Early one morning, Lynne Oxhorn-Ringwood woke to the sound of rain and started worrying. Her son, Evan, 6, was at his dad's house, and she'd forgotten to pack his raincoat. She decided to call to say she'd drop it off on her way to work.
Evan's stepmom, Louise Oxhorn, answered the phone. She said that coming by with a jacket wouldn't be necessary. "Was she kidding?" Oxhorn fumed afterward. "Did she honestly think we'd send Evan to school without a raincoat? How insulting!"
For her part, Oxhorn-Ringwood was hurt by the terse response. She realized she was no longer solely in charge of her own child's life.
These two San Diego moms might have liked each other if they'd met under different circumstances. But like millions of other American women, they were locked into what can be the most volatile stepfamily relationship of all: the one between ex-wife and stepmother.
About 50 percent of first marriages end in divorce, the Census Bureau estimates, with roughly 75 percent of divorced people remarrying. That's a lot of stepfamilies. Experts tell us that civil adult relationships are key to the well-being of children of divorce. Easy for them to say. The ongoing -- and inescapable -- relationship between old wife and new wife is often full of conflict.
After ten years of conversations like the one they had about Evan's raincoat, Lynne Oxhorn-Ringwood and Louise Oxhorn decided to make an effort to put their differences aside. Though it wasn't easy, today they head the CoMamas Association, a group that's dedicated to helping stepmoms and ex-wives coexist peacefully -- and they also came up with the term "stepwife" to refer to each other.
Other moms can make it work, too, says Marjorie Vego Krausz, a family therapist who cowrote Stepwives with the pair -- though you hardly have to go so far as to start your own organization together. Having a normal conversation and staying cool at the sight of each other are good goals too. To move in that direction:
Holly Robinson, a mom of five, has two children from her first marriage, two from her husband's first marriage, and one with her husband.
Offer An Olive Branch
When Charity Wegner of Norfolk, Nebraska, was dating her future husband, she ran into his ex-wife and mom of his 9-month-old, Sydney, at a local store. "I knew who she was and she knew who I was, but we'd never officially met," she says. That encounter was unpleasant, but a few months later, when they needed to talk by phone, Wegner tried to express that she just wanted the best for the little girl they had in common. That didn't turn the relationship around instantly, but it was a good start. Now Wegner's a big part of Sydney's life, and the two moms are comfortable talking on the phone and e-mailing about visitation schedules and other kid details.
No matter what stage your stepwife relationship is in, being courteous can ease the strain. "It's often not the obvious problems that cripple stepfamilies, but the small, mosquito-size ones," says Margorie Engel, Ph.D., a stepmom and president of the Stepfamily Association of America. That's why following simple rules of etiquette can go a long way toward avoiding misunderstandings and emotional blowups. When you see the other woman, smile, make eye contact, say hello to her, and watch your body language. Yes, even she (at least for the sake of the kids) deserves these standard social graces.
If you're a new stepmother, let the child's mom know that you're not trying to replace her -- you just want to do your part to help take care of the child. Ask her to share day-to-day information like schedules and changes in diet. (For issues such as discipline, it's best to reinforce her and your husband's decisions at first unless your stepchild behaves inappropriately toward you.) If you're the ex-wife, try to avoid competitive parenting when faced with a stepmom's enthusiasm and keep in mind that it's good for kids to have one more positive adult role model. If you can think of your stepwife as someone who's important to the children, it will be easier to treat her with courtesy and respect. "Everyone's going to be somewhat bitter," Wegner says. "But it's important not to show that to your child. Kids pick up a lot."
Make Room for Two Moms
When Oxhorn went to a meeting for her stepson's soccer team, the other parents roped her into becoming the team mom. "After all," she decided finally, "I did love Evan, and if his team needed me, how could I say no?"
When Oxhorn-Ringwood found out, she was horrified. "I couldn't understand how Louise could possibly volunteer to be team mom for Evan's soccer team without checking with me first. I couldn't help but wonder what her motives were. Was she trying to take over my role as Evan's mother?"
Stepmoms have concerns about their roles too. When Meg Costello of Amesbury, Massachusetts, began dating her husband, his daughter was 2 years old. With no children of her own, Costello recognized that this little girl was the only daughter she'd ever have. She threw herself into parenting and felt resentful of the little girl's mother, who expected Costello to toe the line on things like breaking her daughter's thumb-sucking habit. "I didn't want my parenting role to be so limited," says Costello.
Then, on the weekend of her wedding, while she was picking up her soon-to-be stepdaughter, Costello and her husband's ex had a candid conversation. "She was able to say that, on one hand, she was past the fact that I was marrying her daughter's dad," Costello says. "But she also still felt really sad. I understood absolutely how she could be of two minds." From then on, Costello found it easier to recognize how painful it must be to entrust your small child to a woman you don't know well.
It can be tough to figure out where you fit, especially when it comes to extended family. At first, says Beth Crenshaw of Attleboro, Massachusetts, she felt she had no place in her new family, since her stepson's mother has long had a close relationship with her former in-laws. It took time, but today, the whole family celebrates Christmas together, an arrangement that Crenshaw's come not only to tolerate, but also feels lucky to have. "I don't look at her as my husband's ex anymore, but as a member of this ex-tended family I entered through marriage," she says. "Who would have thought years ago that we'd be able to drive together to our in-laws and watch our sons give each other hugs and kisses? I'm sure neither one of us did!"
Even if your holidays involve lots of picking up, dropping off, and negotiating, Crenshaw's message is clear: "I've found that there's more than enough room for both of us."
Realize You Don't Have to Be Twins
She's Catholic, you're Jewish. She lets the kids stay up until 8:30 on school nights, you want them in bed by 7. She bakes from scratch, you use a mix. Before you waste energy criticizing the other mom, ask yourself this question: Is my child really being hurt? For instance, it doesn't matter whether your 4-year-old has his stories read to him before his bath or after, as long as someone reads to him.
On the other hand, if you're truly concerned about how your child is being cared for -- because she lets him bike to the park unsupervised, for instance -- then it's time to involve your husband and perhaps a counselor who specializes in stepfamily communication. For the most part, though, you should never attempt to parent long-distance. Focus on running a harmonious home of your own.
"It's easier if most household rules are consistent for kids," says Engel. "But that doesn't mean there has to be absolute continuity. Remember, your kids adapt just fine when they stay with their grandparents and friends -- not to mention when they're at school -- and then return to you."
When you do face a discipline or other child-rearing issue that needs to be discussed, Wegner recommends falling back on politeness. It never hurts to assume the best of your stepwife. "I'll say something like, 'Things -- like manners -- are slipping over here. Are they over there too? What should we do?'"
Make the Most Of the Man In the Middle
He's the one who got you both into this situation, but what's Dad's role? Not knowing for sure, many men wind up taking the chameleon approach, says Krausz. "He'll side with whichever mom he's talking with because he doesn't want to make anyone angry." This might be nice in the moment, but doesn't work for anyone in the long run.
It can make it easier for your child's father to step up to the plate if you leave him room to do so, as Atlanta step-mom Erin Flynn discovered. "I was naive when we started dating," she says. "I dove in and took a very active role with my husband's four-year-old.
Unfortunately, my enthusiasm blinded me to how I was encroaching on the precious few hours he has each month to parent her." Flynn had to make a conscious effort to step out of the spotlight, and allow her husband to be a more assertive parent. As much as you may want to make sure you're a fixture in your child's life, it's important not to do so at Dad's expense. The more involved he is, the easier it'll be for all the parents to get along.
Seize Turning Points
For Oxhorn and Oxhorn-Ringwood, the turning point in their relationship was the day Oxhorn was dropping off Evan, and Oxhorn-Ringwood noticed they were wearing the same shoes. It was the fact that Oxhorn was not only married to her ex and taking care of her child, but was now wearing the same clothes that pushed her over the edge. "I felt like my whole life had been stolen," she says, "and I blew up." Afterward, though, she was so sick at the thought that she and Evan's stepmom were still duking it out that she called to apologize. Oxhorn, in response, said she was sorry too, and the mending conversations began. Last year, Evan went off to college and both moms were there to help him settle into his dorm.
Even if you don't get quite to that point, Crenshaw adds, all the extra adults in her children's family means one thing for sure: "These kids will never lack for love."