By Susan Philips
It was an unusual request. Ruth, my husband’s former partner and mother of his three kids, asked if I would speak with a group of teen mothers about my experiences as both a stepmom to her kids, and as the mother of a son who had a stepmom. She explained that most of the teen moms she worked with in her teen parenting classes were no longer with the fathers of their children and were struggling to figure out how to relate to their new girlfriends. Ruth hoped that by my coming that day, we could demonstrate a different way of relating. She wanted to show the teen moms that women didn’t have to be enemies, but rather they could work together productively for the good of their kids, a value she held dear. Ruth is one of the rare people who “walks the walk” when it comes to her feminist principles.
As a teacher I thought to myself, “I’ve got this,” but as it turned out, her request was a rather tall order. After introducing me as “my children’s stepmother,” one of the teen moms, believing that she was defending Ruth’s honor, turned to her, and asked the question that was on everyone’s mind: “Do you want me to beat her up?” To which I replied, “I totally get it. Trust me, I have those same feelings for my son’s stepmom.” And for whatever reason, this admission kick started a painful and honest conversation about the anger and bitterness that comes with the end of relationships, the challenges of getting along with the “ex,” and the even greater challenges of getting along with their new partner.
We didn’t come to many conclusions that day, but we did agree on one thing. When there is conflict between the mom and stepmom, it’s bad for the kids. When the mom and stepmom get along, it’s good for the kids. Because of that the two women have a duty, indeed a responsibility, to at least try—no matter how hard that might be.
And that is what Ruth and I did. We tried. And we kept trying. Nothing more, nothing less. And the proof, as they say, is in the pudding. It is in the countless family birthday and Hanukkah parties and super bowl games at my home when Ruth is in the kitchen doing dishes; it is at my husband’s bedside after major surgery when she took my place so I could take a walk; it is in emotional phone calls after her oldest daughter’s hair began to fall out from chemotherapy, and then the joy and celebration months later at the celebration of the end of her treatment. Most recently, it is in the pride we both feel for our seven remarkable grand kids, each of whom refers to me, as they do her, as grandma. When I asked the oldest, now in her second year of college, her how she feels about our large, extended family, she said: “I have learned that we are very different from other families. And in a good way.”
Many people have wondered how we were able to “pull this off,” surprised that two women could defy the stereotypes of the angry ex-wife or partner and the wicked stepmom. There is nothing heroic in what we did. And like every relationship, it has not always been smooth sailing. What relationship is? But I think our experiences—the lessons we have learned, the insights gained, can be useful to others. Here are four of the most important:
By far and away the most important, put the needs of the children first. This is a no brainer but often trumped by anger, hurt and mistrust. Yet it must guide everything you do. Ask the questions: how will my actions effect my children and stepchildren? What can I do to make the children feel safe, secured, and loved? I was fortunate in that Ruth considered herself to be, in her words, a “non-monogamous parent.” She believed in her heart of hearts that children flourish when they are raised in a community of loving people who put their needs front and center. In her view, I was one of those loving people.
Get to know the ex. Reach out. Find common ground. Perhaps because of my horrible experiences with my son’s stepmom, I was determined to get to know Ruth on her own terms, separate from our relationship with her former partner and my husband. I learned that we shared many values. We are both educators. We both love our kids. And we both considered ourselves to be feminists, although I love fashion, nail polish and even a bit of lipstick. When her oldest daughter, my stepdaughter got married, Ruth allowed me to take her to get a manicure. I took photos to enshrine that moment in history.
Parent your stepchildren, but remember that you are not their mom. This is huge and I would argue, one of the hardest lessons for many stepparents. On the one hand, as a stepparent, you do the things a parent does—help with homework, shop for clothes, clean the house, prepare meals—but when it comes to “big decisions,” you are expected to take a back seat. That can be hard. It’s natural to feel, “What am I, chopped liver?” I get it, but the truth is that, while you play a parenting role, you are not the parent. In things that matter, you need to defer to the parent. When my two stepdaughters asked me to show them how to use makeup, I called Ruth. When the youngest asked me if she could have a perm and shave under her arms, I called Ruth. Ruth was clear. “I want my daughters to have different role models. Go for it.”
Never ever speak badly about the mom in front of the kids. This is a “no brainer,” advice given in every book about stepparenting, yet it is one of the main causes of conflict between the adults and hurt among the children. And often when a marriage or partnership ends badly, this is the inevitable result. But it doesn’t need to be that way. In my case, my husband was determined to never utter a single bad word about his ex. She was “off limits.” Not that I would enter a “bashing the ex-contest,” and because of my experience with my son’s stepmother, watching him struggle between his loyalty to me and need to be accepted at his father’s home, I was determined to never to put any other child through this torment.
I am not naïve enough to believe that our experience and the lessons we learned will resonate with all moms and stepmoms 100% of the time. But I am hopeful that when things are falling apart at the seams, they might pause for a moment and explore other ways of relating. If we could persuade the teen moms to give that a try, anything is possible.
Susan Philips has one son, two step daughters, and one stepson. She is an educator, activist and writer. Trained as a journalist, she loves to help people tell their stories.
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