Like many stepparents, my relationship with my spouse’s ex is not what I would call amicable. I wish it was, I really do. I would like to have the kind of situation where either of us might call the other to collaborate about the children’s needs in a friendly manner. We wouldn’t have to actually be friends; but, for the sake of the kids and all of the adults involved, it would be nice to co-exist in a supportive, non-combative way.
As it is, she and I mostly avoid one another. I respect her role as the mother of the children I help parent, and I do whatever I can to encourage their relationship with her. Even though I entered their lives long after she left my husband, I can’t help but sense that she is extremely threatened by my presence, and would love nothing more than for me to disappear.
She is her own person, and I am mine; therefore, I will never fully understand her motivations or perspective about the life we all share, but I try. Time and again, I find myself examining events in our life and wondering why she does or says things, and how I would feel or react in the same circumstances. I can’t help it! I, too, am a mother, and I can partially see through the lens from her vantage.
One of the main pieces of clarity I have gained by trying to mentally walk in my stepchildren’s mother’s shoes is understanding how it might feel to have another woman love and care for her children. My own children do not have a stepmother yet, nor has there been another woman in their father’s life who has attempted to get close to them. I imagine, however, that the day will come.
My initial reaction when I envision another woman living with my children, becoming involved in their daily activities, counseling them, loving them, disciplining them, and so on is a pang of jealousy. I am being brutally honest to divulge that it would pain me to think of my kids growing close to another mother figure. Quite selfishly, I want to be the one teaching them about life, making fun memories together, and receiving their affection.
It is, in this way, that I am able to understand how the mother of my stepchildren probably feels quite bitter and insecure by the rather large presence that I’ve become in their lives. I nurse them when they are ill, help them with homework, buy them things they need, give them rides, celebrate holidays with them, cook for them, and every other maternal task they require. It stands to reason that after seven years of spending more than half of their lives with me, the children and I formed a bond. I understand it, and I acknowledge how this must feel to her.
Mother-to-mother, I get how she feels because I can imagine myself in her place. Knowing how hard it can be to share children makes me compassionate to her position. In fact, it has given me a reason to consider my feelings and how I want to handle this situation when it eventually affects my own children. I have come to realize that I would prefer that my children had a caring stepparent taking an interest in them, helping them, loving them, and holding my place in my absence rather than the stereotypical “mean stepmom” or an indifferent one.
I have prepared myself and my kids for this eventual outcome by telling them that their dad deserves to have a loving relationship, and they should be happy for him when he achieves that. Instead of feeling torn allegiance by rejecting her to please me, they should accept her friendship, knowing that I would be comforted to know someone cared for them when I can’t. I know they will still love me, just as they still love their father even though they have a stepdad now. There’s enough of all of our love to go around!
Aside from the general opinion of how she, or any other parent, may feel about having a step counterpart, I try to put on “bio mom goggles” whenever a situation arises that elicits a strong response from her. Our immediate reaction may be disbelief, confusion, or frustration at her for responding as she does; but, usually, if I try to look hard at the situation as if it was me being faced by my ex and his new spouse or how I might feel as a mother trying to remain a key figure in my children’s lives, I comprehend just a little bit better.
Trying to see things from her perspective has made me more conscious of appropriate boundaries and my role as a stepparent. What I do is important, at least to me, my husband, and the kids; but, I understand that my place may never be fully appreciated or welcomed by her. I will always be a sort of intruder in her eyes. I take time and love that could be hers, although I am certain that she will always be first in their hearts, and they have infinite love to offer anyone who cares about them.
It’s as though she and I are in a kind of dance. We rarely directly interact with one another, yet every step, twist, and flourish is seen, felt, and reacted on by the other. I mean her no harm, and I certainly want nothing but the best for her children. In theory, my presence as someone who nurtures her children should make me an appreciated ally, but I know that I stand more as a reminder of what used to be. She used to be the woman sharing a home and a life with the man I love and their children.
It’s awkward. Divorce is awkward. When she married the father of her children, she (like me) assumed it would be forever. None of us ever imagined splitting our children between homes or sharing their childhoods with outsiders. We often talk about how difficult it can be for stepparents to know their place (and it is!), but it is also difficult for original parents to know where they belong in their children’s lives after divorce.
I won’t always understand her, and we may never get to a point where we can use the word “like” to describe one another. I feel that it gives me peace and helps me to understand what might be happening a little better by trying to get in her head when conflict arises to have a deeper understanding of what inspires her actions. I have found that empathy for her co-parenting walk has broadened my outlook and tempers my reactions to her behavior. We will not always see eye-to-eye, but trying to identify with her point-of-view forces me to examine my own more closely.
Audrey Cade, author of Divorce Matters: help for hurting hearts and why divorce is sometimes the best decision, is a matriarch of a stepfamily of six children and an experienced “divorce warrior” in the areas of co-parenting, stepparenting, parental alienation, and re-marriage. She is a featured blogger for DivorcedMoms, contributor for DivorceForce, Worthy Living and has been published in The Divorce Magazine, The Good Men Project, StepMom Magazine, and others. Her professional experience is as a case manager social worker for developmentally-disabled children, and she holds degrees in Early Childhood Education, Human Service & Management, and a Master’s in Psychology. Follow Audrey on Twitter, Facebook, and Pinterest. Listen each Wednesday to her weekly Divorce Warrior Dialog podcast on her website.