We’re headed into summer and the negotiations over who is doing what and when and with whom. This is never a comfortable time and it’s often easier for a stepmother to put her head down and hope to ignore the situation. It’s impossible to ignore, the pain is there on the face of the child. The discomfort and shame is there in the way that child behaves at his father’s house.
This post is about acknowledging the pain and suffering on the part of everyone when mothers lose perspective. Mothers have incredible power and it’s confusing and damaging when they wield it inappropriately. There’s a toxic by-product of unsaid feelings, unexpressed concerns, and un-negotiated decisions. This wears on mothers themselves, on their exes, and the stepmother. Justifications over unresolved issues between the mother and father are not an excuse for a mother to bring her child into the middle.
I’ve heard enough mother stories (the 44 women I know who are stepmothers) and the stories make my heart hurt. I hang on to these stories, hoping to soften them up, almost as if I could soften my heart to the story, then the mothers’ hearts could also be softened.
I thought it would be appropriate to get really clear about the behaviors we’re talking about, because clearly there is a percentage of mothers who don’t behave this way. I bow down to the mothers like Rose who honors her ex-husband’s wife and actively supports her time with the boys. I think Melanie is a rock star for the way she helps her son work through his feelings about all his parents in a way that allows her son to love them all.
While I don’t have easy solutions, I always have hope, the hope a mother or two might look at this list and agree, it’s time to find another way of interacting.
First, mothers do these low-grade-but-undermining-over-time things often enough to be considered “all the time,” according to my sources:
- Fail to communication, decisions made without consulting the father of the children.
- Use kids, regardless of their age, as couriers to communicate with the father of the children, and then claim she doesn’t like that style.
- Subtly undermine the child’s time with the father.
- Badmouth and bash the father and/or the stepmother with the innocence of someone who believes she isn’t doing any damage.
- Make half-hearted attempts to extend communication and respect to the father of the children and his wife/partner, just enough to profess being communicative.
- Behave as though there is no (legitimate) home for the child other than her own.
- Behave as though the child comes from one side of the family.
Second, mothers do these medium-grade-obstructionisms frequently, things which often have a direct impact on the other household:
- Be permissive, not following through on limits, and then blame the father for being too permissive.
- Change plans at the last minute and not including the other adults (step-parents) in the communication.
- Allow children to do things that are illegal (drinking and drugs) and then complain the father and stepmother are too strict.
- Have strategy conversations with the father and reach agreements about the issues, but discuss the agreements with the child before the three get together.
And, finally, mothers do these high-grade-interference-and-shaming-for-the-child things more often than we read in the news:
- Involve teachers, other parents, and relatives in the disputes between the parents.
- Include the child in private negotiations/conversations between the adults, and using shaming language to demonstrate a position of power and paint a picture of one parent loving the child more than the other. The child is asked to choose the “good” parent.
- Repeatedly take the father to court and behave as though he is a deadbeat dad when he is responsibly caring for his children.
- Attack the stepmother in public, verbally or physically, whether or not the children are present.
I keep wondering what life would be like, not just for the stepmothers and mothers but for the children, if mothers stopped doing these behaviors. I keep wondering how the quality of life for her child would improve if he or she could move freely between homes and not have to carry the censorship and worry over lost love and approval.
These behaviors represent the worst part about divorce.