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.

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