What impact do stepmoms have upon us? An interview with Kelly Gray

We’ve heard from teens about life with a stepmother. We’ve heard stepmoms themselves discussing
what it’s like for them, trying to manage an instant family and competing
loyalties, all while adjusting to a new marriage. I thought it’d be interesting to hear from
someone who has the luxury of hindsight in this situation. 

I met Kelly Gray while rock climbing down at the greenbelt
one lovely, scorching day and I could tell his climbing mates were enjoying his
infectious laughter and sense of playfulness. Before I knew it, I got sucked in too. Not many climbers like to sing while they’re climbing—but he does. And if you don’t mind making a fool out of
yourself, you’ll find that it actually helps both your climbing technique and your nerves….

I’m proud to now call Kelly a friend and I thank him for
letting me pick his brain!

How old were you when
your stepmom came into your life? How
did that go for you? And any siblings?

My step-mom came into my life when I was about eight, though
she was my Dad’s secretary at the time and didn’t become my stepmom until I was
about 17 or 18. I was good friends with
her son, too, so the transition was actually a little easier. You know when you spend the night with your
friends in grade school, their parents kind of "mother" you or whatever,
so I was kind of used to her being in a parental role by the time she became my
stepmom. She’d also come to pick me up
at school a couple of times when I was sick. 

I think the transition was a bit more difficult for my
little sister because here was another woman with different ideas about what it
means to be a woman. My stepmom’s kids
both basically turned their backs on her because she was dating my Dad (her
employer), which made the circumstances surrounding her divorce suspect for her
family as well. The situation was pretty insane for her, and at the end my
sister and I both felt really bad for my stepmom because her situation was just
so out of control.

Did your relationship
dramatically change with her over time?

Not really. Well of
course mine did—when I came out of the closet my very religious step mom got on
the phone and told me that God created Adam and Eve, not Adam and Bob…. She kind screwed the joke up, but you get the
point. Eventually, I felt like she was
really hostile towards me and probably drove my Dad to disown me. My father and I had talked about my sexuality
before that; of course anybody paying attention would have guessed, and he’d
always promised to be supportive. So
when I got dropped, I naturally blamed my stepmom. To this day, I still feel a little like she
played a part in all that.

Did you ever feel
like your relationship with her impacted your relationship with your father,
for better or worse?

This one is really funny, because my biological mother ended
up with two step kids herself, and I’m really close to my step-brothers. We’ve all talked about this one –actually my stepmom
acted sometimes as a mediator between my Father and I, and my step-brothers
both said the same thing about my biological mom! We all agreed that it was easier to talk with
our stepmom about some things we couldn’t even tell our biological parents, and
in some cases, helped "break" the news to our fathers. In a lot of ways it improved the relationship
a lot. I did always kind of resent that
third person being there, though. My Dad
and I were best friends, and when my stepmom came along it added this layer of
complexity, I think.

Did you ever feel
guilty (in terms of your mom) about having a good relationship with your stepmom?

Hell yeah!!!

when Dad marries the Secretary and I find myself being compassionate despite
the fact that she’s "the other woman", you can bet that the guilt is
going to flow freely. In a lot of ways,
I felt like was constantly betraying my mother, but I had to do it in order to
be on good terms with my father. My mom
was always pretty understanding, to a point, but there were times when she’d
talk about my stepmom in a really negative way that really drove the point

Did you ever play the
adults off each other for your benefit?

No, our parents never really denied us anything so we didn’t
really need to do that. 

What are some good
memories you have about the way the adults in your life related to each other?

Honestly? I think the
best memory is when my sister’s first child was born. The two sets of parents sat in the same
waiting room and had their experience as if the other wasn’t there. It was great, they kind of mutually agreed to
ignore the other set of parents.

What’s your
relationship like now?

Pretty good, actually. My stepmom is more like a friend than ever, and when I went home
recently, we even rode around in the same car together and talked about what
all was going on in each other’s lives, including the new guy I’d been dating and
her drama with her kids. 

What are you most
grateful for now with your relationship with your stepmom? How about then?

Now, I’m just grateful she’s willing to be an observant third
party. Then, I was grateful she didn’t try to send me to military school!

What did you wish you
had known before about how to better relate to her?

I wish I’d have avoided venting to her about my mother, and
to my mother about her. I treated my stepmom
like a best friend, and in retrospect she really was, but I should have
understood where to put boundaries. I
can’t imagine how hard it must have been for her to hear me talk like that – or
for my Mom to hear me talk about my stepmom, without commenting and getting involved. I wish I’d have talked to my friends about
that stuff instead.

Anything you’d like
to tell other stepmom’s to reassure them, or help them head off problems at the

Kids can be real shits, I know for sure that I was. My stepmom managed to stay ahead of the curve
as far as level of maturity, and for that I’m truly grateful. I think my stepmom understood that my sister
and I were both A) teenagers and B) insane after our parent’s divorce, and
honestly gave us unconditional love, even though we really made some attempts to
hurt her as badly as we were hurting inside. I know that had to be so hard, I can’t even imagine, loving these two
people who aren’t even your own blood, even when you’re getting the absolute
worst they have to offer.

Despite the ups and downs, I think that woman probably deserves a medal. And let’s not forget that this very religious, very Southern Baptist woman now has a gay step-son (and all that comes along with that) and has found a way to make that OK?  She’s a better person than me.

Thanks again, Kelly!

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

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  1. That was a great interview as it made me tear up a bit. I think we forget all too often as a stepparent is that the kids are hurting so much about their parents splitting up (in most cases). And they are so young and immature that they don’t know how to handle their emotions and we need to give them space and room. The best thing: they will grow up and become adults someday! 🙂 Thanks for the article!

  2. I agree – fabulous interview. You asked great questions and Kelly’s energy came shining through. Reading the interview I got the sense that having a step-mom can make a kids life complicated – emotionally and schedule-wise.
    Kelly was saying that he should have known better than to talk about his mom with his step-mom. I wasn’t sure how old he was when that happened. It seems to me that it isn’t the kids job to monitor that kind of discussion. It seems like the adult needs to take responsibility for setting boundaries and limits on what is appropriate and what is not. This is where your step-moms book comes in – getting everyone on the same page about what the rules are so that no one has to play the heavy.
    Again, great interview.

  3. Yes, it is kind of hard to keep in mind what some of this must be like for the kids…. We *know* it’s hard for them, but not *how* exactly….
    Thanks for the kudos! Maybe in the future, when there are more of these two-family, extended-family arrangements out there, the conventional wisdom about setting healthy boundaries will be much more common. One can dream, right?!

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