It's that time of year when weddings and graduations are in full bloom. Special events that we look forward to and remember all of our lives are popping up everywhere. The truth is that for many divorced parents and stepparents, stomachs are churning, hearts are pounding and nerves are vibrating.
Welcome to the realities of divorced couples and stepfamily life. I don't say this to be negative; Lord knows I don't want to be negative. However, I prefer to err on the side of reality and I've worked with too many divorced couples and stepfamilies to know what disasters these "happy events" can turn out to be. Despite the fact that the focus should be on the children celebrating major life events, fathers with second wives may feel stuck in the middle and stretched in every possible direction, stepparents may be reminded once again that they are the lowest rung on the stepfamily ladder, mothers may be worried that their role will be overshadowed by the stepmother and the bride, groom or graduate may be fretting more about where their parents and stepparents are going to sit than on enjoying their special event.
I CAN'T TELL YOU HOW MANY TIMES PARENTS AND STEPPARENTS HAVE MADE THESE DAYS MORE ABOUT THEM THAN THE CHILDREN THEY ARE SUPPOSEDLY CELEBRATING.
There is a solution to avoid a day of drama and it's quite simple: All involved conduct themselves as actual and bonafide GROWN UP'S.
It has long been my contention that there are many adults walking around but very few grown-ups. What is a "Grown-Up"? A "Grown-Up" is one who is comfortable in their own skin. They have no need to justify, rationalize or explain themselves to others and they have no need to get others to understand them or take care of them. They take complete and total responsibility for their behaviors and they don't take things personally. They don't resort to manipulation, drama, yelling, crying or issue demands in order to get their way. They also know that they are not the only person on the planet and are able to make objective assessments of difficult situations, especially emotionally laden ones such as events where the presence of two divorced parents are required.
First, I'd like to talk to the stepparents. Mature stepparents recognize that the graduate, bride and groom usually have a Mom and a Dad who have spent their lives looking forward to these special days. Too often, when planning the event, children get tugged and pulled in every direction to make sure that the parents and stepparents involved don't get their feelings hurt.
As stepparents, you've probably learned the hard way that you can't control the exes, the kids, or even your spouse (nor should you be able to). What I am suggesting to you, as the stepparent, is that you take your wisdom and sense of self-protection into these events. I encourage you to choose to willfully and proactively step out of the spot light and focus on your spouse's child and their special day. If that translates into sitting at another table for a bit, giving your stepchild opportunities to take a photo with just their Mom and Dad, and ignoring any potentially hostile stares or glances from your spouse's ex, you will be both liberating and protecting yourself. A mature stepparent understands that the "Special Day" isn't about them or that a graduation or wedding serves as an opportunity to prove their position in the family. Stepparents know it's about contributing to creating a stress-free joyous event for the child who is being honored or the couple getting married.
As for those of you who are the divorced parents of the bride, groom or graduate, be aware of any baggage or tension you are carrying from unresolved issues from the past. Be honest with yourself if you are holding resentment for your ex and or their current partner. These events are not opportunities to "get even" with your ex. When divorced parents are present, tension and apprehension can thicken the air. The guests attending these events are very aware that there is a divorced couple and often new spouses in attendance. Because humans tend to be human, the entire family is often put under a microscope on those special days. Guests notice where the Mother-of-the Bride and the Father-of-the-Bride are seated. They notice if a divorced couple is glaring at one another, a stepmother or stepfather is being out of line if they make long speeches extolling the virtues of children they didn't raise or insisting on making toasts that may be usurping the parents' own toasts.
It's not uncommon for brides and grooms to want their divorced parents at the wedding party table, asking that their parent's spouse or partner sit at separate tables. Based on the reactions of some of the stepparents I've worked with, you'd think they were being exiled to the furthest points of Siberia. We can debate the unfairness of this all we want but I'd rather once again err on the side of reality. Research strongly shows that events like weddings and graduations stir up all kinds of stepfamily discomfort. Stepmothers who thought they had close relationships with their stepchildren may be relegated to some corner table because of the child's natural loyalty binds to their mother. Stepfathers who spent more time parenting than the "real" fathers are told that the absent father is getting the honor of walking the bride down the aisle. Being part of a divorced family and/or stepfamily can often require a modicum of humility on the parts of everyone.
So can someone please ask, "What about the bride? What about the groom? What about the graduate? Does anyone care what THEY want since this is supposed to be about them?"
3 Quick Sure Fire Tips For Divorced Parents and Stepparents To Enjoy the Special Day:
1. Be A Grown Up.
2. Leave your ego at the door.
3. Don't make the event about you.
Wedding days, graduations, the birth of grandchildren...these are all huge life events that should be celebrated with joy and happiness. But the fact of the matter is that when it comes to the natural complications of divorce and stepfamilies, tension between ex-wives and new wives, ex-husbands and new husbands and friction between ex-spouses...all can conspire to ruin a special occasion for the children involved and that just isn't right, fair or mature.
No one's day should be ruined because the adults in their lives couldn't manage to be Grown Ups.
Follow Mary T. Kelly, M.A. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/mwbaggage