Toronto Star

HAPPY MIX: Christine Thatcher, back left, and Misha Doig, back right, have managed to develop a true friendship. In front, from left, are Curt Thatcher holding Aaron Thatcher, 3, John Doig, 8, Cassie Doig, 10, Justin Doig, 2, and Dave Doig.

Monday, January 18, 1999

The stepmom thing really can work

Putting kids' needs first is key to creating good relationship

By Gayle Vassar Melvin
Special to The Star

WALNUT CREEK, CALIF. - Misha Doig was thrilled to become an instant mom to Cassie, now 10, and John, now 8, when she married their dad four years ago.

She was less enchanted, however, with the other relationship her new marriage brought: the one with Dave Doig's ex-wife, Christine Thatcher.

``We picked up and dropped off the kids at Christine's for a full year because I couldn't bear to have her come to my house,'' Misha Doig says as Thatcher listens.

``We were like this when we'd see each other,'' says Thatcher, as both women demonstrate forced smiles through clenched teeth.

Today, it's a different story. Thanks to monthly meetings, perseverance and a determination to put Cassie and John first, the women have developed a true friendship. Thatcher even slept over when Doig hosted Cassie's 10th birthday party this month.

``When I told my boss, he said, `I'd never allow that!' '' Thatcher adds merrily.

Still, no one is claiming that creating a relationship between biological mother and stepmother is a simple matter. After all, both women in the equation have been intimate with the same man and both have relationships with the same children.

``It tugs at the very essence of who we are,'' says marriage, child and family counsellor Karen Sloma. ``The new wife may wonder, `Will I be good enough?' The former wife may worry, `Will I lose my children?' It is a historically feminine cat-fight issue.''

It's also an increasingly relevant issue as the divorce rate remains high and ``blended'' families become more commonplace.

With the recent release of Stepmom, starring Julia Roberts as the reluctant stepmother and Susan Sarandon as the resistant ex-wife, the topic finally has received the Hollywood treatment. The movie has been endorsed by the Stepfamily Association of America for its portrayal of decent adults who struggle to put the children's best interests first, despite their own insecurities and fears.

``There has been a shift . . . in perceptions of stepfamilies,'' says Emily Visher, who founded the association with her husband John. ``The original thinking was that you would never see the person you divorced without animosity. Now people have begun to realize what a difference it makes to the children, and to the adults, too, if they can co-operate.''

The new stepparent can help by assuring the biological parent that she knows she can never take her place, Visher says. Biological parents can help by letting the child know it's all right to like the stepmother.

``It is very hard to do initially,'' she admits. ``You just have to realize it is going to get easier over time.''

While movie moms Roberts and Sarandon work out their differences in a year, it's not always that way in real life, says therapist Liz Hannigan.

``I've worked in this field for 10 years and I rarely see it,'' she says.

But it's not impossible, she adds. In fact, Hannigan became close friends with her own daughter's stepmom. When the other woman divorced Hannigan's ex-husband after 10 years and later married someone else, Hannigan was at the wedding.

``I just realized over time that this woman was not my enemy,'' Hannigan says.

The new wife may wonder, `Will I be good enough?' Former wife may worry, `Will I lose my children?'

``She was not trying to take my daughter away from me. She just loved her and as a result my daughter has gained an extended family she wouldn't have had otherwise.''

Not every stepmother or biological mother will become friends and that's okay, says therapist Anthony Carpentieri, who heads a stepfamilies group. Instead, he suggests trying for a warm business relationship, with minimal emotional involvement.

He recommends the book Mom's House, Dad's House (Fireside, $17.50) by Isolina Ricci, as ``pretty much the standard'' for stepfamily issues.

At least in the beginning, the biological parents should continue to make arrangements for the sharing of the children, says Carpentieri.

``It makes much more sense for the parents to communicate and not push for a relationship with the new spouse,'' he says. ``Like with anything involving stepfamilies, you need to take some time with it.''

Unlike a first marriage, where expectations are untainted by loss, the creation of a stepfamily exists only because of loss, notes therapist Susan Posner.

It's only natural, then, that there be tension, even sorrow, in the stepmother/biological mother relationship, especially at the outset. It's when that tension escalates into territorial fights over the children that things get out of hand.

``The parents need to realize they each have a unique relationship with the child and they are not in competition with each other,'' Posner says.

In some cases, the children themselves make trouble between biological parents and stepparents, Posner says. ``Children are experts at divide and conquer. I am always cautioning people that if the child tells them the stepparent said something that doesn't sound right, check it out with the stepparent.''

Sometimes the parents in either house aren't able to resist badmouthing their perceived competition. If that happens, Visher offers this script for parents so the child won't feel stuck in the middle: ``Say, `We are sorry they feel that way about us, but they don't live in this house, so they don't really know what it is like here now.' It doesn't put down the other household, but it gives the children the opportunity to understand they can make their own judgment.''

In Doig's and Thatcher's case, they were motivated to work together because they'd each grown up as children of divorce.

``It was really hard for me at first, to have two families and to be a stepchild,'' Doig says. ``My parents tried, but it wasn't as collegial as it could have been at first.''

Over the years, however, the adults formed close ties. When Doig's son Justin, 2, was born, her mother and stepmother were both in the delivery room.

For Thatcher, it was the memory of not seeing her own father after her parents' divorce that pushed her to try for something different for her own children.

``I didn't really do it for Misha, but for the kids to have a relationship with their father,'' says Thatcher.

``But when I saw how much Misha loves them, I realized it was in all our best interests to work things out.''

She admits she was intimidated by Misha Doig's college background and envious when Doig's work schedule gave her the time to work in Cassie's and John's classrooms.

``My emotions said one thing, but I knew that if I gave in to them, the children would lose out,'' she says.

And Misha Doig says she was unsettled by the thought that Christine and Dave Doig had once had an intimate relationship. ``I had to set the jealousy aside. It's important not to get caught up in an imaginary world where there is still a relationship between your husband and his ex.''

Dave Doig played a key role in easing the friendship between his new wife and ex-wife. Sometimes his efforts were rebuffed, as in the beginning, when he'd tell Misha that Christine was really a good person. But Dave persevered.

``I can't stand it when I see kids divided up between parents,'' he says. ``You can either be mean to each other and affect the kids in a negative way or you can be nice to each other and affect the kids in a positive way. I wanted the best for our kids.''

As for Christine's husband of two years, Curt Thatcher, the four-way parenting took some getting used to.

``It's blown me away,'' he says, sitting on the Doigs' living room floor. ``I didn't think we'd ever get to this point.''

Now the families go together to soccer games or parent-teacher conferences. They have dinner together once a month to co-ordinate rules and schedules.

Christine and Curt Thatcher's son Aaron, 3, loves to play with Misha and Dave Doig's son Justin. And Cassie and John Doig move comfortably between their two households, knowing all their parents like each other and love them.

Cassie knows it's not always that way for other children.

``Lots of kids at my school say their stepparents are real mean to them,'' she says. ``And I tell them, `Not mine.' ''


Contents copyright © 1996-1999, The Toronto Star.