ERP 256: The Mistakes People Make When Blending Families, and What to Do Instead – an Interview with Tracy Poizner [Transcript]

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Hi, thank you for tuning in to the Empowered Relationship Podcast. I’m your host, Dr. Jessica Higgins, licensed psychologist and relationship coach. Today’s episode is 256, “The mistakes people make when blending families and what to do instead”, an interview with Tracy Poizner.

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Dr. Jessica Higgins: Tracy Poizner is a parenting coach and the host of the Essential Stepmom Podcast. She is a biological mom and a stepmom and has been through it all, from long-distance parenting to parental alienation, legal difficulties, mental health issues, loss of contact and full-time custody. Tracy has a special perspective on emotional healing and how to meet our personal needs as stepmoms in the everyday chaos of this challenging lifestyle.

Tracy, thank you for joining us today.

Tracy Poizner: Oh, thank you. It’s a pleasure.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, and this is a much-needed topic for discussions, for people to feel a little more supported in, given that many people are encountering a second marriage, or perhaps blending family, or perhaps even have children from a different relationship, and looking at how to create family in a new way.

I just am curious for what you’re offering and how you’re supporting people, what got you interested in this topic and helping people in this way?

Tracy Poizner: Well, I’ve been an alternative healthcare practitioner for about 20 years, actually… And in the course of studying — homeopathy is my main focus of my practice. And in the course of studying homeopathy, I learned about human psychology, about family dynamics, about childhood development… So many things that really informed my approach to coping with issues that would come up in my own life. And at one point I wondered, what do people do who don’t have this resource that I have? Where do they begin? I feel like I came to this with a lot of tools. I don’t know, I sort of marveled at how it could be — I remember when my own daughter was born, feeling incredibly ill-equipped. It’s like, how do you do this? Where is the owner’s manual? And I had lots of support, of course, but even still, there were things like nursing; that was just like a complete mystery to me. I just couldn’t get it right. I even had help. I had a lactation consultant, and it was still — things that I felt would be natural were not natural at all. And I think that a lot of people enter into this kind of new family dynamic with the idea that “Well, I know how to do family. Kids love me. This is gonna be a walk in the park.” And they just don’t get it. And who can blame them, because really, this kind of family situation where kids are going back and forth between two households is something literally brand new to humanity.

This has never existed before in all of human history, really.  I don’t think there’s any culture that has — even if there are two households there, it’s like, you could go from your parent’s house to your grandparents’ house back and forth, let’s say, or to an aunt and uncle. But those are cooperating households. The idea of kids going back and forth between uncooperative households, like by the tens of millions, is a completely brand new phenomenon. It’s about 40 years old, actually; it’s dating back to the late ’70s, when family courts began awarding joint physical custody. Before that it was never a thing. Generally speaking, the mom would keep the kids, and dad would visit or  not visit. But there was no splitting the kids down the middle, sort of King Solomon style. So it’s still new, and I felt that I had come into it especially well-equipped, and even still, it was really difficult.

And at a certain moment, when I was about maybe ten years into the process, I just sort of woke up one day and said “Oh my God, I think this is the light at the end of the tunnel.”I just felt like everything had calmed down; all of the turmoil had calmed down. The long-distance parenting, that parental alienation, the court stuff and legal issues – it just felt calm and normal. It felt like “Now we’re just dealing with life, like everybody else does.” And I really wanted to be able to share what I had learned about what was useful, and also to codify what I thought had worked in our family by reaching out to hundreds of other step-families to find out what was working for them, and to see whether in fact what worked fr us was a one-off, or is it something that applies across the board. So that’s how I’ve developed my structure of what I offer.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes, and I love talking to people that have done a level of transformational work themselves, so that they can then offer this insight, this understanding to other people that, as you were saying, didn’t have this information, or had other expectations, or didn’t feel well-equipped to negotiate this very new territory.

So I guess I’m curious, what do you find where people are running into a lot of roadblocks? What is it that they’re expecting that then is a very rude awakening when they actually encounter trying to blend and have this new family constellation?

Tracy Poizner: I think the biggest thing, the most common thing where people run into trouble is expecting it to function like a — I’m not gonna say “normal”, but a traditional nuclear family. They expect it to feel the same, in some way, like there’s gonna be a mom and a dad and kids, and like, how hard can that be? But it is a very, very different dynamic, and it’s different because the parents are not both biologically related to the child. There’s an expectation in a traditional nuclear family that both of the parents have the best interests of the children at the forefront of whatever they do, whatever they say, how they interact with the kids.

And in a blended family – well, it’s different, of course, because there’s no natural expectation on the part of the kids that the step-parent is only thinking about them. In fact, the default idea is quite the opposite. That’s why we have all of those archetypal Disney villains, or whatever you wanna say – movie characters – because that’s the default idea, that this person is in your life, and they are potentially controlling your actual parent to the extent that maybe your parent is not even able to stick up for you against the desires of this new person. Kids naturally feel not inclined to trust the new step-parent. It doesn’t work the same way, it just doesn’t.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: And Tracy, as you’re talking, I think I mentioned this as we were chatting before we started the episode – often I find myself referring to the average statistic that it takes like seven years for blended families to start to feel at home together, or to feel comfortable together… And I loved that you were like “Yes, there’s truth in that”, and it’s so validating for people that are not feeling the ease, or not feeling the natural flow of things.

Tracy Poizner: Well, nobody wants to hear that… [laughs] I mean, truly. I just did an interview for my podcast with David Sims. David and his wife Lori run something called the Nacho Kids Academy. The Nacho Kids Method is something that Lori developed to bring herself back into a better connection with her own four stepkids after their experiment with blending families went dramatically wrong in the second year of being together… And he said that they were told that it would take seven years, and he just laughed. He said, “Seven years? We’re gonna do this in seven months, no problem.” And they just charged ahead. He said “Eventually, we figured out that we were running a hundred miles an hour in the wrong direction.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, it even occurs to me – and I don’t know if this is a little taboo for me to say, but I’m gonna say it anyway… I guess I’m interested in knowing from your perspective how many people – and in this case, the step-parent – comes into the blended family experience really welcoming, and having it in their mind around how to be inclusive to the children… Even if let’s say the bio dad in this situation and the stepmom wanna continue building their family and having another child together?

I have worked with people where behind closed doors they’re admitting “I wish he didn’t have children. I wish it wasn’t this complicated.” And then I also have seen on the other side of this – I have seen less of this, but that there’s actually intentional weaving the children in the marriage ceremony, where they are acknowledging there is a blended family, that that’s part of the commitments. I guess I’m interested in what you would say around this.

Tracy Poizner: It goes in every possible direction, and you can even start out with all the commitment and all the enthusiasm, and then even still, when it comes time for new children to come into the mix, it’s not at all well-received, and then there’s a lot of disappointment and hard feelings.

I spoke with a colleague who also works in this demographic with blended families, and her story is that she started out as a childless stepmom, and then after some years had eventually three kids with her new partner, the husband of the other kids… And she said “We were so excited we became pregnant the first time that we took the kids out to a restaurant to break the happy news to them. We wanted to make it a celebration. We were so happy.” And predictably, she said it was awful. They burst into tears, and they were so mad… And she said “And I felt so awful, because this was such a big moment for me, and I was so excited to share it with them… And then I just felt terrible.”

But the way I liken it — I don’t know, I have this mental image in my mind… But it’s a little bit like, if you were let’s say married to your partner, and he comes home one day and says “Guess what, honey – I have such good news. Next week I’m bringing home your sister-wife. There’s gonna be another wife here. Isn’t that fantastic? You’ve been saying that you would love it if somebody would help you with the housework, and the cooking, and cleaning, and all the things that you do. Isn’t that gonna be wonderful? And she’s gonna be really nice, she’s gonna be like your best friend.” Like, really.

Imagine that somebody could try to convince you that it was okay, and you’re supposed to be okay with it. And they can tell you that it happens in lots of other families, and they can show you all the proof that lots of people do it that way, but it would not take away your feeling of “What the hell? This is not what I had in mind. Why aren’t I enough? You’re gonna love me less, and there’s gonna be less time for me.” And whatever you might feel in that situation is probably what kids are feeling when one of your parents goes on to have another child with somebody else. It’s mostly devastating… And sometimes it’s really great, and the kids are happy, and everybody wants to have that situation, and we don’t all get to have it, because that’s more the one-off, where the kids just have enough self-confidence and enough confidence in the security of their relationship with their parent that they’re okay with it.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you for sharing. And what do you see are some of the common missteps or mistakes that, again, unintentional perhaps, but that people are making in approaching this landscape?

Tracy Poizner: I think that the dads often have a misunderstanding about the ways in which his new partner is going to be able to help him to parent his kids. And most parents don’t relish the moment of disciplining their kids. Really, it’s either you approach it on a kind of autopilot, like that the way you were parented is coming out automatically, whether you like it or not, or you’re deliberately trying to do the opposite of the way that you were parented… Or you’re very much handcuffed by your own feeling of guilt around your family circumstances, around the divorce and how your kids are not having their family intact anymore, and that they’re living in a situation of conflict where they have to go back and forth between two homes. It is natural to feel guilty about that, because it’s true. But for a lot of guys, that really informs their basic parenting, which is maybe not so good; they can’t manage to get past that and to parent authentically and effectively, in spite of their feelings.

So it’s really easy to desire and expect that your new partner could take some of that off your hands and that it’s the husband, the dad who feels that he wants to invite his new partner into a kind of 50/50 sharing of the parenting responsibilities. That we’re a family now, and I give you the authority to do whatever you want. That’s something like throwing your partner under the bus, because she doesn’t have the bond with your kids to be able to sustain those moments, making boundaries. She can’t. Their relationship is too fragile to withstand the difficulty of making boundaries for kids. So it doesn’t work.

And in this kind of family I think another mistake people make is to say that the — it’s a mistake in how they understand the idea the marriage has to come first. Because in a traditional nuclear family the parents are coming first as a couple before kids arrive. It is first. In this kind of family, the parent and the child had a relationship before this new marriage. And we were talking just a moment ago about family constellation therapy as an idea, and the orders of love, and in this particular case you have to respect — if you want to be successful, you have to  respect the idea that that relationship has kind of a prior hierarchy, in the sense that you can’t just be all about the marriage and the kids will be happy if the marriage is happy. It’s the reverse – if the kids aren’t happy, they can and will destroy your marriage… And they do. It happens every single day. The divorce rate for second families is close to 70%. And for third families it’s between 70% and 80%; I mean third relationships, third marriages.

So we have to do something different if we don’t wanna go down that road. If you wanna be in the lucky boat, you have to be making different choices than most of the people are making… And it’s hard to make different choices, because people look at you from outside and say “Why aren’t you doing this? Why aren’t you doing that? That doesn’t look like what I expect. But they’re not the ones who are in your boat.”

Dr. Jessica Higgins: And I’m wondering what you would think about as we look at traditional gender norms – and I know that’s less relevant in today’s culture, but there is definitely flavors, depending on people’s situation… And stereotypically, traditionally, the more motherly role is more domestic, more home… Even if she is working in the workforce, there’s still a little bit more responsibility that she tends to take on as far as children and home and the meals and all of that… And I’m wondering, as you’re talking, if the man in the new marriage, with the stepmom in this case, is hoping that he can, as you’re saying, lean on her skillset in that way and have her in that role, but she’s not in that role, given how you’re describing, that the kids and the alliance and the family structure that existed before they partnered – is that part of the difficulty at all?

Tracy Poizner: Well, there’s a difficulty in the particulars of it, because I think it is appropriate to do all kinds of things that support your husband/partner in his ability to parent his kids. So yes, it could totally be that you’re the one who’s in charge of making dinner; let’s just say making dinner. But a typical thing that I hear all the time in my Facebook group from clients, from people in the group, is that “The kids don’t wanna eat  what I make.” Kids are picky-eaters in every family, let’s get it clear, right? But when you’re the stepmom, it’s really easy to take that personally, and not as a developmental thing… But the thing that I tell them to do is that dad should be the one who puts it on the plate and puts it in front of the child. That’s where you can turn the whole thing around, with a very simple gesture that just changes the energy of it.

In the extreme case, he actually does have to make the meal, but for most of the situations — because when I  suggest it in the group, there’s always 5-6 people who chime in and say “Oh my god, that works like a charm. We’ve been doing that and the kids eat it, LOL.”

So there are simple tweaks to just respect the idea that the food, the nourishment, whatever – some things need to be coming from dad, and that he’s not off-loading some parenting energy. It doesn’t mean that the man and the woman in the household can’t share household duties, but with respect to what the child is aware of, the food is coming from dad, because he’s holding the plate and putting it in front of them… And that mostly makes a big difference.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Thank you. And we’re talking about heterosexual relationship and traditional gender norms, and I realize that’s not gonna fit for everyone, but you’re speaking to something even more — if I can clarify, you can help me with this… It sounds like you’re saying in these beginning stages of romantic love it’s fueled by so much  neurochemical experience and love and connection, and there’s a bonding happening there… And the children are not involved in that. There’s not a privy to that experience and bought in around that, so it’s almost as though the husband and the wife in this case is connected, and they’re so enthusiastic about their partnership, but it’s not honoring the lineage of what’s already existed… So being able to shift the energy.

So that’s a mistake that people make, just assuming the kids are gonna get onboard and be excited about it, and you’re saying “No, there’s a respect to what existed before.” Is that what I’m hearing you say?

Tracy Poizner: Yeah. And I think the other thing is that it’s easy to feel, as a woman – and I do have plenty of two-mom households in my Facebook group and in my clientele… So it really is the same. I mean, I have to say dad and mom just for clarity, but it really works the same way. Let’s say the biological parent, or the parent who the child has grown up with. The stepmom can easily feel in competition with the kids for attention, for love… Because it can be overwhelming. The kids need so much, and it seems to always interrupt the intimacy of her relationship with her partner.

I try to remind them that if we look at this from the perspective of human psychological needs, like Maslow’s hierarchy, that pyramid of needs, the bottom of the pyramid is safety and security. And above that is love and belongingness needs. So the adult person, the stepmom – her connection to her partner is on the level of love and belongingness needs. The kid’s connection to that same person is on the level of safety and security needs, because all of a child’s safety in the world, their sense of security is tied up in their parents and their relationship with their parents. So their need is much more primitive, much more fundamental than yours. You are not competing on the same level. And if they don’t get their needs met, they are going to flail around like a drowning person and capsize your boat. And you have to be aware at least that on some level you do have to allow them to get their needs met, so that your family can settle out over 7-10 years and you can stay in it for the long haul.

If you’re gonna try to make your belongingness needs be more important, then what they need to feel that they need to survive in the world, it’s not likely to work out for you. So I try to remind my clients that you have all of your adult resources to bring to bare to this situation. You have so much opportunity to connect with your partner in a meaningful and nourishing way, that doesn’t involve sitting next to them on the sofa, or in a restaurant, or something. Presumably, you’re sleeping every night  next to this person. You have a responsibility to carve time out of your week to be alone with your partner, to work on your relationship. That’s your responsibility.

Kids have zero options in terms of when and how they can get their safety needs met by being with their parent. So it can look or it can feel like you’re competing with them, but you need to have a model that’s constantly reminding you that that’s not the case, and that you have to build into your life whatever you need, whatever kind of time and circumstances that you need to get what you need from your partner and to work together on your relationship… Because yes, of course, it’s the most important thing, but there’s a context for what that looks like on a day-to-day basis.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: And I’m imagining that this fuels a lot of conflict, because it’s very rare that we’re really conscious of this need, and being able to articulate it so clearly and crystallized, where it just can come out in these subtle, small ways, but it builds tension, and then there’s this tension between the kids and the stepmom, and then the dad is feeling divided, and it just escalates. Is that what you find?

Tracy Poizner: Yeah, I do, absolutely. There are so many just little tricks. One of them is that the adults in the households – you and your partner, let’s say – should have some kind of little cue between yourselves… Like a little look that you give each other, or  a sort of a secret touch; a tap on the shoulder, or a little rub on the back, or whatever it might be, but that you understand between you, that that means “I love you” or “I see you”. Because when you get all overwhelmed, especially where there’s more than one child in the house, the woman can often feel that her partner ignores her completely when the kids are there… And it’s important for the kids to see that his attention is on them. But you can have this kind of secret signal, so that when you walk past each other you know each other’s elbows, or whatever you decide it’s gonna be that’s not an overt display of affection that’s gonna distract the kids from feeling that they’re connected, but that you understand between you. This means like “I can’t wait for bedtime tonight.” That’s what it means between you. So you can connect multiple times during the day and sort of have that “I’m still with you, even though I’m with my kids. I see you and I’m communicating with you.”

And there has to be some kind of official date night, or date lunch, or breakfast, or like a ritual walk around the block after dinner, or something that you really plan and make it happen, that is time for you alone. And if it involves bringing in a babysitter or something, that’s okay. But couples complain just as much about them not having enough time together if they have kids all the time or if they only have them half the time, or if they only see them every other weekend. It’s the same problem. And there’s no excuse for that. You’re allowing distractions to knock you off of doing what’s important… So a lot of that free time and spare time gets wasted in front of the TV, or everybody scrolling on their phone at the dinner table, whatever it might be… But we’re not being intentional enough with saying “This is not negotiable. We’re having a meal together every Wednesday  night” or “I’m gonna meet you for lunch every Thursday, and that’s gonna be our time together, and we’re both gonna take an extra half an hour off our work that day, and have this time together that’s just for us.” Or “We’re gonna walk around the block after dinner, and the kids are old enough to stay alone for half an hour” or “We’re gonna trade with the neighbors and every other evening they’ll watch our kids and we’ll watch their kids…” There’s always a way to work something into your schedule. It’s really important.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes. And Tracy, it sounds like you’re encouraging the cues, however subtle, that the couple is maintain their bond, but that there’s an ability, as you’re saying, using your adult resources, that it doesn’t have to look or compete with what the kids need… But there is a sense, in my vantage point, of the attachment; it needs to fuel that sense of security and safety with your significant other. But the way you’re describing it is really giving priority, in the family time,  that the kids feel safe and feel cared for and seen… Because I would understand, and it would make sense in the context of the 7 to 10 years, that when people feel safe, they relax and they can trust and they can feel more at ease… And in the beginning, as you’re describing, especially with that analogy, what the kids are feeling – all the defenses are up, the protection is there, the guardedness is there, and there’s a real uncertainly around “Am I safe?”

Tracy Poizner: Not to forget that in 75% to 80% of blended families there is some degree of active alienation happening, from one parent through to the kids, which is alienating them in some way from the other parent. Three quarters at least of families are having this situation, so that the kids are being encouraged – well, whichever way you look at it; they’re being discouraged from feeling safe in the other home. The  message is “You are not safe at your dad’s house, you are not loved there, you are not seen there for who you are” or “You’re not appreciated there”, whatever it might be. And kids get told these things. There’s somebody that I have had a conversation with who told me that the six-year-old stepson – the dad didn’t see his own son for two years.

Meanwhile, the mom was telling him that he wasn’t seeing his dad because dad was in prison for having killed somebody. That was the narrative that this little boy grew up with, and so he was completely terrified when the dad finally, through the court system, got to have contact with him. The poor kid was really terrified of his own dad. And that’s an extreme version, but you hear “Your dad is irresponsible. Your dad has no time for you. Your dad is remarried now and he doesn’t wanna have you around so much.” That’s an ongoing presence for a lot of kids. And every little tiny sign that that could be true is just gonna reinforce this idea that they have. So it makes for a lot of — there’s a constant feeling of walking on eggshells. A lot of women relate to this feeling, that you’re constantly walking on eggshells. You’re not allowed to make a mistake. There’s no space somehow for making a mistake, and it’s hard to live like that.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: That’s an incredibly high statistic, and I know possibly not all listeners are familiar with parental alienation, but the spectrum of how subtle to how severe and how damaging it is for children is so significant. I’m wondering if you can spell that out for people a little bit more, because it occurs where the dad might talk poorly about the mom, and the mom might also talk poorly about the dad, but usually it’s one parent that’s a little more active, as far as I understand it… And it’s unresolved pain that’s being projected, and then the kid is holding it… Can you talk a little bit more about it, so people can get a better understanding?

Tracy Poizner: Yeah. Well, in (let’s say) psychological language, you would say that a child (or children) are being triangulated into the conflict between the adults; the child is being played, in some way, to bring them onto the side of whichever parent, sometimes as a weapon against the other parent, and sometimes as a support of that parent. It’s really so ubiquitous; it’s just seen so often that far and away the normal, average situation involves some degree of that.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: And it’s not lost on kids, right? Even the subtlest thing is not lost on them. Even the little, little jab.

Tracy Poizner: It’s not even jabs, it’s [unintelligible 00:36:59.00] Even if you’re not saying anything to them, they are in another room, with their ears pointed, and they are overhearing your conversation with your best friend about what an asshole your ex-husband is. Sorry for my language… But they’re overhearing things that they don’t have any context to understand, but that make them have big question marks. Or they’re overhearing financial issues very directly, about things that happened inside the marriage, or why the marriage broke up, and sometimes they’re being told things very directly about the new partner, in this case the stepmom. Lots of kids who are not allowed, literally, to mention the name of the dad or the stepmom, and imagine what that’s like for you when you live half the time, and then you go home and you’re supposed to button your lip and not talk about anything that happened there.

Sometimes it’s subtle, sometimes it’s just the reaction of the other parent to hearing stuff like — I remember, for instance, that my own stepkids would go home from being here for a weekend, which was pretty rare, because they live really far away, so they weren’t here very often in the early years… But they just got to understand that when they would talk about happy things that were happening here, it upset their mother, and they could see it in her body language and her facial expressions. And when they would talk about something – a little, tiny, negative thing that happened here, like “I said a bad word and dad sent me to my room”,  well then there would be this incredible attention, and reaction, and “Oh, my goodness. He shouldn’t have done that. What did you say? Well, that wasn’t so bad.” And that would engender a lot of attention. And it was like, of course. You want that tension. Instead of hearing “Hey, we went to the park, we had such a good time” and mom goes “Yeah. Well, okay. Whatever.” It falls flat. And that’s not so fun.

And when you say something a little bit negative that happened, then it turns into a wonderful half-hour of attention from mom. So they get trained in saying more and more of those little negative things that happen, and that becomes a pattern where they could even make up things if nothing was negative, because it’s a way of just establishing a better relationship with their mom. So that happens a lot, that kind of dynamic happens a lot… And it’s really hard to — it’s so subtle that even if you didn’t think that you were perpetrating a parental alienation, it’s enough that you’re validating the negative side of what’s happening at the other house, in some way. It’s validating in the sense of saying “Yeah, that’s really bad. That’s something that shouldn’t be happening. I’m on your side. I don’t think that was right” or “I don’t think that rule that dad says is legitimate. I don’t think you should have to follow that rule.” So it’s insidious, and hard to see.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Yes. I do think that there’s even an element of this where kids are internalizing, depending on what age they are (I think it matters), but when one parent is talking negatively about the other, even if it’s in earshot, it’s almost this pain to themselves, and how their own sense of esteem… Because that parent is part of them. So it’s not like this  loyalty that I have to see two different people and feel this loyalty and alliance with both of them and having to manage that, it’s actually how I feel about myself even, right?

Tracy Poizner: I’m so glad you brought that up, because this is a piece that is really hard, I think, for parents to wrap their heads around… But every single cell of you – like you and me – is half-mom and half-dad, and nothing else. We are made of mom and dad, and nothing else. So half of you is always not okay after your parents divorce. Wherever you’re standing, at any moment, half of you is not really okay. And that is causing, as you can easily understand, a kind of rupture in your ability to love yourself and your ability to feel whole. And if kids don’t have a place where they can feel 100% whole, I don’t know what kind of adults we’re putting out into the world, because 50% of kids are growing up in this kind of split family situation now… And those kids are the adults of 15 years from now. And who are we putting into the world, with this kind of fractured sense of self and inability to love themselves? It doesn’t bode well for the future of society to make that such a feature of the children that we’re turning into adults.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: There’s a lot to this, and I know we’re scratching the surface, but I also know we have a short amount of time with you… So I’d love to pivot to anything else you want listeners to be aware of; perhaps what you didn’t know, and you’re speaking to people that are new to this idea of how to consider this differently… What other things would you like to share/comment on?

Tracy Poizner: Oh, my goodness. Well, I think anyone who is single in this day and age is looking at the possibility of getting together with a new partner who has kids… Just statistically speaking, if you’re 40, the likelihood is much greater than if you’re 30. And if you’re 50, it’s ever so much more so. Single people have to imagine themselves potentially being in a relationship with somebody that has kids from a prior relationship. It’s not so fraught as we might make it out to be. I know a lot of people are kind of determined that they’re never gonna do that, and you don’t always get to pick who you’re gonna meet and fall in love with, and how that works out. But the good news is that you can choose your level of involvement, and it’s always on the biological parent to do the parenting.

So you can be a friendly adult supporter – I think that you should be, actually. I think it’s really important not to try to take on the role of mom. That becomes infinitely harder when you have your own children and you’re really blending two families of kids under one household. That’s another discussion for another time. But for a woman without kids, I tell women that they need to think about just unplugging their maternal instinct, as if you were turning off the GPS… Because it really is a kind of GPS. We follow our maternal instinct to our own detriment.

I think you have to just be aware that you’re gonna do a lot of things automatically, because when a woman is around kids, your maternal instinct is gonna activate, whether you know it or not… And it’s really important to be aware of how much you don’t wanna follow that… And it sounds ridiculous, because it feels as though it would be the natural thing that’s gonna help you, and it actually doesn’t. It’s so much more useful to take a role of being like an aunt, or like a  mentor, or like the mom next door, the mom of your best friend…

We all remember having a friend as a kid that maybe you spent a lot of time at their house, and their mom would do lots of motherly things for you, but not come over to your house and [unintelligible 00:45:12.22] your parents because you’re not brushing your teeth properly. There are boundaries. And you can be a beloved person in your step-child’s life without taking a motherly role. And that is what tends to work out best.

Obviously, there are plenty of situations where a child is really grateful to have another real mother role, and they really kind of cling to that, but that’s a rare exception, I would say; saying that you should let the child take the lead in how you relate to them is the very minimum.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: And it sounds like it allows for some equalization or equalizing to then allow a bonding to happen over time that’s authentic to the natural building, rather than this imposed, probably for the child false sense of “You’re not my  mom…”

Tracy Poizner: Exactly.  I love that word, “authentic”. I think that’s really important. If you let it be what it really is, it grows into an authentic, nice relationship between you, instead of, as you said, an imposed one that you are left wondering why it’s not working.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Well, it sounds like you have such a wealth of knowledge and skill, and even the way that you’ve codified… How do people that perhaps have noticed some struggle in this area and are looking for more guidance and support – how do people get in touch with what you’re offering?

Tracy Poizner: Well, my website is They can reach me there, [email protected]. I have a Facebook group for stepmoms called  The Spectacular Stepmom. So many women there said “Man, this group is so wonderful. I wish there was one for the dads”, so I made one, and it’s called “One for the Dads.” So you can go on Facebook if you’re a dad and look up “One for the Dads”, and you’d be welcome to join us there, too.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: So on the Facebook group there’s support that you offer. It sounds like you go live and you offer tips, tools to consider… And then do you have programs, or coaching? What do you offer on your website?

Tracy Poizner: I do. I have been doing coaching for stepmoms, and what I’m offering now – I’m just about to roll it out again, actually – is “Undeletable Dad Academy.” That is specifically for biological dads who are struggling to restore or maintain a healthy parent/child parenting dynamic after divorce. So to re-establish good relationships after parental alienation, or just to be able to withstand this kind of ongoing pressure and interference from the other household in the parenting relationship. So it’s very focused. It’s a six-month program to focus specifically on parenting tools, communication tools, mindset, emotional wellness to support the dads in this journey… Because I think they’re in need of help every bit as much as the stepmoms are.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Absolutely. And you also have a podcast.

Tracy Poizner: I do, Essential Stepmom. It’s on all the platforms, so anybody can find me there. I do it once a week.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Hm. And you’re on social media as well…

Tracy Poizner: The social media page is also called Essential Stepmom Undeletable Dad.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Nice.

Tracy Poizner: That’s all on one page.

Dr. Jessica Higgins: Wonderful. Well, Tracy, I know people will be getting in touch with you and what you have to offer. This is so important to navigate relationship, and this is, as you said, really new territory… And we’re often ill-equipped and uncertain around what to expect, and it is really helpful to have some guidance in how to set this up for more success.

Thank you for joining us today.

Tracy Poizner: It was my pleasure, thank you so much for inviting me.


I hope you have enjoyed today’s episode, again, with Tracy Poizner. You can find the links mentioned on today’s podcast show notes, which can be found at, click on Podcast in the top navigation bar and you’ll find today’s episode, 256. There you’ll find the show notes, as well as the links mentioned.

Thank you for listening, and until next time, I hope you take great care.

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Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication

Shifting Criticism For Connected Communication.

Stop the criticism loop, learn new ways to communicate
and strengthen the connection with your partner.


Dr. Jessica Higgins ~ Relationship and Transformational Coaching