My ex-husband and his new wife were a picture-perfect couple. So much so that they were photographed for the cover of Crain’s Chicago Business magazine. They were featured in an article about how stepparents are supposedly either relegated to support status or are simply invisible.
But his new wife wasn’t invisible. She posed with him and our three children on the front steps of my house — sorry, now their house— as if she had lived there for more than two months, as if she had been mothering my children for years. She was being interviewed because she had started a support group for other women like her.
“There was an air of relief for all of us,” she was quoted as saying about their first support meeting. “Somebody gets it!”
I’m glad that someone “got” her. I’m even glad that she “got” my husband. And she wasn’t even the woman my husband left me for; in fact, I had to wonder if she knew she was one in a line of many. My friend, also divorced, suggested that we “save a seat on the bench” for her when the revolving door began turning next.
I didn’t want to be cynical. I hoped, because my ex-husband married her, that she might have a successful and long-lasting role as my kids’ stepparent. Reading the article about her enthusiastic efforts to start a supportive community made me feel that she earnestly wanted to do a good job.
Perhaps to match her enthusiastic efforts, I suggested that the three of us meet with our kids’ therapist to discuss what her duties as stepmother would entail. Would she pick them up from school? Should I call her or their father to arrange afternoon activities? What did she want the kids to call her?
After each question, she looked to my ex-husband, as if he would answer. He didn’t. It was clear the two of them hadn’t discussed any of this, which resulted in a vague, unsatisfying conversation until the therapist stepped in and suggested that my ex and I continue to coordinate all child matters between us.
As time passed, it was apparent that to our two boys, she was the new wife. They resisted anything resembling mothering from her and, truthfully, weren’t always nice to her. But to my daughter, just 9 years old at the time, she was much more. They became close, and my daughter genuinely enjoyed her company.
- Be polite. This is another version of the golden rule and should be extended to bad drivers, telemarketers and, yes, even stepmothers.
- Be firm about who’s the parent. Politeness doesn’t mean rolling over and abdicating all authority. Two natural childbirths and a caesarean earned me the final say in big-picture kid matters such as summer camps, doctor visits and whether my daughter is allowed to dye her hair. It’s also true that when the kids are at their dad’s, I need to let him make day-to-day decisions about them — without me undermining him. This is a balance that’s hard enough to achieve with two parents; three is definitely a crowd, so stand your ground.
- Take nothing personally; we’re all doing the best we can. If my own kids often surprise and baffle me, how can I expect a newcomer to understand them? This is where having a spirit of sisterhood is appropriate, and giving their stepmother the benefit of the doubt goes a long way.
- Don’t take sides. There were times when my boys would complain about the new wife, and my daughter would tearfully defend her. Neutral phrases like, “I’m sure you’ll work it out,” and, “It sounds like you’re having very different experiences and that’s OK,” helped me sympathize with my kids without slipping into trash talk about their stepmother.
- Be fair. This is my simplest but most challenging rule. I had to admit that fairness did not always equal what I wanted. When my kids’ stepmother did something they thought was cool, like call them “dude” and buy them video games, I needed to praise her, even if it was through gritted teeth.
Flash-forward four years, and the then-new wife and my ex-husband have also parted ways. Yet she remains a loving presence in my daughter’s life. They shop, trade makeup, meet for brunch, see movies. Curiously, now that we share an ex-husband, when he isn’t around, there is no strain between us. Not long ago, we both showed up at one of my daughter’s basketball games and we sat beside each other, literally sharing seats on a bench, as predicted. We both were focused on my daughter, cheering her on. And that’s just the way it ought to be.