Stepparenting: Nine Tips to Help Mom and Stepmom Work Together for the Kids

She’s the dreaded next. She’s the woman who lives in your ex’s house, sleeps in his bed and has your kids every other weekend. And the U. S. Census Bureau says there are 1,300 of her created every day. When living-together families are included in the definition of the stepfamily, the National Survey of Families and Households estimates that 50 percent of all women are likely to live in a stepfamily relationship.

Because of the breakup of their biological families and their parents’ desire for a second chance at love, 50 percent of the 60 million children under the age of 13 are currently living with one biological parent and that parent’s current partner. Stepfamilies are not doing so well. Two out of three will fail, largely due to conflicts over children. A Boston University study reported that more than 75 percent of the career women who had married men with children said that if they had do it again they would not marry a man with children.

The reason the parents get a divorce is because they couldn’t agree. The conflicts continue after the divorce and they really affect the kids. Only now, there are not only disagreements between the biological mom and the biological dad, there are also disagreements between the kids and the stepmom and between the step mom and the biological parents. The kids are always in a war zone, said Dr. Jeannette Lofas. Lofas is the best-selling author of  “Family Rules: Helping Stepfamilies and Single Parents Build Happy Homes.” The stress between biological parents and stepparents leaves children scrambling to figure out where they fit in and how to do family.

Dr. Lofas experienced this scramble firsthand. Her parents divorced when she was 10. They were in and out of court for three nasty years. The distress Dr. Lofas felt listening to them tear each other apart profoundly affected her emotional and physical health. “I withdrew from people, talking mostly to dogs and horses. I didn’t eat. I was 5 foot 6 inchesand weighed only 86 pounds,” she said in a phone interview. Lofas spent her time trying to sabotage her father’s new relationships. I’d ask, what’s your name? You’re not the one who was here last week and that’s the last I’d see of them. Kids will do anything to try and keep their parents together,” she recalled.

When she fell in love with a man with children, Lofas had a great relationship with the children before the wedding. As soon as she got married, everything hit the fan. All of a sudden, you’re in the house, you’re answering the phone, you’re in the bed where the mother is supposed to be. And the kids are ignoring you and asking is dad there? “Couples can have knock down drag out fights because the kids were rude to the stepmom,” said Lofas.

The way the ex and the next relate to each other has broad implications for their personal happiness and for the happiness and well-being of their children. Here are nine tips that can help make co-parenting a bit easier.

1. Be the adult.

Divorce is a gut wrenching experience. It’s perfectly normal to be overwhelmed by all the changes that follow in its wake and struggle with feelings of rejection and abandonment as well as anxiety over finances. Losing your kids every other weekend and having to share them with someone else on holidays can make you feel angry about the many ways you’ve lost control of the things that are important to you.

“For the sake of your children, work out your crazy feelings with a therapist, divorce coach, or friend. Many parents are unable to separate their needs from the children’s needs and often share too much of their personal life with their children, placing the children in a precarious emotional state, vulnerable to grandiosity or to depression within what is left of their families,” cautions Dr. Judith Wallerstein, author of the international bestseller, “What About the Kids? Raising Children Before, During, and After Divorce.”

2. Be realistic.

Stepfamilies are not the Waltons or the Cleavers. “Recognize that the stepfamily will not and cannot function as a biologicalfamily,” said Dr. Lofas. “Don’t try to place the expectations and dynamics of the biological family onto the stepfamily. That’s like trying to play chess using the rules of checkers. Stepfamilies are just that much more complex.”

Relationships with grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins can be especially complex. Instead of two sets of extended families, there may be multiple extended families, depending on how many divorces and remarriages have occurred. “You cannot reconstruct extended families after divorce and maintain them in the same way you can in an intact family,” said Dr. Wallerstein.

Still, children grieve the loss. So, the ex andthe next need to work together to make sure children continue relationships with significant family members, particularly on special occasions. Some have even opened their homes to each other so that the children don’t have to choose. “People think love will conquer all,” said Dr. Lofas. “It doesn’t. Intention does. Decide we’re going to make this work. So, how are we going to make this work?”

3. Slay the green-eyed monster.

Numerous studies have shown that custodial mothers often face dramatic economic losses following divorce. If you’re still flying solo, the next’s life is likely better than yours because there’s more money. Financial struggles can adversely affect parenting and lead to rivalry between the ex and the next, who may bitter resent the amount of money that’s going to spousal and child support. “When resources are limited or they live in entirely economic situations, things between the biological mother and the stepmother are complicated,” said Dr. Wallerstein.

4. Cut each other some slack.

If you’re the biological mom, you might think the next is a gold digger, a trollop and clueless or worse. If you’re the next, you’ve probably been told the ex is a bitch, frigid and made his life hell. And that’s just for starters. “Fathers run the relationship between biological moms and stepmoms by the way they talk about their ex,” said Dr. Lofas.

She has found that fathers often forbid the next to be in contact with the biological mom because they’re afraid the two women will swap stories or dad may feel that the women being friendly is somehow disloyal to him because he’s still steamed about the divorce. Even so, Dr. Lofas recommends that the two moms sit down over coffee and try to establish a friendly relationship.

“Stepmoms need to remember, even if the ex did take him to the cleaners, this is not about what happened then. It’s about making things work now. Even if your husband says she’s crazy and controlling, she’s probably just angry from the divorce. Cut her some slack and see who she is from your perspective. Try to see each other’s point of view and remember that men usually pick the same kind of woman the second time around. The biological mom will be more like you than you can imagine,” said Dr. Lofas.

5. Reduce loyalty conflicts.

“Some stepmothers overstep the boundaries by feeling they’re really the true mom. Meanwhile, the biological mother can really resent the time the step mom spends with her kids and can unconsciously poison that relationship. She might even tell the children, ‘I’m your only mom. You only have to listen to me.’ It can result in a lot of loyalty conflicts,” said Dr. Rachelle Katz, founder of Steps for Stepmothers. “Relationships can be the most difficult when steps have full custody and the biological mother is resentful or jealous of that. There’s an element of competition and the biological mother may have a hard time encouraging her children to be respectful, appreciative or compassionate to the step mom. As a result, the step mom may feel she’s doing all the work of parenting while getting little acknowledgment or appreciation.”

To ease the relationship, Dr. Katz suggests that stepmoms have a conversation with the stepchildren and tell them, “I’m not going to replace your mom, but I am here as an adult figure and I’m going to take care of you and really treat you well.” Likewise biological moms can help by telling their children, “I love you very much and so does daddy. Your step mom is also someone in your life who has a lot to offer you and wants the best for you. I know you have enough room in your heart to appreciate someone else who really cares about you.”

Reduce confusion and resentment by having your children call the step mom something other than “mom,” “mother,” or “mommy.” Most steps are called by their first name. If that seems too familiar and disrespectful, the children can call her Miss Suzy, or, if they’re older, just Suzy. The bottom line is a child only has one mother and one father and they can never be replaced.

6. Have a good parenting plan.

“To be a successful stepfamily, you need a good co-parenting agreement. Most judges and lawyers don’t know how to develop one. They usually view it as ‘don’t bad mouth each other.’ But, that’s not enough for daily life,” said Dr. Lofas. If there isn’t a parenting plan in place, the stepmom or the mom can urge the husband to develop one and if he isn’t interested, one of the women should reach out to the other and set up a system. Among other things, the parenting plan should cover who has the kids when, who’s responsible for transporting them, who pays for what, and how decisions are made. It should also include fallback plans when a parent can’t meet obligations.

“It’s really about simple etiquette and caring for your kids. If you’re going to be 15 minutes late, call. Let them know as soon as possible, not showing up when you’re expected pushes the kid’s abandonment buttons and may affect your ex’s or next’s plans for the day,” said Dr. Lofas.

7. Keep the lines of communication open.

“Don’t exchange the children by dumping them in the driveway and honking the horn. That’s not a wonderful experience for the kids. Go to the door and have a conversation. Be civil. The step mom may say I don’t want that woman to be in my house ever because she’s afraid her privacy will be invaded. That’s silly,” said Dr. Lofas. When co-parents don’t talk with each other, important things fall through the cracks. Like the fact that Johnny needs to take his antibiotics three times a day or there’s an important parent-teacher conference coming up. Or, the fact that Bonnie had a big fight with her mother and stormed out of the house and may show up at Dad’s.”The biological father should know what’s going on. He can disagree but he must know what’s going on. Otherwise, no matter which way you turn, the kids suffer,” said Dr. Lofas. When kids know that the biological parents and the next are keeping each other informed about matters concerning them, the children are more relaxed and respectful.

“But, be careful not to probe. When mom asks, ‘Did you have a good time at dad’s? What did you do?’ children can pick up if mom is trying to find out if they had too good a time or if something was said about her. Have healthy boundaries and respect each other’s privacy. Yet, know something about what happens during the weekend, because if there’s no communication that’s a rigid boundary that sends a message to the child that they need to compartmentalize life with daddy and life with mommy,” said Dr. Katz.

8. Know when to be assertive.

It’s hard to give up your control as a parent when your child spends every other weekend with the ex. Hopefully, there are shared values, but probably one of the reasons the marriage dissolved is because there were fundamental differences in how you view life. There’s a difference between what you prefer for your children and what’s inappropriate for your children. Maybe you prefer they go to church on Sunday morning, but mom or dad isn’t into that. Accept that the other parent has a right to keep the kids home on the Sunday morning of their weekend. On the other hand, if dad is letting the kids watch porn movies, mom’s stay-over boyfriend is too friendly with your teenage daughter or the stepmom is dressing your five year old in leather and lace, it’s time to talk.

“Divorce is painful and can exacerbate emotional problems or create them,” said Dr. Katz. “There are exes from hell and stepmoms from hell. If someone really is irrational and difficult to deal with, you’re not going to get them to change and you can’t force them to be rational and reasonable if they’re incapable. Instead, focus on taking care of yourself and doing the best possible thing for your children.” If the situation is such that you’re really concerned about your children’s safety, you may want to revisit the custody agreement.

9. Find ways to acknowledge each other.

“Stepmoms can gently remind dads to help the children buy cards and gifts for mom on special occasions and it’s nice if biological moms can reciprocate. Often it’s very hurtful to the step mom because she’s completely ignored and overlooked. She doesn’t need a grand gesture, but a little acknowledgement would go a long way,” said Dr. Katz.

“While developing a civil relationship between two women who’ve shared the same man takes tremendous courage, if you approach each other respectfully for the sake of your children, it will have a very big impact. Women should support each other. Why stop supporting each other just because you married him first? That’s emotionally barbaric,” said Dr. Lofas. While it’s normal to have difficulties learning how to co-parent, it’s common sense to talk about the kids and work things out and it’s worth it. The more kids see their biological mom and stepmom getting along and working together for them, the better it is for the kids. And when things are good for the kids, it helps to make your relationship with your spouse good, too.