Archive for the ‘step-family’ Category

Tsk. Tsk. Tsk.

Her house is a pigsty.

Where would you like to sit? Let me clear a spot for you.

There is cat hair on the sofa the dog hair in the carpet. Half of a pair of dirty socks is rotting on the coffee table and its mate is on the stairs.

Fruit flies party around a bruised tomato on the counter. A mysterious red goo clings to the floor by the waste basket.

There is a funny ring around the sink in the kitchen, and the shelf in the fridge is sticky.

There is so much stuff on sitting surfaces that you’ll have to pile it up to find a place to plop.

There are kids drawings on the fridge and bulletin board; and games piled up on the table. Stuffed animals are stuck in between the couch cushions. Books pages are marked with old envelopes.

This is my house.

I know. I’m a slob. But there are only so many hours in a day, and I’ve finally stopped beating myself up about my messy house.

Quality time with my daughter and step-kids is more important than shiny floors. After a long day at work, if I come home and clean for an hour, there won’t be enough time to just hang out with the kids: helping with homework, watching Cosby show reruns, reading together and playing games.

Cleaning up before someone comes over to my house is lying.

I spend 95%* of my time in a messy house. I know I should try to put my best foot forward. But when I spend hours scouring the house, I get stressed, and still feel the need to make excuses for the mess that’s left.

My messy house is embarrassing.

But I’ve decided that other than running the vacuum and making sure there’s a place to sit at the table and the couch, I’m not going to stress myself out anymore before people come over.

Since I’ve stopped making a major production of cleaning before company, I’ve actually gotten compliments on my house.

Not, “Oh your house is so lovely,” but “your house is so homey.”

My friends feel pretty comfortable in the clutter, I think.

It takes the pressure off them to feel like they need to clean before I come over.

After all, most of us have messy houses 95% of the time. We either have kids, or dogs, or busy jobs, or occupying hobbies. All are more important than a clean house.

Now, I am in no way slamming anyone with a clean house. Some people are great at cleaning. They are efficient cleaners. They feel better when their living space is organized. Some people find cleaning, meditative.

If you love to clean, go for it.

I’m too A.D.D. to keep a clean house. I spend hours trying to organize a countertop. I am completely inefficient. As much as I love an organized space, it takes so much energy that I spend way more stress trying to maintain the organization, than the stress the clutter causes.

I’ve decided that the best friends are the ones you don’t have to clean up for; the ones that you’re not ashamed to bring into your messy house for coffee.

Typical state of the dining room table

Seriously, do we really want our friends to waste time fretting over their messy house for us?


I want to be the friend that you’ll invite into your house when the counter is full, and you have to push your junk onto a pile on the floor for me to sit down.

I don’t care about your clutter.

I care about you.

*all percentages are completely made up, but I think they’re pretty accurate anyway.

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The Store

We have three tween girls in our family.  Two age 9 1/2, and one age 11.  Trying to find clothes for all of them could break the bank, but we came up with a solution.

All summer long, I shop at garage sales and second hand stores.  Hubby and I watch for half-off sales and 75% off tags at Good Will, collecting cute clothes for $.10 to $2.00.

I have learned to hit the jackpot by driving slowly past garage sales, looking for  a stylish teenager guarding the money box.  Often their clothes have been worn once or not at all, or they have too many, so they practically give their unwanted threads away.

Right before school starts, and in the spring, we pull out the clothes and set up a store.

The girls take turn trying on and choosing items they love.  Lucky for us, the three girls have very different taste, and slightly different body types, so there isn’t a lot of competition.

This is the oldest in her "not quite polished mis-matched, but look at me I'm cute" look

The oldest sports a polished look.  The middle is a traditional preppy girl, and the youngest digs more of a Punky Brewster style.

Any clothes that are still too big get boxed up for the next season.  Unchosen clothes will make their way back to one of the thrift stores.

As they get older, I’m scared that they won’t want to shop this way anymore and my money saving plot will be foiled.

But they are still excited to pick out outfits.

Each of them will get a little bit of spending money to buy the school clothes that they didn’t find on shopping day.  We’ll go to the box stores and to the second-hand stores.  They’ll decide how to budget their funds to fill in their missing wardrobe.

I spent about $80 on the clothes and shoes bought this way.  Each of the girls is getting $40 to spend at the regular stores.  Any leftover money will be set aside if they want to buy something later this fall.

The girls are learning how to budget their money.  They’re learning about the value of reusing and recycling.  And heck, clothing three girls in really cute, full wardrobes for less than $200 total, works for me.

The three girls, youngest to oldest in their favorite outfit of the day

A Note About “The Boy”

My step-son is going into high school.  He is substantially less picky about his clothes.  I find nice shirts for him along the way, and his dad will take him to buy blue jeans and socks.  So far, so good.

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Love Tanks Can Be for Energy Too

Photo of my daughter and my dog, taken by my step-daughter

Many of you are probably familiar with the book, The Five Love Languages.  In the book, Chapman describes love tanks.  As long as there are continuous deposits, your love tank will never be empty, and you will in turn have plenty of love to give.  Relationships begin to break down if one of the people involved has an empty tank.

I think it’s similar with emotions and energy as well.  As long as there are continuous deposits of energizing activities, positive communication, and affirmation of who you are, there will be plenty of positivity for you to give back to the world.

The last year, not only drained my love tank, but also my overall emotional tank.  I have a loving husband and daughter.  I know they love me.  But there were too many withdraws from other areas my life.

Someone Ought to Write a Vampire Book That Takes Place at a High School

Teaching uses a lot of energy without a lot of return (unless maybe you are paid in hugs by kindergarteners-my high schoolers don’t hug me-thank goodness!).  There are some nice kids, some that want to blend into the scenery, and those that will suck from you any remaining energy you have.

There aren’t a lot of “atta girls” in teaching.  Parents of high schoolers don’t call you up to say, “Great job on the unit, little Billy couldn’t stop talking about it.”  I’ve only had two students write thank you notes.  The only time I hear from the administration is when I’m missing some paperwork or forgot to do something.

Heck, my students say, “I don’t have a pencil” instead of, “May I borrow a pencil, please?” In fact, I had one student that would say, “Screw it then, I just won’t do the work,” when I asked him to use please as part of his request.  It sounds little, but twenty situations just like this over the course of a day, is draining.

There are not a lot of kudos in step-parenting either.

Being a step-parent to tweens and a teen is very similar to teaching.  Just like my students, the may respect me, but they don’t love or appreciate me the way my own kid does.  I don’t get hugs and kisses, and “I love you” notes from them.  I give as much as a parent, but the return on investment is much smaller than regular ole parenting.

Just like in teaching, they will probably appreciate what I did for them when they are all grown up.

I get it though.  It’s part of the job that I signed up for when I married my husband.

My point is, I don’t hear, “That’s awesome” or “Good Job” very often at all.  Most of the feedback I get is, “This is stupid (dumb or boring)”, or “Why do we have to …?”

This summer was a shock to my system.

I got positive feedback.

The first was when I went to a coffee shop to install some of my photographs on consignment.  The woman in charge of the displays couldn’t stop gushing over them.  She pulled the customers into our conversation, so she could gush some more.  I wasn’t quite sure what to do with positive attention.  I was caught completely off-guard.

Then I started doing some freelance writing in one of my favorite topics, sustainable agriculture.  While I was doing my first interview, the interviewee, asked my opinion about the topic.  A leader in the industry wanted to know what I thought about an issue?  Stunning.

The editor that hired me for the writing job said something like “Nice job,” or “Good article” or something like that.  Amazing.

At the end of an interview with one of my agricultural heros, he said to me, “Thank you for the work you do.”  Ahhhh.  So nice.

Each little thank you.  Each atta girl, was simple.

I started to wonder.  Do some people get thanked at work?  Do some people hear, “you’re doing a good job” or “what do you think about this idea?” on a regular basis?

And then I remembered.

Yes.  Yes they do, I’ve had those jobs before.

That’s what was missing for me in the last year.  Each simple act of kindness and gratitude gives me a little bit more energy to face my day and push ahead.

This summer I’ve had the energy to laugh.  I’ve had energy to be courageous.  And I’ve had the emotional space to think creative thoughts.

Remember to say “thank you” or “I appreciate what you do” to someone today.

Let’s keep these tanks filled up.

Note: As I was finding links to The Five Love Languages, Chapman has a new book called, The Five Languages of Appreciation in the Workplace.  I think it would probably be a pretty good read, especially if you are a manager of people.

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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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photo from pack 101 flickr

Tonight I’m writing this post while I’m watching my daughter tear up the track at a pinewood derby race. She and her dad made a rockin’ pink car. So far, she’s won the first two rounds by several car lengths.

Last year, she was crushed when her matchbox car didn’t win. She and her dad tested dozens of cars to find the fastest one.  After all that testing, I’m sure there was no doubt in her mind that she would win.

There have been times in my life, that I knew I couldn’t lose,

like the time my friends and I traveled from Michigan State and spent the night in a University of Michigan quad. It was the Michigan State versus Michigan football game. I was sure that we would win. After all, we won the year before. I was cocky and did a whole lot of trash talking to my Wolverine friends. I left the stadium with my tail between my legs after eating a slice of humble pie.

There are things in my life that I feel like I could never lose, like my: family, career, middle class lifestyle, freedoms, and my rights as an American, a human, and a woman.

I need to stop taking what I have for granted.

My first marriage was difficult, but I took for granted getting to see my daughter everyday. Now that she splits time between two homes, I cherish my time with her all the more.

I am sure that were it not for my difficult first marriage, I wouldn’t appreciate the way my hubby and I communicate, and the way he shows he loves me. I don’t advocate for divorce, but I will use it as an opportunity of gratitude.

I used to complain about the difficulties of mainstreaming all children into the classroom, and now that the education of those students is threatened, I’m fighting for their right to be there.

I’ve struggled with working with at risk kids and how to best serve them, but now I worry that my high school kiddos (and their little sibs, and their own children) won’t have the educational opportunities that they need for their lives, not for the college prep mold we are trying to force all kids into.

I used to think that women in America had equal rights as men.   Now I’m not so sure.  In the news I hear of unions of predominantly women professionals being broken apart, laws that make women “prove” a miscarriage, and defunding of basic reproductive medical care for women (not the abortions, but basic care).  For goodness sake, we send money to third world nations to help them with their reproductive health.  What about American women?

I always thought that I would be able to grow my own food and buy directly from the farmer.

My world is being turned upside down as of late, and I don’t like it one bit.  But I have realized that I have gotten awfully comfy in my life.

This post is not meant to depress anyone.  Rather, I want to stop being cocky, and start being grateful for what we have, or there may be a slice of humble pie with our names on it.

And my daughter that went into her race a bit more humble this year, came away with the champion trophy for her derby car, “The Phoenix”.

Ellie and her champion car The Phoenix

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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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