Being a stepmom to adult children whose mother has died

clg080611June 30, 2012

A little less than a year ago, I became stepmom to three adult children. Their mother died almost four years ago from complications from treatment of lung cancer. It was very sudden in that she died just a couple of months after being diagnosed. It was unexpected in that they were actually beating the cancer. Her tumor was shrinking - which ultimately caused her death by tearing the chest wall. She bled to death internally. I didn't know her well but, I did know her and, having lost my own mother to ovarian cancer, I empathize with the pain her children have experienced.

I have tried to be understanding. I've tried my best to let the kids know that they are welcome to talk about her around me, and if they are comfortable doing so they can talk to me about her. Her picture is displayed in our home as are some of her possessions that my husband has chosen to keep. I know she will always be a presence in our lives. She and my husband were together for over 25 years. I don't expect that to just disappear.

This is my first marriage. I don't have any children (and can't have any). I want a good relationship with them. I know I can't be their mom, I can't take her place. I don't even want to try. It wouldn't be fair to them, their dad, her memory, or myself. But, I would like to be their friend.

Instead, I feel like they see me as a threat. A threat to her memory and to their relationship with their dad. There have been a couple of misunderstandings with them in the last few months. I've encouraged my husband to talk to them, without me around, and try to work things out with them. I try to give them time with him alone, and I try to spend time with him and them together.

I don't want to get into a lot of details at the moment. It would result in a quite lengthy post and I just don't have time right now. But, I would like to ask for any advice anyone has to share on how I can get through to these kids (the oldest is 35 and the youngest is 24). How do I help them see that I don't want anything more than to be their friend and find my own place in this family, and to make their dad as happy as he has made me?

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You give them space. You should not force yourself on them nor should you constantly be offering to 'be there for them' to discuss their feelings. You've offered, so far they have declined, let it go. Grief is a very personal thing and each person needs to deal with it in their own way. My father dropped dead (heart attack) totally unexpected at age 55. I was up and down with feelings and grief for quite a while.

There were times I wanted to reach out and share something and times I did not. I was also selective with who I discussed my inner most feelings. Sometimes it would be just something I heard and/or saw that instantly took me back to memories and a time I missed dearly. One of the hardest parts for me with other people trying to be 'helpful' was when they forced themselves on me. Yes, I know whoever it was meant well, were concerned for me and really truly just wanted to reach out and try to help. If nothing else, just listen to me talk. I knew their kind and concerned offer was there, if and/or when I decided I wanted or was ready to take them up on the offer I would or could do so.

You mentioned nothing about the adult children being rude and/or disrespectful. I assume they treat with politely and with respect? If not, that is something their father needs to set straight with them. They can be reserved and somewhat distant (restrained) in opening up and reaching out, but they are to be polite and respectful especially when coming to your (DH/you) home and in your (DH/you)presence.

They had a mother. They loved her dearly. They don't need a another mother (yes, I know you are not trying to replace the deceased mother). You didn't say if you and Dh live in 'the old family home' or not. If you do, something as little as seeing you do something in the home that their mother always did, can spark an instant memory...while it has nothing to do with you yourself it can put a real damper on the visit in the mind of the adult child. Don't take it personal. In these events the adult child should just politely get trhough the rest of the visit and/or qietly excuse theirself with a respectful apology and go home. Under no circumstances should father allow adult child to instead be a rude/disrespectful visitor. He may have to politely ask child to come back when he/she is feeling better. The adult child just may need to go outside and take a short walk. Again, unless the adult child directs the unsettled feeling directory at you and/or their father, you should not take it personally.

Without a bit more as to what the stepkids are or are not doing, I don't know what else I could advise.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2012 at 9:09AM
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I'm an adult stepchild whose mother has died!
I was 18 when my dad remarried, and my siblings were 30, 28 and 26. My SM was a good friend of my mom's and I like her very much.

For our family, the biggest struggle was when my SM wanted one thing for my dad, and one/some/all of us wanted another. It was that we had differing ideas of what was best for him, and it caused us to butt heads from time to time. Once I realized that my SM fundamentally wanted the same things I did, but the details were different, it cleared up a LOT.

Year two was the hardest for us, but it's gotten gradually and naturally better since then.

I've also occasionally felt that my SM was taking up enough of my dad's life that he wasn't putting much into being our dad anymore. I KNOW this isn't a "conscious thing" from her, or even an "unconscious thing," it's just an artifact of how things were when my mom was alive. You see, my mom was the primary parent and she would suggest to my dad that he "ask Ceph about her next semester of classes," or "call up DS to see if he wants help staining his deck - he said they were going to do it next week." Mom kept Dad connected to us; without her he fumbled a lot at staying connected. My SM didn't have that same ability to connect our dad to us, and it was sometimes difficult not to take that personally.

It's hard to give much more help than that from your post, but just be gently persistent, without forcing matters.

    Bookmark   June 30, 2012 at 5:11PM
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Thanks for the responses. I guess I just sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed trying to figure it all out. I wouldn't change a thing about my marriage but, I didn't realize how hard it would be for his family to adjust to my presence. What makes it harder is that my husband always relied on his first wife to guide him in making parenting decisions. Now he wants me to help him and I really can't. Not only do I not have experience as a parent to draw from but, I'm not their parent.
A lot of the recent problems started when my husband decided that his grandkids should start calling me grandma (followed by my first name which I choose not to share at this time). I tried to tell him that he should talk to their parents first and make sure it was okay with them. He insisted that we just start doing it, signing birthday cards and tags on Christmas gifts that way. It took a few months before I realized that the parents didn't realize that this was happening. Tags on Christmas gifts were getting crumpled up with wrapping paper before the parents saw them. The first couple of birthday cards went to older children that were able to read them on their own.
I still wasn't comfortable with it. When I found myself faced with an opportunity to talk to the dad about it, I couldn't pass it up. I told him what we were doing and asked him to let me know if he wasn't comfortable with it so I could talk to my husband about it. He said okay and that was the end of it for almost a month.
It was the day of the next birthday party. My husband and I had shopped for a gift and I had it all wrapped. The last thing to be done was sign the card and then we would head for the party. I was literally in the middle of signing the card when my husbands cell phone rang. It was the kids dad telling him that he wasn't comfortable with the "grandma" thing. My first thought was "now what do I do". I had already written grandma on the card. My husband got angry and decided we weren't going to the party.
I tried to talk him into going by himself and talking the whole thing out with his son but he refused. Of course this led to more hurt feelings. His son posted on facebook about his family not showing up for his sons birthday. That was followed by posts directed at me. The "who do you think you are - you're not my kids grandma or my mother and you never will be" type.
Anyway, things are calmed down now and we went to the next birthday a few weeks ago. We took a gift but no card. My husband has decided that until there is a decision made about what his grandchildren will call me, we just won't give cards. I don't agree but, he's adamant.
What I really want at this point is a chance to sit down with my husband and all three of his kids. I want to ask them what they expect, or want, of me as their dads wife. Maybe there is something they think I should be doing that I have no clue about - something that I would be willing to do if I knew it would make a difference. I don't know if I can make it happen or not. I only know I feel like I have to try to open up the lines of communication between myself and my step-children.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 7:10AM
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Oh my. In my opinion, you need to speak to husband. He is making things harder than need be. Your husband being overly stubborn over the title 'grandma' is going to work against you, not in your favor. Husband can not stomp his foot and demand his grandchildren call you anything other than politely address you by your name. When and if the kiddies choose to call you 'grandma' they will do it on their own (and I don't think the adult children should object if the kids themselves choose to call you this title).

Refusing to go to the party because DH could not sign the card 'grandpa and grandma'? Ouch. It really sounds like you are being very willing to work with everyone involved to make things comfortable and agreeable to everyone's your husband that needs to stand back a bit and let things take a natural course. The kiddies may never call you grandma, but if they are receptive to you and respectful of you they very well may come to appreciate your role in their life. Just because you are not called 'grandma' does not mean you can't have a caring/loving relationship with the kids if they are willing. I think the important thing is the relationship itself and not what you or they call it. If they want to call you Grandpa and _______ , so be it.

The important to me would be that a title does not get in the way of the actual actions and relationship. I would not be offended if I were called _______. I would be offended if Grandpa was called Grandpa and I was called 'hey you' and treated rudely. If I were not wanted to actually participate in the parties and family events or mistreated because I did so, then I'd have issues. Being called _______, I could be happy with. Afterall, bottomline, I not grandmother and should not demand a title they are not willing to share.

My youngest daughter has no living biological grandfather. My mother's SO (22 yr relationship before he passed on)was 'Grandpa' to her. The gentleman helped full a otherwise empty role in her life. But no one made her address him as 'grandpa' and no one made him take on the role of 'grandpa'. It just happened. She crawled up on his lap one afternoon, hugged him and said 'I love you Grandpa'. We (mother and I) never called him anything but his first name to my daughter. She did it all by herself. The gentleman just totally beamed with joy when she took him by surprise by doing so. Mother and I kept our mouths shut and let them have their grandpa/grandchild relationship. No one tried to sway their relationship one way or the other. They chose it, they developed it, we (mother and I) stayed out of it.

That's not to say though that my daughter does not know he was really not her biological grandfather. It does not mean she does not know about my father. I've shared many stories with her about my dad. So did her fill-in 'grandpa'. The gentleman was my father's first cousin and they (the two gentleman) grew up together.

Perhaps your husband needs to quietly discuss things with his children. Kinda one by one he take them out to lunch and just open up to each other. He can't demand things that they are not comfortable with and he can't race things that sometimes just need to take time. An so too, dad needs to realize somethings might never happen. All he can do is expect respect. Both towards himself, towards you and towards your new life together. He also needs to let the adult children know that he is open to discussions with them when/if something arises that they are uncertain of and/or uncomfortable with. I actually suggest some of the attempt at open communication comes just between Dad and the adult children at least to start. I don't think the kids should be put on the spot by having to have a group family meeting (you included in it) where they might say something that would hurt feelings or not feel like they can openly speak ...I think the goal would be to get an understanding between the father and his children, know how each one of them feels, what they are and are not comfortable with. The adult children have to realize that Dad is moving on with his life, there are changes, just like the children need to move on with their life. Life is for the living. While we all have changes in our life and some changes are easier to cope with than others, we can't hold back the blows and hardships life tosses at us and all we can do is work towards making it through the ups and downs as a team aka family.

You sound as if you could be a very positive addition to both dad and the adult step children's life. You just have to take it step by step, one day/event at a time and keep the communication lines flowing. First the first time in being a parent to Dad's children, he may have to learn to make father/child decisions on his own. Sure you and he can discuss issues together, he can ask for your advice, but in the end, Dad has to learn how to be a parent to his adult children on his own just as his children must learn to go on through life now without their mother.

Your situation does not sound hopeless. It just kinda sounds like you all got thrown in these changes in all your life without a roadmap to help guide you through.

Patience, time and a little empathy all around got my sister and I through the unexpected changes we faced. I wish you all the best.

    Bookmark   July 2, 2012 at 9:17AM
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