What I Haven’t Had the Balls to Write. Bonus Parenting aka Being a Stepmom Across the Miles
Last week, after almost a decade and a half of friendship (going on fifteen years to be exact) someone with whom I thought I was semi-close across the miles quit our friendship. Suffice it to say it stung. I was hurt, angry, shocked and the list goes on. And I will have a point here.
I have a private journal and in it I share things with a very few close friends. I have been hesitant to write about the girls in my blog because they are kids and they have done absolutely nothing wrong. Yet there was a period of a few months I was absolutely struggling with being a bonus parent. And truth be told, sometimes I still do. Allow me to rewind:
Most people know I did not want children. Like ever. When I was five years old I marched right up to my mom and emphatically said, “I am never having kids.” She later told me that although I was just this little girl, she knew even then I meant it. Through the years almost EVERYONE told me I would change my mind. Everyone but my parents. They know me. They knew I meant it. My mom would sometimes ask if I was sure, but she left it at that. My sister gave her three beautiful grand kids and I was off the hook! Little old ladies in airports would nosily ask if I have kids and I’d say no. They’d ask when. I’d say never. They would reply, “Well you have to try.” Yes, like I can just bring home a newborn baby and give motherhood a whirl then return him if it didn’t work out! Babies don’t come with return policies last I checked. Others told me I’d never be a real woman until I became a mother and many times I’ve been called selfish. That’s fine. I’m selfish. My career has been front and center most of my life and I was absolutely okay with that. I made no bones about the fact that kids would interfere with the plans I had for my life and eventually I grew a thick skin and learned not to engage in these conversations. Privately I watched friends who longed for babies struggle with the reality that it wasn’t all rainbows and unicorns once they actually became mothers. Their marriages suffered and they suffered. I really wanted nothing to do with it. For me I was a believer that my partner should come first. With kids that is no longer the case. Life’s plans are now around children. They always come first and if you have brought children into this world, that is exactly how it should be. I think it is awesome that there are people in the world cut out for that. I just wasn’t.
After three bouts with cancer the doctors were still leery about tying my tubes, so at 25 they made me wait until I was 30. When it came time, my doctor (shout-out to Dr. T!) asked if I had questions and then exclaimed, “Heather, I know you know all this. I know you did your research. I have to tell you this because it’s the law. Women your age have the highest level of regret after this procedure. I know you won’t. I am confident this is right for you.” And it was.
Now, I was not this child-hater. I would joke I couldn’t afford kids of my own anyway because my nieces and nephew got all my money. They completely and utterly rock my socks. In another life, I was a teacher to some pretty bad-ass second graders some of whom I keep in touch with til this day. And still, I went through life knowing I wouldn’t be a mom.
Okay, let’s hit fast forward now…
Standing before me in a yellow polo shirt stood a hot guy I happened to hit on. For the first time in my life I hit on someone. Then during our conversation that very day I remember as though the room became silent and instead of tunnel vision I had tunnel hearing when he said, “my three beautiful daughters.” My.three.beautiful.daughters. MY.THREE.BEAUTIFUL.DAUGHTERS. Wait. Whaaaa? I actually blurted out a “WHAT?” but it was more like, “Whhaa Whaaaaaaa What?” It took a minute to register and truth be told, I was disappointed. I wrote this off as, “Okay we’ll have fun together, but that’s it.” And then eleven hours later at the end of our first date, I was telling myself I was in trouble. Good trouble.
I grew into Love and the first time I heard his youngest running toward the phone yelling, “Daaaaaddddy!” I was a goner. Suddenly part of the reason I was growing into Love with a man was because he is a father. Crazy! We flew out to Arkansas and I met the girls. It went beautifully. I received a text message I still have til this day that made me cry happy tears when we left. Then came time for the wedding and we jetted off to San Diego (where we live) with the girls in tow. Then we went to Disneyland and Hawaii and it was just amazing. I was opened up to feelings of which I never knew I was capable. I grew into Love with the girls, too and suddenly over three decades worth of saying “never” went away in almost the blink of an eye. No, the girls are not “mine” per se. They didn’t grow in my womb, but they grew in my heart and it meant more than I could even begin to try to explain.
Christmas came. And it was a little different. The excitement they had before didn’t seem as apparent. I sometimes felt like an outsider, or an intruder rather. We may have gone a little overboard in the gifts department (I’m breaking the “acting like an aunt” pattern). I struggled. Then I was wracked with guilt because I struggled. I was worried the youngest only wanted to eat pancakes for breakfast and pepperoni pizza for every other meal. I didn’t know kids go through those types of phases. I felt completely ignorant and clueless. There was one instance when the youngest was bothering her sister a bit (it happens) and my husband was in the restroom so I just sat there clammed up, uncomfortable to even tell her to stop because I didn’t yet know my role.
We left Arkansas (where the girls live) and the closeness seemed to fade. I wasn’t realizing it, but kids have a honeymoon phase, too and it had ended for them. But it had not ended for me. It wasn’t supposed to happen so soon. I struggled even more. BIG TIME.
To add to matters, the girls have different moms. I asked the hubs if he was okay with me writing that in here because, well, let’s face it. We live in a judgmental society. But it’s no one’s place to judge, so I’ll leave it at that with the reminder that sometimes there is more to it than meets the eye. Still, I am not dealing with just one ex. I’m dealing with three. There is nothing I can complain about, really. We’re all different and there are things I’d do differently because of how I was raised, but there is nothing life-shattering at hand. Still, here are these women who have had relationships with my husband and they are the mothers to his children. That is a big deal. I’m “dad’s wife in California.” Bonding and developing a relationship is a bit more challenging 1,800 miles away. What’s my place? I still wonder all the time. Am I selfish for wondering? I wonder that, too.
Recently, the youngest wrote a letter about her family and how thankful she is to be here on this earth. It was actually adorable. The hubs read it out loud to me because his ex-wife texted him a photo of it. It was a random letter she wrote prompted by nothing other than her beautiful mind. But what did I do? Proceeded to go to the bathroom in our bedroom, close the door, sit on the floor and bawl for a half hour before I composed myself. Was it rational? No. Am I human? Yes. While this happened, the hubs fell asleep on the sofa. I was devastated I was not mentioned. To think she doesn’t see me as any sort of member of the family, but named her pets…I was confused and it just did not register. It wasn’t just the letter. It was the overwhelming feeling I had been experiencing about not belonging. Before that for months I had asked her to draw a picture and mail it to me for a father’s day surprise I had in store for the hubs. When he flew out in May for his oldest’s high school graduation, I gave him an envelope and told him to tell her to go to the bathroom and put what we discussed inside. Instead, she said it was empty. I sat confused as to how this could have happened. See? I was dealing with an eight year old. Still new for me. You would think I would have gone to her mom, right? Instead I thought it would be more fun for her to do it on her own. Still learning…
On Mother’s Day I didn’t receive an acknowledgement. I guess I shouldn’t have. I’m not their mother nor am I trying to replace their moms. Still it hurt. On my birthday one of the girls texted me and I was over the moon. The others didn’t acknowledge it. All you parents out there are probably thinking, “Well yeah. They’re kids! Kids don’t know to do that stuff unless prompted.” As a kid, I did those things. So there is a disconnect. When this happened it had been 9-10 months at being a bonus parent. I didn’t know. I struggled with the responsibility/recognition balance. I have responsibility. A lot of it when it comes to the girls. Of course they don’t know about it, nor should they because they’re kids. Yet I felt that when it came to the parenting aspect, hubs and their mothers weren’t acknowledging just how much I do behind-the-scenes. I don’t need my ass kissed. I don’t want my ass kissed. But a mention to the girls here and there would be appreciated. Maybe there is and I don’t know about it. I just know that it was getting hard to give so much without feeling like it was being appreciated.
I talked to my husband. I cried. I probably whined. I went into my journal and poured my heart out confused, angry, emotional and very ashamed. Aforementioned friend told me I needed to stop being so sensitive and grow thicker skin. I was offended. Here was this person who has been a mother for sixteen years and a bonus mother for more than a decade. She had practice and a lot of it. I’ve been at it a very short time. This very person was the one who told me to vent privately to friends and not concern my husband with it. So I did and she criticized me for it. Then I one upped her through my ignorance and compared a situation she went through at her job to what I was going through and it didn’t go over well at all. AT ALL. She completely misunderstood my intention and that’s that.
I write this because folks, this bonus-parenting stuff is sometimes hard. I met another blogger and she told me that it always seems like things are so happy with the kids here at Life of a Traveling Navy Wife. And with the kids they ARE happy. But it’s important to me that I keep things honest here. I sometimes don’t have a clue. I question myself and if I am screwing up. I wonder what my role is and how to strike a balance. I want to be a good role model for the girls. I want them to know they’re Loved, but I don’t want to be overbearing. The list goes on…
After our conversation when the hubs said to me that their honeymoon phase might be over it hit me. Hard. I wasn’t ready for the love-fest to end. It also helped me tremendously and opened my eyes. Logic. Okay. Now there is something at which I can wrap my head around. Suddenly the ache I was feeling dissipated and I caught my breath again.
Two of the girls get here a week from today. I’m beyond excited and they’ve been texting me more lately. We have a pretty fun few weeks planned and I’m actually giddy over it. The other day I think I squealed when his youngest texted me because it’s getting so close to them being here. This time around I think I might actually ask them to load their own dishes in the dishwasher! HA. Yeah. That’s a huge deal for me.
I don’t have all the answers and I have to remind myself that it is okay to learn as I go. My eyes have been opened to a whole new amazing, exhausting, crazy and wonderful world. I’m walking this road one step at a time now and I’m sure I’m going to stumble again. For today, my biggest concern is already telling myself not to cry when they leave. And I am okay with that.
For all of you parents and bonus parents out there working hard at it and stumbling along the way, a former naysayer and know-it-all thanks you for stepping up. If you have stories, comments, questions, constructive feedback, please share it. I find this subject is sometimes touchy and taboo. Let’s change that.
UPDATE: So how did the road trip go? Click here to start at the beginning, and on these for Part II & Part III