CYMA CHATS: with Dr. Rachelle Katz, author, The Happy Stepmother
Rachelle: I wrote The Happy Stepmother because I was sad to see so many stepmothers struggling with a whole host of challenges. I wanted to help them overcome their problems and feel more fulfilled and content. One of the steps I recommend to achieve this goal is that stepmothers need to take care of themselves by placing their needs as a priority. Often, stepmothers are so busy taking care of others, they forget about themselves. Just by shifting their focus back to themselves, not in a selfish way, but in a way that promotes their growth and health, will help them feel happier. Another step that I believe is essential to a stepmother’s happiness is that she make her relationship with her husband a priority, right after taking care of herself. To survive the stresses of stepfamily life, stepmothers must have strong, healthy marriages.
Cyma: Many women are delaying marriage until a later age, increasing the odds that they'll now find "Mr. Right" with children. What are your thoughts on this?
Rachelle: This is certainly true of my experience. I was 39 when I got married. And, while I was mature, I found being a stepmother very challenging. I wish I knew more about stepfamilies when I got married. I would have been better prepared, and my expectations would have been more realistic. .
Cyma: Do you find that older women deal with step-parenting differently than younger women? How does "later" motherhood provide an advantage?
Rachelle: I actually believe becoming a stepmother at an older age may be harder than it is for younger women. Women who marry when older have accomplished a lot in their lives, they’ve achieved professional success, they receive respect and recognition from friends, and they’re accustomed to being treated well. Once they become stepmothers, they may find that their family does not take into account their needs, that their opinions don’t matter, and that they lack control in making decisions that affect them. This is in stark contrast to what they experience in the other areas of their lives, and therefore, more shocking and painful for them than younger women.
Cyma: Tell us a little about your own step-parenting experience? What was your greatest joy? What was your greatest sorrow?
Rachelle: I have a 23 year old stepdaughter who will be going to medical school in the fall. Compared to many stepmothers, I am lucky that my stepdaughter has always been well-behaved and respectful. I am very proud of her. She has worked hard to be where she is today. I wish I had a closer relationship with her. Spending time was very limited. She spent every other weekend with us when she was younger, went to out-of-town college, and now lives in another city. She is completely involved in her own life, as it should be, but this doesn’t allow us to be together often.
Cyma: What have you experienced as a step mom that has helped shape your life and your work?
Rachelle: I was a psychotherapist for many years before becoming a stepmother. When I became one, I suddenly felt a kinship with other women who were in this role. I started a website to explore the challenges stepmothers experience and to find practical solutions to these problems; I began monthly support groups; and I wrote The Happy Stepmother. Writing does not come easily for me, so this project felt especially important or I never would have undertaken it. Helping other stepmothers gives my life purpose and meaning.
Cyma: What one simple piece of advice can you offer someone contemplating or entering a partnership/marriage to someone who already has children?
Rachelle: Discuss your expectations. Oftentimes, men want their new wives to fulfill all maternal roles. Too many stepmothers comply, to help out their husband, bond with their stepchildren, to prove they are not wicked like the stereotypical stepmother. Stepmothers end up exhausted if they do this. I believe biological parents should take care of, and discipline their children. Husbands need to step up to the plate and also do their share of the housework.
Cyma: What are your thoughts about and advice for new "later" moms who are in situations where they must combine step-parenting with parenting their own children?
Rachelle: Again, one’s expectations are very important. Don’t expect your family to blend over time. Some families do, most don’t. So much depends on the personalities of each family member. They don’t have to love each other, or even like each other; they just need to be respectful and compassionate to each other.
Cyma: What sole factor has made your life as a step-parent easier?
Rachelle: Improving communication with my husband. We had trouble discussing problems when we first got married. He would get defensive and blame me when I brought up something that was bothering me. This would upset me, and we were off to the races. We both worked hard to more considerate of each other’s feelings and viewpoints, and to be more patient and open with each other.