Who gets to be your mama?

There's a fascinating discussion taking place over on the Doughtie Houses Exchange (DHX) site about the weird feelings both mother and stepmothers struggle with when the children bond with the stepmother (up to 65 comments so far!). In "Other Women's Children," mom Kathy Shirek Doughtie talks about bonding with her new step-son and whether it's possible to really and truly love someone else's child (hence the title). I've never been a stepmom, so I don't know what it's like, but I can imagine the process of falling in love with your stepchild. But…. also what it might be like when it doesn't go that well, either.  Scary!

In the comments thread, my interest was captured by one poster in particular who feels betrayed by how much her daughter seems to like her stepmom, even calling her mom, which feels like a slap in the face to the mom. I've got some long comments there too and I can certainly remember this painful, tender feeling in my stomach when my daughters first expressed enthusiasm and joy over something they did with their stepmom. Maybe it's what someone feels like when their husband cheats on them? Ooof. Absolutely horrible.

But the tricky thing is, when you divorce, you also want your children to be in TWO environments where there's love, stability, and attention. Barring some kind of situation where there's something legally actionable going on at the other house, you're stuck with whoever's over at the other house, so you cross your fingers and hope for the best.

It's a very odd feeling hoping for the best, when that can also mean more of that punched in the gut feeling for yourself. You hope for the best in the sense that you want the other couple to stay together so that there's stability in your kid's lives and not another fractured relationship.

You hope for the best in that you actually WANT the stepmom to treat your kids well, and with kindness and ideally, love, although a part of you secretly does not want them to love the stepmom back! But you know that's what would best for them in the long-term, and so you wish it for them, even though, somehow it seems to leave you on the trash heap. This seems like a childish way to handle things emotionally, but… there it is.

You hope for the best in terms of an overall feeling of safety and cosiness and happiness at the other house, although, again, part of you feels jealous about this, as if the existence of that happiness has to mean that you're doing something wrong in your world.  Not so….

Such complicated feelings!

When I try to put myself in the shoes of a stepmom, I would imagine it feels nerve-wracking trying to build a relationship with the children, like you have to be careful. You don't want to step on the mom's toes or make her feel like you're trying to undermine her. (Or who knows, maybe you are! So many women have their stories that are just set in stone about how outrageously impossible the other woman is, no matter what….)  You're also acutely aware of the fact that if things DON'T go well with you and the kids, you put your own relationship with father at risk.

So hey, no pressure or anything.  :-)

At any rate, I spend some time strongly advocating that the mom mentioned above who felt so hurt by her daughter not step back and let the stepmom take the lead "as the mom."  It doesn't have to be about asserting some kind of competitive primacy. It's more about preserving and maintaining that elemental tie between mothers and their children, and not breaking it because the mom feels hurt.

What's your experience been when it comes to adjusting to a new stepmom? Did it just about kill you to hear your kids go on and on about her?

And stepmoms, what were your concerns about the mom when your stepkids first came into your life? Were you weary of crossing any particular boundaries? Confused? Competitive?

We'd love to hear from you!

Make sure to check out the thread! I think it raises some real questions of substance….

(You might have noticed that I regularly recommend posts on the DHX. It's one of my favorite sites because it's also focused on creating harmony between the two families, a subject that's near and dear to my heart. May there one day be lots more sites like it!)

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved


  1. “It’s more about preserving and maintaining that elemental tie between mothers and their children, and not breaking it because the mom feels hurt.”
    I so wish the boys’ mother thought about that! There is one instance that will stay burned in my memory forever and it totally shows how hurt overrides common sense when thinking about what is best for the child.
    About a year after the separation, DH had custody and the boys’ mom had just moved back from out of state and began having visitation again (she had gone about 6 months without seeing them regularly). The boys’ had always called me by my first name. When they resumed visits with their mom, the eldest (7 at the time) began the conversation of “can I call you mom?” on the way home from one of his visits. It seemed strange that this would come up just out of the blue, so we asked him why? He said he was having trouble when he saw his mom, because he would accidentally call her by my first name. This did not go over well with his mom, and she would get mad every time he did it.
    Now I’m sure all of you have experienced a time that your child has called you Grandma by accident, and as a teacher, I have even been called mom by my students, just ’cause they get in the habit, and don’t really think about it. Never did I think one of my students really thought I was their mom. It is a slip of the tongue and can happen to anyone. However, my stepson felt so guilty about the reaction he was getting from his mom, that he came up with an elaborate scheme to avoid it. He figured if he started calling me “mom” then when he got to his mom’s house, he wouldn’t slip up and call her by my first name anymore. DH and I told him whatever made him feel the most comfortable was fine by us, and later that night grimaced about how selfish her reaction was. Little did we know it would get even worse.
    Instead of just keeping his grand scheme to himself and doing it, he felt he needed to explain to his mom that he was going to call me mom. That weekend he got picked up and within seconds began bawling in the back seat. Betweens sobs, we finally got the whole story out of him. Apparently he was only able to spit out the first few words, and his mom hit the roof. She berated him for a half hour about how I was not his mother and he would never call me “mom”, blah, blah, blah.
    Her reaction severed a huge trust tie between her and her son, which to this day, I don’t think he has fully gotten over. She took no time what-so-ever to find out what her son was going through, and dismissed his feelings, to protect her own. She stomped on his natural inclination to make his mother happy, his effort to problem solve, and his willingness to modify his own behavior to do that. Yet she could not take a moment to reflect and see past herself.
    Ever since then, stepson has been very hesitant to share any inner feelings with his mom, which of course she blames on us. I find it ironic, and very sad for the kids, that in her quest to “defend” her role, she actually tarnished the fundamental bond they have. Your parent should be the one person you can go to no matter what, yet she has never been that person for the boys. She is the one they know they have to say the “right” thing to, or they will get a very reactive response.
    To this day (9 years later), she still continues to go on and on about how the kids came from her body, and DH and I can’t possibly know what it is like to give birth. Apparently her role as a parent is more sacred than DH’s. What can the “enemy” possibly say or do to alleviate a mom’s insecurities and encourage her to look beyond herself?

  2. Specifically, when any action you take to encourage the child’s relationship is met with disdain and problems for the child, how do you justify continuing to put the child in that situation?
    For example, both our family and the boys mother moved to new states, so we (the boys, their father, and I) thought it would be a great idea for them to each have their own web page so their mom could see current photos of them and their activities. We sat down with each boy and they went through our collection of digital photos and picked which photos they wanted on their page. After giving their mom the addresses, her only comment to them was that she couldn’t believe they would put a photo on there that included my mom and DH’s mom. Instead of offering to send us some of her pictures of the boys with her parents to add to the page, she made them feel like they did something wrong by sharing their life with her. Apparently there are only certain “correct” parts of their life that she is interested in. Needless to say, the boys and I changed their web-site address so their friends could still check it out and they wouldn’t have to get anymore grief from their mom. Was it really our place to have to tell the boys “You shouldn’t put that picture you picked on the web-site in case your mom doesn’t like it?” Isn’t there a point where she needs to step up and take responsibility for her own issues or are the boys supposed to sacrifice a bit of themselves to protect her feelings? Personally, I think it is the ADULT’S responsibility, but I really would love to get your and Carol’s opinion, because it seems that the two of you either always knew that or found some way to get past it.

  3. Jennifer,
    There are simply situations were it is not possible for a kumbya between mother and stepmother.
    There are situations that are not your garden variety problems such as titling dilemma or sharing.
    Do you think it is possible for every family, no matter the history between them, to co-partner if one person is being vulnerable and trying?
    Like Jill and Kathy, you started out with two normal, sane, mature women from the start. While I know you had your trials and tribulations, there has to be two women willing to extend a modicum of respect for the other to even start…it can’t be a one-sided endeavor.
    There are situations where one or both women are more emotionally comfortable with spreading discontent and remaining in conflict. It only takes one for cooperation to be impossible between both women.
    It is blogs like this one that make it seem like the blame belongs to both women when in reality, it is really only one wanting and preventing concillatory efforts.
    There are situations where it is not wise to allow someone to traipse all over boundaries, placating them trying to make it work when the other never has that in mind.

  4. Jennifer
    I just wanted to let you know I survived your “pushing” from the DHX site and wanted to read this post.
    Your posts have made me see how important it is for me to support my daughter’s relationship with her stepmother. I see how grateful I should be to her stepmother for her kindness to my daughter.
    I guess I should also thank my former husband for bringing her into my daughter’s life.
    I can’t believe the error of my ways.
    At least I know by stepping aside – I made the right decision.

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