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Evil Stepmom


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Spring Showers and Summer Weddings

Each spring, Dear Evil Stepmom receives loads of letters from stepmothers of young brides-to-be about summer weddings that are just around the corner. These stepmoms are worried about their stepchildren planning expensive events the family can’t afford. They’re concerned about spending time with their husband’s former wife at pre-wedding events. They’re distressed about being excluded from important wedding-related decisions. And, above all else, they’re upset about being made to feel invisible as the mother and father of the bride join together around the wedding planning process and the responsibilities of co-hosting the celebration itself.

If you’re a stepparent anticipating the wedding of a young adult stepchild, now is a good time to think about how this major life event is affecting you, your relationship with your mate, and your entire stepfamily system. To help you get started, we’ve collected some of the most common challenges and concerns we hear about young adult stepkids’ weddings, and put together ideas to help you get through the chaos, stress, and outsider-ness that so often comes with stepkid weddings.

Suspend judgment. There are few times in a woman’s life when she is more sensitive to criticism that the when she’s planning her wedding. Twenty-five years later, I can still hear my stepmother saying, “But orchids are funeral flowers!” when I told her about the floral arrangements I was planning for my first wedding.

One young woman complained that her stepmother was being controlling by saying that the bride’s dress code of “formal casual” was “oxymoronic.” While this stepmom was right about the confusion that the bride’s word choice might create, she was wrong to use language that made her stepdaughter feel judged. If she really wanted to be helpful, she might have said, “Jenny, while I’m sure you have a clear vision in your head about what you want people to wear, those two words are opposites, and they might confuse your friends and family. Maybe you could talk to your bridesmaids about the attire you want people to wear to your wedding, then ask them to suggest words you might use to describe it in a way that will help your guests know what to wear, and what to expect.”

Watch out for little things you say and do—even when you only mean to be helpful—that might be construed as judging or correcting. By being mindful of your tone—and your nonverbals (e.g., eye rolling)—you can avoid lighting up an already anxious young person who needs support, encouragement, and a whole lot of slack right now. If you can do this, you’ll avoid creating unnecessary tension between the two of you at an already touchy time in your stepdaughter’s life.

Don’t agree to do things you can’t handle. Sometimes a young bride will ask for more than a stepmother can pull off with grace. As one savvy stepmom told her stepdaughter when they discussed the bride’s long-weekend bachelorette party in Las Vegas, “No bride should be expected to spend three days in close quarters with her mother and stepmother, even under the best of circumstances.” By gently and politely declining an invitation, proposing an alternative, or using a neutral (and truthful) excuse, you can save your stepdaughter—and yourself—a lot of unnecessary stress.

You can almost always find a gracious way out of something you’re not comfortable with by offering to do something else you’re uniquely good at, or coming up with another option. Most brides-to-be would welcome an extra pair of hands to stuff invitation envelopes or help run wedding-related errands. An offer to pet-sit, pick up the mail, or water their plants while they’re on their honeymoon can be a personal and priceless gift to the new couple. And what young woman wouldn’t appreciate being treated to a manicure and lunch date at a nice restaurant?

Don’t worry about things being equal, even, or fair for you. Focus on being helpful and supportive in ways you won’t begrudge later, and you may end up adding more value than you’ll ever know.

Be there without becoming smaller
or needing to be bigger. ~ ESM

Create your own role. Your most important jobs as stepmother of the bride (or groom) are to be a great First Lady to your husband, a unilaterally constructive supporter of the new couple, and an involved family member. A stepchild’s wedding isn’t about you, all you’ve done for her, or your place in the family. It's about a young couple having a great launch, and there are lots of unique ways you can help.

My stepdaughter and her fiancé struggled with whether or not to include children in their wedding and reception, given how many kids there were among the bride and groom’s families and their many friends. This was extra tricky since a few of these children were going to be involved in the ceremony. So the couple came up with a clear but rather complicated formula to determine which little people of what ages would be invited to which parts of the celebration in order to avoid additional expenses and hurt feelings. Sensing my stepdaughter’s frustration with the number of emails she was receiving asking the question, “are kids invited?” I took it upon myself to get clear about the couple’s policy regarding children’s attendance, and to communicate their wishes to our friends and family members with kids. It wasn’t a glamorous job, but it wasn’t difficult for me, and I know it saved her from having to feel like the bad guy every time the question came up from an aunt, uncle, second cousin, or friend of the family. Plus I got to connect with several guests before the big day, which was a terrific bonus for me.

By finding ways to promote clear communication about the event to friends and family, I was able to help the bride and groom handle the wedding workload while channeling my own pre-wedding jitters in a positive, constructive direction. By finding a role for yourself that will be good for the family and a good fit for you, you can stay connected to the couple's preparations in ways that help everyone do better and be better.

Focus on why weddings matter. Try to remember that young adulthood is full of firsts, and a wedding is the first big event most young people plan on their own. Even if it’s going to be a small gathering, even if they have a wedding planner, even if the bride’s mother (and sister, and aunt) is involved, the young couple will be making hundreds of decisions and choices that will test their maturity and their relationship. They need the important people around them to support the process, regardless of whether we like the particular decisions that are being made.

While the wedding industry has become a huge moneymaking machine in many countries, this is no time for you to lose site of what a wedding is really about. It’s a chance for two young people starting out in the world to declare their commitment to one another, to plan how they want to do that, to work together to make it happen, and to have the people they care about the most with them when they do it.

A wedding is also a chance for young people to practice making decisions (and mistakes) and taking stands for themselves, with each other, with their parents (and stepparents), and in their extended families. And that’s really what it’s all about—doing something important, together, on their own. (Even if we’re paying for it.)

Young couples learn a lot from their wedding planning process. Mistakes will get made, someone will feel left out, drama will happen. Any tension, conflict, or strife that a couple encounters in the run up to their wedding will only help them prepare for marriage—but it shouldn’t come from you. So don’t worry about whether they’re doing it “right,” don’t worry about what other people think, and don’t worry about yourself. Focus on supporting the young couple’s self-definition, their independence, and their successful launch, and you will be rewarded with stronger, smarter, more self-standing family members down the road.

Give them a one-year free pass. This is an advanced approach, but if you’re a pretty calm stepmom, you can do it. From the moment the couple announces their engagement, tell yourself that you are going to let everything slide. You can handle anything for one year—being ignored, marginalized, left out, taken advantage of, asked to do silly things, or not invited to participate in important events. Remember: none of it will matter 10 years from now anyhow.

The payoff for taking this position is that you will be free to turn your attention other places—your work, your son’s college application process, your vegetable garden—while others get swept up in the wedding planning frenzy. Plus, when you do get invited, included, consulted, or thanked, you will be pleasantly surprised and genuinely happy. And neither you nor your stepchild will have repair work to do after the honeymoon, because you will already have let it go.

The Ex Factor.  You are married to a man who has a former spouse. If they've had conflict since you've been on the scene, you have probably taken his side. If there's been distance between them, you may not know her. Either way, your husband's ex-wife is not likely to be your biggest fan. When it comes to your stepchild, however, you are an in-law--related to the child by marriage just like her new in-laws will be, just like many of her aunts and uncles already are. Naturally, your stepchild's mother comes ahead of her in-laws in the family pecking order. You understand and support this. You know that if your stepchild's mom is doing well in the world, your stepchild will do better in the world. Which is why, like all good family members, you are for her mother. 

When there has been a distant or tense relationship with your husband's former spouse, pre-wedding events can be anxiety-inducing. Which makes this the perfect time for you to figure out how to separate your husband's ex-wife from your stepchild's mother. Work hard on your practice of keeping these two people separate in your mind. Over time you will find it much easier to be polite, gracious, and just to the warm side of neutral with your stepchild's mother, no matter what's gone down between your husband and his ex.

Keep your marriage on track.
Take care not to let every conversation with your husband be about the wedding—or the expense, or the disgusting chicken liver canapés that will be served, or the fact that your kids aren’t being invited. There will be life—and marriage—after your stepchild’s wedding.

Make plans for a “shadow honeymoon.” While work, exercise, and meditation all help, one of the best ways to get through the stress of a young adult stepchild’s wedding is to have a little romance of your own to look forward to. Whether it’s a weekend road-trip to wine country or a week on the beach in Maui, you and your husband will need some time to decompress and reconnect after the wedding hoo-ha is over. So make a plan—and a budget—for a relaxing getaway with your mate. Then, when things get icky, sticky, or overwhelming, close your eyes and remember that you have something to look forward to that won’t involve guest lists, cake crises, or budget conflicts with the ex—just you, your sweetheart, and a bottle of champagne to toast your good work together.

Learn More, and Help Others
To learn more about the specific challenges individual stepfamilies face around young adult weddings and how other stepfamilies have handled them, please visit the Dear Evil Stepmom tab above. There you’ll find actual letters from brides-to-be struggling with divorced and remarried parents, and from stepmothers of soon-to-be-brides struggling to do their best at an emotional—and potentially wonderful—time for the whole family.

If you have already participated in the wedding of a young adult in your stepfamily, we need your help. Please share your experience, what you learned, and your tips to help other stepparents and remarried parents avoid some of the pitfalls that inevitably trip us up around young adult weddings.

If you don’t find any ideas that work for you and your unique situation, please write to Dear Evil Stepmom at We look forward to hearing from you!

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