I’ve been gone from this blog for a while–a year and a half, to be exact. While I’ve been writing nearly every day, it’s limited to freelance projects and marketing content. And while I’ve felt the pull to come back to my blog, it was met with a feeling of melancholy and fatigue. And later, with guilt for neglecting something that I consider a gift– the capacity and desire to write.
I couldn’t figure out what the problem was, so I hid from the call to write.
For 18 months.
Champion hider, I am.
When my Dad passed away two years ago (today, in fact), I poured out my heart and soul and the immensity of my grief in a blog that I read at his funeral. I wrote one more blog on the day we buried him, and another to mark our first Christmas without him. After I managed to get all of those hard feelings and acutely personal words on paper, I felt empty of any desire to write another word.
The genesis of this blog was the rosy, doe-eyed hope that I had something profound to share with other blended families. (I just giggled writing that sentence, you guys!) I don’t.
I. Do. Not.
Five years post-blend, I have absolutely NO idea what I’m doing. None. 2016 marked our third year as a blended family and it was the hardest year of our life together so far. One of those “Murphy’s Law” sort of years. By the time we lost Dad, and my mom made it through a hard battle with her own health (two weighty things among a steady stream of other wallops), I was just tired. Tired of being Pollyanna about everything. Tired of trying so hard to create an image of a fully-functioning, “look at us go!” blended family when most days it is JUST SO HARD. Don’t get me wrong– if I could go back, I wouldn’t change it. I would still marry my wonderful husband and I would still welcome my three stepsons into this house and this family with an open heart (not open arms, because we aren’t huggers and that would be super awkward for everyone, but…heart, yes). But if I could go back five or six years and talk to my shiny, naive, “go-getter” pre-blended self, I would sit her down and tell her a few things.
You will never be blended and it will never be smooth— it just won’t. The blending never stops, because the ingredients just keep coming. Once you have the elementary and pre-teen years figured out, here come teenage problems and a whole new set of things to navigate (graduation parties with exes, family events with exes, new drivers, knowing when to show up to events and when to be invisible). None of it is particularly intuitive, because it all involves other humans and their very human emotions, as well as your own very human (sometimes even irrational, if you can believe it) emotions. You just have to do your best and pick your battles. Bit by bit.
Don’t wait for the finish line, my sweet, naive stepmom-to-be. It never comes. And once you realize that, it’s so much easier to cope with the twists and turns.
Sometimes it’s okay to disengage– Gracious, this one is hard. And it took me a long, long time to figure out. I tend to put myself out there when I take something on. I am a bit of a workaholic and super-competitive–driven to do my best in everything. It gets me in trouble sometimes. Not because my intentions are flawed– but because I’m flawed. I don’t take failure well. When I put my heart on my sleeve as a stepparent and it’s met with ambivalence at best and animosity at worst, I literally shut down like a giant, angry baby. One day (and my husband likely remembers this day), I decided that I was done with this perpetual “whole heart, both feet” effort to stomp the funky grapes of our complicated family dynamic into a fine wine.
Most days, it’s more like clearance Boone’s Farm up in here, and I’ve completely come to terms with that.
By backing off from the panicky drive to make everything perfect, things have actually improved. I am far less stressed and resentful because my expectations are realistic. Is our family a failure? Good heavens, no! Our kids are great. Smart, athletic, Jesus-loving, (mostly) respectful…great kids. Every one of them. But I no longer feel personally responsible for making sure of it. There are three other parents in this baffling equation and it isn’t all up to me and my crazy, self-imposed expectations for how this should go.
Fact: (and don’t you dare judge me…I have no regrets) After a particularly tough weekend with one of the kids, I decided to just pretend said kid was invisible for a little bit. Like a few days. And you know what? It helped. I wasn’t rude or hurtful. I was just absent from the tremendous weight of caring so gosh-darned much for a few days while my husband took over all things related to said kid. I don’t even know if said kid noticed I pulled back, but the difference it made in my own mind was immeasurable and good for both of us. Pull back before you splat into an emotional mountainside. It’s fine. Blame me when everyone thinks you’ve gone off the rails.
You HAVE TO protect your “little family”– Your “little family” is the family you dragged into this circus with you on the day you said, “I do.” For me, it’s my son and daughter. For my husband, it’s his three boys. While we are a family of seven, and I refer to all five kids as “our kids,” I’ve learned that our O.G. families need the security of our targeted time and attention. It might be popular opinion to say that you have to keep everything even and do everything with everybody every time, but I’m going to just tell you that’s all complete crap.
Kids have love languages. Kids have individual needs. And your kids didn’t ask for any of their needs to be sacrificed for the sake of “keeping it even” when no one but you is keeping score. The least I can do is acknowledge and delight in the fact that they still crave time with just me. It will come in different forms as they get older, but I can’t emphasize enough how crucial it has been to the well-being, self-confidence and comfort of my biological children that I make time for the three of us to remember and celebrate that we are a strong “little family” inside a crazy, wonderful “big family.” And while we do lots of vacations and activities and dinners and movies with the “big family,” I will always make time to celebrate the three of us, and it makes a difference. So by all means– show love evenly in your family, but don’t be afraid to do it in varying equations and in creative ways. No one has a tally sheet, making sure it’s all in perfect balance.
Find out what matters to your kids and do that.
To that end, I took a quick camping and horseback riding trip with my son (just the two of us) while my daughter was at church camp, and it was so refreshing and encouraging, that it spurred me to find my words again (no pun intended). I may not have any of this figured out, but I no longer feel like a giant fraud because of it. I’m happy to have learned a few things, and whether the rules change again tomorrow or in ten years, I know that through God’s grace, it is (and I am) enough.
Feels good to be back in the saddle. At least for today.
I’ve played the piano since I was 4. It started as a way to make my older brother look bad. He also played, and hated practicing. I, too, hated practicing, but you’d never know in those early days. I’d grit my teeth and exclaim “Mommy, can I play some more? I loooooove to practice!” while my brother would roll his eyes and pantomime threats in my direction.
As I got older, I realized that I genuinely did love to play the piano, and I stuck with it. It was my talent during my years of participation in the Miss America program, I’ve been the pianist for both churches I’ve attended in my adult life, and it’s still the most liberating, cathartic outlet for the blues that I have ever found.
I’m often asked to accompany singers and other musicians for various things. I’ll labor over the music, keenly aware that one wrong note could throw off the whole thing. I want to do a good job for the person who asked me to accompany them, so I worry, and I fret and I practice my fingers to the bone. Even with 30 years of experience as a pianist, and with the love I have of music in general, I still worry that my accompaniment won’t be good enough, and I’ll somehow disappoint the person who is depending on me to perform to the best of my ability.
As is the case with most accompanists, I make it through the performance fine, pleased with the way it turned out, and proud to have been part of it. This moment is when I have to remember consciously that despite my hours of practice and worry, and despite the investment I may have in the music—right down to my soul, that I am just a player in the background. My job is to accompany the person who needs me, step back, and applaud along with the audience when it’s over.
I can choose to feel like chopped liver, or I can choose to cheer for the people who need me.
As a stepmom (and as a parent in general), it’s so tempting to feel slighted when you’re working so hard for the good of your family, and it seems to go unrecognized and unappreciated. When you plan and fund an activity you know will create lifelong memories for someone, and they don’t even want to you to be there to enjoy it with them, it hurts. When you plan meals you know someone will like, and you are met only with sharp, nitpicky criticism, it hurts.
At those moments, I can either choose to be resentful or relentless. As a musician, I will never stop striving to be the best accompanist I can be for the person who needs me. As a mom and stepmom, I will count it a privilege to have people who truly depend on me—even when I might want to shake them a little bit. I don’t need the applause. I need my kids to have the confidence that they are loved, cared for and worth working hard for. At the end of it, when they are grown and making their own way through life, I’ll be standing in the background, applauding for them more loudly than anyone.
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. I Corinthians 13:4-7
Sometimes the accompaniment is the most important part. You are doing good work, parents.
I love competition. I loved being part of a track team and I still love beating my own times when I enter a road race (although those new PR’s are hard to come by these days!). For me, track was the best of both worlds: I could compete as an individual, but I could also compete as part of a team. To be honest, the individual competition appealed to me the most. Beating my own records, analyzing my split times, hearing my name called for coming in first–it was exhilarating. Of course I wanted my team to do well, and I was delighted to contribute to the point totals. More than anything though, I loved racing as an individual—even when I ran against people on my own team. Sounds silly, but in my teenage arrogance it was true.
I may not be tearing up the track in a polyester singlet any more, but let me tell you—my competitive streak is alive and well. I can turn anything into a competition against myself or someone else. Anything. You’re running on the treadmill next to me at the gym? We’re competing. The GPS says I’ll get to my destination in 3hrs? I’ll do it in 2.5. Thirty grocery bags to carry in from the car? Bet I can get them in one trip! If you ever have occasion to watch Jeopardy with me, I’ll just apologize now.
Let me tell you where my competitive spirit can get me into a little trouble:
Parenting, especially in a blended family, is not an individual sport. What might seem like Parenting 101 to you may be something your spouse would never do in a million years (and for very valid reasons). When you add in the complexity of remarriage and a new step-parent relationship, things really get tricky. I know exactly two things about teenage boys: they eat a lot and they like video games. My husband, on the other hand, has vast experience with 3 boys and will tell you that raising a daughter is a pink, princess-filled mystery. What works for my 6 year old daughter will not necessarily work for his 14 year old son. Sometimes I need to tell my competitive spirit, which is constantly screaming “put me in the game!” to zip it, and just let my teammate handle it.
I am the strongest player and the weakest player on our team. I’m the coach and the red-shirt freshman. I’m riding the bench one minute and carrying my teammate across the finish line the next. It’s unpredictable, but it’s exciting. It’s the most important competition of our lives, to beat the influences of the world that want to destroy and diminish our children. We can’t afford to lose.
Let us run with perseverance, the race set before us. –Hebrews 12:1
Carry each other when you need to, but keep competing together.
I have to go. There’s a spelling bee on TV.
In the summers, we get to spend extra time with my stepsons and we have my kiddos almost every day, all day. While we love it, it definitely makes things tricky. My husband and I both work full time, so we have to weave an intricate matrix of “I’m-remote-this-day, you’re-remote-that-day” to ensure that someone is home with the kiddos during the week. Throw in business travel, volunteering, and events/dinners outside of working hours, and our matrix would make any flight control tower operator sweat a little.
This is the first week of the summer that I’ve worked from home solo with all five of the kids. I will be honest—I’ve been dreading it. We have some…extenuating circumstances…that ensure when my stepsons arrive, they act like we’ve never met, and I am some kind of axe murderer, just waiting for them to fall asleep so I can eliminate them. After a few hours, they come down from the ledge and remember that our home isn’t the dangerous Den of Iniquity and Child Torture they may have been warned about. They relax again and you can almost see a visible change of “Oh, yeah. These people actually love me. They love Jesus. They love each other. We do fun things here. I do not, in fact, need to sleep with one eye open.”
Lest you think I’m over here on my exasperated pedestal, wondering how anyone could possibly buy into the ridiculous lies and insecurity and jealousy that come oh-so-freely with a blended family, let me tell you—I am the Queen of buying into the lies of the Enemy. The Queen.
More often than I care to admit, I believe the same lies that my stepchildren hear from others, from society and from the media. We’ve been programmed by Disney for years that stepmothers are wicked, right? They are jealous, hateful monsters who seek only to lock you in a damp attic so they can have your father’s money and attention exclusively, yes? Hey, I love the attention I get from my husband. He’s affectionate and funny and makes me feel like the most important person in the world. Do I expect him to ignore his kids and pay attention only to me? Good heavens, no! I love how much he loves his (and my) children, and it only makes me adore him that much more. As for the money part—I make my own money, thank you very much. We both work hard to take care of our family and neither of us would have it any other way. Entitlement has no place in this home.
While we can logically separate the stepmothers portrayed in Disney cartoons from real life, we do fall for the lies of the Enemy over and over again. On especially crazy days, when parenthood and work and the responsibilities of life feel like too much, I start to let my hurt feelings and helplessness outweigh the opportunity and gifts I’ve been given. I wish away my life, one blended week at a time. All too soon, these precious (albeit taxing) days of our young family will be gone, and I’ll be left wondering where they went. I want a whole storehouse of sweet memories with all five of my kids before they leave home to start their own families. I want to make the most of the short time I have with all of them. But it’s so hard, when you’re in it.
Maybe you aren’t in a blended family and you’re hearing the same whispers of untruth. Other parents seem to have it all together, and you don’t. If you have to look at one more Utopic collage on Facebook of a perfect beach vacation, with a smiling family in coordinating white and khaki outfits, basking in the glow of a gorgeous sunset, you’ll lose it, right? Here you are, surrounded by 63,337 Legos, none of which are from the same $100 set, and you’ve stepped on 63,335 of them. You’re cleaning up dog vomit with one hand, and confiscating an iPad from a whining child with the other. You have a conference call in 10 minutes and you realize you haven’t made lunch (a lunch that at least 60% of your children will criticize and dramatically gag about). Utopia, it is not. I will readily admit that. What I strive to remember, and ask you to remember is that there are so many moments of sweetness inside the mess of it all. An unexpected hug from my stepson. A little love note from my husband. A mid-day snuggle with my daughter. A meal that is met with an approval rating above 60%. These moments are there. They’re everywhere. I promise. Don’t let the Enemy choke out the joy from the everyday. You are right where God wants you to be, and the season of parenthood is so short. Don’t miss it.
You do not even know what will happen tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for a little while and then vanishes.– James 4:14
Love ‘em while you have ‘em, mamas. One day at a time.
I hear other mothers talk about how they limit the time their kids are allowed to use electronics to 10 minutes a day, or only on Saturdays, or only when the moon is in the seventh house and Jupiter is aligned with Mars–but only if it’s on a Tuesday.
Friends, I am not that mother. I would like to be, but it is with great mom-shame that I tell you that sometimes I use my kids’ iPads (yes, they have their own) as babysitters, teachers, bribes and the carrots at the end of the stick that is parenting tedium. Don’t get me wrong—we have rules about our electronics, and the kids are expected to follow them. Our rules are just a little…looser than some of my other mom friends’ rules.
In our house “One more word and you lose the Xbox” elicits an immediate and intentional silence that even the crickets don’t dare violate. “Do you want to lose the iPad?” has the same weight as “Do you want to be dipped in boiling oil?” The behavior in question magically vanishes, and my previously unruly child stares up at me with the face of a sweet cherub.
In my kids’ defense, they really are bright and creative and active. Although there are days when I have to pry their electronics out of their white-knuckled grips and drag them outside as they blink up at the sun like little zombies, those days are rare. As all moms do though, I feel that sense of “I’m the biggest failure that ever failed a fail” when it comes to most things (why do we do that to ourselves?) and I aspire to impose stricter limits on electronics. Oh, but then I have an emergency conference call. I have to run across town for an unexpected errand. The dog eats 7 smoke-bombs and starts vomiting neon projectiles (true story). The point is that life gets in the way of good intentions and I hand over the iPads in defeat.
I am not making excuses for myself in the areas in which I need to improve. Life is never going to stop being crazy—we just have to find new ways to cope with it and become the next “better” version of ourselves. One thing that we all have in common is that we want to do our very best for our kids. If my best today is “watch a movie while Mommy picks Legos out of the garbage disposal” then that’s my best, and I have to be okay with that.
I picture my inner critic as June Cleaver. White apron, immaculate hair, perfectly-applied red lipstick… I hate her. She smells like fresh-baked banana bread and judgment, and she is always staring down her perfect little nose, telling me what I should have done and tsk-tsk-ing at my failures. You know what, June? My kids might have permanent grass stains on their behinds (it’s possible—trust me), and they might be able to quote the NFL Bad Lip Reading videos verbatim (if you’ve never seen them, they’re HILARIOUS–but, I digress). They might be missing 2.5 buttons at any given time, and it’s 50/50 if they remembered to flush the potty, but they are loved and they love fiercely in return. Their little hearts are pure and sweet and focused on Jesus—even at their young ages. For every moment that they cause another gray hair to pop out like a turkey timer on my head, they give me a thousand moments of warmth that make June’s banana bread look like a pile of regurgitated smoke-bombs.
It’s not easy going through your parents’ divorce. When you add on a new stepparent and step siblings, life really gets interesting. I am not one to embrace change. I often wonder how I would have reacted as a child if my parents had divorced and remarried. I have a feeling it wouldn’t have been very pretty.
One of things I am most proud of is for the way that all five of our children have adjusted to life in our blended family. We all still struggle in different ways and at different intensities, but I am so proud of them for continually adapting with such grace. (Do me favor please, and remind me of that the next time they are all in the car, arguing about who gets to sit where while I rock back and forth in the passenger seat, pulling out my eyelashes.) The bottom line is that all seven of us continue to develop new, improved versions of ourselves. Our 2.0’s. We work on our “bug-fixes” and make adjustments where we need a little tweaking.
Mommy 2.0 might not be able to get the kids to flush, or to stop running around in the yard in their socks, but she’s okay with that. Who knows? She might even bake banana bread.
As I was driving my kids to school today, we were talking about all of the exciting things going on for our family in the month of September, and how much we are looking forward to spending the coming weekend with my husband’s three sons. After a summer of seeing them for a week at a time, it seems so long now between visits, since we’ve resumed our every-other-weekend schedule.
As we talked this morning, I glanced in my rearview mirror at my son’s face, and I could tell he was thinking. He is my pensive child, and his eyes give him away when something is brewing in his sensitive little heart. I asked him what he was thinking about, and he said “I love the boys and I love our big family. I just…I just kind of ache for some time with our little family.”
My son is old enough that he remembers the time period between when his father and I separated and when my husband and I started dating and got married. That time as a “little family” was so hard in many ways, but it was also so sweet and holds some of the most precious moments I have ever had with my children.
My daughter is young enough that she doesn’t really remember much about life P.B. (Pre-Boys). Don’t get me wrong—she still requires frequent “girl date” time, when we escape the den of testosterone and boy smells, and let our “boys be boys” with their video games and ninja battles while we go get a pedicure. She doesn’t remember, however, what it was like when it was the “little family” that my son holds so close to his heart.
After his confession, my son met my eyes in the rearview mirror and whispered “Please don’t tell Brian.” I felt a little pinch at his obvious struggle to ask me for some time alone, mixed with fear that he would hurt his stepdad’s feelings if he asked for it.
My children love my husband. He stepped gracefully and lovingly into their lives and they adore him. My daughter liberally bestows her hugs and kisses and sweet affection on him, while my son more shyly doles out his hugs, but communicates his love in written form, through notes and texts (hmmm…wonder where he gets that?). One of the qualities I love most about my husband is his empathy. He came from a blended family too, and he understands what our kids go through in a way that I simply can’t.
So how do I successfully convey to my kids and my step kids that it’s not only okay, but it’s good to crave that time with their individual parents in their “little family”? We work so hard to ensure that each of our children feels like an integral part of our blended family–an appendage that is crucial for the successful function of the family as a whole body. It’s so important though, to take a pause from that and whisper back to them “It’s okay to need time. I get it.”
My youngest stepson wears his precious little heart on his sleeve. You never have to guess what he is thinking. Stick around, and he’ll tell you! While he has vague memories of life before our current state, it isn’t as clear to him as the “little family” is to my son. What is very evident with him, however, is his need for quality time with my husband. When he has a “date” with his dad, he returns from it visibly refreshed, and talks about it for days. The older boys are the same way, although a bit more reserved in their response. Alone time is such a simple gift to give them, but one that I often neglect to give.
I tend to be the Official Family Planner. I make the holiday plans and the vacation plans and the weekend plans and try to keep things interesting and fun. Sometimes I hit the mark and sometimes I miss. Parenting older boys is a brand new world for me. I’m starting to figure out what suitable entertainment is for a teenage boy, but I’m still such a rookie that I can only ask for their patience while I stumble through the trial and error of it. What I am learning through the process is that it’s equally important to schedule time to be separate as it is to be together. We are one family. A big, crazy, loud, imperfect family. At the nucleus of our family though, you’ll find two little sub-families that are still alive and well.
I reassured my sweet boy in the car this morning that my heart aches too for alone time with my “little family”, just as it does for time with my big family, my husband and my friends. Quality time is important for any child, blended family or not, but nurturing the individual branches of your blended family tree (if you have one) is vitally important to its continued growth.
While certain days might feel like they are at LEAST 48 hours long, our time with our children is so short. Here’s to making memories worth aching for.