Martha Chan, co-owner of Divorce Magazine, and Diana Shepherd, co-founder of Divorce Magazine, talk about their experiences as stepmoms and offer their best advice to listeners. Topics they discuss include:
- questions you should answer before marrying a person with children;
- when to be a parent and when to take a backseat to your spouse;
- how to deal with different parenting styles between you and the children’s parent(s);
- how and why to befriend your spouse’s ex; and
- the secrets to creating a successful stepfamily or blended family.
Founder of The Divorce School, Co-Owner of Divorce Magazine and DivorcedMoms.com
Editorial Director and Co-Founder of Divorce Magazine
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Read the Transcript of this Podcast Below.
Two Stepmoms on Love and Blended Families
Martha Chan: Welcome to the Divorce School. This session is about two stepmoms talking about love and blended families. My name is Martha Chan. I am the founder of the Divorce School and co-owner of DivorceMagazine.com and DivorcedMoms.com.
I have been a stepmom for almost 20 years. When I first met my husband, Dan, he was separated and he had two children – 10 and 5 at the time. Through the last 20 years I’ve learned a few things about how to be a stepmom and we’ve had a very successful blended family to this day. We are very close to our children. With me today is Diana Shepherd, who is also another stepmother. Welcome Diana.
Diana is going to introduce herself so that you can get some background on why it is that we’re here today to talk about stepmothers.
Diana Shepherd: Thanks Martha. My name is Diana Shepherd and I’m the editorial director and one of the co-founders of Divorce Magazine and DivorceMagazine.com. It was the mid-90’s when I met my soon-to-be husband. He had three kids at the time who were aged 5, 6, and 7 so it was pretty clear at that point that there was going to be some time that I was going to be a stepmother.
Now, my background was in publishing. In fact, I was the managing editor of Wedding Bells Magazine at the time and I just thought that there if there were resources for how to spend one day of your life [your wedding], there should be lots of books and magazines for how to spend the rest of your life. In fact, I was shocked to find that there was almost nothing out there, and the few resources that were available said, “Remarriage is going to fail. If there are kids involved, it statistically has a much higher failure rate than a first marriage.” Basically, all the available resources said “you should get out now.”
This was not encouraging but it was one of the inspirations for starting Divorce Magazine, so that we could find the information that we needed to read and present it. We figured that if we needed the information, there was likely going to be a couple million other people who needed the same information too. That really was the inspiration for starting the magazine in the first place back in 1996.
So acknowledging that things were different then, that we didn’t have the Internet, we didn’t have a lot of resources available to us. We were making it up as we went along. We did make some mistakes and then there were some things that – accidentally or not we – did right. So we’re going to talk about some of those things today.
I thought we could start by talking about talking. What is it that somebody who is going to be married, or in a committed relationship with a man with children, needs to discuss with him before they move in together or get married? What do you think?
Martha: Well we must have heard a lot of advice from people, saying, “before you get married, you should talk out several things.” I think that when you marry a spouse, a person who already has children -– in my case and Diana’s case it was our future husbands who already had children – you do need to ask extra questions because there is an extra layer of responsibilities and privileges, or maybe even challenges that you would be facing.
For me, love, compassion, and patience are three guiding principles that are very important in a marriage or in life in general. On top of that, I made sure that I understood what was important to my future husband, Dan. I found out that what was really important to him was to be a successful daddy and a successful business person. So I made a commitment to myself that those would be the two things that I would support him with.
I think that some of you out there may have different scenarios and you may have other important elements that you want to bring into consideration when you’re looking at marrying someone who has children. What about you?
Diana: We didn’t have a lot of discussions that we probably should have had because we did what we knew to do at the time.
Martha: Yes, I would agree. These questions that I bring up are probably more in hindsight. Diana and I are recommending that you address these issues. Now, did I ask a lot of these questions at the time? No.
Diana: In hindsight I would say that you should work out the expectations of you as a stepparent are going to be after you either are in a committed relationship or you get married. For instance, what are going to be your responsibilities regarding discipline?
Are you going to be very hands-off or hands-on? What are your parenting styles? If both parents bring children to the marriage – which wasn’t the case with either the two of us, but some people are going to be blending their two sets of kids together – they may have very different parenting styles. One may be a very permissive type, one that thinks that kids should run free and be wild, and the other may be all about rules and homework and having responsibilities in life. So knowing what your parenting styles are and where you may be running into problems head on would be something to talk about first.
Martha: Well let’s face it, even in a marriage that’s not broken up, two adults, two parents, could have different styles, never mind bringing in a third parent. I think that for me I’m going to say that at times I played the role of the parent who was in charge because I was left in charge. While Dan travelled and his ex-wife travelled, I was left in charge. At moments like that you just have to be the parent. Sometimes I find myself stepping back because there are issues that are raised that are too important for me to just decide on my own, and I would feel that way whether they were my biological children or not. At times I would say, “I hear what you’re asking for. It’s something that we need to discuss together with your dad.” I don’t know if you ever had the thought, “Should I be tackling this now or should I wait?”
Diana: Well there are some things that you have to tackle because it could be a life or death situation. There are some things that you can’t wait to get input from one of the other parents like, “do I take this kid to the hospital now?” That isn’t something you’re going to wait to get agreement on. But other things like, “How do we feel about body piercings? How do we feel about tattoos?”, which are permanent. At what age can the child make up their own mind about things like that?
What about dropping out of school, at what age are we all in agreement that that can happen? So there are things that you can’t possibly predict because it’s just not possible.
Martha: It’s like normal parenting.
Diana: Exactly, but some things you can see coming. One of the other things that I would say is important is after you’ve had these discussions about responsibilities, discipline, and parenting styles, you need to know – even if it weren’t a blended family or a stepfamily – your co-parent is going to back you up. So you have had an agreement that the kid cannot drop out of school at 16-years-old. The husband is travelling, the kid says, “I’m dropping out of school,” you have to be the parent at that moment and say, “no.”
Martha: Reinforce what you agreed upon.
Diana: Right, and then when dad comes home, he has got to back you up and say that. Now if he doesn’t agree with something that you’ve said, I think it’s still, especially when the kids are young, not something to do in front of the kids.
Take a time out, go to the bedroom, have a quiet conversation about it and then come back at it again, because if the kids see you arguing, for one thing it’s going to bring up all of the stresses of what happened when their parents divorced: “Mommy and daddy are fighting oh no,” and also it’s going to encourage them to play the mommy and daddy game.
For example, “if mommy says ‘no’ then we’ll go to daddy and if daddy says ‘no’ let’s go to stepmom.” So there does need to be a same-page, united front in front of the kids about everything that matters. Choose your battles, choose what hill you’re going to die on. They cannot all be that thing that you’re going to fight to the death over, so figure out what your non-negotiables are, have a discussion about it, and then everything else, don’t sweat it.
Martha: I’m going to say that in our relationship, I knew from day one that I was marrying someone who has an ex and two children – so I walked in with my eyes wide open. I knew that those were the things that I was going to be dealing with.
I have one piece of advice for someone who’s out there who may be dating a divorced dad or maybe thinking of getting married. I have seen a few friends of mine who would complain to me about how they have to share their husband with these other people, as in the children or sometimes the ex. If you married someone who was never married before and didn’t have children, you don’t have any of these issues. But when you marry someone with children, you know you are marrying someone with children, so don’t act surprised or get jealous about the fact that you have to share your husband with all these other people. You have to play the adult. You knew all this before you walked into it. I might sound a little harsh, but for the sake of the family, which you are bringing into your life, you need to be prepared to do that.
Diana: Especially in the early days, you can be newlyweds from Monday to Wednesday and then suddenly you’re a mom on Thursday and Friday. Sometimes those transitions are hard on the parents, not just on the children as well. So addressing what you were talking about with your friends being upset about having to share their husband, one of the things that you can do – and again this might be part of the conversation that you have earlier – is you set up a date night. You make sure -– and again I don’t think this is necessarily just stepfamily advice, I think this is marriage advice – you set up a date night that you are going to have to celebrate why you married this person in the first place, to have some adult time together that is not about running someone over to soccer practice while the other one is going to music lessons. Reaffirm your love for each other. I think that that is really important and it’s something that can certainly get lost in a marriage or in a stepfamily situation.
Martha: You actually reminded me of a funny situation because my husband plays hockey, the two kids play hockey, so practically -every evening there is hockey equipment hanging out in the house somewhere waiting to be air dried right? And I’m not a hockey person, I’m a female, so I just have to learn to accept that there will be hockey equipment, maybe even stinky hockey equipment every night at the house. But I knew that, and I knew that was going to happen.
Can you predict everything when you marry another person? Can you talk about everything? No, you can’t, and that’s when commitment comes in. If you’re committed to making it work, you’re committed to having a successful partnership, and then anything that shows up, we just have to work it out, deal with it.
Diana: Let’s talk for a minute about the importance of having a relationship with your husband’s ex. Now when there are no children involved, normally you would not be having a relationship with your husband’s ex.
Martha: Hopefully not.
Diana: It would be pretty weird if you were, but in this case you have to. I think that one of the crucial things that I accidentally got right, was to befriend my husband’s ex-wife. I could see that they had some difficulties in their communication, they would wind each other up the best way to push each other’s buttons. And this doesn’t end with divorce, so I realized that in order to have less stress in my life, I needed them to have less stress in their life too, and how can you do that?
Well, by being generous, by killing her with kindness. For example, if she wants to trade weekends with the kids because she’s got something to do and you’re fine with it, do it absolutely. Any time that you can be generous, be generous. Hopefully it’s going to come back in your direction. What do you think?
Martha: Well I must say I had it easy if you will. We have a very good relationship. My husband made sure that he had a good divorce. The three of us, my husband’s ex, we are actually friends to this day. Are we friends that call each other up and tell each other secrets and chitchat? No, but we go to each other’s parties, birthday parties, open house parties, so that level of friendship is there and it has been improving over time if you will.
At the beginning I think that there was always an alignment that we were going to have a good blended family and that everything we did would be in the best interest of the children, and if we made a mistake, we never questioned each other’s intentions. Everybody makes mistakes, even biological parents make mistakes, so you just take steps to correct them, put things back to the best way that we know how.
So I must say that I have been fairly lucky in that there haven’t really been too many scenarios where I can really recall saying “wow, she made a big stink out of nothing,” or that “he got really upset over something.” Upsets come and go. So I have to say, the groundwork had been done prior to us getting together because all three of us have done a lot of self-development work.
So I say to everybody, do that work now. You can benefit from it as a single person, as a married couple, or as a stepmom or divorced couple. The self-development work allows us to look at a situation with some kind of objective manner and look for the good in what might be a bad situation, and when you can think that way and act accordingly, a lot of disputes wouldn’t even happen or could be resolved quite quickly.
Diana: I think that is really important, the personal development, whether it’s three courses or book reading or doing therapy, however, it’s a lifelong process. I can also hear the eyes rolling out there with some of our viewers who are saying, “yes, but my husband’s ex-wife is crazy. She’s a lunatic. She’s always doing terrible things and she uses the kids like footballs, punting them back and forth.”
So would your advice be different? Well for my part, I would say no. Unless she has a clinical diagnosis of some personality disorder whereby you’re not going to be able to treat her as though she is normal, I think using some empathy and some compassion can help. You can ask yourself, “Where might that attack be coming from? Is there an insecurity?” Are you pushing her buttons? And there might be a little bit of “fake it ‘till you make it,” approach. This can actually change how you’re being with her, which will change how she’s being with you.
Martha: At times I would say that we could influence how they react and interact with us through how we interact with them. For example, someone makes an unreasonable demand of you and you don’t just take it and accept it, you actually sit down and have a conversation about it. Then you wouldn’t be teaching someone to say, “hey, you know what? I can just keep pushing the boundary. I can keep asking for this and that whenever it’s convenient to me.”
I think that there’s a lot to be learned about relationships, the skills that we can have that we can apply when the situation is tense or when the situation is good, because when it’s tense you want to relax it a little bit and when it’s going well, you want to develop it further. So there’s no end to it. As I’ve said, I’ve been a stepmother for 20 years. I expect to be a stepmother for another 20 years right? So who knows what development is going to take us to the next step.
Diana: I want to bring someone else up now. They say, “it takes a village to raise a child.” This can actually be a benefit if you have a good, involved, compassionate, interested stepmother. She can have a different viewpoint than what you do as a biological parent. Because you’re not seeing through that filter of, “oh you know, when Johnny was 10 he was so sweet and I carried him under my heart for nine months.” You can just look at a situation and see objectively what is happening without those filters, and that might free you up to make a better parenting choice at the time. What do you think?
Martha: Absolutely. Along the same lines of thinking, maybe he was a bad kid when he was younger, but now we have to look at the child and interact with him as he is today. We cannot carry the history of the child to the degree that it stops us from seeing what possibilities there might be with this child. It is important to have someone that you could bounce off your questions and ideas with but make sure that person is up to the same thing as you are, meaning up to the same commitment of having a successful blended family. We are not out to be a better parent than any of the other two that are present in the children’s life. We just want to be the best parents that we can be and work with the other two parents so that there is some consistency in the message that we deliver to the children and some consistency in the way that we parent them.
Diana: Right, and if you’re a stepmother who didn’t have biological children and frankly even if you did, you’re still making it up as you go along, you know? For better or for worse. Sometimes you can find a parent who you admire. Maybe one of your girlfriends is so great with her kids and her kids are so great and you can get some tips and coaching from them. It doesn’t only have to be from other stepmothers, but on the other hand, a stepmother is going to understand where you’re at, at any given time, possibly better than someone who hasn’t gone through that process.
Martha: Diana I want to thank you for joining me and sharing some of your insights about how to be a great stepmom and how to have a successful blended family. Thank you.
Diana: Martha it has been my pleasure to be here with you today talking about the hardest job you’ll ever love: being a stepmother.