Carol Shwanda is a mother of two daughters and stepmother of two sons and a daughter. She writes a blog: www.shwanda.com that chronicles her family’s life blending five children, four cats, three dogs, two fish and a bird. Her mission is to offer hope, guidance, wisdom, inspiration and humor to anyone who is in, or about to enter into a blended family.
As a mother of two daughters and as a step mom to two sons and a daughter, I am always concerned about treating all of my children equally and fairly, even though I know that this is not always possible. How do I know that it is not possible? Because my own mother, a parent to five children herself, told me so. She said, “Sometimes you have to give more attention to some of your children because they need it more.” True.
Some of my siblings gave my mother a run for her money or “put her through the ringer” as she used to say. I, on the other hand, was the quiet introverted one. I kept to myself, stayed out of the way and didn’t cause trouble. When my mother was wracked with worry over my sister’s late night dates with her motorcycle –riding boyfriend, I was in my room doing my math homework. I didn’t make waves because I didn’t want to lose my title as her “easy child.” Consequently, I got little to no attention because I “didn’t need it”. Sadly, I learned to solve all my problems by myself. Well into my adulthood, I rarely spoke up or asserted myself. This all changed when I moved to New York City after college and had to learn how to hail a cab. My confidence and self-esteem bloomed over time and once I became a parent myself you would think that I would have learned not to repeat my mother’s mistakes. But no.
My two daughters, Sophia, 15, and Eva, 12, are like night and day. Sophia is kind of high maintenance, and I say this in the most loving sense. An ultra sensitive child, she is always coming home from school with news of the day. She wears her heart on her sleeve and needs a lot of calming and reassurances. Since she is always so willing to tell me what goes on in her life, I am always willing to listen. Eva, on the other hand, is much easier going. Her tales from school center more on funny stories like the weird kid in her class who eats paper, rather than anything upsetting or traumatic. At school conferences her teachers always assured me that she was well-liked and well-adjusted. Relieved that I didn’t have to worry about her, I figured, wrongly, that she “didn’t need” my attention.
This is an easy rut to fall into, even when you try to make a conscious effort not to. When the girls were small and Sophia made a fuss over who got the red cup and who got the blue cup, I gave in to her. I was a single mother and I was tired. I gave the proverbial squeaky wheel the grease and let it go, even though I knew I was doing a disservice to my youngest child. I over compensated with praise to Eva for being “my easy child.”
A few months ago, things changed. Eva is in 7th grade, a time when kids can be very cruel. I still shudder when I recall some of the horrible snubbing and bullying I experienced at that age. Recently, when I picked up Eva from school, she was withdrawn and quiet. I asked her how her day went, but she didn’t volunteer much. Not wanting to pry, I let her be. This went on for several weeks. Meanwhile, Sophia was very vocal about all of her own personal drama at school revolving mostly around her perfectionism like how she studied really hard for her math test and only got a “B”. In keeping with our family pattern, because Sophia was more willing to verbalize her feelings, I spent most of my time addressing her issues instead of Eva’s.
One night I went into Eva’s room to kiss her goodnight and I found her crying under the covers. At twelve, she was still clutching green bunny. I asked her what was wrong. Through gasps of sobs she replied, “I don’t know why I am crying. I just keep crying all the time and I can’t stop.”
Something told me this was more than just preteen angst, hormones or some issue with the mean girls at school. I knew in my gut that it was because as her mother, I wasn’t there when she needed me and had let her down. This prompted me to tell her, “Eva, you know what I worry about the most with you? I worry that because you are so easy going I don’t give you enough attention, and because Sophia is always so demanding of my attention, I give her more.”
It was like a flood gate of emotions had burst open and I could feel the shudder of relief coursing through her body. Eva nodded her head in agreement and told me, “Mom, sometimes I am afraid to come tell you when something is bothering me because then I won’t be your easy child anymore.” My heart breaks when I think how I could have let my child feel this way about me. I try not to beat myself up. I cannot right the past, only the present and future, so I promise to make it up to her. I say to her, “Eva, I know exactly how you feel.” We make plans to go out to lunch, just the two of us. We go shopping and cook dinner together. I teach her how to sew. She confides in me. I feel like I have my daughter back and things are square with us. In my overzealous attempts for “mommy and me” time, I smother her and she eventually tells me “to back off. “ Spoken like a true preteen. That’s how I know things are back to normal.