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Jewish Journal

Must You Respect a Mother to Love Her Child?

by Ilana Angel

December 29, 2011 | 3:17 pm

I got divorced before my son turned one, and he has had a stepmother from the time he was about four.  My ex-husband dated a few women before he got remarried, and I was always nervous about them.  My son was so young that I worried these women would not love him, or take care of him.

Nobody was going to be me, or love him like I do, but I wanted very much for the new woman in his life to care about him and protect him as a parent would. The common misconception about moms is that we hate the stepmothers of our children.  It’s simply not true.  We want to love them.

I have a long history with my son’s stepmother.  By long history of course I mean I have a million stories about what this woman did wrong in terms of her treatment of me.  That said, I was not perfect either. I could argue that my actions were in response to her bad behavior, but I was still unkind.

Too much time has passed to place blame, but if we trace back my personal experiences, it all started with my ex-husband.  At the end of the day it was our son, and the decisions about how I would fit into their new life were his. His choices early on were what defined the relationship we all have now.  My ex-husband never told me he was getting married.  He picked up our very young child for the weekend, and got married.  When my child came home he did not understand what happened.  I was not given an opportunity to support him though a tough transition for a kid.

When my ex-husband’s grandfather died, they never told me, just took my son to his funeral.  It was the first time he had to face the death of a loved one, and I wasn’t there.  When my son came home he was distraught.  He did not understand why his Papa had to die, and if he could die, then could I?  He was scared to leave me for months as he thought I would die while he was gone.  For my child to experience these things without me was crushing for him and me both.  We are very close and he felt abandoned by me. He understands now, but didn’t when it really mattered.

This young woman married a man with an ex-wife and a young child which is hard, but she was so desperate to be seen as the “mother”, that she destroyed any chance of my ever supporting her in that role.  She put herself before my child, which is natural when you’re not a mom.  It was a shame because I never understood what she was worried about. We had been divorced for years, I left him, and there was no need to be hurtful.  My son was aware of the strain and that is the real tragedy. I tried to help her along the way, but there is no reasoning with jealousy.

I don’t think of this woman as a stepmother as much as I think of her as the wife of my son’s dad.  I’m not a stepmother so my opinion is one sided, but as a mother I think it’s easier to imagine life on her side.  She was not a mother so how could she understand mine?  In the 15 years I have been divorced, my ex-husband has never told me I am a good mother, or acknowledged me as the mother of his child.  He does however consider his wife to be a mother to our son and likes to tell me so.  It’s interesting. By interesting of course I mean sad.

I happen to think children of divorce are quite sophisticated.  They go though a lot and it’s hard.  Divorce can polarize a family and kids feel forced to pick a side.  My son was young when we divorced so there was no sense of loss.  He grew up with two homes from the start.  There is loss of course because his family is broken, but it’s different to experience divorce as a baby than it is as a child or young adult. At the end of the day I am his mother, and nobody fights for my title more than my child does.  It’s sad that he does, and sadder still that he feels he has to.

I have a friend who got divorced years ago, and has two boys.  She and her ex-husband are very close and co-parent their kids in an unbelievable way.  As hard as it is to understand their relationship, it is proof it starts with respect from the dad.  Her husband has gratitude for her giving him two sons.  His respect for that gift is what propels him to be decent and kind to her, and her to him.  My child is almost off to college so maybe it’s too late for me, but certainly for others there is time to make things good.

I have heard the term “bonus mom” and think it’s ridiculous. It was said by an insecure woman with no children, who is pretending to raise the children of her new husband.  You can love those kids till the cows come home, but they have a mother.  Of course there are no rules here.  Many stepmothers are better parents than the biological mother, and I have seen that scenario play out with my friends also.  All I’m saying is that when there is a mother, and she is a good one, the new wife needs to back off and know her place.

There needs to be some compassion from the new wife towards the old wife. It’s not a competition and respect must be earned.  It’s hard in the beginning and I certainly was defensive and ready to rumble, but it was my child and she was a stranger so of course I was tough on her.  I have tried over the years to be her friend but it’s never worked out.  I’m sure she would say she tried and that’s her truth.  If she could go back and do it differently maybe she would, but I’m not sure I could.  I love my kid and whatever happened is done now.

There is no such thing as a bonus mom in my opinion.  I also don’t think you need to give birth to a child to be a mother or love like one.  I don’t doubt that my son’s stepmother loves him and that was never in question. I am blessed she loves him, but no matter how much, she is not his mom.  It’s a classic battle.  We want to love the women who are brought into the lives of our children, but we want them to love us first.  Silly really, but there is no reasoning with a mother when she feels she has to defend her child or herself.  How can she love my child and not love me too?

That sounds ridiculous, but if I am the primary parent of my child, and he is a remarkable human being, then don’t I have something to do with it?  If you love his father and think he’s a great parent, then do you think he is the only reason the child is fantastic?  Respect who and what we are.  None of this applies in the same way when a husband leaves for another woman.  That’s not been my experience but I imagine that makes it all just a little bit worse.  By little bit of course I mean in a huge and profound way.  Watching your life pass on to someone else must be shocking.

Women from both sides of this fence have stories, and we all feel we are being attacked and disrespected.  I believe that so much pain could be avoided if the men involved would buck up and do the right thing.  They can control the situation and more often than not just let it all go to hell.  No two stories, regardless of the similarities, are exactly the same.  We all feel how we do and buttons are pushed by different things.  No matter what I think about my son’s stepmother, I will forever be grateful to her for loving him.  She does the best she can and it is appreciated.

In the end you don’t have to respect a woman in order to love her child.  I’m sure there are cases where even tolerating the mother is impossible, but new wives must try.  I can assure you that it will make your life easier.  More importantly, it gives the children a shot at having peace. If I had to chose between her liking me or loving my kid, then our lives are as they should be.  Moms must cut new wives some slack, and new wives need to back up and approach with caution.  The kids come first, mothers rule, and it’s all a little easier if you keep the faith.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

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Ilana Angel writes two blogs for JewishJournal.com. KEEPING THE FAITH is about her worldview as a single Jewish mother, and KEEPING IT REAL is all about reality television....

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