Adventures in Step-parenting

My stepchildren’s mother called me yesterday out of the blue.  Although we’re generally on good terms now and have been for a few years, seeing her name on my phone threw my sympathetic nervous system into a mini fight or flight episode.  After a few friendly words she launched into her reason for calling–something awful was happening to a friend of hers, and knowing I was a therapist, she was calling to get a “professional” opinion.  In what amounted to a 45 minute unpaid therapy session, I did my best to offer the information and support I hoped would be helpful.  The call ended with a cheery goodbye on both ends, and a few words about meeting up in September when my husband and I and our kids make the annual trek to the small town where she and the step kids live to attend the small town fair & rodeo.

I couldn’t help but continue to think about this interaction for the rest of the evening.  Doug and I started our life together when his children were 18 months and 6.  I had my own daughters, 16 months and nearly 4.  We were madly in love and totally clueless about what was to come.

It was a difficult configuration to be sure–my girls’ father generally MIA, dodging both  financial support for and emotional connection with our kids, and the step kids’ mom at the complete opposite end of the continuum–aggressively limiting Doug’s time with his kids while demanding increasing amounts of financial support.

 

One of the first phone calls I remember from the step kids bio mom came in one night while I sat in the car outside Doug’s tech school waiting for him to finish class so we could start the typical Friday night 5 & 1/2 hour drive to Burns to see his kids for the weekend (rather see them sleeping in their grandma’s spare bed when we arrived usually sometime around 1am and then returned them across town to their mother approximately 29hrs later as we headed back to Portland to start the work week, refreshed!)

“Don’t let Ashley call you mom,” she said after a few strained attempts at sounding casual.

“I don’t even feel comfortable hearing my own kids call me mom, ” I quipped hilariously, trying to break the awkward tension:  crickets.  My stomach churned.  My hands felt shaky.  I had never seen the ‘Jealous Bio Mom” episode of the Brady Bunch.  Those lucky bastards had buried that bitch and gone on with their blissful lives.  Something cracked  inside of me that night.  Ripples of dread rolled into my emotional brain cloud and began forming the avatar with baby mama’s name on it–possessive, dominating, threat to our blissful family.  We hung up the phone but the sickness stayed with me.

It was the first of many such interactions, each building upon the first as Bio Mom Avatar blew through phone calls and weekend visits, churned through birthdays, summer vacations and spring holidays, sucking up joy and peace, gaining momentum with each passive aggressive flick of her wrist.  No part of our parenting time with the kids was off limits–it was excruciating–so naturally, I got more involved (see also psychotherapist, emotional masochism, middle child syndrome).  Now the calls and emails came directly to me.  I would be the one to police these interactions! One ring to rule them all!  I was in school to be a therapist after all, who among us was better qualified?

I began arranging pick up times and coordinating details of our visits.  Bio Mom and I settled into a routine of sorts, and with Doug taking a backseat for awhile, the two of us ladies seemed to be managing.  Then one afternoon a call came in from Bio Mom–the child support check hadn’t arrived yet, had we sent it?  Of course, I reassured her as I looked over the bill pay.  It should arrive within a day or two.  A week later came the first of many trauma-inducing documents from the district attorney’s office.  Bio mom had called and spoken to her friend who ran the front office.  Doug, she claimed, was refusing to pay child support.  She was demanding a hearing, garnishments and a reassessment of support (again.)  I stared at the documents, bits of our conversation the previous week racing through my head–she had played me.  TO HELL WITH DIPLOMACY, my inner voice screamed.  Bio Mom Avatar swelled to enormous proportions and took on new traits–liar, manipulator, two-faced, money-grubbing bitch.

Court was hell and not being a biological parent I was not allowed to participate (even when Bio Mom had my income info subpoenaed.)  I’m not sure how many times Doug underwent these types of hearings but suffice to say, in 10 years time we had enough contact with the District Attorney/Division of Child Support that I developed a mailbox-related PTSD syndrome which still sometimes haunts me to this day.

After our son was born, we filed paperwork to update the parenting plan to a standard long-distance version that would allow us more time in the summers and alternating holidays with the kids, thereby reducing drive time and making fewer, longer visits where we could enjoy the kids rather than spending most of our time in the car.   Oh the glee as we imagined Bio Mom being served documents!  For years we had suffered the tyranny of unwanted mail and now here we were, turning the tables.

Again I was not allowed in court and again the nonsense ensued.  Bio Mom demanded more child support and even less parenting time.  After all, Doug already saw the kids 29 hours every other weekend and a week or so in the summers–it wasn’t fair, she insisted.  “My kids” as she oft referred to them, needed even more time at home with her and less time with their father.

Days passed in agony as we awaited the final documents.  At last they came–we had gotten everything we had asked for–long weekends, alternating holidays and more time in the summer.  Bio Mom would have a choice–bring the kids halfway X times per year for the exchange, or put them on the bus at her expense.  The step kids were in our care the day the package came and I recall my stepson, maybe 9 or 10 at the time looking up at me and asking with hopeful innocence, “Who won?”  Oh dear God we are horrible people. 

Weeks passed and another package arrived–she was contesting the decision.  More agony, more waiting.  Bio Mom Avatar bloated to overflowing–stupid little teen mom awful person ruining her kids trying to destroy our lives–when would it end?  I reviewed my calendar and counted the weeks months and years until the last child would be 18.  Holy shit, what had I gotten myself into?

It was during these awful days that my emotional conflict reached a breaking point.   I was a therapist for Christ’s sake.  I was going to school on the weekends and working at hospice a few days a week.  We had all 5 kids for for almost half the summer–Doug’s two, my girls and our new baby.  We were working our assess off.  The patients and families at the hospice where I worked were frightened, exhausted and looking to me for guidance.  I was reading books on social justice, gender equality, generational poverty and doing my own psychological work in preparation for my life as a therapist–inner child issues, family of origin dynamics, ego politics.  I was the woman of my dreams at work–calm, wise, and ready with a gentle smile and comforting words obviously drawn from a spotless life of near Buddha-like perfection–at home was another story entirely.

In class with Matt Modricin, a wizened therapist and instructor at PSU where I was finishing up my graduate degree, I was feeling more and more like a fraud.  Besides encompassing the perfect father figure archetype that made all of us thirty-something Grad students go weak with girlish, knee-buckling glee, Matt asked the kinds of questions that plowed through your feeble ego defenses and left you naked on a rock, stunned and exhausted and begging for more.  Matt made me WANT to make my outsides match more closely with my insides.  This was what being a great therapist was about!  You had to walk INTO the fire to be cleansed.

I was fraught with anxiety.  I rehearsed sassy comebacks in my head and imagined arguments with Bio Mom during which I effortlessly emerged as the victor, knee-bent Captain Morgan style standing atop her decapitated body, tangled hair gripped in my fingers as her severed head dangled triumphantly in the open air for all to see.  DO NOT DARE TO TREAD ON MY FAMILY, I warned no one in particular.  LET THIS BE A LESSON TO YOU ALL  (OK no, although I did frequently rehearse imagined arguments and witty jokes, the anxiety I felt was a volcanic stream snaking though every arena of my life.  Every time I reached into the mailbox, the mental arguments began their incessant chatter, my heart raced and I braced myself like a celebrity guest star on Hillbilly Handfishin’.)

Weekends with the kids had gotten worse.  Having lost the legal battle, Bio Mom upped the ante on filling the kids heads with mean spirited ideas about Doug and I.  The incessant texts and phone calls to the kids continued during our parenting time and the phone calls between us “adults” were more strained than ever.  Communication felt like a tennis match with a hand grenade.

You might be wondering why I had taken over primary communication responsibilities with Bio Mom.  The reason for this is two fold:  One, while Doug is a fantastic cook in both kitchen and bedroom, he has certain inadequacies as it relates to dealing with people whom he feels strongly have purposely sought to destroy his happiness.  (i.e. he has been known so say such things as ‘Go fuck yourself’ when what he meant to say was ‘That’s fine, (sounds of upper teeth grinding against lower) we will be there at 7.”)

Second, and mostly the reason I took over, was the fact that I have a rare genetic condition which forces me to feel frantic and out of control until I am able to peacefully  connect with other human beings and solve any outstanding problems that exist between us (see also middle child syndrome, psychotherapist and children of divorce).

For years I was RACKED with anxiety about my inability to get Bio Mom to see logic and co-exist with us peacefully.  It was a major factor in my neuroses and unhappiness on (sometimes) a daily basis.  It is important to note that although my parents have been divorced since I was 12, they continue to interact as “friends” and business partners to this day.  During the whole of my life it was not uncommon for all of us (mom, dad, stepmom and my siblings and I) to spend holidays together.  At this moment my mother is working at my brother’s business (which is also partially owned by my dad and stepmom).  This evening Mom will go home to the farm where 50 yards away sits a second home where Dad and Stepmom live.  (No, my father is not mentally ill nor is he a brilliant ladies man.)  My parents have found through the years that the best way to succeed is through something my dad calls “The Network”.

The Network has raised children, bought and sold businesses, developed and cashed in on various real estate deals and helped my brother build a successful construction company.  It has cooked and served graduation dinners, Christmas feasts and birthday bashes for various kids and grand kids.  The Network has employed all of us at one time or another and at present, it is providing housing for my college-age child, a job for my spouse and even developing future business opps for yours truly.

The Network is responsible for joyous occasions such as Thanksgiving dinners where my sibs and I can visit one house and eat one meal.  We can sit with our mom and dad and stepmom (God bless her weary soul!) and we can be a family.  The Network is teaching my kids that family is family so suck it up and make it work for the best of the whole.  It is saving money, building a legacy and even touching people in rural Oregon who have the unbelievable good fortune (!) of being one of my therapy clients.

With The Network as my template for parenting in a blended family, I was losing my marbles.  It just didn’t make any sense! Why couldn’t Bio Mom get with the program?  I’m fantastic, after all.  Why wasn’t it working?  Doug remained matter of fact– Fuck her–was his general approach.  The child of a man he nor his mother has spoken to since before Reagan was president, he found my antics bewildering.  Why the hell would you talk to someone you hate and who hates you? he wondered aloud.  My parents don’t talk and I’m fine.  (Dear God.)

I can’t say exactly when I realized what I had to do.  It wasn’t a sudden ah-ha moment like when clouds part and a tiny angel blesses you with the answer you’d been seeking and your troubles fall away as you glide effortlessly into the new, wiser you.  My solution showed up like a wormy stray cat on a cold night–all patchy black fur and bloated belly and relentless–meowing its hideous truth through the crack in the door until I had no choice but to let the damn thing in and give it some tuna fish.   Matt Modricin’s sexy dad vibe be damned!  I had to best friend the shit out of her.

Best-friending the shit out of her

In a massive wave of ego dystonic mania, I launched the plan.  I would no longer be at the beck and call of my inner teenage girl.  I was an adult now dammit, a burgeoning therapist, and I intended to walk the walk (also a not-small part of me at the time felt strongly that befriending her would be the socially acceptable equivalent to the Captain Morgan scene previously described–Insert me in saintly attire, floating gleefully above the mire of Bio Mom’s sad situation. Might we all learn a lesson from my superior moral sensibility?)

I began by turning my focus to the overall goal:  Peace and harmony for us all.  I imagined this mini network taking shape, how I would feel when it was in working order and how the children would benefit.  I pictured details of parenting time and holiday visits and friendly phone calls.  When Captain Morgan showed up, I took a page from the Buddhist texts I had read and I practiced Loving Kindness (essentially every time I thought of Bio Mom, I mentally sent her blessings and peace as my ego flopped and screamed like a demon in holy water).  It was humbling to discover what a petty, insecure little child I was sometimes and my ego took an ass beating on the regular.

I set small goals like getting her to friend me on Facebook.  I sent a mother’s day card, added her and her new boyfriend to my Christmas baking list.  I used my growing therapeutic skills to respond to what she was saying in our conversations (her insecurities, her worries and fears), rather than the (sometimes awful) ways that she said things.  She responded by adding me to FB and sending the kids school pictures.  Drop off times became more flexible.  I slept better and felt like less of an asshole.  The kids smiled more.  Holy shit–this was happening.

The crowning glory came one day at the local county fair when I overheard my stepdaughter asking her mother for some little bobble or whatnot and she responded with a gesture in my direction, “I don’t care, go ask your mom.”

Swimming Upstream

This year my youngest stepchild will graduate from high school.  I can hardly believe it–we are literally 9 months away from ending this immensely difficult chapter of our lives.  I want to say that we’ve formed The Network 2.0 and it’s all amazing and wonderful and we’re all planning a big family vacation next summer but that would be a lie.

My husband is rather estranged from his kids these days.  While I was crushing my ego drives and bettering myself in an effort to make peace, Doug was moving ahead with our lives the best way he knew how.  We had a son and daughter of our own alongside my two older daughters, and Doug had already spent years working a full time job and his  weekends burning up the highway to Eastern Oregon to see his kids.  It was never easy–not once.  The stories your grandad tells you about walking uphill both ways–it was like that.  Always hard.  Always a struggle.  Always swimming upstream.

Sometimes Doug and I talk about his kids and I wonder aloud at how it is for him, after all of that work, the countless, soul crushing upward climbs –I think somewhere along the line he just let go.  The seeds of parental alienation–fear, jealousy, insecurity–once sewn, grew deep-rooted and thick-leafed through the years until they blotted out the once bright bonds of affection that had existed when the kids were small.

Doug wasn’t a therapist and he doesn’t suffer from an attachment disease the way I do.  He’s just a hardworking guy who was separated from his kids and who fought hard to keep their bond intact.  In the end, it wasn’t enough.  We had our own children.  We got older and a five hour drive after a ten hour workday on a Friday began to look like a fool’s game, especially when you had two fresh-faced little kids right there in front of you wanting more of your time.

I applaud men and women who can make it work.  As a therapist, I hear versions of this story from mothers and fathers who are just starting out this terrible journey and Oh how I wish there was some kind of a pill we were all required to take before we had kids in our teens and twenties with people who are totally inappropriate partners!  The sad fact is this:  we are idiots and hormones are real.  These situations will continue to happen.

Today in my clinical work with clients struggling with co-parenting, divorce and remarriage, I am trying hard to spread what I know and love about The Network I’ve been blessed to grow up in.  It’s my firm conviction that unless it is unsafe to do so, these are the ideals that we as parents and stepparents need to strive for.  Laws related to divorce and child support need to follow suit.  It’s easy to blame awful ex’s when things are difficult–the hard part is looking in the mirror and doing what we know is right for the ones who didn’t choose to be born into a family of crazies.

Yes, it will be excruciating to scroll through Facebook posts of his new wife’s perfect boobs from their vacation in Mexico with your kids, but you’ll have the last laugh knowing that the more your daughter loves her step mom, the more frequently she is going to act as the tiny expert cock blocker she has proved to be in your own household.