I recently received an email from a woman -- a mother -- in California; let’s call her “Melissa.” It started out like many of the emails and messages I’ve received – “I happened to come across your blog while at work today, and have been reading it for a while. I have laughed, sighed and most of all felt the comfort of hearing from another Mother who has gone through my current situation. I do not know another Mother that has gone through divorce and sharing custody, or being a non-custodial Mother.”
She launched into various questions about how I have handled different situations as a mother without physical custody of my children. Her children are young and she’s grappling with many of the same issues I dealt with in that after the wheels came off my marriage and I had to navigate the rubble of our new reality. She then posed a question that cuts to the core of a mother's essence.
“What would you say if your daughter was calling her Step Mom 'Mommy'?”
She goes on: “My daughter is 3 ½, and she took a liking to her new Step-Mom (who she knew for only 2 months). Part of me wanted to gently explain to her that I am her ‘Real Mom’ now, before it went on too long, but my daughter didn’t seem to get it, or she is set in her ways. She just said ‘I have two Moms’ with excitement. I didn’t want to make her feel guilty, or in trouble, so I just gently said 'Yes, you have 2 women who love you. You have me, your real Mom, and then Mama Kathy.' She just smiled. I tried talking to her new Step Mom, and she said that she refers to herself as 'Mama Kathy' (which I am 100% fine with), but that my daughter started calling her 'Mom'/'Mommy' anyhow. A few friends have said ‘I would never let my kids call another woman Mom,’ but how can you argue with a 3 year old? I don’t think she understands the sacredness of that title. I guess I worry that when she does understand it, it will be too late to reverse the title if she has been calling her Step Mom ‘Mom.’ For now, I am trying to focus on being grateful that there is another woman who seems to love and care for my kids, who is nice to me when I come to get them, etc. I try to remember it could be a lot worse, and that I need to be happy that my daughter feels fondly for her Step Mom. It just tugs at your heart. I hope I am not being a pushover, I just don’t want my daughter to feel guilty. I decided I will just smile and say ‘Oh you mean Mama Kathy?’ and hope she catches on. It's just difficult when you are at work all the time, and another woman is being called ‘Mom.’”
Author’s note: In composing this entry, I debated between including only Melissa's initial question versus the entire passage from her email that illustrates the situation and shows the internal battle she is going through that I know is so common for many non custodial mothers. As you can see, I decided to leave it in, specifically for the latter reason; that I think it will resonate with anyone who has been in a similar situation. Clearly Melissa is a reasonable, loving mother, but her point about the title of "mother" or "mom" being "sacred" is, I believe, at the crux of her dilemma.
I remember going through what Melissa is going through. To be in this position as a mother doing what you think is right for your child or children, but violates so many maternal instincts, feels unfair and unnatural. And it's terrifying. Then, to have your child referring to another woman as “mommy” only adds insult to injury. But many moons have passed since I first found myself in Melissa’s situation, and I’ve grown accustomed to willing myself to be philosophical and practical, not emotional, in these matters, and my response to her reflected that.
"Melissa, let me ask you this question -- how is whatever name your child calls her stepmother adversely affecting the well-being of this child? At this point, I encourage you to always use this lens to judge matters involving your kids and your situation. Again, it's very difficult and it will take a while to get used to it, but that's what I've taught myself to do and I really believe it is a big reason why my kids are well-adjusted, when, on paper, you would think that they would be torn in half. Your daughter is WAY too young to try to explain this matter to her. I am not an expert on this stuff though, and perhaps if you can't get past it or really think that it's wrong, then I would encourage you to seek an expert's advice. Continue to focus exactly what you are focusing on, that there is even more love in your children's lives. That's the best advice I have for you.”
Then I asked if she’d ever heard the story about King Solomon’s Wisdom. While an extreme example, it was only after I was forced to consider what was really best for my children when I entered the workforce (to provide health insurance for my kids) that I understood the saying "If you love something, set it free." You might ask - but how can this apply to one's own children? It's not easy. In fact, it's a leap of faith.
Although it’s been almost ten years since the night my family imploded, I’m not so far removed from this reality that I don’t still have to deal with situations like this. But as long as my kids aren't harmed by the trivial posturing their "other parents" are prone to, I don't sweat it. Most people are amazed at what I endure. Here's one recent example: My 11 year old daughter's state softball tournament was a month ago in a town four hours from where I live. The "other parents" have more flexibility in their work schedules than I do and were able to immediately take the next six days off of work to go with the team and stay in a hotel for the whole week. I went to an early game with my mother, then a game later in the week with my husband. During the second game, my daughter got a key hit and drove in a run. One of the team moms jumped up and turned to my kids' step mom and shouted - "Who's kid is that?!" My kids' step mom jumped up and the two women triumphantly and dramatically high-fived each other. My husband squirmed ferociously.
"Will you please show her your C-section scar and ask if it's at least worth a fist bump?" he said to me under his breath.
"No, but be sure to point her out to me one day so I can give her a copy of my book."
After the game on the way to the car, he asked if it bothered me at all. The truth was that of course it did, but only for a split-second, then I reminded myself that no matter how much I don't care for her father and stepmother, they love her and she loves them and she's getting a lot more out of life at this age than if I picked fights and made scenes over these types of things. And I can see the benefits my children have received from their childhood not being marked by strife between their parents.
Back to Melissa - two weeks passed after my email before I heard back from her.
"I forgot to thank you for that story (The judgment of Solomon). That was a great story, and I will always remember it. I have decided to let go of the issue of my daughter calling her Step Mom 'Mommy.' I have to remember to look at it from the filter you told me about."
To complete the aforementioned saying -- "If you love something, set it free. If it comes back, it's yours.” It’s not a name or word that anchor us to our children -- its love. Love, hope, faith – these things can’t always be seen or heard, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t exist. On the contrary, these are the invisible, anchoring tethers that keep our children close to us as loving mothers, no matter how far away they are in either time or place.
Authors Note: This was the end of the blog post, but I want to give the last word to Melissa. This was her response when I inquired if I could share some of her story for this entry. May her words reach those who can find strength and guidance in them...
"I would not mind you use my story at all. If it can help other Moms relate, or feel not so alone I would be happy. Finding your blog and just writing with you has helped me a lot. It has really made me feel less alone, and stronger. It has helped me to accept my kids new Step Mom, and to put my own emotions aside a lot more. Even when I have a right to be angry/bitter/resentful at my ex for lots of reasons...this morning was my son’s first day of school and I was determined to meet my son’s Dad and Step Mom at his new school, and to smile and get along so that my son could have that. My own parents were divorced, and they would have never done this. I felt it was valuable and important for my kids to see the 3 of us together, all talking and peaceful with one another.
Some friends get protective of me, and defensive for me, including my Fiancé who feels my ex does not own up to any real responsibility (He will take my son to an arcade or to do fun things, but I paid for all this school clothes, new shoes, etc). But I have decided that one day my kids will see this. For now, I want to be my best for the kids...and be confident that they will understand what went on one day. I knew before that you had to try to keep the peace and 'pick your battles' but I have learned that If I fight for what is fair, even if I have a right, it will hurt my kids and myself...And so I have to weigh that out in every situation."