Reader Unchosen writes,
My parents divorced when my sibs and I were young (8-10-12). My dad loves us and cares about us but my mom was a strong personality that had kicked him out and it was the 80s, and so he wasn't very involved (read: he never came to one damn softball game/swim meet/ play/ concert after they split).
Fast forward -- he marries a wonderful woman many years later. She is fantastic and she has three kids who are roughly our age. She doesn't have a mean bone in her body. Her grandchildren live very close to she and my dad and so see them all the time. They go to the games, the plays, the awards and concerts and are intimately involved with these kids lives. Heck, my dad used to even play soccer with them... he NEVER played anything with us. (But I digress).
This other set of grandkids is great, the textbook definition of perfect kids. Awesome in sports, straight A's, full ride scholarships, etc. When we visit, they talk about these grandchildren constantly. I try and change the topic and talk about my own kids and it always comes back to how great whichever one of the other grandkids is/was at that age.
It hurts. My kids will never be that good in sports and probably not in academics either. And I have no interest in hearing about how many awards and tournaments they won. Over the years, I just sucked this up. I didn't visit often and my kids never noticed it.
Additionally, my own mother lived only an hour away, and she was the best grandmother EVER, so I figured if the other grandparents made them feel second-best, it was never going to matter... and really, it didn't... right up until it did. My mom died in 2014. (Yes, I'm seeing a therapist to work through the grief....grief sucks).
We visited them for Thanksgiving and for my oldest child (12), it was miserable. This was the first year she picked up on the issues my siblings and I have been ignoring and it HURT her. She was so jealous and felt like this grandmother was never going to love her, at least not the way she loved the others. She cried telling me how she would never be able to do what the other kids do. (And she isn't wrong -- these kids are way better at this whole 'being children' thing than my kids are). I tried to explain to my daughter it was just geographical rather than talent based, but that just led into a whole 'miss my dead grandmother' cryfest (backfire).
I think the real problem... it isn't them, it's me. I mean, yes, they are perfect and yes, they do talk about them too much. But I get all stressed and judgy and really hard on my kids when we visit. I also noticed I was obnoxiously passive aggressive to my brother and his kids (and that was what was bothering me, why did I say those things, why couldn't I keep my mouth shut?). I think this is because, as a kid, I saw how my mom acted when we visited her own mother. She tried to present us as perfect kids, and was very stressed about how we appeared and behaved.
Now I'm doing the SAME DAMN THING! I'm trying to pretend my kids, and myself, are something we're not in order to impress my stepmother. So, I guess my question changes... how do I change that need to impress and the obnoxious behavior that goes with it? No, my kids will never measure up to the others....SO %^&ing what. How do I get myself to say that and actually believe it?
If you count the number of times that you mention that your kids suck in this email, it's... let's count. Three. And I edited the question, too. No, you don't actually say they suck, but you're taking this whole "objective view of your kids" thing a little far. I think that you have low self-esteem stemming in part from your father's lack of involvement after the divorce, and also from your mom's behavior around her own mom and obsession about presenting you in the best light (read: a false light). Now you're projecting these feelings of inadequacy (like this woman does, in a different way) onto your children.
Your kids may objectively not get the grades and awards that the other grandkids get, but so what? Is there nothing spectacular at all about them? If you read your question again, I think you may notice what I'm getting at. There is none of the "My kids may not be great at soccer but you should hear my daughter mimic her teacher, she is hilarious" or "My son may not do well at math but he has the sweetest, most generous heart" that you would expect in a mom writing about her kids.
I know you love your children, and I think that you have projected your insecurities onto them, and then, to protect them, you are basically trying to "prepare" them for the world not thinking they are that great. So, you don't sugarcoat anything and when you say that your kids are "picking up on" what their grandmother says, I believe they are just "picking up on" your reaction to it. I wonder if your daughter would have been so hurt if you would have privately laughed and rolled your eyes and said, "Boy, X certainly won a lot of medals this year, huh? I wonder if when I'm old I'll brag about your kids like that."
I think that, as you realized, the issue is mostly you. But whereas you think your issue is not accepting that your kids won't measure up, I think your issue is thinking that they don't measure up in the first place. These are your children. They look at you as though they are looking into a mirror. If even their own mother doesn't think they are spectacular, who will?
I am certainly not an advocate of the "give a trophy for breathing" school of parenting. But you are taking it a bit to the extreme. People who love you are supposed to focus on your wonderful qualities, and think that you're amazing in your own unique way. The significant others that your kids will be drawn to are people who remind them, subconsciously, of their early relationship with you (at least according to imago theory). Do you want your daughter to marry a man that writes in to me, "Dear Dr. Psych Mom, My wife is less attractive and intelligent than my brother's wife. How do I make myself okay with this?" Or one who writes in, "How do I deal with my insecurities and stop projecting them onto my awesome wife when we hang out in large groups?"
Here's a thought experiment that may help you see how your lens is distorted here. If the other grandkids and yours magically switched bodies, do you think that your dad and stepmom would rave about now YOUR academic, athletic kids more than the others? No way, they would continue to extol the average kids (your current kids) who were now her biological grandchildren. Why? Because it sounds like your stepmom is a confident, kind, loving woman (your own mom was all that minus confident) and your dad is in love with her and this second marriage is the high point of his romantic life and makes him more confident too. No matter what those kids and your kids were like, they would always praise those kids more, not intentionally, but because healthy, happy, confident people project that confidence onto their kids just as you and your mom projected insecurity onto yours.
To this end, I believe that your therapy should extend further, and focus not just on your grief about your mom's passing, but your own feelings of low self-worth stemming probably from childhood. I think that you think YOU'RE not good enough, so you're hypersensitive to any evidence that your kids aren't good enough. Basically, instead of looking at your kids through rose-colored glasses, you're looking at them through crap-colored ones, due to your own issues.
Additionally, I suggest that you write a list of the top ten wonderful and unique things about each of your children (whatever your stepmom would have said about them in the thought experiment above where they magically became her own grandkids; by the by, she may actually be saying this stuff now but you're too insecure to really hear it) and give it to them in your holiday card. Keep a copy for yourself, and add on a list of your own top ten wonderful and unique traits. Traits that you have that most others don't. You can train yourself out of low self-esteem, and train yourself out of seeing your kids as "objectively" (but it's not really objective, as I've discussed) second-best. But it will take work, since, as you insightfully mentioned, you learned from your own mom that family is not expected to love you as you are, but rather to judge your inadequacies.
Good luck and thanks for writing this great question. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist That Says, Also Check Out This Piece On Favorite Children That May Resonate.
This post was originally published here on Dr. Psych Mom. Follow Dr. Rodman on Dr. Psych Mom, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest. Order her book, How to Talk to Your Kids about Your Divorce: Healthy, Effective Communication Techniques for Your Changing Family. This blog is not intended as diagnosis, assessment, or treatment, and should not replace consultation with your medical provider.