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Finding Serenity on Mother’s Day in your Blended Family

It's pretty ironic that the day that Anna Jarvis (the founder of Mother’s Day) wanted to set aside to honor “the person who has done more for you than anyone in the world,” can morph into a day of emotional and relationship disaster for so many families.

I had big plans on my first Mother’s Day as a stepmom. I wanted to make sure that my new step-daughters and their mom knew that I fully accepted that I wasn’t the Bio Mom. I helped the girls to make personalized frames for the professional photos I’d had taken of them. I also took the girls to a craft store and let them pick out another gift to make for their mom. I carefully wrapped everything on their behalf. When Bio Mom arrived to pick up her daughters, we handed off the girls and the gifts…and got nothing in return. Bio Mom didn’t say thank you. She wouldn’t even look us in the eyes. The girls said goodbye, and that was the last I heard about Mother’s Day until the following year. I was hurt not to be recognized for my efforts on that day and all the other days they spent with me.

Over the next 12 years, my husband valiantly tried to rally support for celebrating me on the Saturday before Mother’s Day. But honestly, I was ambivalent. I didn’t feel like a mother. The girls didn’t see me as a mother. And frankly, all the pretending on the day before Mother’s Day made me feel worse about the awkwardness I continued to experience with my stepdaughters. I’ve since discovered that I wasn’t alone in that feeling.

The reality is that Mother’s Day is an emotional minefield for all kinds of women. It’s painful for women without children. It’s painful for women who have bad relationships with their children. It’s painful for women who have bad relationships with their mothers. It’s painful for women whose families don’t have money for cards, meals, or gifts. It’s painful for women whose adult companion is busy working…or busy golfing…or just busy not being present. And it’s definitely painful for stepmoms and the people who love them. By my calculations, that leaves about ten women in the whole United States who get super pumped about celebrating Mother’s Day. For the rest of us, there will always be at least a tinge of disappointment.

Maybe the best advice for how to get through Mother’s Day in a blended family is contained in this hundred-year-old prayer:

Accept the Things You Cannot Change

Mother’s Day is just…awkward when dealing with blended families. Unless everyone involved is ego-free or best friends, there may not be a way to get through this holiday without some hurt feelings. Bio Mom may feel slighted if her children want to call stepmom on Mother’s Day. A stepmom may feel snubbed if the kids want to spend the day with their Bio Mom. The kids probably feel torn. And spouses or significant others are walking on eggshells trying to figure out how to get through the day without setting off World War III with an ill-considered slip of the tongue.

If you’re a woman on this day, please, do everyone a favor and change your expectations. Accept the fact that this is going to be a hard day. Your family may remember you in a meaningful way—or they may not. Try to stay focused on your gratitude to be in a family unit that you’re working on getting to a healthy place. If you can do that, you’ll be able to hike the peaks and valleys of this day with a lot more stamina.

Change the Things You Can

After accepting what can’t be changed, determine what’s possible within your situational boundaries. If the stepchildren will be with Bio Mom, do you want to celebrate on a different day? If so, then pick a day and do it. There's actually an official Stepmother's day on the third weekend of May if you want to celebrate then.

Or maybe you are in a place where you want to plan a joint family celebration where the kids get to honor all the moms in their lives. If you and Bio Mom can check the diva at the door and don’t mind sharing the spotlight, go out to lunch together.

Or maybe you don’t want any kind of celebration. If the whole thing is too painful, that’s OK. Talk to your significant other and make that clear.

Like a lot of things in blended families, setting expectations is critical. Telling people what you want is not pushy; it’s communication. On the other hand, asking people to show how much they love you by guessing what you want sets everyone up for disappointment.

If you’re the significant other on this day, ask your partner how they want to be treated on Mother’s Day. (This may unleash a tidal wave of grief, longing, and anger from your loved one.) The best gift you can give your partner at this moment is to listen. Don’t try to fix it. Don’t offer to knee cap your Ex. Just listen. Respond empathetically. And then work together to develop a plan that works within the boundaries of what’s possible.

You are not powerless. If you can’t change anything else, you can change how you react to what’s going on.

Find the Wisdom to Know the Difference

Mother’s Day will look different depending on your circumstances. Try not to spend too much time this weekend wishing things were another way. And definitely don’t overthink this. If things go differently than you want, try not to take it personally. See it for what it is: a day with many competing interests, responsibilities, and joys.

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