President's Message #4, Fall 1998
by Dr. Marjorie Engel
Because our membership and our volunteer base are so diverse, SAA represents a collaborative effort of these interests joining together. The Association is really a lot of people each doing a little bit of the entire job of strengthening stepfamilies, rather than a few people doing everything. Over the past couple of years, while doing the research on laws and policies affecting stepfamily members, I met — by mail, phone, fax, internet, and face-to-face — a number of these unsung heroes. Today, I want to tell you about three of our members with imagination and the ability to get things done.
Priscilla Storm witnessed first-hand how a divorce decree can be used as a baseball bat between parents when she became a stepmother at the age of 23. When she and her husband divorced 8 years later, she decided she wanted something different for them and their 6-year-old daughter. It was then that she designed the first Custody HelperÔ forms and began sending them to her ex-husband. These forms are a system for documenting children's activities and interests, parent's communications, and financial records of child-rearing. They worked so well [no subsequent litigation] that when Priscilla remarried a man with custody of his son and daughter, they began sending the monthly reports to his ex-wife.
While Priscilla acknowledges that there have been returns to court for modifications to her husband's divorce decree, she also points out that the Custody HelperÔ documentation supported the court awarding each time in favor of Priscilla's husband. One thing leads to another and Priscilla, after her day job in a family wholesale tree business in Tucson, AZ, obtained training as a mediator. She founded Storm Solutions, Inc. and now uses her documentation forms to help divorced and remarried couples maintain good communication about the lives of their children.
ExStepcional Ideas was an offshoot of the corporation. It is directed by her three children and provides humorous and supportive items for the children of divorce and remarriage. The teens hold workshops during which youngsters design greeting cards. Priscilla says, "I have laughed and I have cried when reading the cards. The ideas just pour out of these children — I've seen a child design as many as 40 cards in an hour — when they are given permission to design what they are thinking." An example of a humorous card? On the outside: "Happy birthday!" The zinger was on the inside: "I don't know you, but my Mom says we're related."
Judy Osborne is a therapist who heads Stepfamilies Associates in Brookline, MA. As many therapists do, Judy conducts workshops and support groups in addition to individual and couple counseling because, "We all have a picture of a family. It is not usually a stepfamily." It was Judy who assembled stepfamily members into a focus group to assist in the development of my research questionnaire about the "Financial [In]Security of Women in Remarriages."
Within myriad stepfamily issues, we all seem to develop a particular passion. Judy is determined to eliminate the negative language about stepfamilies — descriptive vocabulary from within stepfamilies and inappropriate monikers from the outside. For example, she is firm with clients when it comes to speaking respectfully about the ex-spouse and she bristles when the media refers to stepfamilies as "blended."
As a way of taking her language points to the community at large, Judy does national and local radio and television interviews. She is a commendable spokesperson for stepfamily members when she speaks of two families coming together. Judy points out that we don't have to think in terms of "first priority" for first families because that does a disservice to everyone. Ever the diplomatic therapist, Judy admonishes both first and second families, "Everyone can be important."
By now, I hope that Christy Borgeld has framed and hung two Presidential Proclamations on her wall. Why? Thanks to endless hours working on a issue that is dear to her heart, Christy convinced President Clinton to include stepmothers in his Mother's Day Proclamation and stepfathers in his Father's Day Proclamation this year — for the very first time. Using the internet, Christy gathered project supporters including governors and other elected officials, organizations dedicated to working with families, and stepfamily members throughout the United States. Husband Jim admits, "I'm blown away that she has done all this from our home!"
Christy had 4 children from a previous marriage when she met Jim and his 2 children. In telling me about her family, Christy commented, "We wanted a child together so now we really have a bunch!" Married for 6 years this past July 1st, the children range in age from 5 to 15. Christy's parents were role models for community and charity work and this Wyoming, MI, mom continues the tradition by involving her children in service projects.
Jim is clearly enamored of his wife. He told me, "Without getting mushy, I've never met such a person who was creative, dedicated, full of energy, and when she gets an idea, she goes to the top." True to form, Christy is going to the top once again. This time, she is gathering support for prompting President Clinton to proclaim September 16th as National Stepfamily Day.
I have the pleasure of working with these talented, caring people, who share a commitment to stepfamilies, love this organization, and respect its members. They are helping us to break through walls of silence and to change attitudes about stepfamilies. They're reminding us that being in a stepfamily is truly a remarkable opportunity for a diverse and fulfilling family experience.
Dr. Marjorie Engel is president of the Stepfamily Association of America