My mother and I grew up in divorced homes, and we both had stepmothers and stepfathers. This was, of course, a situation neither of us desired as children, and it caused us both to deal with a great amount of adjustment as adults. As a mother and daughter team, we interviewed more than 200 women who grew up in divorced homes as a follow up to my mother's original study, which investigated the relationship between self-esteem and parental divorce and was published in the Journal of Divorce & Remarriage.
Ours was a diverse sample. Some were rich, some were poor. Some had several college degrees, and others struggled just to make it through high school. What they all had in common was a desire to avoid the pitfalls of their parents' failed marriages. Many of these women were stepmoms themselves. Our book, Love We Can Be Sure Of, which is awaiting publication, highlights their inspiring stories and sheds light on what can make a stepmom great.
I grew up with a stepmother I really didn't get along with. When I met Jason, he had a little girl, Maya. In the beginning, he thought this would be a big detractor that would cause me to not want to be with him. It ended up being the opposite. I've always told him what I loved the most about him was that he's a great dad. I think the biggest strength of our stepfamily is that Michelle (his ex) and I have great communication. We really respect one another and sometimes we talk on the phone about schedules, things going on in Maya's life and family issues. Maya knows that I really like her mom, and she's known it from the beginning.
- Jill, age 34
Many women reported that growing up with a stepparent gave them greater insight into the kind of parent they wanted to become. Over half of the women we interviewed grew up with stepparents, and many of these relationships were conflicted. The daughters of divorce we spoke with wanted to gain mastery over their past. They didn't want to divorce like their parents, and when they found themselves in the role of stepmom, they desired to create a different experience.
My childhood was really tumultuous. Both my parents remarried twice -- bringing two stepmothers and two stepfathers into my life. Life was so hectic, and I knew I wanted my adulthood to be different. When I met Derek, he had two little boys, which caused us to take our relationship slowly. While I knew Derek loved me, I was also aware that if his boys and I didn't get along, our relationship would never work. Because I didn't have great relationships with my stepparents, I made it a mission to get along with his boys. It really felt like by getting along with his boys, I was healing the wounds from my past.
-- Gina, age 37
Like many successful women in our study, Gina took her relationship slowly and made sure she was a good fit with Derek and his children. She allowed Derek's sons time to adapt, and did not force her way into their lives. The role of stepmom is incredibly challenging, and it's one that many women don't ask for. Smart women are aware of the potential pitfalls and embrace them head on, with the best interests of the children always in mind.
When Dave and I met, his daughter hated me. Just my presence in the room would set her off. I knew it wasn't me personally that she hated, it was the fact that her parents split and she only got to see her Dad on the weekends, and I was often included in activities. At first I was seen as an intrusion, and it took many years for us to get to a peaceful place. I think the biggest thing that helped was that I encouraged Dave to spend a lot of alone time with his daughter. I made an active effort to show her I wasn't competing for his time.
-- Kelly, age 43
What do all of these stepmoms have in common? They have an innate understanding of the difficulties their stepchildren are going through. They don't have adult expectations of these children. They know the road is going to be tough, and they are patient. Jill's story, where she explained that she really respected and admired her husband's ex, is particularly inspiring. Not everyone is so lucky to have a friendly relationship with her partner's ex, but it is still worth trying. It's possible to find something positive in every person, and to let your stepchild know the good things you see in their biological parent.
Gina's story is especially poignant. Sometimes, having the experience of being a stepchild yourself will make you a better stepparent when it is your time. You can remember how you felt as a child, and it makes you better prepared. Derek evidently made it clear that his relationship with his boys was a top priority, and whatever woman he chose to spend his time with would have to fit well with his children. Some adults take the opposite tact. They choose to date whoever they want, without regard for how their children react to this new adult. Derek's sensitivity to this issue is inspiring.
Sometimes it can be hard for new stepparents to understand why their stepchildren resent them. The truth is that with divorce, a child's relationship with her parent changes, and usually it means they spend less time together. Their parent's new significant other truly is a rival for their attention. Try to put yourself in the child's shoes. How would you feel if your life was totally upended, and your parent's focus was now being divided by a new adult? Encourage your partner to spend time alone with his children. In Kelly's case, she surprised her stepdaughter with tickets for her and her dad to see "Disney on Ice" together, just the two of them. This kind gesture meant the world to her stepdaughter, and Kelly reaped the rewards.
To continue the conversation about stepfamilies and children of divorce, please visit www.movingpastdivorce.com. Tracy Clifford has partnered with her mother, Terry Gaspard, MSW, LICSW to interview over 200 daughters of divorce. Having experienced divorce in their own lives, they have a keen understanding of how it can affect the inner lives of children, and impact the kinds of adults they become. Their book, Love We Can Be Sure Of, is about and for women who grew up in divorced homes, as they face unique vulnerabilities related to love, trust, commitment and self-esteem. Follow them on Twitter and Facebook.