stepchildren

Five Surprising Things This Divorced Mom Learned After Becoming a Stepmom

So after 7 years of writing about divorced moms and stepmoms, I thought I understood how and why so many stepmoms were having such a hard time.

The kids weren't hers. The ex-wife didn't want her around. Perhaps her partner was unwittingly just plugging her into a role and hoping she could roll with it - when, in fact, she couldn't.

But what I discovered is that this stepfamily business IS strange.

It's strange in that, if you're already a divorced mom, then you totally get the role. You're used to - automatically and without conscious thought - scoping out who's doing what, who needs what and how to either give it to them, do it for them, or ask that they do it for themselves or someone else.

But jumping into the Mom role with someone you didn't make children with and kids you didn't make is a different animal altogether. It's not that it's inherently bad, because it's not. There are a million things I love about this experience, including a fantastic partner, some amazing kids and a wonderful life that we're creating together.

But I also don't have the benefit of unconditional love on my side, smoothing over the edges of difficult experiences or a different family culture, with its own unspoken rules and habits.

And I don't have the benefit of my mother's power and voice, which might simply look like, "Hey! I've asked you three times to put your damn dishes in the dishwasher. Do it NOW or risk seeing me run over your cell phone with my car!" like I would with my own kids.

Parenting without those two tools in my arsenal can be frustrating and disorienting.

It's harder than it looks.

I've heard it said a million times now, "Where is the manual on how to do this stepmom gig?" If you're looking for some clearcut guidelines, luckily, they're super clear, consistent and splattered all over the internet:

Just be yourself. / Be a more muted version of yourself and you'll be fine.

Make sure to set clear, consistent boundaries. / Step back, so you don't step on toes.

It's your house too, so don't be afraid to be a hard-ass. / Be gentle or you will hurt others, they'll withdraw and your stepfamily and relationship will implode from the inside out.

Make your relationship a priority. / This family existed before you did, so it's up to you to figure out how to fit in.

With a cacophony of voices all trumpeting their own version of YES! or NO!at you, it's up to you to pick and choose which approach to try. But how, when one well-written article seems to cancel out the next?

It's easier than it looks.

I must have won some kind of lottery that I don't know about because not only is my ex-husband's wife a dear friend, but my partner's ex is really nice too. Not only does she seem like a nice person, but thank the gods, she is also really nice to me. My partner's kids are funny, smart, warm and likable and I hope I'm not being presumptuous in saying, it seems to me that we all took to each other pretty easily.

How did I get so lucky, when so many other folks seem to be trapped in a living hell with the stepkids or the ex-wife?

I have no idea.

But I am very thankful and I don't forget it for one minute. Or at least, not too many.

The twinges are a challenge.

Sometimes, hearing old family stories gives me a funny feeling in my stomach. Sometimes, I wish I could have had kids with my partner (those years are behind us now). Sometimes, I don't like the feeling of ghosts from another lifetime - albeit an important one that shaped my partner, and obviously his kids, into the cool people they are now - hovering around the edges of my life.

When you're married in a nuclear family, the circle is around all of you - and that's it. Everyone else is outside of it. No gaps. No blurriness. No ifs or maybes.

But when that circle breaks up, you can't entirely make a solid, new one in a stepfamily. The gaps are always present and open, because they must be. That is something I both accept out of respect and feel tender and regretful about.

This is like having my own personalized Zen retreat. 

If I were to pay good money to go off to a two-week silent retreat, where I had to learn how to master my tongue, my ego, my habits and my well-developed ideas on "how things should be done and why," well then, I might just come home feeling stoked, renewed and revitalized.

Living that experience on a daily basis?

Hey, wait! Isn't my "retreat" over yet? When do I get to go back to my old life, so I can digest all these mind-blowing new insights and then gradually slide back into my "normal" life and do things the way I've always done them?

No such luck. Now the lessons come fast and furious.

Some days, I feel like I've gotten not only one pie in the face, but two or three. Those times are fairly few and far between, but when an evening ends in tears, you remember it.

I have a newfound respect for stepmoms now and their myriad expressions of heartache, hurt, resentment, anger and confusion. I will continue to do my best and to learn what I can about how to be present with love, forgiveness and understanding. (And to keep writing about what I learn.)

Yes, this shit can be hard.

But when you feel it working, you know you're doing something you can be proud of.

 © 2013 Jennifer Newcomb Marine

Why Owning Your Own Crap Empowers You

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Most of us are reluctant to turn the flashlight back on ourselves and look at the ways we might have screwed up.

After all, who likes feeling like they’ve messed up?

Like the balance of power has shifted in the story and all of a sudden, instead of the other person being so predictably wrong - it’s now our behavior that’s under scrutiny?

Back during the days when I used to not get along with my ex-husband David and his wife (and my co-author) Carol, I spent a lot of time and energy trying to mentally nail them for things they had done wrong. The slightest little mistake was grounds for a rant with my friends -- or a ruined afternoon, with me stewing in my anger and irritation.

Never mind the fact that there was also a part of me that was secretly enjoying the fact that they might have screwed up, such as getting a pick-up or drop off time mixed up.

And never mind the fact that I also did what I could to subtly help them get it mixed up, while also trying to claim otherwise.

It was childish, ridiculous behavior.

And part of me knew it.

But instead of looking at that reality, I chose instead to focus on them.

And they, in turn, were doing the same thing with me. (Something they fully owned up to later).

After all, how many of us, when we sense someone in our immediate environment out to get us, open our hearts in response?

Maybe if you live on a mountain in Tibet you do, but I doubt the majority of us mere mortals lean that way out of habit.

So there we were, judging the hell out of each other, blowing things out of proportion, taking lots of things personally, making ourselves and everyone else miserable... and the entire time, we’re all still feeling victimized.

Like something was being done TO us!

I have to shake my head and laugh at this now, because it seems so clearly illogical and insane.

I can’t speak for David or Carol, but when I had my first inklings of owning my own shit, it was like a blast of light shining through the curtains.

Once I started to see how I was fully participating in this impossible, never-ending, score-keeping behavior, I couldn’t STOP seeing it in all my actions.

And I suspected that they probably had inklings of this as well.

We all seemed so hopelessly, helplessly blind.

But we were not helpless.

Admitting to myself that I was deliberately trying to set them up, trying to make them fail, trying to make myself out to be the well-intentioned, blameless victim -- even if it meant occasionally putting the kids in the middle as leverage was life-changing.

I could throw up my hands and claim my innocence all I wanted in public, but now that I knew the truth of what I was doing, I could never go back and pretend otherwise to myself again.

The bottom line was....

Was it worth it?

Was it worth what I was doing to the kids to feel temporarily superior to David and Carol? To feel like the better, more loving, devoted parent? (One who still uses her kids as “leverage?” Right....) To milk sympathy from friends and family about how unfair it was, how stressful and awful their “two against my one” was?

To self-righteously funnel my leftover anger and grief about our marriage into something tangible, something that gave me the feeling that at least something was actually moving? Something was actually happening?

Well.... No.

It wasn’t.

It wasn’t worth all the stress. It wasn’t worth how hard my heart felt.

It wasn’t worth the feeling that I was now living behind a large rock wall, thirty feet high, waiting for flaming balls of mud to be lobbed upon me at any time. Or constantly gathering up mud inside my own yard to lob back.

My brain hurt. My head hurt. My stomach hurt.

My kids were hurting.

It sucked.

So... when I clearly and irrevocably saw what I was doing, I made the decision to stop.

Whether they did or not, whether they apologized or not, whether they ever understood or not.

I stopped.

And I told myself the truth about my crappy behavior, without justifications, without trying to turn my actions back on them somehow.

I apologized at first to David.

And then, later, when things were better between us, to Carol.

And then, eventually, when my girls seemed old enough to really get it, I apologized to them too.

You’d think that all of that apologizing would make a person feel pretty darned small.

And it did, temporarily.

But that’s what humility does. It makes you small enough so that you can see the error of your ways.

It takes you out of your ego so you can get over yourself.

It gives you a chance to just shut the heck up and take stock of what’s you've created, shame-inducing and all.

When you own your own shit and when you apologize to people -- without any investment about what’s coming to you in return -- without any expectations of what’s going to happen now or how you’ll be perceived as “better” -- magic can happen.

Time and time again, I hear stories of huge turnarounds that occur between warring parties.

A heartfelt apology is made and ice melts. Handshakes are made. Smiles freely given for maybe the first time ever.

Maybe not immediately, but sometimes... eventually....

I firmly believe, though it sounds all new-agey to say, that you change the energetic field between you and the other person. You stop the tension, the pushing and pulling. The space opens up between you for something new to be created, even if there’s no way to anticipate what that might be.

It still happens.

Based on my own experiences, I recommend that the exes start with each other, in particular. It’s often the leftover angst and anger between them that can really fuel the competition between the women -- and all the offenses that come along with that.

When you own your own shit, it's true: you may not make one single thing happen as far as changing the other person’s behavior.

And you have to be willing to accept that.

But you will feel a MILLION times better about yourself and your own sense of integrity.

And you will be giving your children an AWESOME gift to emulate themselves one day.

You will have stopped leaking your self-pity and vengeance all over them, when they're just trying to be kids, doing their kid thing.

You will be showing them what's possible when the two people who brought them into this world put down their weapons and say they're sorry... and maybe cry for the chaos they've wrought.

You'll make it okay for them to love their stepmom, like they should be able to, since she likely loves them.

You'll show them what it's like when all the adults create something new and wonderful out of a weird and awkward situation.

And then truly, even though their lives may have exploded with the dissolution of their original family, you'll show them that life really can be okay -- and new bonds will form that they can lean on for the rest of their lives.

Won't you try it... and see?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine   All Rights Reserved

 

The Family-Family Meeting Blow-up

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For a while there, whenever our dual-family family was ironing out some major issues—like which kid was living where, and for how long—we'd have these really intense family meetings.

We'd all sit around the kitchen table after dinner, or in the living room, half of us sprawled on the floor... and we'd talk.

One of the adults would bring up the main issue to handle, and at first, it would seem just like a regular business meeting.

Here are the facts. Here are the problems. Here's what I think we should do....

And then another adult might reasonably respond.

And then that's when the bees would start streaming out of their nest. The bats would pour out of their cave at sunset. The fire ants would bubble up from their mound.

Because, of course, everyone felt the need to chime in on their position.

Depending upon their personality and whether they were an extrovert or an introvert, some of us were (cough) a little more vocal than others.

It would get pretty messy.

And sometimes, voices would be raised.

Occasionally, someone would storm off (only to drift back again).

Luckily, we all seemed to recognize when someone had been quiet for too long; conflicting emotions visible in their face, eager to be expressed, yet fearful of being vulnerable, amping up the volume.

Often, there were tears.

During really stellar meetings, every single person in our stepfamily/single-parent family-family would take their turn and cry, their voice rising with confusion, hurt and anger.

You can imagine how long this all took.

And how tired we all were afterward!

But here's the thing....

It was always such a SURPRISE to hear how others really and truly felt.

Really.

I mean, some of this stuff just seemed to come out of left field.

Like, Really? That's what was going on with you? That's what you thought I meant? That's why you were doing and saying this? Because of this other thing that I had no idea about?!

Which is kind of pathetic, in a way....

Why weren't we paying better attention to each other! To all the hidden clues in words and behavior? To facial expressions and little dropped hints? To conversations skirted around?

EVERY TIME we had one of our awkward and tumultuous family-family meetings, we'd get to this point where I'm SURE we all thought, Oh crap. We've really done it now. One, or two, or even ALL of us have dropped so many bombs here that we FOR SURE have blown up whatever connections existed between us before.

We've gone too far.

We've broken this.

We are screwed.

And I know I wasn't the only one who felt this sense of sheer terror, this sense of fear and brain-scrambled, mental overwhelm, this ache in my stomach—like we were a bunch of kids playing with live dynamite in a remote fort tucked into a hill.

Who would find us when it all went off and the ground collapsed over our heads, burying us alive? And why in the world were we doing all this without the help of a trained counselor, a therapist, like normal people???

Somehow though... somehow... we'd keep going. We'd keep talking. Keep cajoling. Keep asking questions.

Keep listening.

And after so many verbal and emotional expulsions (the only word that seems to describe how it felt), something else would finally be detectable in the air.

Hope.... We sensed ourselves actively moving to a better place.

Respect.... For each other and our struggles, our pain.

Resolve.... To treat each other better. To pay closer attention. To do the right thing, even if it was hard.

Awe.... For being able to do this with each other, for being brave enough to look at the raw sloppiness of our inner selves, the stuff we normally hide from others - and show it.

Love.... For each other, for our vulnerabilities, our fears, our tender spots, even for our known and vehemently-denied handicaps.

And finally... gratitude. That we have managed to create something so fragile and beautiful, and yet also strong enough to bear the weight of each other.

Our family-family meetings always revealed the truth of things in all their messy, bumbling glory, in the end.

And with that truth came a new understanding of what was important to each of us... the breakable parts of each other that we must treat with extra care... what our new choices now were for moving forward.

We may not have left those meetings knowing exactly what was going to happen, but it was the clarifying light of that chaotic, but cathartic truth that let the right things unfold in the future, and those problems always ended up eventually "going away."

I can't even remember what most of them were now!

So.... I ask you:

In what ways do YOU feel like you don't understand the truth of other people in your family-family?

What do you think you might be missing?

What do you feel is being kept from you?

What are YOU not telling others when it comes to things you are hurt or angry about?

In what ways might you be blind to some of the biggest priorities and fears of others?

(I love learning about these hidden forces at work in our dual families, so this week, I'll be announcing a new course to share what I know, and to help you create more understanding in your own “family-family” for the new year ahead—even if things are really tough. You’ll have a chance to pre-register soon.)

What are your thoughts? I want to hear from you!!!

 

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

Which boat are you in?

Many of you come to this site because you’re looking for information that might give you an advantage with your difficult mom/stepmom relationship. You want something extra to help you create a shift. Movement in the right direction. A breakthrough out of nowhere.

You’re the only one who knows what it’s like in your particular situation.

If you’re like most people though, you’ve got a razor-sharp sense of how things stack up on the scoreboard. Who’s done what to whom. How you were justified in reacting to various offenses.

But what about when it comes to the potential for real change -- how do you know what to do? Which direction to go?

There are two possible boats you might be in if you’re struggling with the stepmom or ex-wife. So I’ll ask you:

Is this woman crazy and dangerous?

Or is she normal enough that you might one day get somewhere?

Which boat do think you’re in?

The one where you’re both basically “normal,” but having a hard time?

Or the one where she’s damaging the kids because she’s abusing drugs or alcohol, compulsively lies, maybe has a diagnosable personality disorder, and is actively alienating the children from you, even though it’s destroying them in the process?

Sounds obvious enough, right?

But here’s where this gets tricky.

When people attack us, when they hurt our feelings, snub us, do things that piss us off, when they do something with the kids that we strongly disagree with, we almost always put them in the second boat.

We are appalled at their flaws and issues, their behavior. We are offended. The reason they’re capable of acting the way they are must be because there’s something seriously wrong with them. They’ve got major problems.

And sometimes, this is true.

But sometimes... it’s not.

A little story for you.

In the brilliant book, “The Anatomy of Peace,” an Arab and a Jew lead a weekend workshop for the parents of troubled teens who are off on a wilderness retreat.

Yusef, who’s Arab, tells a tale from when he was young and earning a living, begging from Westerners on the streets of Bethlehem. He knew an elderly, blind Jewish beggar named Mordecai from working the same beat.

One day, Mordecai fell and spread his donated coins all over the ground. Not only was he struggling to stand up, his days’ earnings were everywhere.

Yusef’s first impulse was to help Mordecai get up and retrieve his coins.

But in an instant, without even being conscious of it, Yusef thought of all the injustices that the Jews had committed against his people; how angry, bitter and put upon he felt by these circumstances; this choice he had to make.

Instead of helping Mordecai, he quickly walked away.

Not only did Yusef do something unkind, he also betrayed himself in that moment.

He went against what he himself thought was the right thing to do.

Immediately after betraying himself, his mind turned to making Mordecai wrong. Making the situation wrong. Making the pressure he felt to help wrong and unfair.

In less than a second, Mordecai became the enemy.

Do you see how Yusef couldn’t, from that frame of mind, be able to accurately tell which boat Mordecai might be in (friend or foe) to save his life?

Same thing for us when we don’t do a brutally honest, slow-motion replay after a conflict-filled event.

When we can’t tease out our feelings of superiority, self-righteousness, our vindictiveness, our desire to get sympathy from others over our hardships, we lose our mental clarity.

We lose our compassion.

We lose any sense of responsibility.

We turn living, breathing people into objects.

What fascinates me is that millisecond of self-betrayal.

The self-betrayal comes first, then all else just “seems” to automatically follow....

We don’t even realize it’s happened!

We want to get along with the other woman, sometimes from just wanting less stress, more peace, cooperation, etc.

And deep inside us all, we know that our choices, our actions, our conflict-filled relationships after divorce actually hurt and frighten our children.

This knowledge tugs at our hearts and keeps us up at night.

But... something “goes wrong” again with the stepmom or ex-wife, we betray ourselves, and off she goes into the Crazy boat, even if she doesn’t belong there.

So how do you know when she does?

For one thing, it’s strikingly clear. You know it in your gut in no uncertain terms. This feeling is consistent from day-to-day. It never goes away. Those are the special circumstances that need to be taken seriously and managed with professional resources.

The Crazy boat requires stronger boundaries so you can protect your children and step-children. Maybe later, you can lower those boundaries. Maybe not.

The Normal boat is where things actually have the potential to change.

As a human being that’s a constant work in progress, I commit acts of self-betrayal on a daily basis.

How about you?

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

Success Story: Jesica and Mayra

What does it look like when the “bio-mom” and stepmom transform the ex-wife/stepmom relationship from hell? Here, we talk to two women who were formerly at war for years, but have suddenly made a breakthrough into a whole, new world of cooperation and promise. Mayra (the mom) and Jesica (the stepmom) from the D.C. area tell us their story....

What were some of the biggest problems you USED to have with each other?

Mayra: She was doing too much to try and be the "Mommy.” I felt that when I talked to the kids, they would paint a certain picture. They felt pressured to call her mom, because she would get mad if they didn’t.

Instead of approaching the situation in a calm manner, I would yell at my children’s father about her and instantly become aggressive. Another issue as well, as childish as this may sound, was I did not like it when my daughter kissed her on the lips. To me, that’s something only a biological parent should be doing. I hated the feeling I had when I saw that close connection with them, to be honest. I don’t think I was ready to accept that close affection they shared.

I also had issues with the fact that she would do little things to pester me, such as take my daughter’s hair out after I did it, because as the kids told me "She didn’t like it." Little things like that....

Jesica: For me, it was this person trying to tell me what I could and could no longer do with the kids, or alone with the kids, because I wasn’t their parent. Things that I was so used to doing prior to that were being taken away from me. Parental alienation was normal around the kids—it was like a tug of war. Who was going to win the kids over by buying them what they wanted or giving them what they needed? A big problem was them calling me Mommy, or me showing up for school events or doctor’s visits.

What made you think it might be possible for things to change for the better? Were there little things that caught your attention? Big things?

Mayra: I sat down with my children and asked them how they honestly felt about her. I told them I wouldn’t be mad or sad. I needed to know what they felt and that’s when my kids told me, "She’s nice to us, Mom—we like her and love her.” Prior to having that conversation, I felt that she was “making them” scared, to the point that they had no other choice but to like her!

To hear that come from my kids, in their own words, made me realize I needed to put all the crap away and deal with her, to work it out with her. But the biggest sign I saw was when we were all at the kids’ school due to a difficult issue. It was the way we were able to put it all aside, work well in the same room, and not have any conflict.

Jesica: I just want to say first that prior to now, we did have a period in which we got along. I had taken a six-month break from my husband (boyfriend at the time) and she and I started to talk, because I wanted to see the kids. After he and I got back together, we stopped talking. I guess she saw it as a betrayal or something.

This time around, what made me think it was possible was after my husband and I got married recently. (We’ve known each other for 6 years.) She allowed the kids to come to our wedding, which I thought she would try and sabotage, but she didn’t. Then for Easter, they got Easter baskets from our house and took them home, and she told my husband to thank me because they were nice. These were the little signs. Not very big ones, because soon after, it was back to the same old drama.

There was one big turning point and it was on a day in which there was a crisis in my six year-old stepdaughter's school. There was a bully we’d been having issues with almost all year long. I was around the corner when my husband called, so I picked him up, and we met with his ex-wife at the school. Although I'm sure in her head she was wondering why I had to be there, she actually picked up her cup of courage and asked me how I was doing. I was so shocked I said "What?!" and she said, "Come on, okay? I'm trying!" I turned beet red in shock.

From there, I knew there might be a possibility we could make this work. As long as it didn’t just last for that one day! They say sometimes tragedy can bring people together. I think here that statement rings true.

How did you reach out to the other woman? Were you scared? Was she (from what you could tell)?

Mayra: I reached out at the school. It was awkward being there and talking to their dad and completely ignoring her, so I sucked it up and genuinely asked her, “How’re you doing?” and from there the conversation flowed.. She was shocked at first, I could tell. She asked me, "What?" and I replied "Look, I’m trying....”

Jesica: Although she doesn't know it, I reached out by buying your book. I was scared as to how she would receive it. (In the beginning of the book, it talks about how both sides are jealous and sad and feel like we are in mourning. These were the things that I was sure she would find hard to admit to anyone or even herself!) So I had my husband pretend as though he was buying it for her as a Mother's Day gift, and he told her that he had bought me one too. I thought she would throw it away or toss it somewhere, but never actually read it.

I feel as though I’ve always been the one more willing to try and work things out, but I do think she was scared to speak to me. Maybe “scared” is the wrong word—let’s say nervous. She and I have a lot in common and our faces are pretty easy to read. She was beet red too when she asked me how I was doing. That is how I knew she was being sincere. Had it been a cold and careless question, she wouldn’t have looked nervous or been blushing when she spoke to me.

What do you think made her willing to meet you halfway?

Mayra: Being honest, I think that she was willing to meet me half way a long time ago. It was me who wasn’t willing to try.... I like to do things on my own time, not on anyone else’s. So I guess when I was finally willing to meet her halfway, she had been ready.

It seems that ever since that day, we’ve been on the same page and are trying to work with each other, not against each other. We’re willing to compromise some of our wants in order to move forward.... We stopped being selfish!

Jesica: Honestly, I think it's just been so long that we were both tired. Tired of hating each other and nit-picking at everything! It's exhausting! For the past several years, we’ve been doing it with a passion to the point that I found ways to bring her up everyday.

Even when the kids weren’t around, I thought of different things to bring up and I'm sure it was the same on her side. My husband got tired of it. I got tired of it. I got depressed about it. (I’ve never been to a doctor to confirm this, but I know I was.)

I got tired of seeing how the kids were changing in a negative way. I could tell that they were more sensitive, and less eager to keep going back and forth across the battle lines. I think she finally hit a point where she realized that what she was doing was not benefiting the kids either—and she was over it. When we first started our feud, I was 19-20, and she was 22-23. We’re older and more mature now. All in all, most of what made us change has to do with the kids.

Were there any mistakes you were making before that you're willing to admit that kept this from happening?

Jesica: Yes. I constantly threw it in her face that she was gone for a period of time and wasn’t consistently in their lives. What I said to her were truths, but I didn't have to throw them in her face. I constantly reminded her of why the kids loved me and what I did for them that she never did, or could never do because it was too late (for example, potty- training my stepdaughter). I told her that my house was my house and our rules are our rules. It could have been said in a better manner.

The kids would constantly tell us things like, “Mommy said _____,” and I would just say “Well, tell Mommy I don’t care,” or something of that nature. I should’ve just kept my comments to myself, or to my husband. I would do things that a mother would do, but I never consulted her about it, only with my husband.

Mayra: I can admit I let my anger and insecurity blind me from moving forward. I was scared that the kids would like her more than me. I learned that they love her and like her, but I am Mommy and will always be Mommy in their life and no one can take that special bond from me and my kids..... I have learned to share them instead of being selfish and possessive. One can never go wrong with so much love!

How are things between you now?

Mayra: Things are great and peaceful..... There is no more of "that Effin Bitch" flying around. And no anger.... It feels awesome to have an extra partner in our lives to help raise the kids.

Jesica: Things are great right now. The kids are constantly bringing up how we are getting along and how happy they are about it.

We actually spent time together for the first time this past Friday with the kids—she, my husband and I. We went and got my stepson's hair cut. She and I were there before he arrived. We were talking and laughing and we felt a little awkward, but it will get easier with time.

We’ve been texting and communicating as well. We haven’t just been brushing it off as if this is some easy task. She and I have talked a little about the kids, and how she and I feel about speaking with each other. It has been said that we need to make it work this time and make it last. We both agree no one is going anywhere and that the more love the kids get, the better.

She and I agreed that we need to talk things out and make things happen. We both even admitted that we feel happier now. I feel a huge weight off my shoulders and the anxiety is almost gone.

My only concerns now are that we try not to let small things get in the way and let our emotions run wild. I’m actually doing things with her in mind, so that I don’t offend her, and I can only say I’m hoping she’s doing the same. :-)

Are there any things that you're looking forward to more, now that you've begun to heal your relationship?

Mayra: I look forward to a lot of things. Trips at school, trips out of school and birthday parties and holidays together. Even time with her, hanging out as adults.... We were friends at one point and I’d like to gain that back.

Jesica: I am looking forward to sharing BIRTHDAYS! It used to be so sad when a birthday would fall on her day and we wouldn’t see them. I cannot wait to finally be able to have a birthday party for the kids and not worry about her being there, or vice-versa. We have yet to throw them a party because of it.

I look forward to maybe in the future taking field trips together and hanging out by ourselves, without the kids. (Yes I can see us getting there. Like I said before, she and I actually do have a lot of things in common.)

I also look forward to doing “future firsts” with the kids and not having the stress of them feeling like they have to choose who they talk to—or don’t. I’m looking forward to the kids being happy. The End!

One question for Mayra only....

In many ways, the power to create a cooperative mom/stepmom relationship lies with the mom, because she has so much authority as the mother of the children. In your opinion, why aren't more moms willing to make it work with the stepmoms? Mayra: I think that moms are not willing to work it out because they are afraid and feel like something is being taken away from them. I totally understand that, but ladies, remember: you are their MOM and will always be their MOM and sometimes... sharing is caring!

What advice would you give other moms or stepmoms who are having a hard time?

Mayra: Give it a chance, don’t close the door without trying first. Put aside your personal feelings and pay attention to what your kids want. Sometimes your own feelings will blind you.

Jesica: Part of me honestly thought that she really just was the biggest Bitch!! Your book helps. I can give advice, but every situation is different. Most women run on emotions and put up their walls, waiting for an attack. Mothers are very protective of their children and stepparents are just looking to love the children as well.

My advice is simple. Try not to purposely step on anyone's toes. Communicate. Maybe the other person doesn't know you want to get along. Maybe one or both adults think you are trying to take the kid(s) away from them. What ever the case may be, as hard as it might be: try.

You may even try several times without your attempts being acknowledged, but as long as you try, then there’s a chance. You don't have to be best friends, you don't even have to like each other. You do, however, have to work with each other if you want the kids to be happy.

Ultimately when you see how happy the kids are, you'll realize how much more happy you are. Trust me when I say that the stress and anger and frustration built up in you will go away and you will feel sooo much better—so much, it’s almost indescribable.

Thanks so much, Mayra and Jesica! And we’re happy for you too!

Dr. Phil: now taking questions from the audience, as well as video questions

It appears that the mom from the mom/stepmom team that was to appear on the show this coming Tuesday has changed her mind. The show would now like to instead focus on taking questions from both moms and stepmoms in the audience, so you're in luck if you live in Los Angeles or close by, and have a burning question that you'd like addressed. 

Have one?!

They're also looking for questions to be submitted by video, so obviously that can be from anywhere!

If anyone is interested in attending the show and asking a question or sending in a video, they can either contact the show with the subject "STEPMOM/MOM CONFLICT - 11/3/09" in the subject line, or they can send me a message at marine2marine@gmail.com and I'll pass it along to the producer.

We'll still be on and we'd love to see you if you live in the area! 

Thanks!

-Jen

Happy Stepfamily Day!!

Happy Stepfamily Day to all the stepfamilies out there!

Bubbles Being in a stepfamily has its unique challenges, but there are also many opportunities to create new and lasting connections, new opportunities for love and support. Surprising little islands of closeness and intimacy, the chance to really see each other anew. Sure, I hear many stories about how hard it is, but I also hear lots of stories about how folks have made it work.

The wonderful thing about being human? Even if things are bad, they can change in an instant with words from the heart, with vulnerability, with emotional bravery.

So to all those folks out there who are trying, who are giving it their best, who keep hanging in there sometimes through hurt feelings and misunderstandings, I salute you!

Bubble_time And to those of you who have started to create a solid line of happy memories behind you that are building up, I salute you too!

If you're not in a stepfamily and are a single parent, you might also want to take a moment to reflect on how tricky it can be to a part of one of these family units, with various loyalties jockeying for position. We all want the best for our kids, don't we? We want them to live in an atmosphere of love and support and stability, so send the stepfamily in your life a little wish for peace and happiness, just for today!

Blue_balloons Here's a little song to share, even though it has nothing to do with families or the topic of this blog, called Micro Melodies. It's just one of my favorite songs in the whole world, from a wonderful band called The Album Leaf. I often write to their music and this song in particularly makes me insanely happy.

You know how you can hear and imagine reflections of human emotions and experiences in music? Perhaps there's a hint of life's challenges in these chords, which then always go back to a lighter, more joyful place, along with a certain quirkiness that appeals. (Remind me never to try to earn a living as a music critic!).

At any rate, enjoy! (and ignore the video part, which is a just a static picture of a city).

And enjoy the day!

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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Tell Oprah!

HeyOprah I'm joining forces with three other good friends* in the hopes of getting more publicity for blended family and "dual-family" issues, just in time for National Stepfamily Day on Sept. 16th. It's estimated that only 20% of American families are now nuclear families. And stepfamilies have an almost 75% rate of divorce!

The single-parent family and the stepfamily are uniquely stressed and at risk because of conflict with each other -- which translates directly into heartache for the kids, not to mention the adults. If only we had a clear and reassuring roadmap to show us the way to empathy, cooperation and mutual respect.

I know it's possible... because I've lived it.

Maybe Oprah, awesome creator of the Big Picture that she is, will pick up her paintbrush to work her magic... and one of her producers will pick up the phone!

Won't you join us in asking Oprah to cover these very important issues by sending her a quick email?

The future families of our world will thank you. :-)


*Wednesday Martin (Stepmonster), Izzy Rose (The Package Deal), and Brenda Ockun( StepMom Magazine)

New stepmom? Heading off conflict from the get-go...

Feeling your way into potential stepmotherhood? Are you dating a divorced man with kids and things are looking promising? Here are a few ideas for setting a healthy course from the very beginning that will make you thank yourself later.

Bond over the good stuff, not the bad.
Don't make a part of your bonding experience with your guy bitching about the ex-wife. Know that part of his motivation in doing this is to prove to YOU that you're the one he's fully choosing. SHE didn't work out because she was simply the wrong woman. And in all honesty, like any human being, he's also probably projecting some of his issues onto her because he's clueless about how to fix them.

While pillow talk often involves an analysis of what went wrong in previous relationships so you can talk about how you want to do things differently now, don't let yourself get sucked into the kind of gossip that only makes things worse in the long run.

You don't need to knock down one person to raise up another (and you wouldn't want him doing this to you later if things ended up not working out, right?). Avoid it. Gossip is a habit and it creates a crappy energy that is cumulative and has momentum. The last thing you need is a growing pile of dog shit in the corner of your bedroom!

Meet her.

Yes, I'm advocating walking into the enemy's camp and introducing yourself, but hey, she was once just a person too -- someone that your partner loved enough to marry. Maybe she's not so bad after all. Be adult enough to form your own conclusions about who she is, instead of simply taking someone else's word for it. And that means talking to her on the phone, or if you live in the same town, meeting her face-to-face. Everyone has a phone. Pick it up and call her!

This suggestion may sound insane, but hey, we live in crazy times. We are SURROUNDED by divorced families and stepfamilies and that isn't going to change. If that's the case, then it's time to start approaching these situations from a brand-new, radical perspective. Let's head off problems pre-emptively, instead of dealing with the same old, same old. Be a revolutionary and muster some bravery!

Set some healthy parameters.
Introduce yourself. Tell her you know this is an awkward situation -- for both of you. Tell her you're not interested in turning the kids against her or keeping any conflict going between she and her ex (and then don't!). Tell her you're committed to staying out of the middle and letting them work through whatever they might need to, without someone gossiping about her and feeding into the score-keeping.

Tell her you'd like to work together to make this the easiest it can be for the kids. Tell her you'd like to be helpful and flexible and hope she will be in return. Who knows? Maybe you can even create a subtle, healthy competition to see who can act with the most consideration, clear communication and good manners. When people are treated with kindness, warmth and respect, they often respond in kind. Be stubborn about acting this way.

Rise above the fray.

If you take the high road, you have the potential to create a real ally in the ex-wife. What's going to raise her ire (and sense of resistance and revenge) is knowing you two are noting every fault and shortcoming of hers. If you make it clear that you are going to refrain from doing that, she'll know she can trust you to act with maturity and foresight.

Part of you may feel like you're going to be letting your BF/husband down if you don't bitch and vent with him about her, but trust me, you'll feel so much better about yourself. You'll create the space and integrity to maintain peace and cooperation between households over the long run -- and that's a huge contribution you can make to your immediate family and to the extended family as a whole.

  • What did I leave out?
  • What's your experience been?
  • Who's had some successes along these lines and what worked for you?

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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Erasing the enemy - Part Two

(If you missed Part One, it's here.) The stepmother clicked the button to end the call before it started ringing. Then she took a deep breath and began to dial again. She stopped halfway, remembering some of the worst verbal insults that had made their way back to her, some of the angry and hateful facial expressions—all the ugliness that the mom obviously hadn’t had any problems tossing her way.

She looked over at the glowing blue book that had prompted all this, sitting innocently on her nightstand, and she frowned at it. This is all your fault, you stupid, little thing. You have no idea what I’m up against.....

She set the phone down and thought about all the things she needed to get done around the house. Her mind turned to an automatic inventory of the fridge, what she needed to get from the store, then it wandered to the laundry room, the bathrooms. Hmmm... how were they doing on toilet paper?

The blue book sat there... waiting. Oh fine, she huffed to herself and picked it up, opening it in the middle, just for fun.

A heart of war needs enemies to justify its warring. It needs enemies and mistreatment more than it wants peace.

"Needs." The word stood out on the page. Did she need this conflict on some twisted level?

She thought back to her original impulse, her knees clacking against each other under the table as she and the mom faced each other with nothing more than two steaming cups of liquid for defense.

She stared out the window for a few moments, her mind blank and empty. Then she dialed the number again.

“Hello?”

There it was. That voice. She hated this woman, after all she’d done to them. All that b.s. in court. What she'd put the kids through even though she held herself up as some kind of devoted mother. What in God’s name was she doing calling her? Her husband was going to kill her. Her heart was loudly pounding a thousand miles a hour, her chest suddenly felt tender and sore. She needed more air. And dammit, she knew when she opened her mouth she was going to sound  like a Nervous Nelly.

She cleared her throat. “Yeah, um—hey. It’s me.”

What a rude way to start a phone call, thought the mom. No surprise there. This had better be quick. And why wasn’t HE calling her instead? Something must be up. She checked her watch.

“Yes?”

Well now, THAT wasn’t very friendly, was it? thought the stepmom. No “Hello?" or "How’re you?” or good manners, or anything! See? Here I am trying and this is what I get? There are some people that ARE just simply impossible.

What the hell do you know about real life?, she accused the authors of that stupid little book.

"Um, yeah. So, uh.... I—-" The stepmom cleared her throat again. She didn’t want to sound like a pansy, like she was wheedling, pleading. Where was all that blustering confidence she felt only moments ago? “I’ve been reading this new book and uh, I thought I’d call... and uh, yeah.Talk.”

Silence.

The stepmom bumbled on.

“To you. I thought I’d call and talk to you.” Why wasn’t this stupid woman making things any easier. Damn her! Maybe the stepmom could just come up with an excuse to get off the phone right now and stop this slow filleting of herself alive.

The mom was instantly wary. She could hear the nervousness in the stepmom’s voice, which certainly intrigued her, but she’d be damned if she was going to have any more contact with this other woman than was absolutely necessary.

And hopefully, that would be... NONE.

“Talk to me about what.” The mom kept her voice flat and plain.

The stepmom was now actively kicking herself. Her innards were turning over and over and rearranging themselves. Maybe an alien would pop out of the middle of her chest—that’s what this was all about.

Coffee. Laughing, remember? Human BE-ING. Heart of war or heart of peace, the stepmom recited mentally like a zombie mantra. Suddenly, she thought, oh fuck it. She can’t kill me if she’s not actually here to bite my throat and drain me like a vampire. What do I have to lose anyway?

It’s already bad enough.

The stepmom took a deep breath and tried to clear her panicky head.

The mom heard this exhalation through the phone and thought, Wow, this is really weird. Something’s going on here. I wonder if I’ll be able to use this against her later somehow. Maybe they’re having problems? The mom filed these thoughts away and continued to listen, waiting for the stepmom to verbally hang herself. For some unknown reason, she had a mental image of a mountain lion in the deserts of Big Bend National Park, lying in wait while the unsuspecting hikers walked by on the path below, down the hill from the silent, tightly-wound feline.

Focus, focus, the mom reminded herself.

"Well, it’s about conflict and how it happens. How it gets generated." More silence. It was clear the mom wasn’t going to help her out—no surprise there—she would just have to plow through on her own. "Well, and it made me, I mean—I know you’re going to think this is crazy — but it made me just want to, um — to pick up the phone and call you. I thought maybe there might be a way for us to— "

Us.

Now there was an unusual grouping the mom had never heard out loud before.When was the last time she and the stepmom had ever been an US? She stifled a manic giggle.

All of a sudden, it occurred to the mom that the stepmom was actually scared. She imagined her over there, in their house, gripping the phone. The mom could feel two roads instantly stretching out in front of her. The familiar one was all about strategy, advantage, amassing your weapons, building your arsenal. The other one gave her a twinge in her stomach. What would happen if she cut the other woman a bit of slack for once?

“To, um—” the stepmom reluctantly repeated.

“Go on,” the mom said in a warmer voice. Something peculiar was happening to her. She felt like a curtain was being pulled back and she was seeing more of the other woman than she’d ever seen before, like the stepmom had stepped out from behind a desk and had actual... legs. She had the bizarre sensation of watching the stepmom go from black and white to Technicolor, just like in the Wizard of Oz.

The stepmom rushed on, encouraged. “Well, I know you probably think I don’t like you — and actually,” she hesitated, aware of the need to choose her words v-e-r-y carefully, “I’m not actually sure what I think of you—like, you know, the real you. I mean, honestly—I don’t even know you.”

The mom leaned forward in her seat, paying close attention. She thought of all the things he’d probably told the stepmom and got a sick little feeling in her gut. Watch out, she warned herself. You could be walking straight into a trap.

“Just like you don’t know me," the stepmom continued.  "And yet — and yet, there’s all this tension between us. And we’ve had all these horrible moments, these bad experiences of not getting along. And all the fighting. The court stuff. The money. And disagreeing about everything—big, small, whatever." She rushed on, wondering who was controlling the words coming out of her mouth. "And you may not even believe me, but there have been times when I actually stood up for you when ___ was trashing your name. I mean, sorry—I probably shouldn’t say that—but I just want you to know that I just wish we could.... I mean, I just wish it were just possible to maybe set some of that aside, like in a box, and—- "

The stepmom stopped abruptly. Perhaps the she had gone too far. She sensed an incorrect breach there, what she had just said, as if she was going against her own husband in the face of the enemy.

There was a long awkward silence.

Finally, the mom just threw it out there, like fragile fruit landing softly in a basket. She felt a momentary flush of pride at her generosity.

“You mean, like actually, get along?”

It sounded as absurd as planning an arduous mission to Mars together in a cardboard box, from beginning to end.

They both laughed, breaking the tension. This must have been one of the world’s weirdest, most awkward phone calls. Moms and stepmoms weren’t supposed to talk to each other for a good reason!

It dawned on the stepmom that this was the first time she had ever laughed with the mom about anything.

It dawned on the mom that this was the first time she had ever laughed with the stepmom about anything too.

The stepmom soldiered on, feeling emboldened. “Look. Would you be up for maybe getting together in person and just talking about this? Like maybe just for coffee or something? Or at the park? Whatever works for you—” It occurred to the stepmom that she’d never used those last words with the mom either. Hmm, something to think about later....

The mom looked again at those two roads stretching out in front of her. If you took a new road and went off course, you could find yourself in a real crisis, running out of water, having your trail of breadcrumbs eaten by birds, losing your way. Night falls and you are royally screwed.

She thought of the kids and got an instant pang in her heart. Never once in her wildest dreams would she have ever imagined—breathing in their soft, sweet little heads—that she’d be negotiating a park date with that strange bitch of a woman who was now also in charge of their lives, in her own little kingdom. Then she thought of the pain and confusion she could see in the kids’ faces sometimes when they returned home, a certain emotional fatigue and exhaustion that popped through here and there.

This must be so hard for them....

The stepmom hesitated. If the mom turned her down now, there would be hell to pay, because this would be it. This would have been evidence of her sticking her neck wayyyy out on the line, and if that bitch of a bio-mom threw THIS back in her face, well, she’d regret it—once she saw what was coming her way. Fine, so the mom had the power to trump the stepmom in all KINDS of ways, but the stepmom could be as wily as the best of them. You just wait. She was about to crisply say, You know what? Forget it. This was a mistake calling. I don’t know what made me think I could—

“I would love to meet you.” said the mom, although her tone of voice sure didn’t make it seem like that was the case.

It was more like she was saying, Meet me at the park at sundown and I will calmly shoot you in the forehead—because I am a really good shot. Either that, or, Sure, come at dusk, when I turn into a bat—and unless you’re wearing a turtleneck made of steel, prepare to die, Inigo Montoya.

The stepmom was confused, flustered. She wasn’t sure which way to go here. “Really?” she said.

The mom’s voice softened. “Yes, really. It might be the dumbest thing we ever did, but sure, what the hell.”

There was that pairing again.

We.

“Should we bring weapons?” the stepmom offered helpfully.

They made plans for tomorrow and got off the phone, disoriented and slightly dizzy. But also... oddly hopeful.

And very, very curious.

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine      All Rights Reserved

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Erasing the Enemy - Part One

fleur Once upon a time, there was a mom and stepmom, stuck with each other in their lives, like a splinter in their thumb that couldn't be removed. Thumbs get used a lot, so this was a bad thing, this constant, wincing reminder of the splinter as they went about their days.

It was a pretty typical situation in that they couldn't stand each other. It was also pretty typical in that they both felt mistreated and put upon.

fairy_tale_house_1

The mom bristled at having to unwillingly "share" the parenting of her children (children that came from her own body!) with a perfect stranger. She took her leftover anger at her ex-husband for his uneven parenting, mixed in a little jealousy, fear, confusion, defensiveness, and the stomach-curdling knowledge that all her private secrets had been lain bare between the two new partners and probably laughed over - and focused her parenting irritation on the stepmom as well.

She didn't mind making life harder for the husband and stepmom. Weren't they always trying to undermine her as well? Tit for tat, as they say. Maybe one day they would come to their senses and realize how their poor behavior was only emotionally damaging the children and would change. But she wasn't going to hold her breath.

For her part, the stepmom bristled at the unwanted presence of the other woman in her life. It was worse than having the world's worst boss, this looming spectre of the mom (lording her sanctimonious, "maternal" preferences all over them!). At least with a boss, you could go home and escape, but here, their troubles with the other woman were still evident everywhere - in the children's lack of self-control, in her husband's haphazard approach to discipline, in their dangerous marital fights over the children's bad behavior and hurtful rejection of her.

She didn't mind making life harder for the mom. Wasn't she always trying to undermine us as well? Tit for tat, as they say. Maybe one day she would come to her senses and realize how her poor behavior was only emotionally damaging the children and would change. But the stepmom wasn't going to hold her breath.

One day, the stepmom was tooling around online when she heard about a book on conflict resolution* that seemed to hold the promise of creating more peace in her life, or at least help her understand why things were so bad between their two houses.

She was tired of all the stress, the subtle (or sometimes overt) struggles for power between ALL the adults, between the kids, between herself and her lower and higher impulses.

Something had to give.

She spent the next several days devouring the book, during breaks at work, while stirring a pot on the stove, and alone in the bedroom in the evenings, forgoing TV -- even, my stars, Facebook.

The following ideas held a part of her attention captive as she went about her daily routine, motivated by the sense that she was onto something big and potentially life-changing.

  • When we have problems with someone else, we turn them into an "Other," a cardboard cut-out of a human being.
  • It's easier to accuse and blame someone if they're not a nuanced, flesh-and-blood person.
  • When we are battling another, we exaggerate their wrongdoing, the damage they have inflicted upon us, our sense of victimization and our justifications for our own sometimes poor behavior.
  • We seek agreement from others to back ourselves up and "prove" that it's the other person who is wrong.
  • When we are at the height of conflict, we are simply seeing things in the most limiting, childishly basic terms -- we cut ourselves off from new ideas; the powerful energy of good intentions and our ability to blast through logjams and debris; the stretchy, open, expansive nature of possibility.

An idea was forming in the stepmom's mind.

What if---

What if... she reached out to the mom? What if she just basically said, Hey, look -- can we talk? Not as arch enemies, but just as (gulp) two people?

What if she was able to say, I know you don't like me and probably think that I don't like you either, even though I barely know you. And sure, I guess I actually HAVEN'T liked you, off and on, over the years. But---

Do you have a moment? Would you be willing to try and set all this stuff aside, so we can try and work together on some of the more basic stuff?

I mean, it sure would be nice being able to talk to each OTHER about some of this stuff, don't you think? Instead of always having to go through my husband? I mean, your ex. I mean--their father.

It's not like we need to shoot for becoming best friends or anything, but wouldn't it be nice to at least feel like we could work together on some of the simpler things?

What do ya think?

She felt her stomach drop considering the thought, like she'd driven over a sharp hill with a sudden dip on the other side.

Her friends would think she was fricking nuts, especially after all the stories she'd told them, how pissed off they'd gotten on her behalf. May as well walk through the fields past enemy lines, take off all your clothes, set your hair on fire, and dance around until you were pulverized by machine gun fire!

Come to think of it, her husband might not take too kindly to the idea either. Her face flushed with guilt.

But she thought back again to an image that was coalescing in her psyche....

She could see the two of them having a cup of coffee, knees shaking under the table, maybe laughing over something stupid.

Could they laugh over something stupid?

It would be the closest she'd ever actually got to the woman, having the chance to stare at her face, absorb her personality, sit back and observe.

Would she get her head bitten off? Would her efforts be seen as an admission of guilt, inferiority or worse, acquiescence? Ha, wouldn't that be just like her? She thought back on all the conflict between them, the silent tension, the scary legal hassles, the harsh words.

Wouldn't this be insanity, trying this?

She picked up the phone with a pounding heart, and dialed the mom's number.

(Read on for Part Two!)

*The Anatomy of Peace, by the Arbinger Institute

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine      All Rights Reserved

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Shoring up against potential (family) erosion...

I was talking to my friend Bernadette yesterday from Slow Family Living about putting together a panel for next year's SXSW -- and was surprised at her surprise by a part of our conversation. Context: she has four kids under the age of 11. My two girls are 14 and 18, with one already out of the house. The thing that shocked her?

I casually mentioned that I remember how when the girls were in elementary school, we were surrounded by all these other married parents (when I myself was still married), but as they went to middle school, there were more kids from divorced families. And in high school, even more. It got to the point that not a SINGLE friend of either child came from a nuclear family. Not one.

Bernadette's response was, "Oh my god! That's unbelievable!"

And yet, that's reality.

So we're dealing with some real threats to the American family, folks. The longer a family stays together, the older the kids get, the less likely they are to be married. That's shocking and insane and a real shame.

I find that really sad... and also kind of overwhelming. Don't you?

Most of us are reading this site because there's already been a break-up - that's why they are two women in the picture.(And neither asked for the other to be there, but yay, there they are....)

As a culture, we desperately need to get better at learning how to stay married, whether it's the first time around, the second, or maybe even the third! And get help when we need it.

And we need to mitigate the risks to the second marriage as much as possible, by understanding the dangers and challenges for that union, whether in the form of common stepmom issues (read Wednesday Martin's book, Stepmonster for a brilliant assessment of some of the unique challenges) or problems between the mom and stepmom. We must also more carefully consider the role of the father, and what's it's like walking the tightrope between 3-way divided loyalties.

We need help to slow down and reconnect with each other in our families, whether we're a nuclear family, stepfamily, or some other combination thereof.

Sometimes it really helps if you have someone to say, "Oh, right.... This what you're up against -- here's the big picture. Sure, you're about to drive off into dark skies and churning clouds, but here, -- here's what to expect. And also... here are some possible tools to use when you run into problems."

Doesn't it feel so much better to be learning together? :-)

 

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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Cold Hard Facts

Welcome to our first guest post!

It's by Katherine Shirek Doughtie, one of the co-authors of a "sister" site, the fabulous, but sadly currently dormant The DHX: The Doughtie Houses Exchange — which is also about creating cooperative mom/stepmom relationships. (Katherine is the mom and Jill Doughtie is the stepmom.) The post is actually a reprint of a Nov. 2007 entry, but I thought it was so good, and so important, that I asked Kathy if she wouldn't mind us posting it again. She graciously agreed, so without further ado...Here's Kathy:

Cold Hard Facts

-by Katherine Shirek Doughtie

Chilling.

I just looked up some statistics on second marriages and, boy, they are not good. When Jill and I first started talking about this blog, we tried to figure out roughly how many marriages were second marriages and how many ended in divorce. We both guessimated — based on what? a hope that humans can actually learn from their mistakes? — that second marriages were statistically less likely to end in divorce.

Wrong.

Dead wrong.

Divorce rates for second marriages? About 60 - 80% .

At the high end, that’s almost double the divorce rate for first marriages (47%).

So why do second marriages end? Mainly because of two things: Complexity and money. Money is relatively easy to deal with (here’s an excellent guideline) — as long as you are willing to be brutally honest with yourself and your partner. OK, I’m being a little casual about the money stuff… money is usually extremely tied to emotional issues and I’m planning on getting into it in depth in a later post. But long ago I learned that there were two kinds of problems in the world: Emotional issues and technical issues. (Losing weight is a prime example of a technical problem that very often becomes an emotional issue.) And money — as painful and crazy as it is — is really a technical issue on much the same scale as losing weight.

The complexity of living in a blended family, however, is an emotional issue. There’s no way around it. You can’t sit down with a ledger or Quicken and figure out how to deal with the biological mom, or how to make the sibs and step-sibs get along or how to reconcile the painful comments in the car that the other house is the “fun house.” That’s emotional. That’s core stuff.

And with a 60 - 80% divorce rate among second marriages, it’s not an issue you can easily dismiss.

Which means, to me, that this whole conversation about how moms and step-moms might be able to work together better is not just so that we can reduce a little stress in our lives. It really is so that the second marriage has a much better chance at surviving.

I’m going to put on my “bio mom” hat solely now. And this may seem stern and harsh, but really it’s in response to that statistic, and as an admonition to some future Kathy should I ever become a step-mom myself.

Here it is and it’s a cold hard fact:

I’m the biological mother. I am not going away, ever.

You’re the step-mother. And the statistics aren’t in your favor.

And the reason the statistics aren’t in your favor is because, in part, of me.

It’s very icky. It’s ugly to say and, projecting myself into the other household, abhorent to hear. But, actually, it’s true. And it becomes extremely dangerous when there is still a boatload of baggage left over from the first marriage, and the whole situation is riddled with bitterness, vengefulness and anger. We, the biological parent, do have the upper hand — legally, emotionally, biologically. And if we want to wield it for evil and try to pry apart that fragile second union, we can. And we do. And that’s just so ugly for everyone, it makes me sick.

So am I saying that the step-moms of the world have to genuflect to us because we have the biological trump card? Do we now get to have final say in every decision?

Absolutely not. Because there’s another corrollary to the above cold hard fact, that I wish more bio-moms would actually pay attention to, and this one goes thusly:

This step-mom also takes care of my children.

The peace that I can promote between the households directly and unequivocally affects the emotional well-being of my children.

To quote my favorite philosophical work, Spiderman: with great power comes great responsibility. Sure, you’re the legitimate owner of half of the DNA. But that comes with some responsibilities, too — because your first priority is really no longer yourself and your precious anger. Remember those first six weeks of the babies’ lives, when your entire existence was turned upside down just to ensure the survival of that little infant? That hasn’t changed. We still have to turn ourselves inside out to make sure those kids make it through the night. And the step mom is there running the other household, and she must be respected and honored for that. If you want to play that bio-card and play power games, you can. But the losers will be the children.

Let me repeat that on its own line:

The losers will be the children.

It’s more than just about making life a little nicer that we need to get this figured out. For the step-moms in the world, it’s about keeping that marriage intact. For us moms in the world, it’s about keeping our children intact.

Let’s make this a revolution. The cold hard facts are saying that blended families are becoming more and more prevalent. Let’s learn from our past mistakes, get over our anger, embrace the future possibilities, and get it together. For ourselves, for the sisterhood, and for our children.

To read more of Katherine's writing, check out her book Aphrodite in Jeans: Adventure Tales About Men, Midlife And Motherhood or her personal blog.

 

© 2009 Katherine Shirek Doughtie     All Rights Reserved

We did it!

  Wow! Yesterday was a whirlwind! We were flooded with emails, tons of hits, and the book soared to Number 2 on Amazon's Bestseller list in two categories: Divorce and Stepparenting!! It's still bouncing around from No. 1 to No. 9 in their Hot New Releases categories too. Very exciting!

This book has been five years in the making and the project almost fell apart twice, but it looks like our persistence paid off....

Thanks, everyone!

It's been a fun ride, and later on today Carol and I are being interviewed by The Washington Post. We thought it was going to happen yesterday and then it was postponed 'til today. I called Carol right before yesterday's time and we were both a bundle of nerves. Perhaps today we'll go ahead and each invest in our own personal package of Depends® so we'll be totally ready....

And poor Carol! She's right in the middle of teaching a 5-day painting workshop to 19 students at the Sedona Arts Center in New Mexico and was having to switch hats on pretty short notice, while her students waited for her. (She calls her students her "kids," which is hilarious, since almost all of them are older than her and she looks like she's 12....) Luckily today, she'll be done with class and we can just relax and have fun on the phone (hopefully!).

Here's hoping our book helps to ease conflict between families -- and create some new connections between moms and stepmoms!

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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"No One's the Bitch" book official launch day!

No_Ones_the_B_CoverLike a little gremlin that escaped from the attic, our book is officially out there in the world! If you'd like to help us obsess over our Amazon status on this holiest of launch days and reach Bestseller status (however briefly!), you can buy the book at Amazon. Just some of what you’ll find inside No One’s the Bitch: A Ten-Step Plan for Mothers and Stepmothers.... Help for understanding and working through the conflict:

  • What’s one of the biggest hurdles to getting along? (It’s not what you think!)
  • What should you do if the mom or stepmom isn’t willing to improve your relationship or is actively undermining you?
  • Why does this kind of “other woman” cause more problems than the kind normally associated with adultery?
  • Who ultimately pays the price for all the stress between households?
  • Are there any negative emotions that affect only one side?
  • What might you be afraid of losing if the two of you actually start to get along?

Changes you can look forward to making—with help!

  • What simple steps can each woman take to diffuse resentment and competitiveness from the other side?
  • Why should you sometimes work around the ex-husband/husband in trying to create a sense of partnership?
  • What’s something easy you can do today to set positive changes in motion?
  • How did we go from barely being able to speak to each other, to becoming close friends. How long did it take? What exactly did we do to get here?

Positive effects you’ll see in your life

  • Why will the children be opposed to some of the surprising benefits of creating a new, extended family?
  • Why is creating a partnership between the two women like living in a small village?
  • What opportunities are lost if you simply try to avoid each other and accept the adversarial status quo?
  • How will you change your child or stepchild’s life if you learn how to work together with the other woman?

If you do happen to buy the book on Amazon, we'd be ever so grateful if you'd be kind enough to leave a comment. (Or come back later and write one! Comments are hugely important in terms of the "sticky" formula Amazon uses to refer customers to related books....)

And again, thanks for all the emails of love and support!

© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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No One's the Bitch: A Ten-Step Plan for Mothers and Stepmothers is a revolutionary, new approach to diffusing the traditional animosity between moms and stepmoms -- and creating a brand, new version of an extended family that's healthier and happier.

If you're ready to move forward and are curious about how to start resolving some of these issues, then our book is for YOU!

We'll walk you through:

  • understanding the confusing landscape most mothers and stepmothers find themselves in
  • unearthing your own role in perpetuating the conflict (even though you might insist you don't have one!)
  • creating a positive vision of what-could-be that will inspire and motivate you and give you something to lean on during the hard times
  • which actions to take to move your mom/stepmom relationship from conflict to potential cooperation (even friendship!)
  • fine-tuning your efforts, including chapters on accountability (both ways!), collaboration, and communication
  • techniques for regrouping when problems blow up in your face
  • how to bond over a shared focus on helping the kids be the best selves they can be
  • celebrating your accomplishments and the creation of a new-fangled, extended family that works for ALL!

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On not even peeking behind the curtains, because there are no curtains...

Sometimes I struggle with tone on this blog. I want so much to inspire people - to show them a different vision of what's possible between families (originally I typed "bision" instead of "vision" which reminded me of "bison," but I'm not up much on buffalo, so clearly, that wouldn't have worked) after a divorce.

To encourage them to experiment, to take a few risks, to boldly go where no mom or stepmom has gone before.

I also hope to gently get in people's faces at times and say, hey! life is short! why are you sitting around, waiting to deal with your shit? time is a' wasting!!!

And then... sometimes I start feeling like a poser. Like I'm starting to look like I'm saying, we've got all the answers - and you don't - and here's what you should do and why you should listen to us, or me, because we've got it all figured out.

Which we obviously don't.

Because NO ONE does!!

And I'd SO love to parade out there a bunch of our shortcomings when it comes to family life and personal growth and just general all-around soaring self-esteem, just to illustrate our ineptitude in all its glory.

But then I don't (parade).

Because I tell ya, writing about personal stuff on a blog sure is tricky. Especially when it comes to family life. There are kids involved. And privacy. And private thoughts and private struggles.

And you can't write about things without taking that into consideration. And you surely don't want to feel like you're trading on the most vulnerable issues of someone's life (or even your own, though some other folks are really good at that) as entertainment currency.

But suffice to say, Carol and I, and everyone in our family, is far from perfect.

Sure, we've crafted this little extended family machine, this tiny, little strange experiment -- and we CAN step back and feel proud of the cobbled-together container we've made for the children.

But sometimes we don't talk to each other for weeks and weeks.

And sometimes I feel disconnected from what's going on in their household - especially now that the youngest daughter is living at their house (and is sorely missed, especially because she's not much of a phone talker and they live about an hour away), and the oldest daughter has ventured off into the world on her own, and is also sorely missed.

That's a giant run-on because that's how it plays out in my head....

Sometimes our version of an extended family feels distant and fragile and stretched thin, even though I know inside it's strong and there when i need it.

But knowing something and feeling something are two very different things, aren't they?

And sometimes I freak out when I think I'm supposed to provide all the answers to everyone about how to do this, because I know some people are dealing with some heavy-duty shit that I can't even BEGIN to fathom, or what advice to give them.

I guess I'm saying, well, this is OUR story.... And because I'm a writer and I'm so damned analytical, I've tried to parse some stuff out, in the hopes that it can influence YOUR story in a helpful way. It's a lesson in using vulnerability as a practice.*

And if that eases your burden in some small form or fashion, then... it's all worth it.

Thanks for reading!

*(With special thanks to Havi Brooks for the inspiration for this post and for writing such an awesome blog, The Fluent Self.)

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

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Be stubborn about the truth!

(How did it go last week? Did you refrain from any unhelpful behavior, even once? Did you stop some of your negative thoughts mid-train? What did you discover?) Question for you, moving forward....

First, let's assume that you do indeed have some changes to make when it comes to creating a better relationship with the mom or stepmom, and between both families. Ask yourself---

Do you have anyone in your life who gives it to you straight?

Someone who's willing to tell it like it is, even if you may not like it?

Someone who is brave and honest enough to point out the error of your ways, even if it might be awkward, uncomfortable, or make you feel defensive?

Someone who tells you these things from a place of wanting to serve your highest self, instead of your sometimes blind social self?

 

Who is it? And when was the last time you talked to them?

Friends like that might scare you on some level, but admit it: you also crave and respect their honesty!

Do you serve this same function for your closest friends?

Friends like this circumvent the little story we're trying to tell ourselves about problems in our life, which sometimes involves

  • justifications for our behavior,
  • the convenient denial or omission of a few telling details,
  • the focus on the other person's mistakes and shortcomings.

Friends like this just stick a few plain facts in your face and say, hey... but--- what about this?

Brilliant!

 

And often make us feel like the Emperor with no clothes, at least... temporarily.

If there's conflict between you and the other woman, or between the two families, a friend like this can be an incredible source of insight and new ideas to be acted upon.

Lacking anyone like this in your life, do you have guaranteed tools you can fall back on to help you drill down to the truth about any behavior of yours that's actually perpetuating conflict?

Things like:

  • journaling
  • meditation
  • cognitive therapy (slowing down your mental dialogue and then analyzing whether it's accurate or not, which it often isn't!)
  • goal status checks (which assumes that you're clear on your goals in the first place - a lot of us aren't)

 

If you've figured out a predictable way to sort through your emotional turmoil on a predictable basis, bravo. You're reducing your stress and making your life clearer and easier. If you haven't, dabble in one or two methods and see what happens.

There's an incredibly simple litmus test you can take to see whether your friend's questions, or your conflict resolution tools, are serving you....

Ask yourself---

  • Do I feel lighter after talking with them, or sitting down and looking at this situation?
  • Do I have a new sense of possibility here?
  • Do I now see some angles and perspectives that I was blind to before?

Sometimes we run from uncomfortable truths about our automatic behavior like someone trying to outrun an attack dog.

What would happen if you didn't?!

 

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

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First, do no harm...

(Here's a little experiment to try this week....)

Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle. -Philo

If you're wanting to create a friendlier relationship with the mom or stepmom and aren't sure where to start, first, consider doing something simple and stopping any subtly combative behavior.

Is your voice tight when you talk to her on the phone?

Add some warmth.

Do you have a hard time smiling when when you see her in person because you get yourself all riled up, hitting the "refresh" button about past grievances?

Be ballsy, grin like a maniac, and beam her some generosity with your eyes.

Are you engaging in a tit-for-tat dynamic when it comes to logistics with the kids (school issues, pick-ups and drop-offs, food, TV, etc.)?

Bite your tongue for just a moment and then, instead of jumping straight into the conversation and countering her opinion or suggestion, ask her a few questions about WHY she wants to do it this way.

Genuinely shoot for understanding. Work hard to go deeper. THEN let her know why you're doing things as you are afterward. I bet it will be easier for her to hear you too.

Now can you both move a little closer to the middle?

So see what happens this week if you just pull back a bit and refrain from "fencing" with her.

Pay attention to any automatic behavior that isn't moving you towards cooperation and inner peace and ease and just... stop doing it.

It may feel weird and you may have lots of mental dialogue about how you're leaving your neck exposed, she's going to screw you over, this is strategically insane, etc. etc. but just gently thank your alarmist monkey mind and move on.

See what happens.

You just might make some room for curiosity and connection....

Good luck and let us know how it goes!

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine      All Rights Reserved

Slow family living -- pressing the reset button

It's all too easy to focus on the problems in your family, whether you're a stepmom unhappy with the bio-mom, a single mom who wishes the stepmom wasn't in the picture, or an ex-wife who's remarried and still struggling with the reality of "two" families.  

But it's all still a matter of focus... Where are you turning your attention?

On what isn't working?

What works?

Where you'd like to be?

Check out this wonderful new site called Slow Family Living, with a free downloadable workbook. It's all about a movement that's sure to find a stronger footing in a culture that values busyness so much we're often not even experiencing our present! For hours and hours, days, weeks, months -- years can go by in a blur and then, we look around, and wonder how our lives "arranged" themselves as they have.

Here's a sample:

When you are more resourced you are more present. When you are more present you are more tuned in to your own needs and the needs of everyone in the family. When you are more tuned in to the needs of each individual everyone feels seen. When everyone feels seen everyone feels safe. When everyone feels safe there is harmony. When there is harmony there is more love, more connection, more ease, more fun and more joy. When there is more love, connection, ease, fun and joy there’s more desire to be together as a family.

Fantastic stuff. Don't forget to get your free workbook!

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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