Mutual understanding is one of the most important ingredients in the ex-wife/wife coalition mix. This post is in response to a guest post from the stepmom’s perspective by author Wednesday Martin.
Let the dialogue begin!
It’s not easy to feel judged and misunderstood
It’s not easy for me to be constantly seen at “the enemy” either. You and your husband may have bonded over a vivid dissection of my flaws and shortcomings, which feels scary and threatening. Part of your relationship fantasy about how you two so right for each other could have included a lot of evidence about he and I were so wrong for each other. This may very well be the case, but please consider how uniquely exposed and vulnerable and yes, even defensive this would make anyone feel.
And give some thought to the overall quality of the energy you’re bringing to our relationship. If I continue to sense like you’re gloating over my tiniest mistakes or keeping score on a You Wouldn’t Believe What She Did This Time roster, I’m not going to be very inclined to cut you any slack either! If you’re rude and competitive and snarky with me, how am I supposed to imagine you being patient and kind to my children?
My kids aren’t perfect
If you have your own child with my ex, you know how hard it is to raise kids. Everyone’s a parenting critic, until they have one! I may love my children with all my heart, but does that mean I’m automatically perfectly consistent as a parent? A model disciplinarian? Forever loving, patient and attentive? No, of course not.
The truth is, I often feel helpless, embarrassed, confused, and ashamed of the things I can’t handle or improve as a mother. Sometimes I’m just as overwhelmed and clueless about my child’s behavior as you are. The strong-willed toddler, the pre-teen mood swings, the ill-conceived forays into teenage independence, they throw me for a loop too. It seems like just when I get a handle on one of my child’s more difficult “phases,” they move into a new one, rattling my parental confidence. When you criticize my children, you incite my protectiveness, but my unconditional love gets tested too! Giving birth to a child doesn’t mean you are always in control of that child’s behavior, personality, or the trajectory of their life.
Also, some of the existing behavior or discipline problems you’re now seeing in my children are a reflection of the things in my marriage that didn’t work between your husband and I. And as you might have experienced yourself as his co-parent, my ex-partner and I were often at odds when it came to reinforcing rules and consequences. This likely contributed to the demise of our marriage, so don’t lay the blame for parenting mistakes squarely on my shoulders. Please distribute it fairly.
I’m not expecting everything between us to be all hunky-dory
I’m not looking to be your best friend, but I would like to feel like we’re on the same page as hands-on caretakers of these children. I would like to know that the priority between both households is raising these children well together, instead of proving the other side wrong. I would like to be able to call you to follow-up on a child’s cold, late (or missing) homework, or suspicions that one of them is falling in with the wrong crowd before it becomes a major problem.
The thing that keeps me from going there, in part, is the feeling that you and my ex are talking poorly about me. This makes it hard to trust you, or confide in you about things I may not be handling well because it doesn’t feel safe. If I knew you weren’t going to be so quick to judge me, it’d be a lot easier to problem-solve together. I know this goes both ways.
I’m scared of my kids loving you. There, I said it.
I have to admit, this strikes fear in my heart: I’m scared of my kids liking you, because if they like you, that could lead to them loving you. One the one hand, I want them to love you. But I also don't. It's not necessarily rational.... Plus, it’s hard to feel like the areas where you’re shining as a stepmom also happen to shed light on areas where I fall short as a parent. So is there a part of me that’s happy they don’t like you? Have I subtly or directly encouraged this? Yes, and I know it’s wrong and selfish and ultimately not in their best interests. But I don’t know you. And I don’t know what your intentions are with my children. Would you be willing to tell me?
It’s also hard to feel like a bomb blew up in your family. It’s difficult to see your kids forever schlepping their stuff between two homes. It’s tough to have them go away and not know what’s going on in their lives. I don’t have a crystal ball to see into your household and I worry about them. That’s what moms do! Sure, I want as many people as possible loving my children, but it’s also scary on some level to have it happen out of “viewing range.” And what if love for you mean less of an attachment to me? If you have your own children with my ex, you may think you understand what this primitive fear is like, but if you’ve never shared your children like this with another woman, I can assure you, you don’t.
I’m not my children’s “bio-mom,” I’m their mom. Period.
My children were not created in a test tube! Nor were they adopted (where this term originated). I gave birth to them, much as you don’t want to think about this. Yes, your husband - my ex - and I once went through our own little bubble of history that included joy, wonder, excitement and all the rest of it when our children were born. (Perhaps you two have experienced this yourselves.) Why do you feel the need to belittle my role by changing my name? Are you trying to diminish my sense of power or authority?
The things you’re doing out of a sense of competitiveness to prove that you’re the better mom to my kids (“I’ll show them what consistency and higher standards should look like!”) really only serve to objectify your stepchildren, if you think about it. And that can’t be good for them either, just like the blind parenting mistakes I’m making.
Perhaps part of your behavior is fueled by the pressure to solidify your marriage and validate your husband’s belief that he did indeed choose the right woman by being with you. But keep in mind, demonizing me lets him off the hook when it comes to him dealing with the deep-seated patterns that led to the demise of his first marriage. You should have a vested interest in seeing those issues resolved, because they may affect your marriage someday too.
I probably still have baggage with my ex
Yes, yes, it’s been however many years, but no matter who initiated the divorce, in some ways emotionally skirting too close to the divorce still causes me great pain and sadness. My family is forever in two pieces now, there’s no going back. This is reality for my children. When they came into this world, I never imagined this was how their lives would be.... I’m sure it’s the same for you, if you have children.
Parenting is even harder now that I’m divorced. I don’t have access to a ready ear from the only other person in the world who knows and loves these children (hopefully) just as much as I do -- their dad. Now I’m in the dark, trying to do this all on my own. Even if I have a partner, he’s not their father. His patience is tried too. I can tell when he’s trying to bite his own tongue about aspects of their behavior that he doesn’t like. It feels lonely and sad and sometimes I fear for my children’s future because of it.
The only way out of this mess is to move through the pain, assign accountability fairly on both sides and forgive. But I’m reluctant to fully grieve the loss of my little original family unit because to do so feels like jumping off a cliff into the mouth of an active volcano. I’m afraid to go there, it seems overwhelming and scary. I don’t know how. So it’s easier for me to just resent my ex and blame him and unfortunately, that means you get thrown into the mix too. I do weird passive-aggressive things with both of you, I get angry. I inappropriately stick my kids in the middle and then I secretly regret my bad behavior. You might not believe me, but I know it’s wrong and I know I need to change. I’m just not sure where to start!
I promise to play nice if you do.
We both need to try harder here. If we simply give in to the temptation to see each other in the worst possible light, things could easily continue on like this for years. And in the meantime, the children are growing older and experiences where OUR conflicts take precedence are piling up, instead of the normal developmental milestones THEY'RE supposed to be having. Our focus should be on them, not our drama. Let’s work on minimizing our conflicts and model healthy emotional management skills for the kids to use later on in their own families.
Can we at least shake hands on trying to do better?
© 2009 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved