Cold Hard Facts

Kathy Welcome to our first guest post! It's by Katherine Shirek Doughtie, one of the co-authors of a "sister" site, the fabulous, but sadly currently dormant The DHX: The Doughtie Houses Exchange — which is also about creating cooperative mom/stepmom relationships. (Katherine is the mom and Jill Doughtie is the stepmom.) The post is actually a reprint of a Nov. 2007 entry, but I thought it was so good,and so important, that I asked Kathy if she wouldn't mind us posting it again. She graciously agreed, so without further ado… Here's Kathy:

Cold Hard Facts

-by Katherine Shirek Doughtie


I just looked up some statistics on second marriages and, boy, they
are not good. When Jill and I first started talking about this blog, we
tried to figure out roughly how many marriages were second marriages
and how many ended in divorce. We both guessimated — based on what? a
hope that humans can actually learn from their mistakes? — that second
marriages were statistically less likely to end in divorce.


Dead wrong.

Divorce rates for second marriages? About 60 – 80% .

At the high end, that’s almost double the divorce rate for first marriages (47%).

So why do second marriages end? Mainly because of two things: Complexity and money. Money is relatively easy to deal with (here’s an excellent guideline)
— as long as you are willing to be brutally honest with yourself and
your partner. OK, I’m being a little casual about the money stuff…
money is usually extremely tied to emotional issues and I’m planning on
getting into it in depth in a later post. But long ago I learned that
there were two kinds of problems in the world: Emotional issues and
technical issues. (Losing weight is a prime example of a technical
problem that very often becomes an emotional issue.) And money — as
painful and crazy as it is — is really a technical issue on much the
same scale as losing weight.

The complexity of living in a blended family, however, is an
emotional issue. There’s no way around it. You can’t sit down with a
ledger or Quicken and figure out how to deal with the biological mom,
or how to make the sibs and step-sibs get along or how to reconcile the
painful comments in the car that the other house is the “fun house.”
That’s emotional. That’s core stuff.

And with a 60 – 80% divorce rate among second marriages, it’s not an issue you can easily dismiss.

Which means, to me, that this whole conversation about how moms and
step-moms might be able to work together better is not just so that we
can reduce a little stress in our lives. It really is so that the
second marriage has a much better chance at surviving.

I’m going to put on my “bio mom” hat solely now. And this may seem
stern and harsh, but really it’s in response to that statistic, and as
an admonition to some future Kathy should I ever become a step-mom

Here it is and it’s a cold hard fact:

I’m the biological mother. I am not going away, ever.

You’re the step-mother. And the statistics aren’t in your favor.

And the reason the statistics aren’t in your favor is because, in part, of me.

It’s very icky. It’s ugly to say and, projecting myself into the
other household, abhorent to hear. But, actually, it’s true. And it
becomes extremely dangerous when there is still a boatload of baggage
left over from the first marriage, and the whole situation is riddled
with bitterness, vengefulness and anger. We, the biological parent, do
have the upper hand — legally, emotionally, biologically. And if we
want to wield it for evil and try to pry apart that fragile second
union, we can. And we do. And that’s just so ugly for everyone, it
makes me sick.

So am I saying that the step-moms of the world have to genuflect to
us because we have the biological trump card? Do we now get to have
final say in every decision?

Absolutely not. Because there’s another corrollary to the above cold
hard fact, that I wish more bio-moms would actually pay attention to,
and this one goes thusly:

This step-mom also takes care of my children.

The peace that I can promote between the households directly and unequivocally affects the emotional well-being of my children.

To quote my favorite philosophical work, Spiderman: with great power
comes great responsibility
. Sure, you’re the legitimate owner of half
of the DNA. But that comes with some responsibilities, too — because
your first priority is really no longer yourself and your precious
anger. Remember those first six weeks of the babies’ lives, when your
entire existence was turned upside down just to ensure the survival of
that little infant? That hasn’t changed. We still have to turn
ourselves inside out to make sure those kids make it through the night.
And the step mom is there running the other household, and she must be
respected and honored for that. If you want to play that bio-card and
play power games, you can. But the losers will be the children.

Let me repeat that on its own line:

The losers will be the children.

It’s more than just about making life a little nicer that we need to
get this figured out. For the step-moms in the world, it’s about
keeping that marriage intact. For us moms in the world, it’s about
keeping our children intact.

Let’s make this a revolution. The cold hard facts are saying that
blended families are becoming more and more prevalent. Let’s learn from
our past mistakes, get over our anger, embrace the future
possibilities, and get it together. For ourselves, for the sisterhood,
and for our children.

To read more of Katherine's writing, check out her book Aphrodite in Jeans: Adventure Tales About Men, Midlife And Motherhood or her personal blog.

© 2009 Katherine Shirek Doughtie     All Rights Reserved

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  1. This is such a great post! I’m telling the ladies over at SMOMS. Over there, I’m preaching to the choir, BUT if they could take the focus off a hostile bio-mom and focus on keeping their marriage intact, perhaps the bio-mom would stop thrusting her anger into the other household.
    Thanks for this!

  2. Janelle Caminker says:

    Brilliant! I appreciate when others have no reservations about speaking the truth – whether pointing out the faults of others or their own – while recognizing their ability to affect any given situation for the BETTER!

  3. Kathy, thank you for this important, honest and direct piece! And Jennifer, thank you for re-posting it (I had never read it before). As a stepmom, I am very aware that if I didn’t have my husband in my life, then I wouldn’t have my stepkids’ mother in my life. And the days when I am tempted to walk out on the whole bunch, because it would be easier to live a life free of her negative treatment of me and us, are more often than I’d like to admit. I am aware that would mean, sadly, the kids would then embark on Painful Divorce Experience Number Two at a still young age. It is, oddly enough, sometimes my love for my stepkids more than my love for my husband that keeps me in my marriage.

  4. Wonderful post! I’m both a bio and step mom and understand both sides. I don’t want a step mom trying to tell me how to be a mother to my own child. I don’t want a step mom who acts like she is trying to replace me. I don’t want a step mom who tries to compete with me for the Better Wife That You Were ribbon. Some step moms are foolish enough to think they can fix everything. When I was in the first year of being a step mom my good intentions to make our little world a better place was my motivation. It’s common. I know better now.

    My stepkids bio mom is not and has never been a step mom. As a full time step mom (hubby has custody and we live 4500 miles away) I have a difficult time with bio mom who disrespectfully bullies me while behaving like she doesn’t have to do anything for the children since half the DNA is hers. She claims the title without taking the responsibility. I don’t think that sense of entitlement serves the children, and I personally become more and more resentful for doing all her work without as much as a pat on the back. She has litterally told me this is what I signed up for. I hope one day she will understand I’m not trying to de-throne her (there shouldn’t be a throne) and work with me instead of trying to show me she’s the mother and I’m nothing, even while I do everything. I wish she could relate to my situation first-hand.

    Although I get the statitstics for second marriages with children and that bio mom is not going anywhere, I also get that the children don’t need to go through any more craziness. So, in a way, the more I’m bullied and disrespected the more I’m determined I’m not going anywhere either.

    Not sure the answer to my situation but when I close my eyes and breathe I find my focus is on what the children need and nothing anyone else says or does matters. It’s a roller coaster but worth it.

  5. It is good to look at the cold, hard facts; however, this article, however, is less than accurate or complete.

    “We, the biological parent, do have the upper hand — legally, emotionally, biologically. And if we
    want to wield it for evil and try to pry apart that fragile second
    union, we can.”

    In my situation, as the stepmom, there are TWO biological parents who SHARE legal and physical custody 50/50. Neither one of them has any upper hand in terms of legal or biological status. I am the life partner of one of those parents. His emotional loyalty is to me AND his child – not the BM. My loyalty is to him and my new family, not BM. Unless she can prove that we are unfit, she has no power over our family unit b/c we do not give her any power. She has no power over me or my husband. The more difficult she is, the more of a wedge she creates between HERSELF and her child. I do not have a biological bond with the child. Te marriage and overall family unit are my priorities, not my bond with the child. I certainly do not seek any validation from a child, nor do I have any motivation to affect his bond with his mother – that is her bond to have, and her’s to break if she becomes toxic to the point of giving him reasons to lose respect for her when he is older and looking back on his childhood. My husband and I agree on where the boundaries are with the child’s mother and he already believes he wasted several years carrying the burden of her temper tantrums etc. When she behaves like that now, he is just reminded how much happier he is. He is an excellent father and he strives for a conflict-free co-parenting arrangement, but puts our marriage and his own parenting values first. Yes, her behavior can cause stress just like living with a teenager can cause stress. But we consciously maintain boundaries. Unfortunately, we cannot control whether she ends up causing damage to the child – we do try but trying does not involve letting her be a runaway train in our lives. It is absolutely true that a dysfunctional bio-mom will end up poisoning her own child with her negativity b/c she will be adding ugliness and tension to his life. This happens when bio-moms are not focused on keeping their children ‘intact’ – it happens when they are unable to deal with these cold, hard facts:

    She either picked someone who she could not commit to (in my case, bio-mom had an affair and was obnoxious for many years before that) or she picked someone who could not commit to her. Not the child’s fault and not the stepmom’s fault. Bio-parents created a situation in which other people would be partners in raising their children. Their control over the day-to-day lives of their children when it is not their parenting time is greatly diminished. They no longer have round the clock access to their former spouses, or power over their former spouses. There is a new family unit that is created that does not involve them and a new authority in their child’s life. This new authority may not be making religion and education decisions, but is certainly making many smaller decisions on an ongoing basis – and influencing the bigger ones through the marriage. Anyone who chooses to have a child with someone they cannot commit to and chooses divorce also chooses a parenting involving new people. I am not a babysitter who is accountable to bio-mom. She wasn’t consulted for her approval when my husband decided to share his life, and his child, with me.

    It is true, if life with stepkid turns into a crazy train (typically only possible if dad and stepmom allow it – no automatic upper hand), then stepmom can and will likely walk away. Dad will lose even more respect for bio-mom, stepkid will have to suffer through another broken family and may end up resenting biomom, and bio-mom will end up dealing with another new woman when dad moves on. Possibly one even more evil than the original one! In my case, dad and I did a lot of work pre-marriage: we established the boundaries we wanted to have with bio-mom (she didn’t have a say in what those boundaries are), how we would communicate as a couple to stay strong in the midst of such complexities, how we would integrate into a new family unit including him, me, and my stepson. We support the child in feeling comfortable at both homes and we treat biomom with the basic common courtesy expected in the workplace or any necessary ‘work’ collaboration.

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