The human heart is vast enough to contain all the world.  Joseph Conrad

Mom, who do you love more- me or Sarah?

Yes, that was the question my daughter, Jessica, asked when she was 5 way back in 1998. With all siblings, there is usually some rivalry, and my children were no different. So I would answer by saying that I loved each of them, and I couldn’t possibly choose. I told them that they were each wonderful and unique, and there was a place in my heart for each of them.

Mom, who do you love more- me or Mike?

When I became engaged to my husband, Mike, in 2001, my girls both wanted to know who I loved more, them or Mike. So I told them there was a place in my heart for each of them that would always be there. And that when I decided to love Mike, it didn’t mean I loved them less. It meant that my heart got bigger and Mike was added to it. I also told them that while I love Mike and I am committed to him, that I am committed to them and that I am responsible for them. When I work with children, I talk with them about when they make a new friend. Do they have to let go of another friend or love one friend less in order to have a new friend?  No, of course not. It’s always good to have more friends.

Jayna, so you will love me like my Mom and Dad do?

Around the time that Mike and I married, I remember a very specific moment with my young stepdaughter when we were holding hands and crossing a street. She asked me if I would care for her now just like her mom and dad? “ Yes”, I said, “ I won’t replace your mom or dad, but I will love and care for you and your brother as I love and care for Jessica and Sarah.” She was trying to figure it all out.  One of the things I did to reinforce that was I would always introduce her as my daughter, but then explain that I was her stepmom.

Our hearts do get bigger as we add people to our lives. And in the same way, we want to support our children in having “big” hearts. We want to help them make room for all the people that may be in their life- other parent, stepparent, stepsiblings, half siblings, step grandparents, etc.

I know this is really uncomfortable for many people, often moms. And this seems to be one of the most difficult areas for single parents and stepfamilies. I believe that many moms and dads get their protective parental wires crossed when it comes to their ex and the people that the ex brings into their lives.

Those instincts given to biological mothers and fathers to protect our children from people who might hurt our children… BETRAY us in single parent and stepfamily life, and are now the same wires that are giving us a MISTAKEN but very loud alarm signal about our exes who don’t parent like we do, don’t do what we think they should do, who we may not like, or those people we now feel might replace us.

It is uncomfortable for us, as Moms and Dads who have fears about not being as important or as needed or as loved by our children, when other people (who we do not choose) are added to the equation. We want other people we choose to love our kids- but not anyone that we don’t choose.  When I work with moms and dads who are struggling with this issue, they will (usually) admit that they don’t think any of these people would ever harm or hurt their child, they just don’t like them and don’t want to share their children with the ex or stepparent, etc.

And even though I knew these issues, I could hear that loud alarm clanging when my ex remarried.  I will not forget more than a decade ago when my children had a new stepmother, and I started getting nervous on the way to a soccer game. My kids knew that something was off. I told them that I knew that it was important for them to have a good relationship with her, and that I wanted them to. I was just struggling with some feelings that I would learn to deal with and that weren’t their problem.

My daughter said, “What are you afraid of?”. And I said, “I’m afraid you’ll love me less”. To which my wise, 9 year old daughter replied, “Mom, that is silly. You are my Mom.” I realized then that I was letting my fear (and that mistaken alarm signal) get in the way of my loving. And that it was very important that I stay centered in the fact that my children could love other people too, and it didn’t take away from me.

Help your children to have hearts that keep getting bigger. When you hear that mistaken alarm signal, turn it off. Give them room to love all those people in their life (whether you love all those people or not.) And that is truly loving.