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A Partnership in Mothering

August 17, 1993|SHEARLEAN DUKE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

MISSION VIEJO — Karen Knecht will never forget the first time she met her stepson's mother, Char Wolf.

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"Char is coming over and she wants to interview you," Karen recalls her husband, David, telling her. "I said, 'Excuse me.' He said, 'Oh yeah, that's just Char.' "

Char did come over--with lots of questions for Karen. "She asked me everything but my Social Security number. She said, 'I have to know who will be spending time with my son.' If she hadn't liked me, I don't know what would have happened," Karen said.

Char, whose 6-year-old son, Max, lives with David and Karen Knecht, has been listening to this story. She looks incredulous and slightly embarrassed. "I don't remember doing that," she says, then smiles. "But that's so like me."

Char and Karen have come a long way since that awkward first meeting three years ago, creating a partnership in mothering that psychotherapists say could serve as a model to others.

Such positive, friendly relationships between mother and stepmother are rare, says marriage and family therapist Denise Davis, who counseled Char off and on for about three years. It is rare because of the often difficult circumstances surrounding the dissolution of the relationship that preceded, Davis says. "People's old baggage gets in the way."

Pat Allen, a Newport Beach psychotherapist for 20 years, goes even further, saying she never sees relationships such as the one Char and Karen have developed.

"I see the ones that don't work," says Allen, who estimates that a third of her practice deals with such issues. "I'm sure there are (mother-stepmother) relationships out there that do work, but I don't see them. That is no doubt because the ones who come into my office are the ones with problems. The ones where the stepmother is not allowed to pick up the kids. Or I have either got the natural mother who hates the stepmother or the father here with two women on his hands."

It is one of the most emotionally laden situations a woman can face, Allen said.

"There is something about two women fighting over kids," says Allen, a divorced mother. "My husband married a woman who saw me as an archenemy even though we had been divorced for years. So my kids lost their father."

Karen and Char admit that they have experienced jealousy, resentment and anger but that they have refused to let those emotions interfere with their desire to be good mothers to Max, who calls both women Mommy.

"It is a very difficult situation," says Karen, a Santa Ana schoolteacher. "And I think people tend to get jealous and possessive of their child's time. They have to realize that the child is really going to pick up on those feelings. So, the better you can communicate and work things out, the better for the child. But the jealousy is there. It is a human characteristic."

Karen says she felt jealous the day she and Char had coffee and Char told her about Max's birth.

"Max was coming home after two weeks at Char's. She brought him over on a Sunday morning, and we had coffee and bagels. She sat and described his birth. I think it was strictly territorial, letting me know, 'This is my baby.' I remember thinking, 'I don't need to hear this.' And I felt jealous that I had not experienced it," says Karen, who has no children of her own. "That is something I am more jealous about--not being able to claim ownership. But Max is a very fine boy, and she should be proud of him."

Char, who let Max live with his father because she thought it would be better for her son, says that hearing her son call another woman Mommy was difficult.

"On Mother's Day, Karen got the card that he had made in school, this elaborate card. In picking him up that weekend, he made this little thing for me that probably took five minutes. And that hurt. I did feel a little left out. But then I put myself in his shoes. I said to myself, 'This is Max's choice.' "

Karen, hearing the story about the Mother's Day card, says: "Max really does love both of us."

When the two women are with Max, he differentiates by saying "Char Mommy" and "Karen Mommy."

Once, after a particularly tiring round of birthday parties that stretched out for days between the two households, Max told Char, who has remarried and is expecting a child, that he wished he didn't have two families. She told him how lucky he was to have two mothers and two fathers.

Karen offers similar reassurances and says that recently Max even boasted about having two big back yards at his two different homes. "I said, well, who could be luckier than you to have two big houses with two big back yards?"

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Leola Schwarzwald, a Newport Beach psychologist and marriage, family and child counselor, agrees that two families can be good for a child--as long as the adults have agreed to put aside their differences in the interest of the child.

"Two loving, strong mothering figures are positive," she says. "It doesn't matter who was the natural birth mother and who was the stepmother as long as they are warm, loving, strong mothering figures."

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