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Archive for the ‘Blending families’ Category

My husband and I dated for a few years before we got married, living in separate households and reveling in the excitement of coming together every weekend. We’d both been married before, and were now living as divorced single parents. I longed for the time when we could finally blend our households and things could become much simpler.

Boy, was I in for a rude awakening. Things were bumpy when we finally did move in together, mostly because blending a family is hard work. But the other hard part was learning how to work together as a team in every decision when both of us were so used to being independent.

Marriage only made this worse.

Our first year of marriage was really rough. I loved being married to Shawn, but I also recall the many fights we had, the loneliness I felt as I clung to stubbornness, the continued struggle of being two different families in one house, and the daily realizations over how different we were in so many areas.

Things finally did settle down, and our family has learned how to come together in many ways. We still have differences, as many families do, but mostly, we’ve learned which battles are worth fighting and which ones aren’t. I won’t pretend we’re perfect — we’re not. But the place we are now is paradise compared to the darkness we experienced in the beginning.

The biggest reason, I believe, things are much better is because Shawn and I have come together as a solid team through all of this. Every year I’m amazed at how much more I love him than the year before, and how there’s still so much we get to learn about each other. He’s my biggest champion, and I’m his. It makes me excited to see where our marriage will be by year 10, 20, 50 and beyond.

The other day I was thinking about the things that makes our marriage so wonderful, and the following things came to mind:

1. We compliment each other often. When I look in the mirror and am disappointed by what I see, he’s right there behind me to let me know how sexy I look. Just this morning I was bummed out about the number on my scale. He didn’t know this when he asked me to stop what I was doing and take a turn for him. “Damn, I’m a lucky man,” he told me. I know we’re supposed to love ourselves and all, but it sure is helpful when the man I love reminds me every day that he finds me sexy. It goes both ways, too. I think my husband grows more handsome and sexy every day, and I tell him so. It goes beyond looks, too. He’s my biggest cheerleader to the things that mean most to me, helping me to see the positive when I’m stuck in the negative. I tell him how proud I am of him, from the big things to the small. We both try really hard to notice what the other person is doing, and acknowledge those things with words of affirmations.

2. We respect each other’s seasons. Let’s just get right to the point: sometimes I’m not in the mood to have sexy time, especially at the end of my cycle. There’s a particular week when there is nothing he can do to awaken the sleeping dragon. What I love about my husband is that he understands this and is completely respectful about it. However, it would be completely selfish of me to let this mood control our sex life. There has to be a give and take when it comes to sex. Sometimes I fight through my “don’t touch me” feelings for his benefit. And vice versa, when I’m in the zone and he’s not, he’ll make sure I’m taken care of. The benefit? More times than not we’re in the same space, and I firmly believe it’s because we understand the give and take, and respect each other’s moods.

3. We spice things up. Right now, our lives involve a very busy household, teenagers, hectic jobs, and we just moved his mother into our home. All of that is a combination for passionless nights as we collapse into bed so we can do it all again the next day…even with everything I mentioned in #2. Luckily, that’s the furthest thing from the truth. I won’t divulge our secrets here, but if things are feeling fairly routine between the sheets, perhaps it’s time to get a little creative. Is there something you’ve wanted to try, but haven’t because it feels a bit too naughty? Maybe it’s time you let down some of your guard. You might be surprised at what happens. 😉

4. We plan for uninterrupted time daily (even if it’s just 10 minutes). Our lives have only gotten busier since our earlier days. Two out of three of our blended kids are in college, plus I started college two years ago. We both have demanding jobs. Plus, we’re caretaking for his mother. Life is crazy busy. There are some days I only see him in the morning while I’m getting ready for work, and in the evening when we go to bed. Still, we make it a point to ask about the other person’s day, and then LISTEN, phones away, completely focused. This is one of my favorite things about our marriage, that we still have so much to share with each other every day, and this uninterrupted time becomes some of our best conversations.

5. We support each other as much as possible. Shawn is a gardener. I am not. But I love the outcome of his efforts when we have fresh tomatoes in the summer. Usually, he’s the one out there watering. But (when I remember) I’ll go out and water, too, simply so he doesn’t have to. I wanted a dog. Shawn did not. Guess what? We have a dog. And despite his repeated insistence that he never wanted a dog, he still takes the dog for walks regularly. We’re both writers, and we are each other’s first readers. We attend events that are important to the other person, even if they’re not our personal cup of tea. We only talk kindly about each other to others, never slamming the other person (how many times have you been uncomfortable around other couples who do the opposite?). We build each other up and cheer each other on. I can truly say Shawn is my best friend, and he says that about me, and it’s because we truly support each other.

6. We put ourselves in the other person’s shoes. One of the secrets to our happy marriage is our level of empathy. I’m not going to lie, we still have our fair share of fights. But these fights never last long. One of the reasons is because we have a high level of empathy for the other person, willing to see the situation from the other person’s point of view. This isn’t easy, admittedly. However, we both know each other’s true nature. When I’m mad at Shawn, I also know he’s not a bad person. I know his reasoning isn’t to be malicious, but because he has his own reasons for acting a certain way. I try to see what that reasoning is, and if there is something I should bend on. Shawn is the same way. Even more important, he knows how to say he’s sorry when he’s wrong, and has been a great model for me so that I can learn to do that, too. And man, is that hard!

7. We recognize each other’s strengths, and remind each other of them. I’m the worst when it comes to knowing what I’m good at. I’m really hard on myself. That’s why it means so much to me when Shawn stops everything and tells me all the things that are special about me. I need to hear this, because I forget. In the same way, I often tell Shawn what I admire about him: his confidence, his way with words, how he carries himself, how personable he is, how much people appreciate his wisdom.

8. We date each other. If I had my way, Shawn and I would go on a date at least once a week, if not more. However, we live in the real world, and that is rarely possible. We do make time for each other regularly, though. This could be a movies date, or time at a coffee shop, or even, and I’m not even joking, a Costco shopping trip. It’s mostly about the time together without anyone else so that we can talk and have fun together. It keeps our friendship alive in our marriage.

9. We are social together. There’s something so romantic about being with Shawn among a group of friends, from quiet dinners to group outings, laughing with friends and having him close to me as we experience the same thing. I always feel so proud of him when we’re out together, and we often come home feeling closer than ever before.

10. We’re social apart. We don’t have all the same friends or interests, and that’s completely okay. I love that Shawn has no issue whatsoever when I enjoy time with my girlfriends or some solitude time away from him and everyone else. Likewise, I don’t have a problem with him going to the ball game or the movies with his friends while I stay at home. We both enjoy a healthy amount of time away from each other and by ourselves, which makes our together time that much more special.

11. We work as a team. Earlier this year, Shawn’s mom moved in with us. This change in our household held all the promises of stress on our marriage, and yet, I’ve never felt closer to him. We have divided the duties, trying to avoid burnout. We are talking so much more about real feelings through this, being open and honest, even about the hard stuff. We give each other breaks. We build each other up. We do every single thing on this list. I can honestly say that his mother moving in has brought us so much closer, which, seriously, astounds me.

12. Our shared faith is at the center of our marriage. I recognize not every married couple is lucky enough to share the same faith. I feel fortunate that Shawn and I do. I’ve been in relationships where the faith is different, whether because someone didn’t have faith or we shared completely different faith altogether, and it was HARD. I won’t say it’s impossible, but it definitely takes work to be in a loving, committed marriage, and share vastly different ideas about God and what that means for humanity. So in that, I feel very fortunate that God is our partner in our marriage, that we both view God through loving eyes, we see our duty as to love all people, and we do all this together.

What works for you and your spouse in your marriage?

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My 17-year-old stepson, Frizz, is intent on folding 1,000 paper cranes.  This means there are paper cranes of all sizes showing up all around the house, increasing in numbers day by day.  The first day was cute.  He carefully placed a large crane on our dinner table, followed by cranes decreasing in size – like a little paper crane train.  Then a few more appeared in the living room, folded in bright construction paper.  Soon the little train on the table grew to include their extended family.

Every day Frizz has continued his folding adventure at his desk in his room.  And I wonder two things – what the heck are we going to do with 1,000 paper cranes, and when is the kid going to get a girlfriend?

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DQ leaves tomorrow for her dad’s. I’ve distanced myself from this reality, treating it like one long vacation. And for the most part, I’ve been blissful in my little world of denial. She’s been busy packing up her room, taking over the washer machine and boxing up anything she thinks will fit into my car for her last trip away from our home. I took her shopping for warmer clothes, since she is leaving the warmer winters of the Bay Area for the snowy weather of the mountains. And I’ve forbid myself from dwelling too hard in “lasts”.

Like, last time we watch cheesy sitcoms together. Last time we trade movie quotes. Last time we bake snickerdoodles. Last time we wrestle over my Spotify account. Last time I treat her to a cupcake. Last time she confides in me over matters of the heart. Last time the two females overpower our house of boys.

It hasn’t been all wine and roses, though. She’s a typical teenager, which of course means she’s been pleasant as pie. That’s sarcasm, if you can’t read between the lines. She’s totally checked out of our house, and counting down the moments when she is out of our evil clutches and living in the wonderful home of her father. It’s funny, a year ago when Frizz was going through his own annoying adolescence of treating adults like gum on the bottom of his shoe, DQ told me she would NEVER be like that. At the time, I was actually dumb enough to believe her. And then she entered high school, and Shawn and I became the stupidest people on the planet. Shawn has received the brunt of this title from her. There is a very small percent of me that wonders how much more peaceful life will be after she moves from here, moves into a home that offers much less in just about everything, and finally sees all we do for her on a daily basis.

Of course, if I think too hard about where she is going to live, I can’t help but freak out a little.

The Ex is barely making it financially. He has a job now, but he’s not known for keeping jobs. Half the time he is working under the table to avoid paying child support. He’s struggling with his addictions, still unable to get a full year of sobriety under his belt. I never know when the guy is telling the truth or pulling my leg. Sometimes he’s lying to hide stuff he’s ashamed of, sometimes he lies to keep himself out of trouble, and sometimes he just lies to amuse himself. He lives in a tiny one-bedroom apartment that he shares with his ex-girlfriend’s female cousin and her two kids. He has his infant son several days a week. And DQ will be sleeping in a closet that’s been turned into a cramped mini bedroom. He doesn’t have a car, and it’s unclear how she is going to get to school every day. His roommate has a car, but knowing the Ex, he’ll burn that bridge soon and will be left with no transportation whatsoever. He can’t even pick up the kids tomorrow as planned, since he failed to secure a car before then, despite the fact that we planned this trip a month ago. He has never been the primary parent of DQ and Taz – that job has always been left to me. And I worry about what he really has to offer her as a parent. Does he have it in him? Can he do this? Am I sending DQ to the sharks, and will she come out worse on the other side?

This is a man who used to abuse me, who chose drugs as his answer to handling life, who took my paycheck and left me to starve, who made my life a living hell until I finally walked out. This is the man who gave me nightmares for years after until I was finally able to let it all go and move beyond the thought of him, leaving all those demons in the past. I no longer hate him. I am no longer angry. But I also no longer have faith in him.

But I know I have to let her go. I feel like this is a God thing, like God is telling me to just trust that everything will be ok. She has friends up there, the kind of friends I wish she could have made down here. She has a chance to really start over fresh, having realized the mistakes she’s made here. I have people all around me who are angry with this decision, questioning me and DQ about this decision. And honestly, I don’t have an answer that will appease everyone about why I am letting this happen. DQ would hate me forever if I forbid this. I have to let her see what it’s like on her own for her to understand. I am running the risk of her deciding she loves it there, and never coming back. I know this, even though my denial is telling me she will most definitely be back when the school year is over. How could she not? What is there over there for her that is so much better than here?

“You’re in denial,” my cousin told me when I let her know for the first time that DQ was moving away, and who she moving in with.  She said it because I was so calm, treating this as if it were a normal case of a teenage girl living with her father.  But it isn’t.  I know that.  It hasn’t been normal since I met the man almost 20 years ago.  But I’m powerless in this decision.  And I hate it more than anyone knows.  And the only way to cope with it is to remain in denial.

One more day.  And then the whole world will be changed.

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(This story will publish in the Press Democrat on June 1, 2012)

A friend and I were recently in a classroom at the Santa Rosa Junior College, sharing stories of our separate blended families with Sociology students as they studied remarriage and stepfamilies. We came there with a stepmother’s point of view, and told these stories as openly and honestly as we could. However, we never knew just how raw such a conversation could be, especially when it was part of an open dialogue with students who had extremely great questions for us.

“Are you ever affectionate with your stepson?” one student asked in the back of the room.

I had to pause for a second before I answered, even asking him to repeat himself just to stall for time. How do I answer this question? I thought about my fiancé’s 16-year old son, how untouchable the kid had seemed over the years. Just a few months ago we weren’t even speaking to each other, unsure how to even communicate anything with the other person. But recently a positive shift started to take place. We developed a mutual interest for running, and that served as the catalyst for a better relationship between the two of us. Now he’s using my name, striking up conversations with me, and the communication between us is easy and effortless.

But affection?

“In the almost 4 years I have known my stepson, I have hugged him only once,” I admitted to the boy. “That was two Christmases ago, and I can still remember how it felt because he’s actually a really great hugger.” They all laughed.

Probably the most poignant moment of the discussion, however, was when one girl in the classroom shared what it felt like to be a stepchild caught up between homes. Her father had remarried a woman who started out trying to get close to this girl. But this stepmom’s mistake was never getting to know her stepdaughter as an individual with separate tastes and interests than her own. She would buy her new clothes that she thought were nice, but weren’t really the girl’s style. She redecorated the girl’s room, but never conferred with her stepdaughter on how she would actually like it to be decorated. The stepmother insisted that none of the clothes or belongings from their house were allowed to go to the ex-wife’s house, despite the fact that this girl’s mother was barely scraping by and could afford very little for her children on her single income. This girl would miss out on family vacations when her dad, stepmom, and new brother would travel during her visits at her mom’s house. But the biggest message she received regarding her place in the family was seeing family pictures with her stepbrother all over the house, but none of her. Feeling pushed out of her father’s new family, this student eventually moved in with her mom full time.

“When we moved into our house, one of the first things I did was put a few pictures up on the mantel,” a reader named Christina recently wrote to me after reading about this student’s story at my blog, The Village, on SantaRosaMom.com. This mom put up the pictures she had in her possession: a few of her son Jake, and a few of the two of them together. That night, her stepson Sam took notice. “You only put pictures up of Jake and you,” he pointed out, clearly hurt. Christina immediately searched the house for photos, printing out and framing some new pictures from a recent vacation that included all of them as a family. “I’m so grateful Sam said something because when I put those pictures up, I wasn’t even thinking I was being inconsiderate.”

Christina also told about how painful blending her family had been in the early years, particularly between her son and stepson. One son divided his time between households while the other was able to stay fulltime in the house. The result was a constant competition between the two of them. However, what once seemed like a hopeless situation eventually evolved into a brotherly friendship between the two and a bond within their family of four.

“I think I would define our family as a strong, loving blended family at this point. I think we all like each other for the most part and we have fun when we’re together. The household runs pretty smoothly when everyone is home. The boys know that Neil and I are totally supportive of one another, and that we’re supportive of them. If you had told me when Neil and I first met that it would take four years for me to feel this way, I probably would have cried.”

Blended families consist of two differently raised units that fit, at times, messily together. It’s not always easy, and obviously there will be mistakes. But with time, patience, and dedication, comes strength in a family that fits together beautifully.

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Vintage Wine Country Mom: DQ was only 9 in this picture at the waterfalls in Sugarloaf in 2008.

We were watching American Idol and Coldplay was on singing “Every teardrop is a waterfall”.  My 16-year old stepson, who is normally holed up in his room, has lately been making it a habit to hang out with us in the evening.  My 14-year old daughter was in the kitchen struggling with a science project for school where she had to create a rocket out of a soda bottle.

“Do you need any help?” my stepson asked her.

“No, I think I got it.  I’m just not sure what to do with the nose,” she said.  And as she explained what her idea was, he got up to help her anyways – this from two kids who could barely look at each other just a few months ago.

And as they worked together, a tiny, secret waterfall may have made a trickle in our living room.

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Mr. W, my fiancé, and I have been stumbling a little in our blended family adventure. I wouldn’t say it’s been awful – we’ve been more successful than not. But there are little things that have served as speed bumps while combining households into one. And when we went to counseling to learn how to tackle those hills, we had definite questions for our therapist, particularly these:

What our role was as a step-parent. How to give direction to a kid that isn’t yours. How to not take it personally when a step-kid was being totally unreasonable. How to get the kids to actually talk to each other instead of tattling to us. Learning how to let go of some of our own expectations in favor of one that involved all of us…

“Why don’t you try a family meeting?” our therapist asked. And I inwardly balked at the suggestion. I mean, it was a great idea in a family TV series kind of way, where everyone already gets along and then hugs by the time 30 minutes ends. But ours was not that kind of family. Instead, we were the kind of family who could grumble about what the other members were doing – as long as the offending member was out of earshot. I was better at listing my irritations to the group as a whole rather than just talking to the person directly. And the last time I felt it was safe to hug my step-son was two Christmases ago before he left on a ski trip with his mom. In fact, this last Easter my mom patted my step-son’s growing mane, and my eyes nearly fell out of their sockets.

A family meeting was a terrifying idea.

However, I wanted to prove that I would try anything in the name of unity. So I told the counselor we would do it, and to put it on the agenda to talk about this week. Then I went home and placed FAMILY MEETING in big, bold letters on our calendar.

“You should just call it a Gripe Meeting,” my step-son muttered when he saw it. My kids were gleefully enthusiastic about listing every single one of their complaints, especially the ones that had to do with flatulence.

“Save it for the meeting,” I finally told them.

Meeting day finally arrived. After dinner, we all piled into the living room. Mr. W, Frizz, Taz, and DQ all stared at me expectantly, waiting for me to lead how this was going to go. In my lap was a notebook with a few guidelines jotted down, and ready for me to record the important points of the meeting.

“Ok, here’s the rules,” I told them. “First, whoever has the floor gets to speak. That means to wait your turn. Second, one of us will always take notes during the meeting. Today it will be me. Next, we’ll each get a turn to talk about the stuff that’s been bugging us. But before we do that, each of us has to say one nice thing about everyone in the room.”

You could have heard crickets chirping. After a brief pause, they all looked around the room and let out a few nervous giggles. Taz went first. He was silly about Mr. W and his sister, but when he got to Frizz, he told him how much he loved it when Frizz played baseball with him.

“You’ve been an inspiration to me in running,” Frizz told me sincerely, speaking about both of our efforts to hit the pavement that had been proving to be a source of connection between us. We all agreed that DQ was hilarious and a huge help, and that Taz was great at baseball and did extra tasks without complaint. I admired Frizz for how dedicated he was to the things that mattered most to him. And I thanked Mr. W for his efforts in orderliness and schedules that allowed our home to run as smoothly as it does.

When it came time to “gripe”, it started off slow. Luckily, I had jotted down a few complaints I had overheard throughout the week. Suddenly we were all remembering the issues we’d had, and were even laughing about them, all of us able to relate to the “suffering” at hand. A few changes could be made immediately. And a few things would take a bit of time through trial and error. 27 minutes later, the meeting adjourned and we were all smiling and feeling good.

It felt like overkill to schedule weekly meetings for our family. But we all agreed that this was a great idea to implement on an as-needed basis. I’m starting to think that maybe my therapist has some good ideas up his sleeve after all…

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I was trying to describe my stepson to my counselor the other day in a way he could understand my frustration.

“Everything he does is an act of protest,” I told him, describing how Frizz hadn’t cut his hair in 9 months, played music at ear-splitting levels, preferred his falling-apart shoes over anything new his father bought him, and locked himself in his room rather than joining in with the family. But the counselor wasn’t understanding. Each level of defiance I shared was met with a murmur of approval, as if he were impressed with how Frizz chose to fight us.

“And then there’s his Wiki-education,” I complained. I told the counselor how Frizz spent time researching half-truths on the internet, treating the world like one big conspiracy theory while simultaneously contradicting actual proven facts, and sometimes even himself.

“Fish is dirty,” Frizz had told me one evening as I laid a beautifully cooked piece of salmon in front of him for dinner. Because his appetite is huge, I had given him the biggest portion. Instead of thanking me, he described all the studies he’d come across that said fish live in polluted water, therefore absorbing every bit of bacteria they swim in – bacteria we were now eating. He swore all this was true, even after we told him this particular fish was farmed and not wild, so it wasn’t anywhere near polluted water. The previous week his arguments had been against toothpaste because it contained fluoride and was poisoning us. And when he abandoned his perfectly cooked fish to search the fridge for something different to eat, I had to refrain from smothering the fish with toothpaste and shoving the damn thing down his throat.

Instead, I pointed out all the foods he was willing to eat that could also be considered dirty – like genetically modified foods or all the questionable ingredients that existed in the convenience food he scarfed down on a regular basis. I thought this might defuse the situation, secretly pleased he was now eating the salmon since making something else proved too difficult. Instead, he argued against every point I gave him because at 16 years old he knew way more than I ever could in my mere 34 years.

I added strangling to my list of things to refrain from.

However, I didn’t refrain from snapping, telling him off for acting like he was the only one who could be right in his routine game of one-sided debate. That was the reason I gave him, but inside it was because my feelings were hurt when he insulted my dinner.

It had been the first time I’d ever called him on his shit, and I told the counselor how I felt it showed progress in our comfort level with each other. I got a tiny bit of satisfaction when the counselor validated my hurt feelings and agreed that Frizz’ behavior was rude. But it was temporary because he didn’t agree with my definition of progress.

“How would you have handled that if Taz had acted that way?” he asked me.

“I would have taken his plate away and told him he didn’t have to eat it, but there was nothing else he could eat either,” I admitted.

“So why didn’t you do that with Frizz?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

And once again we were describing power struggles.

I recognize the lack of power in Frizz’ life. In 4 years, the kid’s parents have split up, his mom moved from this house and into the house of another man, his father started dating and ended up in a serious relationship with me, he went from an only child to sharing his house and status with two other kids, he gained a step-mom, and add to that the pains of growing into his teenage years and preparing for college.

The kid is going to grab at the reins every chance he gets. Hell, I would too.

And honestly, most of his actions of protest has been directed at his parents and not me. For the most part, Frizz and I have a mutual respect for each other and he’s generally kind to me. But the strength in his stubbornness scares the shit out of me, causing me to react defensively instead of proactively whenever he directs his protest at me. I can’t just be frank with him, blunt in my expectations like I can with my own kids, because it still feels like there’s a need to walk on eggshells around him.

I didn’t really want to talk about power struggles or how I could change my tactics to not be so passionate in my response. What I really wanted was for the counselor to help me learn how to force Frizz to conform and join the family. It was a very mature and realistic way of thinking. And I weakly kept tattling on all the ways Frizz was totally difficult.

Of course, it all lead back to power struggles.

Next session, Mr. W and I go in together to learn how to parent our blended family as a united front and avoid power struggles with the all the kids. Me? I’m holding my breath until then to keep from strongholding any child who doesn’t do it my way.

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