This is a tricky one.
Experiences with the ex can range from “we’re all friends and vacation together with the kids”, to “we criticize each other over text messages and in person…”
We cannot change the fact that there is an ex-wife in our lives, but we do have a choice in how, of even if, we engage with her.
We have a responsibility to understand that our partner was married (or in a relationship) before and had children – otherwise we wouldn’t be stepmoms!
But we also have a right to protect ourselves from negative behavior (and hopefully it doesn’t come to that).
There are many situations where mom and stepmom are the ones who have the most contact among the adults in the family. I know lots of women who plan the kids schedules with the biomom, talk about the kids’ school and behaviour together, and generally have a cooperative and peaceful friendship.
This is amazing, and absolutely the ideal. If your stepkids can feel the safety and security that comes with a connected, loving family unit… what a gift.
My parents divorced when I was a teenager, and my stepfather has been in my life from that point on.
When my husband and I got married (almost two decades after my parents’ divorce), it gave me such pride and pleasure to see my Dad and Stepfather talking to one another – getting along and being together at this very important time for me and my family.
Just imagine how great that can feel for kids who are still getting used to divorce and change. As much as possible, try to be positive, supportive, and most importantly – be empathetic. Not only are you dating or married to her ex-husband, but you are spending time with her children, and that can’t be easy for anyone.
So you try your best to be kind and understanding, and beyond that… it’s not up to you. The only thing you can control is you.
In discussing her encounters with the ex-wife, Katz (2010) says, “In order to be happier and make peace with the situation, I made a conscious choice to focus on what I could control and to live in the present, rather than worrying about what might, or might not, occur in the future”.
It’s not always easy, but the best thing you can do for you, your partner, you (step)children, and your health and well-being, is to not engage in drama. And certainly not to initiate it. Just remember: kids know when there is strife.
If you’re reading this right now thinking, “But it’s not me!” then my suggestion to you is to create a boundary so that negativity doesn’t break through into your family unit.
For example: You have offered to pick-up and drop-off your stepson every other weekend when your partner is at work. You have been picking him up after school on Fridays from his mom’s house, and meeting her in town to drop your stepson off on Sunday afternoons.
On Fridays, when you go to the ex’s house, she often makes a critical comment about the way you and your husband care for her son – maybe about the food he ate or how late he stayed up. It’s exhausting and frustrating, because you put a lot of time and effort into taking care of the little man.
On Sundays, when you arrive at the designated meeting spot, she is almost always late, and in front of you asks her son what he did and ate over the weekend. You could be wrong, but you feel judgment coming from her, and it is not comfortable.
- Identify your inner thoughts.
What are you telling yourself in this situation? What can you do? She is the mom and you feel guilty enough being in a relationship with her ex-husband and spending time with her kid. You get so frustrated when she is rude and late, but you don’t want to get angry in front of your stepson.
You don’t feel you have any right to speak up because you’re not the “real mom”, even though you do take care of him an awful lot, and worry about him like a parent does. You don’t want to disappoint your husband by complaining or saying that the situation isn’t working for you – after all, if you didn’t help out he wouldn’t get to see his son very much.
- Challenge your inner thoughts.
You can feel guilty – it’s natural. But their marriage ended, and it had nothing to do with you. You are taking care of her son part-time, and are doing a mighty good job of it. It’s up to you and your husband what food you serve in your house, and you always make healthy meals.
Your husband wouldn’t be upset with you – he knows how hard you’re trying to build a relationship with his son. The reasons she is upset may not actually have anything to do with you, they could be her own frustrations or concerns.
- Establish and implement the boundary.
After a conversation with your partner, you decide to change things up a little bit. On Fridays you will pick your stepson up from school, instead of from his mom’s house. This not only gives you a little more time with him, but also allows you to bypass the awkward encounter with the ex.
As for Sundays, you offer to drop the kids off at her house directly, which gives you control over the time. It seems as though you are doing her a big favor, and you are, but it actually saves you time in the long run. Instead of having a conversation in a parking lot, you can help the kids out of the car, watch them go in the door, and wave from the safety of the sidewalk. No more drills about food, bedtimes, or TV time. At least not when you’re there, and that’s all you can control.
- Revisit and reevaluate.
Three months later, as you are dropping the kids off at their moms on a Sunday afternoon, waving goodbye and pulling away, you let out a sigh of relief and smile. You have less stress, less frustration, and more control in your life. Your partner is fully supportive of the change and you decide to maintain it. Forever!
Okay, these are examples, and not necessarily guaranteed outcomes. But the idea is – you do have control over your life, your decisions, and your behavior. Remember that your health and happiness impact that of others around you.
Think of your approach as setting boundaries with yourself.
You may have feelings of sadness, anger, frustration, loss, and uncertainty. Understand that this is normal for stepmoms to feel at times, and that you ultimately have control over your own choices in life.
You are amazing, strong, brave, and compassionate to enter into this situation in the first place. Hopefully the reason you are reading this at all is because you have a partner that you love, and who loves you in return. With that support, I hope you feel empowered to create relationships, boundaries, and a life that is best for you.
Look out for the next article on this series on The Stepmom’s Guide to Peace – Boundaries with the Step kids.
Erin is a PhD Candidate in Adult Education at Mount Saint Vincent University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada.
A certified Stepfamily Coach, Erin has started her own business, Steplife – Stepmom Coaching and Support.
Erin and her husband Matt share their home part-time with his two kids, Oliver and Waverleigh.