Blending families can create a unique set of problems. Sometimes it may seem solutions are hard to find. Today, my friend, Holly Robinson, shares some tips for creating a cordial relationship with the ex-wife. Please welcome Holly, read her story, and share your thoughts in the comments.
I never meant to marry a man with children. When I fell in love with Dan, I shied away from a commitment because we each had two young children. Forget sex and romance! The minute we tied the knot, I worried that life would be all about daycare, fretting over mortgages, and orthodontist bills.
We got married anyway, despite my fears and doubts. On the wedding day itself, it started to rain early in the morning, a light drizzle from a pewter sky. Luckily, we had ordered tents for the backyard. The rain added to the beauty of it, as the tents caught a kaleidoscope of falling leaves, like handmade Japanese paper in red and gold.
Because the ceremony included our four children—by then, they were 5, 6, 7 and 8 years old—our guest list of 96 people included 42 children and ranged in age from three months to 91 years old. No wedding could have been more beautiful. Yes, I cried.
However, I was right about the whole stepmother gig being hell on wheels. One particularly bad night with my stepson Drew drove this point home. My kids were with my ex that weekend; Dan and I had just gone to bed when suddenly there was a retching sound from the doorway. And there was Drew vomiting on the floor.
Dan jumped up to tend to him. I threw on an old nightshirt and helped him clean up Drew, then Drew’s bed, and finally the floor. We gave Drew medicine to bring down his fever and mopped him with cool washcloths. For a while, Drew called out pitifully for his mother, his favorite stuffed animal, and his treasured bedtime story – none of which I could provide. We did what we could to comfort him, but I’d never felt so helpless.
“We have to call his mom,” I said finally, near tears.
Dan didn’t want to do it—it was late, and he hated the idea of having to ask his ex for parenting advice. But I insisted: if this was my kid, I’d want to help him feel better. Maybe his ex could help me tell Drew the story he wanted to hear, at the very least, even if we didn’t have the book on hand.
I made the call. And, to my surprise, his ex—who had been understandably cool since the wedding—was worried about her son and glad I’d called. She recounted the story to me over the phone and I “read” it to my stepson. He fell asleep, finally, and woke up feeling fine the next day.
With that call, I realized I’d broken through some sort of barrier. I was determined to start thinking of my husband’s ex as an ally. After all, she was the mother of the stepkids I was beginning to love. By being polite, and even friendly and helpful, to her, I hoped to make both of our households more peaceful. Dan still had trouble communicating with his ex, but from that point on, I made sure to keep the lines of communication open and reached out to her often. She began doing the same, calling me for advice or information when her children had a behavior issue or needed a scheduling change. It was never ideal, but it was definitely civil.
Last month, I went to my stepson Drew’s birthday party. He’s out of college, but he wanted everyone—his dad and me, his sister and stepsiblings and half-brother—to celebrate his birthday. I came away from the party thinking, wow, we did it. We didn’t just play a game of happy families. We really are one.
Being civil to your husband’s ex isn’t always easy. But, if you take the high road and treat her as a potential parenting ally instead of an enemy, I promise things will start going more smoothly. With time, you may find yourself joining her on the trip to settle your stepson or stepdaughter into a college dorm room, celebrating a wedding together, or taking pictures of a grandchild’s first birthday. These are the milestones ahead of you—provided you can let go of the past.
Step Parenting Tips on Handling the Ex-Wife
A few tips to help you get started:
- Ask your husband’s ex for advice about the kids, especially when it comes to household rules and behavior. Don’t worry. It won’t lessen your power or position with your husband—he just wants you two to get along, and she’ll appreciate the fact that you respect her opinions.
- If your husband fumes about his ex, don’t fan the flames. Yes, of course, he loves to say his ex is bossy, money-grubbing, a cold fish, or whatever—obviously, they got divorced for reasons. But there are always two sides to every story—and sometimes more. Listen with compassion, but remember that your goal is to keep the peace at home, so your stepkids will grow up happy and secure.
- Stop competing. Your stepchildren will never love you better than they love their mom. Think of yourself as the alternate on the team: you will have your shining moments, like when you realize you and your stepdaughter both love musical theater or when your stepson says you’re a pretty good artist. But she’s their mother, and no matter how she behaves—or misbehaves—nothing will change that. You’re still playing an important role in the lives of these children, so take your job as a role model seriously and give it all you’ve got: love, compassion, humility, and humor.
- Be flexible. There will be times when your husband’s ex may seem like she’s gunning for him—and for you in the bargain. She might suddenly ask for a different weekend, or skip having the children visit. She even wants you to take the kids all summer when she was supposed to have them half-time. Think about things from her point of view and, most importantly, from the perspective of your stepchildren: what’s better for them? How can you make their lives easier, not more difficult? They’ve already gone through a lot of loss with the divorce. It’s your job—sorry, you’re the adult—to make them believe that people love them and care about their needs, even if it means sacrificing that romantic weekend with their dad or having to scramble for daycare so you can get to work.
Eventually, the kids will grow up. When they do, you want the door to be wide open, so they can come home to a family that loves them for years to come.
Bio: Holly Robinson is an award-winning journalist whose work has appeared in Better Homes and Gardens, Family Circle, Huffington Post, Ladies’ Home Journal, More, Open Salon, and Parents. Her novel, BEACH PLUM ISLAND, is Holly Robinson at her best, a story about family, love and buried secrets.