By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
Several years ago I met a wonderful man and we got married. This was a second marriage for both of us—he was a widower and I a divorcée. He has several children from his marriage and I have several as well. (I am trying not to give away too many details.) Though it has not been an easy road, we have arrived at a peaceful and respectful place in which his children and my children can honestly say that we are a unified family.
This was no easy task, but we worked hard at it. We went for family therapy, and I went for my own personal therapy to figure out how not to take on the role of “mother” to my stepchildren—no easy feat for me because I am instinctually a maternal person. But I have learned that these children have lost their mother and I am learning how to honor that and not step over any boundaries. Honestly, I didn’t know that we would ever get here, but here we are.
The problem lies within my relationship with my in-laws, and that is what I am writing in about. I should mention that my husband’s former in-laws (my stepkids’ grandparents) are wonderful tzaddikim who not only tolerate me but have expressed their gratitude for my raising of their grandchildren. They have lived through unfathomable pain and I don’t know how they pick their heads up in the morning, let alone visit our home and see me doing what their daughter should be doing right now.
My in-laws, however, couldn’t be more the opposite of them. I open my home to them and I am the perfect daughter-in-law. I bite my tongue when they compare my cooking to their former daughter-in-law’s. They come for Shabbos, bite into my challah and remark about what delicious challah the kids’ mother used to make. It feels very disrespectful to me.
I hold back when they tell me to un-involve myself from whatever the latest situation is with my stepkids. They have an issue with me taking the kids to the doctor. It is reaching the point where I can feel myself about to explode. How much can I take of their comments? My husband tells me that they loved his first wife like a daughter and mourned for her like their own child. He tells me they are hurting and that he appreciates my tolerance of this delicate situation. When he tells me that, it quiets me down really fast. But I don’t know how to manage this anymore. Thanks.
Hurt and Frustrated
Dear Hurt and Frustrated,
First, I must acknowledge the blood, sweat, and tears you have put into this beautifully blended family. The dedication and devotion, the tender love and care you feel for all of your children, are admirable and speak to your character. I commend the hard work that you, your husband, and the children have poured into the blended family unit. As anyone who has attempted to blend two families knows, yours is not an easy situation. Not only have you toiled to unify the family, you have toiled with yourself, fighting your natural urges to mother your stepchildren—something that may feel as natural as breathing to you.
Beyond all that, you have admirably carved out a place for your husband’s first wife. By not mothering these children, it feels as though you have made space for the memory of her as a respected family member. Additionally, you seem to genuinely understand the delicate emotions of all parties involved and have tried to be as respectful as possible to your husband, children, stepchildren, and both sets of your stepchildren’s grandparents. You have taken several tall orders and you fulfill your obligations beautifully.
Before we address the in-laws, I’d like to take a look at the communication between you and your husband. When your husband tells you that his parents are hurting and expresses his appreciation of your tolerance, you are immediately silenced. I wonder what is silencing you. How do you feel about his lack of action and setting of boundaries with his parents? Are you in agreement with him? Do you disagree but turn a blind eye so as not to disrespect his first wife?
It is important that you understand what is motivating your silence. When you acknowledge and understand the emotions that are silencing you, I think you’ll have a better chance of managing the situation. I’d like you to complete the following sentence without thinking about it too much. “I can’t express my feelings to my husband because I fear . . .” Whatever you are anticipating is part of what is keeping the status quo intact. The other part is the anticipation (and maybe fear) itself.
If your husband doesn’t know how you feel, then things will most likely not be dealt with. Do you feel you need to choose between honoring his first wife and ignoring insulting remarks such as “Her challah was so good”? You do not have to choose between the memory of his first wife and your integrity. They can coexist as they do when your in-laws are not around. Your in-laws are entitled to miss their first daughter-in-law and grieve as much as need be. What they should not be entitled to is a free pass to make insensitive remarks that may humiliate you and perhaps leave you feeling angry, alone, and isolated at your Shabbos table.
If your in-laws haven’t been told already, I think it is your husband’s duty to speak to his parents about this matter. His parents need to hear from their son that while he honors their grieving and emptiness at the loss of their beloved daughter-in-law, he is happy now with you and he would like them to stop the blatant comparisons and inappropriate remarks made publicly. If he won’t do it or is unable to do it, take pause and assess your next move. It may have to come from you at some point.
I have another idea, though I can’t know if this is feasible. You mentioned your stepchildren’s maternal grandparents. I guess tzaddikim really do live amongst us. Their strength is astounding. I wonder if it would be of any benefit for the two sets of grandparents to have a meeting in which the maternal grandparents share their story of pain and sorrow, strength and fortitude, and their ability and willingness to welcome you, the stepmother of their daughter’s children.
I genuinely admire your dedication to this unified family you and your husband have worked hard at creating. You are an example to all of us. I wish you peace and happiness. I wish your in-laws peace of mind and healed hearts as well. At the same time, if they never understand what a wonderful woman you are or admire your many qualities and if they never come to appreciate what you have attempted to do for their grandchildren and son, it is truly their loss.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.