In the crush of taking care of our families during the holidays, we need to take care of ourselves as well.  An important part of that is to be prepared if our kids overlook us.  The first few times my foster children ignored me in the excitement of being with their biological parents, I alternated between treating myself with tough love (“you’re the adult, so suck it up and move on”) and feeling sorry for myself.  Gradually I learned a more nuanced response.  We need to acknowledge our hurt feelings, give ourselves time to grieve, and then be the adult, suck it up and move on with building a good relationship.

Recognize Reality

The core problem is that we are not the people who are supposed to be there for our stepkids and foster kids.  No matter how wonderful we might be, children have a primal need for their biological parents.  When those parents are living in a different household or otherwise not available, it takes a lot of work and heartache and time for children to adjust to that reality.  They can only handle so much at a time, and sometimes we just don’t make the list of things they have resources to worry about.  So, don’t take it personally if your children cannot fit you into their priorities.  It is simply part of the reality of a broken world.

Your Children Will Appreciate You . . . Eventually

Another inescapable fact is that children are not wired to appreciate what we do for them.  Children are oblivious to all of the work that goes into making their lives what they are.  That’s actually a good thing — when children have to worry too much about power bills and food costs and other adult issues, we call it bad parenting or neglect.  Children are supposed to concentrate on age-appropriate things while we keep the magic going behind the curtain.  So, at some level, asking them to appreciate what we do for them before their brains mature is like asking them to fly.  

Expecting gratitude also can be corrosive.  It can feel to a child like a simple commercial transaction.  At some level, they understand that loving someone involves giving freely. When you keep count of how many times you receive an acknowledgement, your work does not feel free or loving to your children.

Never forget that you are in this for the long haul.  You are building a relationship that will not mature before your children do.  It may take a long time for them to appreciate all that you have done for them, just as we never truly understood our parents’ sacrifices until we became adults.  Just as we needed to grow up in order to fully understand our childhoods, we need to give our children that time to understand our role in their lives.  Do not let temporary immaturity wreck what can be a strong and vital relationship if you give it time and attention.

Find Your Validation Elsewhere

Finally, do not depend on your children to make you feel appreciated.  It’s always nice when they express their appreciation.  I will forever treasure a text from a stepson saying that “our family is much less broken since you joined it.”  But be prepared to keep loving and caring about them even when they don’t remember to say nice things.

Where you should expect to find appreciation is from your spouse.  Many times, I’ve heard friends complain about ungrateful stepchildren and then realize after more conversation that the core complaint is that their spouses are no better than their children.  When everyone in the house takes you for granted, it is hard to keep going.  

I have been fortunate in that my husband has always appreciated my contributions to the family, and when I was a single foster parent, I had strong support from my siblings and close friends.  When those adult relationships are in place, then we can find resources to keep caring for children who are too young or immature to appreciate us.  When the center is not holding, then we will run out of resources to take care of anyone.

So never forget that the most important relationships in your life are the adult ones.  Keep your marriage your top priority, or if you are not in a relationship, find a strong network of other family and friends.  If you keep the core of your life strong, then it will not hurt much at all when children act like children.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.