Ah, Mother’s Day. If you believe the card companies, it’s a day to honor mothers with saccharine sweetness. TV ads and online popups for florists and card companies, jewelry stores and restaurants urge us all to make it a special day for Mom. It’s a holiday of another time when, rightfully or not, it was assumed that everyone was raised by their biological mom.
Here’s the current reality: 4.9 million kids in the U.S. are being raised by grandparents. Another two million or so live with other relatives. Over 400,000 are in foster care. And 60 million are living in a stepfamily situation part- or full-time. That means the majority of the children under age 18 in the U.S. are not living full-time with their biological moms. It also means that there are millions of women who are “Other Mothers,” women who are mothering children who were not born to them.
Whether the entry of another woman into the kids’ lives was due to divorce, desertion, removal, incarceration, addiction or death, the kids know they had or have another mother. Many still have contact. Those who don’t still carry their memories, wishes and fantasies about her. Their loyalty, regardless of whether it makes any objective sense, is often divided. They may appreciate and love the woman who gives them daily care, but most also wish that circumstances were different; that their mother was capable of mothering.
Then along comes Mother’s Day. Fortunate kids are able to honor all the caring women in their lives on Mother’s Day because their biological mother is in healthy contact and the adults support each other in their efforts to help their mutual children thrive. But for some kids, the day triggers a renewed sense of loss. For others, it resurfaces resentments and anger or fear. Others, especially those whose biological mom and mothering caregiver don’t get along, wish the whole day would drop off the calendar.
The day is equally complicated for the Other Mothers. By accepting these children into their homes and hearts, they have been given the opportunity to be in a mothering role of one kind or another but often without all the same rewards. However challenging the situation may be, most Other Mothers work hard to navigate the multiple relationships and multiple demands of an extended family that includes a biological mother who, for a variety of reasons, isn’t able to raise her children full- or part-time or at all. Most of these caretaking women embrace and come to love the children, even when those children are difficult or unable to return their love.
How, then, can we support children who live full- or part-time with Other Mothers to manage Mother’s Day? The best way to help them avoid the anxiety that comes with divided loyalties is for the Other Mother to take charge of what happens that day. Celebrating having these children to love instead of expecting them to bring cards and flowers can artfully accomplish many goals. It gives the children a guilt-free way to remember their biological mother if they want and need to. It demonstrates that there is plenty of love to go around because the caregiver doesn’t compete with their birth mom. And it recognizes that the Other Mother deserves acknowledgement, at least to herself.
If you are an Other Mother, you can make the day special in your own special way. Honor your own mother if it’s appropriate. Then focus on making the day manageable for the kids in your care. Recognize that these kids need an extra dose of love on a day that is, for many, a painful reminder that they don’t live with their mother. Someday, maybe when they are 30, they will come to realize what you have done for them and will express gratitude and love. It’s too much to ask them to do so as children.
Here are four tips for celebrating Other Mother’s Day:
- Make room for the biological mom.
It in no way diminishes your role in the children’s lives for you to encourage their relationship with their biological mother or their grandmother on that side. Unless the biological mom was or is abusive to the kids, make it clear that you support their contact with or memory of their mom. If she is a presence in their lives, help the children pick out cards or make a gift for their mom.
- Make an Other Mother’s Day celebration.
Don’t expect the children to make a holiday for you. Make one for them instead. It needn’t be an elaborate or expensive recognition of the day. Give each of the kids a flower. Make a special breakfast. Toast them with orange juice: “To having you in my life. I’m so glad to be your Other Mother.”
- Recognize the relationship for what it is.
If you are fortunate to have a strong, loving relationship with the children you are mothering, this is easy. Give them an extra snuggle and tell them how much you love them and how happy you are to be in the family. But if your relationship is still evolving or is contentious, go gently.
You can still let the kids know that they are important to you. You can express your commitment to making a family for them. You can acknowledge each of the children for what you have observed to be their strengths and talents. Being “seen” is one of the greatest gifts you can give them.
- Treat yourself.
Mothering someone else’s children, whether full- or part-time, is one of the most loving and challenging things a woman can do, especially if the biological mother is oppositional or if the kids are reeling from loss. You deserve a treat. Make at least part of the day special for yourself by doing something that celebrates you. Give yourself flowers. Ask your partner, a relative or friend to give you a few hours off from parenting to indulge yourself with a nap or just some alone time. Meditate on how having the children in your life has helped you grow in ways that maybe you didn’t expect.
Grandma and grandson photo available from Shutterstock