When raising other people’s children, it’s easy to start hating Mothers’ Day and Fathers’ Day. It’s a bit like being single on Valentine’s Day. All of the attention goes to biological parents, and foster parents or stepparents are left on their own. Fortunately, there are some helpful ways we can prepare ourselves to avoid disappointment.
• Give Up Expectations
First, we need to let go of any expectation of getting any recognition ourselves. Over the years, I’ve learned that even children with whom I have a wonderful relationship overlook these holidays. It’s not that they don’t care about me; they are simply busy with their lives and their other responsibilities. It’s not about me. The more we realize that kids express their feelings in all sorts of different ways, the stronger relationships we can build. Not taking their reaction personally is a key foundation for having a good relationship.
Another important factor is giving our children space to express their appreciation, or to not do so, without penalty. If they feel forced to recognize you, then everyone will be unhappy. I learned long ago not to require or expect anything from my children on a particular day. When they make an authentic gesture, I appreciate it. When they forget, we are still good. The rest of our interactions more than make up for it.
• Avoid Competitions
We also have to resist the temptation to compete with the biological parents. It is human nature to want to be the most popular person in any situation, and the impulse is particularly strong with people we care about. In blended families, we naturally want everyone to agree that our spouses made the right decision in marrying us. With foster kids, it’s human nature to want them to recognize how much better off they are with us than in their original family. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with the “other” parents.
One good reason to resist that temptation is that if we see the situation as a competition, we will lose. Children have strong ties to their biological families. We simply cannot compete successfully with those deep impulses, and we shouldn’t attempt it. Trying to make our children acknowledge, or even recognize, our contribution to their lies will only damage our relationships.
• Focus on What Your Kids Need
The most important reason for avoiding competition is that the inevitable conflict is not good for our children. Several mental studies have found that children growing up in high-conflict families, whether biological or divorced, tend to fare worse than other children. One study even found that children in low-conflict single-parent families adjust better than children in high-conflict dual-parent families. Conflict creates stress and anxiety for children far beyond their ability to process it.
Furthermore, if children feel pressured to choose sides or judge competitions between adults, they will be on guard and unsure of themselves. They cannot be confident in their relationship with us if our focus is on beating out their other parent. We have to concentrate on our children’s needs and give them the freedom to forge other relationships without us.
The competitive urge shows up in ways that we don’t always recognize. I’ve already said that we shouldn’t worry about recognition from our kids; that rule extends to not comparing what they do for their parents and what they do (or don’t do) for us. We also shouldn’t keep score on time, attention, or any other measure that we tend to conjure up. It is easy to want to claim our prerogatives, but every time we do that, it places more pressure on our children to pick sides. The only way I have ever found to remove the pressure from the children is to just withdraw from the conflict. Frankly, sometimes that means that I get completely overlooked. I have driven children to band concerts or school plays, only for them to spend all of their time with their biological family and not talk to me until time for me to drive them home. I felt like a chauffeur rather than a parent.
But those feelings are an inescapable part of parenting someone else’s children. Someone has to give way, and I have never found a good reason for it not to be me. Besides, I often have had the joy of having the rest of my kids’ time. I cannot begrudge their parents a few hours on the center stage if that is the only relationship they have.
• Help Your Kids Honor Their Biological Parents
Our stepchildren and foster children may need our help to honor their biological parents. It’s a classic case where we need to look beyond our impulses and help our kids with what they need.
Follow your child’s lead about how they want to recognize their parents. Some of them may be so angry that they don’t want to do anything. Never force a child beyond their comfort level. We can gently encourage and offer help, particularly if the problem is that the child just needs some support and guidance about what to do. Overall, though, in this situation we need to honor their wishes.
If they want, help your children plan and put together a present for their parents. If they don’t want to give a present, be sure that they have a therapist or mentor to talk to about the conflict. Work out the details of visits to their parents and figure out the parameters you need to keep them safe and comply with court orders. Plan for the transition from the other home to yours. These days are often difficult for your children. Plan for ways to make them as low-stress as possible for them.
• Plan Something For Yourself
Finally, plan something positive for yourself on these greeting card holidays. Our role is not complete self-sacrifice on these parents’ days. When my stepsons were young, my husband and I always planned special days for just ourselves whenever the boys were with their mother. Give yourself something to look forward to and a day to enjoy. Balancing the needs of your family includes all of the family, including yourself. Use these days as an opportunity to give yourself a break and recharge your emotional batteries.
Greeting card holidays can be difficult to navigate when you are not a child’s biological parent. The best ways to avoid conflict is to recognize that it’s not about you, give your kids freedom to express their feelings, keep your focus on what your kids need, and plan some time for yourself. If you work on doing these things, then you can survive these holidays with minimal damage and even build your relationships in the process.