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Back in the Saddle

Back in the Saddle

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.

 

Open Heart Surgery

Open Heart Surgery

My seven year-old daughter wears her heart on her sleeve.  Unfortunately, wearing your heart in such a vulnerable place leaves it open for getting damaged, broken, or lost.  In most pockets of my life, I keep my heart safely tucked away, where no one can find it and hurt it.  Not my girl.  She puts it right out there, showing it to and sharing it with anyone who needs it.

She’s the girl who cries when cartoon animals are mistreated.

She cries at the thought of squirrels being cold in the winter.

She cries at funerals for people she doesn’t know.

She cries when she hears an ambulance, for fear that a stranger is terribly hurt.

She cries when she thinks of Jesus’ love for her.

But, with all of those tears, and all of those feelings, she is not deterred.

This past weekend, we celebrated my youngest stepson’s birthday. My daughter is crazy about birthdays.  She plans and obsesses over them, wanting each detail to be perfect for the birthday boy or girl.

She labored over which decorations to buy, and which gift he wanted most. She spent her money on two very thoughtful gifts and wrapped them with love and the great delight of one who loves to give more than receive.

She meticulously hung streamers and filled balloons, all the while, chiding him like a mother hen to “not come out until it’s ready.” She asked me a dozen times “do you think he’ll like it, Mommy?” with her eyes shining at the thought of making his day special.

When it was perfect, and she was ready to reveal her hard work, she led him by the hand, begging him to keep his eyes closed tightly until she told him to open them.  When he did, she exclaimed “Happy birthday!”

He looked up, surveyed her work and said: “Can we go play now?” Now, you have to understand—he is seven, and he is a little boy.  He wasn’t trying to be rude or hurt her feelings.  He was just in the middle of something and was annoyed at being pulled away from it.  Not an unnatural response—and not a response I haven’t had myself, more than once.

I gasped a little and looked at my daughter, expecting the tears to come. Instead, she hopped from foot to foot, grinning widely and said “I knew you would love it!  We wanted it to be perfect!” The gift of her heart and her love for her brother didn’t leave any room for hurt feelings, or bitterness or feeling unappreciated.

Party

When he unwrapped his gifts later, she could hardly wait for him to unwrap hers. He thanked her, and it was as if he had handed her the keys to a brand new car.  Here I am, sitting there wondering why he isn’t more aware of how much thought she put into his birthday, feeling offended on her behalf, and there she is—fearlessly putting her heart out there.

As a parent, I worry about what I am teaching my kids. Am I teaching them to grow in their faith? To learn the value of hard work? To be kind?  In my worrying, I completely miss what they teach me.  I’m envious of my daughter’s heart.  While I work so hard to protect it for her, she just opens it more and more.  It scares me to know how deeply she could be hurt with such a tender heart.  How quickly I forget that Jesus is watching over her and blessing her sweet love for others.  When her heart does get broken, He gently picks it up, as only He can, and makes it new again.

I want a heart like that. Covered in the scars of loving people.  No room for feeling unappreciated or rejected or misunderstood.  Consumed by love for others, no matter how much it hurts.

I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. Ezekiel 36:26

stony-heart

Just Play Along

Just Play Along

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

Piano

Sometimes the accompaniment is the most important part. You are doing good work, parents.

The Care and Feeding of Yaks

The Care and Feeding of Yaks

I’ve spoken to a few of you recently about the special kind of torture that is seeing an issue in your children/marriage/blended family/etc, knowing that it’s a problem that needs to be addressed, and being 100% powerless to do anything about it.  It’s maddening, isn’t it? Here’s this big, hairy problem crashing through your family like a runaway yak, and for a variety of reasons, you are the one person who is least able to intervene and solve it. In the meantime, you are forced to dodge the steaming piles of yak poo this lumbering nuisance leaves behind, while you assess and repair the damage. Talk about adding insult to injury! Not only does it feel like you’re the only one who really wants to stop the yak, you have to clean up after the stupid thing when it goes on a stampede.

If you find yourself in this position for whatever reason, I’d like to share a few suggestions that have helped me. I have to be honest, that some days I am much better at following my own advice than others. I am not immune to stepping right in the poo—believe me.

1) Talking about the yak won’t catch the yak. It will however drive you crazy and distract you from the things running wild in your life that need to be caught before they grow up into yaks. People who live in glass houses shouldn’t breed yaks.

2) Don’t try to reason with a yak. You’ll get kicked right in the face. Did you invite the yak? Are you feeding the yak? No? Then stop trying to analyze its behavior. It won’t stop the stampede, but it will drive you nuts, Yak Whisperer.

3) Let the yak get caught. Hide your valuables, find a comfortable seat a safe distance away, and watch the yak foolishly tire itself out. A yak can’t tell the difference between insanity and perseverance, but it will eventually get its head stuck in a fence. It’s a yak.

4) Give your yak to God. He made you. He knows what you need. Maybe you need this yak in your life for some reason that only He understands. Ask Him to change your heart and bring you peace and stop begging Him to change your yak into a kitten. Seek His comfort, especially when you’re stepping right in the piles. He doesn’t get tired of hearing you ask—even if it’s the same prayer, or just the same word over and over.  Some of my best prayers are incoherent babbles.

I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble, but take heart! I have overcome the world. – John 16:33

What has worked for you? What hasn’t worked?  I am desperately seeking improvement in my own Yak Management tactics.  I’d love to hear from you.

Don’t Trip Your Teammate

Don’t Trip Your Teammate

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.