Mirror, Mirror On The Wall: How to Debunk the Step-Monster Bad Rap

By Lisa Barr

I was at a graduation party earlier this year, and I saw in the distance a very attractive, 30-something woman whom I vaguely recognized. I wasn’t wearing my glasses (don’t get me started on how my eyes are changing for the worst on a daily basis). As I got closer, I realized I had seen this woman in the school carpool line on numerous occasions. I had heard about her from other Moms. She was what I call a “StepMommy” — a step-mother who loves her three step-children as though they were her very own.

“Hi,” I said, as I approached her when I saw she was alone. “I’m Lisa Barr. I know this is so out of left-field, and probably strange. But I heard you are an awesome step-mom. I value that more than you could even know. My step-daughter is so special to me. I’ve had her in my life since she was four. I know the whole dynamic isn’t easy, but I heard you treat your husband’s kids amazing. It’s truly a gift.”

And she burst out crying right there. Full-on tears. I began to apologize profusely for my Big Mouth With No Filter –I didn’t mean to upset her or touch a nerve about something so personal — but I have a habit of going to those places.

“Thank you,” she said, wiping her eyes. “I have worked so hard to make those relationships important.” She paused. “I had a terrible step-mother, and I vowed if this kind of situation ever happened to me, I would do it right. I know how each of those children feels — because I was once that kid … and it hurt. My goal as a step-mom was above all to take away the pain. Those kids had already been through enough.”


A woman — “Alexa” — approached me in Starbucks recently (If you are a regular GW blog reader, you know that is where I write or “live” as my husband would say).

“Can I talk to you?” she said with a slight urgency.

“Sure. What’s up?”

“I know you write a lot about family dynamics, dysfunction, etc. Well, I’ve been dating this great guy for a few years and I love his son, but his high-school daughter is an absolute nightmare. No matter what I do, what I say, she is a total bitch to me.” Her eyes welled up with tears. “I mean, why does she hate me? What did I ever do to her?”

“Nothing,” I said, “…except you exist. Your presence insures that her parents will never get back together. And in her mind, you are taking HER precious time away from her Dad. You are simply in the way, and she wants you to go away.”

“Exactly.” She shrugged. “So I’ve just decided to shut off, and give her back what she gives to me.”

“That,” I said with all honesty, “is your first mistake.”

Step-parenting is the most sensitive aspect of post-Divorce, and the most critical piece to your new marriage. Most second marriages fall apart because of issues related to the kids.

Mine, Yours, Ours, Your ex-spouse’s New Kids/Step Kids, Half Siblings — the whole kitchen sink — is, at times, a mess. And the mess all comes down to guilt. For a parent who only sees his/her “biological” child say half the time, when that child is with his biological Mom or Dad — that parent does not necessarily parent “naturally.” Many times the parent will go “overboard” to insure their kid is happy and entertained, and gets the maximum attention, to make up for the divorce; the unnatural separation. This is SO totally understandable.

Divorce sucks, and the worst part is being “scheduled” to see your own child.

This “scenario” can potentially create issues between step-kids and “biological” children living in the same house — putting parents in the middle. This also can cause tension and resentment between the parents. It is so important to be on top of this from the get-go. Let me make this clear — I’m not a therapist — just an opinionated writer — a child of divorce, a divorcee, a single mom, remarried, and now a step-mommy — lots of hats, lots of experience in the Divorce Department.

You cannot have a strong, happy relationship if you don’t develop a close, caring relationship with your step-child (children). That is the egg; your new spouse is the chicken. All the passion in the world can’t make up for a crappy relationship with your new spouse’s kid.

To Alexa, I say this: Approach the high-school daughter and say: “Hey, I’d like to talk to you. Just five minutes.” Sit her down — and throw it ALL out there. “I know for reasons that are personal to you, that you don’t want me here, and perhaps you don’t like me. But I truly care about you, and your happiness, and would like to get to know you on YOUR terms, and understand what you need. I just want you to know, I never want to take the place of your Mom, and I will never take away your special time from your Dad. But I’m here to stay, I love your Dad, and I’d like us to be friends. That would mean a lot to me.”

Even if the girl rolls her eyes and says Whatever — she will hear Alexa. Somewhere deep inside she was given the message: You are important, and just because you are here part-time, you are in our hearts FULL-Time. I’d really like to get to know you.

In time, the high-schooler will no longer see Alexa as the enemy … a friendship will slowly forge. Trust, which is the hardest part for any kid of divorce, at ANY age, will slowly (baby steps) begin to develop.

Here are my home-made Step-Parenting Rules of the “DIVORCE” Road:

1. If you are out with your kids and your step-kid (s) — and introducing them — never say, “These are MY kids and this is my step-son.” Kids hate being reminded of Life-in-Divorce. Always say, “Hi, So and So, these are my kids X, Y, and Z.”

2. If you have three daughters — say one is yours/two are his — and you go out shopping — always come home with three items (i.e. shirts) — even if HIS kids are not with you full-time. Leave the clothes on their beds for when they do come over. They may not say anything, or they may not like your taste — BUT they will love the surprise and get the message: You are thinking about them, even when they are not there.

3. All House Rules are the same for ALL the kids living there — no matter if they are there full-time or part-time. There should be no special treatment for the kid doing the Divorce Shlep back and forth. Here’s the biggie: A step-kid doesn’t want the POWER of special privileges — it’s too much pressure, and it is the Big Separator between them and their step-siblings. They want to fit in. If their room is a mess, they don’t get to go back to their mom’s/dad’s house until it’s cleaned. KIDS of divorce DO not want to be singled out — that simply serves to remind them that their lives are NOT normal.

4. Another biggie — If you have a step-chid who does not live with you full-time — never treat him/her/them as a GUEST. That’s the kiss of death. And no kid likes a Kiss-Ass for a step-parent — it’s annoying. Then, they will treat YOU the step-parent as though YOU are the guest.  My motto: be open, honest, loving AND firm, when needed.

5. If there are problems between YOUR kids and YOUR Spouse’s kids — you and your spouse have to remain a united front. Do NOT create mini alliances within your house. It will never divide and conquer … it will only Divide. If you have a real problem, and it is related to how your spouse is dealing with any of the kids — discuss it privately.  Like any good marriage — kids need to know that their parents have an unbreakable bond — kids, especially in a divorce situation, learn from an early age how to “manipulate” their parents — using the GUILT FACTOR to their advantage (it works) — don’t let it work.

5. Go to all of your step-children’s important events, particularly sports, dance, and school-related activities. Be prepared: They may not acknowledge you. They most likely will run to their biological parents first, but they do see YOU; they feel your presence and support. And they definitely know when you’re missing. This is big — your Being There develops the relationship more than you even know. It says — YOU are important to me. I am here for YOU, and that’s what matters.

Step-parenting is uber-complicated. Step-parenting a difficult child can be more than challenging — it could keep you up nights, and cause spousal fights. Always remember that it is the kid who is forced (not by choice) to do the “shuffle” — you, the adult, get to stay in one house.

If you take only one piece of advice from me (you know what, take two): No matter the type of child, NEVER GIVE UP. And, NEVER expect the kid to come to you first.

YOU make the moves, even if the moves are initially blocked or shunned. Don’t let the initial rejections deter you. If you are loving and nice to your step-children, and you do the Little Things to make them feel special, and do the BIG Things so they don’t feel “different” from the way your treat YOUR own kids, it will make all THE difference.

The end-game, I promise, is that you, too, will become a card-carrying member of the “Step-Mommy” or “Step-Daddy” Club  — NOT a member of the Step-Monster Society.

LB: For those of you who grew up with step-parents, or those who are now step-parents themselves … GW would love to hear your comments/advice — it will truly benefit all. xoxo




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