Why I sometimes want to give up too

Most of our readers are stepmoms. This makes sense to me because it’s the stepmoms who are locked out of the house, waiting outside in the snow. The dads have a lot of power, because, hey, these are their kids and they get the final say. And the moms certainly have a lot of power because, hey, these children came out of their bodies and they’ll be damned if they’re going to give any of it away to a perfect stranger.

Many stepmoms talk about how they just want to give up, after trying so hard to make the relationships work in their own families and between households.

And then there are the poor, hapless kids stuck in the middle, trying to ignore the live grenades bobbing around in the air.

I get it.

It’s hard for everyone.

And yet, I still have this stubborn vision. Call me insane, but I still keep seeing a world in the future where we do things differently after divorce and remarriage.

I can still imagine a way in which we start to tear down these outdated walls, these reactionary expectations about how everyone has to look at the other side like they’re out to get you. Where people get along. Where that’s what’s actually expected of the adults. Where we’ve moved on from the Dark Ages of Family Relationships into a kind of quiet neutrality and, dare I say it, even affection between sides.

I want this so much for all of you I could cry sometimes. I wish you could know in your gut that real change, mind-blowing transformations might be just over the fence, just around the corner, just one magnanimous gesture away.

When two adults get divorced, it’s like they’re walking out of the same house and heading off in separate directions. You go north. I’ll go south.

But when one, or both, of those adults pair up with someone in a new house, they shouldn’t be habitually looking through rifle scopes aimed at the other family! That’s not a loving environment. That’s not a healthy environment. And we damn well wouldn’t want our kids or stepkids living in such a dangerous environment.

But that’s exactly what we’re creating when we just automatically set ourselves against the other household.

And I’m talking to everyone here.

You might say, “Well, we only starting getting pissed off after we had this lunatic come after us! It wasn’t our fault! We only started getting riled up out of self-defense! Really!” …and in some cases, I will believe you.

I’ve heard enough sad, horrifying, mind-boggling tales of borderline-personality-disordered, narcissistic, substance-abusing, Parental Alienation Poster Child adults to last me a lifetime. It’s heartbreaking.

But the VAST majority of us are not dealing with drug addicts or vindictive nutjobs who are hell-bent on ruining the other adults’ lives—and the childrens’ in the process.

The vast majority of us, ALL of us, are simply struggling to get by and have some down time and a little fun at the end of a long day, and figure out our relationships, and how to raise a moody child, whether it’s yours or somebody else’s.

The vast majority of us are just regular people with issues and fears and a million things on our to-do list that we will never get to, but for the most part, we’re doing okay.

And in THIS wide swath of a gray area, this middling land of families, there are WAY too many people who are just being lazy.

There, I said it.

We’re being lazy! We’re not willing to look at how we’re feeding the beast of conflict. How we’re fanning the flames and keeping them going. It’s too uncomfortable. We don’t know how. We don’t know “what to do.”

Basically, we are unwilling to own our part until the other side owns theirs first.

And THAT, dear people, is where we’re going wrong. THAT is how you slide from seeing the “bio-mom” or stepmother with a slight distaste based on ignorance (“I can’t really hate her, since I barely know her!”), to outright hatred.

A little story for you…..

When Carol the Stepmom first came along (and this was how it felt, like she just suddenly “appeared” by magic in my life, as an announcement from the ex), I figured she was just temporary. Part of this was because of the age difference (she was 14 years younger than my ex and I, which is not uncommon, stepmoms are often younger). Part of this was because I just couldn’t really imagine someone else, someone “new” coming into the picture and STAYING there.

Once I realized she was, or appeared to be, a lot of weird stuff kicked in. I felt extremely helpless, threatened, and uncomfortable. I kept thinking, But WHO IS SHE? Why don’t I get a “say” in whether she’s “allowed” to interact with my kids or not? (Whether rational or not.) In every other arena, I had always had a lot more control over what happened in my children’s lives, and now suddenly, I didn’t.

Something switched on inside me and I turned my discomfort from living in a strange and unfamiliar place of weakness, confusion and flying blind — and FOCUSED IT ON HER.

I picked her apart in my little brain. I made her wrong. I disliked her. I saw slights were there were none. I started to develop this little ball of cold fury towards her inside myself and it was sickening.

And I made my ex-husband wrong in even more ways than “normal,” back then.

We spent about a year and a half with BOTH of us (Carol and I) being scared of each other, feeling pissy and angry and judged by the other. Of barely being able to interact or speak to each other — or even look each other in the face, the way you’d look at a stranger on the street!

It was awful. I thank god that life is no longer like that. And my heart goes out to everyone that’s still living that way, because I can still vividly remember how much it sucked.

But here’s the thing, when that “switch” turned on in me, that was the beginning of war.

That’s all it took.

That’s what it looks like.

It’s very simple.

There were no fireworks. There was no yelling. No heated conversations on the phone. No big confrontations or name-calling. No bashing her or my ex in front of the kids.

But it was war nevertheless.

And that’s all it takes for the struggles to begin.

With innocent “miscommunications” on the phone between houses. With disagreements over paltry, or sometimes very large, sums of money. With rigidity and a lack of flexibility over working with the other side when they need it, because doesn’t life always throw you curveballs?

And then the stockpiling kicks in.

You start keeping score of all the times the other side has screwed you over, large or small. You start anticipating being screwed. You “let yourself slide” when it comes to “innocently” screwing them, because you’re tired of always being the better person. It’s exhausting being so noble and fair all the time, isn’t it?

I can talk until I’m blue in the face about all the benefits to be gained by moms and stepmoms getting along, but in many ways, I’m talking to myself.


Because the people who see themselves at the mercy of the other side have already taken themselves out of the discussion.

Fair enough. No one can make you do anything you don’t want to do.

But I ask you this…

Would you want your own children, or future children, to duplicate the kind of life you are living now, war and all?

Because they will.

© 2010 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

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  1. cpschaeffer says:

    Well put.

    I think that your comment on our laziness is too harsh though. Our limitations as humans, our desire to be RIGHT, our desire to protect our egos is universal and not pathological. Because if we attribute our shortcomings to a flaw, we will see other’s shortcomings are flawed as well. When in fact, they are usually simply trying to protect themselves.

    When we can be compassionate with ourselves, we can start to be compassionate to others.

  2. Hi Jennifer,

    I agree with so much of what you said. I’m living both sides of this though, and it really sucks at times.

    The first time I encountered my ex’s GF was at one of my son’s soccer games. I went right over to her and introduced myself to her and we had small talk for a few minutes. I didn’t approach her with an attitude, I just truly wanted to meet her; she was, after all, spending time with my kids. Everyone (me, my BF, my ex, and his GF) then went our separate ways to watch the soccer game; my girls just played and came back and forth between us. Everyone (especially the kids) seemed content. That really set the precedent for our relationship – this was over three years ago. We’ve developed quite a genuine friendship and I couldn’t be happier that she is involved in my children’s lives. We talk on the phone, she’s been over to my house for celebrations with her kids, and we’ve even gone out together a few times. She has since told me that she was surprised at how things have turned out between us, but happy. I guess that comes from the negative connotation that comes along with blended families.

    On the other hand, my BF’s ex has said and done so many hurtful things over the past five years, and like you mentioned above, I’ve been “keeping score”. However, I am trying to move in a more positive direction with her too, but I still have a guard up at times because of the past. It’s difficult at times, but I try to keep at it. It is the healthiest thing for her daughter and for all of us involved. I try to view things from her perspective… maybe she feels threatened or insecure, and although it does not justify her behavior (in my eyes) it makes it a little bit more understandable.

    Thanks for the great read. It was just what I needed to hear this morning.

  3. elizabeth says:

    I agree: it doesn’t have to be war. When my ex re-married, I was not particularly threatened; I tried to get to know S, my son’s stepmom, and when I did, I kinda liked her.

    My ex didn’t want us to be too friendly, though, so I backed off.

    There were times when my son told me that S resented spending even tiny amounts of money for, say, his birthday party; but I let that slide. As he got older, she got nicer, and now my son has a good relationship with me and with his dad’s family and his half siblings. So really, it’s not that hard to keep things pleasant, friendly, and nice.

    So I was very surprised when I got together with my partner, and his ex declared war. That was twelve years ago, and the war has, if anything, escalated. My partner has six children, and they’re adults now, but they still feel obliged to exclude me coldly whenever they can. And my partner is afraid to stand up to them because he’s afraid they’ll reject him.

    What caused these differences between the way these two divorce/remarriage/stepfamily situations turned out? (1) Religion is a factor in the bad situation: “good Catholics don’t get divorced,” is the belief system, and the ex sees herself as still married “before God” to my partner, as do the children; (2) In the bad situation, the family pecking order is very important. Certain people are alpha, and the other people suck up to them. This seems normal to them. In the good situation, everybody is more or less respected and there is no pecking order. (3) In the bad situation, money is very important. Some of the kids are very materialistic, and they only are nice to people when they think those people can help them out financially. In the good situation, character and integrity are more important than financial status.

    So, the wider cultural context, and the cultural and moral belief systems of the people involved, affect the outcome: materialistic people who love status and who have medieval religious beliefs are not going to be able to get along as well as people who make “getting along” and equality and tolerance a priority.

  4. Elizabeth, I can really relate to your post about the good and the bad situations and why they are that way. And I love your ending paragraph! Thank you so much for sharing!

  5. Jennifer,

    I think you wrote a brilliant article and I can’t wait to have you on The Stepmom’s Toolbox Radio Show!

    I’m a firm believer that when people know better, they do better. Most moms and stepmoms don’t know better…YET…

    Some are lazy…but most are just fearful. Deconstructing the ego is never easy and unless they have the tools and resources for that inner journey, their egos will continue to feel attacked, blamed, criticized, etc. And the game of one upsmanship will continue…the vicious cycle will continue.

    Your message is so important…please never give up!!

  6. Jennifer says:

    Cpschaeffer, you’re absolutely right that we must bring compassion to this situation. There are complex feelings on all sides that we don’t know how to untangle, much less resolve. I guess I was trying to point at all the times that someone has *knowingly* brushed over opportunities when they could have taken the higher road and not made things worse – which is, of course, something we all do, myself included!

    Jessica, very cool that you can see it from both perspectives and congrats on creating such a great relationship with your kids’ stepmom. Perhaps, over time things will improve with your boyfriend’s ex. At least you’re trying to see the situation through her eyes.

    Elizabeth, your situation is a perfect representation of the difficulties that many stepmoms describe! When you were a mom and had the chance to open up and be more flexible and accepting, you took it. But when YOU became a stepmom, you ended up on the receiving end of that “perpetual outsider” thing, with lots of juicy baggage to boot! Ugh and my sympathies. This sentence alone took my breath away and was very perceptive: “And my partner is afraid to stand up to them because he’s afraid they’ll reject him.” You’re spot on about also taking into account cultural and moral belief systems. This stuff is complicated, huh?!

    Peggy, thanks and I’m so looking forward to being on the show! Yes, reverse engineering an ego is tricky stuff indeed and I’m certainly always learning it myself. I know we’re all works in progress and my hope (I know it’s yours too) is that one day we really CAN get past a lot of the hairier aspects of dual-family relationships, just like we have with divorce, by itself.

    Thanks to everyone for writing! I so enjoy hearing from folks. 🙂

  7. Hi Jen, well said, as always. It’s comforting to know you never give up trying to spread your message. And thanks for reminding me to take the high road. I know I’ve said it before, but taking the high road with someone who has zero self-awareness (yes, I’m judging) is so freakin’ tough, yet thanks partly to your book I continue to do it. 🙂

  8. Thanks, Jenna! I know you’ve hung in there through some tough times. Yup, zero awareness is pretty low! 😛 If I can ever help with a specific situation, or you’d like me to cover a particular angle more in-depth, shoot me an email and let me know! (And the same thing goes for everyone else – sometimes it’s hard to come up with blog topics after so many years. 🙂


  9. Wow, Reading this site has really helped me to let go of the anger that I was harboring. I mean I wanted her to pay or acknowledge every hurt she has caused the children in the last four years. That’s not very rational… I have finally given up the past and trying to work on the future. She will never know how many fights I’ve had with my husband to keep giving her chances, not for her, but for the children. I have defended my position even when my husband reminds me how many times she has thrown me under the bus. It does not matter it is not about him or me it for the children. So in that I’ve got him to agree to take them back to the mall again. So she will probably never thank me or even know how much I fight for it. I have to accept that and move on and keep doing what needs to be done for the children.

    Thanks for the inspiration

  10. I love your writing. I love your take on the mom-stepmom relationship. I love your vision that one day learning to get along with the ‘other woman’ is the norm and not the exception to the rule. Being a stepmother has proven even more difficult than being a mother for me – and all-in-all I am one of the lucky ones! I have a supportive husband, a sweet, lovable stepson, and my husbands ex (at least on the surface) is on board with making this great big modern family work out! We have our moments, but we are all adapting. Your book has inspired me and gave me just what I need at a time when I was considering pulling back and giving up on ‘getting along’ with my husband’s ex. Thank you!!

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