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. Naïve! 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.