Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Life Post-Apocalypse

After my experiences as a sideline participant in family court, I'm thoroughly convinced nothing can more quickly make a sane person go insane like a divorce or breakup.  Think about it - most of the time, you liked this person once upon a time.  Maybe you even (gasp!) loved this person at one point?  And now, standing in a courtroom, you're like two dogs in a ring right before a fight, desperately trying not to rip each other's throats out as you thirst for victory.

The sad thing about all of it is, there is a child or children caught squarely in between the two of you in this ring of fire.  And now, instead of admitting that maybe the guy you chose to have a child with is a decent father even if you can't stand him as a partner, your one goal is to exact revenge upon him in the one place where you know it's going to really hurt - his relationship with his child.

One piece of advice I give to every friend who begins to share their story of woe with me after the breakup or divorce when there's a child involved is - think of it as a business relationship.  You both have a mutual interest at heart - your child.  You're both invested in his or her wellbeing and development.  Therefore, keep it civil.  Don't argue in front of the kid, don't use the kid as a go-between or messenger, document all communication between the two of you just as you would a business relationship.  And most importantly, get a court order.  Or even better, come to a mutual agreement, type up paperwork stating said agreement, sign it, notarize it, file it.  The end.

Some people balk when I say get a court order right away.  But too often, I've seen good intentions go south quickly when emotions get flared and Dad has no rights to speak of.  Why not make it easy on everyone and have it spelled out?  You wouldn't go into a business deal without a contract, would you?  So why would you not have a custody agreement?

I know what you're thinking.  I'm a female.  I was raised by a single mom.  Shouldn't I support single moms?  Shouldn't I, as a feminist, say it's OK if Mom's the one calling the shots?

Well, the answer is....NO.

I'll let you in on a little secret.  I'm as Southern of a belle as the day is long, but I'm also a feminist.  Women's rights rally?  Sign me up!  But I've found within the past few years, I haven't been able to support my NOW sisters like I would like to.  Why?  Because they are so critical toward fathers' rights groups and have hindered equal parenting in courtrooms across the country through their aggressive lobbying techniques.

I have a serious problem with this, because to me, it's not very feminist sounding at all.  Why do we have to tear down a father's contributions to his child's life (and I don't mean just financial contributions) just to feel our roles as mothers and women are validated?  Wasn't the whole point of the feminist movement to gain equal rights?  So why are we not proponents of equal parenting rights??

Furthermore, why do mothers have to discount their children's stepmothers' roles in order to feel good about themselves?  Should we WANT children to have many positive female role models in their lives?  Isn't it a GOOD thing for a child to have many people who care about and love them?

I've heard some horrible vitriol directed toward stepmothers by biological mothers, myself included in that number of stepmothers.  Was it warranted, truthful, or justified?  No.  Was it productive for the child?  Not at all.  If you have a problem with your child's stepmother, wouldn't the mature and responsible way to voice your displeasure be to talk directly with the stepmother, or at least your child's father?  Yes.

So why is it all logic and reason goes out the window when a child's emotional wellbeing is at stake?  One thing is for certain - it's doing no one any good.

Book Suggestion:
A Career Girl's Guide to Becoming a Stepmom by Jacqueline Fletcher
One of the better stepmom books I've encountered.  Some of the advice is a little misguided, and no, having your own baby is not the cure-all, but overall, a good book to start with. 

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Southern Step/Mom

After 4 years of being a stepparent and running the custody gamut - I'm both a custodial stepparent to two girls and a noncustodial stepparent to one girl - I've gained a unique perspective on the phenomenon of second (and third, and fourth....) families that are taking over the world as we speak.  Which made me wonder...why do we still view stepmothers as perpetually evil?  I mean, sure, I'm sassy and don't tolerate foolishness (I AM a Southern belle after all), but am I really evil?  No.  Not by a long shot.  So it's time to dispel some myths....and explain why I call myself a Step/Mom.

The label:  "Step/Mom?" you say?  Yes, I have a firm grasp on the English language; I know it's usually "stepmom" or "step-mom," but neither of those really define who I am or what my role truly is.  For my two little ones, with their bio-mom completely out of the picture (her parental rights were terminated years ago), I am Mom in every sense of the word.  Well, except for the biological part.  But when I've been the one cleaning messes and rocking sick children to sleep with no visitation, contact or financial support from the woman who brought them into the world, I think I've earned the Mom title.  But for my oldest belle, she has a mom who is still in the picture as she and my husband share joint custody, so I fully embrace my stepmotherhood in that situation.

1.  Being a stepmother means you are a homewrecker, you want to steal your stepchildren from their mother, and/or you want to keep your husband all to yourself and fantasize about casting your stepchildren out of Tara.
No, no, and no.  My husband was already a divorced dad when we met, so there was no home to be wrecked.  I can't steal my stepchildren if there's no mother to steal them from, and as for the eldest, I'm perfectly content for the "actress in a supporting role" nomination.  While I love my husband (obviously), I have to acknowledge that I did (brace yourself, stepmoms - I'm using the line we hate in the one instance where it does have validity) know he had kids when I began dating him.  Does that mean I'm superhuman and was adequately prepared for everything stepmotherhood has thrown at me?  Not by a long shot.  But, I do recognize that they were part of the deal when I chose him. 

2.  A stepmother is never a valid primary female figure in her stepchildren's lives (i.e. You can never replace Mom).
Well, yes and no.  Will my younger belles have questions about their bio-mom as they get older?  Sure.  Can I simply erase their bio-mom and say that they will never struggle with their loss?  No.  But as they say about dads, the same does (gasp!) go for moms - Any woman can give birth, but not every woman is a mother.  I may not have given birth to them, but there's no doubt that I'm their primary female figure, that I've been Mom in every way that it's counted.  I chose to love them instead of being required to by virtue of birthing them.  That's worth something, right?

Every time I hear Myth #2, I always ask Would you say the same thing to an adoptive parent?  I'd wager not.  So why is it OK to negate the positive impact a stepmother can have on a stepchild? 

Now, I'm not advocating disregarding either parent's contributions to their child, or having a child call their stepparent Mom or Dad when there's a parent in the picture, even when it's a willing parent whose attempts at parenting are being thwarted by a vengeful ex-significant other.  But, even when there are two parents around, a stepmother (or stepfather) can still be an important person to a child without taking away from that child's other parent.

3.  You don't become a stepparent until you marry your significant other.
That may be true from a legal standpoint, but it is VERY untrue in real life.  I was a step/mom loooooooong before I married my husband.  I was taking care of sick children, helping with homework, doing laundry and cheering at school plays way before our marriage solidified my bond with his children.  And with the good comes the bad...I had to learn how navigate the stepparent mine fields way before marriage too.  In fact, by the time we got married, I was already a StepSurvivor and coaching newbies to the game.  I was more comfortable in my role and was fully committed to being a stepparent by the time we got married than I would have been had I not been an active Step/Mom before our marriage.

More myths to bust to come....but in the meantime, what are some stepmom myths you'd like to see busted?