A daily column featuring experts on how to survive and thrive during and after a divorce.
There are countless resources for soon-to-be brides – magazines, websites, companies devoted to planning and executing every detail of a wedding day. But where are the resources for women looking to end a marriage? The Pinterest boards with co-parenting inspiration? The Martha Stewart of divorce planning?
Meet Ilyssa Panitz, Divorce Journalist, Content Producer at The NADP, and Host of “The Divorce Hour with Ilyssa Panitz” on CRN Digital Talk Radio. After navigating her own divorce, she shifted from covering news and celebrities to a topic largely ignored in media: divorce. Her daily column in Medium’s Authority Magazine, 5 Things You Need to Know to Survive and Thrive During and After a Divorce, features experts to help navigate how to end a marriage. From therapists to attorneys to realtors and financial advisors, Panitz strives to provide women with the education and support they need throughout the divorce process and beyond.
Panitz’s goal isn’t to promote divorce, but rather to empower women who are facing the experience. She believes women deserve at least as much guidance when ending a marriage as they do when planning to start one, and we couldn’t agree with her more.
I was honored to be featured in her column as the first stepparent perspective on divorce and coparenting. You can read my interview below or click over to Panitz’s column, 5 Things You Need to Know to Survive and Thrive During and After a Divorce on Medium.
Ilyssa Panitz: You have a popular website called “Raise Magazine” that is designed to reach all kinds of moms. Expecting moms, new moms, working moms, single moms, divorced moms, and stepmoms. What motivated you to create a platform like this?
Jessica Butler: Becoming a stepmother myself. Step and single parenting are still largely ignored in parenting magazines. There is no “What To Expect When You’re Expecting Stepchildren,” yet 44% of women in America have either a stepchild, stepparent, or step or half sibling. 1 in 4 mothers are solo parents. Stories of co-parenting successfully and navigating divorce and blended families should be front and center in every mainstream parenting resource. Prior to Raise, I worked as a TV writer. Nothing is more powerful than storytelling and representation in media. I’m just using a different platform now.
You write about divorce. Have you seen or experienced divorce firsthand?
Only my husband’s, which I experienced from the sidelines. When I write about divorce, I do so from a co-parenting angle. We have amazing contributors with first-hand experience who write about divorce, single parenting and co-parenting.
Are there any benefits to marrying someone who has been divorced if the other person has not been divorced?
I absolutely benefit from the lessons he learned during his first marriage. He knows what he wants in a relationship, what he needs, what triggers him, and how to communicate those things to me. He’s taught me so much about how to sustain a partnership. But it’s his self-awareness and willingness to grow that benefits me, not his divorce.
When you married your husband, you became a stepmom to his two children. How would you describe the transition of blending into his family?
It was very easy for me, in part because he wasn’t single for very long before we started dating. The life he formed with the boys post-divorce included me from the beginning, so instead of me fitting into his family, the four of us built our own from scratch.
Every situation is going to be different. If some children are resentful towards the new stepparent, what tips can you provide to not get discouraged and keep trying to break down those walls to form a relationship?
I don’t have experience with stepchildren being resentful, but if I had a friend who was facing that situation, I’d say, “Invest as much time in your relationship with them as you did in your relationship with your spouse. Relationships take time to build. Seek out other stepparents and ask advice. Every other kind of parent has a stack of books and magazines and other resources to seek advice from. You deserve the same. You can’t solve this on your own.”
Do you feel society still has stereotype when it comes to stepmoms and if so, why should people be open to shift that old way of thinking?
Absolutely. We’re still vilified as wicked stepmothers. If we love our children as our own, we’re stepping on their mother’s toes, yet if we don’t love them as our own, we’re cold and evil. We need to shift our thinking and recognize that a child can love more than one mother, just like a mother can love more than one child. We seem to accept that if a child has two mommies who are married to each other. We applaud stepfathers who step up. Why are stepmothers treated differently?
How did you eventually find your place with the children?
It was very easy with my stepsons because their parents allowed them to love and accept other people from the beginning. It’s obviously much more difficult if your child sees you as the reason their parents are not together.
Did you sit down with the kids and ask them what title they would feel comfortable calling you (stepmom, bonus mom, BFF, loyal buddy)?
The boys and I had exactly one conversation about what they wanted to call me. Shortly after we met, Henry (9 at the time) said to me, “I have too many people in my life with J names. Can I change yours?”
“Sure. What do you want to call me?”
I found it appropriate, given its similarity to PMS, a condition which defines me at least two days a month.
The boys are now 22 and 27 and still call me Pmessica. I introduce myself as their stepmother, and depending on the situation, they refer to me as their stepmom, parent, and even mom.
Based on your experience, are there good exercises, activities or ice breakers people can do to get to know the children and allay their fears, they are not replacing the other parent?
I’m a total research junkie, so when I started dating a man with kids, the first thing I did was read everything I could find on the subject. One of the many books suggested “treating your time with the children as a date. Put effort into planning it, the same way you would for a date with your significant other.”
It’s such a simple concept that makes such a big difference. Warren and I had plenty of dates without the kids, but we also planned special activities to do with them. The first time I met the boys, the four of us went to a Angels game together. The second time was much more low key – we played board games and ordered pizza. Most “dates” were just afternoons spent at home, watching their favorite cartoons and playing whatever crazy games the two of them had invented. Indulging them. Spending time with them, not just with their dad.
Our time together also showed them that I was not there to replace their mother. I didn’t come over to help them brush their teeth or do their homework (though that came later). I came over to get to know them. To spend intentional time with them. To form a new family together, but never to try and replace or replicate the family they had with their mom and dad.
You wrote an article that centered on when a child says, “You’re Not My Mom.” How does a woman navigate around a situation like this and what are the right things to say in response?
It’s important to remember that kids often say the things they know will hurt you the most. It’s really no different than them saying “I hate you” to their biological parent, which I definitely did as a teen. Many times. Kids go for the jugular, and it’s better to block their shots than to fight back. Besides, it’s hard to fight against something that’s true. You’re not their mom. And in the moment, it’s important for you to acknowledge that.
When it happened to me, my response was, “You’re right, I’m not your mom. But I am your stepmom. I am one of your parents, and your dad and I make the rules in this house, and it’s important to both of us that you respect them.” For the record, we were fighting about putting the toilet seat down.
How did you break down barriers to form a healthy relationship with your husband’s “ex?”
We’ve always had a healthy relationship, and I give all the credit to her and my husband. They gave their children permission to love and accept the people in their parents’ life from the beginning. That makes ALL the difference. It’s important to realize “healthy” doesn’t mean perfect. We’ve had ups and downs and arguments, but I can say the same for me and my husband. And me and my mother. Co-parenting relationships are real and complicated and one big blowout shouldn’t end it. I have blow-outs with other members of my family all the time and I don’t cut them out of my life. Why should I treat her differently?
Why can having a good relationship with your spouse’s former husband/wife benefit everyone, especially the children?
Swap “good relationship” with “good working relationship.” Frame co-parenting as a business relationship. If you dislike (or even despise) your boss or co-worker, you find a way to grin and bear it because you have to in order to keep your job. Take the same approach to co-parenting. Your job is to provide a healthy environment for the children. You don’t need to be friends with your spouse’s ex in order to do that.
What did you learn about yourself when you became a stepparent?
That motherhood and pregnancy are two separate experiences.
In your opinion, what is a stepparent’s role when it comes to decision making? Should they have a voice, or do you feel these things are best left to the kid’s mother/father?
It’s different in every case. It depends on the ages of the children and the custody arrangement. If you’re a stepparent to a toddler, you’re going to be much more involved in their daily discipline. If your stepchildren only visit every third weekend, your parenting responsibilities are very different from someone with a week on/week off custody schedule. I do believe there are boundaries in stepparenting. House rules can vary (just like they would if your child was spending the night at a friend’s house) but the major decisions and parenting philosophies of your spouse and their ex need to be respected. My job as a stepmother is to honor and enforce the rules they have established.
My stepsons are Jewish and I am not. We have a Christmas tree in our home because it’s my home too, and it’s entirely appropriate for me to celebrate my traditions along with theirs. It would not be appropriate for me to start taking them to a Christian church service every weekend. See the difference?
Why can a stepparent have a positive influence on the children?
A stepparent is just like any other adult in your child’s life. We value the influence of teachers, coaches, nannies. We encourage these people to love our children, to teach them skills, to develop close relationships with them. Why should we want something different from a stepparent?
How can becoming a stepparent help someone grow?
Becoming a stepparent is a crash course in how to see outside yourself. In traditional parenthood, pregnancy and infancy give you more time to adjust to prioritizing your child’s needs over your own. Stepparents are asked to do it instantly with very little advice. Literally no one offered me parenting advice as a stepmom but everyone around me expected me to (step)parent well.
What are 5 things someone needs to know to survive and thrive during and after a divorce, especially if they are becoming a stepparent?
One: Treat co-parenting as a business relationship.
Two: Your stepchild has two homes, but only one family, which includes both you and your spouse’s ex.
Three: Other people’s opinions of what a stepparent should be does not define your role in your family.
Four: You don’t have to like your spouse’s ex to co-parent well.
Five: There are boundaries in step-parenting, but love is not one of them.