Happy Stepmother's Day?

Navigating Mother's Day and Father's Day as a stepparent

mom and son shaking handsOk. Let’s recognize the elephant in the room, point it out and deal with it. You are now (or will be soon) a stepmother. And Mother’s Day is upon us. Sit with that for a moment. Breathe. Feel better?

Well, if not, then you are not alone. I’ve been there.

Stepparents have been vilified in movies, books and folklore for centuries … and the mothers are the worst! The very name “stepmother” conjures up images of us as grizzled, nasty hags, determined to undermine, steal, blame and take control of our very unsuspecting, idiotically in love partners (usually men, let’s face it). We are also hell-bent on being mean to our stepchildren … in some cases for no apparent reason. But mostly it’s for money. Stepmothers are often portrayed as the obstacle between stepchildren and their true happiness. Or as the destructive force behind the once loving relationship the children enjoyed with their father. Nice.

Welcome to your cultural and emotional inheritance of mediocrity, evil and shame! Thank you, Disney. (I know, history and the talented, yet disturbing Grimm brothers play a big role in creating this message as well, but everyone loves to hate on Disney now and then. Even stepmothers!)

My own stepson, Tally, is now 26, but he was 9 when I met him. His father and I were teaching at the same school in Oakland, and they were a package deal of the best sort. They were very close and loved to laugh, explore and spend most of their time together. They welcomed me in, and we were an instant success together. My husband, Crai, was raising Tally, whose mother lived across the country and saw him for long vacations, so the three of us were together nearly all the time. And then one day the honeymoon ended ... ironically, right about the time we got married.

I made the mistake of thinking that I would do a smashing job as a stepmother because I loved my husband and my stepson. That made sense to me, anyway. But once he was not just my partner’s kid, but someone I loved, things got complicated, and I was unprepared, mostly because a stepmother does not have something I hold very dear to my heart: complete control. What I didn’t know then is that a lack of control is front and center for all parents.

Choices, decisions, little arguments, big expectations, holidays, vacations, lunches, our parents, school, discipline ... all these issues became things to navigate.

Suddenly I had opinions and feelings about what would be “best” for Tally, but I was never going to be the parent who got to make the final call or decision. Sometimes, I felt frustrated because his father would, in my opinion, fail to “discipline” him in the ways I thought would be productive. Other times, I felt jealous of his mother, whom he adored, of course, and got to see for fun vacations while we were there to do dreaded homework and to deal with everyday challenges. But we were doing it! We were figuring it out. Or so I thought.

Then, one Mother's Day, I heard my husband in the backyard nagging Tally to make me a card; something he really didn’t feel like doing. He had no reason, he just didn’t want to. I was shocked and hurt, because I felt we were really close. I didn’t yet understand his priorities and his timetable in our relationship. I believe looking back; I was most underprepared for this desire to be someone my stepson loved as much as I loved him. Now, of course I know that this was not his job or even his choice. He was 10. Toggling between two parents, and managing to be one of the most upbeat, enthusiastic children I knew in the process, was plenty. Why should he have to make a card?

So here, I have written my old self a Mother's Day Card for that day. I would have saved Tally and my husband a lot of worry and confusion had I gotten this in the mail on time!

Dear Alison,

Take it easy. You have been given a gift far larger than any card this child may or may not give you on Mother's Day. This gift, of being a stepparent, includes the opportunity to be a person who listens, rather than who speaks.

You’ll learn that your impressions and assumptions of others are not always correct, and you will learn to forgive. Finally, you’ll learn something that will not only help you in all of your current relationships, but will greatly assist you with your other children as they are born: You’ll learn to let go.

Embrace this new role of yours, including its boundaries, and you will go far. Try to be in control of everything … and you will perish. (If that sounds like something a Disney fairy godmother would say, it was intentional.)

In the end, you will have three boys, each a galaxy of celebrations, struggles, worries and learning for which you will feel truly thankful every single day.

Tally is your first try at parenting. Enjoy it.

Happy Mother's Day,

Your Future Self

If you are a stepmother, or stepparent, here are some things you can keep in mind that will help build trust and a sense of significance and belonging in your stepchildren:

  1. Remember: Your stepson or daughter didn’t choose you, his or her parent did. So, this child is not required to love you. Kids need time to trust and feel close, as do we all!

  2. Never speak negatively about your partner's ex. That person is your child’s mother or father. Not only will you will be hurting the child, you will also damage your relationship. Kids feel protective of their parents and are literally a part of them. 

  3. Keep your eye on the big picture, which should be healthy developmental growth in relationships and in the life of your child. In a sticky situation think to yourself, What is my stepchild thinking and feeling and deciding about herself right now? What is she thinking and feeling and deciding about me?

  4. If you have a sense of humor, lead with it!

Though he is 26, Tally calls me when he is in need of perspective, advice or a sounding board. Sometimes he calls just to chat. Those calls remind me that we are connected, that I can help, and that I did something right as a parent. When these calls show up on my phone, it is a happy mother's day, whatever the time of year.

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