Friday, January 11, 2013

Long Distance Stepparenting

I am very pleased to announce my first post from a guest writer! My amazing friend Sarah offered to share her experience as a stepmother whose stepdaughter lives far away from her and her husband, Charlie. I share Sarah's story in hopes of reminding my fair readers that it takes all kinds of stepparenting to make the world go round (that's how the saying goes, right?! I kid, I kid.) and that each type of stepparenting has its own challenges and blessings. I also empathize with Sarah as a fellow long-distance stepmother in my situation with Oldest Belle, and I hope Sarah's story provides all of you with great insight and understanding. Thank you, dear Sarah, for sharing your story!

Cheers, Southern Step/Mom

We weren’t always a long distance family. When I met my husband Charlie 5 years ago, he was fully custodial to a bubbly 4 year old girl. I fell in love with both of them almost immediately. I delighted in his use of Frizz-Ease in her unruly curls and the way he could get her to dissolve into giggles even when she was in the midst of a tantrum. I thought he was a fantastic partner and father. We had sporadic Date Nights, but for the most part we just all hung out together. Being part of a “family” felt natural and we settled into an easy household routine. One thing I especially loved about my stepdaughter Bridget was that she would eat anything I cooked; I considered myself unbelievably lucky to have this great kid in my life who wasn’t a picky eater.

Then Charlie, who is in the military, was temporarily moved from our city to the other side of the country for half a year. I was blessed at the time to be working from home, so I was able to accompany him. Bridget went to live 300 miles away with her mom. My relationship with Charlie deepened during that time, but my relationship with Bridget was nonexistent. I tried sending Christmas and birthday gifts to her. They were returned, unopened, with a comment passed through Charlie that Bridget’s mom was uncomfortable with it. She was also uncomfortable with me talking to Bridget on the phone.

When Charlie’s assignment ended and we returned to our city I was eager to resume a normal life with him and, of course, Bridget. But Bridget was...different. Sullen. ANGRY. She was also confused. She didn’t understand that she didn’t live with us anymore, that living with her mom was permanent and she was only visiting. She acted out and Charlie allowed it. Things she NEVER would have gotten away with before were now perfectly fine. She picked at her dinners and hated anything placed in front of her, even foods she had gobbled up less than a year prior. Charlie accused me of deliberately making unusual dishes and acted as if spaghetti was haute cuisine. Any attempt I made to discipline her was undermined, often in front of her.

What had happened to our easy household routine, to our family? Every night I looked forward to her bedtime so that I could sneak some quality time in with Charlie, but bedtime never came. He hadn’t seen Bridget in so long that he couldn’t bear to put her to bed at night and refused say no to any request from her, but it was coming at the cost our relationship. Charlie and I started arguing about petty household issues, about discipline, about EVERYTHING. My life was being run by a 5-year-old who demanded ice cream cones and fast food twice a day and stayed up until 1 a.m. My husband indulged every whim and shouted at me if I tried to rein them in. When Bridget returned to her mom, my husband retreated to his workshop and sulked for days, refusing to talk to me, only staring blankly at the wall and saying how awful his life was without Bridget. I felt rejected as a stepparent and dismissed as a wife.

I told myself that we all just needed time to adjust to this new arrangement and that things would improve. I prayed to have my loving partner back. I prayed to have the little girl I loved so much back. I prayed to have my family back.

Every other weekend, we spent 6 hours in the car on Saturday morning and another 6 hours in the car on Sunday afternoon to have her for one night. Charlie would keep her up all night trying to squeeze in every possible moment of fun time and then she’d pass out in the car on the way home. Attending a birthday party or school play required taking vacation days and a hotel stay in Bridget’s city – assuming, of course, that we were invited to attend those things at all. Sometimes we simply could not afford it and we missed important events.

It started wearing all of us down so Charlie and his ex-wife agreed to decrease visitation to one weekend a month instead, usually whatever school holiday Bridget had so that we could have more time with her. I stopped going on the drive so that Charlie and Bridget could have alone time in the car and, quite honestly, I needed the time to mentally and emotionally prepare myself for the hurricane of commotion in our home that comes with having a child you can't parent in a "traditional" way in your care. By that, I mean the custodial agreement didn't truly allow for us to enjoy both the normal fun and the gentle discipling that comes with traditional parenting when you have a child with you for more than an extended weekend here and there.

Bridget’s mom remarried last summer. Her new husband, who is also in the military, is stationed over 1000 miles away. Our long distance family suddenly got a LOT more distant. Visits now require a plane ride, a lot of planning and a fairly substantial amount of money. One weekend a month has turned into one weekend every three to six months. Bridget has her own life in her new city and I feel like I barely know her anymore. She seemed to go from preschooler to tween in the blink of an eye and I’ve missed out on most of it. She tells me she can’t recall a time when I wasn’t a part her life, but I don’t FEEL like part of her life. I don’t feel like a family anymore.

I don’t know what the future holds for us. I don’t know if we’ll ever be close to each other again, physically or emotionally. I don’t know that I’ll ever feel like part of a family again, but I’m still praying for it.

Friday, January 4, 2013

Uh oh! It's "big girl" time!

Don't tell Ashley, but it seems we're about to start this rocky roller coaster called puberty at Tara. Last month, we escaped town for the weekend and while we were waltzing around a theme park, I noticed Youngest Belle looked like she might be getting ready for training bras soon. Then the other night, Middle Belle approached me with "Mom, I need to talk to you about something in private." It seems Youngest Belle may not be alone in her new wardrobe addition.

It's a really weird experience to be a Step/Mom in a situation like this. I absolutely DREAD going to new doctors for this exact reason. I know way more about my husband's ex-wife's pregnancies and birthing experiences than I ever needed to know, for the record. Then the doctors ask awesome questions about bio-mom's puberty experience. Really??? Do I LOOK like I would know the answers to these questions? Hold on, lemme dial her up real quick and see what happened, even though I've only spoken to her once in the past six years. Wait, now that you mention it, she DID leave a detailed medical history before checking out. Seriously?!

So, your guess is as good as mine as to what we can expect as the girls become young women and when we can expect it. It's a good thing I paid attention in my biology classes is all I have to say.

It's also an entirely different experience going through this as a custodial Step/Mom than when I went through this with Oldest Belle as a noncustodial Step/Mom. Part of me is grateful that Oldest Belle trusted me enough to ask all sorts of questions, things that she blatantly admitted she did not feel comfortable asking her mom about (and of course Dad was totally off-limits), even if it was sometimes uncomfortable/awkward for both of us. But it's nice to know that I can guide the girls through this rocky road without the interference of a bio-mom, my sister-in-law, and my mother-in-law, all of whom thought I was totally incompetent in handling such issues and liked to question my competency in front of Oldest Belle. Of course since I was just Dad's fiancee and never gave birth to any children, I clearly don't understand basic biology, let alone be trusted to explain such issues to a preteen.

Of course, with the younger belles' developmental delays (thanks, bio-mom!) and Middle Belle's...sensitive emotional psyche, shall we say, I think know we are in for a rough ride as puberty approaches. Therefore, Southern Step/Mom is gleefully accepting any and all gifts of alcoholic refreshments that may make this road a little easier. These girls are going to give me hell, bless their hearts.