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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Pinterest mom, disshelved stepmom

It’s been months since I have posted anything. The fall is a particularly busy time both at work and at home. Keeping afloat is about all I can handle during the months of September and October. We have two birthdays, Halloween and two of my biggest work events of the year. However, now that I have resurfaced from some of that, I needed to process some of my thoughts, and I figured blogging about them would help.

First, a confession. I am a Pinterest mom. Yes, I am one of those dreaded mothers who look up copious ways to turn fruit into cute animal shapes. I make my kids’ Halloween costumes. I overdo kid birthday parties. I use pipe cleaners in strange and unusual crafty ways.

But lately that has made for a bit of a crisis of conscious. It is easy to do those things for one child. It is a bit of a monumental task to do those things when you have six children. Now instead of sewing one costume, I am working on three. I barely recovered from The October birthday and it was already time for the November party. End of the year teacher gifts take far more money and more time than I had intended to invest.

I am not really sure what the solution is. I am not quite ready to give it all up entirely and yet it does seem a bit unfair to be willing to do those things for Justin but not for the others. So, I need to find some happy medium. I guess I really need to focus on which “mom tasks” require the homemade touch, and I need to be okay with now and then buying the birthday cake or Halloween costume. Either that or I need a clone!

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Miracle on Washington Street

I recently finished directing Miracle on 34th Street at our local community theater. So for the past two months, I have lived and breathed that story. It is one of my all-time favorite movies. I love the characters and the story. Living that story every night for weeks reminded me of a special moment a couple of Christmases back.

It was our first year as a new family. I was struggling a bit. We didn’t feel like a “real family.” We were struggling to blend holiday traditions, to accept our new roles, to find our way. As a second wife and stepmom, I often felt second best. Would we ever figure it out? Would we ever be a “real family?”

About a week before Christmas we had our own Miracle on 34th Street moment. The First Baptist Church called to see if our family would light the advent candle at the Christmas Eve service. I know it is silly; I know it shouldn’t have mattered, but somehow I felt as if the church itself was recognizing our crazy/broken/put-back-together/blended family as a real and authentic family. If we were good enough to walk up in front of the church for the Christmas Eve service, then surely folks would accept us as a “real family.”

It may not have meant anything. I suppose it is possible that everyone else had turned them down, but for me it was an important moment. Since that day, every time I feel that someone is judging us for having children of divorce or for being remarried, I stop and remember that FBC thought we were worthy of lighting the Jesus candle on Christmas Eve, and I cease to care what other people think.

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Your tooth fairy or mine

There are so many challenges that come with blended families that are obvious and anticipated and then there are those that sneak up on us. Last night we bumped into yet another one of those.

Both my bio son and my bonus son lost teeth on the same day. What are the odds of that?! How could that possibly present a problem? Well, once we tucked in the boys, my husband and I plotted the visit of the tooth fairy. Here is where we hit some unchartered territory.

My husband’s tooth fairy always gave the children a $2 bill. Whereas the tooth fairy at our previous house gave my son two $1 bills that were covered in fairy dust (aka glitter.) I am sure it seems to the casual observer that this is minor difference, but to us the very tenants of childhood seemed to rest on this moment. What if doing the wrong thing caused one boy (or both) to lose belief in the tooth fairy. And we all know that once the tooth fairy is in question, Santa cannot be far behind.

After much discussion, I swayed my husband to try the “to each his own ” approach. My theory was that we could make the claim that there is more than one tooth fairy and that fairies are assigned to a child – not a household. So, clearly Justin and Landon must have been assigned to different fairies.

So one boy got glitter and the other got a $2 bill, and do you know what happened this morning? Nothing! The boys did not compare at all. Apparently, we stewed over it for nothing. Guess that in itself was a valuable lesson to learn.

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Careful what you wish for

My oldest bonus daughter is getting ready to head off to college. She will be going to school in a town about seven hours away. Recently we have been looking ahead to orientation and trying to plan for the big event. It’s not easy when you’ve got six kids and are part of a blended family. We finally figured out a way to cover the other five kids for the weekend. My husband and the kids’ mom agreed that they would both participate in the college drop off but that they would stagger it.

The plan was that Julia and her mom would head up on Thursday so they could have some time together and then her mom would head back Saturday so she could return to work on Sunday. Julia’s dad and I would head up on Friday and stay until the end of orientation on Sunday, returning before we work on Monday. Seemed like a great plan. All of us got to be a part of the big event. Julia would get some time with just her mom and some time with just us and time with all of us.

I booked the hotel rooms. Registered for parents’ orientation. Got my mom to agree to have Justin over for the weekend and took the Friday off work.

A couple of weeks ago at dinner, my husband said, “Julia, Deb has done some research and looked up a number of places for us to have dinner while in Spokane.” Julia responded with, “Why is Debbie going? I only want my real parents there. I just want it to be you and me and mom and this should really be about me anyway. Why can’t we just pretend like nothing ever changed and we’re still one family.” That hung in the air for a moment – while all of the other kids looked at me to see what my reaction would be.

Don’t get me wrong. I suppose I can understand the sentiment, but I certainly wish she would have chosen another time and place and tone to express those feelings.

When my husband and I first started dating, I remember his ex saying to me that she hoped that their divorce would be like the one “It’s Complicated” where the divorced parents still get together with the kids on special occasions. It should be noted here that in the Meryl Streep movie “It’s Complicated” the divorced parents have an affair with each other even though the mom has a boyfriend and the dad has a wife. So this particular vision was not one that I (the new wife in the scenario) embraced.

I resigned myself to not going along for the drop off and really was fine with it. Admittedly, I was a bit hurt by not being wanted or welcome, but I could certainly find a way to occupy my time for a weekend.

My husband, however, was not content with the new plan. He called Julia and set up a dinner date for just the two of them. I found out about the dinner after the fact when my husband reported on their conversation. He said he had a very heartfelt conversation with Julia about the many, many ways I had been a “real parent” to her over the last four years, about how they could not afford the college of her choice without my support, how I haven’t missed a concert or play in four years, have made her dinner and driven her places and hosted her grad party, etc. He said that he wanted her to know that he and I are in it for the long haul and that he was bringing me along because he did not want her to look back years from now and regret that she had made a rash decision and had created a wedge that would be hard to un-create.

In two weeks we leave on a road trip. I suspect it will be pretty awkward since I still don’t think I am wanted there, but I am amazed that my husband cared enough to have that conversation and to take that kind of a stand. Julia may not need me there, but I think my husband does.So,I am planning to make the best of it and hoping we all fare better than Meryl Streep, Alec Baldwin and Steve Martin.

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