stepmom bio-mom conflict

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!

High Heels in the Dung Pasture (or Further Adventures in Taking Responsibility)

Jennifer-David-Carol-DrPhilSo I have a moment at the end of the Dr. Phil Show that we did a few weeks ago that I’m hoping no one will see, but that my ex-husband David assures me is the one moment they will probably be sure to include (air date: Dec. 1). Great... Just what I wanted to hear.

I write, as best as I can on this blog and in the book, about owning your own shit. We didn’t actually call Chapter Two that, because I guess one expletive a book is enough. So Chapter Two is called Own Your Own Crap, but the idea is the same: one of the first steps in creating a breakthrough when a situation is bad is to own your own shit. In other words, take responsibility for the muck that you’re bringing to the table when there’s ongoing conflict.

The very notion is completely counter-intuitive for most people. We’ve got an entire lifetime’s worth of habit helping us to look outside ourselves at external circumstances -- and using them to decide whether things in our life are “good” or “bad.”

But really, we all inherently know that what determines how our “reality” really seems to go has mostly to do with what’s in our own little marble-filled noggin....

It’s just that most of us (self included) often feel perpetually resistant to looking at what’s rolling around inside our noggins.

We walk around feeling as if we’re mostly “right” and know how things should be. End of story.

But ironically, we also walk around also feeling like if only people could REALLY see inside us, they’d run for the hills, so we’re also mostly “wrong,” but that part is supposed to be a secret.

What’s ironic is that everyone feels this hidden sense of shame and random guilt, but no one is supposed to know it! So we pretend we don’t and work hard to cultivate our surface presentation of who we are. And we’re like some little cartoon microcosmic universe of busy people, living purposeful lives, zooming around -- on task and on target.

Which leads me to my confession....

In a moment at the end of the show, I found myself feeling pretty stirred up, after hearing the mom, stepmom and dad who were on during the second half of the show talk at length about their problems with each other.

Emotionally, I kept coming back to their teenage son. After hearing various stories from each adult about situations they were struggling with, I started to get truly exasperated.

No, you’re not supposed to have emotional reactions like that on national TV, especially if you’ve written a book about that particular topic. You’re supposed to be impassive, detached, operating from a higher level of professionalism and objectivity.

But damn, the stuff I was hearing just made me think about what this kid’s experience of his parents and stepmom must be like and how painful it must have been. And judging from what the adults were saying, there was only going to be more of it, possibly into perpetuity.

I was thinking, THIS is what we’re doing to our children, making them feel schizoid and fragmented, putting pressure on them to buy into one parent or teams’ version of reality, of being right, of being the better parent, supposedly fueled by their love for the child. We go back and forth with the other side as if someday they’ll wake up and realize what an idiot they’ve been this entire time, say they’re sorry and start doing things YOUR way.

And in the meantime, the kid is like a old football, being kicked across a field.

So I had a little “moment” there, at the end, where I tried to say to them that their behavior had to change, for their son’s sake.

I was kind of worked up. I think there might have been finger-pointing (cringe). I felt passionate about what I was saying.

And if that had been the end of it, it could have made for some pretty good TV, because hey, isn’t that what TV is all about? Passion? Intensity? Vulnerability? Kleenex?

But the problem is, what I said was also fueled by a sense of judgment. I felt judgmental towards the adults. And even for a bit here and there, superior, like I had figured out something they hadn’t.

Hate to say it, but there it is. You’ll probably see it for yourself anyway.

Now, have I ever put my kids in the middle of battles between Carol and David and I? Have I ever used them as ammunition?

Nah....

Okay, actually

Yeah....

Plenty. Not really so much anymore, but before we were all skipping through the fields of flowers in slow motion, you bet your ass I did.

And I STILL feel guilty about this, and rightfully so, which is maybe also why it was easy to just slide into feeling judgmental with the other adults on the show. You hide from stuff inside yourself - it still finds a way to leak out.

My ex-husband David told me it seemed like I was scolding them, even though he could tell "my heart was in the right place." He said I looked pissed. Carol assured me it was the right thing to say, "given the moment."

Personally, remembering the whole thing makes me want to crawl under my bed.

So... if I come across like a total sanctimonious scold, I’ll live -- and I’m sure the shame of doing this in front of millions of people will fade eventually, like maybe when I’m in my eighties or something.

But more than that, my little “moment” is a great example of how easy it is to slip right back into our ego-filled positions of self-righteousness, even when we’re also responding to something compassionate and caring in our hearts.

Sure, we love our children. We want to do right by them.

But we get caught up in the experience of war with the adults in these bi-nuclear family situations, because it’s all too easy to be offended by the other side, for our own actions to be misinterpreted, for the lines of communication to become horribly mangled and crossed.

Our fallback position of wanting so very much to be “right,” to be better, to be in control -- that stuff always seems to rise to the surface, no matter how altruistic we might be in our calmer, more centered moments. It’s human nature.

But we always have a choice about how we ultimately respond to our very human natures.

What happens when you make a mistake? Do you make amends, at least eventually? Do you brush it under the metaphorical carpet, hoping no one will notice, grateful for the passage of time and the obscuring dustcloud of busyness that we all seem to live in?

I apologized immediately after the show to the stepmom and dad who were on the show, but I still haven’t done so with the mom, whose contact information I have (she was on by satellite).

I need to handle that.... And will.

We all screw up.

And we will continue to, despite our best intentions and “knowledge” about how not to do that.

It’s what we do with our mistake afterward that matters.

Facing the discomfort is the first step. And kind of like going to the dentist or exercising, once you get going, it’s not so bad. You face that brakes-on feeling of resistance and then, lo and behold, you actually create room for change, growth and healing.

It’s a work in progress - this learning about being human, connecting with others past our own egos, owning our own shit. I know I’ll be learning about it ‘til the day I die.

And you?

Where are you in the dung pasture? How far to the safety of the fence? Most importantly, what kind of shoes are you wearing?!

The show is on one week from today (Tuesday, Dec. 1st). I hope you’ll tune in!

Your thoughts?