This is a guest post by Author and Stepmother, Holly Robinson
There was a moment last spring when I poured a cup of tea, carried it into the dining room to read the newspaper, then froze mid-sip when I noticed the date above the headlines.
At that very moment, my husband’s ex-wife was enjoying the first day of her vacation in Florida with my in-laws.
Outside my windows, the ground was still frozen and the bare tree branches were sketched black against a dull sky. Meanwhile, my husband’s ex-wife was reveling in the view from my in-laws’ condominium: the bright jewel of the swimming pool, the green Atlantic rising beyond it in white feathered humps along the sand.
It was easy for me to imagine her vacation, since I was just there with the youngest of our five children—my husband and I have a “yours, mine, and ours” family, with two kids brought into the marriage from each of our first marriages before adding a child of our own.
Thinking about his ex in that condo left me feeling suffused with envy. Yet, I love and respect my in-laws even more because of the civil way they’ve handled both my husband’s divorce from his first wife and his marriage to me. My in-laws set a high bar when it comes to etiquette, and that has helped me do the same in my second marriage.
Not that it’s always easy. This is the dark secret that nobody tells you: when your wedding to a man with an ex-wife is over and your new life is officially launched, the chaos really begins—especially if you share children. You’re in the boundary lands then, headed into the wilderness with little more than a water bottle and crackers in hand. We must feel our way through the dark, floundering unassisted through the thorny underbrush as we forge more complicated families.
Unfortunately, the ones most often scarred by our trail-blazing are the kids. Too often, our children lose their way when it comes to keeping the relationships they once held dear, or at least counted on lasting.
One of the toughest challenges of remarried life is learning to be civil with your husband’s ex-wife. Sometimes it’s downright impossible, when she switches the weekends she wants the kids and screws up your plans, insists she needs more money, or sends the kids to your house with lice.
But getting along with his ex does more than just keep the peace. It sets the standard for how you hope your children and stepchildren will behave with people they don’t necessarily like. If you want your stepchildren to become resilient, happy, well-adjusted adults who go on to create loving, long-lasting partnerships and families of their own, follow this golden rule: Love his kids more than you hate your husband’s ex.
Here are four specific tips for co-mothering with style:
1. Don’t try to be friends with his ex. That may come with time, but don’t count on it. No matter what your situation, she probably fears, resents, and even hates you sometimes. Focus on parenting the children together in ways that make life easiesr for the kids, and be as flexible as possible to make things go smoothly.
2. Don’t try to replace their mom. If you try to mother his children, they will resent you and his ex will, too—even more. Think of yourself as a beloved aunt or favorite babysitter. While of course you’ll have your own household rules, which may differ from hers, try to find out what her rules are. Children often benefit from consistency between two households, so wherever you can keep that up, it’s a good thing.
3. Acknowledge the good things she does. Whether it’s a great haircut for your stepdaughter or your stepson’s better behavior at the dinner table, mention that you’ve noticed something good happening, and give her credit for good mothering. All of us feel inadequate as mothers, no matter how confident we might seem, and his ex will appreciate the applause as long as it’s sincere.
4. Never say a bad word about her in front of her kids. If you do, she’ll hear about it, because moms typically grill their kids when they come back from Dad’s house. Plus, saying negative things about their mother implies that the kids are flawed as well.
Whether I like it or not, I share a life with my husband’s ex-wife, one that requires us to forge beyond the familiar boundaries people draw between them. She is the mother of my stepchildren, and I adore those kids. The least I can do is always hope that the sun shines during her vacations.