My mother left when I was nine years old. From then on, we were raised by my dad and when he got remarried a couple years later, by my stepmom.
We were supposed to visit mom every other week, but it didn’t work out that way. It didn’t matter much. Growing up is done in the little moments. Whether you’re getting ready for bed, or just getting home from school, going to the store or just watching a TV show together—these countless, seemingly meaningless moments during which we live our lives are the times in which we bond with our parents. We hear their stories and they hear ours. We love, laugh, cry and learn together. We drive each other crazy and love each other anyway.
The parent who is away is inherently stuck with a diminished role. By definition, there are vastly fewer “everyday moments” for them and there is almost always a sense that the visit has to be something “special,” usually meaning the parent feels obliged to constantly entertain their children so they’ll want to keep coming. It’s love via the checkbook, and it’s to no avail. The relationship will be different. You can’t buy what time provides and you can’t entirely make up for the loss of it.
My mom had added burdens. She was an alcoholic.
There’s a selfishness that comes with such afflictions that is difficult for those without the experience to understand. It can also be difficult to recognize for those who live with it. When it’s a loved one, you’re practically wired to accommodate them and see it as normal. When and if you finally see it, it is hard not to resent.
My relationship with my mom is certainly not what it would have been if she had stayed. She made some big mistakes in life, and there have been costs. When someone asks who raised me, my first thought is of my stepmother. That’s not a something any mom dreams of for her son.
There are many moms out there that have made big mistakes, and it can be hard for their kids (at any age) to know what to do on days like Mother’s Day. Does acknowledging the day mean living a lie—pretending that everything was as it should be? Can you half-acknowledge the day?
For me the answer was in thinking back to the times in which my mom was wonderful: when she patiently involved me in her various crafts; when she hugged me after a sad day at school; or when she washed, fed, and clothed a young friend whose home life was such that no child should bear. I think of those things and the fact that she bore me into this life so that I can experience the joys of it and “Happy Mother’s Day!” becomes easy to express.
We are commanded to honor our father and our mother. But what about stepmothers? What grace should we afford them?
They are the villains of film and television. They are the women that use sexuality and false kindness to seduce a vulnerable father, promise him a loving family, and reveal their selfish natures only when it is too late. They seek to undermine the security children once felt and replace it with self-doubt and guilt. In short, stepmothers are supposed to be a curse.
Mine was the opposite. She came into our family as a young woman facing the prospect of helping to raise three kids who were not her own, a daughter that would soon be a teen, and two boys, ages 11 and 6. I doubt she knew what she was in for.
Kids get confused by divorce. Often their anger is misplaced. There’s no doubt my stepmom endured some of that. And what should a stepmom do? Should they hang back and avoid trying to be a replacement or co-mom? Or should they fill the gap left by the missing parent? Is there a right answer?
My stepmom did the best she could in a tough situation. She also had three more kids of her own, making her responsible for six kids. But while three of those kids unquestioningly accepted her authority, the original three, well, our record was spotty. She may not always have felt overjoyed by our presence but she unmistakably sacrificed on our behalf. Giving her time, money, and emotional energy toward making our lives better even when it made hers less comfortable.
Many people say they feel “love” for their family but don’t make sacrifices that impact their own comfort on its behalf. My stepmom did.
Which kind of love is more real, more lasting? The kind of love in which one says loving things or the kind in which they do loving things?
Research has shown that while about half of adult children regard their stepdad as a parent, only about a third regard their stepmom in the same fashion. With my stepmom there was no question.
She didn’t love us because she had to, she loved us because she chose to. That self-sacrificial example, like that of adoptive mothers, surely deserves acknowledgment on Mother’s Day. So to all the stepmoms out there who have stepped into a situation requiring caring and loving children who are not their own, to the stepmoms who did not break up a family but are hoping to help repair one, know that your love and sacrifice is noticed, respected and appreciated.
Belated Happy Mother’s Day, stepmoms.
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