The good.

August 22, 2006 at 5:02 pm (Stepmotherhood)

Last visit, my stepson told me he loves me, spontaneously and without any prompting from Dad.

There are moments when stepmotherhood is just swell.

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‘It all goes to the definition of family’

August 12, 2006 at 8:54 pm (Living in step)

Unbelievable. A Missouri town near Kansas City is forcing a couple to get married or move out of their home because they don’t consider a stepfamily a real family unless the parents are legally married, never mind how long they’ve been together.

Shelltrack and Loving have lived together about 13 years and have two children together, along with a 15-year-old daughter of Shelltrack’s from a previous relationship.

Black Jack, a town of about 7,000 that prides itself on a city Web site for its “character and stability,” refused to grant the couple and their children an occupancy permit for their home because they do not meet the definition of “family” as set forth by the city, the complaint alleges.

The city has threatened to begin fining the couple as much as $500 a day, said Tony Rothert, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Eastern Missouri, which is helping represent the family in the lawsuit.

– Reuters: Unwed couple sues town over housing flap

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When should a kid stop sleeping with his mama?

July 31, 2006 at 5:55 pm (Stepmotherhood)

I’m at the end of another weekend with my stepson,  and survived a near-showdown with the birthmama.

She called while T was out on a father-son activity, and we chatted amiably for a few minutes. Seeing that we were getting along, I tried to raise the issue of S’s difficulty sleeping at our place (she had asked about it, because the last time she talked to him he had been screaming for her). I said that I was concerned about the difficulty he was having sleeping alone at our place, and said that in my opinion it was hard for him to be in a new bed, in a new bedroom, away from his mother AND sleeping alone all at once every two weeks, and perhaps she could think about ways to make the transition easier for him by encouraging him to sleep alone one or two nights before a daddy weekend.

I had sorely underestimated the strength of her belief in the family bed. She was furious with me, for – as she interpreted it – telling her what she should do at bedtime with her son. I had thought S sleeping with her was a casual choice, something that happened now and then, but apparently it’s a full-on philosophy for her, and she has no plans whatsoever to encourage S to sleep on his own. He’ll move to his own bed ‘when he’s ready’ and not before. She then went on to say that we were confusing him by making him sleep in his own bed when he’s with us. I asked her if she would prefer he sleep with T and I when he’s with us, and after a moment of silence she said she wouldn’t tell us what to do.

We were on the verge of a full-blown feud over the matter. She is threatened whenever I bring up anything at all related to parenting issues and her son. She always interprets it as me telling her how to parent. For my part, when she responds this way I get angry because I feel she is telling me I have no right to feel concern or express opinions about her son. In this case, I was hoping to open a dialogue with her and identify some ways we can make the sleepovers easier on S. Unfortunately, the message was garbled.

The good news is that we stayed on the phone long enough that each of us expressed our feelings, listened to the other, and then sympathized to whatever extent we could with the other woman’s point of view. In the end we both felt relief to have talked and established again some level of discussion, though the issues that caused the blow-up remain unresolved.
In my opinion, it’s not healthy for a child S’s age to share a bed with his mama every night. I don’t get to make that call, and that’s fine, but where the issue is muddied is the fact that the transition between nights at birthmama’s house and daddy’s house is obviously extremely stressful for S. In my opinion, we adults should work together to try and reduce his anxiety as much as possible between houses.

I’ve tried looking online for help resolving an issue like this, when a child of separated parents is sharing a bed with mama but sleeping alone with papa, and the parents disagree on the issue of co-sleeping, but Google has shown me nothing. There are too many variables, and complexity. All the resources I’ve found related to sharing a bed with babies, not children. And in all cases, the parents are working together to transition the child. I can understand why a parent would choose to co-sleep while breastfeeding, and even occasionally later on, but I don’t believe it’s good for a child’s social development to continue indefinitely, and particularly in a situation like this where there’s such dissonance between the way bedtime is handled by each parent.

If anyone has any link to research showing when co-sleeping should stop or how another family has handled this situation, I’d appreciate if you’d leave them in the comments …

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A modicum of peace

July 25, 2006 at 8:50 pm (Stepmotherhood)

I have been thinking about creating this blog for a few months now, as frustration built up over the stepparenting struggles, and in particular the relationship with birthmama. I put it off out of fear that admitting to the not-so-nice feelings I have sometimes would just make things worse. I envisioned a torrent of bitterness spewing out of me, and feeling powerless to stop it. The opposite seems to have occurred.

Although I was anxious beforehand, my stepson’s visit this weekend was remarkably trouble-free. It’s not to say that he was somehow better behaved – he is the same little boy he’s always been, disarmingly sweet sometimes and frustrating at other times. I just felt differently about it.

My angst had reached a breaking point in the visit before this one. I could feel that my temper was alarmingly short and so I withdrew from activities that weekend, which was confusing for S and disappointing for T, I think. Normally I am a fairly patient person, but I think I just had so much pent up inside that I was always close to boiling over.

In between the previous visit and the latest one, I started this blog, sought out some online stepparenting groups and talked a bit about my feelings with my sweetheart. I think he really heard me. We went out with a group of friends, two of whom have a new baby, and when T and our friend were commisserating over the joys of daddyhood, T brought stepparenting into it, as a way to acknowledge my parenting role and involve me in the conversation. It turned out that our friend’s partner has a child from a previous relationship, so we ended up with quite a lot to talk about related to stepparenting, with a birthmama, stepmama, two birthpapas and one steppapa at the table.

Anyway, when S was here this weekend, I felt more able to relax and spend time with him, and at the same time, T made more of an effort to set up the visit so that he and his son spent time alone, leaving me some time to myself. He also encouraged me to sit out play periods if I needed time alone or wanted to do something else. We chose to give S the choice at other times if he preferred to play with just daddy or if he’d like me to join in, and he mostly chose to keep the three of us together. He seemed much happier.

Hopefully there won’t be a backlash from the birthmama.

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Worry cripples me …

July 23, 2006 at 4:21 pm (Stepmotherhood)

I usually feel some trepidation before my stepson comes for one of his ‘daddy weekend’ sleepovers. It’s not that I don’t get along with him, it’s actually the opposite.

The problem is that I feel that I can never forget that I am ‘not-the-mama.’ I have less freedom to show affection than a friend of the family. When my stepson and I show love for each other it is misinterpreted by birthmama as an attempt to mother, not as a developing friendship. I’m not trying to mother.

But it doesn’t matter what my motivations are. Whenever we’ve had too good a time together, the reaction from the birthmama has been hurtful to me and problematic for T. When S has too good a time on his daddy weekends, birthmama seems more likely to change visitation dates without notice or pick fights with T, for instance. On other occasions when I have tried to arrange family get-togethers (T’s family, including his son) birthmama has erupted in a fury, because she feels only T should contact her about anything to do with their son.

And so I try to back off. I encourage T to do father-son activities and spend more time cleaning so that I can more easily make excuses when S asks me to play with him. But it’s important to T that I participate in the weekend visits, that we all act as a family. Throughout the weekend I feel a knot in my stomach at the high-wire act. Below, birthmama’s knives on one side and a bottomless pit on the other.

If a birth parent makes a mistake, it’s all part of parenting. If stepmama does the same, there’s hell to pay from birthmama. It is one of my deep dark fears that one day birthmama will use something I did as an excuse to cut off S’s contact with his dad. I feel guilty removing myself from family activities, but I don’t know what else to do.

We stepparents start at a disadvantage, coming in late and trying to build a parent-child relationship with so little time together. On top of that, there really is no way to win, no way to please everyone involved. If you please husband and stepchild you can neglect your own needs and piss off the birthmama, who then makes the husband’s life miserable and makes the stepchild wary. If you protect yourself by withdrawing, it makes husband and stepchild sad. There is no way to appease the birthmama. Or at least, not the birthmama in my life.

The stepmama is not the main player in this drama. At best she is a supporting character. All too typically, she ends up with the role of villain.

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Well, here goes …

July 22, 2006 at 7:40 pm (Stepmotherhood)

For almost two years now I have been Daddy’s ‘friend’ to my sweetheart’s young boy, but this fall the title of stepmama will officially be mine. Much as I love my darling T and his son S, it is not an easy thing to shoulder this role. It is very lonely.

Online, conversations among stepparents seem to skew either towards the bitter or the saccharine. In my real life, I am the only person my age facing this kind of challenge. Those friends and acquaintances who are parents seem antsy when I talk about my stepchild, as though my speaking reminds them of marital perils which they’d rather ignore. As for those who do not have kids, they are also at a loss for words to show they understand, because of course they can’t. My husband-to-be is supportive and caring, but he is a small boat in a storm and the struggle already threatens to swamp him – there is little room to take on my troubles.

In the beginning I put a lot of energy into playing with S, into being his friend. I also tried to step aside sometimes and let T spend time one-on-one with his son, but S would often demand I join in. Being S’s playmate, however, seemed to increase the friction with his birthmama. I can’t bear the thought of making it harder for T to see his son, and so after hearing for the zillionth time that birthmama thought S needed more time just with Dad I began to withdraw. T has noticed, and so has S, and neither is happy about it.

The truth is that it’s painful to be a stepmama. Friends of the family can love the child and dote on him, but to the birthmama that love is threatening when it comes from the stepmama. The kid doesn’t make it easy either. S is only five, and is constantly comparing me to his birthmama – from storybook pronounciation to Harry Potter lore to the kind of maple syrup we buy or the way I slice bread. I can understand it, but even still it is very hard to feel like everything you try to do just isn’t good enough.

I feel that to keep the peace I’m supposed to love T’s son as my own, and yet remain removed from all things parental. I am truly happy for T that he is able to finally have his son on overnight visits, but I can’t pretend that I enjoy his son’s late-night wailing for his mama, the constant judgement from his ex, and so on.

My role models for stepmotherhood are my mother and mother-in-law, but although they were also stepmamas they had fundamentally different experiences than mine. Mom’s stepchild lives halfway across the world. It’s easier to get along with your husband’s ex when you never have to see her, and when she has no fear that you could usurp her place. My mother-in-law adopted her stepdaughters when they were small. I’m sure that’s difficult in its own way, but again it does not parallel my experience.

And so I turn to blogging, because am expressive by nature, but when it comes to my experience of stepmotherhood I don’t feel like there’s a safe space where I can turn over that rock and expose the wriggling things that live beneath. Thus, I turn to the internet.

I feel like I understand the ‘wicked’ stepmother a little better now. She is not cold because she dislikes her stepchildren, but because when she opens her heart to them the result is painful. I am trying to find the strength to risk the hurt. Is there a way to numb the pain without closing the heart?

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