Susan Haworth, is a counsellor/author/speaker, stepfamily specialist and stepmum herself. With a monthly advice column in StepMom magazine in which she is affectionately known as “The Stepmom Whisperer., Susan has seen it all when it comes to stepfamilies and those navigating the intricate journey of blending families.
In this episode,, we dive deep into two of the common challenges that stepmums typically face and strategies to cope with them, along with some of the other key questions that come up among stepmums she works with time and time again.
Susan Haworth (00:00): We have to be compassionate with our partners about their feelings and their guilt feelings in particular. And I would say to start there
Laura Jenkins (00:13): 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.
(00:42): Welcome back to In The Blend. I’m thrilled to have a true expert with us today. Susan Howorth, counselor, author, speaker, stepfamily, specialist, and stepmom herself with a monthly advice column in Stepmom Magazine in which she’s affectionately known as the Stepmom Whisperer. Susan has seen it all when it comes to step families and those navigating the intricate journey of blending families. In our conversation, we dive deep into two of the common challenges that stepmom’s typically face and strategies to cope with them along with some of the other key questions that come up among stepmom’s time and time again. I so enjoyed this chat with Susan. If you’re a stepparent, I think you’ll particularly like this one too. So without further ado, let’s dive right in. Okay, Susan. Well, thank you so much for joining me today. I am so looking forward to our chat.
Susan Haworth (01:41): Thank you, Laura. I was thrilled to hear from you. Thank you.
Laura Jenkins (01:45): Oh, terrific. Well, Susan, to start off with, can you share a little bit about your background and also tell us how you became the stepmom whisperer for stepmom Magazine in the us?
Susan Haworth (02:00): Yeah, so I started off my career as a mental health counselor. I worked first actually with people who inpatient substance abusers, didn’t know what I was doing right out of graduate school. And then I started focusing on adolescents and family counseling. And that really interested me a great deal, family dynamics. And over the years I’ve changed into working in a corporate setting as an executive coach. I worked as a school-based counselor, working again with adolescents and their families. And about six, seven years ago, I decided that I really wanted to focus on stepparents and step family dynamics dynamic. I became a stepparent about 27 years ago, and I couldn’t find any resources at all. Back then. The magazine wasn’t around and there wasn’t much at all. And we weren’t talking about it much. We still aren’t talking about it enough, but that’s another story. So I really wanted to focus on helping Stepfamilies stepparents with their relationship and with the whole new system that they were in. And what I say, Laura sometimes is I wish I had me when I started 27 years ago because I really struggled mightily.
Laura Jenkins (03:36): So many step mumms do. And I think there’s just a million different factors that step Mumms can be grappling with. And no two situations are typically the same either are they?
Susan Haworth (03:49): Absolutely.
Laura Jenkins (03:50): Your monthly advice column in stepmom magazine offers guidance to stepmom’s facing various challenges. And I’ve read the last couple of columns, which I found immensely helpful myself. Can you highlight some of the common issues that stepmom’s are seeking your advice on?
Susan Haworth (04:09): I sure can. I mean, Laura, I think the top two are contentious relationships with their step children’s mother, their partner’s ex. That comes up all the time, and I’m kind of on a mission to see if I can help in that arena because it’s something that baffles me about how women are pitted against each other in Stepfamilies. And then the second most common question I get is about indulged step kids. So as parents now I’m a biological parent, I’m a stepparent and my daughter has a stepmother as well. So I kind of see it from different angles. And when biological parents indulge their kids, that’s up to them. And it usually goes no farther. It may irritate other people, but it’s usually not because there’s a whole different way that we approach first families. But when a stepmom comes in and she enters at whatever age, for me, they were teenagers, 12 and up, and it’s a whole different story. We see things differently than biological parents do, first families do. And so very often indulging the kids is something that really irritates stepmom, whether it’s buying expensive material goods or expensive experiences. So that’s a question I get lot is about the spoiled step kids and what to do about it.
Laura Jenkins (06:03): Let’s come back to the first one, the X. What are some of the typical coping strategies that you might offer up? If someone’s having trouble wrapping their head around this ex wife figure, being in the picture all of the time, what are some of the things that you would suggest to a stepmom who might be struggling with that?
Susan Haworth (06:23): Well, the first thing is we need to evict the third person from our marriage or our partnership, whatever it is. So we often let the person, it’s a boundary issue, and we let the person, the third person enter into our homes, either physically, sometimes, or emotionally. We talk about them all the time. We allow emails, texts to come in at odd hours. So setting boundaries with the X is really important. And this requires, we can’t solve our relationship issues by ourselves. So it requires collaborative problem solving. And one of the things simple thing that I suggest to all my clients is limit the conversations that you have about her or him if it’s your ex, whatever it is. But it’s usually the two women who are at odds. And I often say it’s like we’re following central casting of women being in a contentious relationship and we need to break that and we need to not fall into those roles.
(07:45): So limit the conversations you have about her once a week. If you need to speak about your partner’s ex, that’s okay, pick a time, but do not speak about her or anyone else in your bedroom at your dining room table. Pick a time and a place. One of my clients said that they were going to pick the garage. That’s what they were going to do. The garage was a place they were going to go in once a week and talk about those issues. That helps immensely. It’s a small thing, but it helps also. The other suggestion is how often are you going to entertain? Meaning look at emails and texts from the ex. Now when you’re co-parenting, there are some situations where you have to engage. Of course communication is really important, but not every day and certainly not multiple times a day. So set a limit and if it takes blocking the person’s emails, then so be it.
(09:02): There are also many applications where you can just set it up. So that’s my family wizard or family wizard, so that you don’t have to have it come into your personal email all the time. And then the other thing for stepmom is very often you decide as a stepmom, do you want to be CC’d or BCC’d on all the emails or do you not want to know? Very often I hear stepmom say, I imagine the worst. So I do want to know what those emails are saying and if it directly impacts, you need to know what they’re saying. And
those are issues around money. If there’s some, I need more money, I want more money. Money, let’s talk about money. The person, the stepmom needs to be involved in that because you’re in it together. So these are all the kinds of things that I suggest.
(10:04): The other thing is more of an emotional reaction. So we blame each other, we blame the stepmom, blames the bio mom. The bio mom blames the stepmom. Are we really blaming her for things that don’t have to do with her? I mean, I really, I’ve heard all kinds of stories where stepmom’s blamed the traffic on the mom. They have to really drive their step kids somewhere to her house or whatever and blame her for the traffic. And also I think we have a tendency to excuse our partners for their role in the
contentious relationship because that feels really scary. But sometimes our partners are fomenting this or have contributed to it by there being conflict avoidant perhaps. And that’s a big one. That was just the topic in one of my groups that I do, which I’ll let your listeners know about. But it seemed like a lot of our partners fell in the category of being conflict avoidant, and so they were actually contributing to the contentious relationship. So those are all things to look at, and they’re not easy, but we need to focus on our primary relationships, not the relationship with our partners.
Laura Jenkins (11:51): Yes, that’s such good. And in particular, the tip around not talking about the all the time and really refraining from going there and instead focusing on your own life and your own things that are going on. I think that’s so useful.
Susan Haworth (12:11): And I know I had to learn to do this because I didn’t do this initially and it was affecting my relationship with my husband.
Laura Jenkins (12:22): And then coming to the second theme that you touched on as well, so the overindulged stepchildren. In that scenario, what would be a coping strategy that you could offer up to a stepparent who might be struggling with that one?
Susan Haworth (12:40): Yeah, this is hard. This is harder. This is really harder because divorced parents, divorced dads in particular are notoriously permissive. It is the way that some divorce parents deal with their guilt over the trauma of divorce. But what we know for sure is that permissiveness and indulgences are not treatments for trauma. It just doesn’t work. So here’s where it gets tricky because we have to be compassionate with our partners about their feelings and their guilt feelings in particular. And I would say to start there, to start there with active listening and not with the indulgences, because the indulgences are a reaction to feeling the feelings of guilt. So start with active listening, which means that you listen to the feelings, you reflect back or you mirror back what you’ve heard. You show empathy like, gee, I can understand how you would feel that way. And then after that, after the active listening or multiple rounds of active listening, you can start problem solving by sharing your truth, which is, I know that we’re spending a lot of money on these expensive experiences for your kids, and it’s affecting me, it’s affecting our budget, it’s affecting me emotionally.
(14:30): Is there anything we can do about it? So we tend to react in the moment like, oh my gosh, we’re spending X amount on this vacation for them or this experience for them. That’s crazy. Do you know what this does to our budget? So you have to find a good time and place to have conversations. And it’s not when you are flooded with emotion, when you see the visa bill or whatever it is, that is not the time. So we have to pull back and we have to have an active listening and then follow by problem solving. I often suggest to my clients that they pick a time and day to talk about issues around their stepfamily or if it’s happening, if it’s an emergent situation, they might say, gee, this is really affecting me. When can we talk about it? And is tomorrow at eight o’clock a good time for you? But talking about it when you’re flooded with emotions usually doesn’t end well.
Laura Jenkins (15:49): Yeah, that’s right. That’s right. That makes perfect sense as well. And the idea of having that designated time again where you’re going to be in a stable, calm state of mind and you’re going to have that conversation together, then once that emotion has dropped down, I think is really solid advice. Sticking on that theme of emotions, I know that step parenting in general can be quite emotionally taxing at different times. How do you help stepmom’s manage their emotional wellbeing and maintain a positive outlook
Susan Haworth (16:31): Along the way? Right Laura? It’s a challenge at every stage. And I want to say that some of my younger stepmom often feel that they’re going to be home free when the kids turn 18. And I’m always appreciative when we have our groups that when there are older stepmom’s, because the challenges are different, but there are still challenges. So they may not be day-to-day challenges, and unless kids boomerang back and live in your house, which is another topic to talk about, but there are every step of the way. What I find is immensely supportive for new stepmom in particular is to be with other stepmom. And I have a strong belief in the power of groups, support groups. As a counselor, I always led support groups because I was so committed to them in mental health centers, in the schools, I did support groups. So now I have several different support groups that I offer stepmom.
(17:45): And because Laura, we feel so isolated, we feel so alone in our struggles. We feel that we’re not doing enough, we feel not good enough. And these were feelings I had 27 years ago. And I hear over and over again that this is common. And because we are isolated, we don’t talk about our struggles and it’s a good thing we don’t, because people don’t understand who aren’t in it, they still don’t understand, which baffles me just based on the numbers of stepfamilies there are out there. So I have support groups and I have one that is totally free. It’s public, it’s once a month, and I don’t know how the time would work for your Australian listeners, but it is 9:00 AM Pacific time, Pacific time. We always get people from the uk and it’s the first Thursday of every month and anybody can join and you can join once or you can keep coming back.
(19:00): And I hear over and over again how comforting it’s to hear that other people are struggling the way, not you. It’s not about you, it’s about the role. And that is so important to hear over and over again. I also have some smaller private groups that are for my clients, and they are fee-based, but they’re so that we can really dig in. But I find although I work with individuals and I work with couples, being in community is very powerful to know that you are not the only one struggling because it is a struggle and
acknowledging that it’s a struggle that you need support with and you can get through it. If you build that strong foundation with your partner, what’s going to help you, the kids hopefully are going to leave and they’re going to launch and they’re going to be on their own. And without that strong foundation, there won’t be much to fall back on. And I don’t suggest that people that stepmom’s live for that because you have to have a good relationship and you have to be able to survive and thrive where you are. And that’s where self-care, radical self-care comes in. It’s not just the normal get a pedicure kind of stuff. It’s where you have to take care of yourself and you have to be assertive with that.
(20:53): And that might mean going with girlfriends and getting out of the house and getting away occasionally as best you can. And it also means being in a support group and reading the Stepmom magazine, that’s a community itself
Laura Jenkins (21:17): And reading step. That’s it. That’s it. Reading the column and look, I think you’re right. I think it’s those pillars of a strong relationship. It’s then having that community and that network around you of others going through the same thing. And then it’s about the self-care and looking after number one as well, and making sure that you’ve got time factored into that busy schedule for yourself.
Susan Haworth (21:48): That’s a hard one for some stepmom’s in my practice, my stepmom’s are very often what I say, a call over functioning. They’re doing too much, they’re overdoing. And I mean, I think this is part and parcel of being a woman, at least in our culture society, we tend to over function, so they’re taking on more and more responsibility and then feeling resentment about it. So what I help stepmom with is letting go, letting go of a lot, letting go of their expectations, letting go of their fantasies of what life would be like and letting go of taking on what wasn’t theirs to begin with, that maybe we don’t need to help the kids with homework every night. Maybe we can put more on their parent, their biological parent, whoever that the bio dad, the bio mom, but not take on so much. And I talk about as many people do, staying in your own lane, first of all, defining what that is.
(23:10): What is the stepmom lane? It’s not the bio mom lane. It’s when we cross over that we burn out and that we anger maybe our step kid’s mom, because we’re doing things that we shouldn’t be doing. And that takes a lot of looking at and a lot of introspection too, because I know for myself that I had one biological daughter and I had fantasies of having a bigger family, and it didn’t work out. And so when I married my husband with three children, I thought, oh my God, this is my shot. Well, it didn’t work out the way I had fantasized. Let’s just put it that way. It didn’t work out the way we saw in sitcoms or in movies. So I had to let go of my fantasies and slowly, slowly I did that and it helped me survive because otherwise the disappointment can be overwhelming and heartbreaking at times. Especially, it might be more true even for stepmom who are child free, don’t have children of their own. And so you have to really look at your own disappointment and own it.
Laura Jenkins (24:45): Yeah. That’s so interesting. I think the letting go piece is really fascinating. And I’m thinking now about the act of actually doing that and being able to let go of these different feelings. Is it a matter of getting some support, getting some counseling, really working on the mindset in order to help you shift from that before state to that after state where you have let go of those emotions?
Susan Haworth (25:17): I think getting support is really critical, and however you do that is up to you. Certainly if you’re going to go to a therapist or a counselor, I would urge everyone to pick someone who is familiar with Stepfamily dynamics, because sometimes you can get some really bad advice. And I know this because some of my clients have come to me after getting some bad advice. So letting go and disengaging or two things we talk about a lot. And I think when it comes to first families, we don’t talk about that. That’s not something that anybody advises moms to do is to disengage so that when stepmom’s start pulling back a bit and disengaging, that means picking and choosing when they’re going to be fully present. It doesn’t mean being estranged from your step kids. There’s a fine line there, but picking and choosing when you’re going to be authentically present. And I don’t think many people who were in first families would advise that or understand that. So I have certainly had people tell me of diagnoses that they’ve gotten,
which are very unhelpful. So I would say make sure you pick someone who’s very familiar with Stepfamily dynamics.
Laura Jenkins (27:05): You’ve undoubtedly heard countless stepmom stories and questions in particular through the advice column. Can you share any final, particularly inspiring or interesting questions perhaps where your guidance might’ve made a significant difference potentially in someone’s life?
Susan Haworth (27:28): I just responded very recently to one that I think many of us have experienced, especially with older step kids, it’s about the silent treatment. So one of the dynamics that we experience as stepmom very often is we feel like outsiders even in our own homes. So this is exacerbated when our step kids who may be a little older, not little ones, don’t want to engage with us at all. They don’t look at us, they don’t talk to us, they don’t call us by name, and it feels terrible. And I think that we tend to take it very, very personally, and it’s not at all about us. It’s mostly about family loyalty issues, that if they look at us, if they engage with us, they’re somehow being disloyal to their mother. And so it’s very difficult. It’s also sometimes that they feel as if they acknowledge even our existence, then they’re acknowledging that they have two families now.
(29:00): They have a stepfamily. They might have a stepfamily on both sides and their own fantasies perhaps about their parents getting back together either or. They have to let go of those if they acknowledge that they don’t, that’s not happening. So it’s their own issues of hanging onto a fantasy. And the family loyalty is fierce. Fierce. And I think once we see that, we don’t get our feelings hurt quite as much. Once we acknowledge that they trying to cope with their new situation, which is traumatic. We don’t take it quite so personally. And I think that that is a lesson for all of us to learn who have been through that, who have experienced the silent treatment. Gosh, I have heard so many different stories about people at weddings, at graduations, and feeling like an outsider. And I think many of us have gotten to the other side with that. So there’s hope. There’s hope.
Laura Jenkins (30:15): Yes. Oh, absolutely. And I think that’s such a good reminder about the stepchildren going through their own stuff and their own grief perhaps, and that they ultimately need to learn to let go of those fantasies, as you said, but perhaps they haven’t got the emotional maturity yet to be able to do that, or they’re just not sure how to go about that. So not taking it personally as a stepparent, I think is such a powerful message there.
Susan Haworth (30:46): Yeah, it is. I think that’s not an easy thing to do, but it’s a necessary thing to do.
Laura Jenkins (30:52): Well, Susan, where can listeners go to connect with you and to discover your advice column as well, or your further work and resources?
Susan Haworth (31:03): Okay, well, thank you. So head on to stepmom magazine and through Instagram or the website and subscribe to the magazine because there’s just a wealth of information. All the contributors are stepmom, so you’ll get some really good advice there. And they also have a chat room too. My company that I do business under is combis coaching com. It’s CAMB, iOS coaching, C OA C-H-I-N-G com. I’m Susan at combis coaching com. I’m also on Instagram, and I do have a free group. I invite anyone to, you do have to register, so you have to pop onto my website. I offer free consultations and just contact me. And if you’re in Australia and you can’t find a time that works for you, contact me directly and we’ll find a time because you and I, Laura found a time that was great.
Laura Jenkins (32:14): We did. It was great for both of us. We absolutely did. Yeah. Oh, that’s terrific. Susan, thank you so much. What a fantastic resource you have available there through those sessions. And of course the column as well. And for those who aren’t familiar with stepmom Magazine, it’s stepmom, MON, the American Spelling, and you can submit questions to Susan as well. So there’s an opportunity to do that once you’re on the mailing list for that magazine. Well, we’ll definitely link to all of that in the show
notes. Once again, thank you so much, Susan. I have thoroughly enjoyed our chat today.
Susan Haworth (32:49): Thank you, Laura. This has been great fun for me.
Laura Jenkins (32:51): Thanks for listening to In the Blend podcast. The show notes for this episode are email@example.com au. 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.