Sunday, May 15, 2011

The plight of stepmoms on Mother's Day

I wrote the following personal essay for

Mother's Day is a sad occasion for many, but not all of the 15 million U.S. stepmothers who have stepchildren under the age of 18.

As it approaches, I am reminded how disappointed and hurt I used to be when my stepdaughter didn't acknowledge me on this day. From the time I married my husband when my stepdaughter was only 4 years old, I always felt she viewed me as his wife rather than as a stepmother.

This distinction may be acceptable to women who marry men with older children, but it bothered me because for years I spent every other weekend playing with her, cooking for her, and doing every other activity of a maternal caregiver. I really tried to develop a close relationship with but never felt I succeeded.

Being ignored is minor compared to the hostility and emotional abuse many other stepmothers experience, but my sense of failure grew each time I tried to grow closer to my stepdaughter and was rebuffed.

My husband inadvertently compounded my discomfort each Mother's Day by asking me what kind of gift I wanted.

His gesture of kindness felt like he was offering me a present for failing a class, which increased my feelings of shame rather than joy. Also, I hate pretense, and I felt that he was pressuring me to accept his view of our happy family unit.

He was unwilling to acknowledge my perception that my relationship with my stepdaughter was friendly yet superficial, and just not as intimate as I expected it to be given the time we spent together. I felt he valued his feelings more than mine, and I became angry that my feelings weren't given equal standing to his.

Being wished a Happy Mother's Day by my parents and friends also felt bad. How could I sincerely accept their considerate remarks when my stepdaughter didn't recognize or appreciate my efforts in this capacity? I felt fraudulent as a stepmother.

Thankfully, my feelings have changed and, now I am in a better place where I accept and understand why my stepdaughter will not reach out to me on Mother's Day. I just wish other stepmothers wouldn't have to go through similar or far worse emotional distress.

If stepmothers weren't so unhappy, the divorce rate for second marriages, as high as 60% to 75%, might be reduced. Let me share my journey with you.

When I first became a stepmother, I was surprised to find it to be so difficult because my stepdaughter has always been well-behaved, smart and respectful. No matter how hard I tried to get close to her, I felt like a distant relative.

I wondered if my experience was unique or similar to other stepmothers so I started a website ( which featured an online chat room and a questionnaire for stepmothers to fill out.

Almost instantaneously, a vibrant community of stepmothers formed that gave each other encouragement and advice during difficult times. In less than two years from the inception of the website, more than 3,000 women answered my questionnaire sharing the challenges they faced.

At the same time, I also began a monthly stepmother support group comprised of a handful of women who could fit into my small office.

From these three venues, I gained a lot of information about the specific problems stepmothers encounter. More important, I received the necessary support from women sharing similar experiences. This helped me overcome my feelings of inadequacy and isolation.

Being understood by others is so important. Without a doubt, knowing that I wasn't alone, that there were other stepmothers struggling to find their rightful place in their new families just like me, was the best medicine to heal my pain.

While these women couldn't (and shouldn't) have solved my specific problems, they validated my feelings. While my family and friends cared that I was unhappy, they didn't truly understand what was bothering me.

These other stepmothers intuitively knew how I felt, and this made me feel much better even though my situation did not actually change.

These women also helped me understand that my desire to be acknowledged by my stepdaughter on Mother's Day was not unreasonable, but it might be too much for her to give me. They helped me understand the dilemma that many stepchildren face on Mother's Day.

Their loyalties may lie with their mother, and they believe she will be offended if they acknowledge their stepmother. I respect my stepdaughter's love for her mother, and never want her to feel any loyalty binds.

So, I worked on developing a thicker skin to shield myself from being hurt.

After doing some research, I also learned that only 20% of stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers. As much as I want a close, loving relationship with my stepdaughter or anyone else for that matter, I realized I can't force anyone to love or even like me.

My stepdaughter is entitled to select the people she wants in her intimate circle of family and friends. What I can do is appreciate those people in my life who want to be close to me and nurture these relationships.

By shifting my focus to the positives rather than the negatives in my life, I am now more content.

While my husband used to encourage my stepdaughter to wish me a Happy Mother's Day, she is an adult, and he can't control her actions. Both he and I worked hard to accept the fact that most stepfamilies are not perfect, and ours may never be.

"It is what it is," and accepting this reality relieved a lot of wear and tear on my brain as well as his. I used to believe that I must always persevere until my goals were accomplished even if they were insurmountable.

What a relief to know that I can be happy even if every aspect of my life isn't perfect.

This year I am looking forward to celebrating Mother's Day with my mother and will try to make it as special for her as possible. I have learned that when I focus my energy on her, I feel good.

This works for a lot of other stepmothers who choose to spend the holiday with their mothers or with women for whom they deeply care. Many also treat themselves to a massage, lunch with friends or flowers on this day.

By choosing to do positive activities on Mother's Day, we take responsibility for our happiness.

I hope my experiences can help other stepmothers have a more enjoyable Mother's Day.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

5 New Year's Resolutions for Stepmothers

Being a stepmother can be extremely challenging and can make many of us miserable. This is the ideal time of year to take stock of our lives and decide how we can improve them. Besides resolving to lose the proverbial ten pounds, to eat nutritiously, and to exercise regularly, consider making some specific resolutions for the New Year that will help you as a stepmother. Here are some for you to consider:

1. Live a life of your choosing rather than your partner’s: In our quest to become an integral member of our stepfamilies, too many of us stepmothers expend all our energies taking care of stepfamily members with the consequence that we are too exhausted at the end of each day to focus on developing and attending to our own needs and interests. Be careful not to exclusively attach yourself to your partner’s life by spending all your time with his family and doing the activities he enjoys; make a concerted effort to be with your family and friends and to do activities that enhance your growth and development. Create a life that authentically expresses who you are.

2. Have a weekly date night with your partner: Being true to yourself does not mean you must ignore your partner. In fact, to be content as a stepmother and survive the stresses of stepfamily life, your relationship with him must be the most important priority in your life and his (right after your own well-being, which should always come first). Having fun together strengthens your relationship and makes it easier to get over the crises when they occur.

3. Cushion yourself from rejection: Rejection by stepchildren and other family members is a common experience for many stepmothers. Naturally, this hurts. To cushion yourself against these wounds, reach out to friends and other stepmothers for support. Their love and support can buffer you from rejection if it occurs. Make an effort to spend time with friends.

4. Simplify your life: Many stepmothers complain about how tired they are, how much they have to do, and how little time they have to devote to themselves. What many of us don’t realize is that we have choices about what we do. We can regain our vitality in life by reprioritizing our responsibilities and eliminating certain tasks. To prevent burnout, you need to safeguard your time by saying “no” to unreasonable requests, and by choosing activities you really, really like to do, while letting go of the others. Make sure that household tasks are fairly shared.

5. Have fun every day: Laughter is truly the best medicine. Make sure you do something fun each day to offset the responsibilities in your life. Petting your dog or cat are simple, free activities that can make a huge difference in creating a positive outlook on life.

Wishing you and your family a Healthy, Happy New Year!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Acknowledge Stepmothers on National Stepfamily Day

National Stepfamily Day, celebrated on September 16th, is a day that recognizes the changing landscape of American families and supports the efforts of stepfamilies to provide its members with stability. It isn’t always easy to be a stepfamily member, and we stepmothers, especially, have the most difficult role according to most mental health experts. Consequently, we deserve an extra acknowledgement for our dedication and commitment for providing our stepchildren with a loving home.

Here are some tips to deal with the many challenges we face:

1. Revise your expectations about stepfamilies: Perhaps the biggest misunderstanding about stepfamilies is the myth that stepfamilies “blend” over time. While some stepfamilies do “blend,” many don’t. Too many stepmothers believe this myth, which creates an expectation for you to live up to. When the family doesn’t blend over time—which happens more often than not—stepmothers naturally feel ashamed and guilt-ridden about “failing” in some way. The truth is that “blending” is an ideal that occasionally occurs, but not a reality for most stepfamilies, nor a prerequisite for happiness. Members don’t have to love each other for stepfamilies to be happy; they just need to be respectful and compassionate. When your expectations are realistic, you feel happier.

2. Increase Your Positive Emotions: Many stepmothers are filled with rage, resentment, and bitterness from their stepfamily situation. While it’s completely understandable how women develop these negative emotions, unresolved anger doesn’t serve any useful purpose, and actually is toxic, corroding one’s health and ruining relationships. You can release negative emotions by choosing to focus on the positive aspects of your lives. This will give you a higher probability of attaining a sense of well-being. Here are two ways to focus on the positives in your lives:

Keep a gratitude journal

Expressing gratitude for the good things in your lives can be a challenge when most of your time is filled with chores and hard work. Even when things are going well, you may take good fortune for granted, and be complacent about expressing thanks. This is an easy mistake to fix, and keeping a gratitude list is an effective way to release stress, and improves physical and emotional well-being. Research has found that people who kept gratitude journals exercised more regularly, felt physically healthier, had more energy, and experienced more positive emotions and life satisfaction than people who recorded negative or neutral sentiments in a journal. They also experienced more optimism about upcoming events than those who did not keep journals, and were closer to achieving their goals after a two-month period.

Pay attention to the moment

You will be happier and healthier if you learn to savor life’s daily pleasures. Live in the moment, become more aware of everything you do, and enjoy the little things in your life. For instance, take pleasure in savoring the spray of hot water on your body when you shower, relishing your first sip of coffee in the morning, and snuggling with your pet. Your senses can be fully alert to everything surrounding you by practicing mindfulness of the moment, and this will help you to better appreciate your daily experiences.

3. Strengthen your Marriage: To be content as a stepmother, your relationship with your partner must be the most important priority in your life and his (right after your own well-being which should always come first.) A strong, effective partnership is an absolute necessity to survive the stresses of stepfamily life with your dignity and self respect intact. Couples who develop a positive climate in their relationship take time to have fun together, listen to each other in a caring manner rather than with criticism, contempt, defensiveness, or by giving each other the silent treatment. Happy marriages are filled with kindness, compassion, and respect, characteristics that promote emotional health for each partner.

4. Disengage, when necessary: Disengaging can be quite effective for those of you who are burned out from excessive responsibilities, over-involvement in stepfamily crises, or enduring toxic relatives for too long. Disengagement is a process in which you pull back from some responsibilities or relationships. Withdrawal can be gradual, from just one activity that causes you distress, to completely avoiding an abusive stepfamily member. When you limit your contact with difficult people, you are no longer in a position to be ignored, rejected, or taken advantage of. Disengaging is not necessary for all stepmothers. It is a method of last resort, an option to use after you have tried all the other ways to improve your circumstances, without success. In some circumstances, disengagement can be the most effective means to regain control of your life.

5. Reach out to other stepmothers for support and acknowledgement: Being a stepmother can be a lonely experience even when surrounded by many family members. You may not feel comfortable sharing your difficulties with family and friends, concerned that you will be criticized and judged, so you stuff your negative feelings inside where they can fester and grow. You can release these negative feelings by sharing them with those who understand what you are going through. Connecting to other stepmothers can soothe your deepest wounds.

Give these suggestions a try. They have helped many other stepmothers achieve contentment and happiness.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Save the Date, Saturday, September 25th, 2010

I am so pleased to announce the first Steps for Stepmothers Workshop that will be held Saturday, September 25th, 2010 at the Westside Y (63rd Street between Broadway and Central Park West) from 10AM to 1PM. Wednesday Martin, the author of Stepmonster and I will both be presenting relevant topics for stepmothers, and it will be an opportunity for you to meet other stepmothers in similar situations. Refreshments will be served, and the fee is $75.00 I look forward to meeting you all then. Please save the date so you can attend. I will be sending out more information about how to register soon, but wanted to fill you in on some of the details now. If you want more information, email me at

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Most Frequently Asked Questions

As a psychotherapist and stepmother, I know from both personal and professional experience how challenging stepmotherhood can be. In my psychotherapy practice, I work with many stepmother who ask me to help them with these basic questions:

“What is wrong with me? I have worked so hard to be a good stepmother, to develop good relationships with everyone in my family, but none of my efforts have worked, and now I am exhausted and depressed, and feel like a complete failure.”

First, I explain to them that the reasons they are struggling is not their fault; they have done nothing wrong. Their failures are not a result of any mistakes they have made but are related to the many challenges contained within the role of a stepmother. I tell them about the current research findings on stepfamilies and how this reflects the difficulties stepfamilies face nationwide. For instance, only 20% of stepchildren feel close to their stepmothers—a staggeringly low percentage! So if a stepmother struggles to bond with her stepchild, she’s not alone—most stepmothers struggle with the very same issue. When stepmothers understand the realities of stepfamily life, they realize that their problems are normal, experienced by many other stepmothers. This information is a huge relief for them and helps them to reframe their struggles with more objectivity, and most important, enables them to let go of feelings of blame and guilt.

“What can I do to feel better?”

The main complaints I hear from stepmothers are about how tired they are, how much they have to do, and how little time they have to devote to themselves. I help them realize they have choices about what they do. They can regain their vitality in life by reprioritizing their responsibilities and eliminating certain tasks.

Too many stepmothers feel they must fulfill all maternal duties when stepchildren are in their care, and most husbands also share this belief. I know I shared this belief when I first became a stepmother, but I quickly learned that there is a fine line between being a good sport helping out my husband and taking on the role of stepfamily chef, maid, or nanny, jobs that required hard work yet lacked any acknowledgement or reward. I recommend that stepmothers and their husbands discuss their respective expectations with each other, and be clear about what each one is willing and not willing to do. It won’t necessarily be easy for stepmothers to draw the line, but I encourage them to stick to their guns by explaining to their husbands that biological parents are responsible for disciplining and caring for their children. Giving up some menial tasks doesn’t mean that stepmothers won’t have a relationship with their stepchildren. In fact, once they let go of the traditional parenting responsibilities, stepmothers can focus on having fun with their stepchildren instead, which may even improve their relationship.

In order to feel fulfilled and content, stepmothers must take responsibility for their happiness by choosing activities that will promote their growth and development. When stepmothers start doing things that they enjoy, such as seeing friends, taking classes, or playing a sport, they start to feel better. One positive action can make a huge difference in restoring their mind-set that their behaviors, in fact, do matter in contributing to their overall happiness.

What do I do if I still feel like an outsider in my family?

If all efforts to feel like an integral member of a stepfamily fail, I recommend that stepmothers join an in-person support group or an online chat room. According to positive psychology, the single greatest predictor of success during a challenging time isn’t intelligence or past experience but social support. Fortunately for stepmothers, more peer support groups and online chat rooms exist for them to join. They can receive so much help from the sage advice and encouragement of other members who understand what they are going through because they have experienced something similar. In my experience of running a monthly stepmother support group, I have been so impressed how members help each other. Just a little understanding and support restores one’s spirit.

I hope my responses to these questions can help you to be a happier stepmother.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Another Nail in the Coffin for Stepmothers

When I first heard that Kyron Horman, the 7 year old boy from Portland, Oregon was missing, my initial feeling was concern for his welfare; I hoped he quickly would be found, and recover from this terrible ordeal. Upon learning that his stepmother, Terri Horman was the last person to see him, my next feeling was dread. In my gut, I just knew this was going to be another example where stepmothers get a bad rap. I worried that both the media and everyone who read about this story would immediately go to the default stereotype that stepmothers are evil and wicked.

My heart goes out to this poor little 7 year old boy; I can’t bear to think about his terror and loneliness separated from his family at such a young age, and I can’t imagine the anguish his family is experiencing. It’s a tragedy for everyone involved in this case including the police officers and citizens who are desperately trying to find Kyron.

I don’t know what happened to Kyron and have no idea if his stepmother is responsible for his disappearance, but I do know that Terri Horman should be perceived and treated as an individual without prejudging her as a wicked stepmother. Not all stepmothers are bad people. Did you know that there are between 11 and 18 million stepmothers with stepchildren under the age of 18 in the U.S.? Stepmothers come in all shapes and sizes, with different personalities - the vast majority of whom are loving, kind, and compassionate to their stepchildren. If Terri Horman is responsible for hurting Kyron, it isn’t because she is a stepmother, it is because she is disturbed and crossed the line between rational and irrational thought.

Unfortunately, stepmothers have already been damaged by the media sensationalizing Kyron’s disappearance and depicting Terri Horman as a wicked stepmother. This adds one more nail in the coffin for stepmothers, reinforcing the negative stereotype that has existed for centuries. Thus, the job of overcoming this erroneous stereotype becomes much more challenging.
The wicked stepmother stereotype has been firmly embedded in our culture for centuries, taught and passed along to very young children by fairy tales, such as Cinderella and Snow White. One way to overcome this stereotype is if parents would take the time after reading Cinderella to their children to explain to them that most stepmothers are loving and kind. Even though Cinderella’s stepmother was cruel, not all stepmothers are bad. Parents might then give their children some examples of good stepmothers whom their children know to contrast Cinderella’s wicked one.

Stereotypes matter. Unconsciously, they oftentimes influence us to hold beliefs and make decisions based on inaccurate information. This changes our realities because we act on information that we haven’t taken the time to verify as fact. If people believe stepmothers are wicked, how they treat them will naturally be affected, and not in a good way.

Stepmothers, too are negatively affected by the wicked stepmother stereotype, and would benefit greatly if it was neutralized. In my book, The Happy Stepmother I discuss that when women become stepmothers, they embrace their new role with enthusiasm and hope, and try to prove to family and friends that they don’t fit the stereotype. Frequently, they work too hard to fit into the family, exhausting themselves in the process, and hitting their heads against the wall in frustration when they are not accepted. Many stepmothers are rejected by stepchildren who maintain an emotional distance from them because they, too, also unconsciously believe the wicked stepmother stereotype. It is nearly impossible to form a close emotional relationship with anyone who holds an underlying belief that you are wicked. This is so sad for stepmothers.

I fervently hope that all of us will work towards changing the cultural perception of stepmothers as wicked. I also pray that Kyron will soon be found.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

10 Parenting Tips Every Stepmom Must Know

I wrote these 10 Parenting Tips Every Stepmom Must Know for The Huffington Post and want to share them with you.

Being a stepmother can be one of the most challenging roles in society, and one that often receives little support, understanding, and appreciation from others. In my book, The Happy Stepmother, I share 10 steps to thrive despite the frustrations that come with stepmotherhood, but here are 10 tips you can try right now to become a happier stepmother today:

1.Enjoy time with your stepchildren: Stepchildren should be assets, rather than liabilities, in your life. To have good relationships with them, you need to spend quality time with them and interact in meaningful, pleasurable ways. Since quality relationships are built from one-on-one interactions, spend private time with each of your stepchildren. Find common interests and activities, such as a hobby or a sport, to do with them. It's easier to develop a caring, loving, and friendly relationship with your stepchildren when you don’t have the burden of parental responsibilities and can simply enjoy your time together instead.

2.Allow your partner to actively take care of his children: If you want to have a good relationship with your stepchildren and your partner, don’t automatically become the primary housekeeper. Of course, you may do some tasks for your stepchildren, just as you would for other family members, but you'll become resentful if you feel you must fulfill all maternal duties for them -- especially if you don’t feel appreciated for what you do. You aren’t shirking stepmother duties if you don’t cook, clean, and do their laundry. Those are your partner’s jobs, even if you're staying home to care for your own biological children. In most cases, stepmothers should operate more as a babysitters or aunts than as parents. This will leave you more time for activities that provide you with the most meaning and pleasure.

3.Allow your partner to discipline his children: Remarried fathers need to step up to the plate when it comes to teaching their children appropriate behavior. Most mental health experts agree that it's your partner’s responsibility to discipline his children; if you discipline them, your stepchildren may resent you. Many stepmothers complain that their partners are too lax about providing structure and boundaries for their children after a divorce. When stepchildren misbehave, first focus your attention on your partner rather than the children. Let him know, gently and calmly, that you feel he needs to assert his authority in order to help his children grow and develop and feel secure and protected. If he isn’t capable of being a strong parent, then your life, his life, and your stepchildren’s lives will suffer.

4.Establish house rules: In order to ensure mutual respect in the stepfamily, it's essential for you and your partner to develop a set of rules that everyone in the family must abide by. If your stepchildren are old enough, they can even participate in setting up these rules. Often, parents are amused to find that their children establish stricter punishments for breaking a rule than the adults would've done! When everyone in the family knows the house rules, you and your partner can back each other up when a transgression occurs. Working together as a team is important for you as a couple and teaches children that they can't “divide and conquer.”

5.Have a weekly date night with your husband: To be content as a stepmother and survive the stresses of stepfamily life, your relationship with your partner must be the most important priority in your life and his (right after your own well-being, which should always come first). Having fun together strengthens your relationship and makes it easier to get over the crises when they occur.

6.Accept that your feelings for your stepchildren and the feelings that your stepchildren have for you are “good enough”: Oftentimes, stepmothers feel pressured that they must love their stepchildren and expect their stepchildren to reciprocate that love in return. Love is an emotion that can’t be forced. If you love your stepchildren, that’s wonderful, but if you don’t, that’s also acceptable, as long as you provide kindness, compassion, and respect to them. No more and no less should be expected of you. When you remove expectations that you must love your stepchildren, it'll be easier just to be nice to them -- and in a genuine way. This can lead, eventually, to love.

7.Model good behavior: Our first challenge as stepmothers is to accept and welcome our stepchildren by being warm, kind, and respectful. The integration of a stepfamily begins with you and your partner. As mature, responsible adults, you have the job of laying the groundwork for the new family. You're the front-runner for modeling respect and compassion.

8.Don’t take it personally: Most of us as stepmothers try our hardest to be kind, considerate, and loving to our stepchildren. If our efforts are rebuffed, we naturally feel extremely hurt. Stepchildren may reject your attention and warmth for various reasons. Perhaps they feel that since they already have two parents, they don’t want a third one in their lives. They may be afraid their mothers will be hurt if they become close to you. They may not trust that your relationship with their father will last and don't want to experience loss again. Or they simply may not share your interests or temperament, and find it hard to relate to you. Any of these obstacles can take a long time to overcome, and the situation might not change at all despite your best efforts. Whatever the case, you need to accept things as they are for your own emotional welfare and not take stepchildren’s rejection of you as a personal attack.

9.Create your own holiday traditions: Holidays can be particularly painful for stepmothers who may be excluded from special occasions, such as weddings or Christmas, even after years of marriage to their partners. Other stepmothers can feel like outsiders at holiday gatherings. If you experience feelings of dread prior to certain family events, start your own traditions. Have an annual Halloween, Thanksgiving, or Easter gathering. You'll have more control when you host your own holiday celebrations.

10.Take charge of your own happiness: As a stepmother, it's of paramount importance for you to take care of your own emotional needs first, before everyone and everything else in your life. When you commit to making your emotional welfare the number one priority in your life, you'll be giving yourself the best shot at happiness. Attaining happiness requires hard work and a willingness to expend energy creating a meaningful life. We do this by focusing on what we want and then taking action to get it. Take charge!