How intention, empathy, and authenticity helped my relationship with my sons’ stepmom
If you are a Solo Mom as the result of a separation or divorce, there is a good chance that at some point, another woman will enter your life and the lives of your children. When I was in the early stages of leaving my unhealthy marriage, the mere thought that some strange woman would play a role in the care of my children gave me considerable pause. Actually, it made me ill. Although I knew it was a likely, if not inevitable, outcome of my divorce, I could not bring myself to even think about it—until I had no choice.
Approximately one-and-a-half years after my divorce finalized, my ex-husband informed me he was remarrying, which meant that my two boys, then aged seven and nine, would have an entire second family that did not include or involve me. What was, for me, the single most frightening outcome of divorce was happening: another woman was entering my children’s lives.
It certainly has not been easy for any of us. We have had our share of ups and downs, tears and tantrums, fits and starts, but six years later, we have all reached, dare I say, a certain equilibrium.
It’s not always easy and requires considerable effort, but we’ve arrived at a fairly amenable relationship. We can sit together at a school or sporting event and share in friendly chitchat. We can (and do) communicate regularly and frequently about the children’s activities, strategize about tackling teen issues, and coordinate vacation plans and holiday celebrations. My boys’ stepmother and I exchange birthday presents, Mother’s Day greetings, and congratulations or condolences as the situations warrant.
How did I arrive at this place of relative peace when I started the relationship in inner turmoil? Three words: intention, empathy, and authenticity.
You have to be intentional about the kind of relationship you want to have with your kids’ stepmother. It is not going to be a positive one unless you specifically intend for it to be. I have frequently said that it is one of the most unnatural familial constructs to leave your children not under your control and in the care of a person not of your choosing. It is painful at its worst, uncomfortable at its best, but unavoidable when your former spouse or partner remarries. So, as a Solo Mom, you have to decide what you want the relationship to be and make it so.
When my ex-husband and I divorced, I decided that I was going to do everything in my power to have an amicable relationship with the father of my children. Similarly, I had to decide that I could not be at odds with the woman who was partially responsible for the care of my children.
And with that decision came the task of creating that atmosphere, which looked a lot like a long trip on the proverbial “high road,” where the tolls came in the form of holding my tongue, turning the other cheek, and lots of “letting go.” But the high road also came with the priceless benefit of knowing I had done my absolute best to create a caring and resentment-free environment at both households where my children lived.
Caring about my children in all of their living environments led to the second essential quality when managing a stepparent relationship: empathy.
Empathy has proven to be one of the most important virtues in the development of a relationship with my children’s stepmother. In the early years, when we were transitioning, I reminded myself that no matter how difficult this was for me, it was infinitely more challenging for my children. After all, they didn’t ask for any of this. The adults created the difficult environment in which they now had to navigate—all of them, including the stepmother’s child.
My empathy extended beyond the children and reached to my children’s stepmother as well. As much as I could, I tried to think about how difficult it must be for her to assume the thankless task of being part-time caregiver to someone else’s children; to be thrust into an environment of new parents and new families, people with whom I had established ties; and to navigate a relationship with the mother of her new husband’s children—me. The more I tried to walk in her shoes, the easier the high road was to travel.
The exercise of all the intention and empathy required a strong assertion of the third essential quality: authenticity. There was never a lack of advice thrown my way during the early years. Everyone seemed to have an opinion about what I should do in this or that situation, or what I should say in response to an encounter I described. No matter what suggestion was offered with the most genuine and protective of intentions, I remained true to myself, and that provided me with the strength I needed to navigate through the difficult moments.
It is vital to remain true to yourself in all your relationships, especially in your dealings with your children’s stepmother. If you don’t, you will start to feel resentment toward her, you will not have the assurance that comes from standing in your truth, and you will start to grow weary from maintaining the facade.
Authenticity, empathy, and intention are the three things that have carried me and my children through some mighty tough moments as our family expanded, and through the practice of those three virtues, I hope I am setting an example on how to manage change and life’s challenges with dignity and grace.
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