The six stepmoms who met for the first time in person already had one thing in common: their Brady Bunch fantasy of combining two families easily into one bigger one had gone bust.
After meeting each other online, the small group of women decided to get together for three days in Indianapolis for a stepmom support session to share war stories and advice. Good Morning America joined them as part of its three-part parenting series looking at parents, stepparents, and stepchildren. Since 65 percent of remarriages in the United States involve stepchildren, similar groups are becoming more popular — fueled by confusion about what a stepparent's role should be.
"No book I could have read, or anyone I would have talked to would have helped to prepare me for being a stepmom," said Ginger P'pool.
Another stepmom said that it doesn't help that the image of stepmoms is a negative one.
"I think that just in general, stepmoms are looked at as evil people," said Lisa Mueller. "And they don't know what they're doing and they're trying to take the place of somebody else."
A Child’s Cutting Words
Carolyn Hittle said that TV portrayals of stepparents are off the mark.
"When you blend your two families, you immediately think that everything's going to be like The Brady Bunch, and that's definitely not so," Hittle said.
One of the most hurtful sentences her stepdaughter said is something that other stepparents have surely heard as well.
"You know, 'you're not [my] mom.' I've heard that before," she said. "I've only heard it once and it cut me to the bone. But she's right. I'm not her mom."
At one time or another, all of the women said they felt like they couldn't deal with the situation.
"The process of becoming a stepfamily is kind of like a liver transplant," said Teresa Crafton. "It doesn't always take, but it will take lots and lots of medication in order to get everything accepted there. And the medication, in this instance, is education."
Christina Shepard, newly married, has acquired a teenage stepdaughter. For stepmoms, bonding with a stepdaughter is usually harder than a stepson — especially during the teen years, experts say.
"I came to learn parenting skills. I'm dealing with a stepdaughter," Shepard said. "I recognized the second we got in the door and within the first week, that it was going to be different than our previous relationship had been. And I just realized that I was going to need to get skills to learn how to deal with her."
Trying Not to Be a Mom
Each day is a tightrope walk, with emotions running high. One minute, it's love, the next, it's hate. The biggest pitfall of all is the role that a stepmom plays: Are you the mom or are you a friend?
A great deal of literature says that stepmoms should not try to be a mother to the stepchild. But stepmoms say that is easier said than done.
"They're with you and you love them and it's just an instinct to want to be their mother," P'pool said.
"There's something inside us, just being females, that we mother," Crafton said. "In a stepfamily it just makes it doubly difficult because again, these are not your children. But you're still kind of expected to assume that role."
How do you make that role work? These stepmoms were unanimous: the key is the dad.
"My husband and I are both working really hard to figure out how to be able to say something to the other one's children or about the other one's children without the respective parent taking it personally," Mueller said. "It's a big adjustment."
"Yes, it's gonna be hard," Hittle said. "It's going to be extremely hard at times. And there's going to be times that you want to leave. But if you fight for it and persevere in what your goal is, and our goal is to make it and grow old together."