Jacquelyn Fletcher was terrified the first time she met the three young children of her husband-to-be. As a stepdaughter herself, she didn't see this occasion through rose-colored glasses. "Most women in that position assume the kids will like them right away, but I knew I would have to spend a lot of time building our relationship," Fletcher said.

Married for six years to Arne Johnson, she is now stepmother to Connor, 15, Cameron, 12 and Chandler, 10, and is mother to Eva, 2. The family lives in Lakeville.

In 2007, Fletcher wrote "A Career Girl's Guide to Becoming a Stepmom" and has created a website, www.becomingastepmom.com,where she hosts a weekly podcast called "Stepmom Circles."

"There is social negativity that surrounds stepmothers," said Fletcher. "For that reason, they tend not to want to come out of the closet, but instead they go online and say 'Help!' "

She has heard from many stepmothers during their first year of marriage who are struggling in relationships with their stepchildren. From there, stepmoms often move into what Fletcher calls "the chaos stage," which happens after two to five years in the role.

"At that point, many stepmoms become frustrated because they've been trying so hard and don't feel like they are really being acknowledged," she said. "They often feel like 'second fiddles' when it comes to parenting."

Combine those frustrations with the sense of isolation many stepmoms face, who don't find sympathy from friends who aren't in the same situation, and you end up with an unhappy stepmother. "So often, stepmothers get so focused on the troubles in their lives that they can forget about what it is they really want for their families," said Fletcher.

Camaraderie and communication

Ann Orchard, a licensed Edina psychologist, frequently works with stepparents in her practice. She also is a stepmother to two grown children, who were 6 and 8 years old when she married their father.

"Stepmoms often tell me their friends will say things like, 'Well, you knew this was a package deal going in'," said Orchard. "They don't realize how hard it is to build loving relationships, especially during those early years when you are still a stranger in the lives of the children."

Connecting with other stepmoms is critical, in order to find support from those going through a similar experience, said Orchard.

In all families, communication is important, but it can become even more important in stepfamilies. "The gold standard for the co-parenting model is when everyone in both households communicates well. Unfortunately, that can be pretty hard to achieve," said Fletcher.

She has written on her website about ways to bond with stepchildren. Her suggestions include these:

Find common ground. Talk with your stepchild about likes and dislikes, and see how they overlap with yours.

Interview your stepkids. As a writer, Fletcher is used to interviewing others. So when she was first getting to know her stepchildren, she asked a lot of questions -- and offered them information about herself.

Back off. Observe for a while until you figure out your place in the family. And don't take on the role of enforcer. Have fun with the stepchildren and let their dad tell them to put their stuff away or pick up their rooms.

Spend time together one-on-one. Build your relationship with the child away from their dad.

Fletcher will host a retreat for stepmoms on July 16 to 18, that will include workshops based on her curriculum for stepmothers that combines research with kitchen table wisdom.

The real goal of the weekend, though, is to offer a safe haven for stepmoms to come together, tell their stories and learn from the experiences of others who understand what life as a stepparent is like.

Julie Pfitzinger is a West St. Paul freelance writer.