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Coping With Visits From Unfit Mom

QUESTION: When I met my husband, he was in the midst of a bitter custody battle with his ex-wife. She was a drug addict and an alcoholic. Each time the children came over they were dirty, not fed, and dressed in mom's old clothes which hung off of their seven and eight-year-old bodies. Since then, we have given the girls a sense of stability, provided daily routines such as eating dinner together, and family vacations. Their mother only visits when it is convenient for her. If we say they can't see her, we'll be the bad guys. In the meantime, we haven't had a date ourselves in two years! What can we do?

ANSWER: You have accepted sacrifices as a stepmother that the children's own biological mother failed to make. No wonder you feel resentment! Now she is once more creating waves of aggravation in your family. While it is natural for you to want to cut her out of your life altogether, this course of action would likely multiply your problems, rather than reduce them.

As you have stepped up to the plate and shouldered responsibility for two little girls who were not your own, you have no doubt grown to love them in the process. It must be difficult to see them disappointed by a mother who continues to break her promises to them.

Your stepdaughters' task will be to understand their mother's faulty character. By cutting her out of their life completely, they may end up distorting or idealizing her, resulting in painful acting-out behavior and identity confusion in adolescence or sooner.

Your stepchildren must figure out who their mother is and who she is not. Continued contact with her will allow them to understand their relationship with her. In this way, they will deal with their feelings over time in a realistic, instead of idealized, manner. And they will learn to take charge of their relationship with their mother on terms that will evolve as they mature to adulthood.

It is in their best interests to allow contact, as long as it is not harmful to them. However this does not mean a "carte blanche" approach to her visits. Set appropriate limits with regards to visits. Keep them short and specific, rather than vague and open-ended. For example, encourage them to go with mom to the zoo, or on a picnic, rather than staying overnight with an undetermined return time. You can talk with them about disappointments that occur when their mother cancels an outing, and be willing to mention it to her when she makes future plans to see them. If you have any concern about their safety, you must discuss this with her as well.

Efforts to minimize the adjusting you do to accommodate their mother's visits will yield less resentment when she does not "follow through." Schedule visits so they cause little disruption to you and your stepdaughters if she breaks her promise.

On the other hand, do not make the mistake of being on the front-line to deal with your husband's ex! Give this job to your spouse. It is his responsibility to communicate the boundaries to his children's mother, not yours. Ask him to set limits and carry through on agreements the two of you make regarding the handling of this stressful situation. Stepping into the middle of it all by yourself is a sure-fire way to feel used by everyone, not to mention blamed by all! This is a frequent trap stepmothers fall into which they regret later.

By the way, making a date with your husband is not dependent upon cutting your stepchildren off from their mother. Do not condemn others for your failure to create intimate times with your husband. Follow through on your desire to carve out special time together and protect your relationship by making your marriage a priority!

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Gayle Peterson, MSSW, LCSW, PhD is a family therapist specializing in prenatal and family development. She trains professionals in her prenatal counseling model and is the author of An Easier Childbirth, Birthing Normally and her latest book, Making Healthy Families. Her articles on family relationships appear in professional journals and she is an oft-quoted expert in popular magazines such as Woman's Day, Mothering and Parenting. . She also serves on the advisory board for Fit Pregnancy Magazine.

Dr. Gayle Peterson has written family columns for ParentsPlace.com, igrandparents.com, the Bay Area's Parents Press newspaper and the Sierra Foothill's Family Post. She has also hosted a live radio show, "Ask Dr. Gayle" on www.ivillage.com, answering questions on family relationships and parenting. Dr. Peterson has appeared on numerous radio and television interviews including Canadian broadcast as a family and communications expert in the twelve part documentary "Baby's Best Chance". She is former clinical director of the Holistic Health Program at John F. Kennedy University in Northern California and adjunct faculty at the California Institute for Integral Studies in San Francisco. A national public speaker on women's issues and family development, Gayle Peterson practices psychotherapy in Oakland, California and Nevada City, California. She also offers an online certification training program in Prenatal Counseling and Birth Hypnosis. Gayle and is a wife, mother of two adult children and a proud grandmother of three lively boys and one sparkling granddaughter..

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