3 Ways for Moms and Step-Moms to Survive Mother's Day
Oh how I love Mother's Day! I look forward every year to that special day when I get to call all the shots: where we'll go to eat and what activities and adventures will fill the day (usually things I enjoy immensely and my kids would rather not have to endure). I love being showered with gifts and heart felt cards. And I really love the free pass I get to smother my kids with hugs and kisses (especially my teenagers)! But, I've discovered that most step families, including mine, aren't always able to enjoy a peaceful day of spoiling and honoring mom…and what about step mom?
A Step-Mom's Perspective
I've never been a step mom, but I do know quite a few and I understand how difficult mother's day can be for them. A new step mom shared her experience:
Lisa had been so excited…she didn't have any kids of her own yet and this was her first official mother's day as a step mom. I could see that her expectations were high - after all, she'd poured herself into her five year old step son and really bonded with him over the past year. She fixed his favorite meals, read him bedtime stories andsurprised him with special gifts when he was in their home. Not to mention washing his dirty clothes, cleaning up his messes and struggling through parenting issues with her husband. It was a lot of hard work, but it was clear that Lisa loved her step son very much.
The big day arrived and the family headed to church. Lisa's heart raced when she saw that all the kids had made lovely mother's day cards during their time in Sunday School. Her step son proudly displayed his card which expressed love and appreciation on this special day. Then he announced that he couldn't wait to go to his mommy's house later so he could give her the card. Lisa's heart sank. Her step son didn't even acknowledge her on mother's day and she was left feeling disappointed, unappreciated and excluded.
A Mom's Perspective
As a mom in a step family, mother's day hasn't always been absent of difficult emotions for me either. Of course I want to be gracious and acknowledge the contributions of my daughter's 'other mom'. Yes, she deserves to be appreciated and honored by my daughter (which I always encouraged her to do). But I can't help but feel a bit resentful when my daughter's attention and affections turn away from me on this particular, very special day. It's frustrating…can't there be one day out of the year where I can just be the mom without my daughter having to include her step mom? I know this sounds really selfish, but hey…I carried that child around in my belly and gave birth to her, shouldn't that overrule all these complicated step family dynamics?
Three Survival Strategies
1. Understand Loyalty Binds
One key challenge for kids living in stepfamily dynamics is what Patricia Papernow calls Loyalty Binds. Loyalty binds create internal conflict for children, they think: "If I care for my stepmother, then I'm betraying my mother". Lisa's step son might have wanted to make her a card too, but was worried about how his mom would feel about that. Many kids worry about hurting their parent if they show affection to their step parent. Because of this confusion, special occasions like mother's or father's day can be especially stressful for kids.
Loyalty binds are a burden that kids don't need to carry. Parents, do what you can to remove any loyalty binds your kids may be experiencing. Let them know that it's okay for them to acknowledge a step parent on special occasions and that you won't be upset if they choose to do so. We can help kids confront and work through loyalty binds by coming alongside them in the tension. Offer your child empathy and a safe place to process their feelings. For more on loyalty binds click here.
2. Handle Your Negative Emotions
Step moms must keep their expectations realistic. I could see that Lisa's expectations were out of line from the beginning, which is why she was so hurt when her step son overlooked her. Rather than building up hopes for one special day, try to focus on other times when your step child has shown appreciation and love toward you. Lisa's step son was a sweet boy who had done little things for her on other days that touched her heart and made her feel accepted and loved. If she had been mindful in keeping her focus on those times, rather than expecting her step son to engage on mother's day, she might have saved herself some heartache.
Moms also need to keep their expectations in line. Do the right thing in these situations, regardless of your negative feelings…I know this isn't easy! What's best for kids, is to allow them to naturally develop a caring relationship with all their parents and step-parents. They don't need your emotional strings attached. Adding to a child's loyalty bind or pulling on their emotions is detrimental and not helpful.
Moms, strive to foster an attitude of gratitude and kindness toward the 'other mom' in your child's life. This may be the last thing you want to hear on Mother's Day, but most step moms really want to bring value and care to their step children. If you experience feelings of jealousy or resentment on those special occasions (like I have), process your emotions with a trusted friend or your spouse, away from the kids. It may help you to set aside another "special day" to spend with your children when their attention isn't divided and you can simply focus on enjoying time together.
3. Husbands...You Can Make a Difference!
As Lisa shared her difficult experience with us, I could see that her husband was hurting for her. He seemed to be at a loss of how to help. He was disappointed in his son's lack of acknowledgement toward Lisa.
Awareness, sensitivity and being proactive goes a long way in these delicate situations. Prepare for special occasions by stepping up beforehand to set expectations in line. Lisa's husband could have initiated a conversation prior to Mother's Day. He could have openly discussed the possibility of loyalty bind tensions and unmet expectations. This would have helped Lisa be more prepared and less disappointed.
Better yet…her husband could've talked to his son about the upcoming holiday and asked him to describe positive thoughts he may have about Lisa, such as: "She's really funny when she reads me stories, I like that". Then he could've helped his son write those things down on paper to give to Lisa on Mother's day…sweet nothings would've made her day a whole lot sweeter! A word of caution on this: parents need to allow kids to set the pace and not push an agenda or put words in their mouths. Affection, love and acceptance of a step parent should never be forced.
Husbands, look ahead to special occasions (don't forget birthdays!) and do what you can to prepare for them and avoid painful disappointments. If your child is unable to express affection or appreciation toward their step mom, you certainly can! Let your wife know how much you appreciate all she does to support the family and care for your kids…she need to hear this regularly, not just on a special occasions!
Sunshine and Roses!
For moms and step moms alike, Mother's Day doesn't have to be tainted with disappointment, resentment or heartache. You and your husband can choose to respond in ways that honor and build up everyone. Together you can learn about loyalty binds and help your kids work through confusing emotions. You can process your own difficult emotions and experiences in healthy, productive ways. Mother's Day can be a day of celebration without stress, if you work as a team and keep your expectation in line.
Enjoy YOUR special day!
QUESTION: What suggestions do you have to staying focused on the positive when you are disappointed on a special day? Leave a comment below: