Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Mother's Day, divorce, and the fractured family

Mother's Day is this Sunday! Are you ready?

I've written about Mother's Day before:

here,

and here,

and here.

My basic summary of these three posts is: a) gentlemen should find out if their wives and/or mothers expect to be acknowledged on this day, and should try to do something thoughtful if they do; b) yes, fathers, you may actually need to help your children do something for your wife today especially if they are too young to shop alone and can't actually cook dinner or bake a cake yet--sure, she's not your mother, but who bought and wrapped and sent the gift for your mom, anyway? and c) sure, it's a Hallmark (tm) holiday, but so is Father's Day, so if you don't think this day needs to be celebrated then don't be surprised if your wife decides that Father's Day doesn't make the cut, either. Which is totally fine if it's a mutual decision--Thad and I still don't celebrate Valentine's Day, and don't really care to--but not fine if one person really wants the little token of notice and affection and the other can't be bothered.

I thought I'd covered just about everything--but I forgot about how many families are celebrating Mother's Day in a political minefield, caught between the mother who gave birth to them and the stepmother who is married to their fathers. A stepmother anguishes over Mother's Day here:

(CNN) -- Mother's Day is a sad occasion for many, but not all of the 15 million U.S. stepmothers who have stepchildren under the age of 18.

As it approaches, I am reminded how disappointed and hurt I used to be when my stepdaughter didn't acknowledge me on this day. From the time I married my husband when my stepdaughter was only 4 years old, I always felt she viewed me as his wife rather than as a stepmother. [...]

Being wished a Happy Mother's Day by my parents and friends also felt bad. How could I sincerely accept their considerate remarks when my stepdaughter didn't recognize or appreciate my efforts in this capacity? I felt fraudulent as a stepmother.

Thankfully, my feelings have changed and, now I am in a better place where I accept and understand why my stepdaughter will not reach out to me on Mother's Day. I just wish other stepmothers wouldn't have to go through similar or far worse emotional distress. [...]

These other stepmothers intuitively knew how I felt, and this made me feel much better even though my situation did not actually change.

These women also helped me understand that my desire to be acknowledged by my stepdaughter on Mother's Day was not unreasonable, but it might be too much for her to give me. They helped me understand the dilemma that many stepchildren face on Mother's Day.

Their loyalties may lie with their mother, and they believe she will be offended if they acknowledge their stepmother. I respect my stepdaughter's love for her mother, and never want her to feel any loyalty binds.

So, I worked on developing a thicker skin to shield myself from being hurt.


Where do I even begin?

I know people who still, as adults, suffer the pain of their parents' divorce and subsequent remarriage, no matter how young they were when their parents decided that their wedding vows were only temporary and non-binding, instead of permanent and lasting. I know people who fear relationships because of what they endured when their parents divorced, people who are permanently and deeply scarred and emotionally wounded by the example of their no-longer-married parents and those parents' new partners. I know people who lie awake after the slightest marital tiff worrying that the next sounds they hear will be the front door slamming and the car driving away, as their husband or wife repeats the pattern of abandonment and betrayal that they learned from Mom and Dad and stepmom and stepdad. Knowing these things, I tend not to have a great deal of sympathy for the stepmother who thinks she should be treated like the child's mother and honored and celebrated on Mother's Day.

Sure, there are times when that sort of honoring might be appropriate--the woman who marries a widower, for instance, and raises his children with cheerful love for them is certainly entitled to such considerations, as is the adoptive mother who is often the only mother her children will know. But let's be honest: divorce is a messy, ugly, life-shattering business, and expecting children to shower both Mom and Stepmom with cards and flowers on Mother's Day is expecting far too much.

We like to maintain the fiction that divorce is no big deal, that children don't suffer much--and anyway, they're resilient--that it's better for children to bounce between the homes of two sets of adults who are in good relationships with each other than to stay in an intact home that is less than perfect. But holidays, in particular, have a way of dissipating that fiction like fog on a hot morning--Hallmark (tm) holidays certainly, but even more so the big ones like Thanksgiving and Christmas, when happy families are supposed to gather in joyful peace, goodwill, and love, but fractured families end up with a "game plan" that is more complicated than the campaign plans of most Republican presidential hopefuls these days, and that keeps them hopping from one holiday event to another while remaining silent about the time they spent with The Enemy side.

So perhaps some stepmothers feel left out on Mother's Day. Perhaps they instinctively feel the ordinarily-hidden hostility their stepchildren have, as they wish silently for the millionth time that Mom and Dad could have made things work. Perhaps these few days on the calendar are a reminder that the "happy divorce" is a fairy tale adults like to tell themselves to ease their guilt. And perhaps that's not something that needs to change.

11 comments:

Siarlys Jenkins said...

All true. Given that there ARE situations where divorce is the least evil available (physically abusive situations are the most obvious example), given that there is no way the blunt instrument of the civil law can sort all that out, it is good we have laws that allow people to divorce. Saying "no" can be just as much a nanny-state measure as saying "you must."

But, we need to learn to take marriage vows seriously, even knowing that we legally have the option to break them. Because it is legal does not mean that it is the right choice, or even a good choice.

John E. said...

From The Princess Bride:

"Life is pain, Highness. Anyone who says differently is selling something."

Sure, it would be nice if life were all Rainbow Unicorns and Chocolate Ice Cream, but it isn't.

Bad things sometime happen to people and to families. Grow a thicker skin and make your own happiness where you can.

Sometimes that means that people tell themselves fairy tales about happy divorces.

Sometimes that means that people tell themselves much more complex fairy tales.

Anonymous said...

See, how with this stepmother, it's all about HER. She's not thinking of the kids, that they might feel torn, sad.

Divorce is an atrocity, it's not a fairy tale. But in my opinion, the most sadness is reaped in the aftermath, when the parents then go on to date, cohabit, remarry, "blend families" on and on. If both parents had to separate, but maintained homes separately, kids of divorce wouldn't be as badly off.

But no, the children are then forced to see their parents with new lovers, husbands, wives, on and on. And, they have to be joyful about it, lest they rain on the parade of their parents.

Oh yeah, and they also have to make sure they don't hurt their stepmother's feelings on Mother's Day now too.

Geoff G. said...

It's very easy to leap to conclusions like Anonymous has. But the fact of the matter is that the only thing we know about the stepmother in the article is that she has had to accept getting no recognition from her stepchildren and that that has upset her.

What precipitated the divorce? We don't know. Maybe the couple didn't want to expend the effort to make the marriage work, as Erin insinuates. Maybe the husband became physically abusive. Maybe the wife was just a flake and walked out on her own unilaterally. Marriages fall apart for all kinds of reasons, including some that any reasonable person would consider valid. The point is we just don't know.

And what role does this stepmother play in the family? Does her husband have custody? If so, maybe this stepmother is the one cooking meals, cleaning the house, doing the laundry, getting the kids to school, and all the other stuff that "real" mothers do. Or maybe not. The point is we just don't know.

The theory that every single marriage must last for life and that both heterosexual parents must be around to raise an appropriate number of kids from birth to adulthood paints a beautiful picture. It may even be the ideal. Would that it could be that way for everyone. But it's a theory.

And this is where conservative religion loses me. Real life is messy. It doesn't conform to our ideals and theories. Never has and never will, and it's hubris to think otherwise. So instead of judging this woman because she and her family have failed to meet your expectations, perhaps a little compassion and empathy is in order. "Judge not lest ye be judged"...only God tells you to "go forth and sin no more," not man.

Is there too much divorce in the US these days? Probably. But one thing I will say in its favor is that divorce court judges will take a heck of a lot longer to figure out the unique circumstances of each family before passing judgment.

Jacque said...

I find this piece hurtful.

I think if we all had been lucky enough to be raised in a real Catholic home with real Catholic values we might not have the divorce in this country that we do.

But...some of us were not raised like that, some of us didn't find the truth about love and marriage until we had ruined our own lives and the lives of others.

It's really hard to listen to someone talk about divorce and remarriage who has never experienced it. It's hard to listen to someone say that this stepmother is selfish when we do not know her situation.

One thing I do know is this... The people who hate divorce the most are the people who have gone through it once or twice.

Thank God for His Mercy and His forgivness, or I would have blown my brains out a few years ago.

Red Cardigan said...

Jacque, the piece was not meant to be hurtful in any way. I may have been blessed to be raised by two Catholic parents who are still crazy about each other, but that doesn't mean divorce hasn't impacted my family. My dad's parents divorced after raising seven children, and I really never knew my grandfather because of it. Several of my aunts and uncles have experienced divorce firsthand, and their "blended" situations impact family events. Others in my extended family have suffered as well--and the children of these marriages suffered, and still suffer, the most.

In this situation, the stepmother--herself a licensed therapist--is essentially complaining because her husband's daughter won't celebrate Mother's Day with her or acknowledge her on the day, even though she admits that she's not the child's mother, the child has a good relationship with her mother, and the child would probably be seen as disloyal to shower her stepmom with gifts on Mother's Day. I think that we forget the terrible, live-destroying impact on children too often when we talk about divorce. (continued)

Red Cardigan said...

Continued from above:

When I talk to people who have been divorced, they admit this. Their suffering and pain is made greater by the pain their children experienced. I think as a society we have to do a better job preparing people for marriage, in the first place, and insisting that couples with children should go through counseling etc. before divorce proceedings can legally begin--some states have laws like this, and I think they are a step in the right direction.

What is not a step in the right direction is complaining that the kids won't "play pretend" that everything is fine and dandy. Yes, God is merciful and forgiving--but we have to admit to our faults, right? Isn't that true in our human relationships, too?

Please feel free to email me if you want to talk about this some more.

m.z. said...

I think step-parents make the mistake of thinking their marriage to a child's mother or father is a significant event in the child's life. It isn't.

The best a step-parent can hope for is what boyfriends and girlfriends of old widows and widowers hope for, that they aren't hated by the children. Anything beyond that should be considered gravy. Which reminds me, are children expected to send mother's day cards to 80-year-old Dad's new wife? Admittedly I have many moons before that day comes.

Siarlys Jenkins said...

Geoff is about right, but what a sound, beneficial religion should do is provide the framework for the ideal we should be TRYING to achieve. No, we won't always meet that ideal, and we shouldn't get depressed with ourselves because we fall short. Where I think Erin has it right is, a good chunk of American culture takes divorce SO lightly that it appears a simple, painless option... until it turns out that it isn't.

I haven't been a step-parent, but I've occasionally been in a position to think about the prospect. I've always started with, I am NOT this child's parent. I may be part of their life or their home, I may have some responsibility for them, but I was not there at their birth and they have known life without me. Anything approximating fatherhood, they may give me if I am lucky.

Actually, being a noncongenital uncle is a lot more fun.

Jacque said...

Erin,
I know you would never ever hurt anyone on purpose. I'm so sorry that I let my feelings out the way I did. Sometimes it's hard to listen to others who haven't been through it. I was having "it's about me" moment.
Peace,
Jacque

John E. said...

Funny thing is that that growing up, I never even considered getting my step-mother a mother's day card, or even long into my adult years.

It wasn't until after my father's death that I said to myself, what the heck - it doesn't take that much of an effort and it is a nice gesture - so I started picking up an extra one when I bought one for my mom.

I was probably around 35 or so when I started.