The Happy Stepmother: How to Keep Your Family Harmonious, Even During the Holidays
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While there are times that it is better to say nothing, there are other times when it is best for you to clarify and correct misinformation. If you are in this situation, focus on communicating with your partner in order to solve this problem. Any conflicts you have with your husband's ex-wife must stay between the adults - and even if his ex-wife does not honor this principle, make sure that you do.
Holidays can be a particularly painful time for stepmothers, a time when boundary issues are most likely to resurface.
Some stepmothers are excluded from happy occasions. This happened to me personally. My husband and I were not invited to my stepdaughter's Bat Mitzvah. My stepdaughter was so uncomfortable with the idea of her mother and father being together in the same room that she arranged to perform the religious ceremony in Israel and held a party "just for friends" in New York. Of course, I felt hurt by the exclusion and embarrassed to tell others that we weren't part of a special milestone in her life, even though I understood her discomfort, and felt bad for her.
This experience prepared me to expect similar painful feelings when my stepdaughter told us she was anxious about having us attend her college graduation. In deference to her feelings, we told her we would not attend. Why didn't we force the issue, and insist on going? My husband regrets his decision to put his daughter's feelings of discomfort ahead of our desire to celebrate an important occasion with her. I, on the other hand, am uncomfortable attending an event where my presence is not welcome.
No matter how many years we are stepmothers, we may face experiences that hurt us to our cores and remind us of how much we remain outsiders in our own family. Anticipating the pain and acknowledging it, as I was able to do when my husband and I didn't go to my stepdaughter's graduation, can make these painful experiences easier to handle.
Ideally, everyone should be invited to celebrations of major milestones like weddings or religious ceremonies. For other occasions, such as birthday and anniversary parties, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, and Christmas, new traditions will need to be established. All members of your extended family need to understand the importance of adjusting to the new family configuration.
To avoid an unpleasant holiday experience, be sure that you arrange a celebration that is meaningful to you. Advance planning will lessen the impact of possible rejection or neglect by stepfamily members. Only you can determine your comfort level, and this will take you time and thought to establish. For example, you might decide not to attend gatherings at your in-laws' home when your partner's ex-wife is there. But what if staying away makes you feel even worse? You may decide that you prefer to attend, rather than sit at home wondering what is going on in your absence. If you do go, be sure to set your boundaries for the gathering in advance, and follow through with how you expect to be treated.
If you're like many people, you may fear that voicing your preferences will bring further rejection and isolation. While this is possible, in reality, it is far more likely that others will respect you even more if you set clear boundaries. Just be sure that you are willing to follow through on what you decide. If you lack consistency, your family (and others as well) are not as likely to respect your boundaries - or you.
Dr. Rachelle Katz is a licensed family therapist and founder of the popular website www.stepsforstepmothers.com.