A Healthy Stepmother . . . When Mothers Lose Perspective

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. 

English: Mother and child.

Mother and child. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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. 

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Yours? Mine?

This business of what’s mine? As if I can only love what’s mine and therefore if it’s not mine, I’ll make it mine so I can love it. And, I’ll ignore everything and everyone that isn’t mine, as if I have no responsibility to the community around me.

Or, I’ll force the situation or the person to be otherwise and then it’ll feel and be mine.

The kids belong to the blood, or so the story goes, and so the legal beagles declare they are not the stepparent’s.

As if kids are possessions.

The mother label gives license. The father label gives license, but less than the mother license. As if it takes one or the other of these licenses to help a human grow to maturity.

No, you can’t drive him to school, you’re not the mom.

No, the volunteers in the class will be moms and dads, not stepparents.

Huygens and his children (property of the Maur...

Huygens and his children (property of the Maurits Huis, The Hague) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The message of kids belonging to parents gets repeated until the echo of it bounces off the inner rooms of a child’s mind and she can’t escape.

The sense of belonging to the parent grows so strong, the simple act of being nice to another person creates internal conflict for the child. Much simpler to simply avoid.

We’ve got it all screwed up.

See, he’s not mine. She’s not mine. No human is mine. Not even my dearest husband. Nothing is yours either, but I won’t argue with you if you can’t see it. You’ll get there one day.

Regarding this not-mine person, I see how easy it is to warp the innocence of the caring, giving, generous child. Have you noticed children begin with that innocence? But, they learn what they see and live with and they want to please. It takes awareness and consciousness and purposeful conversations to keep from walking straight into the trap of raising an egocentric, worried-if-I’ll-get-mine adult.

How do we build a world where the lines of mine begin to blur?

How do we allow a community to raise a child?

How do we let go of our clutchiness?

How do we accept that nothing is ours that won’t be buried with us when we die?

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(Note: I shouldn’t need to write a note, but I live in a stepfamily. Inevitably, someone will read and think I’m talking about my personal family and that something has happened that has needed this blog post as a response to that event. In fact, the subject of this blog post has been on my mind for some time now. Caring for my father and the complicated questions of who shows up to help me has been the impetus for me to write about the possessiveness, or lack of it, among humans. We claim as ours when it is convenient and then deny and make reasons for not showing up when that serves us well. And it goes both ways, parent to child and child to parent. Most of all, I wanted to highlight the messiness of it and how often we behave as though completely disconnected from the truest intentions of our hearts.)

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