Stepmoms step up to the plate

ALEXANDRIA, Va. — Many women dream of becoming moms. Few dream of becoming stepmoms. On their good days, stepmothers think of themselves as bonus moms or mentor moms. On their bad days — and that often includes Mother's Day — they believe they are thought of by stepkids and ex-wives as something just above pond scum. Or not thought about much at all. Those who monitor the family say stepmoms need to be thought about. New research shows they do not often fare well with their stepchildren.

Yet many experts say stepmothers have a key role in making a blended family work. And they note that the blended family — whether the parents are married or just living together — is the family form of the future.

More than half of all Americans today have been, are now or will eventually be in one or more step situations, says the Stepfamily Association of America. About 30% of all kids are likely to spend time in some sort of "stepping" arrangement. And those kids are increasingly likely to be spending more time with a stepmom as courts begin favoring joint custody that increases the children's time with dad.

Many stepmoms are reaching out for help and finding innovative ways to succor others, particularly through Internet support groups. Most of those on the front lines do have battle scars. Kristin Lee Mead, 34, of Alexandria, Va., has stepmotherhood down quite well now. But at times being a stepmom has made Mead feel "lost inside my own head, with no idea how to make it work."

For a variety of reasons, not all stepchildren hold their stepmoms dear to their hearts. A growing body of disturbing research documents that the myth of the "evil stepmother" dies hard. Her new husband's children may simply never truly accept her, a woman they see as an interloper.

Among recent findings suggesting that stepmoms are often not cherished by stepchildren:

  • Only about 20% of adult stepkids feel close to their stepmoms, says the pioneering work of E. Mavis Hetherington involving 1,400 families of divorce, some studied almost 30 years. "The competition between non-custodial mothers and stepmothers was remarkably enduring," she writes in For Better or For Worse: Divorce Reconsidered.
  • Only about one-third of adult children think of stepmoms as parents, suggests Constance Ahrons' 20-year research project. Half regard their stepdads as parents. About 48% of those whose moms had remarried were happy with the new union. Only 29% of those whose dads had remarried liked the idea of a stepmom. Ahrons is a sociologist and senior researcher with the non-profit Council on Contemporary Families.

Stepmoms, Ahrons says, tend to get overly involved in their stepchildren's lives, whether the kids actually live with them or not. Stepdads often back off and stay out of the fray. Stepmoms need to approach the stepkids "very, very slowly. The women want so badly to be part of the family, and they tend to come on too strong too soon."

Huge numbers of stepfamilies are making it, melding successfully. But others fight jealousies, unrealistic expectations of instant love, the financial demands of child support, ill-defined roles and a constant undertow of tension.

Married two years, Tammy Matthews, 30, of Montgomery, N.Y., still struggles. Being a stepmom "has been tougher than I thought." She is lucky, she knows. She has two prime ingredients of a sound stepfamily: a supportive husband and "great" stepdaughters, ages 7 and 11. The girls spend Wednesday nights and every other weekend with Matthews and their dad.

Still, "I have no children of my own, and to have, poof, like an instant family, just add water, was a difficult transition."

New stepmoms can quickly feel overburdened. The stepdad tends to rely on his new wife to be the emotional glue that holds the new family together. Even if his children don't live full time with her, she tends to be deeply involved in their lives.

"Women are still socialized to care for the kids," says James Bray, author of Stepfamilies, based on nine years of government-funded research. "And men will let women do that. Unfortunately, men will dump the care of the children on the stepmom."

She may tire of the kids' hostility, the lack of involvement of her well-meaning husband, the resentment from an ex-wife who will never accept her right to love the children.

Many stepmoms will throw in the towel, leaving kids to go through a second parental divorce, says Diane Sollee, founder of the Coalition for Marriage, Family and Couples Education. The role of the stepmother "is pivotal in the redivorce equation. That is true whether you are rich or poor, black or white or green. This stepmother thing is across the board."

The statistics are not encouraging. While the divorce rate is leveling off, it is still worse for second marriages than for first-timers. About 48% of second marriages fail, while about 40% to 43% of first marriages do. Approximately 65% of remarriages involve children and create instant stepfamilies.

Stepmothers come to Sollee with amazing stories. "A stepmom will tell me that the biological mother is a drug addict, that she beats her kids, but the kids still love their mom and won't be nice to me."

To make these often fragile blended family arrangements work, stepmoms are attending workshops and conferences, clogging Internet chat rooms and message boards with plaintive requests for help, joining real-life and virtual-support groups, starting associations, drawing on a growing cottage industry of books and reaching out to other women who understand.

They are very creative about how to find and give help. Stepmom Katherine McMillan, 30, of Oshawa, Ontario, will celebrate Mother's Day in cyberspace. She and about 30 friends from StepTogether, an Internet support group with 700 stepmoms, have partnered up two by two to exchange little gifts, running maybe $10.

"It's our own way of recognizing what we do," McMillan says. "We can celebrate each other."

Then in June she and a gaggle of stepmoms, including Tammy Matthews, will take a step past virtual friendship. They and others will host what they think is the first widespread series of small, weekend retreats for stepmoms who want to weave a stepfamily together. Confabs are scheduled on various dates in Oshawa, Ontario; Norfolk, Va.; Indianapolis; Mahwah, N.J; Detroit; and Houston.

Others take alternative routes to helping beleaguered stepmoms re-establish their sanity. Mead is starting a Northern Virginia chapter of the Stepfamily Association of America after spending some time on the Internet with

"Just entering a room with a lot of stepmothers, that feeling you are accepted and welcomed is something you can't find anywhere else," she says.

In the words of the stepfamily literature, Mead's family is now "stepping" well. She lives in a sophisticated apartment with her husband of four years, Luis Albright, 47, and his 15-year-old daughter, Sarah. His 14-year-old daughter lives nearby with her single mom, while his 20-year-old son, who lived with them earlier for two years, is in the process of setting up housekeeping on his own.

Albright, whom Mead calls "very grounded," does the lion's share of the daily work of parenting Sarah.

Over time, Mead has figured out the answer to the question virtually every stepmom must face: "Where do I fit in?"

Her job in this family, she says, "is to listen, to provide that communication. Let the biological parent parent. If you want to be a mother, then have your own baby."

She and Sarah are totally "on the same wavelength," Mead says. But still, "this is someone else's child. She has both a mother and a father."

The ability to detach takes practice, she says. "What woman can detach from a child who is in her care? It can be heartbreaking."

Sarah declares her stepmom "cool" and quite spontaneously gives her a hug.

"You have to be mindful and respectful of your stepparent," the teen says. After all, "she is married to one of your biological parents."

These two have bonded. But the experts say the relationship between a teenage stepdaughter and stepmother can be truly horrific.

"This issue is just huge," says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Second Wives. Her next book will center on the struggle. A daughter is already competing with her mother, and then this new woman comes along, Barash says. And the stepdaughter becomes "keenly aware of what the new woman does for her father that her mother didn't do."

There have been and will be problems, this Virginia family acknowledges.

"There has been a lot of stuff I have held close to my heart," Mead says. "I didn't want to feel that way, and I didn't want to inflict those feelings on my family."

Overall, though, she says her steps have enriched her life.

Sarah "has given me access to younger parts of myself. She has brought out my sense of play." Being a stepmom has "caused something excellent to happen to my life."

By Karen S. Peterson, USA TODAY

Stepparenting: Punishment May Differ in Each Parent's House

When biological parents have joint custody, the children will quickly realize that just as the rules may differ from house to house, so does the punishment. One parent may use "time out" while the other believes in spankings. One may take away privileges such as television watching or playing on the computer while the other just lectures or yells. While it would be easier on the children if the biological parents could agree on the same punishment for infractions of rules, this compromise rarely seems to occur.

In some cases, when the biological parents communicate effectively, each will honor the other's punishment restrictions. "Your father said you aren't permitted to watch television for a week so you won't be able to here until that week is up," a mother tells her youngster. Others, however, argue that each household must enforce the punishment within those confines and not expect the other parent to require compliance in his or her house.

My personal feeling is that as rules differ from household to household, so does the punishment. One parent may call upon punishment for infractions that the other would overlook or consider minor. Unless the deed was truly one requiring a strict hand—such as creating bodily harm to self or another, use of alcohol or drugs, and so on, the punishment should be carried out in and restricted to the home in which the behavior was presented. As with most decisions, however, the final action of this matter should really be determined by the two adults most responsible for the child's well-being, the biological parents.

Ten Rules For More Effective Discipline
Children need discipline in their lives so they know what's expected of them. It is vital for them to have this structure for behavior to make them feel secure, loved, and a valuable pan of their family. These ten rules may help you to become more effective in setting up rules for your blended family.

  1. Explain the rules in a way that is age appropriate for each of the children.
  2. Be consistent.
  3. Lower your voice, which forces them to listen.
  4. Never threaten what you can't/won't deliver.
  5. Let the punishment fit the deed.
  6. Don't name call.
  7. Speak to the act, not the actor.
  8. Teach cause and effect.
  9. Let bygones be bygones.
  10. Stay in the present.

Excerpted from:

Blending Families by Elaine Fantle Shimberg. Copyright © 1999. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

Managing Relationships with Your Child’s Other Parent

Divorce is a painful experience. Afterwards, adults may want to forget the past and make a fresh start. When children are involved, former spouses can’t avoid seeing each other. Rather than forget the past, adults need to allow themselves to experience all the feelings that come with a deep loss. Anger, guilt and grief are natural parts of mourning a lost marriage.

Allowing feelings to surface, in a constructive manner, can often help adults cope with them and move on. If former spouses don’t cope with their negative feelings, their relationships may remain tense for years. Strained relations between their divorced parents can be especially painful for children. They can sense hostility between their parents. They may feel stuck in the middle of arguments over child-support, child-contact schedules or child-rearing practices.

Focusing on their children’s wellbeing can help former spouses find common ground. Researchers found that unless domestic violence or child abuse has occurred, children generally have a better adjustment to divorce when they keep contact with both biological parents. It can be hard for former spouses to share children, but the benefits generally outweigh the difficulties. Children should be free to express their good feelings about both biological parents and stepfamilies. Parents often have to work hard at controlling their negative feelings. They must try not to complain about former spouses in front of children. Parents can help their children adjust to new living arrangements by understanding what they are going through. The “co-parenting” relationship will affect children, as will living in two households.

Co-parenting (cooperative parenting)

Former spouses will need to work out arrangements that work the best for them. Some separated and divorced couples co-parent cooperatively. They remain friendly enough to discuss different aspects of parenting. Children will feel less confused when parents can work out agreements about details such as bedtimes or household rules.

Parallel parenting

However, after divorce most people still have conflicts between them. They may find trying to agree on issues such as bedtimes or curfews lead to arguments. This doesn’t help them or their children. These parents can develop a “parallel parenting” arrangement. In this case, parents make decisions only for their own households.

When relationships are tense, many former spouses find it more comfortable to keep their conversations business-like. They only discuss the children, not other aspects of their lives. They discuss disagreements over their children when the children aren’t around. Having disagreements doesn’t mean that either parent is a failure; married couples disagree—so do divorced parents. Even parents who have different rules and styles, however, can both be first-rate parents. Whether they choose to have a lot of contact or a little, former spouses should always communicate directly. Problems arise when adults ask children to be messengers. For example, a father who says, “Tell your mother she’ll have to drop you off early next week,” places his child right in the middle.

The child may accidentally convey the wrong message. Or he or she may get caught in an argument. If this change in plans makes the mother angry, the child may believe, “If it weren’t for me they wouldn’t be fighting.” When caught between hostile parents, children often feel guilty and unsure of their parents’ love.

Adults should work out all the arrangements for young children. If asked to decide about when they “want” to see their parents, young children may feel pressured to choose one parent over the other. A child may not want to spend time with one parent fearing that the other will be lonely. By closely following the predetermined child-contact schedule, parents will be saying, “It’s okay for you to go.” Parents can ask older children to share their opinions about when they will spend time with their parents. Discussing plans with a child before working out the details with the other household is a good idea. Even though the adults make the arrangements, the child will have a chance to state what he or she wants.

Tips for co-parenting

• The state of New Hampshire requires that parents complete a “parenting plan” before they divorce. Instead of seeing this as another hoop to jump through, try and use this time as an opportunity to establish a positive co-parenting relationship with the other parent. Your children will be the better for it.

• Try to develop a business-like relationship with your former spouse. Set up a special time to talk with your former spouse about decisions or plans. Transition times can be difficult. For example, your former spouse may come in your house without knocking. He may sit down in front of the television while the kids get ready. If this makes you uncomfortable, find another place to transfer the children. You may feel more comfortable meeting at a neutral place like a restaurant or store. Don’t discuss important issues when transferring children from one household to another. This can cause tempers to flare and upset children. In some cases it’s best to hold discussions with your former spouse over the telephone. This way, you may end the call if necessary. Other parents communicate through letters or e-mail. Keep the communication on track. Stick to discussing issues such as child-contact or holiday arrangements, financial matters and topics related to the children’s school or their health.

• If you are unhappy about something your former spouse has done, approach the subject by discussing the children. Try saying, “Jimmy feels excited when he knows he’s going to see you, but when you’re late, he says he’s disappointed and that you don’t really want to spend time with him.”

• Keep agreements and do your best not to break appointments.

• Don’t discuss personal matters with your former spouse. Keep away from topics such as dating or other intimate details of your lives.

• Focus on what you can control in the situation rather than trying to change your former spouse. If your former spouse calls your house early each school morning, consider what you can control. In this case, you may work together to find a better time to call. If this doesn’t help, you may decide to not answer the phone.

• Don’t make unreasonable demands of a former spouse and don’t allow him or her to expect extra favors from you. It’s inappropriate for a former spouse to expect you to work on a car or mow the lawn. It’s also unfair for you to ask him or her to change plans at the last minute. Both parents must honor commitments about parenting and support the children.

• Remember, always try to be polite.

When co-parenting isn’t working

• Do you worry that your former spouse isn’t considering your child’s best interests? You may feel like making it hard for him or her. If you do, your child suffers the results. The best situation is to have two parents who act in their child’s best interest. The next best situation is having one parent who acts in the child’s best interest. The worst is having two parents who are so angry with each other that neither can keep the child’s interests in mind.

• In some cases you may need to contact an attorney to discuss alternatives. You may need outside help if you fear the current arrangements are harming your child and you can’t work it out with your former spouse.

• Find neutral ways to deliver messages to your former spouse. Try using email as a way to deliver these messages or send a letter through the mail.

• Don’t send messages to your former spouse through your children. It’s equally important to have children speak directly to the parent involved about their feelings and concerns. Teenagers may need encouragement and support to tell a parent why they doesn’t want to see him/her. Remember, your children should be responsible for their own feelings and decisions. Don’t put yourself in the middle.

• Some families find it helpful to involve a counselor, pastor or divorce mediator.

• Know what community resources are available. Tap these resources when you need support. You may feel frustrated when communication with a former spouse is strained. You may need advice or some one to talk to.

Children and adults benefit when co-parenting relationships are successful. When former spouse relationships are strained, business-like arrangements can help adults to work together. You and your spouse also can support one another when working out difficulties with a former spouse. As you share ideas and work together, you will be solving problems and creating a positive atmosphere for your stepfamily. Clear communication and flexibility are key.

Papernow, P
. Becoming a stepfamily: Patterns of development in remarried families, San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers,1993.
Shared Custody: Increasing Benefits and Reducing Strains, Oregon State University Extension Service.
McKenry, P.C. & Price.S. (Eds.) (2000).
Families and change. London: Sage Publications, Inc.

How to Avoid Becoming the "Wicked Stepmother"

Q: I need advice on disciplining my five-year-old stepdaughter. Her father is reluctant to discipline her and that responsibility falls on me. He says he is going to take an active role in parenting but usually does not. I feel that I am becoming the wicked stepmother. How can I get him to help control her behavior when she acts inappropriately?

A: You are on the road to becoming the "wicked stepmother"! This is a common pitfall for stepmoms. The terrain of the stepfamily needs to be carefully navigated if you are not to make this fairytale character come true. Should you continue to be the disciplinarian in your family your relationship with your stepdaughter will suffer. This should be her father's role, as you suggest and not yours.

One of the strongest predictor's for success in stepfamily development is the relationship between stepparent and stepchild. The second strongest predictor is a good couples' bond. Since the biological bond between parent and child predates the couples' relationship, the need to honor and respect the boundaries of this previous bond is essential prior to fully incorporating a stepparent as a major authority figure. Any shortcuts precipitate problems later.

Oftentimes, because of cultural loading on mothers to be the primary caregivers, stepmothers are susceptible to being placed in this role precipitously. Men more than women, following divorce, tend towards looking for a "replacement mother" to continue the work the biological mother did in the biologically intact family unit. This is a setup for failure and frustration! Do not take this role on. Step back and require that your husband play the "heavy" or you are likely to end up the scapegoat for everyone's negative feelings in the family.

Love includes discipline. Your husband is failing to cope with parenthood. Perhaps the dynamic in his last marriage was to leave this part of the job to Mom and he is attempting to do the same here. This could have also played a part in the failure of the first marriage, if responsibility for parenting was left to one parent! But you are not the parent. Your stepdaughter has a mother and a father.

Tell your husband you do not want to discipline his child, as it gets in the way of your forging a friendship with her. It takes time for a stepfamily to bond. Let him know that his lack of limit setting as a parent is jeopardizing the future of your family. (And simultaneously undermines whatever authority you do muster in the situation) By putting you in charge of discipline, he is setting up a situation in which he is the good guy and you are the bad guy. This void in parenting by him runs the risk of communicating to his daughter that he does not love her enough to do the hard part of the job! And leaving it to you ensures that your relationship to your stepdaughter will become wrought with conflict, before you have ever have the opportunity to secure your bond.

This kind of situation is not fair to any of you. Refuse to take this on, even if it means leaving him alone in the room with his daughter and her out of bounds behavior. Continue to develop a positive relationship to your stepdaughter. Take her on special outings the two of you can enjoy together if possible. But keep it simple and the interaction positive. Try to develop a good friendship with her. However, do not get drafted into the middle between your husband and his daughter. If your husband experiences difficulty developing this aspect of his parental responsibilities, ask him to seek out the advice of other fathers. Refer him to fathering resources on ParentsPlace. Perhaps a fathers' support group could serve to help him reflect on his own relationship with his father, and why this part of parenting is so hard for him. It is his job to do whatever it takes to develop his ability to cope with parenting. Developing his parenting skills is his obligation as a parent. He owes this to his daughter, as well as himself.

Approximately 50% of remarriages end in divorce, in part due to unrealistic expectations for family roles and relationships. Do not be seduced into "mothering" this child because she already has a mother and a father. Try instead to forge a special friendship. Over time, as your bond grows, you may gradually and quite naturally acquire the status of an authority figure who can also discipline. But you will not be filling in for your husband's lacks. With time and patience on your side, you may have the opportunity to grow into a workable stepfamily. Otherwise you may find yourself seeking a divorce as refuge from the "wicked stepmother" you could become.

The Extended Family

The shape of the American family is changing for the better, becoming more inclusive, more diverse, and more extended. Shared custody(both legal and physical) is becoming more the norm, and unlike in the past—when many biofathers left the scene—biodads are often very involved in parenting their kids after a divorce. More involvement means more adults in parenting roles and far more well-combined families.

The only problem with this improved state of affairs is that the more people there are involved in any activity, the more time it takes to plan things and to negotiate through differences of opinion. (Hey, as far as I'm concerned, this caffeine-based, gotta-hurry generation could all use a little more slowing down and time-taking anyway.)

The Value of the Extended Family

Children need other people (don't we all?). Kids do best (and parents, stepparents, and families survive intact) when there's a support network of many people, including relatives, adult friends, teachers, and members of the community.

In any community, the people who live there are mostly luck-of-the-draw; you don't get to pick the residents. You don't get to choose your partner's ex, either, or the family of your partner's ex (nor did they get to pick you!). Nonetheless, all of these people are a distinct part of your community now. Recognize that they are part of your stepchild's (and therefore your) support network, and you are part of theirs. The more you're able to see the wider picture and accept the abundance and diversity of this network, the easier it will be for you to rise above individual disagreements.

You can say it's for the sake of the kids, but the sake of the kids is your sake, too. It's nearly impossible for your stepchild to bond with you when your obvious dislike of her other bioparent gets in the way. She'll feel that getting close to you will hurt her biomom or biodad.

No! You don't have to get all buddy-buddy with the ex now. A working, respectful relationship doesn't mean beer dates, bowling, or heart-to-hearts. Your stepdaughter's soccer coach is also involved in your community, but you don't feel compelled to borrow clothes or tools from her, do you? Work on developing a practical partnership with the ex, not a close friendship.

Take the First Step with the Ex

If things are heating up toward nuclear meltdown, or if the Cold War has been going on for a while, it may be up to you to begin the peace process. Take a deep breath, keep the wide-angle lens open, and begin.

In her book Cherishing Our Daughters, Evelyn Bassoff recommends writing a letter to the bioparent to break the ice. (You could do this over the phone or in person, but it's easier and makes more of an impression when i letter might say something like this:

  • You are there for the child, and although being a stepparent has its challenges and may not have been your first-choice role, you welcome the child into your life.
  • You are not trying to take over her parenting role.
  • You are committed to doing the best you can to try to be a kind, adult friend to her child.
  • You would like to put aside disagreements and put the child's interests first.
  • You are available to talk or correspond any time she has anything to discuss.

For many people, getting over the initial hump is the hardest. Yes, you run the risk of being snubbed, but your efforts may pay off—and if they do, they'll pay off big-time. Think how much easier your life would be if you didn't have that churning anxiety every time you or your partner had to deal with the ex.

The Cooperation Concept

Cooperation and parenting collaboration with the ex will pay off in more than the money you'll save on antacids and headache relief. You can be a better stepparent if you enlist your partner's ex as a parenting ally. Think of the advantages! You can share information and ideas about problems your stepchildren are having. You and your partner are not as likely to be manipulated by your stepkid. And your stepkids will be happier. They won't feel tension in the air, they'll feel more secure, and they'll accept you sooner and with more grace.

Defeating antagonism takes time. Keep trying—it's worth it.

The Other Relatives

Your partner has broken up with the ex and has found fabulous you! Yet, because your partner has kids, there are still more “other” relatives in the picture besides those Other Grands. (Remember them—and see The Rights of Grandparents). Who else is involved? What about your stepkids' aunts, uncles, cousins, second cousins, and third-cousins-twice-removed? Your partner's ex's relatives may very well be a part of your new family's network.

Here's another opportunity to grow your community and incorporate more concerned adults into your extended family. Once again, it may be up to you to take the first steps, especially if your partner's past relationship crashed, flamed, and burned.

Setting Reasonable Goals

In all your stepparenting endeavors, it's vital to keep your expectations in check and to set reasonable goals for yourself and for your stepfamily.

There's a slogan I keep posted on my office wall: “Perfect is the Enemy of Good.” If you try for perfection, you are doomed to fail. Aim your hardest for “good enough.” Do the best you can, and be patient. Change takes time. Be kind to yourself.

Defeating Guilt

“Guilt is the gift that keeps on giving,” said Erma Bombeck. Used wrongly, guilt can be a destructive force to you and to others. But guilt can be a positive force when it reminds us that we always have the opportunity to improve ourselves and our actions.

It's hard to read an advice book, especially when it points out things that you've done wrong and suggests ways of doing things that you haven't done. Don't let guilt over your past stepparenting practices freeze you in your footsteps. Don't beat yourself up. It's never too late to make changes, and it's never too late to improve your step relationships.

Source: Excerpted from The Complete Idiot's Guide to Stepparenting © 1998 by Ericka Lutz.