Becoming the step-parent is not something we’re naturally built to do. Genetic wiring can get messy when it comes to taking on parenting duties for our new spouse’s kids. Add to that, we’re facing an uphill battle against media and pop culture expectations of the perfect step-parent creating assumptions of what the new family is supposed to look like, just about all of which is off the mark.
Enter The Essential Stepmom
This week on the show we welcome Tracy Poizner, parenting strategist who specializes in helping divorced moms and dads navigate new parenting duties and help them raise well-adjusted, fully-parented humans. She teaches us how to move through shallow expectations and work toward forging relationships of trust within a new family, challenging preconceived notions of perfection in favor of respect.
What don’t people understand about becoming a step-parent? A lot, according to Poizner. Overcoming expectations and stereotypes is central to avoiding parent alienation. “Your maternal instinct needs to be unplugged,” she says. “The best way to build trust is to stay out of the way.”
Tracy Poizner is the host of The Essential Stepmom podcast and the Undeletable Dad coaching program. She can be found at Essential Stepmom: The Womanly Art of Raising Someone Else’s Kids.
Pete Wright: Welcome to How to Split a Toaster, a divorce podcast about saving your relationships from TruStory FM. Today, introducing the Step Toaster.
Seth Nelson: Welcome to the show, everybody. I’m Seth Nelson, and I’m here with my good friend, Pete Wright. Becoming a step parent is not something we’re naturally built to do. Genetic wiring can get messy when it comes to taking on parenting duties for our new spouse’s kids. This week, on the show, we welcome Tracy Poizner, the Essential Stepmom, parenting strategies, who specializes in helping divorced moms and dads navigate new parenting duties and help them raise well-adjusted, fully-parented humans. She is the host of the Essential Stepmom podcast, your trusted source for unconventional advice and inspiration about the womanly art of raising someone else’s kids. Tracy, welcome to the Toaster.
Tracy Poizner: Thank you so much. This is so much fun. I love the title of your show. It’s just fantastic.
Pete Wright: Well, I guess we’re in it, right? You can split a toaster about as easily as you can split your kid. So, here we go. How did you decide you needed to be a voice in step-parenting, Tracy?
Tracy Poizner: I am a stepmom. I’m a mother, too. I’m a biological mother, but I don’t know. Our journey, my husband and I have been together for 15 years now. We’ve been married for seven of those years, and we really pass through a lot of different kinds of difficulty. We went through parental alienation and long-distance parenting and full-time parenting. My husband had his kids three hours away. He was only visiting on weekends. They were never here. Eventually, we ended up with kids that lived here with us full-time. So we had just gone through the gamut of possible things that could happen. I remember literally waking up one day and saying, "I think this is the light at the end of the tunnel. I think we’re here. I think all that hard stuff is behind us." I mean, there’s still life. It’s not like nothing ever goes wrong anymore, but the heavy lifting was done. My personal background was… I have a lot of different personal backgrounds, but after being a classical musician for 25 years, I studied homeopathy and I-
Pete Wright: We’re going to be getting into that in a minute.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah.
Pete Wright: Right. Don’t let that just slide on by.
Tracy Poizner: While I was being a musician, I studied homeopathy and I became a practitioner of homeopathic medicine. And that’s what I’ve been doing. I eventually left my music career and went full-time into homeopathy. I’ve been studying and practicing for almost 25 years. I learned so much in the course of studying natural medicine about human psychology and childhood development and family dynamics. It was a huge part of what I learned because that’s a lot of what I untangle in my practice. I relied so heavily on all the stuff that I knew. I thought, "What do people do who don’t have any of this background? This is crazy." It was hard for me and I had a lot of answers already. So, I just felt compelled somehow to start codifying somehow, to at least see if it was possible to codify what I knew what had worked for us and to verify if those same things had worked for other families or if we’re just some kind of weird one-off and it worked here, but it’s not working everywhere else. I started investigating online. I started hanging out in forums and Reddits and Facebook groups and conversing with other stepmoms. I very quickly discovered that yes, the families that stay together who are the small minority, I’m sorry to say, really only 30 or 40% of second marriages with kids actually last. That’s quite dramatic. I discovered that people were doing the same things. Maybe they didn’t have a language for it, but they were doing a lot of the same things that we had found to be successful. I just started to collect all of this material and I opened my own group. I opened my own Facebook group by inviting women that I found online who were giving really great advice. That was what I did. I set out invitations to 15 or 20 women I found, who I thought gave really good advice. I said, "I’m going to start another group. I want you in my group." And then by the time people started coming, there was this population of people who could give just good advice.
Pete Wright: Yeah. Yeah. So, you end up becoming the Essential Stepmom. In your work, it sounds like you’re the Essential Stepmom with the womanly art of raising someone else’s kids, and also you do a lot of work with Undeletable Dads.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah.
Pete Wright: I’m curious from both of you, Seth, I know you are as such a strong advocate for kids, your kids, all the kids in your life, I’m just curious how this-
Seth Nelson: Yeah, that gets a little confusing.
Pete Wright: It does get a little confusing, right? And so, I’m curious how this… So far, we try not to have gendered conversations about this stuff, but how much is this a gendered conversation that we have to have?
Tracy Poizner: It is, in the sense that, okay, I have same-sex couples in my coaching practice and which, of course, that is not a big deal, but it is a gendered conversation in the sense that I only work with the biological dad and his new partner, or the stepmom and her partner, even if the biological partner is a mom, let’s say. But it is a completely and totally different animal than the biological mom and her new partner is a stepdad. They couldn’t be more different households.
Pete Wright: Wait a minute. Wait a minute. Okay. I just want to understand, we’re talking about you work with biological dads and new partners, but not biological moms.
Tracy Poizner: That’s right.
Pete Wright: They’re okay. They don’t need the help, right? They need other help.
Tracy Poizner: They might not be okay, but I don’t know what to do for them.
Pete Wright: Okay. Why is that?
Seth Nelson: Well, I can fill that in. I have been married to a woman who had a child previously, so I became a stepdad. Then, we got divorced, but she is remarried to an amazing guy, who is we call bonus dad, Bonus Dad Steve to my son, Kai. So when we’re talking about Steve, we’ll just say Steve, or sometimes we’ll say bonus dad. But when Kai is out in public and he introduced Steve, he might just say, "It’s Steve," or he might say, "It’s my stepdad." But in our house, I have never used the word step because it, in my view, has a derogatory connotation. That’s why we always use bonus. But if you’re going to focus on woman, biological mom with new guy or other partner in her life, I can certainly speak to that because I’ve had that role too. Also, I’ve had the benefit of the role of seeing how another man is amazing at helping raise my child.
Tracy Poizner: That’s fantastic. But I think that the big difference between the bonus mom and the bonus dad role is… Well, there are two things. One of them is societal condition archetypes, right? The single mom is generally speaking some kind of heroic or possibly saintly figure, right? A single mom is doing her best to raise her kids after a divorce and the single dad is by and large thought of as a deadbeat. You have to work hard to get over ]that conditioning.
Seth Nelson: Interesting on that, Tracy. When I was divorced, I would say, "Oh, I’m a single dad," and people would say to me, "Oh my God, did your wife pass away?" That never happens to single moms.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah. Yeah.
Seth Nelson: And I’d be like, "No, we’re divorced. She’s a single mom. I’m a single dad." But it sounds funny when you say it because most guys don’t say it. Pete knows I’m a wordsmith and I’m all about how things sound.
Pete Wright: It’s gross on so many levels, of course.
Tracy Poizner: It is.
Pete Wright: Let’s just not let the grossness sit there, that if you’re a single mom, it means that the dad must have been a deadbeat. If you’re a single dad-
Tracy Poizner: That’s right.
Pete Wright: … the only way anyone would ever leave a man is if she died. That’s just horrible culture.
Tracy Poizner: It is.
Seth Nelson: It is. Now, there are a lot of women that were with me in my past that would have preferred to die than stay with me, but I can’t really argue with them.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah. Well, the continuation of that is that the stepmom is generally speaking thought of as the woman who broke up this marriage.
Pete Wright: Yes. Oh my gosh.
Tracy Poizner: That’s the baggage that you’re carrying now forever explicitly or implicitly. The stepdad is, again, a kind of hero who helps the single mom in this hard job of raising the kids on her own. So stepmom and stepdad are dealing with very, very different conditioned ideas of who they are. Secondly, the stepmom, being a female, is carrying around some evolutionarily conditioned maternal instinct. As a woman, you have a maternal instinct that is activated in some way when you’re around kids. In order to be successful as a stepmom, she has to yank out the plug and just get rid of that thing, throw it out the window. Your maternal instinct is not a help to you as a step-parent, which sounds super weird.
Pete Wright: It does sound weird. I’m about to poke at that. Why is that so weird to me?
Seth Nelson: It doesn’t sound weird to me at all, actually.
Pete Wright: I need to be educated.
Seth Nelson: Because I deal with this.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah.
Seth Nelson: So I’m going to take a guess, Tracy. You tell me why I’m wrong.
Tracy Poizner: Go ahead.
Seth Nelson: It’s because, Pete, if that is what you’re doing and acting in that way, inevitably, you’re going to overstep your bounds.
Tracy Poizner: Exactly. Exactly.
Seth Nelson: A-plus.
Tracy Poizner: A-plus.
Seth Nelson: Look at that.
Tracy Poizner: Bullseye.
Pete Wright: Yeah.
Seth Nelson: Yep.
Tracy Poizner: You have to accept that you are not the mother of these children. There are a lot of dads who go into a second marriage with a kind of misinformed expectation that they actually want their wife to act as the mother of these kids every other week or every other weekend, or even if they live full time.
Pete Wright: That’s the stereotype we’ve been taught, Tracy. That’s what movies taught us. So, you’re telling me movies aren’t right?
Tracy Poizner: They’re not right.
Seth Nelson: Oh, no. Tracy, Pete’s a big-
Tracy Poizner: You remember The Brady Bunch?
Seth Nelson: Tracy, Pete’s a big movie buff. You’re crushing his soul right now.
Pete Wright: It’s all I know.
Tracy Poizner: I’m crushing. I’m sorry. But The Brady Bunch was a fantasy. Okay. Mike Brady had three kids. His wife passed away.
Pete Wright: Of course, he did. Yeah.
Tracy Poizner: That’s how he gets another wife. But Carol, the story is that she’s divorced. Did you ever, ever, ever hear-
Pete Wright: No, of course not.
Tracy Poizner: … that dad get mentioned? Did anyone ever ask about him? Is anyone ever have their nose out of joint that he’s not in their life?
Pete Wright: He never showed up for custody. He never had weekends.
Tracy Poizner: He never shows up. He’s not giving them any money. Nobody ever talks about him. He vanished into thin air. That’s not real.
Pete Wright: You guys, The Brady Bunch has lied to me for 45 years.
Tracy Poizner: You know what else? They have a full-time live-in housekeeper. Okay.
Pete Wright: Yeah. Right.
Seth Nelson: Also, Pete, if they lied to you for 45 years, you’re watching way too many reruns. That’s on you, brother.
Pete Wright: Nick at Nite, man. I feel like this gets into so many of the tropes that we have to come back, right?
Tracy Poizner: Absolutely.
Pete Wright: We’ve already talked about those, but the others are the tropes about the kids, right? These are the ones that I’ve heard from my friends when I was young, whose parents were divorced. "No, he’s not my real dad. She’s not my real mom." Right? There’s this whole connotation of what is real. And then on the other side, I had a friend who referred to her biological mother as her egg mom, because her relationship with her stepmom was actually stronger. So she had an egg mom and a mom.
Seth Nelson: Each family is different and each relationship is different. I think when kids, who are then adults, or even if they’re children, say stuff like, "Oh, that’s my egg mom and this is my mom," they’re talking about relationships there, right? I think Tracy’s coming at it from a different point of view, where as the step-parent, how do you manage expectations? How do you interact with children? How do you support your spouse, but not overstep your bounds? Whatever relationship forms, it forms, because that relationship will most likely be stronger when you don’t overstep your balance.
Tracy Poizner: 100%.
Pete Wright: Well, this is my puzzled face because isn’t that what we’re talking about, building relationships of trust and respect somehow between all the parties in the family, in the new unit?
Tracy Poizner: And the way that you do that, paradoxically, is by staying out of the way of the relationship between the kids and their parents.
Pete Wright: Fascinating.
Tracy Poizner: Stepdads do that instinctively and naturally. It’s really hard for stepmoms not to overstep in the mothering.
Seth Nelson: Sometimes less is more-
Tracy Poizner: Always.
Seth Nelson: … in that scenario.
Tracy Poizner: It’s always-
Seth Nelson: Let me give you an example. Tracy, so you know, I’ve been with my girlfriend for 11 years. She’s amazing. When people ask me, how many kids do I have, I get this puzzled look and I say, "You think I’d know the answer to that question." I say, "I have four kids in my heart, one biological, one former step-daughter, and my girlfriend has two kids." So, the good news is I only have to pay for half of one college out of all that.
Pete Wright: That’s some college math. I get it.
Tracy Poizner: I love that.
Seth Nelson: Exactly.
Tracy Poizner: I have four kids in my heart. I just love that one. What a nice way of saying it.
Seth Nelson: But my girlfriend, who is amazing with my son, will step in really to correct me. She’ll say to him, "This is what your dad’s trying to say." Right? She’ll translate. Sometimes I will go to her and I say, "I’m not getting through to him on this." She’s like, "I’ll talk to him." She’ll say what I perceive to be the exact thing that I said and he listens to her.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah. We have that here too. My stepkids talk to me a lot, like a lot, to the point where my husband says, "Well, you know everything. They talk to you. They don’t tell me anything." I am very sensitive to the energetics in our household. I think there are energetics in every household, right? When we talk about family dynamics, the word dynamics is referring to something energetic, right? The issue is that the kids need to be seeking the approval and the connection with their biological parent. It’s great if there’s another supportive adult in the house who loves them. That’s great, but nobody ever went to therapy as an adult to say, "I really never had the relationship I really wanted with my third grade teacher," or "I never felt I was good enough for my little league coach." That doesn’t happen. You only go to therapy to work out your shitty relationship with your mother or your father, or both of them.
Seth Nelson: I don’t know, Tracy. My third grade teacher was rough on me. I’ve been in therapy a long time on that.
Tracy Poizner: No, it’s all about the… And it doesn’t stop. Even now, my stepkids are 21 and 23, and they love me. We spend tons of time together and they love that I give them life advice and it’s all good. When push comes to shove, I still get out of the way so that they can have a private conversation with dad without my opinion coloring what he says or thinks. It’s important.
Seth Nelson: So, I’m going to give you some things that I’ve done in the past and tell me if these are practical things people can do.
Tracy Poizner: Okay.
Pete Wright: I like to keep score. Is there a score-keeping? Any sort of tally?
Seth Nelson: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. But only if I’m-
Pete Wright: Is there a way Seth could lose this game? That’s what I need to know.
Seth Nelson: I was about to say, only if I lose, Pete, right? You took my joke. So for example, we’re all together and my girlfriend says to her child, "Clear the table." It is not my job then to follow up and be like, "Dude, you’re not clearing the table. You’re not clearing the table." That’s bad. Now, what I might do is step in and say, "Hey, man, I’ll help you," and do it with them.
Tracy Poizner: Perfect.
Seth Nelson: Right? Or, hey, she’ll say, "Take out the trash," and I might say to them, "Hey, you want to take out the trash and I’ll do the bag, or you want to do the bag and I’ll take out the trash?" I might offer support. See, look, I’m two for two, Pete. Okay?
Pete Wright: I know. Don’t let it go to your head. Look, can I ask a question?
Tracy Poizner: Yeah.
Pete Wright: There is something here that feels like I’m hearing, and that is as soon as it becomes some sort of order, then you’re getting into the parenting mode and that’s bad. But if you make it an interpersonal relationship requests, I can totally imagine, even if nobody’s asked to take out the trash is just saying, "Hey, would you do me a favor? Would you take out the trash and I’ll clear the table?"
Tracy Poizner: Exactly. Exactly.
Pete Wright: You’re doing me a favor as a human being, not as a stepdad, son or daughter.
Tracy Poizner: Exactly.
Pete Wright: Not as a parent.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah, exactly.
Pete Wright: Look at that. Is that a bonus point?
Tracy Poizner: Yeah.
Pete Wright: Awesome.
Seth Nelson: I think you get two points for that because you’re not even a step-parent, so you just intellectually came up with that. I had to learn from my mistakes, so you’re ahead.
Pete Wright: Noted.
Seth Nelson: Okay.
Tracy Poizner: That’s great.
Pete Wright: Okay. What else you got, Seth? Do you have other stories, other tests?
Seth Nelson: Yeah. The other test is when the mom or I’ll just say the biological parent is getting on to the kid about something, right? Sometimes I might just poke in there and say, "She’s having a bad day. I’m just giving you advice and counsel, you don’t have to take it. I’m here to help you through this. Do you want my advice?" I’ll ask if they want my advice. Sometimes they’ll say no and sometimes they’ll say yes.
Tracy Poizner: I mean, I would say that depends on the tone of voice and the nature of the relationship that you have with your partner. You don’t want to be undermining the parent saying like, "She’s way out of line. She’s having one of her days," or something.
Seth Nelson: There, see, I get a minus point there, Pete.
Pete Wright: A little bit. I sort of get that like. I feel like I try not to do that with my own kids, which is to say, "Oh, she’s having a bad day," which can be interpreted, especially, I think, for younger kids that there are certain days or moods that you find your mother in that you’re not going to be able to deal with her. So, we need to somehow protect you against her. I don’t want to convey that in any way, shape or form.
Seth Nelson: Yeah. And that’s never what I mean when I say it. I think Tracy’s right. It’s on the relationship. It’s not what you do in the first day.
Tracy Poizner: I think also there are space for some kind of really high level redirecting of a tense situation to get the result that you want by lightening the mood. When you can see that your spouse and their child are locked in a ineffective battle, and that you could get the result that everybody wants by interjecting some levity and moving that towards a resolution, I’m not going to say that’s a bad idea, but it wouldn’t be right to have the tone of like, "Hey dude, I’m on your side. Your mom is out of line here."
Pete Wright: Check me on this. My hunch is that interjection would be far better served doing it with your partner and not your partner’s kid, right?
Tracy Poizner: Exactly. Exactly.
Pete Wright: Instead go to your spouse and say, "Hey-
Seth Nelson: I’m not going to get my head bitten off. Are you kidding me?
Pete Wright: I think all the best second marriages are based on fear, don’t you? I think. Yeah. I mean, I think that makes a lot of sense in terms of establishing trust and a relationship.
Seth Nelson: And I will tell you to that point, Pete, we all have our blind spots. We all have things about our personalities that we don’t see, and my girlfriend calls me out on mine all the time. I mean, literally, when my child was younger, I could make him cry by the tone of my voice. She called it stern voice. Okay. It took me a long time even to recognize what I was doing and when I was doing it. So when they started calling me out on it, it really made me more self-aware, which then made me a better parent, right?
Tracy Poizner: Yeah. But that’s presumably not in front of your child.
Seth Nelson: Right. Absolutely. She was like, "Do you understand what just happened now?" I’m like, "No. What are you talking about? I asked him to take out the trash, he started crying." "Did you understand the tone of your voice?" Yeah, that was later when he was in bed and stuff. So I agree with you 100% on that, Tracy, not in front of the child.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah.
Pete Wright: Let me ask, best practices in terms of introducing the stepmom relationship to kids, what is it? Is there a best practice that you’ve discovered in all the work that you’ve done with folks?
Tracy Poizner: I can’t reflect on my own experience except to say that I was lucky and I would love for people to be able to reproduce in some way the situation that we had. My partner, my husband now was just a friend who rented a room in my house because he was living three hours away, and he came to work in the city where I live. Actually, this is the orchestra part because I used to play in a symphony orchestra. He was invited here on a one-year contract from a city far away. The orchestra suggested that he call me because I live nearby and I had a room for rent in my house. So that was how we met. He lived here for four years. And so, I kept encouraging him to invite his wife and kids to come because we had extra room here and come on a weekend or bring them or whatever. So, I had met his kids many, many times before we got together, but I was just the lady who lives here. In order to reproduce the atmosphere where you’re not being introduced as somebody who is highly charged with meaning into their life, to pop in and out like, "This is my friend, blah, blah, blah." You come and you either meet up somewhere for an ice cream or you come over and you say hello for a few minutes and you leave, to make little short, come for an hour, spend some time, go away. Because the main thing you want to establish is that you are not going to be energetically standing between the kids and their parent. You come over, you meet them and you go away.
Seth Nelson: If you are dating somebody who has not met your children and you’re about to introduce them to the children in a very healthy way that Tracy just described, you should let your former spouse know.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah, I agree.
Seth Nelson: "Hey, this person’s important to me. I would like to introduce the children to them, to this person and them to the children. It’s just going to be a short little meeting. But if you start hearing this name, this is who they’re referring to. Anything you want to know about them, just let me know." So, it saves so many problems, because then if you have a healthy relationship with your former spouse about this and the name of your significant other, boyfriend, girlfriend comes up when they’re at the other house, "Oh yeah, we met Suzy today." And then mom will be like, "Oh, I heard she’s really great. Did you like her?" Maybe be supportive and not be like, "Who’s Suzy? What did you do? How long was she there? Did she stay the night?" Like just drilling the kids, right?
Tracy Poizner: Yeah. You don’t want the kids to get drilled and you want them to also not have to hide anything. If you literally come over for half an hour or an hour and share an ice cream or do something fun and go, "Hey," it was not a big deal and they won’t present it like it was a big deal. You also don’t want to be physically affectionate in front of the kids. They don’t have a way to really process that. It takes time until they understand who’s who in this situation and who are you to each other. Of course, for a stepmom, there’s a default feeling that you are in some way threatening their mother’s status and you’re threatening their connection with their dad because they want to suck up every second of dad when they’re with you. And if somebody else is there taking dad’s attention for 1% of the time, they only notice the 1% when he’s not paying attention to them.
Pete Wright: Sure. What do you do if the kids just don’t like the stepmom? How do you navigate the new relationship angst, when there’s angst?
Tracy Poizner: I think it goes both ways. It’s important for the stepmom to not have expectations that she’s necessarily going to fall in love with these kids, because there are a lot of women in my group who really beat themselves up about not liking or loving their stepkids. They feel that they are supposed to love these kids because they love their partner.
Pete Wright: That’s another stereotype, right?
Tracy Poizner: It is.
Pete Wright: That the stepmom is always supposed to be the one who’s fighting for the love of the kids. What if the kids are jerks?
Tracy Poizner: Yeah. That happens sometimes.
Pete Wright: That’s human.
Tracy Poizner: It does happen. But what I do tell the dads is that you can tell your kids, "You don’t have to like Tracy. You don’t have to like her, but you do have to be polite with her because she’s my friend and I’m your dad. I need to teach you how to behave with people that you don’t like. This is a life skill. You’re going to have bosses that you don’t like. You’re going to have roommates you don’t like. You’re going to have teachers you don’t like. You’re going to have in-laws you don’t like."
Seth Nelson: Exactly. And this is why I brought around a bunch of mean women in front of my kid, and I’m like, "You’re just going learn-
Pete Wright: Always the parade of hate. Yeah.
Seth Nelson: Yes. "You’re going to learn this skill whether you like it or not."
Tracy Poizner: Yeah. No. As a dad, you can say, "I respect that you don’t like her and that’s okay. You don’t have to like her, but I do have to insist that you’re polite with her. You have to say hello when you come into the room. I won’t let you be rude. Whatever you feel inside your heart is your business. I’m not going to force you to like somebody that you don’t like, but you do have to be polite."
Pete Wright: I love that advice, because it wraps up everything we’ve been talking about, right? You have to be polite. The exchange or the unspoken sort of the subtext is, "The relationship we’re building is not one where she’s going to be your default other parent, right? You have to be polite just as she will be polite to you. We will all work together, but I’m still your dad. I’m the one who’s going to tell you not to cross the street without looking both ways kind of thing."
Tracy Poizner: And it’s funny because you don’t know how many people… It’s a huge weight off their shoulders when I tell them that. It’s like, "That’s all I have to say," or for the stepmoms, when they hear that you don’t have to like your stepkids. You’re not a horrible person. What are the odds that you could go to any playground in the city and grab two random kids and bring them home and that you would love them? If the world worked that way, biological children would be so insecure. If you thought that your mom or dad could bring home a couple of other random kids and love them as much as they love you, what would that mean for you? We’re not made that way.
Seth Nelson: Yeah. I also think on this too, which we haven’t touched on, so much, Pete, depends on the age of the kids.
Tracy Poizner: Yes, it does.
Pete Wright: I was just going to ask that. What are the pitfalls, depending on what age bracket you’re in when you’re making these introductions?
Seth Nelson: When they’re little, it’s, "Yeah. That’s daddy’s friend. That’s mommy’s friend." It’s easy, right? It’s easier, right? When they’re teenagers and they know what’s going on or pre-teens, or let’s just make this a little more complicated, you’re bringing home one of their friend’s parents, because you guys met at the soccer field, right? That has some interpersonal skills on, "How does that affect my relationships with my friends at school? When my dad’s dating a friend of mine’s mom, that seems weird to me. What’s going on here?" So there’s all sorts of traps going on with that. When do you go to their first kids event? Do you get invited to that event? How does that work? I think after they’ve met them just a couple of times, that’s a very… Like Tracy was saying, you’re in, you’re out. I asked my son, "Is it okay if she comes to your play? She would really like to see that." Yeah, sure. It’s perfect because she’s there not interacting with him, because he’s on stage, or not interacting because they’re on the field or doing whatever they do. And then at the end you say, "Oh my God, that was amazing. You were great," and you’re out.
Pete Wright: Yeah.
Tracy Poizner: And there were many circumstances where I chose not to go because the bio mom was very uncomfortable being in that kind of situation with me. And so, the kids would know that because I was very supportive and I always came to stuff and she lived far away. So if she was making the long trip to come to where we live to be at something, or if we were going there, I sometimes would choose to stay away because I know that it’s a socially awkward situation for the child and I don’t need it. I need for the child to know that I want to hear all about it when it’s done. Take lots of pictures and tell me all about it. I’m there. I’m supportive, but I’m not going to force them into a box, where they have to have this cringey experience.
Seth Nelson: That’s minimizing conflict.
Tracy Poizner: Yeah.
Seth Nelson: I tell parents, "If you can, without conflict, if you’re at a event for your child, sit next to each other."
Tracy Poizner: Oh, yeah.
Seth Nelson: My former spouse and I save seats for each other and our respect of others that come along, that are coming to the show with us. Now, if you can’t do that because there’s conflict, then don’t do it, right? But when my kid was little, I would always give him directions that it was okay to do things when he came off, say, the soccer field. He comes running and there’s two parents, and I would say, "Give mommy a hug." I would give the permission to go to mommy first because that kid is making a choice and a kid never have to choose a parent. So you got to step up and offer the other parent up. And then he does, and then you get your hug second. Does it matter? No, but those little things like that make a huge difference. To Tracy’s point, just her being there, loving and supporting these children or just supporting them because she likes them or she doesn’t like them and she’s just supporting her husband or boyfriend, if that’s going to create conflict for the children, don’t go. Tell them you’d love to hear about it, like Tracy did, because the benefit doesn’t outweigh the conflict.
Tracy Poizner: I agree completely.
Pete Wright: Seth, a pivot to you about some legal issues, at what point do step adjacent issues come to you, conflict-related to step-parent relationships that we have some sort of legal concern?
Seth Nelson: All the time. They start with people who have been having an affairs and met the kids before the divorce is even over, to "We’re divorced," new girlfriend or boyfriend is in the scene is not taking Tracy’s advice and is overstepping their bounds and you hear parent alienation, which is a term thrown around all the time. That is really, I think, thrown around too much on what it actually means from a psychological perspective, but it’s the feelings. It’s the egos. It’s all that getting in the way. So that comes up. It also comes up, Pete, in a positive way that sometimes people don’t realize. Sometimes the new spouse might be your best friend, if you’re the former spouse. Because when that guy is talking to that new spouse or new girlfriend complaining about you, the ex-spouse, that person might say, "I went through a divorce and you’re basically describing what my husband says about me." So, what does that say about your relationship? And I think that kind of stuff matters. So, there was a lot of dynamics, like Tracy said. But from a legal perspective, it can get messy, and especially if there’s allegations of abuse from the new person involved and mom or dad is not protecting the child. A lot of it, I find to be unfounded and it’s egos getting in the way and people overstepping their bounds.
Pete Wright: I had a dear friend in high school, who’s dating a wonderful young woman. They were a great ideal couple. One day they come to school and they’re really upset. A bunch of us are standing in the hallway asking, "What’s going on?" And they said, "Well, our parents are getting married to each other." Both of their parents were divorced, met each other at the soccer game and just fell in love. Now, my girlfriend’s dad is now my stepdad. What? Yeah. One of those relationships didn’t last. You might be surprised to know which one. Anyway, this is really fantastic and I think helpful. If you were to leave somebody with one piece of advice, 8:00 AM Monday morning that they can take to the bank in building that trusting relationship with their new stepkids, Tracy, how do you leave them?
Tracy Poizner: I think you have to trust the process that the best way to build the relationship is to stay out of the way. It’s so counterintuitive and it’s so hard to do, but it has served me 10,000 times in the last 15 years, that when I stay out of the way, it doesn’t matter how old the kids are, when they have soaked up their fill of dad, they have room for me and there’s no angst about me stepping in in place of their mom or in between them and their dad in some important way. When they get to fill up their tank of dad, that’s when they have room for you as a stepmom. I think that guys do that much more instinctively. It’s their natural role to watch what’s happening and step in at a moment where they can see that there’s an opening for them. Women feel compelled to mother in a way that you don’t even notice because it’s just instinctive.
Pete Wright: Too natural. Right. Right. Beautiful. Beautiful lessons. Thank you so much. Where would you like to send people to learn more about you and your coaching work?
Tracy Poizner: Well, my website is essentialstepmom.com, and I do have a podcast called Essential Stepmom. There is a website called undeletabledad.com as well.
Pete Wright: You can find it wherever a finer podcasts are served. I listened to in Apple Podcasts. It’s in Spotify, help on both sides of the relationship, all sides of the relationship. Tracy Poizner, thank you so much for hanging out with us.
Tracy Poizner: Thank you for having me. This was a blast.
Seth Nelson: Really enjoyed it, Tracy. Thanks for coming on.
Tracy Poizner: It was my pleasure. This was so much fun. I love your format. That’s great.
Pete Wright: Thank you. Thank you so much. On behalf of Seth Nelson and Tracy Poizner, we’re thrilled to have you here listening to the show, downloading the show. We’ll catch you next time right here on How to Split a Toaster, a divorce podcast about saving your relationships.
Speaker 4: Seth Nelson is an attorney with Nelson Koster Family Law and Mediation with offices in Tampa, Florida. While we may be discussing family law topics, How to Split a Toaster is not intended to nor is it providing legal advice. Every situation is different. If you have specific questions regarding your situation, please seek your own legal counsel with an attorney licensed to practice law in your jurisdiction. Pete Wright is not an attorney or employee of Nelson Koster. Seth Nelson is licensed to practice law in Florida.
Seth Nelson is a Tampa based family lawyer known for devising creative solutions to difficult problems. In How to Split a Toaster, Nelson and co-host Pete Wright take on the challenge of divorce with a central objective — saving your most important relationships with your family, your former spouse, and yourself.