A stepparent's role is not that of a biological parent, but of a real parent nonetheless. WOWs (Wives Of Widowers) should not be quick to replace the late wife as a mother, but to become to the child the closest thing to a mother he or she has got. The WOW who loves her husband accepts that his children are a part of him, which leads her to want to love them, too. Caring for another person's child(ren) is a calling whose role not everyone can play, but I believe that if the desire, respect, and love exist, the WOW will learn to love the widower's children, and they her. Knowing intimately the sorrow and pain these children have endued in the past, the WOW wants only the best things in life for her stepchildren's present and future, and desires an active role in helping them to grow and mature into emotionally healthy, productive adults.

Lay The Groundwork BEFORE The Wedding

Being a WOW stepmother has its own unique challenges because death has touched the widower's kids' lives in a profound way, and often changes the family dynamics even before the WOW enters the picture.

The best way to tackle potential step parenting problems is before the family is joined in remarriage, with good family communication, or family counseling with an accredited family counselor or minister. Without addressing potential problems up front, the WOW may be unfairly placed in a situation which she is ill-equipped to handle. Again, researching and understanding grief, especially children's grief issues, will prove to be vital in your new role as a stepparent.

In foregoing premarital family counseling, WOWs will be faced with young children who have experienced the death of a parent and may view their surviving parent's remarriage as a betrayal of their beloved mother. They may do their best to make the WOW's transition into the family fold a difficult one. Also, a WOW may feel as if she is playing an emotional tug- of-war between her husband and her stepchildren. She feels placed in the middle, and finds it hard to accept that her role is undefined and often unwelcome.

The Biggest WOW Stepmom Challenge

Most WOWs tell me that if they had to pinpoint one thing they've had to put up with as a stepmother, it would be the extent to which their husbands have overprotected his children. More often than not, a widower feels that he must become for his children their "emotional everything" since the cornerstone of their family unit - their mother - was lost. If the children have not had grief counseling or other counseling of any kind, they are prone to fits and starts when it comes to dealing with their emotional maturity, sense of well-being, and security.

Many times, mostly out of necessity, widowers with minor children have had to assume the role of both father and mother after the late wife passes away. However, this can sometimes create problems when the WOW enters their lives. A widower feels sorry for the children's loss of their mother. Although kind-hearted and well-meaning, his overprotective nature, and the resulting damage to the children's emotional growth, can sometimes give rise to inappropriate behaviors by his children, including the inability to express themselves properly, a confused sense of "family" and their role in it, or an inability to deal with the opposite sex in appropriate ways.

My WOW friend "Susie" explains her 17year old stepdaughter's behavior this way:

"Her way of showing anger is through passive aggression and manipulation. I really feel that, had she been given an appropriate outlet for her anger, grief and sadness, she would be a healthier person, emotionally. He overly pitied her and didn't want her to feel sad, so grief was never discussed in their home before I came along. My husband smothered her with his overprotection, and as a result, she did not have the opportunity to get in touch with her feelings."

My Best Friend - Dad!

The widower and his daughter sometimes experience a change in their former "father/daughter" relationship because of their mutual loss of the emotional "rock" of their lives. They sometimes turn to each other and assume the role that is missing in the other's life. In other words, the daughter may take on the role of the wife and/or mother, while the widower takes on the role of the mother and/or best friend of his daughter.

Susie goes on to discuss her husband and his daughter:

"Since his wife died 6 years ago, my husband has treated his daughter as though she were an adult, so she came to see herself as a peer to her dad to the point where she even took on the role of parent to her younger brother. This was inappropriate of him to do. His daughter lost her mom, and then she sort of lost her Dad, too, since he stopped being a father figure and started being a pal."

When the WOW enters their lives, the children's repressed and unresolved emotions are often outwardly exhibited in the form of jealousy, competitiveness, or feeling that they must protect their father from any further pain as well. They view the WOW as a threat, more than a helpmate, to her husband. And they fear that the WOW will monopolize their father's love and time, leaving them nothing at a time when they are most confused about their father's moving on with his life and remarrying.

Another WOW friend, "Janine", still struggles with the fallout of her 16 year old stepdaughter's grief in relation to the child's father:

"To this day, my stepdaughter has a tendency to want too much "alone time" with her father. She doesn't want anyone else around when she is talking to him, just like the old days when he devoted all his attention to her. There is definitely a possessive element to her relationship with him. Sure, I want them to have a close relationship, and I am not jealous of the time they spend together. It's just that I look at them from an "outsider's" point of view. From my vantage point, I feel that my stepdaughter's hold on her father is not healthy, even though it is understandable because of their mutual grief. And yet, how does a WOW express her concerns regarding this issue without sounding possessive herself?!"

What a horrible term, "emotional incest" - but that's precisely what it is. The daughter begins to see herself as a partner in the household, while the father may unintentionally encourage it because of his own emotional needs, his fear, and his guilt-parenting.

Daddy's Little Girl

Susie agrees that emotional incest is a problem in her life as well, and adds another aspect - that of worrying about her stepdaughter's relationship with other men in the girl's life:

"I also fear that my stepdaughter will have trouble in her future relationships with men, and I believe that this is also a direct result of her mother's death and her dad's subsequent handling of all things emotional and behavioral. She has grown so accustomed to living in a home with 2 males who pretty much put up with anything she did, that she is already having trouble getting along with the opposite sex. In the past year, she has had three relationships that were more than platonic. Every one of them ended almost before they had begun, and she has blamed the males every time. They are either not attentive enough, not loving enough…always somehow lacking. I feel that she has unrealistic expectations with regard to men, like she expects men to treat her the way her dad has for years. And I also think there is some confusion with her feeling that she is being disloyal to her dad by going out with guys. I say this because my husband has treated his daughter more like a pseudo-partner than a daughter before I came along."

The Teenaged WOW Stepson

Sons of widowers are often not as conflicted as a whole, but still have issues unique to their gender depending on their age at the time of loss. Everyone has watched an old western movie and cringed when the bereaved widow turns to her small son and says, "Well, looks like you're the man of the house now!", imposing an unnecessary and life-altering burden on the child. But even without it being said out loud, a widow or widower's son, especially a teen or preteen, will sometimes assume that role without being asked. In doing so, the child not only becomes an instant adult, but is forced to forge ahead without dealing with his own grief appropriately. He regards his grieving father compassionately but unrealistically as an emotional cripple, and feels it necessary to be the stronger male in the house in order to hold it all together. Sometimes a widower subconsciously allows this, as he feels his burden ease somewhat because of his son's take-charge attitude. This, in turn, breeds a son who now feels such a strong commitment and responsibility to his father, brothers and/or sisters that he sacrifices his youth for them. When the WOW enters this family dynamic, she often finds it difficult to deal with a new stepson who is still a child, but who suffers from major control issues.

My WOW friend "Gail" speaks of her relationship with her stepson this way:

"My stepson was 15 years old when his father and I met. Looking at him, I would have correctly guessed his age. But speaking to him, and watching him interact with his family and with other adults, I would have thought he was 30 years old! He has no buddies to speak of, since he finds them boring and immature. Small wonder! This boy has been forced to be a man since he was 12 years old, since his mother's death! He feels out of place in the world. Now that he has graduated from high school, he has the grades to go to any ivy league university of his choosing, but he doesn't want to go! He feels that his family needs him, and that our home is where he belongs."

"When his father and I had our first date, my now-stepson actually told us what time to be home! I looked to his father to correct him, but my now- husband just said, 'OK, son. Will do'. Then, after we had been going out for a few weeks, I noticed that my husband's son actually took care of all the household expenses and paid the bills, and often cooked dinner. He even screened his sister's dates! This is not appropriate behavior for a child, and his father has just gone along with him. My husband has felt that allowing my stepson to assume an adult role in the house has taught him responsibility, so he has encouraged it. But I can see the damage this has done to the boy."

Mommy's Little Boy Lost

Little boys under the age of 12 have their own issues as well. Unfortunately, they are raised in a society that scorns a man's tears, so while a little boy may grieve the loss of his "mommy", he does so privately, so as not to incur the snickers and taunts of his peers should he outwardly show his emotions. This burying of grief emotions is unhealthy, especially if the widower who cannot handle the sadness of his children rules that any discussion of grief or of their dead mother will not be tolerated in the home.

When a WOW marries a widower with such a son, she represents to the boy a sure sign that his mother is indeed gone forever, thus ending his dream of being reunited with her. Also, he may feel confused, thinking that perhaps Daddy didn't really love Mommy if he was so eager to replace her. At that point, his grief, no matter how long his mother has been gone, may increase. The WOW may then be dealing with a boy who is resentful of her presence, and act out in naughty behavior. He may truly want to love and accept the WOW, but thinks doing so betrays his beloved mother and may also put him at risk of losing another "mother" as well.

Sometimes, a WOW's stepson of this age presents an opposite behavior and becomes possessive of the WOW. He has yearned for a mother substitute and all the wonderful "warm and fuzzy" feelings he remembers from his mother. In his desperation to be loved, especially by a new mother, he manipulates her time and smothers her with his affections and attention. He feels a need to possess her, thinking that his love can shield her from death. And often, he is confused about his father's love of her, viewing it as a competition for her.

Dad's Emotional Roller Coaster

Another WOW issue regarding step parenting is often about the widower himself. While he may love his new wife dearly, he carries with him an enormous amount of guilt, more often than not imposed upon him by the children themselves or perhaps by the children's mother's family: he struggles with everyone's lack of approval of his new wife and with trying to please everyone in a household where no one is in agreement. When it comes to the WOW, his heart breaks when his precious little ones cry, "But she's NOT my mother!", or "Why do we need HER? We were just fine before SHE came along!", or "You can't make me love her!". He deals with his own grief issues while the guilt feeds his idea of selfishness for deciding to love again since it is apparently hurting his children so. He also wonders if he has indeed betrayed his late wife by loving again. And the guilt goes on.

Perhaps he also misses the loving family unit that once was since his new household may be in such a negative upheaval. He may find it hard to relinquish the overprotective role he is so used to playing to "side" with his children, relegating the WOW to a lower rung on the family ladder than that of the family dog. He may even believe that his loyalties lie with his "real family" - his children - and that any perceived interference as the WOW takes her place in the family as a disciplinarian or loving mother figure may anger him or confuse him even further.

Communication = Hope!

While not every step parenting situation in WOWdom will be as negative as these WOW's, it is best to be prepared for the worst case scenario, do your research, find a qualified family therapist, and communicate with frank, open discussions with the adults and children in the family as soon as and often as possible.

It helps immensely if the WOW and her husband create a united front for the children, but the road to such skillful parenting must be precipitated by intense communication between the WOW and her husband, especially before the wedding. It is then that the WOW's role as a stepmother will begin to be defined, and then implemented, in unison with her husband.

(Copyright 2002, Julie Andersen)

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