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During this chat, Caroline Neale shares her experiences and insights as a stepmother in a blended family. She emphasises some of her key learnings from over the years such as the importance of focusing on your partner and maintaining a strong connection, the challenges of balancing multiple roles and the need for clear communication and boundaries. Additionally, we cover the importance of supporting children with trauma and the value of emotional regulation.

Caroline Neale: I think she always had trauma from the separation of her parents and she never got therapy or help to deal with it and that’s something that I really wanted for her but it wasn’t my place because I wasn’t the bio parent. I did push for it but at the end of the day as step parents you don’t have any legal rights and that’s something that really frustrated me.

Laura Jenkins: In The Blend is a podcast series that helps parents navigate life within a blended family. Join me as I speak with experts and guests to get practical advice on how to have a harmonious blended family life. This series dives deep into the unique dynamics, logistics and challenges of raising a blended family. From new partners to juggling mixed finances, we will help guide you through it. Welcome back to In The Blend. In today’s episode, we have a guest joining us from New Zealand, Caroline Neal, a biological mother of one and stepmother of two. Over the past decade, Caroline has navigated the complexities of blended families, and she’s here to share her insights with us. During our conversation, we delve into some crucial topics, including dealing with a high-conflict biological mother, the importance of focusing on the relationship with your partner, redefining your role as a stepmother, and navigating the rollercoaster of emotions that often accompany blended family dynamics. This real-life episode offers so much valuable advice for anyone navigating the challenges and joys of blended family life. And importantly, it reminds us as step-parents that we are not alone in our struggles. Let’s dive in. Well, welcome, Caroline. It is lovely to be chatting with you today. Thank you so much for joining me. Now, Caroline is a Kiwi, so just over the ditch from where I am here in Sydney and just chatting offline and sounds like we’ve got a little bit in common. So definitely looking forward to hearing more about your story. Caroline, to start us off, can you share a little bit about your journey over the past decade, I believe, and some of the challenges that you’ve encountered?

Caroline Neale: Yes, so our first sort of challenge, I met my partner. I had a 14-year-old daughter. So that’s quite a tricky age to start blending a family with a teenager. His children were six and eight at the time, so that went really well. I got on really well with his children. That part worked. So my teenager and my partner struggled to make the initial connection. I also found back then, 10 years ago, we didn’t have Facebook. Well, I didn’t go on Facebook, we didn’t have Google, so we didn’t really have any support, we didn’t really have any clue what we were doing. So we just sort of winged it, we just sort of went with the flow and dealt with it the best that we could. Yeah, looking back, there were a few things that we could have done better.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah, it’s tricky, isn’t it? When you dive in that deep end and you don’t know what you’re doing. You don’t know what you don’t know. And that’s right, you don’t know what’s right, what’s wrong and there is no rule book. So you’ve got to fumble your way through to some extent.

Caroline Neale: Yeah, I think it’s sort of tricky enough raising a teenager. I was a solo mum. So I was raising a teenager and we had a really, really close bond. And then on top of that, you’ve got a new partner coming in with his two children. So it’s quite a big transition at that age, 14, because there’s a lot going on for them as well.

Laura Jenkins: Definitely. And what age were your partner’s children?

Caroline Neale: They were six and eight, so they were lovely little girls. Yes, very happy and I worked with children, I was a nanny for a long time and I love children, so I just clicked with them straight away, which we were really happy, you know, that was sort of a lucky thing that I really loved his kids straight away.

Laura Jenkins: And we just got on with no problems. Yeah, fabulous. So talk to me about the ex then, the ex-partner.

Caroline Neale: So I think in the beginning of blending the family, I didn’t think at all what it would actually be like. And we had a few little sort of issues and it didn’t really bother me. And then I guess I sort of noticed a few things, more so I think in regard to my partner and the biological mother, their relationship was high conflict. You can say you’ve got a high conflict bio mum, but then I also thought my partner was struggling a lot as well. So they were both a little bit probably high conflict with each other. Because I mean, that’s why they separated, you know, so it’s hard for them to work together. And then you’ve got the split. And they’d sort of, I think they’d sort of worked through that. And then me coming in. was just additional stress on what they sort of had already gone through. So the biggest issue for me, I think, with having sort of a high conflict X is just supporting your partner. Through it all.

Laura Jenkins: Oh, definitely. Definitely. And maintaining your own well-being along the way as well.

Caroline Neale: Yes. And at first I tried to jump in being like a people pleaser type fix. I was like, I can see that you’re getting stressed, you know, dealing with communication, so I’ll have a go. And I jumped in and tried to communicate for, between them. Yes. And I think in some situations that works but it didn’t and I sort of saw it quickly and I was like it’s not working for me. Okay. So I sort of gave the reins back to my partner and I said, you know, you two can sort it out. Right.

Laura Jenkins: And was it a high conflict style when you jumped in as well?

Caroline Neale: Definitely, yes. Quite surprising, wasn’t expecting that, had no idea. Looking back, I’ve sort of researched and I’ve got a lot more knowledge of what the stresses were, but at the time I didn’t have a clue what was happening. I was just like, you know, why am I being attacked for stepping up and helping and putting in all this effort? Yes. Yeah. And I wasn’t expecting like a thank you, but just to sort of get a bit of negativity.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah. I identify with that, Caroline. I think it’s something a lot of stepmoms find is that they’re giving a lot and they’re helping with the cooking and the cleaning and even dressing kids who are six and eight and packing their school bags and doing all these things. And then when that is met with conflict, And it feels wrong that you’re being treated negatively when there’s so much love and good stuff that’s happening on the other side. Yeah, exactly. Yeah, so I know how challenging that can be. So what did you do then, Caroline, or what strategies have you uncovered to help you maintain your well-being over the years?

Caroline Neale: Well, back then, I wouldn’t have known the word was setting boundaries, because it’s like quite a big word at the moment, boundaries. But back then, I was just like, if it’s not working, I’m going to change it. So I was like, I gave it a go, it didn’t work. So you two can sort it out. The way that it impacts me, myself, was my partner’s stress levels. And it sort of impacted the family in a way because he was quite stressed out with the conflict from the bio mum. So I stepped back in a way from the children a little bit. I took a step back from the kids and I let him parent them more. So I let him and the mum sort it out because at first I jumped in, I helped with the schooling. I was like, well, you know, I think excited, I didn’t know what. what to expect and then so I sort of realised I’ll just take a step back for my own well-being. Yeah, and I just focused on work and fitness and fun, spending time with family and friends and gave my partner time with the children to try to help him deal with his emotions. And looking back, Natsy, it’s so easy to look back and think, oh, I should have done it differently, but I sort of wanted to help him and I spent a lot of time and effort trying to help him, not fix him, but just make him feel better, even though it wasn’t up to me to fix, it was up to him to go through. And then I realised that I was getting down because I was taking on everything that he was going through. And so I took a step back, but I also maintained an order to maintain that closeness with him.

Laura Jenkins: Sounds like you did all the right things, Caroline, from what I have learned over the years in my journey and the experts I’ve spoken to. But really focusing on that couple relationship as your key priority is so important. And that’s the reason you’re in this situation in the first place, because of that connection with one another. So really putting that time.

Caroline Neale: And that made it worthwhile to keep going. So if I didn’t have that connection with him, it wouldn’t have worked because you go through so much that you need to have that strong connection.

Laura Jenkins: Otherwise, it’s just too hard. And when you said that you started to feel down because of his mood and the way that he was feeling from the conflict, Were you able to shake that over time and get to a point where it didn’t affect you, that conflict?

Caroline Neale: Yes. So I noticed sort of early on he was struggling. The main thing was he had a lot of trauma from the separation and not being with his children 24-7, because he was such a full-on hands-on dad, loved his girls, and that’s what drew me to him. He had such a big heart and he had so much love for these kids and then he’s not seeing them often, so he was dealing with that on top of other things. I’m quite good, like if I am starting to, you know, get a bit down, I’ll turn it around. And sometimes I would feel guilty because he was sort of suffering and I was like out sort of having fun, having, you know, sort of me time. But you can’t fix what’s happened and you can’t make it better for him. So I also sort of knew I had to look after myself and my daughter.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah, that’s spot on. You’ve got to focus on yourself and that self-care piece is huge and building that resilience so that you’re able to show up as the best version of you and be the best partner you can and be the best step-mom you can and be the best biological mom that you can.

Caroline Neale: There’s a lot of roles and then you sort of focus on one area and the other area goes a bit off. course. And then, so I was also focusing so much on my relationship and with the ex and with the kids that my own daughter sort of got, um, not as much support as I needed to give her. So that was quite a big thing as well. I thought she was okay. Cause she was a teenager and you, you sort of, yeah, I thought she was coping better than she was. So that was a big thing I missed.

Laura Jenkins: How did that play out with your teenage daughter over time?

Caroline Neale: That was really, really tough. That was really tough. My partner, because we didn’t know much about blended families, he came in, I think, thinking that he could be like a father figure. And so he would sort of act like a father figure, but she sort of hadn’t had one. Our parenting styles were really different. I was quite laid back, but she was doing so well. I had my rules, but they were different than his. And he also hadn’t raised teenagers.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah, you were a few years ahead in terms of the age difference.

Caroline Neale: Yep, yep, and the parenting style. So that really affected my teenage daughter. Well, she’s losing her mum, a part of her mum, because she’s having to share her mum with, you know, sort of another.

Laura Jenkins: little family almost. Yes, and was she going back to a biological dad as well?

Caroline Neale: No, so she just had me which sort of made it harder for her as well because our bond was so close and we lost that bond for a little while. Yes.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah, there’s so many dynamics at play from all the individual perspectives. I want to come back to something you spoke about earlier, which was your role. And you said one of your coping mechanisms was to step back from being so hands-on with the girls. and letting your partner do the parenting. So that’s something that is so important with stepfamilies is getting really clear for the stepmum on what is that role and the role can change as well as it did in your case over time. But something that I always encourage of stepmums I speak to is to have that conversation with the partner up front and agree on what that role is. How involved will I be when it comes to helping with homework or do I go to school assemblies or do I do pickups and drop-offs and just getting quite clear on defining what that is and then there’s no ambiguity there and that can make it much easier than in your day-to-day to know how you operate at that time in the family. Yes, definitely. So has it changed again, your role, Caroline?

Caroline Neale: No, I’ve sort of always wanted to be, I found that I did my parenting with my teenager and I’m like, this is your time to parent because the mum is in the picture and heavily involved. I’m like, you two are capable of parenting. I also think that kids need their parents to parent. Yep. So I’m really enjoying this part of it, because I just get to do the fun things. I’ll support my partner if he’s like, oh, I don’t know what to do with rules and things like that, and we’ll talk about it together. And then I just leave it up to him to decide what he wants to do. I’ll just say how I think and feel. But at the end of the day, I support his choice, because no one’s a perfect parent, and he might want to do it differently than I did.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah, I think that’s spot on, Caroline, in terms of that approach and letting the parents stay in the parent lane and you being there as the bonus parent who’s there to provide that support and encouragement to the children and to your partner. So it sounds like you’re handling that dynamic really well.

Caroline Neale: Yeah, I mean, sometimes he wouldn’t listen to me and I’d get a bit frustrated with the parenting. Like he was frustrated probably with my way of parenting. So that’s quite a big thing, I think, and a big issue in blended families.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah. And with that, do you find you have to learn to let go of ways that you’ve done things?

Caroline Neale: Uh, yes, I did. And I was quite good at letting go, but I also, I’m, I’m sort of a laid back sort of style, but I do have boundaries. So I know when I’m starting to get stressed or something’s becoming an issue, then I’ll deal with, I want to deal with it. Yes. Yeah. I don’t want it to just keep getting worse and worse. And then I don’t want to not say anything and feel sort of resentment.

Laura Jenkins: No. No. So what would be an example of a boundary, Caroline, if you don’t mind sharing a boundary that you would have in place?

Caroline Neale: Well, the kids, my stepdaughters are really, really good, but we’ve just got a few issues with the older one. She’s nearly 18. And yeah, something just happened between us and our relationship and it just got to a level that was too much for me and I said to my partner, We’re going to have to set a boundary here. It’s not working the way it is. And he was really supportive and he listened to me. And it was a tough one because it’s his child and it was really hard, but I think I’m lucky because I was quite happy to support everything else and he understood why I was setting a boundary. Because most of the time I did leave it up to him. I left the parenting up to him and I just sort of bite my tongue. And he was a really good dad, so I was lucky. He would sort of spoil them a little bit, but that was, you know, I was just like, you know, he doesn’t see them much. And I could see how that was sort of affecting the older one, as it does children if you sort of get that, you know, get spoiled.

Laura Jenkins: Yes. Do you mean the dynamic between your daughter and his daughters?

Caroline Neale: They were okay. They were quite separate because of the age. Okay. Yeah. Right.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah. Okay. So you mean when you say the older one, you mean the elder of his two?

Caroline Neale: Oh, my older, yeah, my eldest daughter. Okay. Yeah, so we did have conflict there and she’s getting some help because I think she always had trauma from the separation of her parents, her parents separating. And she never got therapy or help to deal with it. And that’s something that I really wanted for her, but it wasn’t my place because I wasn’t the bio parent. And I did push for it. That’s something that I really wanted. But at the end of the day, as step parents, you don’t have any legal rights. And that’s something that really frustrated me. And now it’s sort of, yeah, it’s a lot tougher because you’ve left it so long. So it’s better to sort of deal with the trauma that the kids are facing and help them. But they sort of get lost in the conflict.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah. Oh, definitely. It can be so challenging for kids who are navigating all sorts of different emotions and loyalty binds with the biological mom and all of that sort of thing. So I think getting support is so important. Is it something that you would talk to your partner about when you say you were pushing for that?

Caroline Neale: Yes, I would talk to him and I was frustrated, but at the end of the day, you have to sort of accept your limitations. And just do the best that you can do in the situation, like I would try and support the children and really look after them. But I could see a few issues with the older one struggling a bit and I just really wanted her to get that help. She is getting it now, which is really good and it’s helped a lot. Oh good. It’s just about you have to be so patient sometimes.

Laura Jenkins: Definitely. Caroline, looking back now, so looking back 10 years ago to when you became a blended family, is there any advice that you’d give the Caroline of a decade ago?

Caroline Neale: Just read and research and talk to people as much as you can because it’s so easy to miss things or to get things wrong. And I just feel that we’re lucky now because there’s so much information out there like we didn’t know what we didn’t know back then. And just be aware that everyone has got so much trauma, even the ones that you think are strong and that are dealing with it. So that’s the tricky one, but just keep that connection and keep talking to your kids, especially teenagers, because sometimes the teenage years you can, yeah, it can be a bit tricky. So just spend time with them and take them out to eat. Definitely.

Laura Jenkins: I think we’ve had a whole episode on teenagers and blended families because teenagers, as we all know, are tricky at the best of times, but you’re now nearly at the tail end of three teenagers. Yes. Okay. And then you’ll be into the next phase of your blended family life where you’ll have potentially weddings and buying cars and all that sort of thing.

Caroline Neale: Yeah, so we’re sort of in the middle of that. No, but it’s definitely a lot easier now and we’re doing really, really well.

Laura Jenkins: Are there any other bits of advice that you would give to others who might be earlier in their journey and starting out in a new family and feeling like it’s all too hard?

Caroline Neale: Yeah, definitely. In the beginning, I wish that my partner and I had got a bit of help. with someone that had experience with blended families, just so that we could learn to communicate because your emotions are so strong that you can’t communicate sometimes. So you just put it off because it’s just too hard. And we didn’t, we struggled because we couldn’t talk because emotions were so hard. So we definitely, I wish that we’d got help in the beginning, from a therapist or a counselor or a coach just to help us. deal with setting the foundation. Yes. Because it’s so important to be able to talk through your emotions to solve problems because there’s always going to be issues. Another big thing I think really is just to do some emotional regulation, to learn about your emotions and your feelings because I wasn’t taught about feelings or emotions and especially men as well. They’re sort of the more strong, silent type. My partner’s very good though.

Laura Jenkins: Talking about his feelings. I’m such a fan of the emotional regulation piece and getting good at naming those emotions and recognizing them in the moment. And it’s hard. It takes a lot of practice to get good at this. But if you can get to the place where you say, okay, what is it I’m feeling? Gosh, that’s making me feel really angry. Okay, why am I feeling angry? What’s causing that anger? And just starting to unpack it and then responding rather than reacting in the heat of the moment.

Caroline Neale: Yes. Yeah. And we are human, so we still react now and then, but it’s definitely getting easier and it’s making a huge difference.

Laura Jenkins: Fantastic. Oh, that’s terrific, Caroline. Well, you’ve got so many good insights and first-hand advice that I’m sure people listening are going to find this so helpful just to know that what they’re going through, that they’re not alone and this is your somebody who’s just been living these sorts of issues. So I think it’s really, really brave of you to come on and share some of those. And yeah, I know that’s going to be a huge support to others who know that they’re not the only one going through some of these things.

Caroline Neale: Yeah, definitely.

Laura Jenkins: Yeah. Thank you. Are there any final tips or bits of advice you’d like to share before we finish up?

Caroline Neale: I think just take the time to have fun with your partner. We laugh. We laugh the whole way through. Just keep that connection. Keep date nights or just having fun together.

Laura Jenkins: We’ve got a year’s worth of date nights blocked out in the diary, but you’ve just got to make it happen. Make it non-negotiable.

Caroline Neale: Yeah, exactly. Just having fun together at home. Yeah, just laughing, I think, even as a family gets you through. So it’s not all doom and gloom.

Laura Jenkins:
Absolutely. Well, Caroline, if anyone listening would like to reach out to you, what’s the best way for them to get in touch?

Caroline Neale: I’m on Facebook, my Facebook page Caroline Neal, so that’s the easiest way.

Laura Jenkins: Thank you again. I so appreciate your time and it’s just been lovely chatting. Thank you, you too. Thanks for listening to the In The Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are available at And if you like what you heard, be sure to subscribe and please rate and review in your podcasting app. You can also follow me on Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.

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