Q: Six months ago I married a man who shares equal custody of his two children with their mother. I am happy to say I get along well with the kids, and they love me to go to their recitals, open house and parent-teacher conferences. I have read your column for years, so their dad and I are always careful to tell their mother in advance when I will be attending. She still gets very angry and has told us on many occasions that she does not think it appropriate that I attend. Do we go at her pace or at the kids' pace? What's good ex-etiquette?
A: This is a really good question — with some red flags — which I will get to in a second.
To begin, the first rule to good Ex-Etiquette for Parents is "Put the children first." Therefore, my answer will start with the kids' feelings but also take mom's feelings into account. If the kids are asking you, then it's important to attend. However, do it with some discretion. It's difficult to get adjusted to an ex remarrying — and six months is not that long.
Although you see the kids taking to you in such a short time as a compliment, it might be too fast for Mom, especially if you are now taking on some of the responsibilities that she has always performed.
For example, even though Dad and Mom are divorced, Mom felt like she had a handle on things because she had to remind Dad to have the kids shower when they were with him. Now that you are around she no longer has to do that because you are up on their personal hygiene. As small as that sounds, the fact that you are taking over that duty could really irritate a newly divorced mom who has always been the primary caregiver — and if you are good at it, that's a double whammy. You could be stepping on toes without even knowing it. So, if she's acting prickly or resentful, she may see you as being too good at her job. You may have to back off, or at least not be so obvious until she gets used to things.
That said, there may be more. You've mentioned three drastically different kinds of kid events — and that makes me question if the kids have really invited you to all of them or if you are inviting yourself. Recitals and school functions are understandable — but attending parent conferences sounds like it might be your idea. If that's true, you may be a little overzealous at this point — and that's a huge red flag! I can't tell you how many mothers walk into my office complaining that the new stepmom is taking over and she resents it. If you want to gain Mom's trust, slow down. Once achieved, she will see your interest in her children as a compliment, but go too fast or be too pushy, and she'll see you as an interloper. That will slow down your ability to work together, plus make transitions from house to house tough on the kids. For that reason, attending recitals and school functions are great ways to support the kids, but until invited, leave the parent-teacher conferences to the parents. Being too involved too soon will backfire.
Truth is, if you work with the kids on their homework and they spend the night at your home during the week, staying up on their schoolwork is a good idea for both you and Dad. Once yours and Mom's working relationship improves, she may even ask you to join her. (My bonuskids' mom did, but it wasn't until about three or four years into the journey toward bonusfamily status. Six months? Not likely.) A good solution for now might be to ask if your husband could set up a separate conference for the two of you.
Finally, best advice I can give you in a few words: Refer to Ex-etiquette Rule No. 7, "Use empathy when problem solving." If you put yourself in Mom's shoes, you'd probably slow down.
E-mail Jann Blackstone via the www.exetiquette.com site.