New Stepdads and their Role in the Blended Family

Friday, August 10, 2012

New Stepdads and their Role in the Blended Family

A Candid Look at Expectations, Growth Pains and Success

By Craig Gaspard 

I’ll have to admit that when I became a stepfather, the day I married my wife Terry – in May of 1997 – I really had no idea what I was getting into. I was a stepfather (briefly) for three years in my first marriage. But, I was never a father before, and at the ripe “young” age of 42, I was thinking that I was somehow going to “get by” and become accepted, primarily because I had married their mother. I was in for an awakening, not “rude” mind you but eye-opening nonetheless.

In my mind, “get[ting] by” was being nice, not making waves or expecting too much of Sean, who had just turned 13, and Tracy who was soon going to be 11. But as the weeks turned into months, the challenges of the role became more apparent. Comments like “you’re not my father” served as challenges to any authority I tried to impose, even as innocently as “could you please put this [or that] away.”

For about three years, our newly formed family went through some growing pains that included having our own child Catherine, who, in the beginning, was seen as a threat to take away their mother’s attention.  Holidays, vacations and birthdays seemed to be about one-upmanship. But, even before those three years were up, some helpful changes occurred that helped.

Different from a biological parent, a major thrust of being a stepparent I’ve learned is to be a friend on some level. Not like a school friend, but an adult friend more akin to being a guidance counselor. Inviting my stepson not only to go on summer vacations, but to also share my love of fishing with him helped in the friendship process. It was more challenging to be a friend to my stepdaughter, a naturally shy person. But to attend some of her basketball games and supporting her need for one-on-one time with Terry helped with this. This takes time, years really.

Presenting a united front with Terry supporting my suggestions or requests (if reasonable) was helpful. This did require respect, caring and perhaps love. These latter two are “earned” from the point of view of the stepchild.  Caring and respect are especially important, cannot be rushed, and are granted over time. I think it must take time because as in most relations between unrelated people, trust has to be built. Even though Terry ‘s and my relationship and eventual marriage happened nearly three years after her divorce was finalized, that still is very soon in the eyes of children. Too soon to not be seen as a “competitor” with their father on some level.

Let me end by identifying some key points:

  • Stepparents had best proceed slowly.
  • Just because things went well when you were dating the biological parent, does not ensure things will go smoothly once you’re a committed couple.  A marriage effectively ends any hope of their mother and father reunifying and can reignite those feelings of loss for the children.
  • Take your time in getting to know a stepchild. Rushing it may satisfy your own unmet needs to be liked. Sharing common interests, from sports and arts, can do nothing but help.
  • As much as possible, stay out of interactions between biological parents working out holiday or vacation schedules. And especially, try to be courteous and respectful of the “other parent”, keeping in mind that (likely) neither parent would have chosen having their children live with them part-time.
  • Cooperate with the biological parent living with you, and talk, talk, talk.


This article is a reprint of an article posted on Terry Gaspard’s blog on The author, Craig Gaspard, LICSW, MPA, is a clinical social worker with over 20 years of experience, primarily in the substance abuse treatment and prevention fields. He has also worked in the affordable housing and homeless services and administered a family mediation program. He is beginning anew as a family and divorce mediator in Rhode Island. 

Mrs. Delaware Brings National Exposure to Blended Families

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mrs. Delaware Brings National Exposure to Blended Families

Dr. Francine Tolliver Edwards won the 2012 Mrs. Delaware United States Pageant held on May 12, and will represent Delaware at the 26th annual Mrs. United States Pageant in Las Vegas, July 12th. She also wishes to represent blended families.

Dr. Edwards lives in Delaware with her husband of seven years, Micah and four children, Jordan (son-13), Madison (son-11), Tyler (daughter-6) and Joshua (son-2).  Mrs. Delaware describes her home life as a “six-ring circus:” all six of them do their own thing. In a candid interview, Francine Edwards shared some of her personal experiences, issues, and advice about dealing with the changes in family dynamics which are part and parcel with the blending of families.

Here is a woman who seems able to juggle life with many balls in the air. She began her career in the television industry in 1989 and anchored at BET for 11 years, managed public affairs for the D.C. Department of Health and later, NASA. She is now an Associate Professor at Delaware State University. Most recently, Dr. Edwards published her first romance novel, The Design of Love (written while she was completing her doctorate). In her spare time she enjoys skiing, competing in pageants, reading, writing, and most importantly, spending time with family.

Statistics show that one in three children is a product of a blended family. When kids go back and forth between two households, there’s an adjustment period. Dr. Edwards believes that giving teachers the insight to understand what those kids are going through, and giving them some tools to help those kids cope, is important. She hopes to start by working with her own children’s school administration. Her goal is for teachers and parents to be offered training courses so children may have support at home, in school and in the community.

In her own home, there is much running, chasing, joking, trying to get meals, and readying for school. Somehow it all comes together and everyone gets to where they need to be. Amazingly, out of the 3 kids that have to go to school during the regular school year, only one was late (once)—and that was on the last day of school. They were so busy playing around that they missed the bus. In the evenings it’s a bit calmer with school work and extracurricular activities. Still, they make it a point to sit down and eat dinner together every day. It takes some creative time management for Mom to get it all done.

“I have to really prioritize, which actually means taking care of me first. That includes my physical and mental health, ‘scheduling’ in fun for me, and knowing when to take a break from it all. I get most of my academic work done after everyone in my house goes to bed (I can get my best academic/scholarly work done between 12:00 a.m. – 3:00 a.m.). That’s probably my biggest secret! No one knows I’m up and I can get back in the bed around 3:30 and sleep until 7 or so and be fresh for the next day.”

Clearly, on top of it all, this Associate Professor is also quite the clever Mom.

Mr. Edwards has joint custody and residency of the oldest son, Jordan, who spends alternate weeks with each family. The 2nd oldest son, Madison, is with the Edwards permanently, which has recently raised questions with Tyler, their six-year-old daughter. She has been asking why Madison doesn’t go to see his other mom too. It took some thinking to formulate an answer that a 6-year old could understand. Dr. Edwards explained to Tyler, “Sometimes children have to be with the parent that can give them the best home and life and Daddy was the one to do that.” She stressed to her daughter that Madison’s mother loves him, but just can’t give him a home, school support, or help him with homework and basketball like Dad can.

Issues will arise between sets of parents in regard to basic rules such as curfews, chores, and bedtimes. For the stepparent, it is important to ‘stand by your man’ in the presence of others, and to voice your concerns in private. Be sure to involve the child in the decision but not the conflict. Differences will exist and face-to-face communication between the parents should be encouraged. Just don’t forget that the goal is for the betterment of the child.

“One strategy that didn’t work was having direct contact with the biological mothers! Whew, what a lesson learned here. I thought that once married I had a huge say in everything and that I had a right to voice my opinion, but it only made the tension worse. I was enlightened by my sister and aunt after sharing a story with them about a horrific argument I had with one of the mothers. They both set me straight immediately! They let me know that I shouldn’t be taking on the burden of defending my husband to them, arguing with them about menial things or answering the phone just so I can ‘talk down’ to them in my not-so-cordial greeting. My aunt, being a divorced mother, told me that she made it a point after her husband remarried, not to have any contact with his wife because she knew it would do nothing but cause stress. She said that her relationship with her children’s father and the children has always been better because of that.”

The majority of extended family has been good about trying to keep bruised feelings and egos out of the children’s lives. When there are exceptions, Dr. Edwards feels it is important to hold back the retorts, turn the other cheek, and not to respond negatively when disrespectful comments are presented. Not all grown-ups can keep personal feelings out of the way. For the children, Dr. Edwards feels we need to try our best to be adults.

“I did experience some distance when my oldest stepson turned about 10 or so because at that point he was privy to some negative things his mother had to say about me and my husband. He began to distance himself. I also took a step back because I saw behavior towards me that I didn’t like and I refused to bow down to a child. For example, he wouldn’t speak to me or even interact with me in our home. For a point, I would try to reach out to him, but then I gave up and played the game right along with him. After a while my husband did intervene, which I thought was appropriate. But like I said, I wasn’t going to suck up to him, try to carry on fake conversations or create these insincere family moments with him, because I knew he didn’t want that from me.

We see there is still a stigma attached to being a stepparent. Despite the growing number of blended families, there is something awkward in terms of the relational issues that stepparent’s face that can’t truly be understood unless you are walking in those shoes. Sometimes I can talk or explain my feelings until I’m blue in the face but my own husband still doesn’t understand how I feel. Overcoming some of the challenges, however, can be eased by keeping the lines of communication open and being as transparent as possible.”

Probably the most valuable advice Dr. Edwards wishes to impart is that you absolutely cannot be a part of a stepparent pity party! You have to be proactive and take on the task of being a stepparent as a full-blown educational process. The people who will bad-mouth the biological parents with you and feed negative thoughts to you about your own step children are nothing but energy vampires. You need to be surrounded by stepparents who have overcome obstacles and are willing to share the tools and secrets of success with you.

Mrs. Delaware is attempting to spotlight issues of blended families and step-parenting in the National forum of this month’s Mrs. United States Pageant. On behalf of stepfamilies, we wish her well. 

To Have or Have Not: Is There a Baby in Your Future?

Thursday, July 01, 2010

One of the biggest decisions facing your new wedded bliss is to conceive or not to conceive. She wants the emotionally binding “cement baby”; he’s still saying, “Been there, done that.” What’s a loving couple to do?

by Gail Buchalter

Maybe you’re sipping a nonfat soy milk latte as you wriggle further into the cushy depths of the recliner. Middle age has descended upon you, yet here you are, thinking about having another child. Your mind wanders back to a younger time when you were married for the first time and knew it would last forever. The big question was when to have children, not if.

That was, of course, before the divorce. It was also before you had the pediatrician’s phone number on speed dial, driven to a thousand softball practices, or sold your soul for college tuition. Now you are remarried and thinking about having children??? You know the pitfalls; you know the joys. Or, perhaps you thought you knew your mind. Now here comes another spouse with a ticking biological clock.

So what are the variables of having children with a second spouse? Does it get easier because you are more mature? Or does it get harder because you are just plain older?

George Robinson had reached 50 not expecting to have children. His first wife, a buyer for Bloomies, knew from the get-go that children weren’t going to litter her career path. George, in his late twenties at the time, was also heavily involved in his work. They would have children when the time was right. It never was during their 9-year marriage, which has since dissolved. At age 53, though, George became a first-time dad.

He and Marissa dated for a few years. She had three children from her previous marriage: a girl in college and two boys in high school. Yet, from the beginning she talked about having a baby; he found himself quite taken with the idea. He married her, mostly to fulfill that wish.

Their daughter, Reese, was born, and Marissa’s older daughter began coming home more often on weekends to spend time with her new family. The teenage boys remained fairly oblivious to their little sister’s presence, though, finding her not nearly as enticing as a PlayStation. But Marissa, then 45, had figured it out. She could afford to stay home with this baby and had planned to work just 2 days a week. George was just as content.

“Yes, we’ve done the math,” he said, smiling. “When she’s 28, I’ll be 80. I do worry about being older, but hopefully she’ll keep me young. The good thing about being older is I have more patience now. I don’t take things for granted. I’m so thrilled to have a daughter.”

So far the Robinsons have had it easy. There were no furious ex-spouses, no disfranchised children. In other words, it’s far from the nightmare that Rachael Davis experienced when she remarried at 30. She had a young daughter, Elizabeth. Her second husband, Charles, had two grown children and two teenagers. The daughter was born with fetal alcohol syndrome and was bipolar. Her brother, too, had his problems. He was drunk and driving when he killed someone. Rachael had no illusions about the life she was marrying into, but was so in love she decided to just deal with it. Did that include having kids?

“No way,” Rachael said, with startling clarity. “My daughter was 8 at the time Charles and I married, and his youngest kids lived with us off and on for the first 8 years. They treated Elizabeth like she was a stepchild. They begrudged her anything we gave her, no matter what we had given them. I couldn’t bring another child into that environment. I could protect one, but no more. Had I been younger, I don’t think I could have survived those years myself.”

The Robinsons’ decision to have children and the Davises’ not to had nothing to do with age. For both couples, it was a case of circumstance. Yet for JoAnn E., it was all about getting older. She was finished pressing the snooze alarm on her biological clock. “My husband and I were having the time of our lives,” recalls JoAnn, 55, who first married in 1977. “We both had great jobs and great friends, beach weekends and freedom. Then, about 9 years into the marriage, we started talking about having a baby. We even went so far as to try.”

Thank goodness, she says, it didn’t work. “He finally said, ‘No can do.’ ” A life change of that magnitude was not for him, even though they had discussed it before the wedding. You could hear the very fabric of the marriage rending. “Although at the time it felt like I was choosing which arm to cut off, the marriage or a child,” she says, “divorce was inevitable.”

Two years later, JoAnn fell in love with Kevin. He, too, wanted kids, and thought time was running out. “Marrying again wasn’t that important,” says JoAnn, “but when you find the right someone, who wants the same thing, it’s such a bonus.” She delivered her daughter, Meagan, 16 months after she married. “I was 39, which wasn’t that old, but I was starting to worry if I waited much longer, I wouldn’t have the energy to raise a kid.” Although both had fulfilling careers, they agreed that he’d take the working lead and she’d devote more time to parenting—with both engaged in Meagan’s nurturing. Luckily, both embraced this life change.

For Anne G., it didn’t matter how much a husband was willing to pitch in. She was never going to have kids. At 56, she embarked on her fifth marriage, having miraculously found five men who decided—as she did—not to raise the children issue. (She was a noncustodial stepmom to two along the way; that, or the view of her own dad’s remarriage with his new family, caused her to think the better of it.) Looking back, she has no regrets.

On the other hand, Alice Thornton had always wanted two children. She also wanted a responsible husband to morph into a great dad. That wasn’t going to happen. Instead, Alice, who married at 21, divorced 13 years later, childless. Two years went by, and she met Richard. Within 4 months they were living together and pregnant. He was 49 and thrilled with the onset of his fourth child; she was 36 and leery. “It all happened too quickly,” said Alice. “If I hadn’t gotten pregnant things would have turned out differently. I wanted a child and to be married and thought it might work out. Now, at least, I have two children. But I don’t know what the future holds.”

Their shotgun wedding sans shotgun turned into even more of a crap shoot, and the die rolled wildly. The problem began, Alice says, with the arrival of her teenaged stepdaughter, Jamie, who moved in. “Unfortunately, my relationship with my husband depends on his daughter,” she said. “She is daddy’s little girl, and I have become the wicked stepmother. . . . She is jealous of me and competitive with our [young] son. My husband does nothing to alleviate the situation and allows her to be disrespectful towards me. I’m beginning to feel as though I’m preparing myself mentally to leave, but hope it won’t come to that.”

Unlike the Thorntons, though, the other couples left little to chance when deciding to have or not have a baby. JoAnn, an editor, was able to configure her work so she could do it from home; she couldn’t have pulled this off earlier in her career. George Robinson has already set up a trust fund for his daughter’s college tuition. Age brought with it financial stability. Maturity brought with it the right questions. “Can we afford a child?” and “Are we ready to have a baby?” are from the past.

Now the relevant question is, What will a baby add to our lives? Those who respond, “Chaos,” like the Davises, generally choose not to have children. Others, who start glowing even before they’re pregnant, figure, What the heck? The pediatrician’s already on speed dial.

Gail Buchalter is a freelance writer living on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.

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