As I am preparing for my youngest stepdaughter’s 10th birthday, I can’t help but reflect on the past birthdays we have shared. And the phrase “you’ve come a long way baby rings in my ears.” I’ve grown a lot as a stepmom over the past five years and I realize there is one thing I will never again give my stepdaughter on her birthday or any other day.
You see, the first birthday I shared with my dear stepdaughter, her dad I had just started dating. It was her fifth birthday and her grandmother was in town. She wanted to go to Chuck E. Cheese. I had to admit to my then boyfriend that I had never been to a Chuck E. Cheese. I’m a bit of a germ a phob and was quite content that my children had never experienced the giant rat.
Anyway, I picked up My Little Pony plates and napkins, her grandmother made her a cake and the nine of us celebrated with Pizza and a ball pit. I gave her a book with a matching stuffed animal. She loved it. Named the fuzzy puppy after my dog and hugged me to pieces. Life was good.
Flash forward to her sixth birthday and her dad and I were engaged. This birthday was basically a repeat of her fifth. Yes, once again the rat was a part of the celebration and she was over the top with the Pizza, cake, ice cream and gift that myself and the kids gave her. Things were good. This is how birthdays would go with her, or so I thought.
Flash forward through a wedding and an emotional time for my stepdaughter finding out her mom had gotten remarried states away without being invited or notified until months later….to her seventh birthday. This birthday was quite different.
Now to set the stage, you should probably know that I love making birthdays special for my kids. And it’s not about the gifts. My mom did it for me and I love doing it for the kids. In fact, I believe it’s the traditions and little things you do on your child’s birthday that they remember – not the actual presents. I like to make them a special birthday breakfast, bake and decorate a special cake, set everything up in the kitchen so when they wake up – its all there and the “birthday fairy” always visits the kids in the evening, leaving a small, wrapped gift on their bed.
Anyway, my SD was really into High School Musical that year. I made a HSM cake, invited 10 of the neighbor girls and classmates over, made HSM T-shirts as a favor, played pin the corsage on Gabriella and took photos with life size cut outs I had finagled for all the girls.
I shopped on ebay and amazon to find the exact doll and LPS she wanted.
I stayed up late and baked cupcakes to take to school for her special birthday treat. Surely, she would appreciate the homemade touch!
This was going to be perfect, I thought! She will feel so special and love her day. Not!
I didn’t receive one thank you, one smile, one nothing from my SD that day. I was deflated, confused and hurt. I was a bit angry and then felt selfish for feeling that way. I just didn’t get it. My husband showered me with thanks. If it wasn’t’ for him, I might have spent the second half of the day upstairs crying. Just being honest.
Fast forward to the 8th, 9th birthdays….. each one has brought us closer and a few thank you’s. Her birthday is a mix of celebration and sadness for her.
I continue to bake her a cake each year (and each year she requests a more challenging one). I continue to shop for her presents and make her special birthday breakfast and dinner. I continue to hang the Birthday Banner that I have hung ever since my oldest turned one and the birthday fairy continues to pay her a visit on her birthday eve.
But there is one thing that I no longer do for my stepdaughter’s birthday. I will never again set expectations for her birthday.
Yes. I do these things because I want to do them. Because they are the right thing to do. Because I love her father beyond words. I do not do them for a thank you or for recognition.
Now, when I get a thank you or a hug, it feels great. And if I don’t that’s okay too. Because it dawned on me a year later why I believe my SD was so cold to me on that first birthday as a stepfamily in our home. You see, her mom never called or sent anything. She was angry over that. She transferred that anger to me – the mom in the house. How can I expect a child to be happy when they are hurting inside?
She’ll wake up in a few hours and be 10! She’ll be a year older and I, as her stepmom, am a year wiser, a year stronger, a year smarter and without expectations.
Happy Birthday to my dear stepdaughter. Here’s to a wonderful day and a wonderful year. May you always feel loved and worthy.
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.
This article of mine first appeared in the April edition of StepmomMagazine. You can subscribe to StepMom Magazine at www.StepMomMag.com