Blending Traditions

The holidays are coming, sooner than later at this point.  We start thinking about Christmas shopping around the time the fireworks stop exploding. It’s the only way to budget with five kids. Holidays can be a wonderful time of year, but for blended families, they can also be a time of stress and confusion for step children.  It’s difficult to hold on to everyone’s special traditions while still building new ones with the new family unit, but it is definitely important to try.

When I was growing up, my family always opened presents on Christmas Eve.  It started with my great-grandmother when she was a child and continued down through the generations.  Each year, the kids would anxiously wait until it was dark enough to go out looking for Santa with an older relative.  Each year they searched for Santa’s sleigh or in later generations, Rudolph’s red nose lighting up the sky.  By the time they came home from searching, Santa had made his stop at the house and the festivities would begin. We never did stockings or left cookies out for Santa before going to bed.

When I first began dating Dave, his kids had been raised with the more typical Christmas morning fun. They put out cookies and carrots for Santa and his reindeer, and they hung stockings on the mantle.  Because it was important to us that the kids have as much of their childhood remain intact as possible, I learned about their traditions and joined in the fun.

At the same time, I did not want to give up everything from my childhood traditions, and we knew we would face challenges when our additional children were born.  We kept the early Christmas morning fun and stockings, but added a nighttime drive the night before, looking at Christmas lights and keeping our eyes open in case we were able to catch Santa out and about.

Dave and his kids had always picked out a live tree every year that they decorated with a decade’s worth of Hallmark collected ornaments; I always put up a white tree filled with precious Victorian style ornaments.  Rather than worry about whose tradition would be protected, we moved the furniture around and did both trees.

Over time, the holidays became ours.  Some were shared with other family; sometimes we were all alone in a strange city and had just the seven of us.  Once, Derek was home only until the day before Christmas – on a special transport from Iraq – so we adjusted everything to celebrate with him before he returned to the war.

These days, we start prepping for the holidays early.  We now put up four trees, with everyone helping.  In the last couple of years, we also have strayed away from the traditional holiday meal and have lasagna and garlic bread, and the whole family goes to a movie together.  This year, we’ll be celebrating the holidays in a new house and a different town; it may also be the first year we celebrate without Derek, who is stationed in Japan.

As our kids get older, get married, and have children, I imagine that our traditions will again require incorporating another family’s ideas of the holiday.  We’ve learned, though, that starting new traditions together only strengthens our bond, and we greet new ideas with enthusiasm and welcome.

Get Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle.

Before Becoming a Step Mom

I get a lot of email from women telling me heart-breaking stories about not really wanting to be step moms.  If you are thinking about marrying a man with children, please consider carefully the following information.

There are real differences between dads who only have their kids every other weekend with two weeks in the summer, and those dads who have full or shared custody of their children.  These very real differences significantly affect the women who choose to be step moms, as well.

Dads who are granted shared or full custody of their children used to be an extremely rare occurrence.  In fact, out of all divorced couples with children, the mother has typically been awarded primary custody in over 90% of cases.  But this pattern is changing, as dads take a more active role in fighting for custody and judges stop assuming that only women can care for children.

More and more women who are choosing to marry a man with children are going to find themselves helping to raise his kids.  However, even if the man you are planning to marry does not have custody of his children right now, that could always change.  Stepmoms have shared instances with me about bio mom passing away, about the situation at bio mom’s house become so volatile that dad had to take custody and even situations like mine, where bio mom chose not to keep the kids.

The point is, if you are considering joining your life with a man who has children (and the same holds true for the man in your life if you are a mom planning to remarry), you need to prepare to be married to a man with children.  Men don’t give up their children for their wives; in fact, if they were involved in a divorce, they may treat their children with kid gloves and be too lenient because they feel guilty, leaving you, the step mom, to come in and wonder why the kids are getting away with murder.  Your man’s children will also not disappear when they turn 18.  He will continue to love them and they will continue to be a part of his life – and yours.

I believe that being a stepmother can be a rewarding, fulfilling experience. However, I don’t think that happens unless you and your man spend a great deal of time talking about how you will all live together.  You need to know before you are entrenched in the situation whether he will undermine your authority by always taking the kids’ side and whether you have similar ideas on child rearing or not.

Most of all, you need to do some soul-searching to know whether your love for your man is enough to sustain you through the unavoidable stresses and challenges of building a new family together.  Talk to my sister Tiana and I … we have had much different experiences with stepmothering … talk to the other women who are joining us in conversation here and gain some insight.

This is one case where looking before leaping is strongly recommended.

Get Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle.

Finding Joy in Stepparenting

You don’t have to be a masochist to make a good stepparent. While it’s true that stepparenting includes some painful moments, it is possible to enjoy it. As a stepmom of three for more than a decade, I can honestly say that the tough times are worth it in the long run- and the rewards of the relationships are far greater.

There are many painful moments in the process of becoming a stepparent, some of which are experienced by the children.  The pain children experience is the pain of loss, whether it be divorce or death or an absent parent, or the loss of familiar surroundings and comforting routines.  This is the pain that touches the children, fills them with anger, rage, resentment, frustration, and hopelessness – most of which in turn causes most of the pain you feel as a step parent, trying to piece together the splintered components into a new family.

There is a moment, though, when you move beyond pain.  Children do come to understand the choices of their parents, wounds do heal, life does move forward.  You may not even notice it happening, but one day you will realize that there are more moments of shared laughter than tension, more moments of quality time and less arguing.  Your step children can fill a niche in your heart – one you may not have even realized you needed filled; one they may have carved themselves.

When I met my husband, I was in a place in my life where I didn’t think I ever wanted children, let alone the responsibility for raising someone else’s.  I fell in love with him anyway, and there was no doubt that his children would be a part of our lives forever.  The more I loved him, the more willing I became to envision our future as a family.  It wasn’t long before having his children made me realize how much I loved being a mom, and we had two more children.

It was not always easy – there were struggles with all of the mundane things like custody and visitation and child support, and there were struggles with the not-so-mundane things of overcoming being in the role of invader and learning to deal with the challenges the children presented.  I wasn’t always sure that I had made the right decision, and that’s a hard thing to admit.  But I have no regrets; I love my family and my children – all of them.  Those moments of pain only made it possible to know how wonderful things could really be.

Get  Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle.

Changing Perspective: From the Bio Mom’s Point of View

I’m a stepmom and have been a stepparenting and blended family specialist for so long that I tend to talk about and think about everything from a stepmom’s perspective.  I suppose that’s only natural; I write what I know, what I experience.  However, having seen what my sister goes through with her children’s stepmother, along with a recent extended email conversation I had with a biological mom about stepparenting and her struggles with sharing her children with the new stepmom,  I realized that I was perhaps limiting my viewpoint too much.

Imagine giving birth to a child or children and experiencing those joyous days of building a family.  If you’re a mom in any capacity, you’ll understand that once a child enters your heart (through birth, adoption, marriage, or any other way) something inside you is changed forever. You can’t go a minute without thinking of the child, you worry over everything, you spend more time focused on the child than on yourself, and you don’t even notice the sacrifice.

This is an excerpt from Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy..


Stepparenting Doesn’t End When the Kids Turn 18

When I first began dating my husband and things were getting serious, I started doing the math. He had a 10-year old son and 6-year old twins, so I had about 12 years of stepparenting ahead of me. I was wondering to myself whether or not I could handle it. I hadn’t ever been a parent, let alone a stepparent. I’d even only been an aunt for about two months at the time. Even the word “stepmom” seemed elusive, frightening, and somewhat negative (thanks, Disney!).

Over time, with a love and partnership that seemed to grow exponentially, I stopped worrying about how long I would be a stepmom, and just enjoyed my new husband and new family. It’s a good thing that I stopped counting, though…I was awfully naïve to think that my parenting duties (with stepchildren or bio kids) would stop just because the kids turned 18.

My stepkids are now 25 and 21. Our 25-year old is in the Army.  It wasn’t until he was 18, enlisted in the Army, and got orders to go to Iraq that I realized just how very little of the parenting in stepparenting ends at 18. I worried more about him during that long 18 months than ever before; I cried like a baby when he managed to get a transport home for Christmas in the middle of his tour in Iraq.

This is an excerpt from Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.


Make the Right Choices for the Kids Sake

Cinderella probably had the most famous stepmother of all time.  Wicked and cruel, she did everything she could to keep Cinderella from marrying the handsome prince and living happily ever after. Why Cinderella’s father married her in the first place is something I will always wonder.

My stepdaughter was a big fan of Cinderella and the Disney Princess franchise in general.  Her favorite was Ariel, who simply didn’t seem to have a mother…but Cinderella was a close second.

Luckily, I was able to dispel her expectation that I would be a wicked stepmother early on. I was, however, an active parent.  Dave, my husband, and I decided long before we got married that the only way things would work for us would be if we both took active roles in the kids’ lives.  While I was still dating Dave, I volunteered to be his oldest son’s soccer coach, had regular “dates” with Kira and learned everything I could about Down syndrome and the rights of the disabled so that I could actively advocate for Kyle.

Involvement was the key to our success.  I took an active role in guiding, disciplining (time outs and groundings, not spankings), and decision-making.  I attended parent-teacher conferences and IEP meetings, school plays and soccer games.  I wanted to be a family.

This worked for us because #1) my husband was totally supportive and #2) their biological mom was completely hands off.  She occasionally came to a soccer game, but she did not come to parent-teacher conferences, IEP meetings, or take advantage of her right to 50% custody.

I know that my situation is different than most, and in reading about the experiences other stepmoms have had, I realize how lucky I’ve been to have things go more smoothly.  I am no stranger, though, to the constant struggle that goes on between all of the adults in the relationship when it concerns the kids.  I’ve been accused of “stealing” the kids, of preventing them from seeing their mother, of lying about them being home to take the occasional phone call.  I’ve been called names and threatened.

It’s heartbreaking to me that the supposed grown-ups in these situations are so willing to demonstrate the worst of themselves, often in front of the children, because of whatever perceived threat or frustration they have.  I implore all families out there in step relationships (and that’s the majority of us these days) to please step back and think first of the children.  Count to ten before saying something you will regret.  Walk away.  Wait until the kids aren’t present.

My stepchildren’s biological mother didn’t do that, and neither did their grandmother.  Because of how volatile their behavior and choices were over the years, first our oldest son and then our daughter severed ties with them.  I never wanted to replace their mom or cause them to not have a relationship with her.  I kept my promise and did not speak negatively about her in front of them (although my sister and mother were audience to some of my more memorable moments of frustration).  Whether you are the step or the biological parent, now is the time to try to change the direction if things aren’t going well, because someday it might be too late.

Get Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.

Not So Wicked, Really

Getting Real With Shadra Bruce

I am a step mom.  I “stepped” into an already-formed family, with children who already had a mother, albeit an absent one. I was only 15 years old and in high school when Derek, my oldest stepson, was born in Germany to parents who were finishing up Air Force duty.

I was never pregnant with twins, and I wasn’t there to get the devastating news that one twin (Kira) was perfectly fine but the other (Kyle) had Down syndrome that would present a lifetime of challenges. I wasn’t there when the doctor suggested that Kyle be put in a state hospital where he wouldn’t be a “burden.”  The only thing I know of my step kids as babies is from what I’ve watched in old family videos or learned from Dave.

In fact, I didn’t become a part of my step kids’ lives until Derek was finishing fourth grade and Kira was finishing kindergarten.  Kyle had just finished a year in a special school. I wasn’t even there when they had chicken pox….  I’ve tried to be there for everything else, though.

So I was there to watch Derek grow from a gangly, awkward tween into a fine young man – a man I am proud to call my son; a man who refers to me as his mom and has tried to make it home every Christmas, even when he was in the middle of a tour in Iraq.

I’ve been there to help Kyle meet the special challenges that have faced him and face him still. When I entered his life, Kyle, because of his disabilities, was still a tot in most ways. He was still in diapers, still needed someone to help feed him, and was still small enough to fit in my lap and be rocked to sleep. I was there to help him gain independence, and to stand with Dave to ensure that the school system did not fall short on providing the services he needed.

I was there to see Kira grow from a toothless, carefree little girl into an amazing, intelligent young woman with a bright future.  I helped Kira buy “cool” clothes, offered a shoulder that she could cry on when she fought with her best friend, and helped her transition from a little, toothless girl into a young woman ready to take on the world. We share the closest relationship, one that transcends mere steps and has become a true mother-daughter bond. Maybe that is why we find so much joy in someone telling us that we look alike or when someone is unable to tell us apart when talking to one of us over the phone.

Stepparents have had a bad rap over time. “Wicked” stepmothers especially have been the target of stereotypes for many books and movies. The role stepparents play tends to be overlooked. Stepmoms and stepdads are there when their children wake in the morning and go to bed at night just like bio parents. Stepparents change diapers, coach soccer teams, make Halloween costumes, visit pediatricians, and care for their children who are home sick with the flu. Stepparents attend ball games, competitions, and graduations. Stepparents share and celebrate the milestones.

The tendency is to believe that “natural” parents are more important – that giving birth is the only badge of parenthood. But stepparents share the responsibility to see that the children in their lives grow up happy and healthy. We share something even more special than birth – as stepfamilies, we choose each other. We choose to be a family, to work together and love together, and to make it work together.


Two years ago, my family and I loaded up a big moving truck, packed our van with suitcases, snacks, and maps, and headed from Boise, Idaho to Bath, New York.  It was the second time we’d made the trip. Dave and I met and married in Boise. Our son was born there. We moved to New York in 2001, added a daughter, and thought we were done moving. We hadn’t really planned to return to the West after our first move to New York, but my mom was diagnosed with Leukemia, and the annual trips home weren’t enough, so we moved to Reno so that I could go to grad school.  We thought Reno would be close enough, but when I started flying from Reno to Boise every week to help care for her, we knew we had to be back in Boise.

Boise had been home for a long time. Two of my stepchildren and one of my birth children had been born there (the middle three were born in Boise – our oldest had been born in Germany while his parents were stationed there with the Air Force; our youngest was born in New York).  I had graduated from high school in Boise and had been raised there for most of my life.

Being there to care for my mom was necessary and we were grateful to have a short amount of time with her before she passed away.  Returning to New York didn’t seem to be in the cards – I was working in the corporate world, my husband was finishing his undergrad program, and the twins were in high school and did NOT want to move again.  My stepdaughter even thought, since her biological mother had moved back to the area as well, that there might be a chance she could further her relationship with her mom.

When we left two years ago, however, there was no looking back.  No regrets.  I miss my mom, but staying in Boise to visit her niche at the crematorium wasn’t appealing.  Unfortunately, there was no looking back for my stepdaughter, Kira, either.  Where she once felt guilty leaving her biological mom behind, she now only feels sadness at what could have been.  She once blamed herself for everything that didn’t work with her biological mother; she now feels pity for a woman who has demonstrated an ongoing incapacity for being a mom to her own children.

Kira is embarking on her own adventure.  She is going to college, dating, building a life for herself.  She had hopes of having built a relationship with her mom before she left, but all of her efforts were rebuffed.  She goes forward, knowing she has the support of her dad and me, but just as I carry a pain in my heart over the loss of my mom, Kira is grieving the reality of the loss of hers as well.

Sharing Kids’ Hearts

Sharing Kids
Sharing Kids

I do not remember whether or not I was one of those kids who had trouble sharing when I was younger, but I certainly have found something I do not enjoy sharing as an adult: my kids.  My husband had full custody of his three children when we married. We raised our oldest son, Derek, with little (if any) intervention from his biological mother. She and the kids have maintained only minimal contact with one another over the past several years, as a result of the combination of choices made by all of us.

I was more than happy to fill the role of Mom and never gave a thought to how different it could be if I would have to share the mothering duties or if their mother had taken the opportunity to have a more active role in the kids’ lives. When the kids’ bio mom moved to Oregon and away from Boise, where we were all living, our family moved to New York (we stayed in Boise so that the kids would have those rare opportunities with their mom; when she left, we were free to be where we wanted to be).

Living in New York for nearly four years really spoiled me. Even though the custody arrangement would have required us to pay for travel for their bio mom to come visit, she chose not to do so. The distance made it more possible for all of us to live as though we were a complete family unit without any missing pieces. Circumstances brought us back to Boise to care for my mom a few years ago – it came about so quickly that little thought was given to how my illusion might be impacted. We knew that the kids’ biological mother had also returned to the area, but other than brief conversations regarding health care and child support, there had been infrequent contact.

Suddenly, though, the opportunity existed for my step kids to have a relationship with the woman who gave birth to them. After nearly eight years of being the main mother figure, I was not sure I knew how to share, and I knew I would prefer not to. I did not want Kira, then 15, to suddenly start having our mother-daughter experiences with another woman. I did not want our 15-year old son, Kyle, to suddenly want to spend a holiday with her instead of us. I certainly did not want our son, Derek, who had joined the Army, to spend his leave with her and not me.

In the end, I did what was best for the kids – they deserve to know their mother, to spend time with her, to develop a relationship with her if it is possible to do so. I hid my jealousy and insecurity at the suddenness of having to share our oldest children with someone who did not really know them yet had a right to them.  Most of all, I remembered – and reminded myself regularly – that a heart has room enough to love everyone. The kids do not have to replace their feelings for me with feelings for her, just make room for one more.

Get  Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.

No Half Ways

Our mom’s parents divorced when she was 11 years old.  Her mom remarried a few years later, and my mom and her three brothers were joined less than a year later by a new baby sister.  Theirs was not always an easy adjustment, having a step dad and a new sister who seemed (by virtue of the fact that she was much younger than her siblings) to get a lot of attention.

Sometimes, if my mom’s brothers were angry with their baby sister or hurt by a perceived imbalance between the treatment she was getting from their mom and the treatment they were getting, they would rub it in to her that she was only a “half” sister.  It was cruel and hurtful, and of course the boys knew that, but at the time, they were still feeling the affects of their lives being uprooted by the divorce and subsequent remarriage of their mom.  My aunt was a natural target, albeit an unfair one.

My aunt and I are only five years apart in age, so I was around for most of her childhood.  I remember the sadness she would feel whenever she felt only “half” connected to her siblings.  Even though she was the one with both parents there, it was painful for her to be singled out the way she was, and I never forgot that.

This is an excerpt from Shadra’ s book, Stories From a StepMom, available on Amazon Kindle. Read more or request a review copy.