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Being a stepmom is Messy. Being married to my Husband is Beautiful. And I can’t have one without the other.

combo I married a wonderful man. I could not have asked for better. He gets up with me every morning to make my breakfast and pour my coffee. He walks out to my car carrying my pack for me. He stays outside, regardless the weather, and opens and closes the gate. And that’s just in the first 30 minutes of the day. He is patient with me, he cares for me, he takes care of me. He makes me feel safe and he makes me feel loved. He would not be this man if he were not also a father.

Yes, I knew he had kids when I met him. In fact, I was excited that he had kids. I LIKE kids. I started baby-sitting when I was 10 years old; I dreamt of the day when I would start my own family. I would go up to strangers and ask to hold their babies or play with their toddlers.

But it’s different when they are your spouse’s kids. The kids you babysit or your best friend’s kids – your relationship with those kids isn’t loaded the way it is when your marriage is linked with these kids that are not your own. My marriage is inextricably linked to kids that are Not Mine. And maybe it shouldn’t matter that they are Not Mine. Maybe I should just be able to love these kids “like my own”; that’s certainly the pressure I feel. But biology and bonding mean something.

How do I describe the feeling of being left out at my own dinner table as the kids remember a trip they took with the girlfriend before me? Or when I see what homework they are working on and think “I could help with that, I’d be GOOD at helping with that” and they pick up their phone and call their mom? And when they get off the phone with their mom still stuck and I find the strength to offer help and they say “no, that’s okay, I got it”.

I am not theirs and they are not mine. Yet they are their Dad’s and he IS mine. See what I mean, this steplife thing is Messy.

Some stepmoms get lucky; their stepkids are theirs and this life is more Beautiful than Messy. But for many, steplife is hard, it is demanding, it is pain and loneliness, it is rejection and fear, and it is hope.

There are the nights when we all play a game together and we are laughing so hard we are crying. Giggling so hard we can’t breathe. Telling stories from when I was part of this group, after I married their dad, stories I have a role in. Those nights are the hope. Those nights make the other times harder in contrast. Because you want to hope that it won’t be be hard or demanding or painful anymore. Hope that the lonely feelings will be replaced by belonging, by feeling like this is your family too.

My consolation, what I have to remember, is that my relationship with these kids is unique. We may not have chosen to be in each others’ lives, but maybe we can add something. It’s those little moments that hurt so maybe it’s the little moments that connect as well.

Tonight my stepdaughter asked if she could fishtail my hair and help her with linear equations. Yep, I can do that.

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! And to learn about the New York Times Bestselling Memoir Carry On Warrior: The Power of Embracing Your Messy, Beautiful Life, just released in paperback, CLICK HERE!

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Taking Pictures

IMG_1325a  I really enjoy taking and editing pictures. I can’t say that I’m great at either but I can usually get a couple of good shots. Well, last year Ben allowed me to take his senior pictures. I was hesitant to offer as I wasn’t sure how he would respond but he was very positive about it and we had a great time with his “photoshoot”.IMG_1298a

A couple of weeks ago I was trying to think of ways I could have meaningful positive interactions with the girls since that is sometimes a struggle for me. So, I offered to take pictures of them, individually, together or with friends. Both Laura and Kelly loved the idea! Within a day Laura was texting me asking when we could plan her photoshoot and could her friends K & K join us. I was thrilled. We managed to nail down a day about a week ago and I took the three of them out for almost two hours. They had three outfits (changing in the car was a challenge but they managed) and we found a number of locations to use including the train tracks and a local river.

I’ve been editing and posting the pictures to a private album so they can decide what pictures they want to post for friends and family. I’m so glad I offered. It was scary, but totally worth it.

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Entitlement

Ok, you might want to grab a snack and a drink…this is gonna be long…

Some background:

Our house has four bedrooms. Obviously the Husband and I share the Master, then Ben had his own room, Torey and Kelly share a room and Laura has her own room though it is also used as a guestroom and she has to give it up when people visit. When Ben graduated and headed off on his summer adventure he left his room a disaster. I okay-ed this because we are hoping to move sometime soon (we’re in the midst of trying to buy a house in a short sale – next week we will have been under contract for 7 months). I told Ben I’d pack up the rest of his room with the understanding that I could also donate anything he either didn’t take with him or pack for moving. Therefore, the room was left in a half-packed, half-sorted disaster state.

Husband, who’s normally better than this, told Torey she could have Ben’s room without talking to me first. That didn’t go well. It’s possible, even likely, that I would have agreed to Torey having the room had we talked about it; as any stepmother knows he should have talked to me about it first, as the adults, as partners. I did put my foot down and say that she could not have the room until it was cleaned up. Since I was responsible for packing the room for Ben I certainly didn’t want to pack his stuff while trying to figure out what’s hers and what’s his. In a less-than-mature move I chose not to pack the room. Now, granted I had a HUGE project going on at work and it was very easy to just not do it in the little free time I had.

The reason for the post:

Last weekend I decided I’d go ahead and pack up Ben’s room. I knew Torey would like to be in there and by cleaning it I was giving tacit permission for that. It took about half a day but I was able to pack up the room and, let me tell you, it looks good! I asked Husband if I should text Torey and see if she still wanted to sleep in Ben’s room – Husband said yes – so I did. Her reply: “Yeah”. Well, at least the work wasn’t in vain. The girls came over the next night and Torey slept in Ben’s room. Because we are hoping to move soon I asked her to not truly move in to the room but she was welcome to sleep there. I even agreed to let her use the still-hanging corkboard for her own items.

Two days later we took the girls to see the house we’re trying to buy. They’d seen the outside before but this time we were able to show them in the inside. Now, this house was built in 1973 and has been empty for almost two years. Not only does it need some TLC but it needs some true work – paint, floors, CLEANING – before we can move in. As we walked the girls through the house, showing them which rooms would be theirs – Laura would still have her own/guestroom and Kelly and Torey would share the larger room – I could hear Torey say “why don’t you just build me a loft”? Seriously kid? I chose not to respond. I also heard various requests/demands regarding paint color, carpet, etc. As we walked out to the backyard I passed Torey as she said to Husband “well, if I’m going to be bringing my kids here you’ll have to build more bedrooms”. (As an interesting aside – both Husband’s and Jane’s parents have large homes that can accommodate most, if not all, the grandkids despite the “norm” of downsizing after the kids are out of the house.)

I’ve struggled over the last four years with the fact that there are certain things allowed in our house that I don’t agree with – eating/drinking in bedrooms being a big one. I’ve already warned Husband that while I’ve never really claimed Lady of the House status in our current house, I would most definitely be so in our new house. So, to hear the girls requesting/demanding things in MY house was very difficult. I’ve never fully felt like the house we live in now was Mine and I’m so looking forward to a house that Husband and I find and move in to together.

Interestingly, though, while I don’t really want to share “my” new house with the girls, I can see how it might be fun to include Laura and Kelly in choosing paint colors, etc. Especially as Kelly will be around for another 6 years it only seems fair to give her a voice in the process! As I thought about it more and tried to figure out why it was okay to include Laura and Kelly but including Torey just made me mad, I realized that Laura and Kelly would have fun, would be grateful, would be understanding if I vetoed certain choices and would still have fun with the whole thing. But Torey…

Here’s what I texted Husband the next morning (forgive the sentences that end in prepositions): “I’m not trying to start anything – I’m just thinking out loud/trying to understand my feelings. You know Torey hasn’t said anything to me about cleaning up Ben’s room and letting her sleep there. No “thank you” or “I appreciate it” or “I know that was a lot of work”. And I’m not asking you to prompt her – a prompted thank you isn’t sincere (or doesn’t feel sincere). But it’s reactions like that (or the lack thereof) that make me uninterested in including her in decisions about the new house. I feel like there’s an expectation that it’s a “right” for her to be included and I don’t agree. I feel like Kelly and Laura would both be appreciative and have fun helping to brainstorm paint colors. I feel like Torey assumes she should be able to. Anyway…just thinking about all of this this morning and wanted to let you know where I was at. Hopefully you understand where I’m coming from and can help me work from there”. Husband responded: “Makes sense. Neither of us like entitlement.”

And that was it – Torey comes off as feeling entitled to so much. I don’t know if I’m more sensitive to it from her or if it’s her age or if it’s her. Entitlement will get you nowhere.

So, much to both my and Husband’s surprise, Torey ended up driving herself to her camp! Except for one minor detour it was, apparently, an uneventful drive. We were pleased that both she and Jane were able to reach a comfort with this solution.

We did both laugh, however, when it came time for Torey to drive home. Husband called Jane to ask her when Torey was done, what time she’d be heading home, as well as to warn Jane that traffic on a Friday would be terrible, plus it was a big event weekend in our area making traffic that much worse. Husband and I had talked about it and we both recommended that Torey either leave by noon or wait until after 6pm. She left at 2pm. What should have been a 2 to 2 1/2 hour drive turned into 5+ hours.

We tried.

Torey came to the Husband about a month ago asking for money for a journalism camp she’s attending at the end of July. He was a bit taken aback and told her he needed to talk to me – point Husband. When he mentioned it to me I was a bit surprised as this camp was on the summer calendar we received from Jane, which in the past has meant it’s taken care of. If we were asked to contribute something it was worked out before it was put on the calendar.

Husband decided the best course of action was to call Jane directly to see what her perspective was on this and here’s the story:

1) Jane was also surprised said camp cost as much as it did AND that it wasn’t in our town. She’d assumed the camp was through the HS and that it was a “day camp” where the students would go home at night.

2) Jane didn’t find out it cost $$ and was in another city until she noticed Torey’s papers lying around last week – it was NOT something Torey had brought to her attention.

3) There’s a late fee for paying after the 24th – Torey didn’t even mention the money to Husband until the 25th.

Some other key pieces of information:

4) Torey bought herself a car earlier this year and spent all her money on that, to the point she’s struggling to pay for gas for said vehicle.

5) Torey currently has $100 to her name and has offered to put that toward the cost of the camp. Camp costs $300. She originally asked for $200 from Husband, but has now requested $100 from each Husband and Jane (a bit suspicious – was that a bargaining ploy?).

I did a bit more research and found out that if she’d gotten on the ball a month earlier (and yes, I believe she knew about this camp well over a month before she talked to Husband about it) she could have applied for a grant to cover 100% of the cost.

So, my proposal to DH: We’ll loan her the $100 for our 1/3. She has to cover her 1/3 and the late fee. If she wants, she can complete the grant request and submit it to us for a $50 grant. Either way the loan that needs to be paid off before the camp (end of July). If it’s not paid for by the camp we start garnishing her allowance.

Husband didn’t like the loan idea but really liked the grant idea. So…we agreed she could put together her grant “proposal” at which point we will read it, evaluate it and (most likely) provide her the money. Luckily she put together a well-written proposal and we did provide our $100 without issue.

Well this situation reared its ugly head again the other day. Husband received a text from Torey the other day asking if he can drive her to said event. That would mean a 6 hour round-trip. He asked my opinion and I said “Honestly – hell no is my first reaction. Consequences of actions. But if it’s something you want/choose to do I will accept that.”

He and I talked more later. We covered a number of topics including the fact that both of us had thought the transportation issue was covered when we agreed to  the grant proposal/money. We were also confused as part of the grant proposal that Torey submitted to us included paragraphs about how this activity was to be a bonding activity for the HS journalism leadership and that all of them were going to be attending, etc. So, from what we can tell, it turns out one other classmate will be there as well as their teacher/adviser. Staff are no longer allowed to transport students so that’s not an option.

Here’s the part where Husband did good (again): he called Jane to get the real story as well as to talk about the options with her as opposed to Torey. (Torey tends to get a bit emotional/overwrought when people disagree with her or her plan for things.) He talked to Jane about the options for getting Torey to the event – bus or train (they have a family friend in the Event Town who could probably provide a ride and/or taxi), HS friend/friend’s parents could drive, OR (omigosh) Torey could drive herself. You know, because she got her license and HAD to have a car. Yes, it is 3 hours but it’s on the freeway, virtually a straight shot, she’s got a new car, a cellphone and (potentially) a friend who’s going and could be co-pilot. Husband said he really wasn’t trying to put it back on Jane but was trying to get Torey to take some responsibility for her choices/actions. Now, we both think Jane will end up driving her…but Husband won’t be! He was really bummed after the call because he feels like Jane totally coddles Torey (the drive is too far, she doesn’t have freeway driving experience, etc.) and his kids have become the epitome of this generation that he doesn’t like.

My only goal – for Torey to take some responsibility for her choices in life and to realize her actions have consequences that can (and do) affect others.

Family Reunion

This past weekend my mom hosted a family reunion for her side of the family. There were about 25 gathered for the weekend. It’s always fun to catch up with aunts, uncles and cousins. I have 13 cousins on my mom’s side and there are five of us that are within 18 months of age. We grew up seeing each other regularly at family gatherings, parties, and just hanging out at grandma’s house. As we get older our own lives get more and more busy and we see each other much more infrequently.

With Ben on his summer adventure and Torey on a church retreat, it was just the Husband, Laura, Kelly and I. And we had a great time. Laura’s in a bit of a teen-girl-roller-coaster-of-emotions stage so that makes her a bit more challenging at times, but so far she still lets me talk to her and I can usually get her out of her mood and back to enjoying the activity.

It used to be that activities with my family of origin and the Kids stressed me out more than any other activity. The Kids were raised in a different family culture than I was and it has been hard for me to let go of how I think they “should” behave and just let them be. They’re good kids so it’s not like they misbehave, they just don’t have the same family history or expectations. But back to this weekend. Even with her moods Laura is still easier to be around than Torey and Kelly is old enough now that I don’t have to worry about her getting in the way or being a nuisance. Not only that, they both have been around my family enough to know the people and definitely feel more comfortable interacting on their own.

I don’t know if it’s me, time, the Kids growing up or – most likely – all of the above, but it feels good to be able to just enjoy my extended family.

Happy Summer!

The 4th of July is one of my favorite holidays – I love fireworks. In addition, for most of my life the 4th has included some sort of large family get-together where I spent the day playing with cousins before finding just the right spot for the big fireworks show. As I’ve gotten older the 4th has also been an opportunity for me to reflect on my life, my country, my world.IMG_4427

In 1776 the colonies voted for independence on July 2nd. It was that day that John Adams thought would become the national holiday. Instead we celebrate the 4th, the day the final wording was approved. So much has changed since those fateful days. Our world is faster and smaller. There is very little that can’t be understood, or at least explored, with a mouse and a modem. I doubt the Founding Fathers would recognize much of “America” we are today. We are, in many ways, an isolationist, thoughtless and polarized society. And because that’s what they see, this is what our children emulate.

A good friend posted today, “We Americans must remember the gravity of what we represent, and return to something like republican virtues and values. The world is watching us, and what they see now is a slovenly paralyzed nation that prefers stuff to liberty. It is never too late to renew our vows.”

Yes, the world is watching, but so are our children. We can be better.