Today in the series on step-parenting: Raising a Modern Family — Jen’s story. Jen married her sweetheart at the wise age of 24, and became a stepmother to two lovely girls … who would make her a grandma at the wise, old age of 33. Jen’s perspective is hilarious and so wise. The best piece of advice she gives: never, ever talk trash about your stepkid’s bio parents.
Tell me about you, and your family. How long have you been married? How old are your kids?
Cliff and I have been married for almost 19 years. We met in my final year of college, when I was 22; we married when I was 24. I like to joke that I’m the “trophy wife” because he is a good 12 years older than I am*, and many of my friends were shocked at me dating a divorced dad in his 30s. Also humor is my coping mechanism, and boy do you need humor as a step-mom.
The girls (really, they’re women now, but Cliff and I have always referred to them as “the girls”) are 30 and 28. They were 7 and 5 when Cliff and their mom got divorced, 10 and 8 when I met their dad, and 12 and 10 when we got married. Their mom remarried immediately after she and Cliff divorced, and she and her husband have two sons together. Due to their step-dad’s life in the USAF, the girls have always lived out of state and could only visit us once a year for about two weeks at a time.
*The age difference makes it really fun to tell people I’m a grandmother of four (first grandchild was born when I was 33, Cliff was 45). Ha!
Did you ever think you would be a stepparent? Do you have stepparents?
I never thought I would be a stepparent, or any kind of a parent for that matter. Step-parents were a mystery to me. My parents were married almost 48 years when my dad passed; their parents were each married 50+ years. There was no precedent in my immediate family.
Luckily I was young and dumb and romantic, very much: “our love is worth the struggle” (cue pearl clutch). It was, it still is, but there were some extremely stressful times that I did not foresee. Just as well. Had I known, I might have scared myself off and missed out on so much wonderful – both in my marriage, and in these humans I’ve been lucky to see grow up.
How has this experience changed you?
I’ve learned a lot about myself, mostly things I’m ashamed of. I’m not selfless. I don’t like spending time 24/7 with kids. Parenting was not my idea of a fun way to spend my limited vacation time and money. I’m not patient: I absolutely cannot understand why anyone needs to put on sunblock while sitting on an upholstered chair, or leave their bottle of body oil face down on the futon.
“PICK UP YOUR DAMN TOWELS; I DON’T CARE IF YOUR MOM GIVES YOU FRESH ONES EVERY DAY; YOUR MOM DOES NOT LIVE HERE.” I will neither confirm nor deny having said this more than once.
I regularly freaked out over grocery bills; I yelled and snapped at my husband instead of discussing issues. I’m angry and jealous and petty and rude as a parent. It’s given me so much grace for people and how we each struggle with our image of ourselves not matching the reality of ourselves.
On the other hand, I challenged my step-daughters to learn new things, to plan with a budget, to conserve water and care for their environments, to love their bodies, to say “I CAN,” and to know they have choices. Hopefully I have managed to communicate how much I love them, even though my love is (clearly) not a parent’s love and may not be the love they wanted or needed from me. And hopefully I have managed to show that while no one is perfect, family means there’s room for all of us– because that’s what I’ve learned, too –room even for a somewhat evil step-mom.
Has your parenting style influenced your relationship with your partner?
Our styles in parenting reflect our approaches to life: he’s laid back and content to watch TV and movies and eat candy all day, and I’m about getting out to museums and state fairs and swimming and bedtime at 9:00 and up again tomorrow at 7:00 am for more of the same ….
I found it necessary to give Cliff and his girls plenty of time alone together during their visits. It kept me from over-structuring their time, gave me a break from all the sturm und drang of adolescent girls, allowed them their TV and candy time, and encouraged their old dynamic: just the three of them–something they had for a few years before I came along. It worked amazingly well and made us all happier when we were together.
What advice would you give to someone new to this game?
There are many different ways of being a step-parent, and they are all real. They are all legitimate. They are all valid. I have had many people tell me my experience “didn’t count” because the girls didn’t live with us and we didn’t have a weekly visitation schedule.
I felt very, very alone. My experiences didn’t match anyone’s that I knew. I had loving family support but no one really “got it.” Find the people who “get it.” Thank god/dess there’s Facebook now. Use it. Form a tribe. Get with step-parents of all genders, ages, levels of parenting. Listen. Ask for help. Complain (discreetly).
Which leads me to: find someone totally safe to unload the daily shit to, so you feel heard and you can get it out of your house and out of your marriage. I learned very quickly that it doesn’t help to complain to your spouse about their ex; either he had conflicted feelings of loyalty (they were married for 7 years, after all), or his complaints fueled my fire. And there were many situations in which I couldn’t kvetch about the kids to my spouse, either. Because we only had them for two weeks, those two weeks had to be perfect in every way. Do not let your parents become this person for you. Parents can skew a couple even with the perfect circumstances.
Alternately, find someone who is in the same position as your spouse’s ex and listen to them, so you understand what it’s like to be on the other side. Because there are always complicated issues involved, and nothing is ever as simple as an evil ex or evil step. The more empathy you have, the more you can all work together instead of battle each other.
— DO NOT EVER LET YOUR STEPKIDS HEAR YOU BADMOUTH EITHER OF THEIR PARENTS. Take the high road, and take your trash talk out to margaritas with someone completely removed from the situation (not your parents, as noted above, they can make things get messy).
I kissed ass and swallowed insults often, for the sake of the kids. I have never regretted it, and now my grown kids continue to invite me to be part of their lives, even though now they don’t have to. Win-win. (Note: there was never any question of abuse or boundary problems in our relationship with the girls’ mom. If you are dealing with an ex who is themselves dealing with unhealthy behaviors, you’re going to need the help of a good counselor. Invest the money.)
Since we have never lived in the same state, let alone zip code, we found it fun to go to the dollar store and make seasonal packages and mail them. All kids love mail, and it kept us feeling connected, since kids don’t talk on the phone much (this was pre-Skype and pre-FaceTime, people. The communication DARK AGES). We would hear later that they enjoyed sharing the boxes with their little brothers, which came in handy when we visited and their brothers knew who we were.
We covered one wall of wherever we lived with pictures from times we spent together. We wanted the reminder, when they weren’t around; and when they visited, we wanted them to know we saw them as integral to our life. We let them paint and decorate our home so a piece of them stayed when they left.
Is there a story about your kids you’d like to share?
The first time my oldest acknowledged me on Mother’s Day, I cried. She was 18. I had given up all hope.
The oldest caught the bouquet at Mom’s re-marriage; the youngest caught mine. I think that was a favorable sign.
Is there anything else you’d like folks to know about your experience?
Because we only got them two weeks out of every year, they were different humans at every visit, and so were we. Once I figured that out, it made things much more interesting and fun. We could all enjoy each other in the moment and let go of last year’s struggles.
Kelli knows – I’m a HUGE reader, and so my go-to approach is always research and finding a book about whatever challenges I’m facing. One of the things I read early on that has stayed with me is that it takes, on average, 7 years for a blended family to feel cohesive. 7 years! So cut yourself some slack and focus on building one bit at a time. You don’t have to have the whole fortress made right away.
Many thanks to Jen for sharing these gems. SEVEN years. Oy.