Yes, I admit it. I was living in fantasyland when I envisioned what being a stepmom would entail. I thought my journey would be different from the vast majority because my story was missing the ex-wife that everyone warns you about when you date a man with kids.  I foolishly thought I would never have those horrid ex-wife situations that I had heard so many stepmoms complain about when I said “I do” to my husband and his two girls.

You see, my husband’s ex-wife lived two time zones away when we met. She had left the family and started a new life. Yeah, she called a few times while we were dating but the calls were so short and infrequent and my soon-to-be stepdaughters didn’t seem very interested in talking with her. They were so excited to get a mom again who would live with them and do girly things with them. They were excited for our marriage and to gain four new siblings that I would bring with me into our new family.

Life was good. I was marrying the love of my life and the most genuine and compassionate person I had ever met. I loved being a mom to my four kids and embraced the idea of gaining two more children to call my own. Since loving my soon to be husband was so easy and I loved being a mother, I assumed being a stepmom would be a cake walk for me.  Cue the theme music from Jaws……

Bam! Reality hit hard and fast. It swallowed me whole. How could I be so stupid? I had looked at my new family situation through love goggles. My love for my husband and my love of being a mother clouded my thinking. My delusions that I wouldn’t have to deal with an ex-wife were so incredibly wrong and unhealthy. My cloud with the “no ex-wife” silver lining quickly vanished once I became a stepmom.

You see I learned a very valuable lesson:

The ex-wife is always present in your life whether she lives down the street or across the country.

There is no denying it; I am reminded of my husband’s ex-wife and her legacy on the girls each and every day. She is alive in the hearts and thoughts of my two stepdaughters (ages 9 and 12). She is alive in their conversations. Early in my marriage this was especially true when my cooking, cleaning, clothing and basic “doing” were compared to her. My stepdaughters were understandably examining me through lenses that were built by their mother. I cannot, nor should I, deny her presence.

Many stepmothers endure the emotional challenges of having a physically present ex-spouse who calls their husband daily, changes visitation schedules, tries to overthrow their authority in the home, bad mouths them to their stepkids, etc…  Those are painful, ever present issues that frustrate and tear at a stepmom’s marital security and emotional sanity.

For me, and for other custodial stepmoms, we also deal with insecurity and emotional distress from our husband’s ex-wife but for different reasons. My anxiety and frustrations stem from watching my stepchildren struggle with the loss of a relationship with their mother. I also have become the target for all their suppressed anger towards her and their fear of being abandoned again.

Custodial stepmoms endure the presence of their husband’s ex-wife in the brokenness and rejection we see in our stepchildren who don’t have a positive relationship with their natural mother.

I have two stepdaughters who cry themselves to sleep at night wondering why their mom never called on Christmas.  I deal with the question over and over “why doesn’t my mom want to see me?” “After four years, I think she’s forgotten about me.” When we go on family vacations, the youngest one always asks “will I recognize my mom if I see her here?”  And just recently, we were at the community center and my youngest stepdaughter saw a sign that read “IF IT’S LOST, YOU’LL FIND IT HERE”. We were walking out when she tugged on my arm and said “Stop. Look at the sign. I need to check to see if my mom is in the lost & found bin.”  Even though it’s been over 4 years since she’s last seen her mom, my stepdaughter still looks for her everywhere she goes.

This spirit of rejection can be all consuming to children and it has definitely impacted my youngest stepdaughter’s ability to focus and learn in school. All she can think about is her mother and what made her leave their family.

Custodial stepmoms also endure the presence of an ex-wife in the anger, resentment and bitterness misdirected at them from their stepchildren.

Shortly into our marriage, this sweet little girl who used to tell me “I love you” and follow me around like a shadow was screaming at me, calling me names, breaking things and even once spit on me.  These were unprovoked events in my mind. I would ask her to change her shirt before school because she had outgrown it or pick up her toys before bed. These simple requests would often send her into a rage. I had become the target of all of her pain.

I used to get so frustrated when I felt rejected and mistreated by my youngest stepdaughter. I knew what their mom had done to them and I thought how can you still love a woman who can leave you yet reject a warm and loving mom who is right in your home willing to care for and raise you? I kept beating myself up and asking over and over, what am I doing wrong??? I was focusing on me and not on them and how they are naturally wired to love and want love in return from their mom. My stepdaughter’s counselor helped me to see that I was dealing with transference from my youngest stepdaughter.

In my situation, my 9 year-old stepdaughter transfers her anger, confusion, resentment and bitterness that she actually feels towards her biological mother onto me – the mom in the house.

Psychologists refer to transference as an unconscious redirection of feelings from one person to another. According to The Source published in June 2001, “During transference, people turn into a ‘biological time machine.’” A nerve is struck when someone says or does something that reminds them of their past. This creates an “emotional time warp” that transfers their emotional past and their psychological needs into the present.

I am working on identifying triggers of rejection and abandonment for my stepdaughter.  I have come to realize that requests to change something set off her transference. She internalizes my comments as a rejection of her personally. This rejection triggers the feelings of abandonment she still harbors from her mother and she transfers all of that emotion on to me.  This has helped me make sense of how a simple request of “Can you please pick up the cornflakes you spilled on the floor?” turns into her screaming “You hate me. Why don’t you drop me off at an adoption center? I know it would be easy for you to give me up!”  Even though I only asked her to pick up some crumbs, in her mind she heard me say ‘you are worthless so pack your bags for a one way trip’.

Even though my stepdaughters haven’t seen their mom in over 4 years, every time she calls or sends a photo of her two new children, it’s like ripping the scab off an old wound – it is never allowed to heal. I recognize the transference and am actively working on not taking things personally. It is not easy but I am really trying my best. And I also understand that many stepmoms must deal with transference from their stepchildren whether they are custodial or not.

I am happy to report that I am no longer delusional about the presence of my husband’s absentee ex-wife in our stepfamily. While it’s true that I do not have the drama of the ex-wife as it relates to my husband, I do have the dramatic effects of maternal abandonment on my two stepdaughters. I am thankful to be married to my wonderful hubby and to be the mom of four and stepmom of two more. The journey of a stepmom is not an easy one but it is one worth taking. I have no regrets.

Remember your love and commitment to your husband when your love goggles fall off and you see your new family for what it is and the work that it requires.

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This article of mine first appeared in the April edition of StepmomMagazine. You can subscribe to StepMom Magazine at www.StepMomMag.com

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