Sarah was at a loss when she came to my counseling office. She was a new stepmom and cared deeply about her role in the life of her 7-year-old stepson, Cameron.
She attended his school activities, helped in his classroom, and volunteered in his sports. She did not understand why she was so rejected by his mom, Rebecca. Sarah resented that Rebecca was rude to her and bad-mouthed her to others, especially after all she did for Cameron.
Rebecca’s experience in this scenario was different. Cameron was her only son, and she missed him terribly on the days he was not with her. She committed to enjoying his childhood as much as she could by being deeply involved in his daily school life and extracurricular activities.
It hurt to see another woman seemingly compete for Cameron’s affection. At every special event she attended, Sarah was there too, tainting her precious memories with Cameron and creating an awkward environment for all of them.
The battle of the moms
Both Sarah and Rebecca have valid viewpoints of the situation. As both a stepmom and biological mom myself, I know firsthand the pain of both sides and the struggle of the kids caught in the middle.
So often, I hear only one side of each story filled with compelling evidence that the other party is malicious or unhealthy. I’ve heard the terms “narcissist,” “high-conflict,” and “borderline” thrown around all too flippantly. In reality, most people simply do not put enough effort into seeking to understand the other person and her experiences.
Let’s take a moment and give some insight into what each woman is going through in this unnatural battle.
Stepmom side of the story
A stepmother has a particularly difficult role in blended families, the struggle of which few can understand. She is to be nurturing and caring to children whom she did not birth, but is concurrently seen as an intruder who has taken over her husband’s family. She is often stigmatized and portrayed to be a villain, like in many Disney movies. She is expected to mother her stepkids and love them as her own, but also to “know her place” and not be too motherly.
It can be confusing and exhausting for a stepmom to figure out her function in her family. Often, she is underappreciated for her daily sacrificial love. She bathes her stepkids, feeds them, works to provide income for their home, takes them on fun outings, makes sure they are clothed well and their hair looks nice for school. And yet, she is sometimes met with resentment, distrust, and anger from their mother.
Unfortunately, stepkids are also often put in a place where their loyalties are torn. They feel guilty about loving their stepmother because it signifies a betrayal to their mother. When this happens, the very kids a stepmom tries to love can withdraw or show anger toward her.
Even if the biological mom is not present, a stepmom may feel as if she is competing with the idea of a perfect mom. This can be quite discouraging, inviting even the strongest woman to question her life decisions and want to throw in the towel some days.
Biological mother’s side
I also understand the plight of the biological mother. I have yet to talk to any mother who wants to share her children with a woman who her former spouse chooses to marry.
These moms don’t want to miss out on any of their children’s day-to-day experiences, watching them grow and develop emotionally and physically. They didn’t carry a child in the womb for nine months with the desire to have another woman be “mom” for half of that child’s life. Certainly, no mom wants to be forced to be away from her children and kept out of their lives, even for a few days every week.
Women struggle with comparison as it is, so to think her own kids may compare her motherhood to someone else’s is a whole new level of anxiety. God did not design women to raise their children only 50-to-70 percent of the time. It feels awkward and unnatural to everyone in this complex family system.
So to the mothers on either side, here are a few tips to give you more peace.
Advice for stepmoms
Dear Stepmom, focus on being the mother you want to be in your own home. But step back and allow the biological mother to have her territory outside of the home. Find a way to deal with the hurt or offense this may cause you. Perhaps you can talk to other stepmoms for support, or invest your energy into something you can care for on more of a full-time basis.
Practice ample self-care to prevent burnout and resentment from pouring so much of yourself into your blended family. When the biological mom seems difficult or conflictual, seek to understand her struggle, as well as that of your stepkids.
It’s not as much about you as it is about the stress that comes naturally with a fractured family system. You will experience much more freedom and peace if you let go of control over the situation, learn healthy boundaries, and focus more on yourself.
If your stepchildren’s mother is not involved or present, understand children will naturally have a loyalty to their mom, no matter how distant she is. Show them a good example of a solid mom, with no strings attached. Expect that building a close relationship with them will likely be a long process, and even if your stepkids do not reciprocate your love, remember they still need it from you deeply.
Advice for biological moms
Put kids first when dealing with your former spouse or his wife. Always say and do what’s best for the children by thinking of their best interest and not reacting out of your own hurt and anger.
Never put your kids in the middle of your battles or put your negative thoughts and feelings about their other family onto them. This hurts children more than anything in a divorce.
If your kids have a stepmom who steps on your toes at times, take a moment and pause. Be grateful your children are well-loved and cared for by a motherly figure in their other home.
Although she usually means well, it can feel offensive when she tries to be a good mom to your kids. But try and see the beauty in the fact that, despite the complexity of the situation, there are two families who, together, are loving on your children and pouring into their lives.
Looking in the mirror
Both Sarah and Rebecca needed to look at their own contributions to their situation and also recognize each other’s perspective. By doing this, they were able to better manage their own actions and thoughts and be more in control of their stress levels. This brought them both much more peace within their selves, which affected Cameron positively as well.
Blended family life can be a difficult journey indeed, but it can also be very rewarding. It can produce immense self-growth and the joy of well-adjusted children who grow up in two positive and loving homes.
Copyright © 2019 Jessica Patterson. All rights reserved.