Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Friends & Steps

It started out with an email message. Four years ago I moved back to Washington, DC after getting married and became a stepmom to three kids.

I sent out some email messages to let old friends and acquaintances know I was back and about my new life as a stepmom. I wasn’t expecting much to happen. One of those acquaintances suggested I contact a friend of hers who lived nearby. Like me, she was a new stepmom with teens and worked in public relations as a consultant.

We traded emails – and then Susan and I met for coffee to talk. We talked for three hours about our stepchildren, our marriages, and trying to balance the demands of families and careers. More coffees soon followed.

In Susan, I found someone who understood the emotional roller coaster ride of childless stepmom-hood. It meant a lot to know that someone else knew what it really meant to be a stepmom – and that I wasn’t crazy or even bad for having some of the feelings I was having – they were normal. She didn’t judge me when I expressed frustration about my stepchildren or my husband – and rejoiced with me in a success. I don’t think we’ve ever actually solved any problems – but I do know that we both have felt understood – and that has meant a lot to both of us.

We introduced our husbands to each other, and it was like seeing two long-lost relatives rediscover each other. They were instantly bosom buddies. For the past two summers, we’ve even taken vacations together – staying in a big house on the Georgia coastline to bask in the sun and sand.

When stepmoms in trouble contact me through my website and ask for advice, one thing I often suggest is that they find a stepmom friend to talk to. Let’s face it – you can talk to a lot of people about life as a stepparent – your mother, your sister, your single friends, your happily married ones – but it’s rare to find someone who understands stepfamily dynamics. You either need someone who has lived it, or a counselor or therapist who trained in it.

And there’s scientific research to support the value of friendships among women. Scientists believe that hanging out with our friends may actually calm us and relieve our distress. UCLA researchers found in a study on women and stress, that women “tend and be-friend” when facing a hostile situation.

The UCLA study was revolutionary. For more than fifty years, stress management researchers had focused predominantly on men - and posited mainly a “fight or flight” theory to explain how humans react to stress.

Instead, the researchers found that women have a broader range of behavior available to them when under stress because our brains emit oxytocin, a hormone that urges us to turn to others when under stress, not head for high ground. Women under stress focus on nurturing behavior and turn their efforts toward building social networks. This behavior releases more oxytocin and produces a calming effect.

It’s no small wonder that stepmoms can find so much comfort in friendship. When Susan and I sip coffee and talk about our families – it’s not a flight out of my marriage or my family life. It’s a step toward getting back to OK so I can walk back into my family with strength and grace.

Dawn Miller writes a column on life in blended families at
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