Monday, February 28, 2011

A Short Note About a Big Word

I think I have finally recovered from the whirlwind tornado that we shall call: February. Child with the flu (and 4 days home from school), helping with the backlog of homework, daughter's slumber party, the disinfecting and laundry that’s associated with having a child with the flu, plus several other insane moments, all packed into one short 28 day month. Oh my.

Plus, in my zeal to get back into my career, I threw out several hooks looking for work, and a few too many of them caught. I had interviews and classes to teach and grants to write and and and and ... It was starting to feel as if the boat might capsize. But, alas, I can breathe again. And, therefore, I can write again! I have so many blogs that I have started, but haven’t been able to finish, but I will…soon. Really, I will. But, for now, I just want to write about something that’s been on my mind, and in my heart, lately: Gratitude.

In this sometimes crazy life of deployments, reassignments, uprooting careers and children’s schools, parenting, moving away from friends, moving all of your earthly belongings, long hours away from your spouse, and the everyday great unknown, it is easy to lose sight of all of the amazing things in our lives. But, lately, I’ve been more aware than ever of just how much I have to be grateful for. My prayers these days are long and detailed, but consist primarily of two simple words: Thank You. I have a fantastic life and so very much to be joyful for. Here are a few of the things I’m saying “thank you” for this week:

• The ability to keep in touch with old friends. Whether by phone, text message, email, or Facebook, I love every opportunity to talk to my sisters and friends who are far away.
• The women I’ve met here and the beginning of great new friendships.
• My healthy and happy children who make me smile every day.
• My great husband, who I learn from every day, and who is happy to learn from me as well. He is truly my best friend.
• The ability to write. No matter how crazy life becomes, sitting down with a pen and paper or my laptop always makes me feel better.
• Valentine’s Day chocolates.
• Long walks around the lake to offset my weight gain (and guilt) from consuming too many of said chocolates.
• Lessons learned. Namely, learning once again that what I think I want is not always what I need.
• Our home. After moving halfway across the country, this new house has, for several weeks, felt merely like a residence. But, I am happy to say that it is finally, thankfully starting to feel like home.
• Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow. The good times, the crazy times, the tearful days, and the cheerful times. Each and every moment. Because each one matters.

I have a few exciting opportunities on the horizon that are still keeping me busy. But, I promise that the blogging will continue. Here are some of the posts that I’m working on:

• PTST and Domestic Violence: What’s the Difference and Why Does It Matter?
• Single Mommying is Not Army Mommying, and Vice Versa
• United by What Could Be: What it really means to be an Army wife.

...and many more. Stay tuned! And, for now, please take a moment today to appreciate all of the wonderful people and things around you, and to say, simply, thank you.

Friday, February 11, 2011

The Joys, Frustrations, and Lessons of Step-Parenting

We are, what I guess some would call, a “blended family.” We have three beautiful children. One of these children—my daughter—I carried, gave birth to, and have cared for since before she was born. Our sons, however, came into my life later, when I met, fell in love with, and married their father. They are not biologically mine, but are no less a part of my heart and soul. In our family, we try very hard to avoid the term “step.” Our children are our children, regardless of whose DNA they carry. But, we can’t ignore the fact that our family is a bit different.

People often say that parenting is the hardest job there is. But, I would argue that it’s a close second to the truly most difficult job: Step-parenting. It’s the mixture of all of the joys, blessings, and pains of parenthood, combined with the excruciating pain of not being able to have your babies with you. I once heard that becoming a parent is making the decision to have your heart walk around outside your body. Step-parenting, then, is the decision to let your heart(s) walk around outside your body, possibly in another city (and state, especially for military families), being cared for by someone else, only to be seen on holidays and summers. Now that’s hard.

Our sons only live with us part of the year, during vacations, school breaks, and summers. And thanks to our recent PCS (military move) halfway across the country, we are now 18 hours away from them, which makes impromptu visits nearly impossible. Our daughter, thankfully, is with us all the time. (Which is a very good thing, since I can barely be away from her while she’s at school). We miss the boys, they miss us, our daughter misses her brothers, and yep, they miss her. We do our best to make it work, and to talk to them every day. But, it’s still not the same as being able to scoop them up and give them a big hug and kiss. It’s hard. Very hard.

Step-parenting also means navigating hurt feelings and repairing the damage of shattered relationships. Each of our children has endured a divorce, which has left inevitable scars. For the first year of our marriage, our daughter would always try to play peace keeper, getting visibly nervous if she thought my husband and I were upset with one another. We never argue in front of her, of course, but she could always sense if something wasn't quite right. After many conversations about how it’s normal for parents to disagree, but that we love each other very much, she started to relax. She now understands that just because I’m annoyed with Daddy, that doesn’t mean we’re breaking up. (It just means that sometimes Daddy is annoying. Ok, and maybe Momma can be, too). Our oldest son once asked if Daddy and I were going to break up. He looked so sad, afraid, and unsure of what his future would hold. This is what divorce does to children. We reassured him as well, and the longer we are together, the more confident he becomes in our bond, and in our family. But, we know that they may always have a small voice in the back of their heads reminding them that marriages sometimes fail. Which makes us even more determined to ensure that ours succeeds.

Thankfully, not all of the children have had this same reaction to their parents' divorce. In fact, our youngest son doesn’t remember his mom and dad ever being married, since he was so young when they separated. I'm not saying this is a good thing, but the benefit is that he doesn't really think about the fact that they split up, and therefore doesn't worry about us doing so either. To him, this is just how our family has always been. In fact, he called us once frantic because his big brother told him that their mom and dad used to be married. “It’s not true, is it?!” he demanded. When we told him that it was in fact true, he squealed, “Ewwwww, that’s so gross. Daddy’s supposed to always have been married to you!” Of course, we told him that it’s a good thing that his mom and dad were together, because they made him and his brother. But, his insistence that I was his Dad’s one-and-only was rather endearing.

Step-parenting often means non-traditional family celebrations. While my husband was deployed, my daughter and I would make the then 12-hour drive to visit the boys at least every couple of months. They would count down the days until we were coming to visit. But, they weren’t only looking forward to seeing us. They also knew that I would bring my laptop, which meant they would also get to talk to Daddy on the webcam—which they absolutely loved. Christmas 2009, we packed up the car, drove 12 hours, rented a room on the nearby Air Force Base, put up a small tree, and added a few Christmas decorations. We spent our holiday opening gifts with Daddy on the webcam. It was almost like we were all together. Almost. And although I really enjoyed those moments, I couldn’t help but wonder if this was how our family would always be--with children halfway across the country and a husband constantly deployed, spending way too many holidays in hotel rooms instead of our own living room, blowing kisses through the computer instead of sneaking kisses in person. Thank goodness for Skype. But, I knew that as long as we were together--in whatever way possible--we would all be ok.

Blending families, of course, also means dealing with exes. Co-parenting with my daughter’s biological father is easy—-he moved out of the country. To another continent, in fact. (I would recommend this for any difficult co-parenting relationship.) Seriously though, it was very, very difficult for my daughter when he first moved away. She felt abandoned, confused, and hurt. But, thanks to the incredible bond her and I share, and her amazing resiliency, she made it through. She now understands that everyone makes choices in life, some good and some bad—her father’s was particularly bad. But, no one else’s choices should ever define who she is. She is a phenomenal young woman, and he is missing out on seeing her grow up. But, she is happy with her life, and happy that she has a stable home.

This doesn’t mean that it has always been easy. We dealt with the joint custody, every other weekend visitations, and co-parenting drama for the first two years after my divorce. We juggled holidays and disagreed over her extracurricular activities. Actually, we disagreed about a lot of things. But, what I always tried to remind myself is that, as much as I would get aggravated with my ex, he was half of my daughter. And that would make me always appreciate his existence, even when times got hard.

It has also helped that my daughter and my husband are so incredibly close. A few months after we got married, she asked if it would be alright to call him Daddy, which made him so proud that he cried. We both told her that it was completely up to her, and that she could call him anything she wanted (within reason). But, she insisted that, because he was the one who sat up with her when she was sad, hugged her goodnight every night, helped her with homework, went to school to intimidate kids who were picking on her (as only a Dad with combat boots can), and even while in Iraq, called her every day, he absolutely deserved the title. Agreed.

Although this facet of our parenting web has become easier, my husband’s co-parent is still in the good ol’ US of A, and has primary custody of the boys. And although I sometimes joke that I wish she would move away, I am actually very, very grateful for her and all that she does. We have a difficult relationship. To say the least, we’re not friends. My husband and I talk to the boys on the phone every night and send things to them frequently. Sometimes these gifts and letters get to them; other times their mom throws the items away (err, 'misplaces' them). But, we just keep on sending them. The boys understand all that we do, and they appreciate it. And hopefully, eventually their mom will understand that hating us does not help them. We’ll see. But, in the meantime, I remain very grateful for all that she does, and hopeful that someday our relationship, and her relationship with my husband, will improve—for the boys’ sake. I’ve always been told that you catch more bees with honey than with vinegar. We’ll see if she eventually bites.

What I have learned is that, ultimately, you must love your children more than you hate your ex. And, equally as important, you must love your step-children more than you hate their biological parent. It really does not matter how horrible your relationship with that person may be. Both my husband and I had rather tumultuous marriages, and even rougher divorces. But, none of that matters anymore. Our exes each blessed us with amazing children, and for that we are grateful. So, no matter how difficult things get, we will always remember that.

All of these struggles are nothing compared to the joy I felt when my son drew a picture of his family. In bright crayon, he drew stick figures of him, his brother, his sister (who he was holding hands with, since he absolutely adores her), his dad ("Daddy"), his mom ("Mom"), and me ("Momma"), plus of course, our dog and cat and their dog. In his picture, we were all smiling, just one big, happy family. And to know that he sees us in this way makes every bit of this journey worthwhile.

Our family may not be traditional. We may spend far too much time apart. We may blow too many kisses over the phone, and share not enough in person. We may not get to hug each other nearly enough. But, that just means that we will cherish every minute together, every kiss, every hug, and every moment of our non-traditional, sometimes crazy life. We love each other, unconditionally and without end. And really, that’s what being a real family means.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Becoming Herself

My baby girl celebrated her eleventh birthday this weekend. Eleven. And, of course, I cried, just as I did when she held her bottle for the first time, took her first steps, started kindergarten, lost her first tooth, and every other milestone and birthday along the way. I had the frightening realization that she is now closer to college than to kindergarten. I also realized that, the older she gets, the more she becomes her own person, her own unique being, and less a copy of me.

We have always had an amazing—almost psychic—connection. We finish each other’s sentences, hum the same songs, and will often crave the same foods, at exactly the same time. We also mirror, and feed off of, one another’s moods. If she’s sad, I get gloomy as well; if I’m happy, her mood perks up. Although she enjoys spending time with friends, she always wants to know that I’m nearby, in case she ever needs me. I never feel complete without her by my side. We are, in many ways, like two halves, lost without the other. But, as she matures and develops her own interests (often outside my realm of understanding), I have to accept that she is not my other half. She is uniquely, magnificently, and beautifully her own whole. As she should be.

Although we are very much alike in many (often eerie) ways, we are also, in many ways, different. She is a science wiz, able to easily master everything from biology to physics. I took one science course in college (because I was forced to) and barely mustered a C+. She has always been fascinated by how things work, from her very first toy that she took apart and reassembled, when she was only six months old. I, however, love to learn about people and ideals, but really don’t care how something works, as long as it does. She loves to watch shows like “How it Was Made” (as does my husband). I would rather watch paint dry. We are both avid readers, but she is much more dedicated than I, and can easily finish a 300-page book in a single evening. We are both animal lovers, but she is a proud PETA member, vegetarian, co-founder of an Animal Rights Club, and volunteer for an area animal shelter. (I guess you could say that she doesn’t do anything small.)

How much, and in what ways, she needs me is also changing. When she was an infant, she needed me for everything—food, clothing, sustenance. As she grew, she needed me to teach her how to read, write, and tie her shoes. In elementary school, I offered help with homework and guidance during arguments with friends. As she gets older, she may need me less, but needs my guidance and love even more. Now, in middle school, I’m here to help her through much more difficult experiences—like soothing heartbreak and resisting peer pressure. And, as she continues to grow, I know that the pressures will become much more intense, and therefore my lessons and guidance even more critical. I hope to help her continue to have the strength to stand up for her convictions, the courage to resist temptations, and the freedom to become uniquely, magnificently her own woman.

We may not be two halves, but she is and forever will be a part of my soul. And ultimately, the most important gift I can offer her is the ability to become herself—the most amazing person I’ve ever known, and a person who will undoubtedly make this world a better place. In fact, she already has.

Yes, she is becoming her own woman. But, she will always be my baby girl.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

How it All Began

February 3, 2006: I went on a date with a sweet man tonight. He’s shy and funny and very, very cute, and has an intoxicating smile. We talked during the whole dinner, talked the whole way home, and then drove around for a few hours so we could talk some more. I’m not ready for a relationship. He isn't either. We should just be friends. But, when he brought me home and kissed me on the forehead, I felt my knees go weak. Who knew that could actually happen? I think I might be in trouble. But, it might be worth it...just to see him smile.

That was five years ago. I had just gotten divorced after a very, very long court battle. I was going to law school full-time (finishing my last semester), working part-time, and raising the most amazing little girl on my own. I was only dating because I never really had before. I married my first husband when I was only 20 and hadn't really done the whole dating scene. I didn't intend to meet anyone. And I never imagined that during this tumultuous and crazy time in my life, I would meet him.

The first few months of our courtship (please forgive the very out-dated term, but that’s the best way to describe it) were wonderful. In the beginning, we would only see each other when my daughter was with her dad or at a friend's house, since I was very protective. We would have late night phone conversations, after my little girl went to bed. And we would look forward to our occasional dates. Eventually, once I trusted him, I told my daughter that we were going to the circus with a friend. We had a fantastic time together. And the two of them looked like they had known each other forever. When we got home, she said, “I really like him, Momma. I like how he smiles at you.” So do I, honey. So do I.

I had also met his two sons. His youngest immediately hid my keys, hugged my leg, and wouldn’t let me go. I was instantly in love. His oldest son was a bit more cautious, but still decided that he liked me, and wanted me around. And I fell in love with him, too. It felt like I had known these boys forever, and it made my heart hurt every time I had to leave them. It still does.

After a few months of juggling school, the Army, and certifiably crazy exes, we decided that we just couldn’t do it anymore, and we broke up. We loved each other. But, we really weren’t ready for everything a relationship would entail. Especially a relationship that involved kids and ex-spouses and the military. It was just all too much. When I told my daughter that we had broken up, she said, “Momma, what did you do?” I still don’t know why she thought it was my fault. But, she obviously wasn’t happy about it.

Soon, we both moved on. Kind of. I studied for, took, and thankfully passed the dreaded bar exam. He called me the night before and during all of my breaks, to see how I was doing.

He was working long, difficult hours and preparing for a deployment. I would call him to make sure he was taking care of himself.

We both even started seeing other people. I told him that the woman he was seeing was a waste of his time. He told me that the guy I was seeing was a jerk. We were both right.

On New Year’s Eve, he was out on a date, but snuck away to call me at midnight. (I’m sure his date appreciated that). And I would sometimes leave dinner dates early so I could come home to talk to him instead. He would occasionally remember something that he “forgot” at my house, and would call to ask if he could swing by to get it. I agreed to teach a class near his house (an hour away from me), so I could come see him afterwards. You know, because I was “in the area.” Looking back on that time now, we were pretty ridiculous. Always sneaking phone calls and finding excuses to see each other, yet claiming that we did not want to be together. Denial, they say, is more than just a river in Egypt. For us, it had become an Olympic sport.

A few months later, he deployed to Iraq. I hated that I wasn’t there when he left. I hated that he got on that plane thinking that no one would miss him, when in fact, I missed him every day. We emailed, we wrote letters, we talked on the phone. He told me how hard this deployment was on him. I heard bombs going off in the background when we spoke. He tried to tell me that he was safe. I didn’t believe him, but I prayed he was right. We just kept talking. And talking. We became best friends. I realized how afraid I was to lose him. And soon, he wrote me a long letter, telling me that he didn’t want to lose me, either. We decided to try again.

When he came home from that deployment, I was there to pick him up. And we’ve been by each other’s side ever since. He asked my daughter’s permission to marry me. She said yes, and helped him pick out a ring. Soon, I said yes, too. (I had been warned by my daughter that I'd be in big trouble if I didn't). We were married on a small beach, just me, him, and our three children. It was pure perfection.

We’ve endured another deployment since that time. Another eleven months of phone calls, webcam dates, tear-stained letters, scared babies, and constant worrying. But, we made it. I am so grateful for everything we’ve made it through. What we've discovered is that we were right: we would just be friends. Best friends, in fact. Best friends, lovers, life partners, confidants, companions. But, above all else ... friends.

I sometimes wonder what I have gotten myself into with this life: the deployments, the blended family, the moves, the uncertain future. But, then I look at my husband, my best friend, and our children—two his, one mine, but all ours--and I know that every hurdle, every bump in the road, every tear has been so very worth it. I would give anything in the world...just to see those smiles.