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Posts Tagged ‘step-family’

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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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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Today I was talking with a mom of five.  Her oldest is in college, and the youngest is eight.  She is one of the most easy going people I’ve ever met.  In her free time, she enjoys going out in public in socks with sandals and pajama pants to embarrass her kids.  She spends most evenings running around town taking the kids to their activities.  I’m not really sure how she manages a household of seven and works fulltime.  Recently, she was down for the count on the couch after an illness.

She mentioned that one of her sons offered to help unload the dishwasher and she was touched.  I asked if the kids were pitching in.

I’m still trying to do most of it myself.  It’s just easier.

Whoa!  How does she do it and stay sane?  Maybe I’m different because I stepped into a kid manager-mommy-ish role to three (plus mine) when they were all preteens.  I knew that I would never ever be able to manage the house, work full time, and maintain my sanity.  So, my hubby and I have put the kids to work.

We don’t expect more of them than what they are capable, but they are stepping up to and exceeding our expectations.

One of the things that I regret most is that my mom was so nuturing and cared for us so well.  I had two regular chores as a kid.  I had to water the dog, and either load or unload the dishwasher.  My brother and I complained and complained about that one easy job.

When I became an adult, I realized how much my mom had been doing all those years, and I fully appreciate now all that she did for me.

I spent the first five or ten years out of high school calling my mom up for the littlest things.  How do I wash my clothes?  How do I make soup?  How do I balance my checkbook?  How do I freeze green beans?  I wish that I had taken up more responsibility while I was at home, and could have soaked up a little bit of knowledge.  My mom was a home ec teacher.  I should have learned some really important things from her.  As a young adult, I felt a little worthless.  Until I was able to stay home with my daughter, I didn’t really know how to balance home tasks and get everything done, although I really wanted to.

I’m still terrible at day-to-day housework, but I can do projects around the house from sunrise to sunset and get a lot of satisfaction from it.  I learned most of these “how-tos” from my mom when I was an adult.

Back to the kids…

My parenting philosophy really has three parts:

  • Love your kids unconditionally.
  • Encourage your kids to develop their strengths.
  • It is our job as parents to teach kids to be productive, well adjusted adults.

Jeremy and I spent a lot of time talking about how we wanted to structure our hodge-podge family before we got married.  Our parenting styles are quite different.  He described himself as raising free-range children.  I would definitely describe myself as a more structured parent.

Willing volunteers washing Ole Tilly.

From the start we knew that it would be important to establish routines, procedures and expectations of the kids.  We did this by establishing boundaries (ie. the master bathroom is off-limits to kids, talk-back won’t be tolerated).  We set up a bedtime routine of songs and hugs, and sit-down dinners as much as possible. We’ve also involved the kids in the running of the household:

  • Everyone does their own laundry-which helps a ton when you have three girls that are all about the same size.  Before we got married I had cold sweats about sorting out the Hannah Montana and Strawberry Shortcake panties.  They even hang their own clothes on the clothesline.
  • The kids are in charge of dishes and clearing the table.  There was some resistance at first.  Lots of grumbling and “not fairs”.  The youngest learned within a day or two that every time she said “Not it!” she was magically chosen.  Nobody says “Not it!” anymore.  We do however have kids rushing to unload as that is the preferred job.  Usually it is done in pairs, and the job goes very quickly.
  • Before leaving for the other parent’s house, they have to pick up their stuff in the yellow room and run a vacuum on their bedroom floor.  The only bedroom requirement is that we can safely walk through them.
  • The kids take turns every other week as the Saturday chore “manager”.  One of them gets a clipboard, looks around the house for what chores needs to be done, and then helps divvy out the tasks and checks them off as they are finished.  The manager also helps decide who gets to clean the toilet as that is a favorite chore (no one ever said these kids were normal).  My thought is that maybe this will help them “see” what needs to be done instead of waiting for someone to tell them.  I still struggle with this one myself.

This responsibility seems to be building their confidence.  The kids volunteer willingly (no they don’t have a fever) to sweep the floor, help with dinner, and feed the cat.  My oldest step-daughter spent a whole day helping me make salsa for Christmas presents. My youngest step-daughter jumps in to wash the car.  My stepson helps with recycling; and my daughter asked yesterday if feeding the cat could be added to her responsibilities.

It is our expectation that everyone will pitch in to keep this family running.  If I had had all these kiddos from infancy, I’m sure that my responsibilities would have crept into “all of the above”.  One of the best pieces of advice that I try to remember at home and at school was from a teacher workshop.

Never do for children what they can do for themselves.

I still feel overwhelmed by everything that needs to be done around the house.  The house is still cluttered 98% of the time.  I’m still exhausted mentally and physically after work.  But the kids are learning, growing, and meeting and exceeding our expectations.  The kids are working hard and reaping the benefits.  They’ve gotten raises for their hard work.  As a family we have more fun time because the daily chores are done shortly after dinner.  We even have a “party jar” where loose change and “bonuses” go.  Bonuses are when we see great teamwork.  Every so often we spend the party jar for fun things like s’mores, movies, and bowling.

I think the reward that they haven’t yet gotten is that some day they’ll wake up and find that they are self-sufficient young adults.

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