Q: My husband's previous wife passed on four years ago and left him with two boys, now ages 7 and 9. We have been married for almost two years and also have a little girl who is 6 months old. To round out our family, I recently adopted the two boys. My problem is that their grandmother, his former wife's mother, is incredibly rude to me. Whenever I post things on Facebook about what our family is doing she comments, reminding me that I "am only the stepmom" and telling me about the things her daughter and my husband did before her death. Her other daughters often call me out and I feel like I have to defend myself. I don't know what to do. What's good ex-etiquette?
A: What you are describing is a mother who is still grieving the loss of her daughter, and with your arrival is afraid that her son-in-law and his children will forget her. Unfortunately, her insecurity translates into rude interaction — and that's too bad, particularly for her grandchildren, who have suffered a huge loss and need the adults in their lives to demonstrate love and understanding and offer them as much security as possible. Good ex-etiquette begins with "putting the children first" (ex-etiquette rule No. 1). Undermining you in the eyes of her grandchildren does just the opposite.
Grandma is hurting, but that's no excuse for her bad behavior. As difficult as it will be, relying on good ex-etiquette means that you are not spiteful (ex-etiquette rule No. 5), you don't hold grudges (ex-etiquette rule No. 6) and you use empathy when problem solving (ex-etiquette rule No. 7). You do your best to set the example for these children and don't let Grandma get under your skin. Plus, it will be easier for everyone if your husband sets clear boundaries for Grandma's interaction with the kids.
Something important to note: You are not the boys' stepmother, you are their adoptive mother. Legally, you are Mom, and it would be to your credit if you helped your boys remember their birth mother. Grandma may also respond positively if she sees that you are openly teaching the boys to respect their mother's memory. Ideas might be to make a point to keep a picture of their mother in their room or help the boys remember her on her birthday.
Finally, gracefully combining families is a well-choreographed dance among all the parties, and each person in the family plays an important and necessary role. A vital component to the Bonus Family concept (www.bonusfamilies.com) is to embrace that the more people who love the children in our care, the better. It doesn't have to be either/or (you as opposed to bio mom), it's also.