Rules of Disengagement

11/17/2011 09:02 am ET

Just as I've accepted the reality that change is something you can count on in life, I have come to understand that there is at least one other sure-thing; that life will continually dish up lessons for us to learn. And God help me, I've just been offered a particularly tough one.

I've written a lot about relationships, parenting, kids, and motherhood, and I spend a great deal of my time pondering these issues. One thing I haven't written much about however, is step-children. I guess that in itself is pretty telling. There was a time in my life more than twenty-five years ago, that I was a step-mother - but admittedly, as it turns out, not a very good one.

Years ago, when I was a young divorcee with two young daughters, I met and married a man with two children of his own. The marriage faltered and eventually ended, but not before there were plenty of hurt feelings all around. At the time of this ultimately doomed marriage, I was only fourteen years older than the oldest step-child. Along with not having discovered the rule book on what constitutes a viable relationship, I also hadn't been given any advice about how to cope with step-teenagers -- my own daughters were both under four at the time. I was a parent-in-training - and as I look back, I guess I was a person-in-training too.

Though I hadn't caused my step-children's parents' divorce, I was the easiest target for their resentment over it. Unfortunately, I hadn't yet figured out my true sense of place in the world, or my worth as a woman, and therefore didn't offer them much from me to cling to. To be honest, I was still trying to figure out how to make up to my own toddlers for divorcing their father. Life is messy sometimes.

After I divorced my step-children's father, my daughters and I moved far away emotionally, and forged a new, completely different life - the one that eventually led me to the happy, fulfilled and contented marriage I'm in now. My girls and I disengaged utterly and completely from the other family with which we had briefly crossed paths.

I'm not suggesting this was the most mature move on my part. As I said, life can be messy, and mistakes are made. However, my assumptions at the time were that these step-kids were happy to be rid of me, that my daughters and I had no lasting impact on them, that in their minds we had attempted to usurp their real mother's place, and so good riddance. Since no bonds of love and compassion had been formed between us, my own daughters and I decided that a clean and complete break in communication was best.

Apparently, that complete break had caused anguish. My step-daughter recently made contact after more than 25 years to share her feelings. Though she wasn't casting blame, and in fact was quite kind, she let me know that she felt a loss - not so much of me, but of the connection with my two daughters. It was a courageous gesture on her part, to reach out after years and across time, and I salute her.

The lesson I learned was a hard one - funny how our minds can shuffle certain memories, and file others so deeply that we barely realize they are there. I had to admit that I had made even more mistakes than I'd been aware of -- that my actions or lack of actions had hurt these kids a long time ago. It's irrelevant that I didn't intend to. Damage was done.

It is a big pill to swallow, when as a parent you are faced with your own shortcomings - especially when those deficiencies have had disturbing consequences for others. Nevertheless, I have a full bottle of water here, and I'm choking it down. At 57 years and counting, I'm still learning, and I hope to continue to do so. I'm grateful to the lovely woman who was once-upon-a-time my step-daughter, for having the grace and maturity to reach out. Despite me, you are a woman of valor; your mother should be very proud. For what it's worth, at this late stage in the game, Ronnie, please know that I am too.