"My mom wants to have a new family picture taken for Christmas," Tanya shared. "She updates the photo every few years and sends it with her Christmas cards."
"Everything was fine until she mentioned that she doesn't want my stepdaughter, Carissa, in the picture. She only wants 'family'. I told her Carissa is part of our family now that I've married her father," Tanya continued. "My mother shook her head no and said 'I only want 'real family' in the picture."
"I'm in shock and I haven't told my husband, Darrell, yet. He is going to be furious. I don't know what to do."
This is just one of the many complex issues that may arise in stepfamily living. And if the couple didn't attend a seminar or workshop geared to the unique issues that are vastly different than first time marriages before they married, they are likely angry, astonished and ambushed by the stress.
What should a step-mom (or step-dad) like Tanya do?
STAND BY YOUR MAN
The first thing Tanya needs to do is to lovingly tell her mom that she cannot and will not intentionally reject and hurt her husband and her stepdaughter. When she married Darrell he came with a child. And whether mom likes it or not, for the marriage to survive her husband must be Tanya's first priority.
In a non-combative, compassionate manner Tanya must tell her mom that Darrell and Carissa are now her family. Period.
HELP MAMA ADJUST
It probably sounds like I'm throwing mama "under the bus," but I'm not. I totally understand her situation. When my brother remarried a woman with kids it was hard to have new family members. Plus the holidays can be a major trigger for nostalgia.
Mom may just need a bit more time and a deeper understanding of stepfamily life. Giving her a stepfamily resource which explains the complexities may help her to recognize the thorny position and the stress she is placing on her daughter.
ACKNOWLEDGE THE LOSS
All stepfamilies are birthed out of loss. Tanya's mom may be grieving the loss of "the way we were." If Tanya has children her mom may feel she never gets time alone with them anymore. Or she may feel as though she has lost her daughter to this new marriage.
Stepfamilies often try to become The Brady Bunch overnight. And they expect everyone to be happy about it. But there is grief involved.
And it's wise for everyone to maintain some semblance of what used to be. On occasion let grandma have her own biological grandchildren for the night. And Tanya should continue to take her mom out to lunch, just like they used to do before she remarried.
Radically changing everything and expecting the whole family to rejoice about it, is normally what triggers the problem.
A HILL TO DIE ON
The bottom line is Tanya needs to determine what will be "a hill to die on." In other words, what issues can be ignored and when are the times she must stand firm.
Kicking a stepdaughter out of a family photo is one of those hills. Another big issue at Christmas and on birthdays is when grandparents buy extravagant gifts for the grandchildren but not the stepchildren.
Anything that blatantly communicates to the stepchild, "you are less important," which in their little minds says, "you are not loved" is totally unacceptable.
In our family even though I sometimes wanted alone time with my nieces, I always purchased the same gifts equally. And when the opportunity presented itself I worked hard to do special little things for my new niece and nephew to show them how much I love them too.
For example, when Ian played soccer I went to his games and cheered. When Brittany sang in the church choir I told her how her beautiful smile lit up the stage. They frequently had birthday cakes, celebrations, and presents at my home.
Now they are young adults, and all that love and compassion has melted us into one family. They are not my step niece or nephew, they are my own. But it took time.
If Tanya's mom refuses to understand the dynamics of a stepfamily, and the harm associated with alienating Carissa and wounding her Darrell, then the family photo should be taken without Tanya. You can't force family members to understand. All you can do is pray and live a godly example before them.