Before I was divorced, before I became a mother biologically, I was a stepmom. This was not an easy role to tackle. As a stepparent, I felt stuck somewhere between the roles of authority figure and friend. Not to mention, shared parenting meant that I only saw my stepdaughter once a week and every other weekend. Every time I felt like I had made progress and established a rapport, she was leaving again, only to start the whole process over on her next visit. Progress was made, though, and we formed a very close relationship. In fact, my stepdaughter still waves and blows kisses to me from her dad's car when they come to pick up her siblings, and when she attends her brother's t-ball games, she rarely leaves my side, telling me all about school, gymnastics and her family. I have no regrets regarding the time and energy I invested in our relationship; that little girl taught me so much about love and about myself.
Oftentimes, there are additional forces at play in blended families that can make a difficult situation even harder. Sometimes children are averse to change of any kind. Sometimes busy schedules and distance get in the way. Sometimes the child resents the position she has been placed in and sometimes it is the parents who are bitter. I was faced with the last scenario -- my stepdaughter's mother was extremely unhappy with our situation and she made it clear in a number of ways. Her tactics sometimes fell flat; other times, she achieved the desired effect of creating unnecessary barriers to healthy relationships with all of the people who loved her daughter.
I have no sad story to tell, though. While I was often angered and disheartened at the situation that I faced, I can now look back and see how it served as a valuable learning experience. See, it is now my children who are shuttled back and forth between two homes. And because I witnessed firsthand how a parent can make life unduly hard for the other parent and, most importantly, the children, I have vowed to make our situation as painless as possible. Here are some ways that my role as a stepmom prepared me for my role as the ex-wife:
Because I was a stepmom, I make pickup and drop-off between parents as quick as possible. Even if I am sad to see my kids go (always), I say goodbye with quick hugs and kisses and a smile on my face. It doesn't prove anything to anyone if everyone has a meltdown every other weekend.
Because I was a stepmom, my kids will have everything they need to feel comfortable at the other parent's house. Blanky? Paci? Baby? Check, check, check.
Because I was a stepmom, I will not enter into a competition with the other parent. I do not feel an overwhelming need to match every toy or experience my children have at their other home. And I think that's for the best.
Because I was a stepmom, my children will never feel pressure from me to "pick a side." I do not want my children to feel like they have to be loyal to only one parent. I want them to feel only love from all sides.
Because I was a stepmom, I will not bash the other parent in front of my children. Kids hear more than you realize, and they definitely pick up on tones and attitudes. If there are issues between their father and me, those are adult issues, and I do not want my children to bear the weight of that knowledge.
Because I was a stepmom, I am flexible to schedule changes and special events. My ex travels for work, and I travel some during the summer when I'm out of school. I am happy to do makeup days or rework schedules so that the kids and their father get their allotted time together. Similarly, if a special occasion arises (birthday parties, fishing derby, etc.), I try to accommodate these as well. My kids shouldn't have to miss fun activities because it "isn't the right weekend."
Because I was a stepmom, I will inquire about my kids' time away, but I won't interrogate. My children aren't meant to be little spies, and as long as they're happy and well taken care of, that's all I need to know.
Don't get me wrong -- shared parenting still isn't easy. I don't have it all figured out, and I don't know that I ever will. I do feel, like most parents, that it is my responsibility to give my children the best version of family possible (in whatever form it may take). So here is me trying, with a few learned lessons under my belt, because I was a stepmom first.