Q: I have recently remarried and now have four children — two from my wife’s first marriage and two from my first marriage. The problem is my mother. She loves my children very much, but doesn’t really feel my wife’s kids are part of her family. She will bring presents for my kids and forget hers. It’s very hurtful, and I don’t know what to do about it. I’ve spoken to her about it, but she doesn’t seem to take me seriously.
A: It’s not uncommon for people of an older generation to not take stepfamilies seriously. I have faced it in my own life. When I remarried, I also had two bio-kids and two bonus kids, so I, too, had four kids around most of the time. Although my mom acted like she accepted all the kids, when no one was looking she would sneak an extra $50 to my daughter around Christmas time. Of course, being a typical kid, my daughter let the other children know about the extra cash, and then I was left explaining to my bonus kids why my mom really wasn’t that mean. I remember my bonus daughter saying, “That’s the first time I really felt like your stepchild, Jannie.” I was furious with my mother until I thought it through.
Your mother, like mine, probably adores her grandchildren, but may worry that they will feel slighted if she openly includes the new bonus kids in the gift giving. She’s probably at a loss for exactly how to handle it — and if you put it that way, you may now understand why she seems to openly defy your wishes. She doesn’t know what to do. She’s walking the same tight rope bio-parents walk when they try to combine families. How do you show your own child love and not make your bonus children feel like second-class citizens?
It begins with you setting the stage. Have a conversation with your mother that lays the groundwork for what you would like to see. Have patience. Set the example, and know that you may have to repeat yourself many times for your mother to grasp how important this is to you.
Next, grandparents, look for one-on-one time with biological grandchildren when the bonus kids are with their bio relations. That’s a perfect time to go places and do things when it’s just the two of you. Connect when you are not together by phone calls, email, Facetime or Skype. There are also things like trusts or special scholarships that can be set aside for biological relations, so preferences are not openly flaunted.
Remember to include all the kids in the festivities when you do celebrate together. Small gestures go a long way to promote family unity.
Finally, a divorce or separation is never just about the couple breaking up. It has far reaching implications, and everyone needs as much patience and creativity as they can muster to make it work. That includes extended family. You can’t have too many people love a child. That’s good ex-etiquette.
Dr. Jann Blackstone is the author of “Ex-etiquette for Parents: Good Behavior After Divorce or Separation,” and the founder of Bonus Families, bonusfamilies.com. Email her at the Ex-Etiquette website exetiquette.com at firstname.lastname@example.org.