DivorceForce recently sat down to talk with Colleen LeMaire, step-parenting expert and author of the "I Have" book series.
DivorceForce: You are a stepmom. What motivated you to be a stepmom looking to help other “step-children” and step-parents?
Colleen LeMaire: When I was thrown into the world of step parenting, I struggled with what exactly I was supposed to do, and not do. There's no manual on how to be a stepmom. It's a very ambiguous role, with rules and boundaries that are constantly changing, and when you add a biological counterpart that doesn't support your role in the children's lives, it can be next to impossible to find your place in the family.
I searched for others in my position, and sought out advice. I learned it helps tremendously to just talk with someone who has "been there, done that." Society is behind on helping stepparents thrive. There are single mom groups, soccer mom communities, groups for organic food moms, essential oil moms, faith-based moms; there are groups for breastfeeding vs bottle feedings; there's a group for every type of mom out there that provides a community of like-minded women for support—all but one: stepmoms. We are this dirty little secret that no one likes to talk about. It's time that changes.
DivorceForce: From your perspective, is it more difficult being a stepparent or a stepchild? What have you learned from your experiences that you want to share with the DivorceForce audience?
Colleen LeMaire: I think this greatly depends on the adults in the situation. Being a stepchild can be profoundly simple; a child with two homes can have a childhood centered around love and happiness. But when adults in the child's life don’t know how to move forward from their divorce and accept new parents in their children's lives, I think it makes it 100% more difficult, and incredibly sad, for that child to deal with. Children don't have the mental capacity to cope with the adult emotions of divorce, so when they are put in the middle, it wreaks havoc on their little minds and hearts.
In my experience as a stepmom, it helps to have other stepmoms to talk to who just "get it." When you need to vent, laugh, cry, it helps to have someone who understands this role. It can be overwhelmingly difficult and enjoyable all at once!
They say it takes a village to raise a child, and when a new mom comes home from the hospital, she is bombarded with guidebooks, check-ups from doctors, check-ins from friends and family. When a woman becomes a new stepmom, she is told, "Well, you knew he had kids when you married him!" Yeah…so? Does that mean we aren't allowed to feel all of the emotions that go along with becoming a new parent? When that new baby cries all night, do you tell that new mother, "Well, you knew he'd cry! Can't be frustrated/overwhelmed/angry." No, as a society we swoop in and tell her she's doing a fantastic job; stepmoms need that, too. I think DivorceForce is a great resource for step-parents who are looking for a positive, helpful community.
DivorceForce: You have three books published: “I Have Two Homes,” “I Have a Stepmom,” and “I Have a Stepdad.” Obviously, these are written for children. What is the takeaway you want stepchildren to get from these books?
Colleen LeMaire: That they are loved by all parents, biological and step. And that they are allowed to love them all equally. When I say that phrase, "allowed," I usually get a lot of puzzled looks. What do I mean, allowed to love? Children pick up on their parents' tension, their anger, their disapproval. A mother welcoming a stepmother, and a father welcoming a stepfather into their children's lives, can be an emotionally challenging task. Many parents have the irrational fear of being replaced, and they feel the need to "beat their chest" and make their presence known as the "real" mom or dad.
When kids see a parent's dislike of their step-parent, they learn to stifle their love for that step-parent. Their parent's inability to accept this new family member translates to a choice in the child's mind: they can only love mom or stepmom, dad or stepdad—but not both. Children hate to disappoint their parents, so some stepkids do what they think will make their parent happy, and that's to hate their stepparent.
My books offer a very neutral, comforting story that explains it's okay to receive love and give love to all kinds of parents, and that loving one doesn't take away from the other. The letters I've received from stepfamilies have brought me to tears. After reading my books, some of these kids have broken down and confessed they are scared to love their stepmom/dad, and hearing how my books have opened the door to help these families nurture a healthy relationship is nothing short of amazing for me.
DivorceForce: You have never been divorced? Your husband has been divorced? What perspectives do you gain from this scenario as it relates to relationships, finding the right person, and dealing with an ex?
Colleen LeMaire: I have learned the incredible strength of the human spirit. As corny as that may sound, seeing my husband navigate through what he has been put through has taught me how resilient the mind, body, and heart truly is. Happiness is a choice; no one can take that from you. His constant optimism, and the way he loves harder than anyone I've ever known, amazes me. After divorce, you can either become bitter, or better. I thank my lucky stars every day he chose the latter.
Divorce doesn't have to define your life. Is it a monumental, life-changing event? Absolutely. But it's not the death of you. Take your time, grieve, heal, grow—but keep putting one foot in front of the other. Don't stop.
Dealing with an ex is a very individual decision, and varies family to family. You have to find what works for you. Don't listen to what anyone tells you; it's a personal choice that needs to be made together with your spouse. For us, it's best that I stay out of communication. I am blessed that have zero interaction with the ex, and my husband deals with all of that. It's what works for our marriage, and our family. My girlfriend, on the other hand, grabs wine with her stepson's mom and chaperones field trips together. That's what works for them. It's important you do what's best for you, and don't compare your ability—or inability—to co-parent to anyone else. Sometimes the decision is just not up to you.
Some people in this world are going to love you no matter what you do, and some people never will. I've talked with stepmoms who have bent over backwards trying to get on the mom's good side. But it never happens. Why? Because some people choose to see others as they want to see them; they label them with what's comfortable to them. They are comfortable disliking you, so they twist and turn everything you do into a negative—and I mean everything. When you break free from the need for approval, it is like a breath of fresh air. You are not broken. You don't need to fix yourself. You are great the way you are. The sooner you see your self-worth, and realize one individual's approval of you doesn't define you, you will be a much happier version of yourself. And if you need a reminder once in a while, let your spouse know. In my experience, a spouse is happy to make you feel extra loved that evening!
DivorceForce: I know you and your husband do not have children of your own, yet. If that is to be, how do you expect that to affect the “family unit”?
Colleen LeMaire: If we decide to have children, I see it being nothing but a positive change in our family. My stepdaughter would love a sibling, and maybe she'll get that one day! I am very aware of the unique family tree we have created, and I would devote extra effort to ensuring my children, both biological and step, all felt loved and included equally.
Colleen LeMaire was formerly the "Step-Parenting Expert" contributing writer for About.com's Stepparenting Blog. She has now launched her own site, The I Have Series. Colleen is also the author of "I Have Two Homes," "I Have a Stepmom," and "I Have a Stepdad."