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Peace, altered photo, Jenny Frech 2011

Yesterday I began writing about being a stepmom because it can be a lonely new world to navigate. I’m not looking for sympathy or revenge. I just want to share my story because it might help someone else.

In my town, I am friends with exactly zero stepmoms. In my whole life I’ve known four.  I have no role models, and obviously regular old mom advice doesn’t apply here, because I’m a regular old mom too.

Much of the advice online is from women negative and angry about their divorces.  They use the platform to spew venom. Ick. Other advice is for women without kids of their own; women that can get out of the house in the evening for kickboxing and manicures.  Not helpful.

Negativity rarely fixes a situation. I am looking for hope.

I am the grown up in these awkward step relationships.  I am the one that can change; so that’s where I start.

Yesterday, I shared my story of the moment I was knocked down and faced with expectations I didn’t even realize I had.  I had too many expectations, but not of the kids.   I don’t expect them to love or even like me. I do expect that they help out a little around the house, and they exceed those expectations beautifully.  They vacuum the yellow room, help with dishes, and do their laundry.  But I draw the line at going all evil Cinderella stepmother on them.  There is no chimney sweeping around here.

Nope, it was the expectations of myself. I had envisioned myself being able to cook all of the meals, keep everyone organized, assign chores, and run kids around town and have nice bonding conversations. I thought that I would always be fair and diplomatic, and that I would relate to my stepkids pretty well. I expected myself to help my husband with much of the childcare. I thought I would be able to jump in and discipline like I do at school. It was frustrating because the harder I tried, the more control I lost.

I was trying to control too much of the situation, which is kind of like trying to hold on to Jello.

I’m starting back at ground level, this time wiping the slate clean of expectations of being the superwoman figure in my house. I do have to be a mother.  My  biological daughter lives with me. I cannot step back completely because I do have a legitimate “mom” role to fulfill.

By clearing away expectations there is more room for everyone to be themselves.

Hopefully I’m leaving enough space for everyone to mourn their losses, but I’ll stay in view in case I’m needed or wanted. I am here, but I’ll let them come to me on their own terms.

I’m not angry. Confused, yes. Confuddled, yes. Frustrated, yep. Uncomfortable, sure thing.

But I can also say yes to strong, hopeful, consistent, loving, proud, and sometimes even a blubbering fool.

I am thankful for the opportunity for personal growth. I’ve always secretly wanted to be a more graceful person. The kind of person that is always welcoming even if they’re busy; has a smile, even if you’re rude; and is truly grateful to see you, even if you’re ambivalent.

I’ve been told never to pray for patience because you’ll have it tested.

Here’s a tip, don’t pray for grace either.

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Altered photo by Jenny Frech 2011

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…

That’s how I feel about my remarriage lately.  Being a step mom is hard.  It is THE most difficult challenge that I have ever faced.  And that includes my year of transition to teaching at a school full of negativity in which teachers were quitting mid-day.  At times it’s even more difficult than my divorce.

Before anyone goes running to Jeremy to tell him that these are sometimes the worst of times, don’t bother, he knows.  He feels the same way.

Trying to blend together two families of preteens and a teenager can be tricky.  All of the kids are in different places of healing after the divorce.  All of the kids have different personalities and coping mechanisms.  They all have conflicting loyalties,  and ways of looking at and moving in the world.  All of us have different expectations of what our lives should look like, and what our time  together in the household will be.

I came into this family with no expectations of forming mother-child bonds.  They have a mother, they don’t need me to fill that role.  I have a daughter, I don’t need them to fill that role.  As a teacher, I work with kids about their age every day.  I love my students without being their mom, and the students love me too, in a respected adult kind of way.

That’s how I envisioned my relationship with my step kids.

It has been so much more difficult.

Over spring break, the first real day in fact, two of the kids told their dad that they hated me.

I fell apart, utterly and completely, wailing-on-the-bathroom-floor-apart.

But deep down I knew it already.

The honeymoon of our new family was over, and the shiny newness of dad’s wife had worn off.  The complaints about my choice of foods had been increasing, as had the ignoring and avoidance of me.

I know I shouldn’t take it personally.

I know it’s not about me.  It’s not about my cooking.  It’s not about the color I painted their rooms.  It’s not that my daughter is here too and gets special treatment.

It’s about what I represent to them.

I could be Mary Poppins, or Nanny McPhee, or the pretty girl their dad marries at the end of the movie.  It doesn’t matter.

It’s about the empty place in their home that I fill with a puzzle piece from an entirely different puzzle.

It’s that mom and dad will never be back together.  It’s that they don’t like that I do things differently from their mom, but if I did them the same, then I would be trying to take her place.

It’s a no win scenario.  I’m the easiest target of their hurt, grief, and confusion. They cannot be mad at mom or dad.

It has nothing to do with me.

They can’t love me right now.  They would be disloyal to mom if they loved me.

It has nothing to do with me.

I’ve stepped back.  Instead I’ve let dad take over the running of the chores.

Jeremy does all of the cooking, most of the running around, and all of the tucking in at night.

I have nothing to do with his kid management, just the management of my own child (which is a biomom stepmom balancing act in itself.)

I’ve stepped back.

But, I am here for the kids.

They can absolutely count on me.

When I realized what they were struggling with, my heart began to break for them.  But I’ve stepped back.  I won’t push.  I won’t tell them what to eat.  I won’t tell them to clean the bathroom.  But I’m here.

I’m not going anywhere.

I’m here because I’m growing, learning, and falling deeper in love with my husband, my best friend, every day.

Our relationship grows through the messiness of our blended family.  Sometimes we are stretched so thin, it feels like we might break.

He listens,  we talk, and we both get grayer and grayer as we face these new challenges.

I’m here because I’ve committed myself to be my husband’s helpmate.  He loves his children deeply, so I am here.

It may be the worst of times.

But I’m not going anywhere because it’s also the best of times.

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Sarah Kay, photo by themikelee, flickr

I just watched a fun TED Talk (Technology Entertainment and Design) video by accident today.  I love TED.  The most outstanding and interesting people in their particular field present 5-20 minute talks recapping their research.  Many are inspirational or just plain cool.

If for whatever reason you have not been introduced to the TED Talks, then you must immediately go visit the website.  There truly is something there for everyone.

Today I followed a link to listen to a particular website, but the link was wrong.  It linked from Facebook incorrectly, but I don’t think it was truly the wrong link for ME.

Sarah Kay was the presenter.  She is a spoken word poet.  I do not particularly enjoy poetry (I really don’t get it), but I listened.  You can and should listen to her talk.

Neato.

Sarah started an organization called Project V.O.I.C.E. (Vocal Outreach Into Creative Expression).  She and her partner in the organization, Phil Kaye, travel around the country, helping students learn more about themselves through spoken word poetry.

I was impressed with her optimism and openness to the pain and hurt in the world, but also for the opportunity for love and acceptance.

When trying to get the students to write their first poem, she first has them write a list of ten things that they know to be true.  She says that most people, in order to be cool, or try to keep their cool, walk around with their guard up all the time, ready to be defensive.  While we try to keep ourselves away from the hurt, we are also keeping ourselves from finding the connections that we so desperately need.

When her students start sharing their lists, they find some common ground between them, and also the things that set themselves apart.  This gives the students a place to start with their poetry.  More importantly, it gives the students a starting point in their self-examination.

I decided to make my own lists.  I could probably make a list of 100 things that I know to be true.  It is not exhaustive, prioritized, or even limited to ten.  Below is a list of random thoughts that popped up in the first ten minutes of list making.

Before reading my list, why don’t you take a few minutes to make your own, then we can compare notes.

Ten (plus) things I know to be true

  1. Everyone is an idiot, flailing about through life and winging it as they go.
  2. The love for my daughter guides my decisions.
  3. I feel shame and guilt daily.
  4. Eyes speak more loudly than words.
  5. I can’t not love my students and give all I have to them, even if it sucks me dry.
  6. Names of actors, movies, songs, and musicians or other useless details will never be important enough to me to remember.
  7. I am PigPen from Peanuts…clouds of dust follow me wherever I go.
  8. Love is a choice, and must be chosen each day by both individuals, especially on the days that you don’t feel like loving or being loved.
  9. Forgiveness and grace are essential.
  10. Curiosity and a love of learning make life more interesting, fun, and just plain worth living.
  11. There is always someone that has it much worse than you and yet each day wakes up loving life.
  12. When someone hugs you, be the last to let go.
  13. When you feel like pulling away, reach out instead.
  14. I cannot trust my instincts.
  15. Color feeds my soul: color in the sky, in the flowers, and on my living room walls.
  16. Dramatic lighting makes me giddy.
  17. I am head over heels crazy about my husband.
  18. Life is an incredible, intricate, and beautiful system of systems.
  19. There is always hope.

While I was writing the list above I felt exposed.  There were a couple of things that I took off of the list because they were just too personal to post on the web.  My uncensored list makes me feel vulnerable.  At the same time, it feels good to be honest with myself, and put some of those truths into words.

Below is another list Sarah Kay mentions in her talk.  I censored this list a bit too.  This list was fun to write, but there are definitely some things that make me feel shameful.  (Dangnabbit…there goes #3 above).

Ten things I should have learned by now, but haven’t

  1. When I call someone they are probably glad to hear from me, not mad because I interrupted the important thing they were doing.
  2. I should know how to put my dirty clothes into the laundry basket.
  3. For someone that really does enjoy getting to know new people, I should have learned how to mingle, make small talk with strangers at large gatherings.
  4. By now I should know what I want to be when I grow up.
  5. Surely I should be able to balance my home life with my the above occupation and financial obligations.
  6. I have never learned how to do my hair or make up, even when I had girly girl friends, I never learned a thing.
  7. Loving to read, you would think that I would have a long list of fiction books that I love.  I have just never really learned to spend my time reading things that weren’t practical.
  8. I’ve never learned to change my oil.  But I can check and replace the fluids.  It’s a start.
  9. I have never learned to do a cartwheel.
  10. Tomatoes are beautiful, fun to grow, delightful to can and make into salsa.  But I have never learned to eat them.
  11. I will probably never learn to stop dreaming, although there are times I wish I could just turn it off.

How do our lists compare?

Forward this post to your friends, and then compare notes with them as well.

Maybe we can learn something about ourselves, and about the ones we love if we are willing to be open and exposed.

 

As an aside, as I was finishing this post, Morrissey’s song, Sing your Life was playing in the backgroud.

“Sing your life
Any fool can think of words that rhyme
Many others do
Why don’t you ?
Do you want to ?
Oh…
Sing your life
Walk right up to the microphone
And name
All the things you love
All the things that you loathe”

That’s appropriate.
sing your life lyrics
all about Morrissey

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Jeremy and I are trying to take a complex, hodge podge of personalities and turn it into a smooth running blended family.  This requires lots of talking and negotiation.

How the heck do we incorporate our six lives into one?

Our kids are on different custody schedules so consistency is almost impossible.

We differ in parenting styles. Jeremy is a free range parent.  I am structured.  But, we both want the kids to be functional adults when they fly the coop.

We understand that to raise self-sufficient adults, the kids need to contribute to the household with chores.  Chores bring a sense of pride to everyone.

The primary chore in our house is dishwashing. With six of us, we dirty up a lot of plates in a hurry. We expect the kids to do dishes after the dinner meal. When our dishwasher was working, that meant two to unload and two to load. Now that our dishwasher doesn’t work, it means all hands on deck.

The first lesson in the Tao of Dishwashing is:

Like it or not, you must surrender to the family unit, because everyone contributes.

When first starting our daily dishes routine there was an abundance of

“Not it!”

Without telling the kids, whoever said “Not it!”, we anointed the chosen one. It took the youngest child less than 24 hours to realize that she was always being chosen.  More importantly, she learned the reason why she was always chosen.

We no longer hear the words, “not it.”

Occasionally, we hear “Not fair! Why doesn’t so-and-so have to (fill-the-blank)”, after all, they are kids.  But it is getting rarer and rarer.

The second lesson in the Tao of Dishwashing is:

Chores don’t have to be a drag when there is spontaneous singing and laughter

The kids learned that singing and dancing while drying and putting away dishes could be a lot of fun. Our kids all have pretty nice voices, except when they are yelling out “The Wheels on the Bus”, but for the most part, we have ourselves a regular Von Trapp family.

The third lesson in the Tao of Dishwashing is:

Broken dishes contribute to the simplicity of our lives.

We have had a lot of casualities this week. For whatever reason, glasses keep breaking. Either the kids have contracted butter fingers, or the glasses have evolved and learned to jump to their death like lemmings.

The fewer possessions we own, the more space we have in our lives for what matters.

The fourth and final lesson in the Tao of Dishwashing is:

Routine, chores, and contribution to community can transform us.

On Saturday, the girls were having a sleepover. After dinner, we excused the girls to go do whatever it is nine and ten-year-olds do at sleepovers.  Jeremy and I did the dishes.

The youngest (remember, the “Not it!” girl) came up to Jeremy and I and said,

“Thanks for doing the dishes for us.”

Everyone at this place is keeping the house running on six cylinders.

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One of the biggest parts of my life, and one of the most difficult to write about is that of the matriarch of a blended family-sometimes I’m mom, sometimes a step-mom, sometimes a wife.  I’m different things to the different people in this house, and it can get complicated.

It’s difficult to write about, because I want to be careful to not sound like I’m complaining about my situation, or upset with the kids’ other parts of their families.  I am thankful for my family.  I am thankful for a wonderful husband that lets me vent, and is willing to work toward solutions.  It’s just that sometimes, because of circumstances, it seems like there are no solutions, at least no suitable solutions.

I know there are others out there that are struggling through similar issues, and want to find solutions.

The last three days have been snow days for us, but they have been noticeably quiet.  My daughter was here, but Jeremy’s kids were with their mom.  The house was really quiet.  My husband was really quiet.  I’m sure it was hard for him to be without his kids, while my daughter and I took advantage of our school-free day.  It would have been hard on me, had my daughter been with her dad over those snow days.

We talked about how busy and stressful our lives have gotten, and how discombobulated our weeks can feel sometimes because there is no routine.  Our door is a revolving door, kids are constantly coming and going to their other respective homes, and it can be difficult to establish normalcy when there is no normal.

We also talked about the good.  The kids are getting along much better now, even spending loads of time playing, laughing, and getting along.  The kids are doing a wonderful job pitching in and doing their chores.  They’re all pretty good at remembering to do their homework after school without prompting.  And while there are still some power struggles and adjustment to having another adult in their lives to boss them around, for the most part, it seems like they’re adjusting pretty well.

Becoming a step-mom is by far the most difficult job I’ve ever had.  But, I love my husband very much.  We have shared values, and great communication.  There are moments almost everyday that think to myself,  “I am lucky to have such a wonderful husband.”

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In my teens and early twenties, I dealt with depression like countless other young women.  Since then I’ve learned so much about myself.  I have learned to embrace my weirdness and use it to my advantage.  All-in-all, with just a few minor exceptions, I accept who I am.

In my late twenties and early thirties, anxiety set in.  Not the kind anxiety that was bad enough to stay home and bolt the doors.  It’s the kind that makes my arms itch and gives me the feeling that there is too much to do in too little time.  In my twenties, it started as anxiety toward money issues:  How will we pay the bills? Will we ever get out of debt?  When my daughter was two-and-a-half, it became: How will I find enough time for her if I go back to work?

Since then the passing of time makes me anxious.

It’s not that I mind working.  Really, I’ve always been happiest working a two or three part-time jobs at a time to keep life interesting.  It was that I would have to leave my daughter at home, and try to juggle the demands of work and the joys of being a mom.  I just never wanted anyone else to raise my kid but me.

As my daughter got older, and I was beginning to see that there was no way to save my marriage, I began to get anxious about missing out on time with her.  I made the choice to leave the marriage and have to sacrifice my time, when I realized that if she were in a unhealthy marriage like mine that I would cry for her.  And that’s what I was modeling, so that’s what she would get.

Me and my kid at the dunes

It’s very weird mommy-ing on some days, and not on others.  I’m always her mom, but when the kids aren’t here, it’s quiet and haunting.  There is no homework to help with, no violin to practice, and no sit-down dinners to be made.  Their stuff is usually on the coffee table, shoes in the hallway, dirty clothes on their floors, and it sits there until they return.

I hate feeling like a part-timer.

I love every minute that my daughter is with me, but it is filled with all kinds of guilt.  I feel guilty when I have to spend time grading papers.  I quit going to yoga because it took away time with my kid.  I feel guilty when I need to spend time cleaning or in the garden or doing one of the million things moms need to do to keep things going.  I feel guilty when I’ve told her “just a minute,” and it becomes twenty.

I feel so much pain for her because she has to split her heart and her time between the two people that mean the most to her.

About that time anxiety…

On Thursday night right before bed, I sang her lullaby.  As I was singing, I got all choked up because I hadn’t gotten to spend much time with her this week, and she was going to Dad’s the next day for the long weekend.  I couldn’t finish singing.  When she asked what was wrong, I said that I was thinking about how I was going to miss her.

“I’m not gone yet, Mom,” she said.

“You’re right.”  I apologized, and hugged her, and just kind of breathed her in.

Sacrificing my time rips my heart out.  I’m pretty sure I did the right thing.  I know that I am now modeling a healthy marriage for her.  Her dad has remarried, and it seems like it is a much healthier relationship for him too.  She now has a brother, and sisters, and new grandmas, grandpas, aunts, and uncles that think she is the cat’s meow.

I don’t think or maybe I don’t know if this will ever get easier.  I kind of feel like I am sending my kid off to college at age 8.  In the meantime, I will try to slow time by enjoying the time that I have with her and trying really hard to only miss her when she is really gone.

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I am a very happily married woman.  But it hasn’t always been that way.  In my past life, I was not-so-happily married for a little over 10 years.  It was a time filled with self-doubt, poor communication, and a dedication to trying to fix something that was never really properly functioning to begin with.  I won’t complain about that time in my life, because it was a tremendous period of growth and learning for me.

I was the one that finally said the words, “I can’t be married anymore.”  But, I am not one that thinks divorce is a good idea.  In fact, it is a truly terrible idea.  Divorce is hard, especially when there are kids involved.  But there is a time, and there is a place for it.

Today I was thinking about it again.  If one of the parties cannot forgive, forget, and move on, then there is no hope for reconciliation.  It doesn’t mean that you won’t stay married, it means that the hope for a healthy relationship is out the window.  I was not able to forgive, forget, and move on.  I held on to the “wrongs” committed against me and took them personally.

A few years ago I got some really great advice. “Life is so much easier if you realize that everyone is an idiot, but you have to include yourself in that”, says Lisa, buddy, former roomy, and naturalist extraordinaire.

It really does make things easier.  At the end of my marriage, I carried around a slip of paper in my wallet, and had it on my computer screen.  It had a symbol of a heart and a peace sign on it.  It was to remind me that I should have peace, love, and understanding to my now ex-husband.  It helped lighten my heart toward him.  It was the point in the relationship that every little thing the other person does, makes you want to scream.  Having the reminder that we are all a bunch of idiots (self included) was helpful during this time.

My husband, and I often lament that we didn’t find one another first.  It would have been so much easier to have one set of children that didn’t have to be shuttled from place to place.  It would be so much easier to not have outside forces that are annoyed by us.  But, on the other hand, we may not appreciate one another as much.

I realize that I married an idiot.

Instead of holding grudges, and clinging to my “rightness”, I am able to let the little stuff go.  It is surprisingly easy.  Jeremy does dumb little things all the time, and they are not even a blip in the radar.  When I squirt ketchup on my shirt for the hundredth time, he trips over my shoes, and I forget to get my oil changed, he just shakes his head and says, “Oh Jenny.”

Jeremy definitely knows that he married an idiot, but he loves me anyway.

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