Saturday, February 23, 2013

President Obama, what are you REALLY going to do to encourage fatherhood?

I've already outed myself as a Democrat, so you probably think I am a huge supporter of our President. While I like him and agree in general with many of his policies, there's one topic where he always seems to get it wrong - fatherhood. It feels like a Dan Quayle moment, where you just want to stop him from repeatedly putting his foot in his mouth, but it seems he really does believe what he preaches. Now, I do admire him as a father and husband; he and Michelle make a great parenting team. But the reality is I think he's very biased toward fathers and the "deadbeat dad" myth that it interferes with logic. Take for example his State of the Union address this year:

"...Because what makes you a man isn’t the ability to conceive a child; it’s having the courage to raise one.”

I agree with the concept, but why not just say parent? Why the focus on dads? I could say the exact same thing about Jade and Gabby's bio-mom. Unfortunately, their bio-mom is not the only noncustodial mother who fits the "deadbeat" stereotype. I couldn't say it any better than the Fathers & Families organization, a nonprofit that promotes shared parenting, whose Facebook page asked, "How exactly are we supposed to do this with 4 days a month VISITATION?"

It's a valid question. 50/50 parenting doesn't work in every scenario obviously. But when neither parent is abusive or dangerous, and they live relatively close to each other, there's no reason why Dad should only get every other weekend. However, in most family court systems around the country where according to the U.S. Census Bureau only 1 in 6 custodial parents is the father, Mom almost always winds up with more time. This is, of course, assuming Mom even informs Dad that he is a parent at all.

If President Obama really wants to enact change in the United States that will encourage fatherhood, he will encourage Congress to pass federal laws that set standards for family courts across the country. Parenting doesn't differ from state to state; the laws governing families shouldn't either. Mothers should be forced to disclose paternity except for in extreme circumstances (e.g. documented domestic violence, rape victims) so that children are not illegally placed for adoption (more on that in an upcoming post). While all parents have the responsibility to support their children, custody and visitation orders should be as vigorously enforced as child support orders are in most courts. A situation like ours with Becca should never happen, where Ashley's feet are held to the fire on his child support payments but yet Becca's mother has been repeatedly charged with contempt of court for violating the custody order and she has never received more than a slap on the wrist. When you reduce a father's role to be nothing more than a paycheck, you are discouraging fatherhood rather than encouraging it.

"I wish I had had a father who was around and involved." - President Obama, February 22, 2013

So do thousands of children across America, Mr. President. Stop the rampant abuse and bias in the Family Court system so fathers and their children can be reunited.

Sunday, February 3, 2013

To have kids or not? The childless step/mom's dilemma

As time goes on, I find more and more moms and dads popping up around me. The friends that I spent many a fun-filled night with, family members I grew up with, and even childhood friends - all of them seem to be joining the parent ranks. All of them, however, are joining the parent ranks the traditional way. I feel like I've been on the island alone for a few years, and now everyone's boats are invading. After all, because I became a Step/Mom in my last few years of college, I was the only one with kidlets to worry about - the token mom friend. Now, it seems every time I log into Facebook, someone else is announcing a pregnancy or showing off pictures of their little ones.

Don't get me wrong. I am over the moon excited for my friends and family. I love seeing baby pictures and buying baby clothes and accessories. I love playing Auntie Southern Step/Mom because I don't have any nieces or nephews to dote on. But, as my friends and family go through Babygate 2012-2013, it has led me to reflect on my own reproductive choices and has stirred up some memories and feelings that I haven't visited in a long time.

When people find out that I am the Younger Belles' (we'll start to call them Jade - Middle Belle - and Gabby - Youngest Belle - for clarity's sake) Step/Mom and that I don't have any children of my own, it's almost inevitable that the next question comes:

"I don't mean to be too personal, but are you and Ashley planning on having kids of your own?"

I never know how to answer this question. It's not because I don't know the answer; yes, Ashley and I would like to have a child of our own. It's because I never know how the other person will take it. Will they think I'm selfish for wanting a child that shares my DNA, that I can look into his or her eyes and see my own, that I can raise from birth without interference? Will they think I'm wanting a child of my own to put the other belles on the back burner, or will they think I'm being selfish because Ashley already has enough children to raise?

People often think they are being kind or giving gentle advice, but the truth is, it can cut me to the core. It seems that everyone has an opinion on my barren uterus and everyone feels entitled to voice it. I've had both family members and friends say to just enjoy being "like a mom" to Jade and Gabby, that we don't really need another child in our house, that we can't really afford it, that we already have enough to deal with especially with Jade and Gabby's issues, and why would we want to start over when they are already halfway out the house? I have sat while Ashley's friends have joked about "Not another kid!" to him while I bared and grinned it. I have listened to others joke about how we already have our hands full and don't need another one and pretended that it's hilarious to think that we would want to have a child of our own. I have even resorted to joking when people ask me if we want to have a child by saying that I'll just have a child and put him or her up for adoption at age 2 so that I can say I've been full circle since I've already done age 2 and up.

The truth is, it's not funny at all. The truth is, if I'm laughing about it, it's only because it is easier to laugh and pretend like I don't care than to actually show how deep it hurts. I'm selfless for raising these girls, but I'm selfish for wanting to have one of my own is the constant message so many people - friends, family, strangers, society - give me.

Jade and Gabby have always been enthusiastic about us having a baby. It was always Becca - Oldest Belle - that had an issue with it. She loved me, but she couldn't stand the thought of Ashley and I having a baby, even though her mom and stepdad also have a child of their own. There were times that her words literally drove me to tears because she was so hurtful in that thoughtless teenage way. But the most hurtful experience came from someone on my sidelines, a friend of mine.

One April Fools' Day years ago, Ashley thought it would be hysterical to post a sonogram picture on Facebook and to tell people that we were expecting. I'm good-natured and like a funny joke, so I played along. I didn't express to him, however, that I was a little reluctant because I was wary of one of the responses I gave above from one of his friends. A good friend of mine for many years was very excited about the possibility of us having a baby, and so she was very disappointed when we revealed it was a joke. She posted about her genuine disappointment on a mutual friend's wall. Our friend responded to the post by saying, "I told you not to get excited because it had to have been a joke! They have too many freaking kids already!"

I cried over that post for almost half an hour. It wasn't something I hadn't heard before, but it was the first time I had heard it from one of my friends. I expected that kind of thought process from my family, from Becca, from Ashley's friends and family. But to hear one of my own friends say it - it cut deep.

I never have confronted my friend about what she said. I doubt she realized that I saw it, and I didn't want to bring it up and make it even more awkward than I already felt. But if I'm being completely honest, I didn't want to find out if she knew that I would see it because that would hurt even more if she did it hoping I would see it.

As it stands, I do want a baby. I don't want a baby now, however, and if I am being completely honest, it is almost entirely because of how dependent Jade and Gabby are still on us and the magnitude of the issues they have because of their bio-mom's prenatal drug use and neglect. I can't help but acknowledge that if things were different, it's very likely if not certain that Ashley and I would already be expecting or have a little one of our own. This doesn't mean that I resent the belles - I would never place that burden on a child. It also doesn't mean that I resent Ashley and his past choices. I love my husband and recognize that his past - both the good and the bad - have made him the husband that I adore, and for that, I appreciate how it has made him into the man that I admire. I also acknowledge that I made this choice willingly - no one forced me to marry Ashley and become a Step/Mom. I did so of my own volition and happily so. It doesn't mean, however, that I haven't made choices that I probably wouldn't have otherwise, as in I probably would already be a bio-mom if it weren't for the realities of 100% custodial stepparenting. It doesn't mean that I want pity. I just want to be understood. I just want to not be judged for wanting to experience pregnancy, childbirth and traditional motherhood - some things that millions of women experience every day and are never judged for it. Why should I be any different?

When Ashley and I went to court to terminate Jade and Gabby's bio-mom's parental rights, I received a phone call that every woman dreads from her OBGYN's office. I was literally standing outside the courthouse the day of the final hearing, waiting for our turn, when my cell phone rang. My test results had come back abnormal and they wanted me to come in as soon as possible for additional testing to determine the cause. I sobbed as the worst case scenarios ran through my mind. Was it cancer? Would I need to have major surgery? Would I be able to have children? Then, I got angry. Here I am, terrified that I may never be able to experience the joy of having a child of my own as we waited to terminate the parental rights to a woman who gets pregnant and gives birth repeatedly with no caution, planning or concern, and then abandons her children over and over again. What kind of cosmic irony would that be for me to be destined to raise the children of a woman who gives birth so carelessly and takes advantage of the gift that would not bless me?

Luckily, it was just a scare and my doctor determined after additional testing that I was fine. But that fear, that pain, has seared my conscience. I know of women who have been dealt that card. I also know of women whose husbands said they wanted to have children with them, but years later changed their minds and decided that they were done with having children even though their wives had never been afforded that opportunity. How do you continue to put your trust in someone when the rules of the game have been changed? Is it OK to deem your wife "good enough" to raise your children, but to also tell her to stop being selfish for wanting a child of her own?

Why is it selfless to raise another's child, but selfish to want to bring another child into the picture? Why does everyone think it's OK to give their opinion, but for no one to consider that maybe their "cold, hard truth" is a little too cold and too hard for something as personal, intimate and life-changing as a couple's decision to have a child?

Just think - if everyone cared as much about their own reproductive choices as know-it-alls seem to care about mine, there would be a lot less abused, abandoned and neglected children in the world!