouse, to set rules in your house, to show your stepchildren love and support, and to discipline them when necessary—is crucial for many stepmothers to be happy.

The question becomes, then, how do you parent your stepchildren without acting like you’re trying to replace their biological parent? I’m going to be doing some additional research about this during the week, but here are my initial conclusions:

First, don’t try and replicate the life they have with their biological parent. You might think that you’re doing them a favor by doing everything the way their mother does it—after all, that’s what they’re used to, right? If you do this too much, though, your stepkids are going to interpret this as you trying to take over for their mother.

Next, don’t make any kind of negative comments about their biological mother or the quality of the relationship they have with her. Besides hurting their feelings, this is going to make your stepchildren think that you’re trying to show them that you’d make a better mother to them than her.

More to come next post.

Stepmotherhood and Self-Esteem

No one warned me. None of the books and articles I’d read when I first became a stepmother prepared me for how my new role would, for a time, negatively impact my self-esteem.

What it is about being a stepmom that can rob us of our self-confidence and positive self-concept? After doing a little research, I see three very important factors to consider:

Relationships and Family

Studies show that women link their self-value to their family role and successful relationships. According to this article, experts have seen that, “a large part of a woman's self-esteem depends on her stepfamily relationship going smoothly. Therefore when family situations are negative a stepmother suffers from low self-esteem and feelings of insecurity and guilt.”

Since pretty much all stepfamilies go through rocky periods of adjustment, we can see how most stepmoms would be vulnerable to these effects. Wednesday Matrin describes this very well in her new book Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. She writes:
“women are relaters par excellence. Liking and being liked are generally of paramount importance to us, a kind of interpersonal bull’s-eye that makes us feel happy and successful. Predictably, then, the unremitting hostility and rejection that may come from our stepchildren can feel devastating . . . With our self-esteem thus undermined, we’re increasingly prone to anxiety, stress, and feelings of worthlessness.”
Clarity of Role

Research suggests that having a less clear self-concept is linked to having lower self-esteem. It’s no secret that one of the most stressful aspects of being a stepmom is not having a clear picture of your role. Are you a second mom, or an aunt, or a friend, or a stranger living in the same house? Do you discipline or not? What is your authority? Volumes have been written about the fact that, “the role of stepmother is the most stressful and ambiguous in the stepfamily.”

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive dissonance is the stressful feeling caused when a person tries to hold two opposite ideas simultaneously. I’ve also had this described to me as the reason people feel upset when they act in a manner that isn’t in keeping with how they see themselves. Over time cognitive dissonance negatively impacts our self esteem.

Before we enter into our stepfamily, we have perceptions about ourselves and expectations of our stepchildren and partners. However, once we face the difficulties of adjusting to our new stepfamily, we end up feeling confused when reality doesn’t match up with our previous expectations and self-perception.

As time goes by, we may act differently than what feels natural for us because we think that's the way stepmothers are “supposed to act,” only to later think, "wait, this isn't me." Or, our stepchildren disrespect us and we start doubting ourselves—wondering if maybe we aren't the loving, capable, fabulous people we thought we were, because surely our stepchildren would respect loving, capable, fabulous people.

Many stepmoms feel torn when they try to get their stepchildren to treat them with the respect they feel they deserve, only to end up feeling like wicked stepmothers for doing so. “As stepmothers,” Martin writes, “we are expected to let it go, often for years on end. If we can’t—if we complain, set limits, or tell our stepchildren they’re not welcome if they can’t treat us civilly—we are being petty, stereotypical stepmonsters.”

I know that I've had to consciously make a decision not to base my self-esteem on my stepfamily relationships. How have you coped with this issue?

Sunday, December 4, 2011

Terrible Advice about Stepmothers and Discipline

I’m interrupting my series of posts about learning to love your stepchildren to respond to some terrible step-parenting advice that’s landed in my inbox.

I signed up for a step-parenting e-newsletter to see what they had to say. Most of what I’ve read so far has rankled me, including this:

"One of the top questions stepparents ask is 'how should I discipline my stepchild?' And, the short answer is 'you don’t' . . . Come up with a few rules to start, and then determine with your spouse how you will help enforce his or her authority . . . If you are going to be the primary caregiver while your spouse is at work, this conversation is especially important."
I was incredibly frustrated reading this because I’ve learned first-hand that relying on your husband to be the only one in your family who disciples the kids will end up making you miserable. (Scroll down to my August 24 post for more about why this is a bad idea.)

One of the first things you need to do when you and your partner move in together is sit down and talk to the kids about what your new household will be like. You can’t cover everything, of course, but try and let them know what you expect from them and what life will be like in your home. It’s important to explain to the children that they will be required to treat you with the same respect that they treat their other parents, that this is just as much your house as your husband’s, and that you have just as much authority to enforce the rules as he does.

Now, I’m not saying that there isn’t an adjustment period for everyone involved. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t compromise on things or that you shouldn’t be understanding. But when it comes down to it, your step kids will need to adapt to being your (step)children just as much as you are adjusting to being their (step)parent. It may be sad for your stepchildren, and they may be mourning that fact, but the key principle you need to keep in mind is that it’s not your fault that their parents got divorced. You don’t have to give up your right to being an adult in your own home just because their biological parents aren’t living under the same roof.

This might sound a little harsh to some people, but if you’re going to be a happy stepmother then you need to see yourself as an equal partner with the children’s father and appropriately in control of your life, your family, and your home. Your new family is just that—a family, made up of adults and children. And children are still just children even if their parents are divorced. They still need guidance and boundaries and they still need to act respectfully and follow the rules.

That’s what I’ve learned, at least—what do you think?

Friday, December 2, 2011

Stepmother Stressor: Money

A friend of mine recently complained to me that her son’s stepmother makes sure that her own children have nice things but doesn’t do the same for her son. I could tell my friend was upset and my immediate reaction was to agree, “Wow, that’s too bad.” But just as the words left my mouth I experienced a secret flash of sympathy for her son’s stepmother, and in the moment of silence that followed I worried about being in that woman’s shoes when I have my own bio-kids.

When it comes to spending money on our stepchildren, what is our responsibility as stepmoms? A toy is one thing, but what about piano lessons and horseback-riding camp every summer? College tuition? At what point do we draw the line?

There are a lot of complicating factors, like whether or not you and your partner have joined finances (we don’t), amount of visitation time, and how involved or detached you are from your stepchildren. However, no matter the circumstances, I think that we stepmoms have the right to decide how much money we want to spend on our stepchildren without worrying about other people will judge us.

Like everything with stepparenting, this is a lot harder than it sounds. A lot of emotional issues go into finances and stepparenting, like wanting your stepchildren to feel like equal members of the family and not wanting them to feel inferior if their stepsiblings get things they don’t. You also may want to have some discretionary money to spend on your biokids alone, but then feel guilty about not spending as much money on your stepkids.

I think the first step to addressing these issues involves just letting go:

- Let go of your guilt. You were not the one who got divorced—their parents were. It’s not your fault that your stepchildren are now in this position.

- Let go of worrying about what their biomom or other people will think of you if you buy or don’t buy something. Remember that your partner and his ex always have the choice to buy things for their kids. If you purchase horseback-riding lessons for your kids and not theirs, they still have the option to buy them for their children. It’s not your fault if they don’t.

Another thing you can do is to focus on finding ways to make your stepkids feel valued and included that don’t involve a lot of money:

- Create a home environment in which your stepkids don’t feel like they are just visiting. Make sure that they have a space of their own and that they’re involved in activities like meal preparation and family dinners. Even something like having assigned chores at your house makes them feel less like a guest and more like a part of the family.

- Spend time together doing things that don’t cost a lot of money, like playing board games and going to the park. Have fun, talk, and get to know each other better.

- Give them encouragement and praise their efforts. Tell your stepchild about how you admire the work she put into their science project and what a good dancer he is.

- Make it a priority to communicate your affection through words, attention, and time instead of by buying things. Money is not the only language of love.

Has spending or not spending money on your stepkids ever been something you’ve stressed about? Have you ever felt guilty about buying something for your kids but not your stepkids? I’d love to hear your story.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Making a Detachment Plan

Sorry it's taken me a while to get back here--my computer was totalled by a virus last week.

Last time I mentioned that I wanted to talk some more about detachment. Detachment can be described as creating a sense of indifference towards your stepchildren’s behaviors and actions; it’s a way to put a halt to your emotional reactions to them and the whole step situation. I spent this week creating a personal detachment plan. Here are some suggestions for creating one of your own:

1) First, make a list of things your stepchildren (or their parents) do that drive you crazy and hurt your feelings.

2) Next, start by thinking about ways to avoid these hot button situations. Are there any activities you can get out of? For example, I’ve decided to remove myself from pick up and drop off situations from now on; they’re just too emotionally exhausting for me.

3) Give yourself permission to leave the room. I used to feel bad about this; I felt like it was childish, like I was running away from a problem. I’ve since come to realize that there’s no shame in removing yourself from certain situations—especially ones that you feel aren't worth arguing about or where you feel like you’ve become too emotional to effectively deal.

4) Acknowledge your feelings. After some introspection I realized that part of why I get frustrated is because I feel like I’m not supposed to let myself get upset in the first place. It’s time to let myself off the hook.

5) Figure out stock phrases you can have ready for when your hot button situations arise. Try to think of things that can either diffuse the emotion or help you escape the situation without any further tension. For example, I used to get really worked up when my stepdaughter would whine, “but my Mama lets me…” over and over again. Now I just say, “well, that’s okay at Mama’s house but here we don’t (whatever). We’re not going to argue about it anymore.” It’s important to practice phrases like these on your own or with a friend—it makes it easier to remember them in the midst of an emotional moment.

6) Find ways to control your emotional reactions from the situation.

• Repeat to yourself: “I can’t control the actions of others; I can only control my reactions to their actions.” This is something I'm really focusing on.

• Nip it in the bud: Try and catch yourself before your emotions run away with you. Having a list of you hot buttons helps with this.

• Absolve yourself of responsibility for their actions: You do not have to judge yourself based on your stepchildren’s or their parents’ behavior.

• Don’t respond to jibes or even unintended annoyances: There will be times that you need to speak up and make it clear that something your stepkids have said or done is not ok in your house. Other times, letting things go helps you avoid getting sucked into emotionaly draining situations.

• Deep breathing: Make yourself stop and take a series of deep breaths. It sounds a little corny but it really works. If you can meditate, even better.

• Exercise: Your body fills up with adrenaline when you’re frustrated—you need to get rid of it, even if it’s just by taking a brisk walk.

7) Put it all together by writing it down or talking about it with a friend. Discuss your plan with your partner and family if you feel comfortable doing so. Finally, give yourself permission to put your plan into action.

Saturday, November 5, 2011

More Questionable Advice for Stepmothers

I received more questionable advice from the step-parenting e-newsletter I signed up for. Here’s something that made me raise an eyebrow:

“If you have raised your children to eat more healthfully than your spouse has, serve both doughnuts and Grape Nuts for breakfast. If the rule in your former house was for children to help with the household chores, avoid putting your stepchildren to work scrubbing and mopping.”
Compromise is certainly an integral part of being a stepmother. But here’s the catch: when you to try and compromise too much on issues that are important to you, when you try and give up your values and try to be someone you’re not for the sake of Being a Good Stepmom for too long, you’ll only end up frustrated and unhappy.

Resentment builds and grows over time, and, in my experience at least, cognitive dissonance kicks in. Cognitive dissonance is the stressful feeling caused when a person tries to hold two opposite ideas simultaneously. It’s the reason people feel upset when they act in a manner that isn’t in keeping with how they see themselves.

Here’s what I mean: it’s easy to compromise about things you don’t care that much about. If you never used to serve doughnuts for dinner but you don’t place a high value on eating healthfully, then serving doughnuts for dinner to your stepkids won’t drive you up a wall. But if you’re like me and think that a child should never eat like that, then you’re going to end up resenting it every time. Besides that, you may even get stressed out about it, because our minds have a hard time dealing with us acting in a way that doesn’t fit with how we see ourselves.

I’m by no means saying you should rule with an iron first. It’s your family and you want to make everyone as happy and comfortable as you can. You should compromise where you can handle it—that’s what healthy families do, after all. But when it comes down to it, the house belongs to you and your partner—you are the adults and they are the children. In a certain amount of years the kids will grow up, leave the nest, and be free to eat doughnuts for dinner if they want. But until then, you and your partner are still the adults and they are still the children.

It's not your responsibility to replicate an illusion of your stepkids’ old household. You shouldn't feel required to tip-toe around doing everything the way their mom did it when she and your partner were married. Should you make an effort to understand and accommodate your stepchildren’s preferences where you can are where you feel it would not upset you? Of course! But the fact is, their parents got divorced and nothing’s going to change that. The way that things happened in your stepchildren’s old household is in the past. It may be sad, and your stepchildren are certainly upset about it, but the key principle here is that it’s not your fault that their parents got divorced. You shouldn't have to feel guilty about that, and you shouldn't have to feel pressured to act in a way that conflicts with your values because of it.

Friday, November 4, 2011

Love Outside the box

All step-parenting guides say you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t love your step-kids. While I agree with this, it doesn’t mean that it’s not uncomfortable for a lot of women. Feeling guilty for not loving your stepchildren can be stressful--but so is trying to make yourself feel for them the same bubbling love that you feel for your partner or the warm fuzzies you have for your sister.

The answer to this problem is to create a mental category of love that doesn’t involve warm, emotional feelings and to give yourself permission to think about that kind of love as being real and valuable. Duty, loyalty, and providing for the needs of others—these are all worthwhile, honorable forms love, even if they don’t inspire you to run up and hug someone.

It can feel a little awkward to think about love this way because it’s not what we’re used to, but it’s worth it if you can stick with it. This kind of impassionate love can help build a foundational connection between you and your stepchildren leading to more emotional love further down the road.

Psychologically speaking, our beliefs and emotions end up resulting from our actions, rather than the other way around like you might think. According to Gretchen Rubin, happiness researcher over at The Happiness Project, performing kind actions for a person makes you more feel more kindly towards them over time.

So in the short term, this strategy allows you to get over the guilt you might feel at not loving your step kids—because it’s not that you don’t love them at all, it’s just that you love them in a different way than their father does. In the long run, feeling that you do love your stepchildren—carrying that knowledge around with you and acting on it—will result in you feeling more emotion for them over time.


This weekend my stepdaughter and I had a delightful talk about the Easter Bunny and how she is hoping he will bring her a toy in his basket. Not so long ago the toy situation around our house was drastically different.

There was a long period when SD brought a new toy with her every time she came over to our place (which is about every other day). Even if her mom had to stop at a store on the way to our apartment, she always seemed to walk through the door with something new.

Despite the plenitude of toys at her other home, she always threw big tantrums about wanting to take toys from our house back to her mother’s. This ended up being frustrating because her mom would never bring them or send them back to us—but at the same time SD would whine and complain that we didn’t have enough toys at our place.

For a long time I felt compelled to replace them. I added toys to our grocery list, squeezing them into our tight budget so I didn't have to hear her yell, "you needed to buy me a new toy at the store! Why didn't you buy me a new toy!" over and over again.

Eventually I realized how ridiculous that was and I stopped buying new toys. Instead, I tried getting her to leave the Daddy's House toys here--but that didn't work either. I'd tell her no but she'd throw a tantrum and my husband would end up giving in.

One night SD was digging through a green Rubbermaid bin in the living room when she pulled out a plush cow with magnets in its feet. It's little black hooves snapped together and hugged her hand. I thought it was so cute that I'd bought a second one after the first went back to Mamma's a few months before.

"I remember this," she said. "Mamma put ours in the trash can and the trash man took him away."

"What?" I slopped tea onto the coffee table.

"Yeah. The trash man took him away. So you need to buy me anudder for my Mamma's house. You need to buy anudder one at the store."

I made what DH calls The Spock Face and asked her, softly, about the other Daddy's House toys. From her description I gathered that they'd suffered the same fate.


I sucked in a breath and leaned forward on the couch. I wasn't just mad; I was pissed. I wanted to say that it wasn't a nice thing for her mother to have done, or why would she do such a thing, but luckily I caught myself and kept mum.

She went back to digging through the bin and I flopped back into the couch cushions. That’s it, I thought, I’m officially done with this.

I spent a lot of time thinking that evening and finally came to the realization that it wasn’t my responsibility to fight that battle. It wasn’t my job to replace all the toys she kept taking away, let alone to buy them all.

From then on I kept my mouth shut when the subject came up. The situation ended up resolving itself over time as the toys drifted away, but looking back I wish I’d put my foot down in the beginning. Now we only buy her presents for her birthday and holidays, plus a surprise treat here or there.

Have you faced a similar situation? If so I'd love to hear how you handled it.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Difficult Pick-ups

For the longest while we had a really tough time picking up my stepdaughter from her mother’s. She’d never be ready to go at the appointed time and it would take ages to get her out into the car. Often my then-boyfriend-now-husband would end up having to be the one to get her dressed. He made me come with him to pick her up, and I would watch from the entryway feeling frustrated and powerless.

My stepdaughter couldn’t stand to be told what to do and would throw huge temper tantrums when her mom asked her to get ready to go. To exert control over the situation, SD would then insist on changing her clothes and shoes several different times, insisting on having her mom search for yet another toy, and so on. Meanwhile, her mom wouldn’t discipline her, and the screaming tantrums went on night after night after night.

I just about lost it. I felt so anxious and angry but completely powerless to do anything about it. I—eventually—felt comfortable disciplining my stepdaughter in my own home, but I certainly couldn’t discipline her in her mother’s.

I tried telling my then-boyfriend that I didn’t want to come with him to pick her up any more. He was angry and took it as me rejecting her. It was a deal-breaker for him, he told me. I said ok, but things need to change.

He started calling her mother about ten minutes before our scheduled pick up time to remind her to have SD ready. It helped, but most of the time she still ended up letting SD change her shoes five more times, change her jacket, pick out "one more toy" to take with her, and so on.

One night when we arrived at the door, SD had decided to hide in her bedroom and was shrieking (SHRIEKING) at the top of her lungs, "DON'T COME IN! DON'T COME IN!" Her mom remained sitting on the couch. She smiled a little and said, "Oh, that's her new thing these days."

It was the last straw. Rather than instigate a half-hour-long bargaining session like he used to do, my boyfriend went in, wrestled open the door, picked her up, and walked out the front door with her screaming little body slung over his shoulder.

It went on like that for a long, long time. We still have some rough car rides, but it’s been about seven months since he’s had to pick her up and physically force her into the car. (Thank GOD). I still look back and wonder how I could have better handled the situation. Have you ever had to deal with this kind of thing? I’d love to hear how you coped with it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

the honeymoon's over

My stepdaughter hasn’t talked much about the wedding since the big day. At five years old I don’t think she understood much about what was going on, but we were still glad to have had her present for the ceremony. Life has continued seamlessly for the three of us since then. Having already lived together for the last several years, the only thing that’s changed around our household is my last name.

While my stepdaughter has taken things in stride, I was a little worried that her mother would not. Just before the wedding I started having flashbacks to when she realized the seriousness of the relationship between my husband and I. (She went through a phase a where she would cook dinners for my husband and then send them home with us when we picked up my stepdaughter. I remember one night when she handed me a casserole dish in the driveway and then turned to my husband and said, “here, I made you chili because I know you like spicy food.” Um, weird.)

Luckily the ex seems to have taken things pretty well, although it did take us about three weeks to get her to give us the flower girl dress back. (My stepdaughter went to her mom's after the ceremony since the reception was long after her bedtime). I think I'm pretty lucky if that's the worst thing I have to complain about.

In the meantime, I'm excited to get back to doing some real research again now that the wedding is behind us. I’ll be back here soon with some new findings to share.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Gaining Affection from your Stepchildren

There’s no one-size-fits all set of instructions and advice for stepmothers. Everyone is different, and we all have to go with what feels right for us. For some women, that involves actively working on building a relationship with their stepchildren. For other women, it means disengaging from them.

Having said that, this week I’d like to share my advice on some simple things you can do today to start gaining affection from your stepchildren. These are little things to start out with, the kind that form a basic foundation to be built on.

Show Up
One of the easiest things you can do to make your stepkids like you is to just be in the same room with them as often as you can (or can handle). Studies about The Propinquity Effect show that the more often we are around a person the more likely she is to become our friend. This happens for no other reason than what is called, “mere exposure.” That is, “the more exposure we have to a stimulus, the more apt we are to like it.”(Also read more here)

Case in point: When we were going through a rough patch with my stepdaughter and she didn’t want to have anything to do with us, I made it a point to just hang out in the same room with her while she was visiting, even if it was just silently watching TV on the couch. After a time she started talking freely to me again and then even went back to cuddling up next to me.

Smile and your stepchildren will smile back. Studies about Facial Feedback have shown that facial movement can actually affect your emotional state. Meaning the physical act of smiling actually makes you feel happier. In addition to that, Emotional Contagion studies also show that emotions can literally be contagious, while other research has shown that people reflect each other’s facial expressions. So altogether, if you make a point to smile at your stepchildren they are likely to smile back and share in your good mood.

Personally, this is a tactic that really works for me. Ninety-nine percent of the time, if I smile, then my stepdaughter smiles. If I smile when she talks, then she smiles and gets excited that I’m happy about what she’s saying. If she’s feeling uncertain about something and I smile and talk about it, then she relaxes. If I sit down on the couch and smile, then she’ll smile back and come give me a hug. I’m sure that the effect would be less dramatic for older kids, but research seems to suggest that the basic principles hold true for all age groups.

More to follow throughout the week.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Stepmothers: Save your Sanity by Giving Time Outs

In the last few years I’ve heard a lot of stepmothers complain that they don’t know what to do when their young stepchildren kick, scream, fight, or throw tantrums. They’re frustrated by these behaviors but feel like they shouldn’t get involved. After all, most step-parenting advice says that discipline should be left to the bio parent.

Unfortunately, dads don’t always discipline their children consistently or appropriately—or in some cases, much at all. Sometimes it’s because they feel guilty about divorcing their children’s mother; other times they don’t want to be seen as “the mean parent.” Whatever the reason, if neither you nor their father enforce rules and discipline then your stepchildren are likely to keep acting out.

(I’ve talked before about why I believe that stepmothers should be able to discipline their stepchildren—you can read about that here, here, and here.)

When it comes to disciplining bad behavior from a young stepchild, I recommend that stepmothers give time outs. Here’s how to make them work for both you and your stepchild:

Give a warning: “We don’t hit people. If you hit again then you’ll have a time out.”

If they continue misbehaving then place the child in a designated time out spot. If they will walk to the spot themselves, great. If not, then you will need to pick them up and place them in the spot.

Here’s where it can start feeling weird: they may try to keep you from picking them up by hitting and kicking. Be as gentle and careful as possible, of course, but don’t let their squirming prevent you from following through with the time out.

If they leave the spot, then pick them up and place them back in the spot as many times as necessary. Over and over and over again if need be. It’s tempting to cave in and give up, especially if they continue having a temper tantrum, but don’t do it. This is where they learn that you mean what you say, that you follow your words with actions, and that they must respect your adult authority.

Never hold them down in the spot. First of all, unless they’re trying to do something like stick their finger in an electrical socket, it’s not okay to impose force on a child. But more importantly, if you hold them down then it removes their ability to decide on whether or not to get up. You want them to decide to respect your authority and remain seated in the time out spot.

Set a timer: one minute for every year of their age. Reset the timer every time they get up from the time out spot. Don’t cave on this, either.

You must remain calm no matter what. Do not appear angry and never yell. It will be difficult, but maintain a neutral tone of voice. You want the situation to be about correcting their misbehavior. Once you start yelling the situation instead becomes about—at least in their mind—you being a wicked stepmother.

Don’t set them up to fail. Don’t taunt them and don’t ask them questions during the time out, because they’re likely to start arguing and getting even more upset. Talk as little as possible until the timer goes off.

Afterwards, ask them if they know why they had a time out. Sounds silly, but kids can get so worked up during a temper tantrum that they get distracted by those emotions. If they seem confused, then tell them why in a neutral tone. “You had a time out because you hit Daddy, and it’s not ok to hit people.”

End by asking them for an apology. “You can get up now but you need to tell Daddy that you’re sorry for hitting him.”

Consistency is everything. You must follow through with a time out for every warning you give, or your stepchild will know that you don’t really mean what you say.

Take a moment afterwards to calm down. I would be physically shaking after giving time outs to my temper-tantrum-throwing stepdaughter. If it helps, say to yourself, “that was hard, but that time out just got me one step closer to a better relationship with my stepchild. I acted calmly and respectfully. I’m teaching my stepchild how to get along with the rest of the family.”

Hug if you can. Your stepchild may need reassurance of your affection after a time out. Once you’ve both calmed down, give you stepchild a hug if they’re willing to receive one. (My stepdaughter would usually still look upset but then run over and hug me.)

It may take months, but time outs will pay off over time if implemented consistently. Your stepchildren will eventually learn what behaviors they are not allowed to get away with in your home. If your partner will give the time outs—great. But if not, take charge and start implementing them yourself. For more tips, check out my post about how to discipline without looking like an evil stepmother.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Stepmoms: Being Liked or Disliked Just for Being Present

I read an interesting article this evening over at Psychology Today: I like you, because I always feel good around you and I don’t know why.

My understanding of the research presented is that if something good happens to us, we associate the people who happened to be present with feeling good. Later, we’ll still like them more because we still associate them with feeling good. The opposite also holds true: if something bad happens to us, we’ll later associate the people who were present with feeling bad, even if they had no part in the action that made us feel unhappy.

According to the article, “there is a lot of work in Psychology showing that you can come to like someone (or some thing for that matter) not because of anything they have done, but just because you tend to feel good when you are around them. There is a procedure called evaluative conditioning that shows how this can happen.”

It makes me wonder if we stepmoms could use this effect to our advantage. Maybe there's more pay off than we realize to showing up at more school plays and kung fu DVD marathons and leaving the room more often during difficult situations which don’t require our involvement. What do you think?

Reading Suggestion: The Package Deal by Izzy Rose

Izzy Rose of Stepmother's Milk was kind enough to send me a copy of her new book: The Package Deal: My (not-so) Glamorous Transition from Single Gal to Instant Mom, and I'm really enjoying it. It’s a wonderful mix of content and conversational style—personal and funny without being fluffy. I think it makes for a good “Wow-I’m-not-the-only-one!” type read for both new and experienced stepmoms alike. You can read an excerpt here. Congratulations, Izzy!

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Stepmothers: Understanding a Distant Father

I’ve been surprised by my husband’s apparent disinterest at his daughter these days. If you were to ask him about her, he would assure you that she is—of course—very important to him. However, he hardly spends any time with her when she visits.

It’s been worrying me lately because we’ve decided to start having children in a year or two. Seeing him act distant towards his daughter makes me worry that he’ll end up being distant towards our children, too.

I decided it was time to do a little research so I could better understand my husband. My reading yielded several key factors which contribute to fathers drifting away from their children:

First of all, studies show that a negative father-ex-spouse relationship adversely affects the father-child relationship. According to Heather Koball and Desiree Principe of National Survey of American Families, “visitation between nonresident fathers and their children often depends on the quality of the parental relationship” (Koball & Principe 1999). Meanwhile, research by Judith Selter from the Center for Demography and Ecology University of Winsconsin-Madison indicates that those fathers who had less pre-separation conflict with their ex-wives prior to divorce were more likely to receive joint custody and subsequently were increasingly likely to spend more time with their children (1997). The more acrimonious the relationship between the divorced parents, the less likely the father is to see the children, and vice-versa.

Second, research shows that the type of custody a father has tends to affect how much effort he puts into his relationship with his kids. Fathers with joint custody spend more time with their children than fathers who do not, even if both types of fathers have visitation rights (Selter 1997). Koball & Principe note that while nonresident fathers who pay child support are more likely to see their kids than those who do not, “having a support order [in of itself] was not related to more frequent father visitations for children who were born to married couples” (1999). This research suggests to me that having their parenting rights removed leads men to abdicate their parental activities.

Finally and perhaps most importantly, men struggle to navigate the undefined role of the divorced father. In What About the Kids? Judith S. Wallerstein and Sandra Blakeslee say that some fathers, “can’t figure out how to bring off the role of visiting dad. How does one maintain a relationship with one’s children outside the family home? A father can become uneasy about who he is…He has a hard time figuring out if his job is to entertain the kids…or assist with homework, or what” (2003). Besides that, Gorden E. Finley of the Department of Psychology at Florida International University asserts that a conflict exists between society’s expectation that men be involved in nurturing their children and the reduced opportunity that these men have to be involved in their children’s lives (2003). So, some divorced fathers have no idea how much they should nurture or not, while other dads would like to nurture their kids more but can’t because of their custody situation.

Upon reflection I can see these themes being reflected in our home. While my husband continues to have visitation time with his daughter, I can tell that the tense relationship he has with his ex has negatively affected the quality his visitation. We do not agree with many of her parenting choices, and the outcome of those choices frequently makes it difficult for my husband and me to enjoy time with his daughter. While DH disagrees with his ex’s parenting, he refrains talking to her about it much because doing so usually ends in conflict. Meanwhile, it’s exhausting to constantly deal with the fall-out of her choices while having limited ability to influence the situation. Not having a clearly defined father role must make the situation even more difficult. I imagine DH must feel caught between a rock and a hard place.

Looking at things this way, I think my husband seems distant towards his daughter because it’s the only way he knows how to cope. It’s not the most positive conclusion to come to, sure, but now at least I feel like I don’t need to worry about the relationship he’ll have with our future children.


Finley, G. E., “Father-Child Relationships Following Divorce.” Encyclopedia of Human Ecology, Volume 1: A-H, 2003.

Koball, H. and Principe, D. “Do Nonresident Fathers Who Pay Child Support Visit their Children More?” National Survey of American Families, 1999.

Selter, J. A. “Father by Law: Effects of Joint Legal Custody on Nonresident Fathers’ Involvment with Children.” Center for Demography and Ecology University of Winsconsin-Madison, 1997.

Wallerstein, J. S. and Blakeslee, S. What about the Kids? Hyperion Books, 2003

My New Look!

I've spent a ridiculous amount of time today working on my new blog look--I decided it was time for something a little easier on the eyes.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

My Silly Stepmother Name Game

For a long time my stepdaughter called me Mommy as much as she called me by my name. Oddly, when she wasn’t calling me mommy, she called me her mother’s name. She was only two; my guess was that maybe she thought it was another name for a mother-figure.

I’d read that you shouldn’t ask your stepchild to call you mom, so we ended up having her call me by a name that rhymes with her BM’s name instead: Shelly. I never told her not to call me Mom, though. In the beginning it was for selfish reasons—I melted every time she looked up at me with her little brown puppy eyes and called me Mommy. Later, after changing her poopy diapers, holding her hand while she toddled, kissing her boo-boos, helping her learn to use the Big Potty, and having her tell me “I love you,” I felt like I’d earned it.

When she turned four, though, a guilty look started crossing her face whenever she called me Mommy, and then she would quickly blurt out, "sorry, I mean Shelly." Then one night, just after we walked in the door, she said "Mom-" and then shut her mouth and looked scared. Quickly she peered up at me and said, earnestly and quietly, "You're called Mommy but you're called Shelly." My heart broke a little. Did her real mother hear her refer to me as Mommy and tell her not to call me that? I wouldn't be surprised, and I guess she'd be within her rights. Still.

That left me being called Shelly almost 100% of the time. I’d hated it from the start; it always sounded like nails on chalkboard to me. (No offence to any Shelly’s out there; it just seemed so weird to have her call me a name I didn’t think of myself as.) As time went on it frustrated me more and more.

I finally realized last week just how ridiculous this whole name game has been. Looking back, I wish I’d told her that she could call me Mommy in our house if she wanted to. Or, that I’d come up with some other mommy-like name, or just stuck with trying to get her to call me by my real name.

I decided Sunday to start trying to have her call me Meesha. I even marshaled up the courage to explain the situation to her BM.

Unfortunately it’s not going very well. My stepdaughter got very angry at me for asking her to call me something different than what she’s used to, and she’s only remembered my real name a couple of times so far. My plan is to just stick with it. I’d rather she called by my real name and be irritated with me for a while than have her continue to call me Shelly and me be irritated at her for the rest of my life.

Has anything like this happened to you? I know a lot of stepmothers struggle with what their stepchildren call them, but so far I haven’t heard of anyone else with quite the same problem. What do you think?

Thursday, August 4, 2011

How to Discipline Without Looking Like an Evil Stepmother

I’ve talked before about why I believe that stepmothers should feel free to discipline their stepchildren. The million-dollar question is, though, how do you do it without coming across like an evil stepmother? Here are some of my suggestions:

1. Strive for a “balanced” parenting style, as opposed to permissive or authoritarian one. While a lot of stepmothers struggle with being too wishy-washy, you don’t want to go overboard in the opposite direction and become authoritarian. Refrain from punitive consequences. Family therapist Dr. Robert MacKenzie has said that, “instead of teaching responsibility, punitive consequences inspire anger, resentment, and retaliation” (167*). Instead, try to extend consequences that are logically related to the behavior but don’t go over the top. So rather than grounding your stepkid for a week if he keeps leaving his bicycle out in the driveway, just take the bike away for a day. A day (in this instance) is long enough to show your stepchild that you mean what you say, but not so long that he has a long time to build up a lot of resentment.

2. Discipline calmly. Speak in a normal voice and avoid sounding angry or irritated. If you yell and get worked up then your stepchild is more likely to associate you with the angry stepmother stereotype. Besides that, according to Dr. MacKenzie, “anger, drama, and strong emotion can easily sabotage the clarity of your message and the likelihood of cooperation” (132*). You may have to give yourself a grown-up time out before you can do this effectively. (I certainly know I've had to.) Try taking 60 seconds in another room and breathe deeply if this is what it takes to speak calmly.

4. Apologize if you yell. If you do end up yelling or snapping at your stepchild, apologize for loosing your temper and tell them it was unacceptable of you to speak to them that way. Besides being the decent thing to do, this shows your stepchild that you respect and value them. You don't need to worry that saying you're sorry will ruin your credibility. Dr. MacKenzie says that, “some parents believe that apologizing to a child is a sign of weakness that diminishes the child’s respect for the adult. My years of family counseling have shown that just the opposite is true. To children, an apology is not a sign of weakness. . . .Children respect adults who have the courage to be human and take responsibility for their own mistakes” (159*).

4. Focus on the behavior, not the child. You don’t want to make your stepchild feel rejected, you just want her to know that a specific behavior is unacceptable. Do not say “how would you feel if someone did that to you?”; say, “stop poking your brother.” Don’t say “please be more considerate” if your stepchild is yelling; say, “please use an indoor voice” (134*).

5. Talk about actions or behaviors in neutral terms when correcting your stepkids. Now, I started out thinking about this in a different way. I thought, "hey I should just be able to say 'this is the way we do things in my house.'" And while I still believe you should be able to say that if it comes down to it, I think a more neutral approach is best to start. Meaning, rather than telling your stepchildren, "I believe that kids should use good table manners," try something like, "good table manners help us all enjoy our time at the table together." I think this way you get less resistance to doing things "your way."

6. Give them a clean slate. Don’t bring up past mistakes or rehash a problem after it’s over. I have to resist this sometimes when I'm worried that my stepdaughter might repeat a past mistake. ("Remember when you did X thing and then Y thing happened?") You want your stepkids to feel relaxed and comfortable around you without having to worry that you’re going to be picking on them; you don’t want to give them any reasons to harbor anxiety or resentment for you.

7. Listen, understand your stepchild, and don’t disregard their feelings even if you disagree. Licensed psychologist and family therapist Dr. Jeffery Bernstein has said that, “tragically, children who are well loved by their parents do not feel that love if their parents don’t understand them . . . Understanding your child is an important part of helping him become secure and healthy because it shows him you love him” (21-22**). So listen, really listen, without interrupting and try and understand why your stepchild feels the way they do. When your stepchild tells you about something that you disagree with, don’t criticize them and don’t tell them they shouldn’t feel the way they feel. For example, if your stepchild tells you that he hit his brother because he was mad about his brother insulting him, don’t respond to him with “you shouldn’t bother getting upset over things like that.” Instead, let him know that you heard and understood his feelings, but that the behavior he used to express them is unacceptable. Try: “You brother called you a doo-doo head and it hurt your feelings? I understand why you’re mad, but it’s not okay to hit. Next time…” This way, your stepchild feels like you understand him, and that you’re not rejecting him—just the behavior.

8. If your stepchild argues with you, try to hold your ground respectfully. While you don't want to cave into an argument, you don't want to look like you're not listening to your stepchildren, either. Try this suggestion by Dr. Bernstein; he says if your child pushes you, just keep calmly repeating, “I understand; however . . .” (95**). I should add, though, that you don't want to give your stepchildren the idea that it's okay to argue with you--but that's a longer discussion for a separate post.

9. Invite your stepchildren to respectfully suggest a mutually-agreeable solution to an issue. There are a couple of ways to go about this. My first example comes from Dr. Ross W. Green, Associate Professor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School. Dr. Greene advocates a discipline plan which includes these three steps: 1) Empathy Plus Reassurance, 2) Define the Problem, and 3) Invitation (98***). In step one of this plan a parent validates her child’s feelings by repeating what a child's concern and by reassuring the child. Then in the second step the parent expresses his or her concerns. Finally, in the third step the parent invites the child to brainstorm a solution that would both accommodate what the child wants and satisfy the parent’s concerns.

Similarly, Dr. Bernstein tells parents, “don’t be afraid to teach your child to say ‘no’ to you in a respectful way. Your child has a right to opinions and choices that are different from yours” (95**). Bernstein goes on to suggest, “Teach your child to say respectfully, ‘No, I would not like to do the dishes, but I will sweep the floor and vacuum the rug.’ This creates an atmosphere of cooperation and support” (95**). This idea is probably more suitable for children who are older than my own stepdaughter, but I like it. I think if your stepchild feels like they can speak up and suggest a compromise, they’re less likely to imagine themselves as Cinderella before the ball.

10) Balance discipline with warmth, admiration, and respect. Now, kids know when adults are faking enthusiasm or handing out false compliments—so don’t go over the top. But make an effort to praise and thank your stepkids when a natural opportunity arises. Let them know that you value them as a person. Dr. Bernstein says that “praise penetrates even barriers of rough exteriors” (113**). We all want to be liked, and it’s easier to take guidance and correction from someone who we know likes us, too.

* Setting Limits with your Strong-Willed Child by Robert J. MacKezie, Ed.D., Co. 2002, Three Rivers Press, New York.
** 10 days to a Less Defiant Child by Jeffrey Bernstein, PhD, Co, 2006, Marlowe & Company, New York.
*** The Explosive Child by Ross W. Greene, PhD, 2005, Harper, New York.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Creating Unconditional Love, at Least on Your Part

As I've said before, I think a lot of step-mothers can be happier by creating a parental relationship with their stepchildren as opposed to a "friend" or "aunt" relationship. (See previous posts for a more about what I mean). However, this role can still be challenging for a number of reasons, most significantly because you don’t have the benefit of the biologically-induced unconditional love that exists between your stepchildren and their birth parents. That missing bond can leave you with a host of hurts and frustrations.

What if they don’t love you?

Stepmothers may cook meals, change diapers, buy toys, and kiss boo-boos but not receive any of the love that her stepchild bestows on his biological parent—leaving the stepparent feeling unappreciated and taken for granted. Frustrating to be sure, especially because deep down a lot of us just want to be a big, happy easy-going family, even if we know intellectually it’s not going to happen overnight.

Step-parenting books say to wait patiently for your step-kids to warm to you, but there’s nothing more frustrating that sitting back and waiting for something you want so strongly.

What if you don’t love them?

To be quite blunt, a lack of unconditional love can make it hard for us to care for our stepchildren in spite of their faults and problems. While all kids have their tough times, on top of that many stepmothers have to deal with stepchildren whose parents have spoiled them out of guilt or competition with the other parent. Unconditional love allows a biological parent to ignore back talk and bad behavior, but we stepmothers don't have that panacea available.

At the same time that we might be frustrated with our step kids, a lot of us still feel guilty for not loving them. We love their father, after all, so we feel like we should love his kids along with him—a package deal. Plus we’re supposed to be family now—aren’t we supposed to love the people in our family? But how do we love these kids when they're just so different from us, and let's face it, so annoying at times?

Pretty much all step-parenting guides say you shouldn’t feel bad if you don’t love your step-kids. While I agree with this, it doesn’t mean that it’s not uncomfortable or stressful for a lot of women.

You can’t force your step-kids to love you, but I do think that you can make the situation easier and more bearable by training yourself to love your step-kids unconditionally—or at least making the effort. In my next several posts I’m going to talk about some of the unconventional methods that have been helpful for me.

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Difficult Drop Offs

I mentioned in my previous post that we had a hard time picking up my stepdaughter from her mom’s house for a while. Well, not surprisingly, we also had some rough times when she was dropped off or picked up at our place.

Days where she was dropped off, SD’s mom would make her departure a long, drawn out performance, telling Stepdaughter that she'd miss her, making SD "come give me one more hug," and so on. As you can imagine, the whole process only served to whip up SD into an emotional frenzy. Then, after BM had finally left, I was the one who had to deal with her inevitable, screaming meltdown.

Then her mom started spending longer and longer at our house when it was her turn to pick up or drop off. Even if SD had her coat on and was ready to go, her mom would come in and sit down in the living room for a while.

It made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to be doing when she was here. Much of the time my BF wouldn’t even look up from the computer when she came over, or he would say hello and then turn back to his video game. This left me wondering if I had to play hostess and make conversation while she was here. At the same time, though, SD’s mom seemed to mostly ignore me....but in an elephant-in-the-room kind of way. It was just awkward all around.

I remember one day when SD just wasn’t into her mom’s drop-off performance. She happily walked in and sat down next to some crayons I'd laid out on the coffee table. So what did her mom do? She came in, sat down on our couch, and proceeded to color with SD for almost half an hour.

It was like watching a train wreck in my living room.

I tried talking to my then-boyfriend about it afterwards, but he wasn't much help. His take on it was, "Well, what am I supposed to do? Tell her to get out?"

When that didn’t work I tried slyly opening the door just enough to let SD slip through with the premise that I didn't want to let the cat out (actually true). That didn't work, either--she just pushed her way past me.

Finally I decided that the smartest thing was to just remove myself from the situation. Rather than answering the door and collecting an armload of toys and blankets from BM I hid in the bathroom when I heard her knock on the door. BF was forced to get up and let them in. Then, since he would immediately get back on his computer, BM was left sitting alone with SD in the living room. After a while the drama faded away and her drop offs and pick ups started going smoothly for the most part.

Have any of you faced anything like this? How did you handle it?

Friday, June 10, 2011

Interesting Link

I'm starting to feel better after several weeks of being sick, but I'm still feeling so tired. I don't have the energy to write anything today but I wanted to hop on and mention that I've stumbled across a great blog by Sonja Ridden called StepmotherMatters. She has a great post on why it's not a good idea for stepchildren to "Run The Show." Definitely worth a look.

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Stepmother Stress as a Deal-Breaker

The divorce rate for second marriages is staggeringly high—70% of second marriages end in divorce as compared to 50% of first marriages. While there are a lot of factors affecting this statistic, I believe that the stress of step-parenting can be enough to cause a second marriage to fail. I understand this on a personal level—I’ve had to make a friend of mine called “the deal-breaker decision” regarding my own stepdaughter.

It all started when she turned four and started potty training. Trying to get her to use the toilet was a nightmare. She would scream and kick and cry out like we were torturing her. She would even scream “HELP ME! HELP ME!” at the top of her lungs. I’m sure the people in the apartment next door thought she was being abused.

For months she would go in her clothes just to avoid using the bathroom. Changing her and getting her cleaned up usually fell to me. She almost always had a terrible rash, and she would scream and scream for me not to wipe her since the rash made it hurt. She’d argue and plead and finally beg, screaming “NO, PLEASE, NO, DON’T HURT ME! PLEASE DON’T HURT ME!” over and over through her tears. I’d have to have to pin down her kicking, flailing little body just to get her clean enough to put on a fresh set of clothes. Afterwards she’d run out into the living room and I’d break down in tears in the bathroom. Then the whole thing would repeat an hour later.

Our time with her was miserable. Her anger and insolence spread from potty training into everything else. She argued over anything and everything; she talked back and broke things and threw tantrums. Endless, endless, shrieking tantrums. She became a huge, overwhelming source of anxiety in my life, and the worst part was that I felt helpless to do anything about it.

Meanwhile, the step-parenting advice I read either didn’t have anything to say about our situation (my step-daughter being so young) or just said that I shouldn’t be involved. I felt helpless for not being able to discipline her (that is, to get her to stop screaming) but also guilty for being included in her potty training at all.

Finally one morning I got into my car and burst into tears on my way to pick up coffee. I just don’t know if I can keep doing this, I thought. I pulled into a parking lot and called a friend. She told me, “No one would blame you if you decided that you couldn’t handle her.”

My heart ached at her words. Sitting there, I knew I couldn’t go that route—I loved my fiancé too much to leave him over anything, let alone a spoiled kid. Shaking and clutching the steering wheel I decided that things with my stepdaughter would have to change.

Looking back, I feel frustrated that I even reached the point where I had to make that decision. I wish that I had felt more empowered at the time to set limits, enforce rules, and enact time outs. Rather than worrying so much about what I was supposed to do to be a good stepmother, I wish that I had put my happiness first from the start.

I suppose everyone has to decide for themselves what their deal-breakers are. My hope is that the stepmother stress doesn’t have to be a deal-breaker for as many women in the future.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Telling Children about Remarriage

After living together for several years, my fiancé and I are getting married in fifteen days! Meanwhile, I finally have a fully-functional replacement laptop in my possession, and today I’ve been reading about the different ways that people prepare their children for their remarriage.

Back when my stepdaughter was four, my fiancé and I sat down with her on our big purple couch and told her that we were getting married.

She scrunched up her face. "No."

I looked over at FH and raised an eyebrow.

"Yes," He said.




FH frowned. "Why are you saying that?"

She sighed and looked at us like we were being ridiculous. "Because you guys already got married a long time ago."

Then it dawned on me—she can’t remember a time when FH and I weren’t living together. She just assumed that we were already married, maybe because she thought that all men and women living together are married.

We talked about it a little more at the time, and then a little more and a little more as the months passed. Mostly she’s just been excited about a new dress, a party, and her grandparents coming to visit.

While my stepdaughter has handled my marriage to her father with ease, I suspect that I’m in the minority. I’m interested in learning more about other people’s experiences. How have you all handled this situation?

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Stepmoms and Extended Families

For years my husband’s family sent Christmas cards addressed to him and me that were filled with writing about DH’s ex-wife. “So glad to hear about [BM’s] new job. So glad to hear how well [BM] is doing.” I remember dreading those little read envelopes. It felt like they were gently shoving me out, like they were trying to recreate some perfect previous family that I was not a part of.

For years, whenever I happened to be home when DH’s mother phoned, she spent much of her calls talking about his ex. It was so frustrating. After all, I had been living with her son for years. Why wasn’t she asking about me? Why didn’t she want to get to know me?

Frustrated with waiting for his family to approach me, I started being the one to communicate to them. I began sending them little emails here and there to say hi, letters about what everyone had been up to, and pictures of DH, SD, and I together as a family. I’m pleased that our relationship is now growing slowly but surely.

My experience establishing myself as part of DH’s family has been especially difficult given the fact that they live in another country, but I’m sure it also has a lot to do with me being wife #2.

From what I’ve read, it’s pretty common for extended families to be slow to welcome stepmoms into the fold. Having seen wife #1 come and go, they may see us as replaceable. Or, they may still have loyalty to the ex-wives and see us as interlopers.

Has anything similar happened to you? I’m interested in hearing about your experiences.

Sunday, May 1, 2011

Stepmothers: Taking Control, Part II

Conventional step-parenting advice says that your husband is the one who will determine the success of your relationship with your stepchildren.

For example, in Step-Motherhood: How to Survive Without Feeling Frustrated, Left Out, or Wicked, author Cherie Burns says that the father, “sets the tone of their relationship. His attitudes and actions determine how effective his wife can be, especially in matters of discipline and authority. Granted, a stepmother can botch a few things on her own, but she cannot be successful, even at her very best, without her husband’s support.” (p. 26)

Burns also says that, “A husband determines much of his wife’s stepmothering experience . . . Unlike natural mothering, step-mothering is exclusively a project for couples. A stepmother has a parental relationship only through the husband, the father” (p. 26)

Having read advice like this, I spent almost two years waiting for my fiancé to step in and instruct his daughter to treat me with respect. I waited for him to have conversations with her about how the three of us fit together as a family. I waited for him to talk to her about what my relationship was to her. I waited and waited, and as each month passed with no progress I grew more and more frustrated. When he didn’t take action, I started hinting and, finally, nagging and whining.

Finally I realized how ridiculous it is to sit back and wait for your partner to create for you the relationship that you want to have with your stepchildren. Having so little control over such a significant part of your life—relationships that affect how you spend your time, that affect your emotions, and ultimately affect the quality of your life—is likely to leave you emotionally exhausted.

Rather than put the fate of our happiness into someone else’s hands, we stepmothers need to take control of our relationships with our stepchildren—no matter what the so-called “experts” say.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Stepmothers: Don't Be Too Nice

I was just reading an article over at Freelance Switch about something called The Emotional Scale. Mark Garison says,

"A boss I once had presented the staff at a sales meeting one day with a chart of emotions. At the bottom were the negative emotions, progressing up into neutral emotions and at the top were positive emotions . . . He told us that people cannot relate to someone who is not within two emotions on the scale (ie. a depressed person will not relate to cheerful behavior).”
It caught my attention because when people seem frustrated with me my gut reaction is to just try harder—to be nicer, to smile more, to do more. Luckily my stepdaughter was very young when we came into each other’s lives and she didn’t go through a phase of being frustrated with me. But most stepchildren go through a period of mourning the family structure that they have lost and a period of frustration with the changes that a new family dynamic brings to their lives.

If she had been older I suspect my instinct would have been to meet any angry comments with increasing levels of syrupy kindness.

This article suggests that the opposite is more effective—if someone is communicating negative feelings to you then the best response is to speak to her in a calm, reserved tone. Garison says, “without them realizing it, this will bring their emotions closer to yours.”

Now that I think about it this way it seems like common sense. What do you think?

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Do Stepmothers Have Unrealistically High Expectations?

I know a lot of us stepmothers feel frustrated with our stepchildren on a fairly frequent basis. (If you’re one of those saintly stepmoms who never get mad at their stepkids, then please, leave me your secret in the comments!)

I was wondering today if we sometimes set unrealistically high expectations for our stepkids. Most kids act out and talk back from time to time. They break things and, in the case of my youngest brother, cover the shower head in several packs of gum hoping to make the world’s biggest bubble. They’re not mini-adults--they're kids! They can be moody and irrational and sassy, especially when dealing with the frustrations of a new family dynamic.

It’s a tender boundary, though. How much is too much back-talk? How much do you let them get away with? After all, I’m a big proponent of the fact that you shouldn’t compromise too much and that you should feel comfortable taking charge in your own home.

But we can’t expect our stepkids to be perfect, either. I think I can stand to remind myself of this more often, and I wonder if other stepmoms could, too.

When Older Stepchildren Act Out, Part II

“The best way of disciplining children," according to Suzie Hayman, "is often to set out to help, not punish them. After all, half the time if you punish a child for acting up in a separated family, what you are actually doing is punishing them for being sad at what has happened to them.”

I totally get this. And I completely support the idea of talking through disagreements, as I mentioned in my previous post.

But if there’s one common theme to my blog, I think it’s the idea that this whole step-parenting thing doesn’t always go according to plan and that not every member of the family may be willing to meet a stepmom halfway 100% of the time.

In these instances—where perhaps your stepchild is not willing to discuss how the two of you can resolve a situation and their biological parent is unavailable or unwilling to step in—I think implementing “logical consequences” is a great stepmom tactic.

“Logical consequences” simply means that a parent provides a child with a logically-related consequence to an action. For example, if a child won’t turn down her loud music, then rather than arguing or nagging the parent takes away her stereo for the rest of the afternoon. Or, if a child is fighting with a sibling over a video game, then the parent takes the video game away for a day.

Here's how it works: Start off by giving your stepchild a clear request. For example: “Would you please turn down your stereo? I’m putting the baby down for a nap.” If they refuse, then succinctly give them a warning as to what the consequences would be. “If you don’t turn down your stereo then I’ll have to take it away until after the baby is done with his nap.” Then, if they still won’t comply, you follow through without any further nagging, argument, or judgements; take the stereo away and say, “you can have this back in a couple of hours.”

I like the idea of logical consequences because I feel like it focuses on the action/behavior and not the child. Because when you’re upset about something that your stepchild has done, it’s important that you talk about it in a way that disapproves of the specific behavior without making sweeping judgments about the child as a person. You want to communicate that a behavior is unacceptable, but you don’t want the child himself to feel rejected. This approach is great for all kids, really, but it is especially important when dealing with stepchildren who may be feeling particularly sensitive about themselves and the new family structure.

The key to effectively implementing logical consequences is to not go overboard and end up being punitive. The purpose of enforcing logical consequences is to show the children that (obviously) there are consequences to their actions—and also that you mean what you say and that you will consistently follow through.

Generally, enforcing a punishment for an hour or a day rather than a week or a month is enough to demonstrate these lessons. Any more than that and the focus of the situation becomes less about them learning the consequences of their actions and more about them enduring what they see as your repression and mistreatment (i.e., you being an Evil Stepmother).

To be successful you must also be consistent and follow through. That means no nagging, no bargaining, and no caving in. With any luck it won’t take them long to learn that you mean what you say, and at the same time they won't be so angry that they feel like Cinderella before the ball.

Speaking of being angry, another important part of making this approach effective is to remain calm. Even if you’re furious, try to speak in a normal voice and avoid sounding upset or irritated. If you yell and get worked up then the situation shifts from being about their behavior to—yup, you guessed it—you being a Wicked Stepmother.

Hopefully as time goes by and you continue to involve your stepchild in discussions about any problems, the need for enforcing natural consequences will diminish. But in the meantime, I think this approach makes for a respectful and effective tactic for step-moms to use when older step-kids act out.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A New Perspective

It’s been a busy week, and while I haven’t been able to check in here for a few days I’ve still been reading Teach Yourself Successful Step-Parenting by Suzie Hayman.

I’ve read before that many children feel guilty when their parents divorce, as if Mom and Dad might not have separated if they’d only behaved better. Haymen mentions this, but she also goes on to make a great point that I hadn’t considered before:

“Children often hit out and kick back at the adults in their life who seem safe and steady rather than risking alienating those they feel are vulnerable or unreliable . . .

The anger and guilt they feel for themselves is often directed outwards, towards the person they feel best able to hate – the step-parent. They can hate the stepparent because they perceive this newcomer as disposable, and not their responsibility.

They may be hampered at letting loose to their own parents . . . Some kids find it frightening to show their feelings to the parent they live with, in case they ‘up and leave’ as did the non-resident parent. Some find it hard to show anger or pain to the non-resident parent, in case they go one step further than leaving by cutting off all contact.”
While I cringe to be thought of as “disposable,” it’s reassuring to think that a stepchild might be acting out not because they don’t like you or they’re a bad kid but because they’re afraid to share their feelings with their bio-parents.

Friday, January 7, 2011


I’ve seen a lot of “score-keeping” rants on stepmom posting boards:

“We do so much for the bio-mom and she never says thank you!”
“I seem to do all the child care work for my husband’s kids.”
“I do x, y, and z for my stepkids and they never seem grateful!”

When I read statements like these I’m reminded of the theory of reciprocity, which explains that when people receive a gift we feel obligated to make a return gesture.

What we stepmoms may forget is that our stepchildren—not to mention their bio moms—don’t want to feel obligated to us. Acknowledging the fact that we went out of our way for them makes them feel uncomfortably indebted to someone they may still think of as “Dad’s new partner.”

Our partners are not exempt from this effect, either. Thanking us for all the work we do to take care of their kids reminds them of how guilty they feel about their divorce.

When it comes down to it, keeping score is a waste of our precious time, effort, and energy. You can keep tallying up offences and complaining about them or you can change how you handle the situation by:

- assertively communicating your needs
- scaling back your efforts
- choosing to not to expect thanks

Being Assertive about your Needs

If you feel frustrated that your husband isn’t participating enough in the childcare or if your stepchildren aren’t helping enough around the house, score-keeping isn’t going to change anything. Instead, sit down and assertively communicate what you need their help with.

Scaling Back your Efforts

It’s natural to feel a little hurt when people don’t thank you for the things you do for them. But if you find yourself frequently angry with your partner or stepkids, then it may be time to reevaluate how much you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Are you trying to buy your stepchildren’s affection? Are you trying to be super-stepmom at the expense of your own happiness?

Choosing not to Expect a Response

You have a choice of whether or not to do something for your stepkids, their bio mom, or your partner. If you choose to do something for them, then make a conscious decision to not expect anything back in return. If you aren’t willing to do something for them without a thank you, then maybe you should give some thought to whether you really want to do it at all.