Sacrificing the Black Sheep & Other Motherly Failures

Posted by in Articles & Rants, Motherhood Project, Writing

One of the hardest things to balance in a blended family is the treatment of your birth children versus your step children. While favoritism of birth children is a natural, if not inevitable, occurrence, it is often something we seek to deny in shame, hide in fear or eliminate completely. You often hear stepmothers saying they, “love them all the same.” But this isn’t true. Not in the least. We may “treat” them all the same, but there is something very unique and invisible, something inherent in the love that a mother holds for a child she carried within her womb, versus a child she has adopted… someone else’s child who she has chosen to love. It doesn’t mean she loves a birth child more… or that women who adopt don’t love their children. It is simply a different quality of love, equally beautiful, but not at all the same.

I will share some things that I am not so proud of today… in hopes that it may save you from similar mistakes; from similar pain. My goal here is simply to urge mothers/stepmothers to accept the imbalance of their hearts… to accept that you may love your own children quite differently than you love your step children and to never be ashamed of that. We cannot dictate the ways of the heart. This is just the way we were made. This is just the reality of motherhood. While we should strive for balance in our actions; in our treatment of our children and stepchildren, we mustn’t resent the inclinations of our own hearts. Love your children. You needn’t love them less to make your stepchildren feel loved or valued. You needn’t prove your love for one by sacrificing the love of another. If you do this, you will hate yourself for it one day. I assure you. And you will never ever forgive yourself. Please. Do not make my mistake.

When I married my husband, we both entered in with children of our own. In his case, he had four children, two boys, two girls. In my case, I had two children, one boy, one girl. Naturally, we envisioned a perfectly blended family. Three boys, three girls… it was a perfect little Bayt-ul-Brady Bunch. What we didn’t realize is that our love and affection for each other would not necessarily translate into the same love and affection between our children. What we didn’t realize is that blended families are probably one of the most challenging types of families to navigate and the results can be absolutely explosive.

In my case, one of the most important things for me was that my step children felt loved and cherished. I didn’t want my love and affection for my own both children to outshine the love and affection I should have had for them.  This was especially important because some of my step children were especially needy and seemed to want a mother figure very very badly in their lives. I wanted to and was excited to be that for them. And I went to great lengths to prove my love; To prove that I loved them just as much as my birth children and there were no differences between them. In my struggles to find this balance as a stepmother, I found myself doing something unthinkable… I was sacrificing one of my birth children for the sake of my stepchildren, or in many cases, the sake of the family as a whole. It didn’t start out this way. I staunchly protected and defended my child at first. I raged when I felt he wasn’t being treated fairly or wasn’t be loved enough. You see, I’d found that in this new family there were dynamics I hadn’t expected. Dynamics I was completely unprepared for and had no idea how to navigate.

The oldest boy was an unusually cruel and persistent bully, and his doting (former victim) younger brother was gradually following suit. As I moved in and insisted upon kindness and brotherhood, the oldest boy took his attentions off his younger brother and began to focus on my own son, who was the youngest in the group. His cruelty was constant, scathing and damaging. It was a combination of physical violence, verbal and emotional bullying, humiliation and exclusion. His own younger brother, happy to finally be free of his position as the victim, quickly began replicating the very same behavior, seeking (and receiving) the approval of his older brother.  My son, now the youngest in the group of six children and formally ecstatic about finally having big brothers, was being systematically mistreated on a daily basis by the people he most desperately wanted love and acceptance from: his new big brothers.

At the same time, my birth daughter (my sons older sister) began following suit and excluding him as well. She loved having sisters, finally, and no longer needed a little brother to play with. Gradually he became the black sheep. He was ostracized by everyone in the family. The first couple of years my defense of him was constant, but soon I was accused of playing favorites, being unfair, etc. and so I, too, began turning against him to prove that I was just. I argued that his bad behavior (as it had increased drastically once our families blended) was a result of his mistreatment, but I was met with constant resistance… insistence that he was difficult before he came here and while his outcast position may have had some effect it wasn’t enough to excuse him or feel sorry for him.. and I was beginning to believe it. He was becoming more and more difficult, lashing out, having attention-seeking behaviors, and eventually, as a new little sister was born and he was no longer the youngest, he began bullying her as well. In my heart, I knew why. I knew he felt like an outsider. I knew he was replicating the behavior he was receiving from his older siblings… the behavior he had been receiving for years. I knew he was still being bullied and excluded, despite my constant efforts to change it. And as his bad behavior increased, his punishments increased. The worse he got, the worse I (and they) got… until I’d practically given up on him. I’d punish him then cry because I wanted to hug him instead. Stretch myself thin amongst the other kids until I had little or no time for him… proving I loved my step kids meant I needed to love my son less. And I was falling into it, my resistance weakening day by day, until I stopped defending him, stopped hugging him, yelled more and loved less. I had finally laid him out on the chopping block and I was the one holding the ax.

I’m five years into my marriage and I feel like my son has served as the sacrificial lamb. I love him dearly, he used to be my heart and soul. Easily my favorite. But I have pushed him out, trying to be balanced, trying to be just, trying to prove that I wasn’t playing favorites. Now, it’s not to say he’s an angel. Or even that he was an angel before I got here. He was only three… so he wasn’t an absolute terror… just a little knuckle head toddler. An inherently loving and sweet kid… but also a hell of a handful, too. And while my son has changed drastically in the last five years… in some ways for the better; in many ways for the worse, there is goodness in him still. It hurts me to no end and fills me with insurmountable guilt when I see that goodness. Not because I didn’t believe it was there, but because I see that no one else believes its there. His increasingly difficult, annoying, frustrating, enraging behavior gives everyone all the justification they need to be cruel. And worse yet… I see him trying desperately to get love and approval from those two older brothers, and they use and take advantage of him all teh time. He offers to help them with their chores and they sit back and let him do it all, then give him dirty looks and snide remarks 15 minutes later. He shares some treat with them, then asks if he can play with them and they shun him and cast him out with scathing words. He compliments them and cheers them when they succeed and they roll their eyes, ignore him, or laugh when he fails.

They are kind sometimes, yes. They play with him sometimes, yes. He is an annoying little sh!t most of the time, yes. Oftentimes, everyone’s frustration and annoyance with him is understandable. I cannot deny these facts. But its not all of the the time. Their kindness and feigned acceptance is the exception to the rule. While his good behavior is the exception as well. If you cannot see the correlation, you’re not reading close enough. I see it and I’m trying to change it. I am trying to instill love and brotherhood, but its been five years and there has been almost no change. In the end, I’ve begun to hate myself. I find myself in a constant state of guilt and shame because I love my son and I’ve failed him. I cannot change these other kids’ hearts, I cannot force them to be loving or kind or patient and understanding. I have tried so hard. All I can change is myself. And I’m tired of putting my kid on the chopping block… its not worth it.

I’ve decided that I will absolutely play favorites. I will be more patient and more forgiving. I will defend him more. I will spend an utterly unequal amount of time with him because he needs it more than anyone else. Because he needs me more than anyone else. Because for the last few years, I’ve been giving everyone else my attention and leaving him by the wayside. I don’t have to divvy up my time equally, I don’t have to be harder on him to prove a damn thing to anyone. I’m done. It’s either I backtrack and try to save my son… try to restore his heart, tape it back together, reassure him that he is a valuable and cherished part of this family… or I sacrifice this family altogether. I sacrifice these kids, who are not my birth kids, but who need me too; whom I love too;  in order to save my son. I sacrifice all I’ve invested, all the good that has come from this marriage and family (and there has been good outside of this situation) and I leave it all behind to refocus on my son. To give him his due.

I am going the middle path for now. No more sacrificing my son, no more putting him up for slaughter. And I am going to strive hard to keep loving all of them… to hold this family together, but protect my son in the process. He has no defender except me and I cannot abandon him now when he needs me most… not anymore. I pray he forgives me for not being a better mother. For not protecting him like my heart wanted to, like he desperately needed me to. I hope he’ll forgive me for giving up, for losing my way, for losing sight of the bigger picture… a picture that he is an integral and beautiful part of.  I love my son… and I don’t want him to ever question that. I don’t want him to ever again feel like the sacrificial black sheep of this family. There is no family without him and I am going to make sure of that.