“Why doesn’t my mother love me? Why doesn’t she want to see me?” These are common cries from a motherless hurting child.
For a variety of reasons the number of full-time stepmoms has significantly increased over the years. The most common causes for Mom’s absence in the family photo include that she is:
- Coping with a mental illness and unable to care for a child.
- Battling an addiction, moving in and out of rehabilitation.
- Selfishly chasing her dreams and trying to, “Find herself.”
- Choosing life with a soul mate instead of her children.
- Living with a physical illness that prevents her from parenting.
Regardless of the reason, life as a full-time stepmom can seem like a maze of benefits and vulnerabilities.
Knowing what to say and how to comfort the stepchild whose mom is gone can seem painfully daunting at times, if not impossible. One stepmom shared, “I was crying as hard as my stepdaughter was, I could barely talk. And I realized that watching her weep, and relating to her pain, uncovered the wounds hidden inside of me. I was grieving right along with her over the hurts of my own childhood.”
It’s normal to grieve with a stepchild. It shows you care. Here are a few more tips:
1. Be a realist. A stepchild, especially if young, may quickly embrace a daily stepmom. However, that doesn’t mean the child isn’t still longing and hoping for Mom to return. Parents and children share a unique, unexplainable bond. Keeping this attachment in mind will help when or if the child appears standoffish, depressed or cantankerous.
2. Become educated. Reading books and attending workshops regarding children and loss can provide a stepmom with great information about how children cope when a parent is gone. Even if only half the content pertains to your situation, you’ll obtain insight and skills on how to help the child. Often, these resources offer practical steps you can take to help the child grieve. In addition consider looking at suggestions on what to pursue in professional counseling should that be needed.
3. Guard your heart. If the mother is still alive, be prepared that she may re-enter the child’s life at some point. She may stay away for a few years, and then reappear desiring to reestablish a relationship with her child again.
Begin to think through how you will handle the anger, frustration and fear that will automatically arise should this situation occur. As the child’s caretaker, be aware that after the Mother appears, the child may reject you. A child who fears that a good relationship with a stepparent will displease or anger Mom may drop you in order to gain her approval.
4. Learn what to do with the anger. It’s likely you will hear yourself mutter, “How could a mother do this to her child?” It’s important for the stepmom to have a safe place to vent her rage and weariness with another adult. The ideal solution is to attend a stepmom support group where you can share your concerns with women who understand. Your husband can help, but he may be so furious with his ex-spouse that the two of you will fuel each other’s fire. A team of stepmoms who can listen, encourage, (and pray with you if that’s a priority) is a great was to release the tension, feel heard, and find the comfort needed.
5. Remember the stepchild wants dad. Yes, you may be the one staying up all night when your stepchild is sick, holding the little head as they puke. And when that same child is 30 and holding a sick child of their own, they will appreciate you for it. But right now, what they want to know is “Where’s Dad?”
This stems from the need for reassurance that the remaining parent sees them. One stepmom shared, “My husband and I took his daughter to the park. Even though I’m the one who is with her all day, she kept looking over to make sure Daddy was watching? I felt hurt. Why didn’t she look to me for recognition too?”
The answer is this: When dad praises an A on the report card, attends the dance recital, or watches them on the swing, they receive comfort because it is the parent. But don’t lose heart, they do monitor and take note of a stepmom’s acts of kindness. I’m amazed at the little things I did for my stepsons that they remember now as adults. This reveals that children see the efforts a stepmom makes, whether or not we think they do.
6. Remember it’s not you! Even after months, maybe years, of full- time helping with homework, wiping snotty noses, and attending soccer games, recognize that your stepchild may still have wounds over the loss of Mom. Hurt people … hurt people. For a season the stepmom may be the easy target for the arrows of that pain. Understand that you could be the Mother Teresa of stepmoms, and the child might still reject your love.
The full-time stepmom has huge responsibilities and challenges; however, she also has the ability to create a bond with the child, attend school events and parent teacher conferences, create special memories and family traditions, and learn the child’s nature and personality traits much more easily than a part-time stepmom does. It all takes time.
Laura Petherbridge is an international speaker and author of, When ‘I Do’ Becomes ‘I Don’t’, The Smart Stepmom, 101 Tips for The Smart Stepmom, Quiet Moments for the Stepmom Soul. She has appeared at/on the Billy Graham Center, Family Talk (Dobson), Focus on the Family, Today’s Christian Woman, FamilyLife, Lifeway, and Moody Broadcasting. Laura has been a featured expert on the DivorceCare DVD series implemented in over 60,000 churches worldwide. In addition to the US, she has spoken in South Africa, Australia, and Canada. Laura and Steve live in Atlanta, Ga, and have been married for 35 years. She has two stepsons, daughters-in-law, and grandkids. She may be reached at www.TheSmartStepmom.com