As I was scrolling through my Facebook feed, I came across a birthday post on a friend’s wall written by her step-daughter. I’ll refer to the step-daughter as Sally. Sally thanked my FB friend, whom I’ll call Michelle, for having a heart of gold and for being part of her life. She wished her step-mother a joyous day and wrote that she loved her. A montage of lovely family pictures accompanied the post.
I was so touched by the sentiment that Sally posted on her step-mother’s wall, I had to ask more questions about their relationship. How did Michelle transition so successfully to her role as step-mother? What did Michelle do to evoke such warm feelings from her step-daughter, who was older when Michelle began a relationship with Sally’s dad?
I called Michelle for answers to my questions about a transition that can be infected with conflict and competition. Michelle reflected that her transition to step-parenthood was relatively easy. I did NOT expect that word to describe relationships that historically are portrayed with the word “cruel” (Think Cinderella). Michelle shared that her husband still has significant conflict with Sally’s mother, almost two decades after their divorce. Their children are adults now, but sadly, the bitterness has not subsided. For her part, Michelle tries to ignore the bad feelings between her husband and his former spouse. “Out of sight; out of mind” she said.
Perhaps Michelle’s transition was easier because she comes from a close-knit family and she still treasures family time. Growing up, holidays were important to Michelle. Though her parents are now deceased, she sought to recreate warm memories for her step-children, complete with playing games over which to bond. If Michelle and her husband rented a summer cottage, the children were always invited to join the festivities in the sand.
Her role as step-mother sometimes still requires Michelle to serve as a buffer for the kids between her husband and their mother in the continued conflict. Undeterred, she respects boundaries and makes it a point to let the kids know that they can reach out to her if they need anything. The FB post was evidence of Sally’s appreciation. The kids recognize that she tries hard to make family gatherings special for them. They feel warm and welcome in Michelle’s company.
Life has become more complicated now that the kids are adults and have their own lives to enjoy. Scheduling family time has become challenging, so Michelle took to planning a family dinner on a set day and time each month. “Whoever can come, comes” she said. No pressure on anyone. The door remains open.
The road to a successful transition to step-mother? Avoid the common pot holes. The takeaway: honor boundaries, avoid criticism and anticipate some curves in the road. Michelle provides a respite for her step-children amid their parents’ ongoing conflict. She relied on her own warm family memories to create a comfortable setting for the children. It worked, given the love expressed by her step-daughter in a public FB post for all to see
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Shari Bornstein is an attorney and mediator.