Mother’s Day should be simple. Dad helps kids make cards and serve mom breakfast in bed. Or everybody takes her to brunch and calls it a day. Unless your family has multiple “moms” — stepmothers, grannies, stepgrannies, great-grannies, maybe an aunt or two.
With divorce, remarriage and longevity part of the equation, the proliferation of mother figures is no surprise. But it means that Mother’s Day can get complicated.
Helping kids navigate the challenge, experts say, is best handled when parents sort out their own issues with all these “moms” ahead of time.
“It is OK for a child who has a mom and a stepmom to feel connected to both. If they are competing with each other, then it is the adults who put that kid in a terrible triangle,” says Evan Imber-Black, director of marriage and family therapy at New York’s Mercy College. “What kind of relationships do they value their child having?”
By addressing such issues early in the marriage or divorce process, Imber-Black says, “you can save yourself a ton of grief later if you can say, ‘You know what? The more people that love my child the better.’ ”
Even if they don’t see these mother figures often, she adds, children “need a way to experience that they are connected to these people, … and they don’t need to have them bad-mouthed by other grown-ups in their midst, which happens unfortunately all too much when there are divorces.”
Parents bad-mouthing their own parents in front of the kids has consequences too.
“It puts [parents] in a sibling relationship with their children and also diminishes the dignity of their relationship with their parent, which invites their child, unwittingly, to diminish the authority and the dignity of their own parents,” says Wendy Mogel, a clinical psychologist and author of The Blessing of a B Minus and The Blessing of a Skinned Knee (Scribner).
So you agree to having multiple moms and grannies in the picture. How do you handle all the characters in this drama? Use it to teach children about differences.
“People are not mythical beings in terms of ‘Here’s this role called grandma, and in our head she’s baking cookies.’ Maybe she’s a Wall Street executive, or maybe she’s a crank. I think that’s OK,” says Imber-Black.
“Mother’s Day stuff and any visits with grandparents can be a nice opportunity to help kids to know you show respect, you show caring, especially if somebody is aging, and that it’s OK to notice among us that there are differences.”
A little pre-holiday parent-child role-playing may help, says Mogel.
“For instance, if a grandparent does something that’s unbearable to that particular child, the parent can say, ‘If Grandma asks, ‘Do you have a boyfriend?’ the parent can say, ‘We can figure out an answer together in advance. I know that Grandma asks you these kinds of questions and you feel kind of on the spot. And I’m happy to plan this with you.’ ”
Most importantly, says Mogel, don’t get swept up in a pre-Mother’s Day anxiety-peer pressure-retail whirlwind. Instead, think about how you want to celebrate.
“This is something for the parents to figure out together and for the kids not to be weighing in on too much,” she says.