stepfamily

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

Your Mind is Effing You Over – Not Anyone Else

Have you ever thought about how weird it is that so many people are divorced now?  

I remember when my kids were in elementary school and I was still married, we were surrounded by other nuclear families during drop-offs and pick-ups and school events. In junior high, not so much. In high school, neither one of my children had friends whose parents were married. Not one.

Think about that for a moment. Not a single nuclear family to be found amongst our circle of friends. I know it’s the same for many others.

This is shocking and should alarm us.

But perhaps not for the reason you’d suspect.

I’m all for kids growing up in an intact family, with two involved parents (stressed by work though they may be) and siblings (squabbling or not). I’m even for kids growing up with a hands-on, single parent (stressed by work though they may be) – or a stepfamily based on love (imperfectly “blended” though it may be).

What I’m not in favor of are all the lies we tell ourselves.

About who’s doing what to whom and why.

About how you’re not to blame, but the other person is.

About why any of it bothers you.

I’ve had to learn what I’m about to say the hard way and will continue to learn about it for the rest of my life.

The reason we have such a hard time with the other woman, our ex, or the other household is because we’re not right with ourselves.

We’re still caught up in old tape loops from long ago, about how we’re unworthy. How we’re going to be abandoned. We’re wincing when someone unknowingly scratches at an old scar, our skin still thin and tender and over-sensitive, or accidentally bumps up against a hard, but fragile scab, not yet healed.

We’re hiding from our fears, from a sense of free-floating shame, from a gnawing anxiety about when the other shoe is going to drop.

We’re pretending to feel more in control than we are. We’re trying to hold a big, wet soggy blanket of guilt up over our heads with locked, shaking arms and we’re so, so tired, wondering when we get to put it down.

We distract ourselves from all of it by leaping from one online lily pad to the next, compulsively getting lost in promises of entertainment or self-improvement, or whatever’s on TV or in the cupboard or any other way we tune out, just to get away from that weird feeling

As we fall asleep at night or wake up in the morning, we are occasionally faced with some clear, but uncomfortable alarm bells going off about those we love: I must do something about what’s going on with ____. The time is now.

But life always piles on, every day, and the ringing of the bell becomes so muffled by activity that eventually we can’t hear it anymore. Until we do again.

None of this is stuff we really know what to do with.

It’s deep and it’s big and it’s odd and it’s overwhelming.

Our family life was hard then, and failed for the same reason it’s hard now: because of what lives inside of us.

We are the problem, not them.

You ask, But how can you say that, when ______ (fill in the blank with the other person’s unacceptable behavior)?

Well… remember the last time you felt centered? When you felt strong and grounded? Not all amped up and ready to blindly tackle the world. Just calm, clear-headed. Humble, accepting of yourself.

Remember when you felt a sense of compassion and respect for yourself and all others? When you felt yourself humming and vibrating with the power of love and its ability to blast through all the muck of our minds, all the fear and confusion, all the grasping at control?

From that place, people create miracles.

From that place, you can look at other people’s difficult behavior and feel immune from unkind intentions - or know whether you’re misreading people in the first place. From any of it being a commentary on who you are, your worth as a person and what that means about who will or won’t love you because of it. From that place, people stop operating from the subconscious directives that sabotage their life:

You can’t really trust people – watch your back.

You will never truly be happy – life is too hard. Maybe later.

There’s something wrong with you, deep down – no one will ever completely love you and accept you, just as you are.

People will always, eventually disappoint you – that’s just the way it is.

You can never do anything important well enough – just look at how you’re always behind or have already failed.

Our subconscious minds are very powerful. The majority of our behavior is driven by these old “rules.” If your life is hard, you can actually thank your subconscious for doing such a good job, because it’s only carrying out its original instructions, like an obedient dog.

The reason this matters is because of what we are teaching our kids, what we are transmitting to them in a science fiction-like download.

During the first five years of their lives, our children and stepchildren spend most of their time in a hypnogogic state of delta and theta, soaking up everything without a filter. That’s the important part. There’s no discernment there. Just a red, blinking “Record” button that’s on. (Alpha is regular consciousness and beta is very active consciousness, where you’re focused and purposeful.)

They are learning new, immutable “truths” about two primary aspects of life:

  • How the world works, based on how their parentsor stepparents respond to their external environment.
  • Who they are, based on their parent’s or stepparent’s perception of them.

It’s our job to love and accept ourselves, so that our kids can do the same.

It’s also our job to reduce our sensitivity to perceived conflict, so that we don’t “program” our children to expect that life is hard and you can’t ever let your guard down or you will be screwed -- because they will grow up to play out those scripts just like a robot would.

What do you think your children or stepchildren are learning from you right now? What might their lives look like in the future because of it?

None of this is said to add to the weight of your existing soggy blanket of guilt or to increase your fear. These ideas are offered in the spirit of knowledge as power. Knowledge creates curiosity and a new context. A new context creates hope.

So reverse-engineer your life. Ask yourself,

What major negative beliefs is my subconscious dutifully carrying out?

And,

How might the current problems I’m having with the other household reflect those negative beliefs?

Finally,

Can you live with leaving this as a legacy for your children and stepchildren?

If the answer is no, then figure out how to change those beliefs.

When you do, you’ll create a new pathway into the future for your stepkids and kids with their own marriages (and that of your grandchildren and stepgrandchildren!). And you’ll be a hell of a lot happier. I’ll be writing more in the future about what’s helped me change mine.

Thanks for reading! (And thanks to Seth Godin for inspiring this post!)

© Jennifer Newcomb Marine

Who gets more “emotional authority?”

One day while talking to Jenna on the phone, we realized: one reason these relationships between households can seem so impossible is because we have the two most important relationships of our lives competing against each other:

parent and child

vs.

husband and wife

This creates a dynamic in relationships that I like to call “emotional authority.”

What that means is that family members often feel like the strength of their bonds and connections to other family members automatically confers upon them certain rights, certain “givens.” The intensity and purity of your love for another seems to equal more power, more say in what happens to them, how they are treated and all decisions related to that person.

It’s like that person is “yours” to a certain extent, even though on the surface, that sounds ridiculous. But we’re already familiar with how this works in “traditional” relationships, especially in nuclear families.

Think about it.

When you were growing up, it was accepted that your mother (or primary caretaker, if this was different) was the one directing your life. 

Making decisions about what you would do, eat, when you would go to sleep, who you would socialize with (when you were very young), health-related issues and schooling.

Just as in nature, it was assumed that, at a basic level, your mother or caretaker would fight to protect you against any perceived threats and we accept that as an instinctual “given.”

She would go up against bureaucracy, bullies in school, other adults who might not have your best interests at heart and extended family members who disapproved of you, in an effort to nurture, shelter and love you – without giving her actions a second thought. Granted, some of us didn’t grow up in nurturing households and suffered at the hands of neglectful or even abusive parents, but nevertheless, we still know the archetype well.

As a society we also have certain givens for a husband and wife relationship.

Spouses and cohabitating romantic partners confide freely and openly with each other about the most private, intimate matters. Traditionally, they make financial decisions together, divvy up household chores according to their own preferences (hopefully!) and do their best to form consensus around parenting values. They are loyal to each other and sexually monogamous. They protect the sanctity of their household and their right to dictate what happens in their household. They relax together, pick up the slack for each other when life becomes busy or overwhelming, and rest in the safety of knowing that their partner always has their back as they weather the stresses of life.

But let’s cross the lines a bit and see what happens…

Let’s say that a stepmom is largely responsible for overseeing her stepchild’s homework in her home, as dad works full time and is less available.

She knows her stepson has been struggling in school and she feels for him, after witnessing many nights of homework that ultimately ended in him crying, extremely frustrated. For the past two years, mom, dad and stepmom have all had access to the child’s school records and online accounts. But suddenly, seemingly out of nowhere, mom revokes stepmom’s privileges. She lets the school know that she no longer wants the stepmom involved and that “only the parents should have access to these records and accounts...”

Stepmom is thinking, “What the hell? I should be able to access things because I’m fully involved in his school and have been already for two years now. Furthermore, my husband wants me to be, so that’s reason enough.”

Meanwhile, mom is thinking... 

“That’s the father’s job to stay on top of things like this, not the stepmom’s. Who does she think she is? Why do we need one more person getting involved, complicating everything? She needs to just let the parents handle this and step out of it!”

In this case, the stepmom feels all the mother tiger instincts that a mother would normally feel. So what happens when the mom tries to pull rank with a stepmom who feels connected and concerned about her stepson? Fireworks, that’s what!

And as for the mom, she certainly remembers a time when it was just herself and her ex handling school matters. They had separate parent-teacher conferences so they wouldn’t have to be in the same room. Now there’s another woman involved who feels like she “has the right” to be included in communications with the teacher regarding her own child? Says who?!

Does one side have to be the winner and one the loser in our divorce-connected families?

It would appear to be so—at least that’s how it feels. What seems like a huge priority for you, something that has to happen for your child, stepchild or your romantic partner can be a definite “No,” for the other party though—and they’re not going to budge.

This is tricky business, because when we act from a sense of emotional authority, our strong feelings can make us easily discount the other person’s concerns and demands in favor of our own, since we feel that our perspective takes into account what’s best for the one we love.

Our agenda is "superior," since it’s based on love and fierce attachment.

We couldn’t let go of our emotional authority even if we tried, nor would we want to. In our example above, both women were likely feeling a strong sense of emotional “jurisdiction” because their actions came from love and concern for the child.

This dynamic sets us up for clashes of the worst kind, since they are rooted in instinctive maternal feelings of protection—or romantic attachments to the person we love and have chosen as our mate.

The big takeaway here: 

Giving up or taking a step back feels like betraying our loved one and abdicating our responsibilities to them.

This is one of the biggest reasons why trying to figure out how to “work with” the other side can be so confusing and emotionally charged.

© 2013 Jennifer Newcomb Marine

(This is an excerpt from our book, "Skirts at War: A Survival Guide for Divorced Mom/Stepmom Conflict.")

More than one day of thanks

There's a very good chance that your thinking is skewed on the side of non-gratitude. Especially as it relates to this topic of divorce-connected families.

Just like news, a car wreck on the side of the road or gossip, it's the drama, chaos and conflict that catches our eye and rivets our attention in our families.

Our brains are attuned to problems because we're attempting to learn more about either resolving them - or heading them off in the future. But if you're like me and most other humans, there's a good chance your life is mostly focused on problems.

The things yet to be done.

The things done poorly.

The things currently going wrong.

The stuff likely to go wrong.

It's like we're all walking around with not only one piano hanging over our heads by a string, but hundreds of them. How're they're being strung up and by whom, I do not know, but they're there.

And yet...

There are probably many more things going right in your life than there are going wrong.

You've just stopped seeing that.

You have a computer or a mobile phone. You can read. You are currently not under attack by incoming missiles. You are most likely inside, in a building protecting you from the elements. You have food in your cupboard.

However peaceful or not your relationships, you are still connected to people. They're there, which is a lot more than lonely people can say who rarely talk to anyone. Who haven't been touched or smiled at or interacted with in months, maybe even years.

Lest you start feeling yourself traveling down the path of glumness reading through that list, just think: if the opposite of any of those situations above were the case for you, you'd probably give almost anything to trade up to where you are now. Remember what it's like to have a problem so agonizing that you'd practically die to make it go away?

Where you are now is probably pretty damned good, now that you think about it, wouldn't you say?

Spend a second asking yourself:

Who loves you? Who do you love? What brings you joy? What about being yourself do you actually savor and appreciate? Where are your efforts making a difference in the world, even in the tiniest of ways? What have you forgiven recently? How have you changed for the better?

It's easiest to see in hindsight, but life is always continuing on as it is; a rambling, raucous, ever-widening, messy parade of both good and bad. We know it's true, because when we look backwards, we can see that both elements are always there. So why must we be so focused on what's going wrong - when the predictable, the reliable, the nurturing aspects of life and the ones we can count on are also ever present?

A happy day of thanks to you and those you love!

© 2012 Jennifer Newcomb Marine

What's under the surface?

I caught the tail end of the Little League World Series (Japan vs. the U.S.) today....

I stopped mid-channel-surfing because I thought--wait--what are these little kids doing playing such an intense game of baseball?

And why is it on TV?

I was reminded of, many years ago, living in Spain as a child and my older brother serving as the pitcher on our local, American little league team. These were low-key family events. Lazy. Long. Hot.... My friends and I often wandered off to play in the dirt with sticks and our dogs. Most of the time, it didn't seem to matter who won or lost.

But this game on TV was high stakes, with wound-up parents in the stands, looking as if they might pass out from the stress. I wondered at the pressure some of these kids must be under, how long and hard they'd worked to get there.

The American team won at the bottom of the sixth inning by one point, breaking a tie, and like any triumphant team in sports, the young players were euphoric. The kids exploded into leaps and fist pumps, and then finally into a happy pile over the home plate.

The camera flashed to the losing team.

That's the sucky thing about a game: someone's always gotta lose.

My heartstrings were pulled when I saw one little Japanese player openly crying and as the camera cut back and forth between the two teams, more young boys on the losing team began to cry too.

If they were grown-ups, they'd be better at hiding this, I thought. They don't know how to mask their feelings yet....

When divorced moms and stepmoms don't get along, the same thing happens: we're hurt, but we try not to show it.

We don't want to give the other side the satisfaction of seeing how upset we are. How furious or fearful, how devastated and obsessed.

We don't want them to know they've gotten under our skin.

In trying to save face, we harden ourselves, so that the behavior from the other side won't sting.

But it still does.

And though you might argue otherwise, it stings for them too, even though it might seem like it.

Seeing this is often one of the first steps to real change.

.

© 2011  Jennifer Newcomb Marine   All Rights Reserved

One-Way Compassion

Many problems between houses start because someone is actually trying to solve a problem.

A father desperately misses his kids. A stepmom is trying to find her place in a family with lots of history that came before her. A mom feels disoriented, sharing parental responsibilities with someone she doesn't know.

People struggle with their emotions and act in less than helpful ways -- or behavior they think normally doesn't "apply" to them.

And yet... it does... when they're in pain

It's easy enough for us to "excuse" our behavior, because WE know what's at stake for us, what we're grappling with, the anguish we feel in our hearts.

And so we have compassion for ourselves, we have understanding for the difficult time we're having in our lives.

But what about the other side?

Where does your compassion for them begin and end?

Can you see their pain? Can you reinterpret their angry, manipulative, crazy behavior?

A hint...

If you find yourself swinging back and forth on the pendulum of being a hero or victim/martyr in your situation, your compassion might be on too much of a one-way street.

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine

What's your foundation?

I took my two big dogs for a walk down at the greenbelt for the first time the other morning.

I had to admit, I was nervous.

New retractable leash. A German Shepherd (Lucy, almost 12, still going strong) who's rarely, but nevertheless potentially fearful and aggressive. A Siberian Husky (Maya, 6, quirky and stubborn) who could easily pull an SUV or two.

We're walking down the trail, it's still cool. Light is filtering through the trees. Birds are singing. Random forest noises abound.

Coming towards us on the path ahead of us, a tall, blond woman and her two dogs are approaching.

Panic!

Her dogs aren't on a leash and they're big too.

Her dogs run straight up to mine while I'm trying to yell to her that I have an unfriendly dog.

Lucy lunges. Maya pulls and my hand burns as I grab the thin wire of her new leash. Lucy and one of the other dogs begin to fight while I'm yelling my head off to stop them.

My two dogs become entangled. Chaos.

The other woman says nothing!

Abruptly, her two dogs simply take off down the path. She passes us and I stand there, baffled.

Not a word. No Sorry, no Excuse Me. Nada.

I punctuate the air with an expletive of frustration as she's walking away.

Then, my irritation growing as I see her back turned towards us, I yell, "You might want to think about putting your dogs on a leash next time!"

To which she yells back, "You might want to think about controlling your dogs!"

We go back and forth a few more times, with her lying to me about the leash laws. Her last words are for me to shut the **** up.

Wow.

I was rattled the entire rest of the walk and had a hard time letting the experience go; returning back to the moment; being there, in the woods, enjoying the present with my dogs.

I am embarrassed that I yelled at a perfect stranger, but I'm also still pissed that she was so blase about our little confrontation - one which could have resulted in an injured dog or two.

Many of you are understandably irritated with the behavior of the mom or stepmom. With your ex, your husband, or your stepkids or kids.

You can point the finger at particular actions and say, "This. Should never have happened."

Friends and family will back you up.

You add your grievance to the list, knowing you're in the right.

But... what could have turned the tide that morning was my foundation.

Had I felt like my "normal" self that day: confident with the dogs, with a mental plan ready for how I was going to handle passersby and loose dogs and road bikers -- stepping off the trail, holding them close to me -- it might have been a different story.

My foundation was off.

Yet I still pushed myself to go, because the dogs needed a walk and I was pressuring myself to try something new.

And when things went awry, I blamed the entire experience on the other woman and her dogs -- big, slobbery, happy fellows who nevertheless shouldn't have run right up to us.

It was only during our walk back to the car that I looked a little deeper at my role....

I begrudgingly admitted I was already a bit off-kilter as we set off from the parking lot. My mind didn't feel clear. I was anxious. Part of me was *expecting* something to go wrong.

And that fearfulness, that mental "static" did contribute to what happened -- like it or not.

When I admitted that to myself, suddenly I found myself able to let the experience go. I didn't need to tell anyone about it to validate my reaction - how in the wrong she clearly was.

I cared more about just having a good day and getting back into a happy, productive mood.

What's your foundation been like when you have a run-in with the other household?

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

The Power of a Name: Just-A-Stepmoms and Bio-Moms

I sometimes like to think of weird things that might have extremely large numbers assigned to them.

…How many breaths each and every creature that’s ever lived has taken, all together.

…How many times the clouds have passed over the sun as someone looked skyward.

…How many times you’ve eaten lunch.

…How many times your name has been called.

When a family dissolves by divorce, we’re typically not expecting to add any extra names to the list of cast members.

When we marry into a new stepfamily, it can feel vaguely insulting to have the name of the ex randomly interjecting itself into our every day.

And yet, there they are: the unwanted. The new woman.

Even the terms we use for each other are loaded:

The bio-mom.

Just the stepmom.

The crazy ex-wife.

The evil stepmother.

Why do we speak this way about each other?

When our aim is to cut the other woman’s legs out from under her before she even gets started, we should be suspicious of our motives.

Do stepmoms ever refer to their husbands as the “bio-father” or is he simply, “the father?” What about their own mothers (unless they were adopted or raised by someone else)?

Are moms aware of the fact that stepmoms are likely performing most of the hands-on tasks to take care of the children? As women, we already know: how can anything be “just...” about that?

ALL of those ex-wives can’t really be crazy. There’s too many of them.

And why are we STILL living in a culture where the cheap and easy trick for creating a villain in a kid’s movie is to give them a stepmom?

So it’s good to ask....

What might we secretly fear about the other woman?

What power are we attributing to her that we want to take away by denigrating her name?

In what ways might we be totally clueless about who she really is?

And isn't it a shame that we don't have a name to use for each other that acknowledges our familial ties to each other -- and allows for the potential growth of love and affection?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

The Invisible Drivers in Your Life

The other woman is out to get you. Everything she does is motivated by an intense, burning desire to see you fail, to make you suffer. Her life revolves around making you miserable -- and miserable you are, despite yourself.

Although... something about this feeling seems familiar.

You can’t quite put your finger on it....

You take a look around your life and feel small and powerless. Too many demands. Too many people needing your time and attention. Not enough people really looking out for YOU and what you might need. You feel burdened, lonely and somehow... doomed.

Something about that empty, aching feeling in your heart feels familiar.

But you can’t quite put your finger on it.

You’re doing your best to create a connection with your children or stepchildren; with your partner. You meet hurtful or flip responses with warmth and soft eyes. You still go the extra mile with the little things, telling yourself you’re practicing devotion, loyalty, forgiveness.

Lying awake in bed at night when everyone else is asleep, you notice that something about feeling unloved and out of place seems familiar.

But you can’t quite put your finger on it.

Here’s what’s actually happening.

Deep in the back of your mind, beneath your conscious attention, you have messages that you’re repeating to yourself throughout your day.

I’m never really safe; I can’t totally relax or disaster awaits me.

My needs are unimportant because I don’t really matter.

I have to give more than I get because I don’t deserve any better.

But really, what your minds says to you in the form of subconscious beliefs is even worse than that.

And a lot shorter.

And more extreme.

So extreme that, if anyone were to ever stand in front of us and say this stuff to our face, we’d be sorely tempted to deck them!

Nobody really loves me.

Something is seriously wrong with me.

If people really knew who I was, they’d run.

I will always end up being hurt.

Nothing ever goes right.

I suck.

I ruin everything.

These beliefs are formed in the very beginning of our lives because -- as the logic goes -- our parents and primary caregivers are bound to fail us.

They have to. That’s because the perfect human being -- one who can anticipate our every waking need, satisfy our quirky preferences and our personality-driven compulsions and interests -- has not yet been invented.

So we will be disappointed. We will feel misunderstood, unseen, rejected.

Betrayed.

And occasionally, absolutely gutted.

Even though we’re supposedly a few steps above common animals, humans still have an almost overwhelmingly strong desire to belong to the pack.

Try to do it all alone: hunt, kill, eat, rest, repeat -- and you’re likely to not be doing it for very long. There’s safety and survival in numbers.

Which is why it’s better to make ourselves wrong first. We need the pack more than we consciously need ourselves in the very beginning.

And thus, the little gremlins of our subconscious mind are born.

They’re a way for us to contextualize our lives, to explain to ourselves why things go as they do.

They’re a way to create predictability and theoretically, to reduce future upsets and crushing blows. They’re a means of preparing ourselves, by learning from the unwanted experiences of the past.

Only problem is, the ancient wiring system for our Default Disaster Playbook is seriously flawed -- at least when it comes to creating healthy, emotional lives as adults.

We start LIVING by those extreme, distorted mantras as if they are always true -- as if that is “just the way life is...”

And then we make our lives FIT the mantra to prove ourselves right.

Which is why it’s sometimes vaguely satisfying when things go wrong, even if we’re also deeply distressed and would swear on our favorite pets’ grave that we wish it weren’t so!

So what mantras, what secret driving forces, what subconscious beliefs could be running your life?

What themes or patterns seem to be playing themselves out, despite your best efforts to create otherwise?

The good news is, there are effective ways to address and transform those beliefs now that really do work.

You can be worthy, safe, lovable, valued.

You can trust others.

You can create a life of meaning and purpose.

But the first step is to listen closely.

And to tell the truth about what you find.

A little tip for you: if you’re reluctant to (even privately) spell out those outdated, subconscious beliefs in all their extreme glory—you’re still confusing yourself with the belief, as if it’s true!

The first step is to call it as you see it.

Then you can create a plan of action that deals with what is.

What have you discovered about what’s driving your life?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

 

Painful stereotype, meet reality!

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Over the weekend, we learned a valuable lesson.

Jenna shared a link to an article on our Facebook page (our group has since been closed) that she thought might be potentially inflammatory, but also stimulate an interesting discussion -- given the fact that some stepmoms do indeed wrestle with this kind of behavior with the mom in their lives.

All hell broke loose!

I watched in horror as both moms and stepmoms sought to defend themselves against common stereotypes associated with each side.

Yes! Moms can definitely be like this!

No! It’s unfair that these assumptions are made, when there’s a perfectly good reason for some of this behavior.

The heat of the comments really made me think....

Why are these stereotypes so dangerous?

And so painful?

Think about it: stereotypes exist for a seemingly good reason.

They’re a way to size up a population that’s different, a population you may even fear.

They’re a way to separate yourself, to reinforce your chosen identity and say, “That’s not me. That’s not how I would have handled that situation/challenge/problem, etc....”

We reject the negative qualities we see in others. We push back against unwanted behavior we don’t condone and can barely understand.

Think about all those lazy, neglectful mothers out there.

Or the self-absorbed, cold-hearted stepmoms.

And there’s plenty more where that came from!

Crazy, irrational, control freak moms who must still be carrying a torch for their exes, blind to the ways they’re dragging the kids through the mud and ruining them for life.

Competitive, passive-aggressive stepmoms with a martyr complex, bent on squeezing the kids out of the picture so they can have Dad all to themselves, or themselves and their kids.

Obviously, we’re so much better than those other people....

But when we buy into the stereotypes, we lose two important things.

The truth of what’s really actually going on!

And the chance to learn from someone who’s not like you.

That was the danger in that article.

It fueled more of a separation between all of us. Between the side that was so clearly “right” and the side that was being victimized in a lop-sided characterization.

And all of a sudden, all the GOOD in the other side seemed to be canceled out, in one fell swoop.

One of the best parts about our community is we each offer a glimpse inside “the enemy’s camp,” in an effort to help the other side UNDERSTAND...

What might be fueling that other person’s difficult behavior?

Is it the pain of seeing someone they love in pain? Grieving a loss that’s knocked them off their feet? Jealousy? Protecting someone dear? Feeling hurt and betrayed? Lost and powerless?

Show me one person in your life who doesn’t occasionally act like an idiot or a total pain in the ass when they’re struggling!

When you’re having a hard time, your attention turns INWARD. You focus on the problem, the issue, your discomfort.

This inward focus puts you out of sync with your external environment.

You miss cues from other people. You respond from habit or old, unresolved issues in your past. You may become rigid in your behavior. You probably overreact to simple things.

Fine!, you say.

So you can understand the other woman overreacting every once and a while. But years? Maddening crap for years??!

Yes. It happens.

Do you see how hard it is for all of us to navigate these relationships? To continually adjust?

We are ALL bumbling along in these dual-family relationships. We’re the guinea pigs. We’re writing the two-family playbook right now, as we make our mistakes....

We’re all trying to find our place.

To be seen and respected.

To belong.

To be safe.

To be loved.

No one’s got a leg up.

Really.

So try this next time you’re frustrated with the other woman....

Ask yourself, what might make ME act like this? What would have to be going on with ME to push me to this type of behavior?

Haven’t you ever gone off the cliff in your life? Acted in a way that filled you with regret and dismay later? Ever watched yourself act like an out of control child from afar, absolutely horrified?

There's a real, live human being behind each stereotype...

What are some stereotypes you now know not to be true about stepmoms or divorced moms?

And how did you arrive at this insight?

We want to hear from YOU!

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

One woman’s prince is another child’s neglectful father

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On Thursday, Jenna’s post “One woman’s frog is another’s woman’s prince” lit up our blog and Facebook page with massive hits and fascinating feedback. She really struck a nerve.

Most of the feedback was from stepmoms, but her post was important for moms to read too.

We often forget that the men we divorced can indeed change, grow and actually be BETTER -- with someone else.

I take no issue with that point.

Many stepmoms agreed that their husbands are 2.0 versions of their former selves -- and that’s a happy thing for all parties involved.

I know my own ex is a much better match with Carol, the co-author of our book. They’ve even “passed up” the number of years he and I were married, and seem equally committed to each other.

But I did want to highlight one significant aspect of this Frog/Prince dialogue that I suspect some stepmoms may not realize.

In combing through the tangled conflict between stepmoms and divorced moms, it may look to you like there are scores of divorced moms out there who are simply holding on to old issues from the past -- and that’s why they’re angry.

She just can’t let go. She’s emotionally stunted. She doesn’t have the maturity to release her judgments and resentments.

Maybe it’s even assumed that’s she’s still in love with her ex.

But in many cases, there’s actually something very different going on.

Not all, of course, but in many.

Jenna mentioned how, in a healthy marriage or relationship, the partners are happy to be “doing for each other.” This is why so many stepmoms step forward and do a lot of the parenting stuff for the dads.

Because they’re better at it. Because they love their husbands and are trying to make his life easier.

But let me tell you, there’s a very common refrain I hear among the majority of my divorced mom friends: the father’s involvement with his kids often drops dramatically when he remarries -- especially if he has more children with his new partner.

He sees his children less.

He calls less.

He may not be able to “squeeze them in” to his busy calendar.

Outings or gatherings have to be compromised to accommodate new siblings or his wife’s preferences.

Meetings and get-togethers have to be changed, then changed again, then eventually forgotten.

The moms are the ones witnessing the fallout from this with their children.

They see and hear the child’s hurt feelings.

The children feel ignored, unloved, invisible.

And THAT is where a lot of the anger comes from in the moms.

It’s fresh anger.

It comes from new experiences of rejection for their child, piled on top of each other.

They are angry with their children’s fathers for not stepping up, for not even noticing that his children are hurt and feel neglected by him.

They see the negative impact upon their child’s self-esteem.

They fear for their daughter’s future romantic relationships, with the most important man in her life imprinting messages of emotional unavailability upon the child’s impressionable psyche.

Or dooming their sons to a lifetime of trying to “prove themselves” to a man who is forever facing the other direction.

Do the moms also have judgments and anger, their own resolved issues with their ex that are their responsibility to handle?

Of course!

But that still doesn’t negate my point about how so many dads seem to be falling short.

Now, to clarify...

In Jenna’s post -- and in this one -- we’re talking about several “slices” of the pie, several sub-populations:

  1. There are the dads who divorced and haven’t changed. They were disinterested, uninvolved fathers before and they still are.
  2. There are the dads who have become better partners and yet still practice a kind of hands-off approach to fatherhood.
  3. There are the dads who have become better partners AND better fathers.

I’m talking about the second group in this post.

As women, we often step up to the plate without even being asked.

And the stepmoms in this second group who fulfill some of the parenting duties for their husbands out of love and partnership are actually enabling some pretty unhealthy behavior - for the children’s sake -- and for themselves.

And that’s why, when you do things for him as his partner, as moms we reject your kindnesses, your earnest involvement.

It may sound crazy and counter-productive to reject parenting help for our kids wherever we can get it, but moms are thinking, Don’t enable him. Don’t make it okay for him to continue to slack off!

Now, I know there are plenty of stepmoms out there who are trying to get their partners to be more involved as dads.

They’re doing what we moms used to do: cajole, bargain, inform, educate, “set up successes” to happen....

Sometimes, your efforts really do make a difference. Breakthroughs happen between a father and his kids and we thank you for doing this, out of love for your stepkids.

Seriously.

Thank you!

But in other ways, too many fathers get to kick back and let the women -- both women -- do all the grunt work of parenting. We hear from plenty of stepmoms out there in this kind of situation too. Sounds like it sucks.

Just had to get this off my chest.

I’m surrounded by so many single and remarried moms saying the same thing, it breaks my heart. And yet this scenario of "forgotten children" has become so commonplace that I’m not even surprised by it anymore.

When a dad does it differently, it really stands out.

So before you assume that the mom is once again harping on the past for some crazy, illogical reason, consider whether some of her anger is directed at the father of her children -- for a valid reason.

Think of how you might feel if the children you now have with your husband became an afterthought in the future.....

Yes. These dual-families relationships are incredibly complicated, with so many demands on our time, attention and affection that it's sometimes mind-boggling.

But an uninvolved father is a dad that is hurting his child’s feelings and harming their self-esteem and self-worth.

That’s what we’re mad about.

Thanks for reading.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

(Update: After seeing some of the comments on Facebook in response, I just wanted to add two points.

My intent here is not to "slam" men or the many fathers out there who are doing a great job. In addition to the kids, I'm also concerned about all the stepmoms out there who are putting their marriages at risk by continuing to fulfill roles that are leaving them depleted and resentful. They started out giving from the heart, but now they are expected to continue being the hands-on parent while the dad "coasts." After a while, the stepmom feels trapped. Bad for everyone!

I also think there are gender issues that feed into this issue. As women, we're "givers," and we love jumping in and doing for others before they even ask! It can be a slippery slope....)

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

Top Ten Reasons to Forgive the Stepmom, the Ex-Wife, or Your Ex

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1. Your grievances live inside you long after the event has passed, which feels terrible.

2. Your grudges don’t actually improve the outcome of future problems.

3. You’re inadvertently “leaking” your resentment onto innocent bystanders.

4. It’s possible to forgive... and still create healthy boundaries that protect you from future pain and unhappiness.

5. When you truly forgive another from the heart, forgiving yourself for ways that you might have enabled your transgressor goes hand in hand.

6. You’re modeling compassion and understanding for your children and stepchildren.

7. You are freer to concentrate on the things that really matter in life, like Dancing with the Stars or Charlie Sheen.

8. The Victim Tango broken record from hell stops playing in your brain. Ahh, sweet peace and quiet!

9. Forgiving the other person isn’t like them getting the upper hand, because you’ve actually stepped out of the gladiators arena altogether.

10. Through maturity and humility, you can now admit that you’ve hurt people too -- sometimes by accident and at other times, not. We all deserve to be given the benefit of the doubt, while shouldering the appropriate consequences of our actions.

A big shoutout to reader Dina M., who recommended the following excellent article on Facebook, "Divorced? Follow this One-Step Co-Parenting Plan" by Jennifer Mattern, over on ParentDish.

What are your thoughts?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved (photo credit Lusi)

Beyond counting your blessings

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Let’s say some prayers for our friends and neighbors in Japan.

The earthquake and tsunami have once again reminded us just how easily everything can be taken away from any of us in an instant, and now, a terrifying nuclear crisis is unfolding before our very eyes.

May they find a way to cool the reactors and spent rod pools very soon, and may aid start flowing into the country for those in need.

I lived in the Philippines for 3 years as a teen and many of my friends and fellow students were Japanese. My heart goes out to this beautiful, bustling, complex country.

It can be hard to connect a natural (and man-made) disaster to your own life, especially when it’s happening across the globe, in a culture very different from our own.

But this is an amazing opportunity to acknowledge the good things that you’re taking for granted and in doing so, open your own hearts, connecting yourself to our planetary neighbors - whether in spirit or by donating to relief efforts.

Some context for ya....

From David J. Smith's book, If the World Were a Village:

“At this moment, there are more than 6 billion people on the planet! It's hard to picture so many people at one time -- but what if we imagine the whole world as a village of just 100 people?

In this village:

  • 22 people speak a Chinese dialect
  • 20 earn less than a dollar a day
  • 17 cannot read or write
  • 60 are always hungry [emphasis mine]
  • 24 have a television”

Other facts found online about those same 100 inhabitants:

Of all the wealth in your village, 6 people (all American) would own 59% of it.

Only one person has a college degree.

20 people in the village would consume 80% of all the energy, leaving 80 people to share the rest.

Only 7 people have a computer or access to the internet.

So as you can see, we’re blessed in a multitude of ways, though this is easy to forget.

Gratitude is often simply a matter of focus.

Which begs the question: where do you habitually turn your attention?

To the things going right -- or wrong?

Automatically tackling our problems with a laser beam, a bulldozer, or a truckload of how-to manuals is a carry-over from our caveman days, when we needed to figure out a daily strategy for staying alive that worked.

But we’re lucky enough not to have to worry about being eaten by a saber-toothed tiger anymore.

Instead, we now have the luxury of turning our attention to “first-world” problems.

Struggling in jobs we hate. Feeling unappreciated in our marriages. Wondering how we let our children slide down the slippery slope to valuing their friends and texting more than their own families.

Fretting over the latest incident with the mom interfering in your life again. Hating your ex.

If you find yourself feeling guilty because you see yourself in the list above -- don’t.

It’s meant as a reminder: there is always good and bad in life.

Maybe you’re just neglecting the good, like a plant accidentally left out on the porch at night, in the cold.

Can we all just take a step back and look around?

Can we all just glide above the clouds a bit and survey the ground below us?

What are all the things that are going well in your life that you take for granted?

Where are you basking in abundance and don’t even see it?

With close friends? Family that’s always there for you? A roof over your head? Good books and websites you love? The presence of nature around you? Healthy food? The safety and stability of a country not at war?

I’ll be eternally grateful that we figured out a way through the muddy morass that used to be our two households, after my ex got remarried.

I’m grateful that I love my ex still and Carol, his wife, and the stepmom to my kids -- and that they’re two of my closest friends. I'm grateful that our children have more adults in their lives, watching over them and fretting about them, more people to connect with, to love them and nourish them.

I’m grateful for my partner in this work, Jenna.

And I feel so lucky that I get to do work that makes even a small, but genuine difference in some people’s lives.

I hope our story can inspire you to shoot for more in your divorce-connected family. Even if your situation is tense and conflict-ridden, I hope our site helps you to see that you have more power to create peace FOR YOURSELF that you ever knew.

And now, let’s send a thought bubble of love and healing out across the ocean, to Japan....

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

 

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What to expect when you weren't expecting... a stepmom

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Maybe you experienced a long, slow slide towards divorce. The communication dwindled. The awesome sex became lost in the tidal wave of daily life demands. It was always one thing after another with the kids. Or perhaps you were unlucky enough to be blind-sided by the sting of infidelity.

However you found yourself in the Land of Divorce, putting your life back together, reveling in the opportunity to occasionally eat cereal for dinner when the kids were at Dad’s house, I bet you never saw this one coming: another woman in your kids’ lives.

A woman you didn’t know either.

Remember what it was like after a break-up, when you were younger? Maybe you dumped him. Maybe he dumped you. But you bump into him with his hot, new girl on the street, with that air of intimacy about them, and part of your stomach goes, “Wrenk!” It’s just human nature, whether you still want him or not.

Now take that feeling and magnify it by ten when a new woman arrives on the scene with your ex-husband.

Because THIS is the man who fathered your children. THIS is the man who shared your pregnancies, who you spent countless hours talking to about what was going on with the kids. THIS man was supposed to be your future. Your partner stretching out into the years of your family’s history. One half of the foundation, the nest for these vulnerable little beings.

But no more.... It’s done. Over.

And now you’re just a statistic.

And so are your kids.

But hey, people do this all the time now, right? What’s the big deal?!

This may be hard for stepmoms to really, really understand, even when they have their own kids: but when a new woman comes into your children’s lives, it’s just plain weird.

Like someone you’ve never met before plopping down at your table of friends. Like someone getting into your car at a stop light. Like a perfect stranger joining you in the hospital waiting room during a crisis, their brows furrowed with worry.

You look at them and think: Who are YOU?

And why are you now a part of my children’s world?!

Sure, on a logical, practical level, we get it. You’re dating him. He’s dating you. If he’s integrated you into his life enough for you to meet his kids, then he’s probably in love with you and Lord knows, it’s always best when both people love each other.

But it’s the emotional stuff that throws us for a loop, as moms. It’s the automatic “jurisdiction” we don’t get - that sense that you now have a right to have input on how things should be done with our kids, when they made it this far in life just fine without you. (It makes sense for that to eventually happen, but sometimes it comes wayyyyy too early.)

It’s knowing that our children are creating their own bonds and connections with you “off stage,” as it were, outside our view. It’s wondering if you truly want them there, or if you’d rather have him all to yourselves -- if you resent them, just don’t like them or are irritated by the same behavior that irritates us.

It's the fear that yes, there is love there between you. We want that -- but we also don't. Our own experiences as mothers are often so much more conflicted that the cookie-cutter version of motherhood. Our children's love with someone we don't know can cast a spotlight on our shortcomings as a parent. We can feel guilty and anxious, fearful and confused.

It’s the vulnerability that we feel, knowing that a natural part of romantic attachment with new couples is a dissection of past mistakes and mishaps, and this likely includes stories about us that we’d rather have you not know....

In writing about this subject for years now, I think I finally understand how painful and heart-wrenching it must be for stepmoms to often feel like the perpetual outsider, to be exasperated by the ever-shifting boundaries, to be reminded over and over again that important family memories and milestones took place that had nothing to do with you.

I’m not even sure I could do it! And I have the utmost admiration for those of you who do, who keep plugging away in the face of all that pain and frustration.

Please just know that some of the difficult behavior you experience with the moms has nothing to do with YOU personally (although if you trade mutual barbs, it will eventually, sadly).

We would feel this way about any new stranger interacting with our kids, even though you may think our actions are irrational and ultimately destructive. Sometimes they are. We’re not perfect. But we’re also trying to do the best we can to do right by our children....

Think of it like this: in our minds, we are traveling down a long, flat, straight road. We can see miles and miles into the horizon. We once felt secure in the knowledge that we’d be traveling down that road with another adult by our sides: the father. The only other person in this whole world who cares about the kids just like we do.

We may have accepted that he will no longer be traveling down that road alongside us (though some moms haven’t, but that’s another story). Perhaps he’s on the right side of the road now, and we’re on the left.

It just feel jarring and strange, disorienting and illogical to be joined on that road, walking along with someone we don’t know, someone we don’t feel comfortable with, someone who may or may not be on the same parenting page whatsoever.

So please, give us time. Leave the majority of the parenting to your partner, even if you see him fumbling or out of his element. Leave the communications between houses to him. The financial negotiations. The discipline. At least initially....

Don’t take our mother tiger behavior personally. Focus on making YOUR life happy!

And moms, just realize: once you’ve seen the stepmom in your kids’ lives for a while, once you’ve seen her trying and trying, busting her ass and putting in all the same grunt work that YOU do, please, for the love of God! -- cut her some slack.

And reach out to her. She’s taking care of YOUR kids!

You WANT her on your side.

After all, isn’t that the highest sacrifice you could make as a mom? Creating room for another woman, so she can do a good job of loving your children -- with your help?

How is any other choice serving them?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine   All Rights Reserved

Further reading:

Moms: you are the crux

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At 46, I’m certainly not one of the greatest rock climbers around, but it’s a obsession I truly love that has changed me on many levels. Just like any sport that attracts die-hard followers, it has its own lingo and insider terminology.

“Beta” are the tips and inside scoop to help you successfully complete a route. If you want to challenge yourself a bit more, you can tell your friends, “No beta please, let me figure it out by myself.” To "dyno" is to actually jump and leave all contact with the rock for one or two brief, but terrifying seconds, as you hurl yourself to the next hold (hopefully).

One of my favorites is “crux,” which means the hardest part of the climb that’s most likely to throw you off the wall like a bucking horse. The crux will likely put you in a place where you think for a few seconds, This is impossible! Or Now I’m going to fall for sure! Or maybe even, I so suck at this stuff....

But when you get through the crux, when you hang in there, even though your forearms are burning and your legs are starting to quiver in an excellent imitation of a sewing machine for just. one. more. second -- even though your fingers are beginning to melt and you know they’re going to fail at any moment -- well, that’s when you feel your best.

It’s amazing. Euphoric. And addictive.

After that, the rest of the climb seems like a cakewalk (mostly).

One of my favorite parts about climbing is the camaraderie you find with friends, new and old. Because of the risks inherent in climbing stories off the ground, because of the fears you are all facing about yourself and your (lack of) abilities, you really end up bonding with your climbing buddies. You're putting your life in their hands and they're doing the same. We cheer each other on constantly.

I’d like to play around with the word crux here, because it has a double meaning. The dictionary defines "crux" this way:

a vital, basic, decisive, or pivotal point

or

something that torments by its puzzling nature; a perplexing difficulty

Back when Carol and I didn’t know each other and we avoided each other like the plague, I felt completely justified in blowing her off. I thought, “Who cares about making it work with her? Screw it. I didn’t ask her to be a part of my kids’ lives. They have two parents already. I’ll be damned if I’m going to make any room for her in our family, split up though it may be. I’m not going to bend over backwards to make life any easier for her, especially if I sense even the tiniest bit of competition from her.”

And there the situation stayed for several years.

I had my own angst to deal with whenever my kids traveled back and forth between houses during the weekends. There were the typical mishaps and misunderstandings. I thought I had enough shit on my own to handle as a single mom, but one day I was set on a path I never could have foreseen.

I saw something in my children’s faces that chilled me. They had just come back from a weekend with their dad and Carol, their stepmom, and they just looked... so... sad.

And strained.

It was as if they were being asked to carry a burden that was way too big for their tiny, little selves. Something that was beyond their understanding or ability to work through emotionally, like adults. They had to segment themselves, like pieces of an orange.

This was life at mom’s house. / And this was life at Dad’s.

Two separate worlds, with a barbed-wire fence down the middle.

It just killed me.

They were going to keep on accepting this reality (what other choice did they have?) like dutiful, miniature donkeys trudging up a hill. I think just knowing this is what made me snap.

Things had to change. This state of affairs could not go on. The problem-solver in me looked around at the external circumstances to see what could be adjusted, like moving furniture. Hmmm, nothing of any value.

The answer was internal. I would have to change the dynamic between our houses. I would have to figure out a way to dissolve the distance, or at least greatly reduce it. I would have to find a way to create a connection, create an even purely logistical, practical sense of partnership with their stepmom, because she spent a lot of time with the girls and did much of the hands-on stuff with them.

The very thought made my stomach clench up with fear.

Moms, did you know that about 75-85% of our readers are stepmoms? They are the ones who comment the most. Who post the most about their attempts to reach out to the mom, only to be rebuffed time and time again.

Are you turning away from the stepmom, as I once did?

You are the crux of the matter here.... In many ways, you are the key to this whole relationship even working at all. Or not.

How well do you know the stepmom? If you don't, why not?

When moms set aside their justifications for increasing the separation between the households, it’s like the damn breaking in a strong river. The current can flow. Wounds can heal. Family nests can be remade. Please think about it. And next time, look a little deeper into your children's faces when they come back from a weekend visit, or when you bicker with the other household.

What do you see?.

© 2011   Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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The dangers of certainty

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We have an interesting opportunity to learn something, after what happened in Arizona on Saturday.

As many of you know by now, 6 people were tragically killed (including a nine-year old girl born on 9/11) and 13 were critically injured when a 22 year-old man opened fire at Democratic Congresswoman Gabrielle Gifford’s “Congress on Your Corner” meeting at a local supermarket. She was shot point-blank in the head and is still in critical condition, as of this writing. I do not know the medical status of the other injured parties.

I’m saying prayers for the families and friends of all those who were killed or wounded and I hope you will too.

I’d also like to invite you to think about something...

and to listen to a little story that’s somewhat scary for me to tell....

But first, already, when you take note of the word “Democrat” in that second paragraph, something starts happening in your brain, doesn’t it? Wherever you happen to be on the political spectrum, that word, that political distinction, means somethingto you, even if you’re not an American.

It stands for certain qualities or values that you either assign to yourself -- or reject as standing for something you’re not.

You either go, Yes, that’s me, and maybe get a hint of something that feels good, such as validation, or a memory where your beliefs made a positive difference in the lives of others.

Maybe there’s also self-righteousness, or indignation, or anger.

Or else you go, Nope, that’s not me and get the same feelings (read through them again and see).

There has been a lot of discussion this weekend about the toxic nature of our political discourse here in the United States. I believe that same toxicity is reflected in our dual-family relationships as well.

It’s gotten pretty ugly on both fronts, because we constantly feel the need to define and identify who we are -- and who we refuse to be.

Democratic liberals are weak, lazy, bleeding hearts. Conservative Republicans are greedy, selfish, money hoarders. Democratic liberals are generous and kind-hearted and care about elevating the common good of all. Conservative Republicans are hard-working and self-reliant and contribute to a better world by propelling the economy forward.

(No matter what country you live in, you also have political parties that represent similar aspects of your character.)

Do you see how you want to identify with one side or the other?

Me too.

But something very troubling is happening to our global society and we’ve got to do something about it.

Take a look online at any public forum (comments on YouTube, message boards on any topic) and you will see rudeness, insults, and a level of mean-spiritedness that is truly shocking.

Don’t you often find yourself thinking, How can people actually speak like this to each other?!

And where ARE all these people? Surely they’re not acting like this in real-life?

Is this who we REALLY are when our identity is hidden and anonymous?

So what’s going on here?

This is how I think this happens....

When we over-identify with one perspective, our big-picture vision shrinks.

We lose our ability to see nuances, shades of gray, to see the truth of polar opposites in a situation. Life is complex and subject to constant change, but we begin to insist that it not be.

Because of our passionate attachment to our beliefs, our emotions become heightened.

Our thoughts and feelings become sensitized to input and we overreact to triggers.

We act as if others have disagreed with us or acted contrarily ON PURPOSE, just to make us angry or offend us.

We stop seeing the other side as human, with fears and needs that are just as messy and unpredictable as ours.

We start demanding that they see things the way we do, or risk being WRONG.

Maybe this wouldn’t normally be such a big deal, but here’s where it starts to get dangerous:

When we dehumanize others, our standards for our own behavior drop.

We cut ourselves slack for speaking or behaving without respect. We rationalize how the other side “deserves it.” We keep the focus on their unacceptable, “Oh-my-god, you wouldn’t believe _____!” actions, repeat our stories to sympathetic listeners, and conveniently avoid examining ourselves.

We ignore the mistakes we’ve already made, our habitual shortcomings, our ignorance, our contributions to the problem.

This switch, this transference of our focus happens so quickly and automatically that we don’t even see it, much less catch it.

And the intensity of our emotions makes our viewpoint feel so real and so right that we don't have the motivation to question the situation anyway.

Do you see how your political identity, and the means you use to defend it in your mind and in your speech, reflects some of the same problems you may be having with the other household?

There’s a lot at stake in the world these days - economic struggles, jobs, issues of war and survival. We look to our chosen political parties as one way out of uncertainty - as one small means of gaining some semblance of control, some kind of positive movement forward.

The “other side” is a threat to all that.

By the same token, there’s a lot at stake in our families. Our relationships and bonds with the children. Our feeling of safety and stability in our homes, places we yearn to infuse with love and belonging and growth and joy. The sanctity of our romantic relationships. Financial and legal issues.

What do you do when what you care about and identify with feels threatened?

Where are you striking back and losing a sense of the other side as human?

I steer clear of talking politics here for obvious reasons, but here’s a raw, personal story for you to illustrate my point.

When the shooting first happened on Saturday, I immediately thought of all the phrases and expressions I’d heard certain political pundits use; the language of violence and smugness, of suspicion, aggression and the joy of domination.

That kind of language gets attention. On a marketing level, it “works” because it gets people riled up and invested.

But it’s alarmed and worried me in the past, and now, I was horrified and saddened by what had happened to these innocent people, including several elderly folks and a child. I wanted to blame it on someone, aside from the apparently crazy young man.

Part of me felt happy that these political personalities were finally going to get busted and be held accountable for their reckless, baiting invective. Considering this possibility gave me a certain comforting frisson of right and wrong. Of good and bad. Of temporary justice.

I went online to certain political sites and got a hit of self-righteousness as I saw others agreeing with me. I saw both “sides” interacting with each other in the comments section, trying to prove their points by utilizing “facts” that supported their argument.

After a while of obsessive reading, staying up way too late, continually searching for that one culminating point that would finally make things feel settled inside me, I finally started to feel a little sick.

Guilt and shame hovered around the edges of my consciousness, reprimanding me for feeling gleeful and victorious whenever I read an online salvo that seemed to hit its mark... in the midst of tragedy.

I finally had to ask myself:

What the hell was I doing -- and why?

Mentally and emotionally (I wasn’t posting, just reading), I was duplicating exactly the same phenomenon that everyone else was bitching and moaning about: making the other side wrong. Blaming them. Wanting to convince them it was their fault. Seeing them as “less than,” as stupid and uninformed. Seeing myself as superior and clearly, so obviously, right.

I was contributing to that same kind of sick discourse that I was so self-righteously condemning, sitting in my safe, little room at home.

That’s how it happens.

And it was all too easy to flit from site to site, getting one dose after another of reinforcement for my lop-sided, hateful perspective.

Because that what it was. Hateful.

We like to tell ourselves that hate is a strong emotion reserved only for OTHER people with sworn enemies, or for those who are capable of gunning someone down, but I would like to suggest that hate also has much subtler and quieter manifestations. It's easier for us to go there than we realize.

Collectively, we have gotten our nation -- and our families -- into a pretty deep hole, where the shit is flying fast and furious above our heads.

Isn't it time for us each to look within our hearts and figure out how each and every one of us is adding to it?

And to stop?

Let’s ask ourselves some questions.

Questions are always good in the middle of a mess, don’t you think?

So... for you:

What do we want for ourselves as a country, full of opposing, but equally impassioned viewpoints?

As a planet where our nations are intimately tied to each other, reliant on each other for peace, for financial prosperity, for help from each other when a crisis strikes?

What do we want for our families? For ourselves, living day to day, interacting with each other in this land of divorce and remarriage?

For our children, who look to us to guide them when it comes to handling conflict and challenges in life -- and to protect them from not only the lies of others, but trust us to see and dismantle the lies we tell ourselves?

I hope you will reach deep down and bring the best of yourself to your life, your political identity, and your family - no matter how “wrong” the other side is.

I hope you will find a new willingness inside yourself to stop your automatic patterns of assigning blame and probe deeper for the poisonous roots of conflict, so that you can heal them with honesty and bravery.

I hope the people injured in Saturday's shooting will be alright, including stepmom Gabrielle Gifford.

I hope you will show your children -- whether they’re “yours” or “someone else’s” -- that we are capable of so much more than the cold comfort of being right.

© 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

Thanksgiving Day Tango, Part 5

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So far, based on earlier posts in this series:

  1. it’s nowhere near about you to the extent you might think
  2. you’re going to be like a tree on a hill
  3. you have more power than you think you do
  4. and it's good to tend to the good.*

On this last day of Thanksgiving week here in the U.S, there's the post-holiday torpor hanging over the house. Maybe some of us had a great family day. Maybe some of us are just glad it's over.

I'd like to encourage you to try something simple to continue coping well with the holidays by keeping your gaze on the horizon. Not so much that you never glance down at where you're stepping, and trip -- but just enough to give you that nice, light feeling of optimism.

Look down at your feet for a moment.

Down there is where all your problems are, where all the things that aren't working live, in a circle around your feet. Even tilting your face down like this subtly changes your mood and sense of possibility.

See?

Now... raise your head, straighten your shoulders and look ahead of you, off in the distance a bit. Think of yourself moving into your life grounded and calm, implacable.

Think of yourself in your revised, awesome version of your story, where you meet adversity with grit and grace.

Take a deep breath, and think of yourself, aware of your blessings, appreciating and noticing the richness of your life.

When you start to feel sour-minded and overwhelmed, notice whether your gaze is up or down.

If it's down, then bring it up... and see what happens.

*You'll find part 1, part 2, part 3 and part 4 here.

© 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!

Happy Stepmother's Day!

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A happy day to all the stepmoms out there! Please know that all your efforts make a difference. All the time and taking care of the stepkids, all the things you remember to do (that others don't even seem to realize are on the list), all the ways in which you try to be flexible and patient and generous, even though sometimes it's the last thing you feel like doing -- know that it matters.

Without you, many kids wouldn't have the structure that they experience in their dad's house, the consistency, the nurturing little details that let them know someone is watching over and paying attention.

So from one mom to all of you, I acknowledge your sacrifices and strength. Our kids are the better for it and that will always mean a lot to me -- and many other moms out there, even if they don't always say it.

I know so many of you deeply love and cherish your stepkids. In the face of a potentially tricky stepmom/stepchildren relationship, you still try hard to do what's ultimately best for the kids.

May your day be filled with some validation, some relaxation and most of all, some FUN! Indulge yourself and take a break from the daily grind!

Big hugs to all of you.... :-)

 

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved