How To Cope With Different Parenting Styles

Dear Kate,

My children’s father married in September. As their wedding approached, he asked the kids what they wanted to his new wife, and pushed them to call her “S’mom for “stepmom”. I didn’t (and don’t still) love it and asked if there was another name we could come up with that wasn’t a derivation of mom. My son said he was going to call her Miss Melanie.

Last night, during my nightly call, my son told me that he had called his stepmother Miss Melanie and his dad had given him a consequence. I don’t think that’s fair!

I’m beyond myself in terms of how to respond to this. How I can talk to my son about this and be supportive and loving even when I’m not there? I have, in the past, tried to not parent during the time the kids are with their father, but this feels like something I want to talk to him about.  What do you think?

Jennifer


Dear Jennifer,

I understand why you’re upset.

One of the most difficult parts of coparenting is watching something you don’t agree with unfold and affect your child.  Billy and I have so much coparenting practice and I am still tripped up by this more often than I’d like.  He often does things I don’t agree with, and I am sure the reverse is also true. We are different people and we parent our children differently.  Ultimately two examples of loving parents will benefit them, but navigating day to day can be challenging, as it was for you last night.

Generally, I let style differences slide.  Bath night, dinner time, and the amount of TV watched on Saturday morning are style issues, not safety issues. Occasionally, though, I feel the need to intervene.

Here’s how I think about involving myself in what is happening in the other house. Full disclosure:  this works best if I’ve had a day or two to calm down.

First, I consider whether I have the full story.  I’ve seen my kiddos tell their father something on the phone that doesn’t represent the full picture of what happened.  They’re not lying, necessarily.  They’re simply reporting their perspective, colored by emotion and impact of the event.  I always assume the same is happening to me when I call.

If a child complains about something at the other home, I gently ask if there’s more to the story.  This is tough, because I don’t want to put a child in the position of reporting between parents.  I ask if there’s anything else that might have contributed to what happened, if there’s something they might be forgetting or overlooking.  Kids are still growing and learning and it’s in their nature to report the facts as they see them. Encouraging them to think broadly about a situation can help add color and detail to the picture for both of you.

Second, I consider whether this is a one-time event or if it has happened before or is likely to recur. If it’s not likely to happen again, I let it go.

Third, I encourage the kids to talk their father directly if they are uncomfortable.  I don’t tell them what they say.  I don’t label how they feel. Rather, I ask “how might you talk to dad about this?”  If they say they can’t or don’t want to, I ask what needs be true for them to feel more comfortable.   I remind them he and I are the founding members of their fan clubs and want the very best for them.  I focus on building their confidence in addressing difficult topics overall (a really important life skill) rather than coaching the actual conversation.  I support them in owning the conversation, because this is ultimately their relationship with the other parent.

Finally, I wait for the children to ask me to talk to their father.  If my child has already tried to speak with Billy about something and feels like it didn’t worked, or is very uncomfortable, I have occasionally spoken to Billy myself about it.  Just like you, I try not to do this often; it happens less than once a year.

If I do speak to Billy about a situation he and the kids are navigating, I have the conversation in person.  I avoid text or email, because it’s too easy to be misinterpreted.  I leave our marital issues at the door.  I start with positive intent, often reminding him that I know he’s a good dad and wants what’s best for the kids. I don’t involve his wife – she’s awesome and I trust her, but it is up to him to involve her as he sees fit. I don’t have the conversation in front of the kids or even in situations where they might overhear me.  I focus on what the child has relayed as the issue, and caveat it as such.

“Simon mentioned a conversation the two of you had recently that he doesn’t feel great about.  I encouraged him to come to you, and he thinks he’s tried.  I don’t know if that’s the case, and certainly know I don’t have the full story.  I thought it might be helpful for you to hear what he shared with me, because it might help you see where the two of you are missing each other.  I’m happy to have you handle it as you see fit.”

Even after all the forethought, it sometimes doesn’t go well. This is tricky stuff.

That’s my answer to the question you asked.  It only applies to parenting style differences of course. If you ever believed your child was being hurt or in danger, you should address that with your ex quickly, involving counselors and other professionals as necessary.

The rest of this is advice you didn’t seek, but I am hoping might help your heart, new friend.

You might be inadvertently making this harder on your sweethearts. That is hard for me to even say, because I know that you love them more than you love yourself.  I say it with nothing but compassion and empathy for where you are.  I’ve been there. But it’s true.  If your son knows you are uncomfortable with him calling his stepmother a derivative of mother of any kind, and he knows that his father wants him to, he is stuck.  He must choose between you.

Only you and his dad can free your sweet boy from that tangle, and you only control you.

As a divorced mom, I also worried about being replaced when Billy remarried.  As a stepmother, I know I don’t want to replace my stepchildren’s mother.  I want them to love her like crazy and be comfortable knowing me too.  The truth is, I couldn’t replace her if I tried. I am a full-grown adult and can still recognize my mother’s scent on the street if a stranger walks by wearing her perfume. You are and will always be mama to your babies.

Let me tell you a secret about Miss Melanie. She wants to do the right thing for your children.  She is taking her role as their father’s wife seriously.  I know that because I take my stepmother role seriously and have yet to find a stepmom who doesn’t.  But I also know that because Miss Melanie has done her research.  Smom is a phrase coined by a stepmother support and education site, CafeSMom.  She didn’t make it up.  She’s trying.

So, here’s what I think, Jennifer.  I think maybe you free your boy from the idea that you don’t want him to call someone else mom.  Not today, because your heart will need some time to get used to this idea.  Maybe not even until next month – holidays are so hard.  Just think about it for a bit.  Know that you will always be first for him, and he knows your love in the DNA of his every cell.  Know that Miss Melanie is trying.  Know that freeing him will take him out of the middle of this grown-up stuff and keep him safe.

Then, when you’re ready, tell him.  Tell him that you’ve thought about it, and you want him to be comfortable everywhere he calls home.  That you want him to be able to know and accept love in all its forms.  That kids sometimes need a mom in each house and you’d be happy if one day he felt like he could love Miss Melanie in that way.  That you know loving Miss Melanie doesn’t have anything to do with loving you. Remind him more love is always better.  He might not believe you at first, so tell him more than once.  Mean it. Set him free.

Sending you all the love and strength I have,

Kate

Names have been changed to protect privacy.  Responses are Kate Chapman’s opinions, shaped by her personal experience as a divorced mom, a stepmom, and a professional coach.  Those opinions should not replace readers seeking professional support as needed. Kate Chapman is not a licensed therapist.  By submitting a question, readers agree to hold Kate Chapman and This Life in Progress harmless.  
By | 2017-06-06T09:07:10+00:00 December 14th, 2016|Ask Kate, Blended Family Tips, Coparenting, Divorce|

2 Comments

  1. The Sanity Plan December 14, 2016 at 10:42 am

    Great advice Kate. This is a tough one! My husband really struggled with this one when his daughter’s mom insisted that their child’s stepfather be titled “daddy so-and-so.” Unfortunately, this often becomes a power struggle, and the kids get dragged along for the ride.

    • Kate December 14, 2016 at 3:37 pm

      I hear you! So many things in divorced/coparenting/stepparenting/blending life get bogged down by grown-up emotions. It’s hard on everyone involved. What a terrific dad your husband is to see through all that.

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