Last week my friend Jane (not her real name), a fellow stepmum requested that we have coffee as she wanted to share something that had been weighing on her mind for a while. We scheduled our coffee date and as we met at the appointed time, I could see from her face evidence of sleepless nights and a profound sadness.
As we started chatting , I learnt that her pain and sorrow was founded around her stepdaughter’s upcoming wedding. You see, her stepdaughter Louise (not her real name) had chosen her bio mum over her to accompany her for her wedding dress shopping. As if to add insult to injury, Louise had further determined that her bio mom would be the one to walk her down the aisle in church on her wedding day. This was too much for her to take in all at once.
Jane just couldn’t come to terms with Louise’s decisions, particularly given that she, and not the bio mum, had been in Louise’s life for the past 22 years, taking care of her from the time she was 5 years old. The truth of the matter was that Louise’s mother had never played the role of a mother in her life. She made a conscious decision to stay out of her children’s’ lives over the years.
Jane was also angry at her husband for not addressing the issue in the manner she expected. In fact, every time she brought the issue up, her husband acted helpless and seemed incapable of taking any action. He simply made empty promises that he would have a chat with Louise. This only served to compound the feeling of betrayal that was now weighing her down.
Having listened to Jane’s predicament, I chose to calm her down, fully understanding her pain. I empathized with her and her situation and reassured her that her feelings were fully justified on the face of the situation at hand. However, I shared with Jane the other side of that same coin, the reality that Louise’s loyalty was naturally bound to her biological parents.
I inquired from Jane if she had taken time to discuss the matter with her step daughter Louise. It turned out that she actually did and that during their chat, Louise had also shared her predicament over the issue. The fact was that she would have wanted to have both her mums accompany her for her dress fitting and also walk her down the aisle, as these were momentous occasions in her life.
Sadly, her bio mum would have none of that, leaving Louise between a rock and a hard place, torn between Jane (her step mum) and her bio mum. As nature would have it, Louise had made the painful decision of gravitating towards her bio mum. Nothing personal, no malice, just one of those difficult decision points in life.
This took me back to my own backyard, where divided loyalty is not a new phenomenon. I could identify with loyalty conflicts, as my own step kids have faced similar struggles. Some simple instances often present themselves, such as when they happen to be with me and we bump into a close relative of their bio mum. I watch them struggle with the name mum when addressing me and often prefer not to address me by any name. Happily, they seem to be overcoming some of these micro challenges as they grow up and mature, slowly but surely.
Let me borrow the words of Mario Puzo who once said that ‘‘the strength of a family like the strength of an army, it is in its loyalty to each other”.
My advice to fellow step parents is that, when our step children are faced with situations that cause them to got through such conflicts, we need to allow nature to take its course, with no hard feelings, without personalizing such instances.
For Louise’s case, she was just acting in response to her needs. It was only normal for her to want her bio mum to be there during such significant events of her life. To her, having to choose her bio mum over her step mum was not an act of betrayal; after all, she had spent most of her life craving her bio mum’s love and a relationship with her. Therefore this was an opportunity for her to finally start building it.
I also explained to Jane that as much as she was upset at her husband for not engaging the daughter and prevailing upon her to change her mind, she needed to remember that its naturally impossible to force children out of that feeling of loyalty for a bio parent. It is the child’s prerogative to decide to love both; after all, they all occupy different spaces in the child’s heart. The reality is that, children need both parents anyway.
After our long coffee date, Jane walked away feeling much better and equipped to handle the situation having looked at it from a different perspective. She realized that she could chose to be present at her step daughter’s wedding with no expectations beyond those defined by her step daughter.
As stepparents we must remember to respect our stepchildren’s loyalty, as we develop and strengthen new ones…