The stepmother-stepdaughter combination is the most difficult one that results from two families joining households. So can you imagine being the mother and stepmom of a total of five young women ranging in age from 14 to 21? That is precisely the position Margorie Engel, at the time a practicing Boston attorney, found herself in after marrying her second husband. Not all of the girls lived with Engel, but she has come to know them well and 15 years later she says, "I love all the kids."
Engel has managed to maintain a friendly relationship with each of these young women, but she is not oblivious to the unique problems that challenge stepfamilies.
Consequently, she became an advocate and spokesperson for stepfamilies, developed an expertise in legal issues that affect stepfamilies, authored two books on related topics, and currently serves as president of the Stepfamily Association of America.
Whether or not a step-mom is able to carve out a successful relationship with her stepdaughter is sometimes beyond her control, particularly if a biological mom is not supportive of the friendship. Even when a mother is deceased, her idealized ghost competes with the step-mom and prevents acceptance, Engel explains.
Engel attributes her own success to…
- The fact that she had biological daughters and was already aware "that the mother-daughter relationship is fraught with a lot of tough terrain in the best situations."
- Understanding that the most she should expect was to become friends with her stepdaughters, not replace their biological mother. "It really comes to expecting to be a friends."
- Realizing that "trying to blend a family sets up a mythical situation."
- Allowing the biological parent to deal with issues of visitation, finances, and discipline.
- Helping out in areas in which there was some common ground, such as their careers.
- Trying to understand and respect the position of her stepdaughter's mother.
- Not making a major deal when the girls' biological mother did not want her to attend a special function such as a bridal luncheon, even though she felt awful inside.
- Not engaging her stepdaughters in conversation about their private relationship with their biological mother.
- The fact that her husband too had children of similar ages as her own, and that as stepparents they had no disparity in tolerance, and that both of their families balanced out the time and commitment they had to other individuals.
Engel isn't blowing her own horn. There are conversations she wished she had engaged in with her stepdaughters when she married their father and things that should not have been said when times heated up with her girls' stepmother and their father. Nonetheless, part of Margorie's empathy to everyone involved—her stepdaughters and their mother—has to do with her own daughters' inheriting a stepmom, too.