It really is a mindf**k.
Okay, so after almost seven years of writing about divorced moms and stepmoms, I thought I understood how and why so many stepmoms were having such a hard time.
The kids weren't hers. The ex-wife didn't want her around. Perhaps her partner was unwittingly just plugging her into a role and hoping she could roll with it -- when, in fact, she couldn't.
But what I discovered is that this stepfamily business IS strange.
It's strange in that, if you're already a divorced mom, then you totally get the role. You're used to -- automatically and without conscious thought -- scoping out who's doing what, who needs what and how to either give it to them, do it for them, or ask that they do it for themselves or someone else.
But jumping into the mom role with someone you didn't make children with and kids you didn't make is a different animal altogether. It's not that it's inherently bad, because it's not. There are a million things I love about this experience, including a fantastic partner, some amazing kids and a wonderful life that we're creating together.
But I also don't have the benefit of unconditional love on my side, smoothing over the edges of difficult experiences or a different family culture, with its own unspoken rules and habits.
And I don't have the benefit of my mother's power and voice, which might simply look like, "Hey! I've asked you three times to put your damn dishes in the dishwasher. Do it NOW or risk seeing me run over your cell phone with my car!" like I would with my own kids.
Parenting without those two tools in my arsenal can be frustrating and disorienting.
It's harder than it looks.
I've heard it said a million times now, "Where is the manual on how to do this stepmom gig?" If you're looking for some clearcut guidelines, luckily, they're super clear, consistent and splattered all over the internet:
Just be yourself. / Be a more muted version of yourself and you'll be fine.
Make sure to set clear, consistent boundaries. / Step back, so you don't step on toes.
It's your house too, so don't be afraid to be a hard-ass. / Be gentle or you will hurt others, they'll withdraw and your stepfamily and relationship will implode from the inside out.
Make your relationship a priority. / This family existed before you did, so it's up to you to figure out how to fit in.
With a cacophony of voices all trumpeting their own version of YES! or NO! at you, it's up to you to pick and choose which approach to try. But how, when one well-written article seems to cancel out the next?
It's easier than it looks.
I must have won some kind of lottery that I don't know about because not only is my ex-husband's wife a dear friend, but my partner's ex is really nice too. Not only does she seem like a nice person, but thank the gods, she is also really nice to me. My partner's kids are funny, smart, warm and likable and I hope I'm not being presumptuous in saying, it seems to me that we all took to each other pretty easily.
How did I get so lucky, when so many other folks seem to be trapped in a living hell with the stepkids or the ex-wife?
I have no idea.
But I am very thankful and I don't forget it for one minute. Or at least, not too many.
The twinges are a challenge.
Sometimes, hearing old family stories gives me a funny feeling in my stomach. Sometimes, I wish I could have had kids with my partner (those years are behind us now). Sometimes, I don't like the feeling of ghosts from another lifetime -- albeit an important one that shaped my partner, and obviously his kids, into the cool people they are now -- hovering around the edges of my life.
When you're married in a nuclear family, the circle is around all of you -- and that's it. Everyone else is outside of it. No gaps. No blurriness. No ifs or maybes.
But when that circle breaks up, you can't entirely make a solid, new one in a stepfamily. The gaps are always present and open, because they must be. That is something I both accept out of respect and feel tender and regretful about.
This is like having my own personalized Zen retreat.
If I were to pay good money to go off to a two-week silent retreat, where I had to learn how to master my tongue, my ego, my habits and my well-developed ideas on "how things should be done and why," well then, I might just come home feeling stoked, renewed and revitalized.
Living that experience on a daily basis?
Hey, wait! Isn't my "retreat" over yet? When do I get to go back to my old life, so I can digest all these mind-blowing new insights and then gradually slide back into my "normal" life and do things the way I've always done them?
No such luck. Now the lessons come fast and furious.
Some days, I feel like I've gotten not only one pie in the face, but two or three. Those times are fairly few and far between, but when an evening ends in tears, you remember it.
I have a newfound respect for stepmoms now and their myriad expressions of heartache, hurt, resentment, anger and confusion. I will continue to do my best, to be present with love, forgiveness and understanding (and to keep writing about what I learn.)
Yes, this shit can be hard.
But when you feel it working, you know you're doing something you can be proud of.