Unblending

This has truly been a bizarre summer. At the beginning of the summer, things were going really well. For the first time, we were starting to feel like a “real family.” All of the kids seemed to have adjusted to me and Justin. It was pretty clear that they no longer felt the struggle of loyalty binds and that they did not feel that loving and accepting me was a threat to their mother. We went entire weeks without anyone in tears. I remember briefly having the sense that we had done it. We had survived some very bumpy times, but we had come out the other side.

Then their mom was handed the diagnosis – stage four cancer.

Suddenly, everything changed. It is no one’s fault – not mine, not my husband’s, not the kid’s fault and certainly not their mom’s fault, but the dynamics are suddenly very different. Their mom is now in the middle of seven weeks of treatment. Doctors have told her that if the treatment does not work, she has less than a year. If the treatment does work, she may have five or six years, but at this point they are working to buy her time not a cure.

The kids are understandably confused and scared and sad. They are spending portions of “our days” with their mom going to her treatments. Friends have gifted her and them weekends away and dinners out. It is fine, no, make that good, that they are able to do these things with her and together, but it seems to reopen the gap and be a reminder that we are two families.

Just days before the diagnosis, my oldest daughter said, “you know I don’t even think of Justin as my step brother anymore. He is just one of us. now, I just tell people he is my brother.”  My heart soared.

But a few weeks later things look very different. Justin cannot possibly experience their mom’s cancer in the same way that they do. He is not a part of the weekends away or the special dinners or the trip to treatments, and though I know he feels sorry for his siblings and what they are going through, he does not have the same type of fear or sadness as they do.

As for me and their dad, we cannot experience the same things or the same feelings either. Our hearts break for them but we really are on the outside looking in. Whereas at the beginning of the summer I had the sense that they could love me without feeling like it was a threat to their mom, I now feel quite the opposite. I get the sense that they wonder how all of this might be very different if their mom and dad were still together and she had a spouse by her side for the treatment. I get the sense that where they once thought how lucky they were to have both mom and dad and Debbie, they now think it is possible they will lose their mom and be stuck with dad and Debbie.

So, it has been a rough summer – for all of us – but in very different ways, and though I can feel them pulling away and the transition from one family back to two, I just have to be patient and make sure the kids know that their dad and I (and Justin) are all here for them and we will do our best to be supportive and constant as they maneuver the next few months or years and whatever the future brings.

 

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Things just got gritty and real

When you marry a man who already has children, you certainly understand that you won’t have a traditional family. You know that he comes with children and that by marrying him you are also accepting the role of stepmom. And believe it or not, you are also adding his ex to your family. No matter what your situation is, as long as you are sharing the parenting of the kids, you are intricately tied to the woman who was once his wife and continues to be the kids’ mom.

It wasn’t long into our marriage when I realized that. We are tied to the kids’ mom through finances and scheduling and joint events and even strange traditions, but we have had news recently that let me know there is one more way that we are inextricably linked. This month the kids’ mom learned she has a rare form of cancer. This news has come as a terrible shock to all of us. Things right now are scary and uncertain and just plain rotten.

I feel bad for her as her body seems to be betraying her and she is so scared of what lies ahead. There is treatment, but even the treatment seems rotten. Her days seem to be filled with medical tests and results and thus far not much of the news seems cheerful.

I feel sick for the kids – each of whom seems to be coping with the news in very different ways. I am certain they are worried for their mom and for themselves. I suspect it is terribly frightening for a kid to learn a parent has cancer and for the young ones to not fully understand what chemotherapy might do to their mom.

I am also a bit concerned for us. What could this mean for our future? Should we cancel our summer trip with the kids in case we need to be more local? What role can/should we be playing? What is my husband’s role in his ex-wife’s treatment and recovery? The kids’ mom was often a pretty big presence in our house even before this diagnosis. Now it seems like there is a dark pallor of fear and sadness cast over both houses.

Having five bonus kids half the week is a pretty challenging gig, and I am not sure I do it all that well, but I am certain that it is easier than having five bonus kids all week. So, I am very invested in her beating this.

So for now, I am asking for prayers for our whole family – for my husband, for our kids and for my husband’s ex. I knew we were linked via finances and schedules, but I never realized how we were linked in sickness and in health. We are tied together in so many strange and unusual ways, and that has never been clearer than these past couple of weeks.

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Meet and Greet @ Dream Big: 5/21/16

It’s the Meet and Greet weekend at Dream Big!! Ok so here are the rules: Leave a link to your page or post in the comments of this post. Reblog this post.  It helps you, it helps me, it helps…

Source: Meet and Greet @ Dream Big: 5/21/16

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Even when it is easy, it’s hard

My sister and niece gave us such a clever Christmas gift. They filled a jar with slips of paper. Each slip has a question written on it. They also gave us a blank journal. We were instructed to pull out one of the questions each week and have each member of the family write his/her answer in the journal. At the end of the year, we would have a wonderful keepsake filled with all of our answers. The slips include questions like, “What is your favorite movie?” “Name five things you enjoy doing.” “Who is your best friend and why?” etc.

The other night at dinner, the kids wanted to pull out another question. We got, “Name something you own that is important to you and why is it important.” So the kids did their usual, “What do you think I am going to write? Guess! Guess!” We each took turns trying to guess what each other’s cherished possession was. They were all quite excited to participate and there was much exuberance – except for Landon. Landon was pretty quiet.

He said, “I’ll bet no one knows what I am going to write.” His siblings each guessed. His dad guessed. No one got it right. Then he looked at me and said, “What you do think it is?” I told him I knew what he was going to write. It was a very small t-shirt (far too small to fit him now) with a picture of a horse on it and he keeps it under his pillow. He looked shocked and then he said I was right. He asked how I knew and I said I pay attention. I am with the kids four days a week and I know what is important to them.

Then he took the book and wrote, “My favorite possession is my Native American t-shirt because my mom and dad gave it to me when they got back from a trip and it reminds me of when mom and dad were still together and I wish they were still together.” Ouch!

I certainly can’t blame a boy for wishing his folks were still together, but just like that it was as if he wished I didn’t exist. There were seven other people at the table and I was the only one who knew that the t-shirt was his favorite thing in the world and yet I did not know what it represented.

My husband and I talked about it later. He tried to tell me that Landon’s wishing his parents were still together didn’t actually mean he wished I did not exist. I suppose there may be some truth to that, but it is also pretty hard to take the fact that I can be a part of a family every day for nearly five years, we share meals and stories and vacations and adventures and yet at least one of the kids would still give it all up to go back to what he had before.  Will he still feel that way five years from now? Ten years? Will he always wish that his mom and dad were still together? Sometimes even when it’s easy, it’s still hard.

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Glad it’s only once a year

I feel guilty admitting it, but Mothers’ Day sucked! I am glad it only comes once a year. Yes, I am the mother to one and the stepmother to five, and though I think of myself with fairly low expectations where that holiday is concerned, it was still pretty disappointing.

First, there is the issue of cloudy roles. My only biological child is an 11-year old boy. That means he is no longer in grade school and is past the stage where his teachers would kindly force him to participate in whatever the craft-of-the-year was that would be sent home on the Friday before Mothers’ Day. And since he is an 11-year old boy, he doesn’t have a great deal of initiative when it comes to creating something wonderful for mom on his own. He needs help. Or at least prompting. I took him to get a card for his stepmom. I made sure he signed it and took him to his dad’s to deliver it on Mothers’ Day, but I think there must have been a little confusion about who would help him make sure I was not forgotten. Justin’s dad and I are divorced so I guess he thought (and perhaps rightly so) that it wasn’t his role to make sure I was appreciated. I think my husband, Justin’s stepdad, might have thought Justin’s dad was taking care of it, so he too did not help Justin.

As I mentioned, I also have five stepkids ranging in age from 10 to 20. Some years they have spent half the day with their mom and then transitioned over to our house (usually Sundays are our days) and spent part of the day with me. For whatever reason, they were having a great time with their mom and so did not actually show up at our place until around dinner time. My husband had this grand scheme in his head about how they would arrive around lunch and all of them would head off to Lowe’s and then return home to do yardwork while I relaxed. As the day melted away and we still saw no sign of them, it was clear that his dream was not going to materialize. So, I got outside and did the yardwork myself. I tried to get Justin to help, and he did – a little.

The other kids showed up around dinner time, and in fairness they did have a card. The 18-year old who doesn’t care much for me had written, “Happy Mother’s Day.” The 15-year old wrote, “I hope your day was satisfactory.” The 10-year old who I think actually has a real fondness for me wrote, “I am glad you are a mom.” (Notice it did not say my mom or our mom or even like a mother to me. “I am glad you are a mom.”) Strangely enough, Landon, the one who was originally the most difficult wrote,”You are an awesome ‘bonus mom.'” which was about the nicest thing anyone said all day.

I hate to complain. At least they remembered it was Mothers’ Day and I did get a card, but all in all it was a pretty disappointing day. At best, I got a few lukewarm phrases. No one even signed it with the word “love.” Sometimes, it is hard to be the stepmom. We have my bonus kids 50% of the time. So, I do 50% of their wash, their dishes, the meals and make it to nearly 100% of the soccer games, the piano recitals, the plays, the concerts, and more, and yet, I guarantee you they see me differently then they see their mom. Mothers’ Day is one of those days when I feel that much more acutely.  For now, I will focus on the fact that I have a terrific husband and that most days we do pretty well as a big, blended family. I know most of the books says the best way to find happiness as a stepparent is to lower your expectations, but I sort of wonder at what point lowered expectations isn’t an invitation to encourage the kids (or me for that matter) not even to try for more or better.

 

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What is a “real family”?

I’ve done a great deal of reading about stepfamilies. I’ve probably read 20-30 books on the subject. Most of them say the same thing – it takes anywhere from four to seven years for blended family to feel like a real family.

It is no surprise when you think about the fact that many sources and studies claim that the divorce rate is higher in second and subsequent marriages than it is in first marriages. Compound that with the stats that indicate divorce is yet higher when there are stepchildren involved and the data can be daunting. So, in my mind, somehow, I felt that if we could just make it to the four-year mark, we would have it made.  I recognize that nothing magical happens at four years, but for some reason I felt it was a milestone.

Well, the other night at dinner, I announced that we were celebrating because it marked four years since we all moved in together. The kids asked why that mattered, and I shared with them my nugget that most experts say it takes four to seven years for a blended family to feel like a real family. In classic large family style, each child had a very different reaction.

Landon (age 12) noted that the studies said “four to SEVEN” and pointed out that we should take that to mean that it could be three more years until it felt normal. Justin (age 11) said he felt like we were a real family after about the first year. Kurstin (age 17) pointed out that the books said it takes four to seven years for MOST families to feel like a real family and that some blended families probably never do. Dear, sweet Addison (age 10) said she felt like a real family from the very first day. Lastly, Taylor (age 15) brought it all home with, “What is a REAL family anyway?!”

I am choosing to take a few things away from that interaction. 1) For at least a couple of the kids what we have is no different or at least no less than what they had. They are happy and comfortable with our big, blended family. 2) There really is no such thing as a “real family” in that way. When I grew up, the norm may have been a mom, a dad and two kids, but that certainly is not the case anymore. Families take on all kinds of shapes. I’m glad our kids can recognize that. 3) Finally, there is a reason all of those books list a range. Not all families solidify at the same rate. In fact, it is even true that not all members of an individual family adjust at the same rate. So, four years may not be a magic number, but we also do not have to be a statistic. We will keep working at it day after day and whether it takes four years or seven or ten, one day all of the kids will realize that this is what family feels like.

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Another Christmas

Christmas in a step family sometimes feels like walking through a room of scattered Legos – blindfolded. Yes, Christmas with lots of kids can be exciting and busy and magical, but it can also be filled with landmines.

Even decorations can be the cause of much stress. We used to put a star on top of the tree. My husband and his kids use an angel. Lego – ouch. We liked white lights. They liked colored. Don’t even get me started on blinking versus non-blinking. As we unpack our stored boxes, we each come across ornament after ornament loaded with meaning – ornaments from trips taken with our first spouse, ornaments that for years hung on a tree in a different house, shared with a different partner, ornaments that the kids made in earlier years. Heaven forbid one of those ornaments drops and breaks on our watch. Another Lego! Then there are always the ornaments that we can’t find that we have to wonder if perhaps they ended up with the ex spouse.

Food is another area that can unearth hidden landmines. We always had turkey for Christmas. My bonus kids hate step kids. They want that special jell-o dish with Dream Whip that grandma makes. I’ve never even heard of Dream Whip.

A host of traditions come with meaning for part of our family and mere confusion for the others. My husband and bonus kids have always read ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas on Christmas Eve. while my son and I traditionally attended a Christmas Eve church service. There we tried to blend traditions and adopt both. Believe me getting my son to read a story was a much easier sell than getting my bonus teenagers to attend a church service. So we decided to only do that one on the Christmas Eves when the kids are with their mom. Lego – ouch!

I think that most new married couples encounter some of this as they try to blend their traditions from their families of origin, but when it is only a husband and wife, they are on an even playing field. Once you add children, things become a bit more complicated. So for now, we are still juggling. We do a little of this and a little of that and some alternating of one year with an angel topper and the next year with a star.

This was our third Christmas together in this house. It is getting easier. It’s not like the landmines aren’t there, but it is a bit more like I am able to take off the blindfold and see some of them coming. They still hurt, but it tends to be the smaller ones that we don’t see coming.

I even said to my husband, “We finally made it through a Christmas without someone in tears.” To which, he lovingly reminded me that while playing Catch Phrase as a family on Christmas Eve (just after being warned to settle down and be more careful) my son hurled the apparatus at his oldest bonus sister, knocking her in the head and causing a flood of tears. Well, I suppose there is always next year.

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Honors assemblies and other land mines

There are some moments that are more challenging for stepfamilies than for first families. We recently had one of those moments.

Our 12-year old son received a letter from the middle school inviting him (and his parents) to a special breakfast. It turns out that the teachers at the school had been given the opportunity to nominate students who had exhibited outstanding character. Landon was going to be honored for showing empathy. So, we put the breakfast on the family calendar and looked forward to celebrating with Landon.

The morning arrive. Landon, his dad and I headed to the school for the honors breakfast. When we got to the parking lot, we connected with Landon’s mom who had also come for the breakfast. This was no big deal for any of us. After several years, we are used to seeing each other at kid events. In fact, we all sat together at the breakfast, and though moderately awkward, this again is nothing new.

The tricky part came during the event itself. The principal stood up and gave a lovely speech. She talked about how the students who were being honored were thought leaders and then she said that they no doubt got their character traits from their parents. So, she asked each student to stand and introduce himself, to introduce his parents and to speak about the values he has learned from his parents. At that moment, my heart and stomach sank. I can only imagine how Logan felt. What was he going to say? Who was he going to introduce as his parents? I mentally prepared myself, trying to thicken my skin as I was fairly certain that he was going to introduce his mom and dad, leaving me to feel a bit out of place.

Student after student took a turn at the mic. Some of them spoke eloquently about how a parent had shown unconditional love or stayed up late at night helping the student finish a project. There were only two students left. Landon finally took his turn. He cleared his throat and launched into his remarks. “I brought all of my parents today – my mom, my dad and my stepmom and they…help me with stuff.”

That was it. It was short and not overly wrought with emotion, but it was painless – at least on my end. He handled it very well. I suspect it was awkward for him, but no one else in the room seemed to think it the least bit odd. With six kids, I suspect we will have many more such opportunities, but at least on this occasion we all survived unscathed.

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Who are our cheerleaders?

I’ve done a great deal of reading about stepfamilies. In the early days, I think I thought that if I just did enough research this would be easy. I have probably read at least 20 books on the subject. In the early days, I have heard many theories about what makes a stepfamily more challenging than a first family, but when listening to a radio program recently, I heard (for the first time) a concept that made sense to me.

One of the main differences between a first family and a second or subsequent family is who is on your team. When you get married for the first time, everyone wants you to succeed. You parents want the marriage to work, your friends want the marriage to work, and when you have children they are more invested than anyone in having the marriage work. Many, many people are on your team.

When you get married for a second time, the picture may look very different. Your parents, in the best of circumstances, may be skeptical and reluctant to embrace the new spouse for fear he or she will end up leaving the family like the first spouse did. In a worse scenario, the parents may actually prefer the first spouse and therefore have some loyalty issues making it difficult to accept the “new” spouse.

Friends who used to be couple friends during your first marriage may have the same kinds of challenges. Will accepting the new spouse be a betrayal of the first spouse who was at one time their friend too?

And children from previous marriages more likely than not are rooting for your marriage to fail in those early years. You and your spouse having a strong marriage threatens rather than strengthens the family they know and with which they are familiar and comfortable. So, at least in the beginning they may be rooting against your success.

So, who is on your team? Who is rooting for you? Other people who are in stepfamilies – that’s who! They are invested in your success because they understand your unique challenges and in some small way your success bodes well for their success.

In time, hopefully, your parents will come around. Your friends will too, and if they don’t, you will find new friends who are used to you and your new spouse as a couple. With any luck, even the children from your first marriage will eventually adjust to this new family and start rooting for you to succeed. Until that happens, find other stepfamilies when you need a cheerleader to build you up and encourage you through the rough patches.

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Hollywood isn’t helping

It’s been quite awhile since I have posted. Maybe I am getting more used to life as a stepfamily. Maybe I was just tired of feeling like I only posted when things were rough. At any rate, something finally struck a nerve again this week, and I felt the need to share.

We recently rented some movies. Seems like a harmless, family activity, doesn’t it? In fact since we have so many children, I am very good about researching movies before we see them. I look on a couple of websites recommend by a friend. I read about movies on commonsensemedia.org and kids-in-mind.com to see if the content is age appropriate for our kids. Those sites tell me about sexual references, adult themes and content, violence, nudity, even consumerism, but there is one things those sites don’t tell me. They don’t tell me which of those movies will do terrible damage to the fragile identity of a stepfamily.

Stepfamilies have enough challenges without all of the movies that perpetuate the archetypes. When we watched Cinderella, I knew what we were in for, and I was ready for the wicked stepmother, but I really did not see it coming with San Andreas. San Andreas is an action movie about “the big one.” The boys 12, 13 and 15 were excited to see this movie. I checked to make sure it was age appropriate.

Spoiler alert: Very early in the movie, the stepdad and daughter are in a car in a car garage when an earthquake hits. The daughter is trapped in the car and unable to move and the stepdad leaves her there alone to fend for herself. In the meantime, the “real dad’ finds and saves her mom and then finds and saves her. And, of course, over the course of the movie and mom and dad fall back in love and end up together at the end of the movie.

Those caused my son to ask all sorts of questions. He wanted to know if his stepdad would leave him if something like that happened, if people who were once married but are now divorced often get back together, if it is okay for people who were once married but are now divorced to kiss, and more.

I’m glad there are sites when I can check movies for ratings on violence, language and sexual content. I just wish there were also a site where I could find ratings on things like: accurate portrayal of stepfamilies, positive role models as seen in stepparents, and likelihood that divorced parents will end up together. That way, I would know which movies t avoid or at very least which ones are going to merit some major discussion following the movie.

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