Kids can love aunts, uncles, cousins, 8 sets of grandparents, and even 4 parents.
This ability of kids to love and accept many is only possible if their own family members will let them. It's adults who choose to not accept some members of their family.
If they are directed to not honor or see as equal one set or family member, their pure love is stunted. They figure out quickly that they should bury their instincts and feelings.
Most of us recognize this, given a description like I've just provided, as wrong. But its likely that you have caused a changed attitude of the heart within your children if you have talked bad about a family member repeatedly or made physical reactions that even young kids can sense. Specifically, kids sense the most indirect cues from their moms, which means a mom's reactions and opinions have a stronger, more important impact.
Kids respond accordingly, especially if the veiled, thin or not, emotions are coming from their mom. So, if mom makes nasty comments about their other grandma or their stepgrandma, the kids from toddler to teens will make sure to show mom that they are loyal to her and are not "too nice" or "too thoughtful" of grandma from "the other side." Now, when mom is not around? Usually the act is dropped, but sometimes the disgust from their mom seeps into the kids' minds enough to effect how they treat even one of their spoiling-grandmas away from mom's eyesight.
If you are "the" mom, dad, grandparent, aunt, uncle...You already have the love of the kids. You do not need to feel like you must fight your family member's ex or their new spouse or their family. If you fear the kids leaving you, you probably naturally respond by holding on tighter. I've heard many stories about a mom becoming more and more nasty the more the kids grow up. Its clear that the nastiness is coming from fear (and hatred/envy of the other party), but this increase in abuse, negative comments, or control causes the kids to eventually completely split off. All in all, the more the jealousy and anger overwhelm one person's life with the kids, the more likely the kids will want to walk away- thereby making that initial fear a reality.
Sadly, as stepmoms, we know too well that it's not only our husband's exes and their families that hold many misdirected emotions against us- It's also our own in-laws. Our very own husbands' families cause strife against us, unnecessary drama, and the kids to disrespect us- adding to an already struggling home. For some reason, despite the new wife that the husband chose to help him and his family, the husband's family looks for every possible bad thing in the new wife. For some, this comes out of a lack of trust, since "the first one was so bad." But after a while, the stepmom starts to wonder why the attacks continue on her, when the first wife was so, so much worse? To quote a stepmom, "It wasn't me who messed [my stepkid] up! I wasn't the one who raised him, but I'm blamed!"
Isn't it amazing that your very own in-laws can't accept you, your efforts, and your endless commitment with the kids? But at the same time, they absolutely abhor the first wife? (Well, not always. I know many of you deal with the in-laws still loving the first wife and not liking you...That's just beyond sad, as the current marriage is the one that needs to be supported by family and friends, especially parents. Once the damage is done, its time to accept, and honor, the new reality/family.) We know what we do for the kids day in and day out. In-laws visit, send gifts, and really believe the kids are perfect angels- when we know what it is like to live with them, we know their school, their grades, their friends, their (disgusting) habits, and their traits that maybe even our husbands don't see. We deal with their anger and pain of divorce regularly- not on holiday visits. (Usually we're the brunt of that pain.) We know our stepkids. We don't just host them or think we know them. We absolutely, downright, know them. We know what are not just little mistakes, but continual patterns that we're trying to help the kids address (back home and on visits...). We know their friendship struggles by watching it happen, and we know their teachers. We know if something is an actual ongoing issue with our stepkid, or just a lapse in judgement and not tied to a deeper meaning.
We don't think they are perfect angels (which I think is one reason why in-laws don't like us), but we do know them as our kids. Others on the outside might not see them as our kids, but we have no choice but to treat them as our kids (...especially considering all the eyes watching our every move). Debating whether we are good enough to them or nice enough to them or good enough stepmoms is just a waste of your time. As their stepmom, I treat my stepkids as my kids- and they are my only kids. You might as well be criticizing my parenting skills of the child I never had. Maybe you would.
Each stepmom I meet feels unloved by their in-laws, or wholly misunderstood. We are the second, the less important, and maybe the one-who-did-not-give-birth- while our husbands see us as best, better, and the solution. We're seen as "the problem" by so many, including the people who should love us, while our husbands tell us we make their livelihood possible and we have given the kids so much that has changed their lives. This contradiction of messages causes us so much confusion, it leads to depression. It's hard to have self-worth when your husband's family starts rumors about you on a weekly basis or takes your words and actions out of context, which I think is usually due to the lack of acceptance that we do actually "parent" and raise our stepkids at home. We realize, maybe right away in a marriage or later down the line, that the very people who are supposed to be supporting your relationship with the kids are also helping to beat you down.
I have a responsibility, given to me by my husband and God, to raise them. And I am, the way I would, with my husband. This is what he wanted. Yes, it is my role to be the second parent in our home, to help raise them. As if they are my own. I do have a say, I do have a mind, I do have a choice. I did not give birth, but I have beliefs and knowledge of parenting like every other female. I am doing what I would do if I gave my in-laws another grandchild, nephew, or niece. It's not exactly the same- as there would be much less struggle with my own child, but this is who I am as stepmom and the things I do, as a stepmom, a second mom, to them. People like to write articles about how the stepmom should "stay out of it", but every stepmom knows the reality: Would you stop a child if they were about to hurt themselves, hurt someone else, or do something dangerous? Yes. Would you feed a child if there was no one there to feed them (in your own home) and you are the only one there that can do so? Yes. Would you clothe them, help them, care for them if you're the one at home, alone, with them? Yes. And as you walk further down that line, you see pretty simply that a stepmom does have a second parent role- with more time or responsibilities than a nanny, but often treated similar to a maid.
I'm glad I love my husband, and I'm glad he has me. Others may not be glad he has me or the kids have me, but he could write an endless list of what I've meant to him and his kids. I guess that's all that matters, which is hard to hold onto sometimes. And its all that should matter to your husband's family, too. So although I am the one with them day in, week out, you can trust that I am raising them in their best interest and assisting my husband with that goal. I am not perfect, but you know that you as a parent are not perfect.
To paraphrase my husband, we can't just love and hug them every time things are going wrong- like a visiting family member would. We can't just blame everything on the divorce and pity them, allowing them to grow up with a "victim" mentality. Our job is to raise them, teach them, and help them be strong so that one day they can live their lives without an abusive marriage, dependency, or divorce- and be successful and competent adults, mindful of their community and world.
I may never give birth to a baby, which is not, frankly, my fault. Sometimes I wonder if that would make me more loved by my in-laws, but... It was predetermined for me in a previous marriage that I was not a part of. (Which in-laws know, and should understand is something really painful for many of us stepmoms to cope with. This is a Put-yourself-in-my-shoes Moment...) My stepkids may be the only kids I ever have, which is not ideal since they already have a mom. It's already tough enough to simply be a stepmom to kids who aren't yours, but then to have their dad's family question you, mistrust you, and criticize you behind your back for years? This perpetual judgement and junk from the in-laws is tearing apart my friend's marriages! Marriages that would be doing so fantastically if the skids' grandparents weren't constantly making the husband doubt every choice, or alienating the second wife from family events. Can you believe that the in-laws, who witnessed the hell of the first marriage, are the pivotal force against so many second marriages!? I honestly don't know that these marriages will survive, which leads to another divorce for the kids, their son, and another round of unbelievable pain- plus another round of hurt kids if the couple had their own kids despite the challenges.
If you are a blood relative of the child, you are in their lives as much as you are, and you will have a connection to them to the extent that you are in their lives. If you are there for them, they will love you. You are as meaningful to them as you choose to support them. You are lucky to have that bond, to have known them since birth, known both of their parents, and known them their whole lives. But instead of criticizing the other person who raises them or assuring the kids that they don't have to like their stepmom, focus on supporting their dad and his wife who struggle with the day-to-day of a split family and kids of divorce (who do, as a matter of fact, usually have increasingly more behavioral and learning problems along the journey- No, their stepmom isn't making up the struggles they're having because she's downright evil.). Or, just simply focus on your own relationship with the kids, as you already have that ready-made bond for you. You can have your own powerful influence on them, given the advantage of that bond. Don't waste your time thinking about how their stepmom has influenced them- They have a lot of good and bad influences, and their stepmom shouldn't be the focus on your time. A good use of your time? Encourage the kid to work with their parents, make the best of their situation, and help them learn how to cope. Encourage them to honor adults and authority but learn who they are at the same time. Help them to grow within their environment, so that one day they can grow outside of it.
If you help the kids to dislike and/or disrespect their stepmom and her family, you are actually hurting your son, brother, or nephew. It makes it that much harder for him to maintain a solid home, lead his home, find peace in his home. He is torn between his own family and his extended family, plus the divorce war and custody battles. You hurt the kids by causing more strife and assisting in the "pick sides" game. Support him by supporting "them" as a married couple who are working together to care for the kids, despite your opinion of how involved or uninvolved a stepmom "should" be. At least she's there for them.