WE USED TO HATE EACH OTHER’S GUTS
Moms and stepmoms can get along. Just ask Lynne and Louise.
Working Mother Magazine, 2003
By Jennifer Bingham Hull
They were the unlikeliest of dinner companions. In 1998, Lynne Oxhorn-Ringwood and Louise Oxhorn pulled up in separate cars to Charlie's Restaurant in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, California, a beach enclave near San Diego. Neither could quite believe the other had shown up. For ten years, the two women had been locked in a bitter battle: ex-wife of Greg Oxhorn versus second wife; mother of son Evan versus stepmother. But a recent flap over a silly pair of sandals - Lynne had a fit when she saw Louise wearing the same style - had jolted them to their senses: Enough was enough. Nervous and angry, Lynne and Louise decided to sit down at a booth in Charlie's and talk through hostilities that had been brewing for far too long.
Five years later, Lynne and Louise still meet regularly at the same booth, but it's no longer a demilitarized zone. A plaque they put over the table reads: "Honorary Office of the CoMamas Association." CoMamas? It's probably not the first word most mothers and stepmothers would choose to describe each other. Relations between "stepwives,'' a term the women coined, are often barely civil, let alone cooperative. And for working mothers, things can get even more treacherous, with job-related issues ratcheting up the tension. Yet Lynne and Louise found a way to call a cease-fire-and they are teaching their formula for stepwife diplomacy to other combatants.
Since 1998, their CoMamas Association, which is based in San Diego, has held workshops, established a website (www.comamas.com), and, with therapist Marjorie Vego Krausz, published a book, Stepwives: 10 Steps to Help Ex-Wives and Stepmothers End the Struggle and Put the Kids First (Simon & Schuster). Their approach is all about pragmatism: "You need to run this relationship like a business," says Lynne, ''because it's so complicated." But the mission is simple: In their case, it's their mutual concern for Evan (who is now in college). "The goal of your business is to put the kids first," adds Louise.
Like many stepwives, Lynne and Louise spent years bringing out the worst in each other. Lynne and Greg Oxhorn separated in 1987, when Evan was 5, and Louise arrived on the scene less than a year later. The two women quickly discovered that even simple conversations would turn into mind games. One classic encounter: When Evan was 6 and staying with Greg and Louise, his mother phoned to say that the forecast called for rain, so she'd drop off Evan's raincoat. The message Louise heard: I don't trust you with my son. Her response? "You don't need to come by." What did Lynne hear? Bug off. And so it went.
Their jobs didn't help. The two families shared custody of Evan, but Louise worked in sales - a job with flexibility - while Lynne was a school speech therapist, with none. At one point, when Louise volunteered to be "team mom" for Evan's soccer team, Lynne felt invaded. Another time, Greg and Louise arranged piano lessons for Evan on weekday afternoons - when it was impossible for Lynne to get him there. For years, the women battled from episode to episode. Louise grudgingly agreed not to accept "mom" assignments but was resentful that Lynne didn't appreciate her efforts. Lynne rescheduled the piano lessons, furious that she hadn't been consulted in the first place. It wasn't until they sat down to talk after the sandal incident that the relationship began to improve. "Once I realized that it hadn't been a cakewalk for her, I was motivated to give her the benefit of the doubt," says Lynne.
That leap of faith is a requirement for CoMamas. But Lynne and Louise also say it's important to set boundaries, real and figurative. Stepwives who can't bear to talk to each other can use email or send notes to share info about the kids. They can also agree to honor each other's sphere of influence. Louise and Lynne do fine in person if it's in the right setting, but they don't visit each other's homes. The booth at Charlie's is where they wrote most of their book.
Of course, there's another variable in this equation: Dad. In the beginning, both wives say, Greg Oxhorn found himself in a difficult spot because whomever he sided with, someone else got upset. Relations improved when Louise and Lynne pushed Greg to play mediator - a role they urge on all "men in the middle." But in their book, Lynne and Louise cite many cases of men who fuel stepwife animosity, including those who prohibit communication between first and second wives.
Despite their success, Lynne and Louise caution stepwives to be realistic. No one should expect a love fest to break out between moms and stepmoms. Differences over the most sensitive issue - children - will invariably flare up. But, of course, that's the whole point: The kids come first.