Monday, September 12, 2011

Are You My Mother?

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'?” 

Oh boy.  

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."


  1. oh if only all the parents in the world who aren't looking out for the best interests of their children could read this essay and understand it - although you may not be an expert your advice was in my opinion perfect and kudos to Melissa for embracing it.

    This post brought tears to my eyes.

  2. I too wait for my kids to draw their own conclusions on the situation. I'm willing to take it on the chin until that happens, although it doesn't always feel great. Thanks again for the great blog. Love reading each and every post.


  3. Had my kids kidnapped (was legal because we weren't divorced yet) by their father in the middle of the night after he had me removed from my house by lying to the county commissioner. By the time the county found out it was lies he was 1500 miles away from here. He kept them from seeing me for a year and now I have seen them 4 times in the past year. So over the course of 2 years I have seen them for a total of 8 weeks. He keeps every detail of their lives from me, not even telling me they recently moved. I have been stripped of every right I have as well as my relationship with them. They want desperately to be with me but as long as he has a ton of money to pay crooked lawyers what they want doesn't matter. Sometimes not having your kids isn't as pretty as you are trying to make it!

  4. Anonymous, my heart goes out to you. Your story takes things to a whole new level in having to deal with the bitter loss and deception that having your children taken away from you cna bring. I know I am lucky, even though I wouldn't say I see my situation as pretty... I suppose my mission is to try as hard as I can to make the best out of a bad situation so that my kids can survive and thrive against the odds. You are in a more frustrating position than I am, and I hear stories so often from women who suffer at the hands of emotional or physically abusive ex husbands who use children as pawns in a game of revenge. My heart goes out to these women, and I honestly don't know how I could stay positive and make it work out like I try to do in my own situation.
    Thank you for your honest comment, I hope so much that you are able to be with your children soon.

  5. Sophia,
    I love, love, love this post and your sharing of "Melissa's" correspondence with you. Kudos to you and to to Melissa for engaging in this worthwhile discussion.

    As a Bonus Mom to two young girls, each from a different Bio Mom, I have encountered this struggle from the other end. I entered the relationship with no intention to replace or step on the Bio Moms' toes, who were both very involved and loving mothers. The oldest's Mom, my husband's ex-wife, took very nicely to me and I to her. We get along great and she ended up deciding to move out of state, leaving me as a full-time Bonus Mom instead of 50/50 Bonus Mom - as was the case when I first came into their lives. After about 6 months of the oldest's Mom living in another state, the oldest started calling me "Mom" on her own. It was odd for me. I didn't feel I deserved to be called Mom - afterall, I had not birthed her and her Mom was still very much a part of her life. So, I said to my oldest Bonus Daugther, "I am honored that you want to call me 'Mom' and it is completely your choice. However, your Mom very much loves you and may not be okay with you calling me 'Mom'." Clearly, she knows her own Mom very well because she replied, "My Mom won't care if I call you Mom. It's just easier for me to call you Mom, that way I don't get a lot of questions about where my Mom is and have to tell people my business." Well, that helped me understand how it really isn't about me or her Mom, it is about what makes things easiest on her. It still strikes me sometimes when she calls me 'Mom' - it honestly doesn't feel natural, but I remind myself it is an honor and it is what she wants. I tell her that if she ever changes her mind, she can go back to calling me by my first name (just as long as she doesn't call me my first name when she's mad at me and 'Mom' when she's not!!!) I have also talked this over with her Mom and, my oldest called it exactly, her Mom understands how this is important to her daughter. Her Mom is secure in her relationship with her daughter and I guess doesn't feel that her calling me Mom impacts that at all. My youngest calls me by my first name and knows that her Mom would not be comfortable with her calling me 'Mom." I am sure there were conversations on the other side of that, but it doesn't seem to negatively impact our youngest because she doesn't call her Mom's fiance Dad either.

  6. Thanks for sharing this theBlendedTruth. Although it sounds like the relationship between you and the mother and me and my children's stepmother couldn't be more different, the point is the same, and I think that's what you're getting at. What matters most is what allows the children to feel most comfortable. Kudos to you and the well-adjusted mother for being real adults about this situation. This is how co-parenting should be!