How to handle multiple moms

Mother's Day should be simple. Dad helps kids make homemade cards and serve mom breakfast in bed. Or everybody takes her to brunch and calls it a day.

Hold on, you say, that doesn't sound anything like your family's celebration.

Your family has multiple "moms." Maybe stepmoms, grannies, stepgrannies, great-grannies plus an aunt or two.

This proliferation of mother figures is not surprising, with divorce, remarriage and longevity part of the equation. But it means that Mother's Day can completely overwhelm kids faced with so many moms jockeying for attention.

Helping kids navigate the challenge, experts say, is best handled when parents sort out their own issues with all these "moms" long before Mother's Day.

"It is OK for a child who has a mom and a stepmom to feel connected to both. If they are competing with each other, then it is the adults who put that kid in a terrible triangle," says professor Evan Imber-Black, director of marriage and family therapy in the school of social and behavioral sciences at New York's Mercy College. "What kind of relationships do they value their child having? ... One would hope that a kid can have two or sometimes more than two grandmothers and grandparents. That's a good thing. These are people who bring new resources into a child's life."

By addressing such issues early in the marriage or divorce process, she says, "you can save yourself a ton of grief later if you can say, 'You know what? The more people that love my child the better.'

"Unless you're talking about somebody who is totally evil — and let's hope they're not — you can manage," says Imber-Black. "For children, particularly in terms of their biological parents, they need a way to experience that they are connected to these people even if they don't see them very often, and they don't need to have them bad-mouthed by other grown-ups in their midst, which happens unfortunately all too much when there are divorces."

And parents bad-mouthing their parents in front of the kids has consequences too.

"When parents say negative things about their own parents in front of the children, it puts them in a sibling relationship with their children and also diminishes the dignity of their relationship with their parent, which invites their child, unwittingly, to diminish the authority and the dignity of their own parents," says parenting expert Wendy Mogel, a Los Angeles-based clinical psychologist and author of "The Blessing of a B Minus" and "The Blessing of a Skinned Knee" (both Scribner).

Navigating personalities

So you agree to having multiple moms and grannies in the picture. One grandmother teaches a child to water-ski. A stepmom divulges secrets to her family's lasagna. One stepmom is easily offended. One granny is quirky.

How do you handle all the characters in this drama? Use it to teach children about differences.

"People are not mythical beings in terms of 'Here's this role called grandma, and in our head she's baking cookies.' Maybe she's a Wall Street executive, or maybe she's a crank. I think that's OK," says Imber-Black. "The best thing for kids is to learn to live with differences in their families and to embrace that and to not think everybody has to be the same.

"Mother's Day stuff and any visits with grandparents can be a nice opportunity to help kids to know you show respect, you show caring, especially if somebody is aging, and that it's OK to notice among us that there are differences."

Parents can help kids handle such gatherings with some coaching, says Mogel. "If there is a way-out-there grandparent, the parent can use words — depending on the age of the child — like 'She's a little old-fashioned' or 'She does things differently, but let's not forget that she also ...'

"Then add whatever positive things you can say to balance it," adds Mogel, "such as 'Grandma does this because in her time that's what people did.' Or 'It's her way of showing she loves you.' Or maybe you say, 'She doesn't get to see you that much, so she asks all these questions because she's so eager to know about you.'"

A little pre-holiday parent-child role-playing may help, not unlike the kind Mogel uses when counseling a teacher who may be facing challenging parent-teacher conferences.

Such role-playing gives the child and parents a chance to prepare for visits with particular mother figures.

"For instance, if a grandparent does something that's unbearable to that particular child, the parent can say, 'If Grandma asks, 'Do you have a boyfriend?' the parent can say, 'We can figure out an answer together in advance. I know that Grandma asks you these kinds of questions and you feel kind of on the spot. And I'm happy to plan this with you.'"

Keeping it simple

Most importantly, says Mogel, don't get swept up in a pre-Mother's Day anxiety-peer pressure-retail whirlwind. Instead, think about how you want to celebrate.

"This is something for the parents to figure out together and for the kids not to be weighing in on too much," she says. "Take each person's temperament and tempo into account. Choreograph it without feeling that there are only three hours that count, and that is Sunday from 1 to 4."

"All these rituals in our lives, they were invented. The world wasn't created with these," says Imber-Black, co-author of "Rituals for Our Times: Celebrating, Healing and Changing Our Lives and Our Relationships" (Jason Aronson, Inc.). "Here we are in the 21st century with much more complicated family forms."

Which means a massive gathering of a family's mother figures may not be in the stack of Hallmark cards you purchased.

"Is it something to aim for that people can be together? Sure it is. But sometimes it's possible, and sometimes it's not. Certainly there are times when there's too much water under the bridge. You have to figure where you want to put your energy," says Imber-Black. "I wouldn't push it.

"Or say, 'You know what, I'm declaring that the entire weekend is Mother's Day, and I'll see you on Saturday and you on Sunday.' That's perfectly fine.

Managing Mother's Day

A few ideas for managing Mother's Day:

Don't limit interactions to one day, advises Wendy Mogel: "Stretch it out over the year. Mother's Day can get particularly fraught if a mother's felt neglected throughout the year." Has she been getting phone calls? Has she been hearing "Grandma, I thought of you when they were talking about this in school, and it reminded me about what you told me about your childhood?" Parents can coach the child.

Send: A photo of the child. Or a letter. "Something handwritten, not dashed off. Something that comes early," Mogel says, adding, "It's a way to handle multiple grandmothers. It will be a delightfully shocking surprise if something came in the mail, neat or in a frame."

Friday pizza? Why not?: "Early is nice. It shows you've been thinking about the person ahead of time."

Skype: Contact those who live far away by exploiting the technology, Evan Imber-Black suggests, and have the kids read a poem, play the piano, etc.

— J.H.

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