What if your step kids’ mother is deceased, or completely out of the picture for reasons such as mental illness, heavy drug use or prison? What do you have to do differently as a stepmom?
My opinion is that it’s more important to underline what you should be doing that’s just the same as in other stepfamilies.
The absence of the biological mother is probably not affecting the family difficulty on the level of parenting (in the sense of dealing with bad behaviour from the kids), and it’s not likely producing a unique conflict in the marriage. It’s a problem of family dynamics.
What is the best role for a stepmom in such a family? Where does she fit in the overall family scheme? How does she manage boundaries or step back from her involvement with the step kids when they have no mother besides her? When you’re the full-time, live-in mother figure in the home, should you even contemplate stepping back?
My take on this is that you don’t automatically take on a bigger burden of responsibility for kids who don’t have a mother when you get together with their dad. It’s true that your partner might have a heavier job in parenting children who are literally grieving the loss of a parent, but it’s not your job to adjust your role. I think that the best thing you can do for the family dynamic is to find ways to respect the “family of origin”. That’s where you do your stepping back.
The energy of that original family is still intact, just the way it would be if mom were alive or more present in the child’s life. You might have heard me say that it’s important to respect the “family” that your partner has with his children, the one they had together before you came into the picture. The more you respect that family and make space for it, the more they can relax into the new “family” that you and their dad are creating for them.
You shouldn’t ever think of yourself as “fitting in” to their family because that risks activating a Loyalty Bind in a child. They need to keep a place in their heart just for mom, and that’s just as true when she’s in prison, or in heaven. They can eventually feel good about becoming part of your family because we have a long historical tradition of joining a new family when we marry. We can allow ourselves to be a part of two families without loyalty issues and kids can feel good about having two families if you play your cards right.
I believe that it’s both correct and healthy for every stepfamily to have some time where dad and kids do things alone together, without the stepmom. I think that all stepfamilies should make this kind of “family time” a priority – I still do this for my own step kids even though they’re in their 20’s now and we’ve been a family for 14 years.
Families who make time for this find that it pays off big time in better moods and cooperation and even leads to a closer relationship with the stepmom over time. You might have to force yourself to create a space for them to enjoy each other’s company without you. If you’re sensitive to feeling left out, it might challenge you to do some self-growth but it will be a precious gift that they’ll treasure much more than any material objects you might offer.
If there were something else in the personal development sphere to work on here, it would for the stepmom to cultivate a sense of ease around talking with the kids about their mom. It’s OK to say that you wish you could have known her, or that you wish she could see them right now, or that it must be really hard to miss your mom. We have to get past the awkward fear of letting her into the room, energetically speaking.
What all kids really need is a place where it’s safe to love both their mom and dad at the same time. They need a place where it’s safe to be sad, so learn how to hold space for their feelings without being overwhelmed by them. If you can do that, you become an important part of their safety network and that’s a perfect foundation for a long-lasting relationship.
There should never be a moment in a child’s life when they’re expected to have completely gotten over the loss of a parent. It will come up again and again and different phases of development and at various life milestones. Graduations, awards, achievements, marriage and children will stir up grief in unexpected ways. Your ability to make that be OK for them can be the single most important role you have in their lives.
All the rest is the same: let dad do the heavy lifting (discipline) and be sensitive to the idea that a Loyalty Bind exists just as much with a deceased mother as with a living one. Remember that if they like you one day and not the next, it’s probably not about you and it comes with the territory. Make time to talk to your spouse on a regular basis about your expectations of each other and the kids. Consider using family meetings as a vehicle for reducing anxiety in the home and reaching consensus on difficult topics.
It’s really not that different – hope this helps!