Friday, May 6, 2011

On being a stepmother on Mother's Day

I honestly believe that if you're parenting, then you're a parent, regardless of whether your kids arrived in your life via birth or adoption or marriage.

Over at Shine, I'm sounding a positive note: Tips to encourage stepmoms to have a happy Mother's Day. And I couldn't agree more with what relationship expert Karen Stewart, founder of Fairway Divorce Solutions, told me in an interview: "I don't think Mother's Day is about mothers," she said. "I think Mother's Day is about teaching gratitude and teaching the value of mothers." 

Even though I love my stepkids like they're my own, and even though I happily did many of the things that mothers do for years, when they were small and staying with us for weeks at a time, we didn't really celebrate Mother's Day in our house. Why not? It was pretty simple: Because as much as I adore my stepkids, I'm not their mom. (In fact, we didn't even create a Mom-like name for me; they just call me Lylah.)

Once our youngest kids were born, celebrating Mother's Day became an easy thing. But even before their births, I felt loved and appreciated for who I am and what I have done—I have a stack of notes written in magic marker and crayon that testify to it, even if they weren't given to me on the first Sunday in May.

Here are five tips for stepmoms, to make Mother's Day go more smoothly:
  • Manage your own expectations. "I don't think there are any hard and fast rules how step families should celebrate Mother's Day as long as the step mother's contributions are acknowledged," says Rachelle Katz, a psychotherapist, stepmother, and the author of "The Happy Stepmother: Stay Sane, Empower Yourself, Thrive in Your New Family." Some children may feel that they're betraying their bio mom if they celebrate with their step, so don't expect them to—being ignored isn’t personal.
  • Tell your spouse how you feel. "Many divorced fathers are unaware of the significance of Mothers’ Day to their new wives," Katz says.  Regardless of whether you decide to celebrate your role or keep things quiet, managing Mother's Day is much easier when there's a plan in place.
  • Celebrate on another day—or in another way. "I know Stepmother's Day is the Sunday after Mother's Day, and some step families can choose to celebrate on that day," Katz says. This year, she's choosing to celebrate the day with her own mother and focus on the positives in her life. You can also consider celebrating in September, on National Stepfamilies Day.
  • Don't compare yourself with their mom. "There really shouldn't be any discussion about who is more important. That's not appropriate," says Stewart. "Being a stepmom is an incredibly important role. It's not the same as being a mom... I've been both, and they are totally different. But you can embrace and have gratitude for both of them."
  • Be happy with whatever form of gratitude you get. Gratitude doesn't necessarily come in the form of a big, expensive gift—and it might not come on Mother's Day itself. "It can be words, a hug, a sticky note... I don't care what it is, it has to be some form of gratitude," Stewart says. "When you leave it to kids, then it's from their heart." Even if it's something that can't be wrapped or brought up on a tray at breakfast.
You can read my entire post, including more of my interviews with Rachelle Katz and Karen Stewart, in my post, "Being a stepmother on Mother's Day," at Shine. 


Laura said...

It never occurred to me to expect anything -- even gratitude -- from my stepkids on Mother's Day. Just as well. Not that they treat me badly, particularly; they range between casually affectionate to indifferent, and I accept what I get, knowing it could have been much worse. If their mother had anything to do with it (and goodness, how she tried), they wouldn't have enjoyed ANYTHING about dad's house, including me. It was rough. You want to love them and have them love you back, but you know that if they do, they'll pay a price back home. Ugh.

On the bright side: My own three kids have had a few almost-stepmothers at their dad's house. Any defensiveness I might have had, any urge to create a love-me-not-her tug of loyalties in my kids was thoroughly eradicated by what I experienced. In fact, I am pretty confident that love for my children and desire for their mental/emotional health would have prevented me from doing that, but my experience did make me a better person, I think, and better at this parenting challenge.

bobbarryjoe jr said...

Despite feeling that it may cause the outright dismissal of my opinion as that of a person who "couldn't possibly understand", I'm going to begin with: I'm a man and I don't have step children.

While it may serve to perpetuate the cycle of self affirmation through a shrug and lowly muttered "typical" I believe that the feelings that Ms. Alphonse and "Laura" "Laura" both share are fairly common and have more to do with themselves than with step children.

The original post made me feel that step-parenting seems similar to the experience any person who pursues any thing that helps others over the self goes through. To put others ahead of oneself is inherently a thankless as it is happening. Maybe the feeling seems more poignant if a person was in a childhood role of relegating their wants or needs as secondary to a parent who never recognized or acknowledged what the child had done. This type of childhood experience may cause deeper feeling when love is unnoticed or not appreciated or returned.

I don't think your step children consciously act in a way that is hurtful or inconsiderate because you are their "step-mother" I'd think that their actions or omissions have more to do with being teenage girls and its likely that, at times, you may be a bit over-bearing- "Do you want strawberry jam on your english muffin Nav? Are you sure you don't want the strawberry jam? You know we have strawberry jam if you want it on your english muffin" :) I don't think it matters if you are a step or biological mother the average teenager isn't going to respond to that in any way that will make you feel appreciated.

bobbarryjoe jr. said...

part II

Laura begins with "it never occurred to me to expect anything- even gratitude" which is great. You're a good person. Like anyone in a parenting or giving role, you accept what you get as does Ms. Alphonse. But the reason you accept it is because you knew it could have been much worse? And the reason it could've been much worse, naturally, would be the hand of the vindictive, tyrannical, under-medicated, chanting over the cauldron with a voodoo doll in a mini blouse made from the stolen cloth of your favorite blouse, "ex-wife". So you take the burden for them knowing that if they show affection or love for you "mommy dearest" is heading straight for the coat hanger when they get home? They're kids. Not a chance they could show you affection and then tell their mom they can't stand you? They wouldn't think of that. My three girls had the playing parents to get what you want bit down by 3. I always thought it was because they were kids. I never thought it could have been the hand of the one that hates me. Probably my Mother, like a modern day final act to King Lear.

To provide an opportunity to further dismiss my thoughts I'll go on to say that professionally I'm in a role where many people depend on me to provide for themselves and their families. So really, I get the thankless bit. The kids you hire, mentor, and elevate who then try to take your job. The partner you share your good year with when his is bad who then takes credit for your work, the money you just gave him, and leaves. I know it is different with children and step children in the home. I think it is a lot different- you take that pain because of the love you feel for your spouse, that’s gratifying. I also think you’re lucky because there may come a time when those step-"kids" become adults and some of the things that you have done stay with them and they go on to become selfless people themselves. I'd even be willing to bet when your step kids are your ages that you guys will probably get flowers on the doorstep on the first Sunday of May from them too. My ex-partner and I'll probably still be in a fairly bitter law suit.

If the second Sunday in May is "step-mothers" day can I call the third Sunday in May Cherry Vallence Day because "things are rough all over, Ponyboy"

LMAlphonse said...

Laura, thanks for commenting. Being both a mom and a stepmom gives you a great perspective, since you can see both sides of things and avoid accidentally putting your own kids in the middle.

Bob, thanks for taking the time to comment. I think that kids in general can be experts in playing one parent against the other, even without divorce in the equation. When it comes to step parenting, I think that there's a big difference between slights that are intentional and one that are just par for the course (and really aren't slights at all, just kids being kids). I also think that, more often than not, stepparents confuse the two, and assume every slight is part of some big personal vendetta. As the experts I talked to mention in their tips, being ignored on Mother's Day (or any other day) isn't necessarily something to take personally. In my case, for the last 10+ years I've felt appreciated in different ways, at different times. You can't expect validation to come on a schedule dictated by Hallmark, you know?

The way you related it to the business world is really interesting... I haven't thought of it that way before, but it makes a lot of sense. Also: Now I want to go and re-read "The Outsiders." :)

Peter Biro said...

My wife has both a mother and a stepmother, and I don't think it ever occurred to her to ignore her stepmother on Mothers Day, even though their relationship isn't the closest. Maybe that kind of wisdom only comes with age though.

LMAlphonse said...

Good point, Peter! With age, or maybe also with parenthood... I know that I appreciated my own mom more once I started parenting, and many of my friends who have step parents have told me that they it was easier (and better) once they could relate to their step parents adult-to-adult.