Carolyn Hax: Stepping on stepmom’s toes

Carolyn Hax
Columnist February 14, 2013

Good morning, Ms. Hax:

My husband’s mother passed away 10 years ago, before we got married. They were very close. His father was always a little disengaged, unsure of how to relate to children. After she died, my husband spent years in a pretty dark place. With therapy and time, he has worked through the worst of it but still struggles with his grief on occasion.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

My father-in-law remarried shortly after my mother-in-law’s death. His new wife is much younger, has children of her own at home and has made an effort to include us in the new family. My husband mildly dislikes her, ostensibly due to her overpowering religious beliefs, but also because he thinks she treads too far over the line sometimes trying to fill his mother’s shoes.

We are expecting our first child and my husband is thrilled, but the new arrival is shining an extra-bright spotlight on how much he misses his mother. His stepmother is beside herself with excitement and is increasingly setting herself up as a prime target for my husband’s frustration. For example, she talks about how excited she is to be a grandmother.

My husband finds her “grandmother” comments disrespectful to the memory of his mother but doesn’t know how to bring it up (or if he should at all). I pointed out that our children will inevitably see her as a grandmother-type figure, but that we can also honor the memory of his mother as part of their lives, yet he still bristles when stepmother does so much as ask how we’re doing. How can we best approach this delicate situation?


A.

Isn’t it time you and your husband — he in particular — stopped treating this as delicate?

You won’t find many people who can be as sympathetic to his loss and the “extra-bright spotlight” that having children can shine on it, as I can. I lived these myself and feel the weight still.

But that sadness is my responsibility, and your husband’s is his; the greatest dishonor to his mother’s memory is the way your husband punishes his stepmother. It’s self-indulgent cruelty to regard her love as coming at his mother’s expense, when they’re two separate things. The stepmother fell in love with a widower. Period. She’s dancing on nobody’s grave.

To your coming child, she is a grandmother. She deserves to be treated as such and not as a “grandmother-type figure,” which is a ludicrous nonentity, a byproduct of the kind of tortured phrasing that emerges from walking on eggshells.

Yes, it is awful and unfair that his mother isn’t alive to be Grandma, and I get that he just wants to rip down the moon — but he couldn’t prevent that loss. If he interferes with his stepmother’s attachment to your child, then the child loses a key source of love in a very big world — a completely preventable loss.

Please urge your husband at least to consider that the greatest tribute to his mother’s memory would be to stop blaming the person who cares about (and for) the people she left behind. Isn’t that what she’d want for them, after all — to know someone looks out for them, as she no longer can?

And: Name the baby for the late grandmother. Spin those tears into gold.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Subscribe at www.facebook.com/carolynhax.

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