Taming the Mommy Tiger


This article from StepMom Magazine is too good to not re-post. In the arena of parental alienation, I have been doing my research into many areas, including blended families.

One of the most common issues I see presented is the battle between a stepparent and the natural parent.

This article has great insight, by Wednesday Martin, Ph.D. 

Taming the Mommy TigerOne of the most common questions I hear from women who marry or partner with men who have kids is,

What should they call me?”

While there’s no one right answer, I do concur with the overwhelming majority of experts and women in the trenches who know from first-hand experience that there is, in a broad sense, to which there are rare exceptions, a wrong one: Mom. Or mommy. Or mother. You get the idea.

I’m not big on oversimplified advice—there’s way too much of it out there for stepmothers in books, which tend to gloss over the point of view of the woman with stepchildren, as if she’s got no right to have one. That’s just wrong, and that’s why I wrote a book from a stepmother-centric perspective. But when it comes to this particular issue, unless the planets are aligned just so (and we’ll get to that, to the factors that might make it easy and OK for his kids to call you and think of you as mom), it is best for all parties if you acknowledge the specialness of your bond with his kids of any age by coming up with a word other than mom to define it.

“Hey!” you’re thinking, “That’s not fair! I’m just like a mom. I do lots of heavy lifting. I do X, Y and even Z for those kids!! And she’s (fill-in-the-blank with neglectful, or a terrible mother or unloving and selfish and disinterested in  her kids, or even an alcoholic/drug addict/liar).

So, why is she the only one to be called mom?

Does just giving birth to them make her the only mother?

Yep, it does.

Whether we like it or think it’s right or wrong, we will likely be able save ourselves a lot of grief and aggravation by acknowledging a simple truth. In our society, motherhood is romanticized and idealized, and mothers—no matter how bad—are put on a pedestal by the world in general and by their kids in particular.

Sometimes, you may have noticed, the more problems the mother has, the more fiercely protective of and attached and irrationally loyal to her the kids are. It can make your head spin, especially if you know you’re a better parent than she is. Whoa, there, Step-mom!

There’s a reason step-family experts—from the National Step-family Resource Center to the last book you picked up—are virtually unanimous in their advice,

“Don’t try to replace their mother, and don’t ask them to call you mom.”

While you’re at it, when they ask to call you mom, as flattering as it is, as much of a victory as it feels like, as much as you feel you earned it and deserve it, your life will probably be a whole lot easier in the long run if you point out,

“I love you very much, but let’s think of something else for you to call me, since you already have a mom.”

Again, there are exceptions, but they are few and far between.

Why are the experts and so many of the women who have been there such killjoys about the kids calling you mommy?

Because they know what they’re talking about. First, there’s the reality of the loyalty bind—a feeling that kids get, often because their moms
encourage it—that loving or even liking you is a betrayal of her. They
suspect that bonding with you will actually cause their bond with her to wither and die. What could be scarier for these kids than loving you and calling you mom, mommy or any variant of The Mother? Sometimes, kids feel and fear this even without their moms doing what too many moms do— badmouth you and your marriage.

If there’s anything that provokes a woman with stepchildren, it’s a mom who doesn’t want her kids to get too close to dad’s new wife—and tries to assure it won’t happen by telling lies or saying inappropriate and undermining things about their step-mom.

“If it weren’t for her, your dad and I would still be together,” such women might say to their kids. Or, “You don’t have to listen to her or be nice to her. She’s not in charge of you.”

If there is anything that provokes a mother, it’s the feeling that someone— someone married to her ex-husband in particular, whether she instigated the divorce or not—is competing with her for her child’s affection. “I love them like they’re my own,” you might say to her in a conversation, trying to set her at ease. But the words have the opposite effect, making mom feel encroached upon and threatened.

But why? As I researched my book, “Stepmonster,” I reviewed what sociologists and anthropologists had to say about stepmothering worldwide and about wife/ex-wife conflict across cultures. What quickly became clear was the following simple truth: In our society in particular, many women find the idea of sharing their children with another motherlike figure incredibly threatening to their core identity and their very sense of self. And when they have to do it, they lose it.

Many are the stories of crazy exes and vengeful biomoms (can we please just call them moms or mothers?) who undermine the stepmother/stepchild relationship as if their very lives depend upon it.

Why are these women so angry, so dead set on keeping their kids from bonding with stepmom? Sociologists Linda Nielsen of Wake Forest University, Stephanie Coontz of Evergreen University and the Council on Contemporary Families tell us that, unlike many Caribbean, Native American, and Pacific Island cultures—where children have a number of parent-like figures who care for them and may have several mother-like “aunties” who look after them in all senses, such as feeding, clothing and even disciplining them—middle and upper-middle class Caucasian American women are dramatically more likely to have been raised in a “one-mother only mentality.”

That means these women have been taught from an early age that mothering means one woman and one woman only doing the heavy lifting mostly, if not entirely, on her own. They are less likely, in a broad statistical sense, to have had fictive kin, aunties and even extended family involved in their upbringing. In their view, mothering comes from one person, and one person alone—period.

This exclusive, exclusionary view of mothering is deeply ingrained for many of us and results in a mindset that there can be only one mother. Further implied is that if one mother isn’t doing it all on her own, she’s a bad one. And being a bad mother, in our culture, makes you a bad woman and a bad person. There’s no separating those categories in our thinking.

Coontz, Nielsen and other sociologists point out that Caribbean, Pacific Island, Native American and African American children are more likely to have “allomaternal” and “allopaternal” figures in their lives—“aunties” and “uncles” who contribute to their well-being in numerous ways. They also tell us this is likely to be the case in immigrant and lower-income groups, where extended family living arrangements and a belief that “it takes a village” prevail. In contrast, for many of us in the U.S., it’s nuclear family bonds uber-alles.

Why do so many ex-wives go nuts when their exes remarry and their kids get a stepmother? In large part, it may be because they are programmed to do this.

Understanding this might help those of us with stepchildren understand how an otherwise sane-seeming, high-functioning woman is capable of demonizing us in irrational ways. It takes hard work and commitment to overcome this social programming, and our collective hats should be off to the mothers who manage it. As for those who don’t, we will do everyone a good turn, perhaps most especially ourselves and our step kids, if we use this knowledge to avoid provoking the mommy tiger by insisting on our “right” to be called mom and to share what she considers to be her exclusive mom privileges.

These often include parent-teacher conferences, doctor’s appointments and conversations with kids about topics like reproduction, sex and drugs. In all of these areas, ask yourself just how dreadful it really is to have to concede to her irrational-seeming wishes you just stay away or remain uninvolved.

As many therapists and stepfamily coaches ask their clients,

“Do you really want to go to every parent-teacher conference? If it provokes your husband’s ex so tremendously, might it be wise to sit back?”

Sadly,our well-intentioned impulses to be involved in his children’s lives might be read by mom, owing to her social programming, as territorial and aggressive.

Does that mean you have to skip the Winter Sing, the graduation or the gymnastics meet every time, be excluded and shut out? No way. But if there is a high conflict situation with a Mommy Tiger, it makes sense to ask yourself exactly which battles are worth having and when it might be more fun to skip the science fair and go out for a night with friends.

And then there are those rare exceptions. I know a few—and perhaps you do, too—women whose step kids call them mom and who have a highly involved, maternal relationship with the kids. Here’s the planetary alignment that might favor a kid calling you mom and thinking of you as one or another one, without blowback:

1. His or her mother is out of the picture. Not as in deceased. A child whose mother has passed away will likely need to preserve her memory and her name—mother—just for her, no matter how badly that child may want and need mothering from you. But out of touch and out of sight for almost all of the time might make it easier and less
fraught for you to take on a mom role and name. Remember, though, although she may be out of sight and out of touch, she may not be out of mind.

2. He or she is young enough and open enough to forming an attachment so the mommy thing will not inspire tremendous ambivalence or confusion.

3. His or her mother actually encourages a warm, closer relationship between you and her child—and means it.

One woman I interviewed—I’ll call her Sarah—was nine months pregnant when her husband, never reliable, left her. He came back when the baby was 3 months old and left again three months later.

Sarah knew her ex, given his yearslong pattern of abandoning her and others, would never be part of her child’s life. She also found out that
a court was very likely to support her barring contact should it come to that. So, when Sarah eventually decided to remarry, she and her partner thought long and hard about what her 2-year-old girl should call her stepfather. Given all of the factors, they settled on daddy.

However, they decided her new husband’s son Zach—whose mom was
sufficiently unreliable and irresponsible to have lost custody of him—had a mom, however imperfect. Having and being a mommy, Sarah and her husband knew, is uniquely fraught in our culture. And they suspected that letting Zach call Sarah mommy might cause problems—resentments, confusion or ambivalence—down the line. They were probably right.

And five years later, Zach and Sarah, whom he calls Sarry—a variation on mommy that is different enough from it to set everyone at ease—are doing just fine.

“In our society in particular, many women find the idea of sharing their children with  another  mother-like figure incredibly threatening to their core identity and their very sense of self. And when they have to do it, they lose it.”

© 2011 StepMom Magazine
Wednesday Martin, Ph.D., is a social researcher and the author of Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do (2009).
She is a regular contributor to Psychology Today
(http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stepmonster)
and blogs for the Huffington Post and on her own web site
(www.wednesdaymartin.com).
She has appeared as a stepparenting expert on NPR, the BBC Newshour, Fox News and NBC Weekend Today, and was a regular contributor to the New York Post’s parenting page.
Stepmonster was a finalist in the parenting category of the 2010 “Books for a Better Life” award.
A stepmother for a decade, Wednesday lives in New York City with her husband and two sons.
Her stepdaughters are young adults.

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