Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords and an inspiring, positive Step/Mom story

It's not often that I stumble across stepmother stories that are not only realistic but actually celebrate a step/mother's contribution to her family, so you can imagine my delight when I read this story about U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and her own Southern Belles-in-Training.

You're likely familiar with Rep. Giffords from the horrific shooting she survived in January, but you maybe were not aware that she is also a childless stepmom.  Becoming a step/mom to two teenage girls is not for the faint of heart, so this factoid about Giffords only made me like her more.  Colleen Curry of ABC News explored this stepmother/stepdaughter relationship in her recent story about Giffords and her stepdaughters.

The story is heartwarming and deserves a thorough reading, but my favorite part is this mature insight from Giffords' older stepdaughter, Claudia:

"'I took Gabby for granted for so long, and I'm lucky I got a second chance to build a relationship with her,' Claudia said.  She encouraged her friends to repair relationships with their own parents and stepparents."
     -Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords' Shooting Closed Gulf Between Her and Stepdaughters

Most step/mothers, like Giffords, just wanted to be an accepted and cherished member of their family.  I think especially for childless step/mothers there is a strong desire to be an important female role model for our stepchildren.  Again, this does not mean we want to replace the bio-mom or overstep our boundaries, but we do love our husbands or partners and therefore we willingly invest a lot of time and love in our relationship in his children.

No one wants to feel insignificant or unwelcome, particularly in their own home.  Why, then, is it OK for step/mothers to be the marginalized member of the family, and oftentimes despite their reduced status in their home they are still expected to give 110% of themselves to the family?  The fact is - it's not OK.  Step/mothers deserve much more respect in their families and in society than they are often given.  Unfortunately, it took Giffords' stepdaughters almost losing her to understand her value to their lives and their family.

Fortunately, as Claudia said, they have a second chance.  I hope stories like Giffords' help put a more empathetic and human face on stepmothering than the Disney tales we have grown accustomed to.

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Friends? Frienemies? The never-ending "How do I deal with that woman?" saga.

So, just so we're clear here, I've never had to do this dance with the younger belles' bio-mom as she was MIA way before I came along.  You know...the dance where you're not quite sure what your status is with the bio-mom of your stepkidlets.  This gets even more complicated when you're still dating and not "officially" a step/mother yet.

When I began dating my dear Ashley over 4 and a half years ago (yes, it really has been that long!), I was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed about the whole "other mother" scenario.  I was a stepdaughter briefly during my childhood, but this was my first time on the other side of the fence, so to speak.  I hadn't read any books yet, hadn't found any support groups, didn't have any friends who were step/mothers - I was just head over heels for this guy who happened to have 3 kids already.  Oldest belle's bio-mom and my Ashley had broken up over 10 years before I came along, so I assumed the whole custody arrangement was a well-oiled machine by the time he and I started dating.

Well, you know what they say about assuming.......

The first time I met her bio-mom (we'll call her BM for short), I don't remember there being any grand introduction or her saying...well, anything to me really.  Which would turn out to be par for the course for the years to come.  But even after that first meeting, I didn't give too much thought to her until our relationship grew serious.

I have the benefit of years of removal from the situation, general wisdom I've gathered along the way and enough  moral backbone to be able to laugh now about "the BM years" as I've dubbed them.  But there were plenty of times during those years when I was assuredly not laughing about any of it.  Now?  I pretty much just roll my eyes and giggle.  But it took a lot to get to that point of peace in my life.

Throughout the years, I've seen step/mom after step/mom pull her hair out and fret over what to do about the bio-mom (or bio-moms in some of our cases).  I find this is a monumental difference between stepmothers and stepfathers.  Men simply don't let stuff like this get to them.  And when they do, they normally just beat each other up and then get over it.  Women sit there and worry about, "Should I reach out to her?"  "Do you think I should try to be friends with her?"  and so on.

First of all, let me just say I hate the terms "co-wives" and "co-mamas."  First of all, the only "co-wives" I know of are the Sister Wives.  Great show, but not a realistic approach to getting along with the bio-mom.  I'm not sharing my husband with you; this marriage has plenty enough people in it with the two of us.  No need for you to get involved, dear bio-mom.  While I think the "co-mama" approach is a noble one, let's face it - how many bio-moms wholeheartedly embrace the "co-mama" approach?  Yeah, that's what I thought.  It's a good theory, but in practice?   Unless the stepmom is OK with being a doormat, it usually doesn't work very well.

So, back to Year 1.  I didn't want to be friends with the woman, but considering I was planning on marrying her daughter's father and I was caring for her child every other weekend, every summer and every other holiday, I felt it was a pretty reasonable expectation that we could at least be friendly and civil with each other.  I really cared for Oldest Belle and willingly spent time and money on her.  I didn't want to be her mom, but I did want to be a good, nurturing role model that she could feel comfortable around.  Oldest Belle and I also got along pretty well, so I thought it wasn't too much to hope that BM and I could get along for her sake.  Right?

Well, let's just say BM did not take too kindly toward another woman being in the picture.  She was thoroughly enjoying being Main Mama in the parenting triangle she had set up between herself, her husband and Ashley, and there was no room for one more.  There weren't many times that she was outright rude toward me (although the times she was were quite memorable); her MO was to just outright ignore me.  The attempts I did make toward being friendly were completely ignored, so finally I just shrugged my shoulders and blew it off.

I know many women think it's best for the kids to be friends with the bio-mom.  I think if you can genuinely achieve that, then that's wonderful.  Unfortunately, that tends to almost never be the case.  Many times women think if they follow along with what the bio-mom wants, such as shared family dinners (sometimes without the stepmom!) and other attempts at creating a "one big happy family," then the bio-mom will eventually accept her.  Again, this normally causes more problems than solutions.

There's nothing wrong with being civil.  By all means do I not condone snarky comments in front of the stepkids or acting like a crazy banshee toward the bio-mom.  The cold hard truth is you will have to deal with her until your stepkids are 18.  But - do not be surprised if she views you as Public Enemy #1.  This does not mean you are not a good person or a good stepparent.  I had given BM no reason to dislike me.  I perhaps didn't care for her personally, nor would she have been a person I would have chosen to associate with, but I tried to see the good in her and I always gave her the respect I felt she was due because she was Oldest Belle's mother.  I also made sure to never speak ill of her in front of Oldest Belle, and I even would correct Oldest Belle when she would begin to badmouth BM in front of me.  No disrespecting mamas in my house!

Essentially, I refused to bring myself to her level.  If she wanted to ignore me, fine - I wasn't going to force her to acknowledge me.  But, I also demanded respect for myself.  I didn't tolerate her bashing me or Ashley in my presence.  I didn't stay away from exchanges or from Oldest Belle's events because I thought it might make BM uncomfortable.  I was always very pleasant with her husband, because he was always very pleasant with me.

As stepkids grow older, they often see everyone's true colors (that's my hope at least!).  Oftentimes if the bio-mom starts out not accepting you and your very valid role in her child's life, she likely never will.  That doesn't mean you have to treat yourself like a second-class citizen.  Being the bigger person can be difficult - trust me, I would know! - but often with a bio-mom like that, she wants to see that she's getting to you.  Just don't let her.  Once I stopped caring about what BM thought of me, it transformed my view of myself as a stepparent and my relationship with Ashley for the better.

Sometimes, you can't rely on finding peace in other people - you have to create it for yourself.