Category Archives: blended families

judgey, judgey me

I have noticed myself being very judgmental lately.  Not in general, but in particular.  And the person in particular who has been the subject of my judgment is my ex-husband’s new wife.

I know, I know, I know.  This story is as old as divorce and remarriage.  The first wife resenting the second wife, feeling that she doesn’t measure up, that she is the recipient of everything denied in the first marriage, that she does not deserve the opportunity to raise the children of the first marriage.  Honestly, I know the song and dance, and I get it.

But I still want to shake her sometimes.  Hard.

I didn’t always feel this way.  One thing I credited my ex-husband with was the propensity to select a suitable woman to enter my daughters’ lives.  Bryce has always valued smart, capable, successful women; he is not a man predisposed to bimbos, tramps, or gold-diggers.  So after our divorce, I really didn’t worry at all about whom he might bring into the lives of our daughters.

Indeed, his very first girlfriend after (or before?) our separation was a woman I knew from our tennis and swim club and liked very well.  I told my friends that it was shame that she was the Rebound Woman because I would have been very happy with him settling down with her.  But, of course, she didn’t last.  Then there was Debbie, Bryce’s foray into the Younger Woman category.  She seemed very nice, and I thought my daughters liked her very well, but I found out differently once she and Bryce broke up.  And then came “Mariah.”  At first I was grateful for her presence.  She is older than Bryce, with one child in college and another about to graduate high school.  She’s a successful career woman and seemingly smart, attractive, and classy. When they got engaged in late 2013, I was genuinely happy for them both, and I told them so.  But that was before she shared a house with my children…

I am of the firm belief that Mariah married Bryce in spite of his children, not because she loved them as well as him.  This sad truth is blatantly apparent in the choices that she and Bryce have made as they’ve blended their families into a single home:  from creating a bedroom for my daughters to share out of a dark basement space, to refusing to buy foods that my daughters in like in favor of shopping lists prepared around their step-sister’s preferences (and, no, she doesn’t have food intolerances or allergies), to a strict dress-code that I’m sure Mariah borrowed from the Mormons, to taking a “family trip” to Europe over the summer without my girls (who are being shipped off to their grandparents for a week instead).  My daughters are not a high priority for their step-mother, nor, it would seem, for their own dad sometimes.  Sabrina has informed me that her dad rationalizes his refusal to challenge Mariah on her dictates because he wants to make her happy, something he believes he had failed at with me. So, my girls know that they are not a priority at his house, and I know it, and it makes all of us sad.

I’m not naive about divorce and blended families.  I expected different rules at the two homes, and I knew that some new and different values would be at tension with how Bryce and I had originally raised our girls together.  But I honestly never anticipated a step-mother who so obviously did her best to tolerate them only.  In all their lives, I have so rarely run into adults who didn’t seem to genuinely like my girls; the idea that I now have to share them with a woman who doesn’t is heartbreaking.

But, really, it should be okay that she doesn’t like them.  I remind myself that we all connect differently and with different people.  Just because I like (or love) someone does not mean that you would equally as well or even at all.  My girls are not going to be everyone’s cup of tea anymore than I am, and that I know and accept fully. Or at least theoretically. But what I simply can’t get my head around is this:  Why in the world would you marry someone who had two relatively young children (ages 11 and 13 at the time) with whom you don’t want to be involved and maybe don’t even particularly like?

I try — SINCERELY! — to remember that not everyone approaches relationships and blended families as I do.  Even James has struggled to care for my daughters in the same manner and with the same depth of emotion as I care for his children.  But if I didn’t like his kids, if I’d just been biding my time until they grew up and moved out, if I found their behaviors, habits, and manners so irritating and aggravating, I couldn’t have made a life with him.  So Mariah’s decisions and motivations are a mystery to me.

People who know both Bryce and I have speculated that Mariah married him to enjoy the financially comfortable lifestyle he is so capable of providing, and perhaps this is true to some extent.  They do have a newly renovated showcase home on an acre of land in an expensive enclave of an expensive town.  Bryce did purchase Mariah a ring just this side of Kardashian-land.  And she is enjoying lavish vacations.  But still, how is that enough if you don’t want his kids around fifty percent of the time?

I remind myself that I do not know her whole story.  I do not know what her own childhood was like.  I do not know if her formal and rigid nature is a vestige of the way she was raised or maybe a defense mechanism acquired later.  I remember to be glad that she is not outright mean or cruel or vindictive toward my children.  Because even if she were, my options would be meager.  But she’s not.  She’s really not.  She’s more indifferent than anything.

So why can’t I just accept that she is different from me and different from my girls and that’s okay?  Why am I so disturbed by the fact that she is marginalizing them when it could be so much worse?  I mean, seriously, who died and made me judge of anything? What right do I have to cast stones in anyone’s direction?  Why am I so decidedly unable to practice the values of no judgment and bountiful compassion toward her?

I have examined my feelings from multiple angles.  I have questioned whether I am jealous of her relationship with my ex, and concluded that while it is occasionally painful to my ego to have it confirmed for me that Bryce’s depth of love for me was no deeper than mine for him, I do not begrudge her anything that she shares with him.  I am grateful that he is happy and settled, and equally grateful that I am no longer with him but with James.  I have also wondered if I am jealous that she is another “mother” to my girls and concluded that that is not it, either.  My relationships with my daughters are secure and stable and deep and mutual; no one in the world can take that or change that but us.  Everyone else who might love them can only be a good thing in their lives.  And so, I am left feeling icky and judgey and petty without fully knowing why. I wish that I did not dislike her.  I wish that I were, at least, indifferent to her.  But if I’m honest with myself, I know that I’m not.

I’m just not.

And it makes me want to shake her sometimes.  Hard.

Love is the absence of judgment

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the blessing of oblivion

My stepbrother hates me.

Or, maybe that’s not entirely accurate, since he’s not really my step-brother and I’m not sure “hates” is the optimum word.  You see, he is the natural son of my former step-father.  So what does that make him to me, exactly?  My former step-brother?  But that sounds too much like he’s dead, and he’s not. Also, hate might not be the exactly right word.  Perhaps “resents” is better.  Or “misunderstands”?  Or “begrudges”?  I guess I don’t really know, since the one conversation we had about his feelings was years ago, and true to form, was characterized by naive honesty on my part and guarded suspicion on his.  So who really knows how deeply his negative feelings for me fester.

But the fact remains that we are somehow at odds.

The situation sounds like something out of a nighttime soap opera (think Dallas or Dynasty for point of reference):  My mother was my dad’s fourth (yes, fourth) wife and I was my mom’s adoptive daughter, aged 13 at the time of marriage.  Their marriage lasted five L-O-N-G years and culminated in a nasty divorce in which my step-dad lost a significant percentage of his net worth despite a good prenuptial.  None of this was my fault; in fact, I disapproved of my mom’s marriage.  Not because I didn’t like my step-dad, but because any primate with a 50 IQ could see that they were not destined to a bright future.    Any primate, of course, except for an primate in love.

So, their marriage was  a disaster but my step-father was a terrific dad, and the only one I’d ever had, since my adoptive father died when I was 9-months-old.  Indeed, my step-dad has since told many people that he married my mom because he felt that I “deserved to have a real father.”  That’s a pretty noble undertaking, I think.

Their marriage didn’t survive, but my relationship with my step-dad, who after their divorce became just my “dad,” did.  In the 27 years since my parents’ divorce, he has done everything for me a dad does for a kid:  sent me money when I was broke, offered advice (solicited and unsolicited), invited me to family functions, visited me from out-of-state, sent presents and cards at appropriate anniversaries, and called “just to check in” on a regular, if not frequent, basis.  He has been, in every regard and every part of my heart, my dad.

And my former step-brother hates me for it.

My dad had four kids from his first wife — two girls and two boys.  The other three have mostly accepted my strange place in their dad’s life.  They seem to understand (mostly) that our relationship has brought both of us a lot of happiness and is no threat to them, so they let it be.  My oldest step-brother, however, is not so generous.  No, he views me as an interloper, a gold-digger, someone who has no right to his father’s time or love.

But he’s wrong.

My dad, Dex, and I have a deep connection that goes beyond words.  We understand each other in the way that only soul mates do.  My dad’s current wife, Meri (his 5th and last wife and true soulmate) understands this and has welcomed me with open arms from the first day I met her.  But Dex’s kids have struggled more. I think the other three have gradually realized that I am not in competition with them in anyway.  Indeed, I easily cede my position to them at any opportunity.  But Richie, my oldest step-brother, cannot abide my presence in his dad’s life.  I am threat to him that neither he nor I understands and he would like nothing better than for me to disappear forever.

I am in dad’s last will and testament.  It reads that after Meri dies, all proceeds (because she has no children of her own) shall go to Dex’s three other children and me in equal 20% measures, with Richie’s two girls receiving his share divided between them as 10% each.  This was constructed many years ago, when Richie’s obstinate insistence that my dad disavow me resulted in Dex’s cutting Richie out of his will altogether and apportioning Richie’s share to his daughters instead.  When I found out about the Will Drama, I asked my dad — twice — to rewrite the will and leave me out of it.  Both times he replied that it was “none of my business” and that he would do what he damn well pleased.  But he also knew his son and made me promise that I would respect his wishes and defend his will — in court, if necessary — after he was gone.  I reluctantly agreed.

At the time all of this was going on  (many years ago), I really had no appreciation for how intensely my step-brother disliked me.  It has only been my most recent trip to Seattle, spending time in their home and with my former step-sisters that I have fully appreciated how deeply resentful Richie is.

Apparently, unbeknownst to me, Richie has been waging a war against me for many years, with both my dad and my former step-siblings as the targets.  The mere mention of my name is supposedly enough to send him into a diatribe, and his siblings have grown weary of the conflict.

When my step-mother, whom Richie also does not like, called to ask me to come help her, Richie was away in Africa on a medical missionary.  I have since learned that this was fortunate timing, because if he had been in the country, the call would have been nearly impossible for my step-mom to make as the other three siblings are so intent on avoiding the “conflict” between us that they would have likely begged her to reconsider.

I guess I am fortunate that he was on his mission and I, states away in Colorado, was oblivious to the family politics swirling around me.  Had I know,  I would have approached this trip with far more trepidation.

Richie and I are the only children who don’t live in or right outside my dad’s hometown of Seattle.  I am in Colorado, and Richie and his family live in southern Idaho.  I suppose his distance from his family gives him some cause for anxiety and me some cause for oblivion, for I have been mostly unaware of the family politics at play.

True, my dad had hinted that Richie resented me and did not respect his marriage to Meri, and he had made me promise to defend his will and protect Meri from whatever predatory interests Richie has after his death.  But the extent to which Richie had complained to his siblings was not clear to me until this trip to the Pacific Northwest.

Here’s what I mean:

I have been here for 12 days now and in Richie’s group emails to the family about my dad’s illness, he refuses to acknowledged my existence or anything I have been doing for his father or step-mom.  To be honest, though, he basically refuses to acknowledge his step-mom at all.  Richie sends daily emails to his dad, which we have to read to him since Dex can’t operate a computer at the moment, with strong “suggestions” for his care (Richie is a doctor, and one with a “healthy” doctor ego).  I know that Richie knows that I’m here because he apparently has said various things to his sisters which they have relayed to Meri in aggravated and hushed tones, and she has related to me in annoyed and angry tones.

It is very strange to learn that you are the object of someone’s intense emotions, when they mean so little to you.

I honestly do not think of Richie but a few times a year when he comes up in conversation with my dad or step-mom.  He is completely inconsequential to me.  The fact that he does not understand why my dad stayed my dad after he divorced my mom is of no concern to me; my dad and Meri and I understand it, and, in my mind, that’s all that matters.  But I am clearly the object of much negative emotion on his part and likely have been for years.

But what I’ve come to realize over the last ten days is that my oblivion has been a blessing.  Had I fully realized the amount of tension and conflict my presence had caused in my dad’s life, I would have likely gradually receded from him, so naturally conflict-averse and prone to keeping the peace am I.  I am so averse to wanting to cause trouble for those I love that, had I known, I would have probably, gradually, but resolutely, left his life.

And what a shame that would have been!  I would have deprived myself of precious moments of parenting from a father who so sincerely wanted the job that he held onto it even after being fired by my mother.  And I would have deprived him of a daughter who knew him — dark secrets and all — and loved him completely and unconditionally and defended his character and integrity from anyone who dared to question it.

With the benefit of age and the certainty of my dad’s love, I can acknowledge that my former step-brother’s animosity is his journey to wrangle with, not mine.  My dad and I, we understand and accept our unique relationship, even if some of those around us do not.  And we are both willing to make sacrifices and defend that relationship when necessary.  Until this month, I had not realized the full nature of his sacrifice or his struggle, and he will likely never know the nature of mine, but we have both fought for and protected this relationship in ways that have cost us dearly.

But what a life lesson that has been for me.  I have not bothered to defend this relationship to others; if they do not understand it after my best effort at explanation, then I leave that as their struggle, not mine.  And I have been grateful every single day that a man with no obligation chose to be a father to a young woman who desperately needed his guidance and love and reassurance.  I am different woman for his care-taking, and I hope that he is a different man for my love and devotion.

As for my step-brother, I am determined to return to Colorado and sink back into my oblivion.  Let him emotionally rail against me.  Let him target me with all his resentment and animosity.  Let him assign all blame to me for the relationship with his father that is so much less than what I share with him.

Because I know — and my dad knows — what is true and what is real and what is right.  And my step-brother can wrestle his demons all night long, while my dad and I sleep peacefully, secure in the knowledge that a love that is pure and well-intentioned and generous is never wrong.

coelho quote

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always the gentleman

Eleven days ago I got a phone call I’d been anticipating and dreading.  It was my stepmom Meri calling to stay that I needed to come to Seattle because my 85-year-old dad, Dex, was very ill and possibly dying.  That afternoon, I booked a flight with my frequent flyer miles, and I was on a plane less than 24 hours later.

When I arrived at their house, it did indeed appear as dire a picture as Meri had painted over the phone.  My dad could not walk and could barely stand, his mental faculties were equally unsteady, and it was clear from the state of the house that they had been living in Crisis Mode for quite some time.  Fortunately, I am good in Crisis Mode, so I put on my metaphorical hard hat and got to work organizing their lives and providing support and respite for my emotionally and physically fatigued step-mom.

My dad is now in the hospital recovering from surgery received at the hands of a nationally-known specialist, we are making plans for his rehabilitation and eventual return home, and the home he will next see is scrubbed and organized and nearly back to its usual orderly condition.  And poor Meri has stopped looking as if she might fall asleep standing up at any moment.

It has been a long and tiring 10 days here, but I have been grateful for the occupation of my lengthy to-do list.  I do not do well sitting idly when sadness and loss are hovering nearby.  So I have kept busy.  When Dex slept or was lost in his tv shows, I attacked all manner of assignments with a kind of furious energy and determination that seems solely reserved for these situations.  Many of the things on my to-do list had nothing to do with my dad’s illness or recovery and everything to do with maintaining some semblance of normality around the house.

And throughout my fixing and painting and scrubbing and laundering, my mind has spun backward and reviewed, much like a movie reel, the intersection of my life with the man I consider my father.  The story of our relationship and how my former step-father has stayed my “dad” is recounted in this post from two years ago:  https://thatprecariousgait.com/2012/06/17/volunteer-dads/.

But what has struck me most during these 10 days is that the biggest lesson he taught me was one that he delivered by example.  Dex is an unfailing gentleman.  He is the kind of man who, even after  sweating in the yard pruning the shrubs, can sit on the patio with a scotch on the rocks and appear ready to greet the Queen of England for tea.  He would come off the court after a long tennis match with perfectly white clothes and not a hair out of place.   Some have thought him stiff, or snobby, but he’s truly not.  He loves a bawdy joke, “in the appropriate context,” and his sexual conquests are legendary.  But he also felt that being a gentleman wasn’t a suit you put on for special occasions, it was simply who you are (or aren’t, as the case may be).  I never heard him be petty or sexist, and in his older age, he struggled to keep up with technology and understand and accept ideas like gay marriage.  He never forgot a “please” or a “thank you,” and he always believed in helping a friend or neighbor in need.  He adored my mother’s mother, a simple woman with an 8th-grade education, and always called her “one of the finest ladies I’ve had the honor to know.”

Now, all of that is well and good and not altogether remarkable in a younger, healthy man.  But what I’ve seen this month is the proof of how deeply those convictions run in him.

When he fell in the bathroom over a week ago and couldn’t get up, Meri and I had to call over a neighbor to help.  Dex was sprawled, completely undignified and in terrible pain, on the floor of the bathroom when the neighbor arrived.  Dex worked mightily to help us help him into his wheelchair, and when we’d all grunted and pushed and finally launched him into the chair, he turned to the neighbor and said, through teeth gritted by pain, “Thank you kindly, John.  That was much appreciated.”  Later, in the hospital the evening after his surgery, the nurse came by to run some tests for what had to have felt like the 30 millionith time, but Dex just quietly cooperated and then thanked her for taking care of him.   And that’s how it’s been.  No complaining, no being irritable and taking it out on us, just appreciation for our care-giving and companionship.  Really, it’s kind of mind-blowing.

As I’ve been organizing and making phone calls and cooking, I have willed myself to remember this, to allow what was his earliest lesson to me also be his legacy:  just as he was a gentleman, he wanted me to be a lady.  Not a stiff prude or a humorless shrew, but the kind of woman that other people respected and whose reputation among those who knew her spoke for itself.   I have not always lived up to that ideal, but I have done better than I might have without his strong influence in my life.  I’m not foolish enough to make those kind of emotional, deathbed resolutions that none of us can possibly keep, but I know that  I will return home later this week and try to hold tight to his example.

Thanks to this skilled surgeon, it is likely that my dad will survive this particular crisis.  But he is 85 and I have no illusions of his future.  Regardless of how much time he has left on this earth, I am simply glad that I had the opportunity to be here, with him and Mary, during this time, to see him and soak up the essence of his nature, and provide some re-payment of the comfort he has provided me so many times in my life.

My dad loves the Pacific Northwest.   It is his ancestral home. He loves to ride the ferries and watch the water.  We talk about the colors of the sky here and how different they are from Colorado.  We talk about the orcas and the otters and what a blessing it is to catch glimpses of them.  We talk about how deeply spiritual this place is and how you can almost feel the native ancestors infusing the air and water with meaning.

But mostly we just sit.  And hold hands.  And remember.

ferry

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the virtual family

Last night, my step-daughter Chelsea, who is living out of state at the moment with James’ ex-wife, stopped by for dinner.  Actually, she arrived before dinner, in time to help Bryn with her homework, and say hi to all of us, including the dogs, who were confused but overjoyed to hear the sound of her sweet voice.  When we sat down for dinner, Chelsea said grace with us and joined in the conversation around the table.  It would have been a perfectly ordinary, unexceptional family evening, but for one thing:

Chelsea was still in Florida.

Her presence among us was made possible by the extraordinary technology known as Facetime, her image delivered into our home courtesy of Bryn’s iPad screen.

Throughout the evening, James and I just kept looking at each other and shaking our heads — how strange and wondrous that Chelsea should be there in our kitchen, watching me cook, talking to her dad, prompting Bryn when she hit a difficult part of her homework, when, in fact, she is almost 2,000 miles away from us.  We talked to her as if she were perched on one of the kitchen barstools, hearing about her day and telling her of ours.  Not in the conventional back-and-forth that is the natural structure for a telephone conversation, but in a messy, lots of overlapping voices and laughter manner that is better-suited to an in-face dialogue.  And when we sat down to eat, Chelsea brought her own snack along, to join in the eating ritual.

I have Facetimed and Skyped before, but never for that duration or in that casual manner.  Bryn carried Chelsea’s bodyless head in her iPad from room to room as she prepared for dinner, and I was constantly aware of Chelsea’s voice as it moved from room to room, as if any minute she would come bounding down the stairs to help me set the table.  It was remarkable.

When I was a teenager, I had a long-distance relationship with a boy who lived five hours away in my grandmother’s town.  We wrote letters almost constantly, and saved pennies to accommodate our long telephone conversations.  It was not uncommon for my share of the family long-distance bill to surpass $300 per month.  It was a serious financial burden, but one we willingly bore, as it was also the only way to keep our romance alive.  In fact, for a year we managed to survive on weekly letters and phone calls and less than a handful of in-person visits, but ultimately our fledgling relationship was undone — not by the expense or hassle of the distance, but by the simple nature of teenage hormones.  He found someone there in his town, and I moved on to someone in mine.

I marvel at all the ways that we can stay connected these days.  I know a lot of adults denigrate or downplay the value of technology as a means of connection for those too young to hop a plane or get in a car, but sometimes I am overcome with gratitude that these vehicles exist.  Bryn and Chelsea have a bond that is indescribable and would likely survive with or without the technological assists they get from their devices.  But those devices enable them to be more than long-distance friends; they enable them to remain in each other’s lives on a nearly daily basis.  To hear the ups and downs of a day.  To support each other when challenges are faced.  To confide in one another when adults aren’t available for whatever reason.

And for James and I, those precious Facetime moments with his children tell us so much about how they are doing and feeling than a telephone possibly could.  Their body language, the brightness of their eyes, the way they engage — those pictures far surpass the information we can glean from phone conversations.

I know that as adults we are often frustrated with the ways that our children communicate.  We decry the loss of the face-t0-face conversation and the immersion in texting.  But hasn’t that always been the case?  I remember my own parents screaming at the teenage me to get off the telephone before I gave myself a cauliflower ear.  And none of us can forget the brouhaha that ensued when email began to replace snail mail as the preferred method of written communication.   It makes me feel certain that when the telephone first came into general acceptance, there must have been elders who bemoaned the end of written correspondence and the accompanying demise of civilization.  All of this is not to say that I don’t monitor my children’s media usage and consumption, but I think sometimes it’s important to notice the value, as well as the dangers.

And I, for one, am ridiculously grateful to the creators of Facetime, for allowing  my precious Chelsea to warm our home on such a cold winter’s night.   It’s definitely not as good as a real hug, but it’s far, far better than nothing.

long distance love

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recipe for happier holidays: blend well

During the holiday season, I am typically addicted to the sappy, predictable, sugary holiday fare that runs 24/7 on the Hallmark Channel that time of year.  From Thanksgiving to Christmas, I watch one perfect holiday-themed love story after another, sighing at the snow and the romance and the ease with which all the characters cheerfully handle the holiday drudgery that turns most of us into Grinches.

I really need to stop watching those movies.  I really do.

Because we all know that the holidays hardly ever actually resemble a Currier & Ives painting, let alone a Hollywood movie.  And when you factor in six kids and two parents trying to figure out how to successfully blend our family traditions, the results are often stressful and sometimes comical.

Maybe there’s a family out there that can pull off their first blended holiday season without an argument or a mishap, but ours is not that family.  Definitely not.  We love each other.  We want to be together.  But we also want to kill each other once in a while. That’s just the plain truth.

And because I consider it my duty to help inform those who might follow me of the snares and missteps along this post-divorce path I have taken, I feel obligated to share some of my discoveries.  So, purely for your edification, I offer you a list of things that James and I had to negotiate as we celebrated our first holiday season as a blended family:

1. What to stuff the turkey with.  He was used to sliced potatoes and bacon, while I favored the more traditional bread stuffing.

2. When to put up the Christmas decorations.

3.  Whether to get a live Christmas tree or an artificial one.

4.  Whether said Christmas tree should have white lights or colored lights.

5.  How much money to spend on each child for Christmas presents.

6. Who should do most of the Christmas present shopping.

7. Whether the Christmas presents from Santa should be wrapped or unwrapped.

8.  Whether the whole family should attend church on Christmas Eve or only those who choose to.

9.  Whether and how many gifts should be opened on Christmas Eve.

And so on.

Some of these points were more easily agreed upon than others.  Surprisingly, the question of how much money to spend on presents was pretty much a non-starter, but James and I worked out the issue of which lights to put on the tree while standing in the garage screaming at each other.  Go figure.

What this holiday season taught me about blended families is this:  you’ll never know until you try.  Most of the things on the list above we could never have anticipated prior to experiencing them this year.  I mean, sure you realize that blending families and holiday traditions might be difficult, but I think most of us think about those difficulties in terms of the Big Stuff:  how well the children will get along, or whether anyone will feel left out, or if the presents will be just right on Christmas morning.  But, like in a marriage, it’s more often the little things that open up the biggest holes.  And in a post-divorce relationship, preserving some of your previous traditions, particularly for the sake of the children, can feel more important than you’d ever thought.

I found it interesting that I most easily sacrificed the traditions that Bryce and I had made together and clung fast to the ones my girls and I had constructed since my divorce.  Those were important to me — and, I learned, to them — in ways that I hadn’t fully appreciated when we were stumbling along together after the divorce.  But what made them special to me was exactly that — we had created those small traditions together, in the midst of our early pain and uncertainty about the future.  We three had drawn together and made holiday patterns that felt good and right and reflected us.  And those were the ones that I fought over with James.  For him, it was the traditions that he’d carried with him from his childhood that he held most dear.

On the whole, I was pleasantly surprised at how easily our sense of what the holidays should be dovetailed.  It occurred to me that our common values around family and togetherness likely drove those similarities, and that was gratifying to discover.    And it was amazing and heartwarming to see the kids all acting like siblings during Christmas break.  But I think the best confirmation of how far we have come was delivered by my mom, the day after Christmas, when she said “You all really are a family.  No one who sees you all together could doubt it now.”

And, as for me and James, you could say we came through all the frustrations and negotiations and ended up full circle again.  Quite literally.  Perhaps a bit emotionally bruised from all the high drama of our non-Hollywood holidays, but none the worse for the wear as it turns out.  Because on Christmas morning, he surprised me with a beautiful ring that I have not taken off since.

I make no pretense that any of this is easy, because I can’t honestly say that it is.  Not for us, anyway.  But it has its moments of such pure sweetness and grace that I do not doubt that it is worth it.  Even with our struggles to make a family holiday that is uniquely and completely us, even with the arguments and the silences, I would not trade this holiday season for any one that came before it.  Sincerely.

So I will continue my journey down this path for another — likely eventful — year.  I welcome you to join me in creating my on-going happy ending.

Just don’t expect a Hollywood script.

ring 2

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the fractured family

The last time I wrote, my life was floating in an odd kind of limbo, awaiting resolution of a judge’s decision on whether James’ three young children would be sent back to their mother in Georgia — the object of an abuse and neglect investigation prompted by the kids’ therapist — or whether they would stay here with us, a family complete, a family whole.

On August 12, 2013, we went to court and showed the judge everything we had.  Professionals took the stand to lay out our case, and witnesses (including one from Georgia) substantiated the claims the children had made to their therapist.  But the judge chose to disregard all of that, and instead believed their mother, who swore under oath that the children’s claims were lies fabricated by James and me.  It was her word — and her word alone — against multiple witnesses on our side.  But she pulled it off.  And so the children were sent back to Florida.

It was a stunning, unexpected defeat.  Everyone following the case, including sitting and former judges, were shocked and amazed that Carnie, the children’s mother, had managed to convince a judge to ignore all expert testimony to the contrary.  But that’s how powerful a liar she is.

The judge’s ruling came down late in the evening after a 3 1/2 hour hearing.  I will never forget reading the verdict on my iPhone while out to dinner with James and our Georgia witness, and knowing that when I turned to show it to James, I would be delivering a crushing blow.  The children were already with Carnie, as the court had ordered parenting time for her after court adjourned, and she was to regain custody, effective immediately.  She was not even required to let the children say goodbye to us.

James texted her to ask if we could bring the children some of their things from our house, and she agreed, upon the condition that she wanted to speak to him, alone, with the children.  At first he resisted, but I convinced him to go and hear what she had to say, while I waited nearby, within sight. The meeting was wrenching to watch from the sidelines, as the kids clung to him and Carnie pleaded with James to get back together with her, going so far as to get down on one knee.  He blanched, and I honestly wondered if he was going to lose his dinner all over the pool deck, but he held it together long enough to make clear that such an idea was preposterous and to end the conversation. She didn’t want to allow the children to say goodbye to me, but James insisted. I had but seconds with each of them, time enough for a few whispered words of encouragement and endearment, before she ordered them back to her side. And then we left, hearing their whimpered tears behind us, and leaving pieces of our hearts there on the pool deck.

I don’t remember much from that night after our goodbyes.  I remember calling my girls (who were at their dad’s) to tell them the outcome, and Bryn’s anguished cry when she realized that Chelsea had been ripped away from her.  Sabrina was furious, wondering how a judge could ignore the videotaped interviews of the kids, their earnest pleas to the social workers that they be allowed to live here with us and not be returned to Florida.  My girls wanted answers, and I had none.

The next morning — and many mornings thereafter — I awoke and immediately felt the heaviness of grief press down upon me.   The first few days after the hearing were nearly unbearable.  Our house was so quiet and our pain so palatable, that James and could hardly stand to be there.  We tried to distract ourselves.  We shut the doors to their rooms — left disheveled because no one expected that they wouldn’t be coming back — and tried to block out the memories of the summer.  We got random texts from them as they made their way back to Florida.  Short phrases, pregnant with their ache and loss.  And we felt helpless.

James and I both cried a lot at first.  Small reminders would reduce one of us to tears.  I had to avoid music altogether, as it brought back too many memories of riding in the car with the kids, going here or there, with the music blasting, the windows down, and all of us singing along together.  I framed lots of the art the girls had made for us over the summer, crying each time I placed another piece between glass.

We had set up new email addresses for the two oldest, Chelsea and Jay, for them to communicate with us, and during their first two weeks back in Florida, we heard from them frequently.  They used the email portal just as we’d intended — as a small way to touch back to us, to connect and feel our love without the filters their mom tries to impose.

The allegations and evidence presented at the hearing clearly frightened Carnie.  She quit her bartending job, began spending much more time at home on the weeknights, and started trying to connect with the kids in more positive ways.  The court ordered that she be randomly tested for alcohol, and as far as we know, she is complying with that order, but we have yet to see any test results.  The court also ordered another parental evaluation, to be conducted by a licensed Child-Family Investigator (CFI).  Carnie’s attorneys tried mightily to get the court to approve a CFI in Florida, but our attorneys prevailed and a local CFI was assigned.  The CFI begins her investigation next week, which will include interviewing licensed professionals associated with the case, family, and even the children.  She’ll travel to Florida to see the circumstances there and conduct interviews, and will visit our house and us as well.  It’s an intrusive, long process, designed to overturn every stone in search of any deep and dark secrets hidden beneath.  The judge — thankfully, a different one from our earlier hearing — will likely follow the CFI’s recommendation, so the outcome of the case might ultimately hinge on this one person’s conclusion of how to serve the children’s best interests.

Whether Carnie’s new-found persona as Devoted Mother will hold up over time or even convince the CFI in the short term is anyone’s guess, but for now it is having its desired effect on the children.  They have pulled away from us, for reasons we can only guess at.  Perhaps they feel let down that we couldn’t win the case and allow them live in Colorado.  Perhaps they believe their mom that we somehow manipulated them to say awful things about her.  Perhaps they are tired of all the drama and have resigned themselves to their situation.  It’s impossible to know, and heartbreaking to wonder at.

In the meantime, our home continues to heal.  The first weekend my girls spent here without James’ kids, they cried quite a bit.  Things were solemn and we spent even more time than usual together as a family.   But they are now becoming accustomed again to the relative peace and quiet of the house, as are we.  School has started and life has fallen into its familiar rhythms again, so that sometimes I can almost forget how close we came to being a whole family.

The case will likely not be fully resolved until early Winter, but I am no longer feeling certain in the outcome.  August reminded me that even “slam-dunk” cases can be lost, and those things we count as certain, upended.  So for now, we try to find the good in the moment and pray deeply for the future. And a time when we might not be a fractured family any longer.

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

Snowy Owl, by Chelsea, age 10, Summer 2013

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mother as a verb

mother: (v.) to care for or protect like a mother; act maternally toward.

I have not been able to find a job in five months.  This is radically unusual for me.  I would be even more confused and concerned were it not becoming increasingly clear to me that the universe has assigned me a job — right now my job is to mother.  And, more specifically, to mother James’ three children — Jay, a 13-year-old boy; Chelsea, who is almost-11-years-old: and Chloe, aged 7 1/2.

Now, in a blended family situation, the step-mother necessarily assumes some mothering responsibilities, which are easily enumerated and the focus of countless books.  But there is no book for the kind of mothering I am providing to these children.

For the last six years, since their parents’ divorce, the children have lived with their mother in another state — let’s say Georgia — for most of the year, returning to their hometown and Dad for eight weeks in the summer and every school vacation.  Despite this pathetically small amount of time in Colorado, they consider it their real home and their dad to be their primary parent.  Unfortunately the courts don’t agree.  At least not yet.

For the last five years, the children have been seeing a well-known and respected child psychologist when they come to Colorado, and she has been quietly wringing her hands as their situation out-of-state with their mother has become more difficult, more dangerous, and more heartbreaking. Their therapist has listened to their sad and angry young voices detail their mother’s neglect, selfishness, and abusive boyfriends, all the while knowing that she didn’t quite have a legal basis to file a report.

Until this summer.

This summer, the children arrived as usual and went to see their therapist to unload several months’ worth of private angst, frustration, and disappointment.  As usual, they begged her not to make them go back to their mom’s house.  As usual, they all reported, separately, the same sad stories of her parties and drinking and how they feel that they are the lowest priority in her life.   But this time, they also must have said something a bit different… shared something slightly worse than was typical… revealed an infraction that was, finally, a firm basis for a report under mandatory reporting laws.

The therapist wasted no time filing a report with the mother’s state department of social services.  The intake worker at first seemed fairly nonchalant while receiving the therapist’s report, but very shortly, most likely after a review of police calls to the home, the investigation kicked into high gear.  And we and the children were thrust into the frightening and bureaucratic world of child abuse investigations.

It was what we had been waiting for all along.  The allegations were no surprise to us, but they were heart-wrenching and sickening.  And the matter-of-fact way in which all three children were able to detail the nature and frequency of their mother’s infractions was breathtaking.  Yesterday, James and I sat in a child advocacy center for several hours while, downstairs, his children did for themselves what we have not been able to do for them:  they demanded the attention of authorities tasked with protecting their well-being.  They were forthright and honest and composed.  And they likely changed their futures, one way or another.

And now, as the legal repercussions swirl around us, we fiercely try to maintain some kind of “normal” for the children.  My daughters know what is happening, and they are as protective and nurturing of Jay, Chelsea, and Chloe as James and I are.  As a family, we are completely focused on validating and supporting these three achingly-young children as they enter a governmental system that is more powerful and more arbitrary than they can possibly realize.  Should they be required to return to Georgia at the end of the summer, they will face a mother whose fury and vindictiveness they are well-acquainted with and terrified of.  If they are forced to go back, after all they revealed and all the trust they placed in anonymous adults who promised to help them, I fear they are likely to give up.  I fear she will finally break their amazing, resilient spirits.

And if they stay, every single aspect of their lives would change:  schools, friends, everything.  Their mother would likely fly into a rage and spew all sorts of venom and hatefulness at them.  James and I would do our best to protect them, of course, but the allegations are unlikely to warrant a complete termination of parental rights, so the force of her anger would likely be felt.

So this is where I am living this summer:  in emotional limbo.  I love these children as if they were my own, and they love me back.  Before James and I even moved in together, Chelsea asked if she could call me “Mom.”  I responded that she could call me anything she wanted, as long as it was kind.  She beamed.  Chloe quickly followed suit.  I have watched them, as they call me “Mommy,” trying the word on their tongues.  I have seen their little grins of pleasure when I respond as I would to my own girls, and those grins make my heart ache.  Jay, when he’s not busy with his friends, hovers around me, telling me about music and movies and pretends to be appalled at my lack of coolness.  But he also asks me to visit him to when he’s getting ready for bed (not to tuck him in, of course, because “that’s for babies and little kids”), and we play basketball whenever we can.  Chelsea is my little shadow — a recent target of her mother’s derision, she blossoms when I tell her how smart and accomplished she is.  And then there’s Chloe.  Little Chloe.  Despite being her mother’s favorite and avoiding the worst of her actions, Chloe cried to James recently, telling him that I am the only “real mother” she has and she doesn’t want to have to leave us.

What am I to do with these children?  I have so very little control over their fates.  And if things between James and I don’t improve, I could lose them forever regardless of the court’s decision.  I am not their mother, and I do not endeavor to replace her.  But I would like very much to take those spaces in their lives into which she pours fear and uncertainty and sadness and backfill them with kindness and support and affirmation.  So I do the only thing I really can:  I love them fiercely.  I kiss and hug them often.  I point out special and amazing and important attributes they have and accomplishments they achieve.  I discipline them with love and honesty.  I say prayers with them at night and talk to them about the guardian angels who I know guard them always, and especially when they are in Georgia.  I tell them, over and over again, how much I love and admire them, even when they make me angry.  And I hope and I pray that some small morsel of my mothering will sink in and carry them forward through the difficult days that lie ahead.

I feel helpless when I stare at the road before them.  But then I remember that I have these weeks, these few precious weeks, to pour as much good stuff into them as I can, before the hurricane blowing towards us sucks them in.   I try to be present and aware in each moment we have together.  I ignore my phone and email.  My house gets messy.  My only goal is to never look back and regret that I could have done more.

As I’ve been writing this, the kids have been playing near me in my office, all five of them.  Now it’s bedtime and there are five small foreheads to kiss, and five small bodies to hug, and five small souls to pray over.

Five small people to mother.

My favorite Madonna, envisioned as the "Queen of the Rodeo."  Denver Art Museum

My favorite Madonna, envisioned as the “Queen of the Rodeo.” Denver Art Museum

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why I hate being a stay-at-home mom

I hate being a stay-at-home mom.

There.  I said it.  Call me all the names you want.  It will still be true.

I hate having my daily life revolve completely around the care and upkeep of everyone else. I went to law school rather than medical school in part because I acknowledged to myself that caring for the basic needs of others could not be the central focus of my existence.

I hate that any achievement I make (A delicious dinner!  A clean bathroom! A watered garden!) is almost immediately undone or disappears. There is nothing that I do that is of lasting, tangible impact.  In my last job, I created things, I wrote things, I drafted new laws.  In this job, I make a pie that is gone in 36 hours and for which not a soul says anything, except a passing “that was good” from James, which is why he’s my favorite.

I hate that nothing I do merits more than a cursory “thank you” from anyone. Ever.  In my marriage, I tried everything I could think of to solicit some kudos for my cooking, baking, cleaning, painting, yard-tending, animal-keeping, laundering, etc.,  but nothing worked and I gradually learned the age-old lesson of all housewives:  if you’re really good at what you do, your family will take you for granted because people only notice the problems or mishaps in the minutiae of their lives, not the aspects that run smoothly.  A lack of complaints is really the highest compliment a housewife can expect.  And I hate that.

I hate that the harder I try to be seen, the more invisible I become.  Yesterday, I took the girls shopping.  I bought one girl a bike and another girl some clothes and some sports equipment, and another girl an accessory for one of her toys.  For the bike, I got a big hug (which I savored greedily), but the others prompted nothing in the form of recognition or gratitude.  It wasn’t a matter of the missing “thank you” as much as I was hoping that they would see that I cared for them and their needs.  But, of course, they are children and that was lost on them.  As soon as the goodies were placed in their hands, I receded into the ether, gone until the next time they need something.

I hate that I don’t have grown-ups to talk to about grown-up things.  I went to dinner last night with my friend Gwen, and found myself waiting at the table for her arrival, nervous that I wouldn’t have anything interesting to say.  I was fairly certain that she wouldn’t be enthralled with news that the big dog is shedding like a maniac or that our lawn has turned brown in patches and I’ve no idea why or that Jay’s bike tire has been flat for weeks and I can’t seem to get around to fixing it.  But when she sat down across from me and started talking, I could feel my innards begin to untwist and relax.  And before I knew it, we were gabbing away about work and men and kids and faith.  I can’t count the number of times she said to me, “I can’t believe how much you’re juggling right now!  I don’t think I could do it.”  It was like soaking in a warm bath of acceptance, validation, and understanding for a few hours.  But than I emerged, got into my car, and felt my guts tighten up again.

I hate feeling sorry for myself.  I know — really KNOW! — that I, and I alone, am responsible for my current lack of employment.  I knew when I sent the final email to the Mayor that I would likely be terminated for refusing to adhere to his way of doing things.  I also know that there are fateful reasons for my being unemployed right now; I know that it is necessary for me to be home with the children this summer, to ease their transition and grease the blending of our families.  I can easily appreciate that I am immensely selfish for resenting sacrificing one simple summer for the sake of 5 precious children.  But there are definitely days, like today, when resent it I do.

I hate feeling tired and frumpy.  No amount of exercise or nutrition or sleep helps me shake this low-energy mood.  The endorphin high from working out lasts only until the next “MOM!!!!!” is screamed amidst yet another sibling argument.  There is no need to dress nicely when I am simply chauffeuring and cleaning up after children, so I sport the de rigeur summer uniform for the stay-at-home mom — jeans shorts and a cotton t-shirt — each and every day.  Sometimes I even put in earrings, but that only prompts the children to ask why I’m so dressed up.

Being a working mom is really tough. This I know.  I’ve done it with babies and I’ve done it with bigger kids.  I’ve commuted almost an hour each way, through all kinds of weather, while worrying what I was going to get on the table in time for dinner.  I’ve missed school plays and soccer games and sick days for meager paychecks that barely covered the cost of child care.

During my first tour of duty as a stay-at-home mom, I was relieved beyond belief to be free of the guilt that hangs over the working mother like a London fog.  Finally, I thought, I will have the time and attention and focus to devote myself to my children and family and home!  Our lives will be unstructured and stress-free and full of laughter and fun.  But you know what?  I am no more qualified to be a stay-at-home mom than I am to be an astronaut.  I am simply not suited to it.  I don’t have the aptitude or the training or the fearlessness to embrace the challenges inherent in the job.  When I re-entered the salaried workforce after my divorce, I did so with a guilty pleasure about which I am still ashamed.

This second tour of duty as a stay-at-home mom was involuntary for the most part.  When I refused to turn a blind eye to the political corruption in my previous job, I failed to recognize that the absence of another job in the wings might result in my conscription in the Stay-at-Home Moms Corps.  Never, not once in all the time that I was unhappy under the new mayor and feeling increasingly put upon having to work for a foul administration for a pittance of a paycheck, never did I wish that I could be a stay-at-home mom again.  Yet, here I am.

To be honest, I’m not terrible at being a stay-at-home mom.  In fact, I’m actually pretty good at it.  But this is only the second job I’ve ever had that I was good at but didn’t like.  The first was being a waitress at Bob’s Big Boy when I was 15 and had to wear a brown plaid, polyester uniform and orthopedic shoes.  I have to say, in all seriousness, that the waitress job was only marginally worse.  At least I got tips.

I know that at some point, all the job applications I’ve completed, all the resumes and cover letters I’ve sent out, all the interviews I’ve smiled my way through, will eventually result in a new job coming my way.  And I am equally certain that said job will appear at precisely the correct time in the universe’s schedule.  But until then, I’ll make peanut butter and jelly sandwiches while wearing my hair in a ponytail and repeating “Would someone please get this hairbrush off the kitchen counter?” for the 534th time.

Because I’m a stay-at-home mom.  And that’s what we do.

mom to-do list

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