"I can't believe this is happening to me," said Barbara. "I'm a family counselor. I run parenting workshops and seminars. I'm fairly well-known in town, and, I might add, well respected. But I'm also a new stepmother trying to make my marriage work — and failing miserably. My husband's daughter seems to hate me, and my husband doesn't do anything to help fix the problem.
"I married Jimmy a year ago, two years after divorcing my husband of 12 years. We had known each other socially for a long time; in fact, he and my ex-husband, Mark, played golf together, although I barely knew Jim's ex-wife, Miranda, or his daughter, Jessica, who is 11.
"So Jimmy and I were good friends before our relationship turned romantic. That's why I had such high hopes for us. And he was so good with my 5-year-old son, Logan. Jimmy made me laugh and forget about how hard it was to raise a little boy on my own. I desperately wanted to have a stable, happy family for Logan's sake.
"My first marriage was miserable. I stayed as long as I did because I didn't want to be a failure in love like my own mother. She was 16 when she had me. My father, her high school boyfriend, left town when he found out she was pregnant. My grandparents took me in while my mother dropped out of school, remarried twice and held a variety of odd jobs. Even today I can't count on her for anything.
"Now, I'm losing hope for my second marriage. Almost as soon as we moved in together, things changed. Jessica comes to stay with us every other week. It's an understatement to say my relationship with her is strained. She's completely disrespectful, doesn't follow my household rules, and even flat-out ignores me when I'm talking to her. Worse, she has turned into her mother's little spy, reporting half-truths and outright lies about my family. Jimmy is no help. He has turned into an indulgent wimp, doing everything for his daughter and pretending not to notice her outright hostility to me.
"The things Jessica says are pathetic. She told her mother I wasn't feeding her. 'They had only two pieces of bread in the house on Sunday, and she gave them both to Logan,' she said. Well, Logan's daycare center asks parents to make the same thing for all the kids for lunch on certain days of the week to eliminate squabbling. Monday is sandwich day. Since we only had two slices of bread left, I gave them to Logan, and packed soup, breadsticks, fruit, and dessert for Jessica. It's not as if I let her go hungry!
"Last Christmas, she was sullen because Logan received two presents more than she did. Never mind that hers cost more. She ran home and complained to her mom about how unfair the holidays were at our house.
"To make matters worse, Jessica's mother broadcast this and a whole lot of other nonsense to the entire community. I'm not exaggerating — the woman actually wrote a vicious letter to my supervisor at work as well as a letter to the editor of the local newspaper calling me a hypocrite as a parenting expert because my own household was in turmoil. In her words, I was 'facilitating an immoral lifestyle.' My supervisor told her that the contents of the letter had no bearing on my job, and people who know me dismissed the newspaper letter as garbage, but still, I was mortified.
"Jim was horrified his ex-wife could be so vicious to me. But there's a lot more that he refuses to recognize and deal with, such as Jessica's lack of basic manners and discipline. If I walk into the den and say hello, she sits silently staring at the TV. If I ask her to do something — clean up her room, let the dog out — she simply doesn't do it. If I tell her to stop bouncing the soccer ball in the house, she ignores me. When I finally lose it and start yelling, Jim gets defensive, claiming I'm picking on her.
"I've tried to be super-stepmother. But I've had enough of this child coming between me and my husband — it's destroying my marriage."
"Doesn't Barbara understand how I feel?" said Jim. "Everyone talks about how tough it is to be a stepmother. Well, how about a little sympathy for Dad?
"I know I'm not good when it comes to disciplining Jessica. But I'm afraid that if I start issuing punishment after punishment, she's not going to want to spend as much time with me. And there's another part to this: Barbara and I have very different takes on discipline. She gets upset when Jessica bounces the soccer ball in the house. Well, that kind of thing just doesn't bother me.
"Look, I know Jessica provokes my wife, like when she doesn't put the dishes away after being asked, but other times I think Barbara exaggerates. When I'm home alone with Jessica and I ask her to do something, she's Johnny-on-the-spot.
"Jessica has always been Daddy's girl. And as difficult as Miranda is, I feel horribly guilty that I couldn't make my first marriage work for Jessica's sake. I get sick at the thought that she will grow up feeling I don't care about her. I know what that's like.
"I was an only child and, like Barbara, I was raised by my grandparents. My father disappeared before I was born and my mother moved out of state when I was 10. My grandfather was an alcoholic and, after my grandmother died, he kicked me out of the house. I was 15. I was lucky, though: My high-school baseball coach heard about my situation and he and his wife took me in. I think of them as my real family.
"My surrogate father inspired me to be a teacher and after graduating from college, I moved to the community where we live now. My ex-wife and I met shortly afterward. The first few years were great. We were young, having fun. But once we had Jessica, Miranda changed. She started giving me a hard time about earning more money, the arguments multiplied, and pretty soon we had nothing in common except our daughter.
"Even after my separation, I continued to socialize with Barbara and her husband, Mark. I remember the day I realized I loved Barbara: It was my birthday, six months after she'd left Mark, and she'd taken me to lunch. When I dropped her off, I gave her a thank-you hug. We both felt that bolt of electricity. We knew we were going to be together.
"I'm certainly not condoning what Miranda has done to Barbara, but I'm not surprised by it, either. Writing that letter was inexcusable and when I spoke to Jessica about it, she started to cry and told me she was sorry for telling her mother such tales. I didn't bother confronting Miranda about the letter because I knew it would just make matters worse. Barbara seems to think that I can make my ex-wife stop doing the terrible things she does. But how exactly? Barbara tells me in no uncertain terms how ineffectual and weak I am. I think we just have to live our lives the way we want to and let some things slide. If we don't make a fuss, it will all calm down soon enough."
The Counselor's Turn
"Barbara and Jimmy felt as if they were constantly under attack from all sides," said the counselor. "In any new stepfamily, parents as well as children often have trouble figuring out what their roles are and how they are supposed to behave. Barbara was used to being in charge. And despite a childhood of neglect, she forged a career helping others. But because her early years had been so chaotic, she had a deep need to be in control and was particularly chagrined, given her professional training, that she was unable to solve her own family problems.
"I told Barbara she had to stop upbraiding her husband and her stepdaughter and be more aware of the abrasive tone that slipped out when she was upset.
"Early in counseling, Jim expressed frustration that he wasn't receiving more sympathy and support as a father trying to make his blended family work. Like Barbara, he had come to a second marriage with a host of expectations and a suitcase full of guilt. Jim couldn't escape the gnawing feeling that he was abandoning his daughter. Battered by years of dealing with his combative first wife, guilt-ridden about the breakup of his family, and afraid of losing Jessica's love, he didn't realize how frequently he undercut Barbara's authority and dismissed her concerns. Jim wanted to be a good father, but he wasn't sure how.
"Abandoned by his mother at a young age, Jim grew up not expecting much of himself or others. In our sessions, he had a hard time sorting through his feelings and recognizing that he had a right to assert them in the first place. Yet, like his wife, he had an inner resiliency that was nourished by the family that took him in as a teen. He was also highly motivated: He loved Barbara and didn't want to fail at marriage again.
"I told Jim these issues would not simply blow over; he and Barbara had to work at fixing them. To help them both become more in tune with each other's needs and feelings, I taught them a coping skill I call 'My Reality' to use whenever one or the other sensed that a disagreement was escalating into an argument. For example, Barbara might say, 'My reality is that...Jessica was bouncing a soccer ball in the dining room.' Instead of saying, 'I don't know what you're talking about,' Jimmy might then respond, 'My reality is that I was watching the football game and didn't notice. Because it concerns you, I'll talk to her about it.' Sometimes simply honoring each other's reality is enough to defuse a fight. Other times, a third reality needs to be created — for example, a house rule, consistently enforced, that forbids bouncing balls inside.
"At an age when even children in intact families struggle with independence, Jessica was caught in the middle of Jim's battle with Miranda, and her divided loyalties left her confused and angry. By ignoring Barbara's requests and commands, Jessica was testing her father to see whose side he was on. I told Jim he had to show Barbara that he unequivocally appreciated and supported her and the parenting decisions she made. Her ability to be successful as a stepmother was directly related to his ability to communicate to Jessica that he stood behind his wife.
"As soon as Jim and Barbara understood everyone's emotional needs, we began compiling the family rules and the allocation of chores, such as who does the dishes, who does the laundry, and who takes whom to the dentist. It took Barbara and Jim seven sessions to come up with a set of rules and responsibilities they agreed upon. Once the list was typed and posted in the kitchen, Barbara found it helped enormously. No longer were they 'Barbara's rules'; they were 'house rules.'
"Jim also had several discussions with his daughter about trust and what it means to respect privacy. He told her that it was important that she respect their family's privacy and make sure that whatever happens in the house stays in the house. During weekly family meetings, Barbara and Jim now give Jessica time to air her feelings so she'll begin to feel a greater loyalty to them as well.
"Dealing with Jim's ex-wife remains a problem. I suggested the couple see her or talk to her as little as possible — and never retaliate when she pulls one of her stunts; it'll only add fuel to her fire. And, because Jessica has learned to be more discreet, Miranda should have less ammunition for her attacks. I hope they will disappear completely.
"The last time I saw Barbara she sounded relaxed and happy. 'Jessica's chronic sullenness has been replaced by a smile. And Jim and I have stopped bickering; there's a greater honesty between us.'"
This case is from Jeannette Lofas, CSW, president of the Stepfamily Foundation of America. This story told here is true, although names and other details have been changed to conceal identities.
Originally published in Ladies' Home Journal magazine, July 2003.