Thoroughly Modern Mama
Mother of three Halley Dean talks real-life Parent Trap, evil stepmothers, and co-parenting with her ex-husband’s ex-wife.
Halley’s family includes her husband Joe and three children, Lucas (14), Asher (7), and Halo (3). Her family also includes her ex-husband Justin, who is Lucas’ father, along with Justin’s parents and siblings, to whom she is still close. And then there’s Justin’s ex-wife, Tammy, and her three children. Despite the fact that Tammy and Justin are now divorced, Tammy remains an active bonus mom to Halley’s son, Lucas.
A big part of my parenting and co-parenting philosophy is that families don’t get smaller. They only get bigger. So as much as Joe’s family is my family now, Justin’s family is still my family.
Halley credits her successful co-parenting relationships to her parents.
How old were you when your parents divorced?
They separated when I was in 6th grade and their divorce was finalized when I was in 7th, so I was 12 or 13 years old.
Your stepmother was straight out of a fairy tale. A dark fairy tale.
My stepmother was really vocal about the fact she was done raising children. She had five children of her own and to her great credit, raised them as a single parent. She never said “I hate you,” or anything like that, but she was very clear that [the house] was her space — for her and not us. For instance, she didn’t work on Mondays, those were her days off, so we weren’t allowed in the house on Mondays.
Despite their divorce, your parents remained friends and successfully co-parented you and your two siblings.
They had a phenomenal co-parenting relationship, and I wanted to be like them. My mom was always diplomatic to my stepmother. My stepmother would probably tell you that out of all of us, my mother was the nicest to her. My mom tried really hard to be gracious and understanding and to work with her. I always say I know more about being an ex-wife than I do a wife because my parents were such fantastic co-parents.
And then your parents remarried.
They got back together when I was 29, and you could have knocked me over with a feather. It never happens in real life.
They were always great friends. They were always at our events together, we celebrated holidays today, went on vacations together, so my parents being in the same space was not an unusual thing. But I did not see it coming. They got remarried when I was 33.
What is your current relationship with your ex-husband, Justin?
I would not describe my relationship with him as close, but it’s cordial and friendly. Justin and I don’t have a problem occupying the same space and being present together at Lucas’ events. I just saw him this weekend. His little sister graduated, so we went up to Minneapolis and actually stayed at his parents’ house. They had a ton of family staying with them, and a lot of that family was Justin’s mother’s ex-husband’s family. I’m going to draw you a chart…
You still consider Justin’s parents to be your in-laws.
I do. I’m very close with his family. A big part of my parenting and co-parenting philosophy is that families don’t get smaller. They only get bigger. So as much as Joe’s family is my family now, Justin’s family is still my family. My two younger children call Justin’s parents Grammy and Papa. We treat all the children the same. I really don’t like the word “step.”
After you divorced, Justin remarried. You developed an amazing co-parenting relationship with his wife, but it didn’t start off that way.
When Justin and I were married, we lived in Colorado. After we split up, I moved back to Kansas with Lucas. Our divorce was not amicable, but because there was so much physical distance between us, I was not forced to get over myself and co-parent. We weren’t sharing custody and passing Lucas back and forth. Justin and I went months without speaking because we could. I didn’t react very well when Tammy came into the picture. She was not a factor in our divorce whatsoever, but when she came into his life, I did my level best to pretend that she did not exist. I was still dealing with the fallout of my marriage. It happened really suddenly. I was still in love with him. The whole thing was really painful to me. But it wasn’t a reaction Tammy deserved.
I wasn’t good at co-parenting out of the gate. People give me a lot of credit, but I was actually spectacularly bad at it for many years.
There were situations where she needed to be able to communicate with me, and I just refused. Justin was deployed and she was handling the sale of our Colorado house. I would not answer the phone. I would not respond to emails. I would not even read the emails.
She would send gifts for Lucas and I would give him the presents, but I would roll my eyes like, “Ugh, this woman is trying to ingratiate herself with my son,” which is completely the wrong attitude to have. I look back on it now, and I’m just too embarrassed by my behavior.
When did your behavior change?
It took three years. Justin called me and said that he and Tammy were coming to Kansas City and wanted to take Lucas for the week. I don’t know what came over me, but I said to him, “I want to talk to Tammy about it. Put her on phone.”
I was sweating bullets. I was terrified. My heart was beating out of my chest. But by then I had dealt with my feelings about our marriage ending and I was no longer in love with him. I had this epiphany in that moment: Why are you still ignoring this woman? The reasons you justified to yourself for ignoring her are no longer a reality, so why are you still doing it? It sort of hit me all at once.
He put her on the phone, and she and I talked for probably four or five hours. She was so gracious and lovely and forgave my horrendous and immature behavior. I was 27 at the time, and she is 10 years older than me. Her ex-husband is remarried, so she’s been on the other side of the situation. She has previous experience with bonus parents.
She had full license to be just a huge bitch to me. I deserved it. My behavior was abhorrent. But she was so lovely to me during that conversation, and so gracious.
She and I are so similar. Our theories on parenting and how you should treat people and what families should look like are very similar. My ex has great taste in wives.
From that first phone conversation, I just fell madly in love with her. She and Justin were not married at the time, and I remember telling him, if you don’t marry her, I’m going to, because she’s amazing.
Justin and Tammy are divorced now, but Tammy still remains an active bonus mom to Lucas.
Yes. She and I still co-parent. She has three children — Hailey (26), Cody (17), and Lucas’s half-brother, Ryland, who’s six. Another big bonus of blending our families is that Lucas, who was my first born, always wanted an older brother. Always. With the addition of Tammy into our family, he got the older brother he’s always wanted. Lucas thinks the sun rises and sets on Cody. Tammy’s youngest son, Ryland, and my son Asher are the same age and best friends. We had Ryland at our house this week.
Our situation is luckier than the average. Not everybody is in a position where they can blend as seamlessly as we have.
Lucas calls Tammy Mom.
Yes, he does. And he calls [my husband] Joe Dad. People have asked us over the years if we problems with that. Or they say, “Oh, I could never let my children call another woman Mom.” It’s much easier said than done, but you have to take your own ego out. I don’t have a problem with him calling Tammy Mom for two reasons: number one, I know who I am to my son. I know the relationship I have with him. I know how he feels about me. Number two, he calls her Mom because he feels close to her. His brothers call her Mom. Tammy came into his life when he was three, and Joe came into his life when he was six. He doesn’t want to separate himself out from his siblings, and that’s a good thing. Tammy takes care of him like he’s her child. Why wouldn’t he call her Mom?
You have to take out your own hurt feelings and say, what’s the best case scenario for my child? It makes me happy that he calls her Mom.
Once I got my head out of my ass and decided that it was important to co-parent well, I realized and was grateful for how lovely Tammy has always been to Lucas. She never made him feel less than, like he wasn’t accepted, or like he wasn’t one of her own children.
Lucas is always with me on Christmas. When Tammy and Justin were married, he would fly down to celebrate with them on the 26th or 27th of December. And they would wait until he got there to have Christmas. That was all her. Lucas is in Texas right now trying out for the National High School Football Team, and I’m not there, but she’s there.
Stepparents are painted as these villains, and bonus parenting is harder in so many ways than being the first parents. Joe calls it “not getting in on the ground floor.” You’re just thrown into the deep end. And I respect that so much. I don’t think stepparents are given their due.
People who have not experienced blended families or adoption have this idea that it’s Oliver Twist or something, that these relationships are supposed to be adversarial, but that’s not what it looks like. It really does take a village. And if you have a village, it’s a wonderful thing.
Many, many kids these days are in blended families, and it’s really a blessing. If two heads are better than one, then four heads are better than two.
I’m trying to get Tammy to move to Kansas. She lives in Texas now, and she doesn’t have any family there. She doesn’t have a village. But she could come here and we could be her village.
Jessica Butler is the co-founder of "Raise Magazine," stepmother of two, and adoptive mother of one. Prior to "Raise," she was a writer on USA’s "In Plain Sight" and TNT’s "The Last Ship." She and her husband, writer/producer Warren Bell, co-created the Nick at Nite series "Instant Mom," based on her life as a stepmother. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and five-year-old son, Levon.