Tuesday, December 27, 2011

9/10ths of the Law

One thing that makes me sad is that the kids don’t seem to be able to love both yet – to be connected to their dad and me and their mom at the same time.  Saying “don’t seem to be able” makes it sound like a failure on their part.  It’s not.  It’s just the grief of the circumstance.  They remain in the discomfort of dichotomy – a subtle feeling of having to take sides still clings to them.  If they are connected to and present with their mom, then they are disconnected and actively avoiding us.  I don’t sense them actively avoiding her as much but that may be simple mechanics.  Their dad is always present.  If they need him, he is there.  It sounds biased, but it’s just true.  They break down, they’re out of gas, they need something at school, they want to sign up for an activity – things like that they always call their dad and he always comes through.  Their mom has a greater tendency to disappear, to get busy in her own world.  They want to be with her when she is available to them because they do not know how long it will last.
It is broken.  The bouncing back and forth.  It’s a rhythm, but not one that I can yet follow. The Divine M is the most obvious.  She has disappeared into the world of her mother.  She does not hang out here, she does not check in.  I don’t want to admit this.  It sounds petty and envious.  There is sadness at her disappearance.  I hate the caring but needing to remain detached.  Putting my heart and soul into them and having them walk away.
This isn’t unique to step-parenting, but the cord between me and them feels so much more tenuous and detached.  It is a failure of the situation.  When frightened, we often look for ways to divert responsibility and the idea that this step-parenting relationship is inherently wrong lends itself more easily to blame.  Inherently wrong in that it is born out of grief, brokenness.  It’s not the way things were supposed to turn out – we are almost surprised when it does work.  The primal marriage and parent-child relationship is supposed to work.  That is the right design.  Everything should work out well if the participants of the bio family follow the rules.  Stepfamily.  How can that ever be right?  It’s not natural.  It’s not the way things are supposed to be.  It means somebody, most likely a few people, failed along the way.  The framework isn’t available to us, we are off the grid.  That’s our societal attitude.  It’s like going upstream when you’re not a salmon.
The Divine M can’t be with me and her mom.  The Divine M really, really wants to be besties with her mom.  She can’t be needed by both of us.  And her mom has a way of making people feel special – it’s more a way of making people feel that she is special and, therefore, if they can be around her and breathe her rarified air, they, too, will be special.  The kids want to be the chosen one, the one who gets to hang out with mom, their friend.  They vie for her favor and attention.  They hope to be child of the week – or maybe even the month.
Stepmom.  What’s up my craw?  Well, it is partly that I felt close to the Divine M.  She hung out here with her friends and they seemed to like us and enjoy being in our home.  Now they are gone.  She still comes home, but she spends a lot more time at her mom’s and her friends don’t come over much anymore.  Me, well, here’s the deal.  I’ll quit dancing around it.  I try, really, really hard, to be open-minded and attentive.  To plan meals, take care of the house, keep up on the laundry, buy them the things they need, help them with stuff at school, go to their events and I really, really do love and care about their lives.  And then, boom, they are gone.  It suddenly feels all one-sided.  It’s not a friendship.  It must be parenting.  It’s pour your heart and soul out, devote yourself, be always ready and ever available (because they are teenagers, you never know when they are coming).  And, poof.  Vamanos.
Case in point.  The Divine M was really tired of sharing a room with Little One, her younger sister.  It was crowded; not enough closet space (too many clothes) and occasionally Dear One, her older sister, sharing the room, too.  My idea – we rearrange the house.  We do away with the game room, really upsetting T-Man who counted that as his own room, and turn it into her bedroom.  Give the 16 going on 30 year-old some space and quiet and privacy.  She’ll have friends over; she’ll feel safe here and know she belongs.  Vamanos!  She lives out of her car and uses the room as her closet.  Our house got smaller and more vacant all in one swoop.
So me, again.  Na├»ve!  I am not a parent and it is painfully obvious to me.  It’s embarrassing to even say this because, hello, parenting is not about what your kids give you.  I didn’t think my motives were off-base.  I was loving with the aim of being loved in return.  But, oh, I feel empty now.  I feel a bit of a fool.  I fell head-over-heels and it turns out I was just a convenience.
The good news, I guess, is that one day soon, I’ll again be convenient.  But the timing, the sequence, is not up to me.  It’s not even up to the kids.  It’s gauged by mom’s wellness.  She is needy now and they want to help her.  She will go away again and they will be needy and come back home.  I want them to come home but I can’t want that because them coming home and feeling free to be with us means that mom is unavailable and that their hearts have been broken just a little bit more.  It means that things didn’t work out.  That they’ve been shunned for a new boyfriend, or the addiction of the moment.  It means she’s found something other than them to feed her need.  Of course, it could mean that she got better.  She is healthy and balanced.  But there are no signs of life in that direction.  The patterns are the same as they ever were.  The kids are anxious and drawn, trying so very hard to keep it all together.
Poor me, I’m feeling.  I try so hard to love these kids and then I’m dropped for the latest fashion.  They’ll come back when they need something (Dear One calls me her reliable parent).  I’m such a stick in the mud they always know they can find me.  But, wow, have I missed the mark.  I pull back and protect my heart, feeling defensive and wounded.  I’m exaggerating to get the sensation out, it’s not always that obvious.  But the more I look, the more I realize it’s true.  I’ve pulled back, afraid of getting hurt and wondering why I should keep putting myself out there.  Why should I keep caring?  What’s in it for me?
That’s not love and that’s not parenthood.  I wanted to modify myself - if I could somehow become more appealing, then they would choose us.  I created the dichotomy.  I can’t lose them if I’m not trying to possess them.  No matter where they are, no matter what they do, this is their home and we are their parents.  I can’t need them.  Well, I can, but the better design is for me to love them without expectation of return.  That works in any kind of family.  To love them and not look for them to meet my needs.  To love them consistently and authentically.  Not to change myself or perform in ways that I think will earn their approval, but to be honestly present.  To hold my heart open to them so that, even when they float away, they are grounded in love. 

Sunday, December 18, 2011

The Confinement of Jesus

I looked into my heart the other day and was surprised to find Jesus there. He was sitting in a barren one-room cabin, its walls and floors composed of ashy-brown, worn, wooden planks.

It was the sort of house I’ve envisioned situated on the Midwestern Plains when reading a Louis L’Amour novel or Little House on the Prairie. Where I would have expected to find a cowboy or Laura Ingalls Wilder, I found Jesus. The air was a tad stifling and the lighting was dim. He was seated in the center of the room on a ladderback chair with no cushion.

Disconcerted, I asked him what he was doing there. He reminded me that I had invited him. I wanted to roll my eyes. I knew that. My question was more basic. “No, I mean in this room – why are you sitting here? Wouldn’t you rather be romping through that meadow out there?” I pointed toward a small, four-paned window through which grasses and wildflowers could be seen swaying in the breeze. At least he had a view.

I don’t recall his exact response. What he did convey, quite kindly, was that I hadn’t extended my invitation of him to include the field, or the greater expanse of my heart.

“So you’ve been sitting in this cramped little room the whole time?” I demanded. “That’s crazy! Haven’t you gone crazy?” It seemed ridiculous to me that, powerful as he is, Jesus would submit to confinement in this drab, tiny space.

“Let’s at least brighten the place up a bit,” I offered. “I can throw a rug on the floor, put a cushion on that chair, hang a valance over the window, a picture on the wall, and stick a floor lamp over in that corner. If you’re going to hang out in here, we may as well spruce it up.”

It’s not that I wouldn’t love to stretch my legs and amble through that field of wildflowers with you, he suggested softly. I’d love to wander the vast reaches of your heart.

“Well, why don’t you? What’s keeping you? Open the door and walk out!” I was, frankly, indignant at what I took to be feigned helplessness. But, strangely, he did not appear timid or even irritated about his plight.

He looked upon me tenderly. It was an expression difficult for me to explain because the images that pop to mind don’t quite fit. It was not a face of condescension, offering pity with a slight shake of the head and a quiet “Tut, tut, Sweetie.” It wasn’t accompanied by an exasperated “Oh, please!” sigh.

What he did convey had such an absence of judgment and defense that I almost didn’t recognize the thing that was present. This sounds corny, but I think it was love. Real, honest love. Suddenly, I realized that Jesus, of all people, respected my boundaries. He only occupied as much of my heart, as much of my life, as I allowed.

I was shocked to find how little and meager that space actually was – so uncomfortably shocked that I jumped to apologetically explain.

“Oh, well, you see . . .” I started in. “I mean, I know that meadow out there looks kind of pretty right now, and I guess I’d be okay with you stretching your legs in it every now and again, but maybe you should let me know before you do – you know, just so I can make sure it’s safe, because conditions change.”

Onward I blurted, “I mean, even right now, I know there are some gopher holes, tangled barbed wire, and rock piles out there. I’ve even seen a couple of snakes. I’m working on getting that stuff cleared up – though truth be told, I’m not sure there’s much I can do about the snakes. Anyway, I’m working hard on cleaning that field up, I really am, and I think I’m making some good progress, but I’m afraid there’s still some pretty dangerous stuff out there and I wouldn’t want you to go too far. I think it’s best, for now, if you don’t have to get caught up in it.”

“Well, anyway, it’s great, amazing really, that you stuck around, especially in here! I appreciate it – it means a lot to me.” I took a deep breath and tried to smile.

I could sense, when offering my explanations of the need for his restricted perimeter, that he already knew my terrain and it didn’t worry him. Though I feared that his aim in getting out would be to expose me or tear me up, I could discern no such motive. But he did want out. He wanted to inhabit my whole heart. He wanted to participate in my full life. And I left.

I left saying, “At least it looks a little better in here, eh? Can I get you anything more before I go? A glass of water, a book to read? Here, I’ll put a little table by your chair so you can set stuff on it. Okay – good seeing you! Take care!”

I left him there free to pace about that hovel in my heart, almost proud that I was so generous as to not bind and gag him on my way out.

Yet, I haven’t been able to leave the encounter. What do I do with the knowledge that I’m keeping Jesus, the God of the Universe, locked in a room in my heart?

Jesus, who wants to be bounding through fields of wildflowers with me, who wants to be mucking through the messes, tearing down fences, and hanging out in the dark places when I hide in bed with the covers pulled over my head.

It makes me nervous, and rather embarrassed, to realize that he remains – eager and ready – available and giving his love to me, as much love as I will choose to receive. He is waiting, simply waiting, on me to be willing.

Monday, December 12, 2011


I am selfish.  I did not know that.  I managed to avoid that fact by living alone for most of my adult life.  Then I joined a family.  It turns out I’m a serious narcissist.  Narcissus, enraptured with his own beauty, died while gazing at his face reflected in still waters.  In truth, I may be more like the pond, looking up at the face of Narcissus and hoping to find herself reflected there, certain that he must be bent over staring at her.
My husband predicts I’ll die choking on my own spit – I sometimes forget to swallow properly.  It’s usually because I’m so fixated on what is going on with others around me that I neglect that basic reflex.  I am taken with hypervigilant attention to how others react to me.  I study others in earnest, hoping to discover myself in their word, look, or deed.  I assume that others are as taken with me as me.
I always thought I was self-effacing, deferential, and considerate of others.  Rather than feeding prideful vanity, a trait I always treated with great disdain and viewed as true self-centeredness, I sought the opposite extreme.  I denied ever claiming any rights or asserting any preferences and chose to devote myself to what I thought others wanted from me.
So when the kids complain about dinner, or comment on the dirty floor, or can’t find their favorite sweatshirt, do I ever feel the pressure.  Little do they know, they are serving indictments against my character and my worth.  More evidence of my failure.  And I start choking.

Sunday, December 4, 2011

The Absence of Motherhood

I probably ought to be careful talking about motherhood.  I’m not one, you know.  Mothers are highly esteemed and much is expected of them.  I’ve no doubt it’s a difficult road.  I would stand up and defend my own mother against some of the stuff I’ve said when whining about how uncomfortable the role of non-mother stepmother can be.  In the midst of critiquing this cultural plight, I encounter Little One once again trying to map out the family tree. 
Recalling a gift my dad gave us, she asks, “He’s my grandpa, step-grandpa, right?” 
My Handsome Man mumbles a response to the effect that at the grandparent level we don’t usually add that term.
She follows up with this little stunner: “I don’t see what’s the difference between moms and stepmoms.”  What?  I’ve been feeling like an outcast, an imposter, an incompetent stand-in and it turns out that’s just parenthood?
Motherhood is one of those edifices that we idolize, like marriage, because as a society we desperately need it.  Inhabitants of marriage, and I suspect motherhood, find that it is at times so excruciatingly painful, so much more difficult than we ever dreamed, that we have to glorify these paths to encourage those on the outside to keep choosing them, and to keep those on the inside from running away.
My problem likely has as much to do with my exclusion from a club that I always assumed I’d become a part of as it does with my inclusion in a club that I never planned to join.  Try sitting through a Mother’s Day church service when you are a childless woman of age, or overage.  It’s nearly impossible for me to stomach all the exaltation of woman as mother without wanting to rip out my uterus and throw it on the floor.  How much I feel I am really not considered a woman, not even much of a wife, because I don’t have children.  What is the matter with me?  Have I no love for God or Country?!  In my pity-party world, the one where other people always have it better than me, it is easier to handle the “you must give birth to be a woman” expectation if there is a principled reason why you elected to not have children.  Or, to truly be absolved of responsibility and acquitted of the charges of being a soulless wretch, a medical reason why it’s just not possible.  But I blanch at even allowing that thought to be uttered because I can’t imagine the pain, the desperate pleadings at night that must accompany such a situation.
The idea that I’ve never given birth because it just didn’t work out that way – oh, I never got around to it.  How lame is that?  I always assumed it would, but it didn’t happen?  Is that the best I’ve got?  Is life really that random?  Or, I fell in love with a man who told me on the second date that he’d been fixed and wouldn’t be having any more children.  Didn’t I even have a care for my unborn babes?  What was I thinking?  That I could change his mind?  Overcome his resolve?  That the children would somehow really become mine?  No.  Really, no!  That God would work a miracle and squeeze just one more little sperm through?  Well, kind of.