I found myself yesterday recalling more difficult days. A time when I was regularly caught up in bitterness and anger. For nearly ten years that was a theme of my home life.
I resented my husband’s ex-wife. I resented that he even had one. I resented her very existence. And even more strongly, I felt total and abject misery about it. My perspective on being a step-mother was that I was utterly helpless in my situation and terrible at it.
Once, only days after we returned from our honeymoon in northern california,
I woke up at some ungodly hour to screaming from the other room. Molly had a bloody nose! And apparently not her first, as Tom yelled back instructions for what to do. Actually it may have been Tom’s bellowing that woke me and I – was – pissed. I’m not sure I even gave him time to resolve the bloody nose before I tore into him that he should never wake me up screaming on the top of his lungs again! I’ll never forget that incident because that was the day that it hit me, I was a step-mom.
Yeah, seems like I should have dealt with that fact earlier, but I was in love and could not be bothered at the time with the details of a child. How bad could it be? And she wasn’t even with us all the time. It brought new meaning to the phrase ignorance is bliss!
When we married in June of 1993 Molly had just turned five. If I recall correctly the custody arrangement at that time was week on week off. And so for those early years of our marriage, we were honeymooners for a week and then became a little family for a week. It was strange. It was a bit like playing house for me. I have very few memories of those early years, except I had no idea what I was doing.
I do remember being in the grocery store and I had told Molly something she needed to remember. I was angry because she didn’t. And as if it was yesterday, I recall Tom telling me “With children, you have to tell them about 100 times and even then they may not remember. They are not robots.”
“Things would work a lot better if they were robots! “I thought to myself as I stalked off to the dairy department for yogurt!
I felt step-parenting was constantly humiliating and I was consumed with the fact that I had no power –no real authority. And yet, I was expected to help raise this little girl.
Those were difficult years. I would go to work and forget for a while and become consumed in my work. Going home was frustrating, and time-consuming and made me feel incompetent. I behaved shamelessly — doing things I would never allow myself to do now. A step-parent, no matter how frustrated should never speak poorly about the other parent. Ever. It’s petty and shallow and makes it unsafe for the child to talk to you.
Over the years, Tom was a perfect example of self-control.
He was strong and saint-like as he dealt with me (a raving lunatic), his ex-wife (no comment) and his daughter. He was commited to peace. Even as I goaded him to fight back or stick up for us or express our viewpoint he remained adamant that he would not do anything that allowed her to escalate. Peace at any price, for Molly. Early in our marriage I saw this as weak and even cowardly. Growing up, I saw arguing as normal. Sticking up for yourself was important because we had very little power and one had to keep it at any cost. But I learned – ever so slowly – from Tom was that there was power in not jumping into the fracas.
And over the years I did see that our home was a safe place for Molly, because of Tom. It took me years, really not until 1993 or 94 top be open enough to allow God to work on my heart. I wanted control and was no good at letting go of it. I wanted a clear role and as a step-mother that was a constantly shifting one, as “real” mom changed who she was and what role she wanted in her own daughter’s life. I wanted authority and as step-mom felt like I never had it, ultimately. I wanted the injustice and mess of Tom’s divorce not spill over into my newly married life. But it boiled over, regularly. I wanted to help this little girl and in the end miraculously good came of it, but it was very ambiguous and it was not until she was an adult herself that I could really see that I had played any positive role in her life. I thank God for his kindness, as I had a lot to learn and this little girl was an innocent bystander to those hard lessons. Fortunately children are resilient and God is tender and merciful.
At some point in the winter of 1994 I took a long walk, pouring out my heart to God. I expressed my disappointment and anger at this aspect of my life and I needed him to heal me. I cried out, in my sense of inadequacy and fear. I was so resentful that this woman existed as if I could wish her away. Ultimately it came down to something Tom had said to me from the beginning of our marriage.
“You give her all the power by resenting her so much.”
In our pre-marriage counseling, our pastor Craig Barnes, said “She (ex-wife) will be the most important other person in your marriage. Supporting her role in Molly’s life would become my most difficult task.” [Those were not his exact words.] If only I had listened. If only I had believed him. But I had to sort it out in my way in my time, I suppose. Ten years of tears, and grief. But there was a bigger lesson I was learning about power and control and that day, ten years later, I gave up any inclination of my power. And in a mystical and almost instantaneous moment I was healed.
Over the years we still had our struggles, but Tom and I became a team at that point. I began to see that in his peacemaking he was strong and had power. He always chose what was best for Molly and I came to support that and learned to bite my tongue when I wanted to lash out (literally drawing blood at first). I learned to listen and eventually I let go of my perceived power. Because that is all it is when you are a parent – the perception that what you are doing will change these little people into what you want.
Who knew that our children learn from our choices to not say or not do something, as much as from what we do and say to them. No matter whether we are a step – or a “real” parent, we have to let go!
Step-parenting is hard. Anyone who doesn’t know that is ignorant and naïve. But it is character building.
If you are given a close relationship with the child you receive into your life, as I have been, well, that’s something to celebrate!