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. There are several ways we can prepare ourselves to avoid disappointment.
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 milestones. It’s not that they don’t care about me; they simply are busy with their lives and their other responsibilities. In fact, part of the reason that we have such a strong relationship is that I don’t require or expect anything from them 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.
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. It is all too easy to fall into the trap of comparing ourselves with the “other” parents.
The most pragmatic reason for resisting that temptation is that if it is a competition, we will lose. Children have strong ties to their biological families. We simply cannot compete successfully with those deep impulses and trying to make our children recognize our contribution will only damage our relationships.
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.
Our role is not completely self-sacrifice, however. Plan ahead for a day for yourself. 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. Start planning now how to help children honor their biological parents and how to take care of yourself on the greeting card holidays.