One of the biggest issues facing stepparents is the complex decision of when to stand up and when to step away. It’s a classic flight or fight and because of it’s broad application, it’s best to set up some helpful tips now. Rarely do these situations give an advance warning so that we can plan our response, which leaves us with oft times disastrous knee-jerk reactions. Especially when it comes to the other parent.
I was faced with just such a circumstance recently and while I chose to step away, Marco felt that I should have spoken up. It was nothing major, and I still feel like I made the right decision, but with only seconds to make that decision, I thought it would be beneficial to walk you through the thought process of standing up vs stepping away.
4 questions to ask yourself when faced with a challenging parent-to-parent moment:
1. Must this be taken care of now?
Sometimes the best thing to do when in a confrontational situation is to give it time. By allowing yourself the luxury of walking away, you not only keep yourself from reacting to the other parent, you also model positive conflict resolution strategies for all involved. While there are always situations that must be taken care of immediately, I’d venture to say 95% of them would benefit from a little distance and time.
2. Are the children present?
This should be a no brainer for every parent in the history of parents, but children should not be a captive audience to their parents fight. That’s not to say every disagreement must take place in a private spot, but we all know the difference between the disagreements that will resolve themselves in a sentence or two and the ones that are likely to boil over into a major fight. True story: Marco and I sometimes role play small arguments just so Daniela can see us work through them positively. We want her to experience positive conflict resolution by our example. This is good for within marriage, but I don’t recommend it between blended parents. It’s just too easy for it to get out of control in front of the kids. Keep disagreements between yourselves.
3. Do I feel criticized?
The natural response to criticism is defense. In an already tense situation, responding from a defensive position exasperates the other party and causes emotions to quickly escalate. Make every effort not to respond defensively, but gracefully. This is probably the hardest thing for me to do because I speak before I think, but ultimately this is the one that keeps me from saying things I later need to apologize for.
4. Is my response fair?
Sometimes it’s very easy to be critical of the other parent just because it’s the other parent. It’s a natural trap to fall into, and one I feel that society sets us up for, but be careful. Evaluate the situation as if the other parent were a casual acquaintance and see where the chips fall. When I looked at my own situation from that perspective, I saw how my knee-jerk response was just because I disagreed with a parenting style and certainly was nothing I should confront. My first instinct was to step up, but I am so glad I stepped away (figuratively, not physically).
I am an outspoken person with lots of opinions to share, which can often be taken the wrong way. Stepparents, when it comes to the other parent, it’s usually best to keep unsolicited opinions to yourself. And parents, the same goes for your communication with your child’s stepparents. When in doubt, let grace rule your tongue. If you still feel like the subject needs to be addressed, send an email. A well thought out email without accusations or blame will often keep the peace that a verbal response would annihilate. And for the love of all that’s good and holy, leave the children out of it!
I want Daniela to look back on her childhood and have no idea that I ever disagreed with her mom or stepdad in anyway. She can experience conflict resolution between her dad and me, but as far as I’m concerned her mom is off limits. Children should never be put in a position where they feel the need to defend a parent. As parents, it’s our job to make sure our blended family relationships only promote love and security in our child. Because love wins.
“Baby, why are you crying?” Marco, Daniela, and I were sprawled on our bed talking about the upcoming school olympic games, which she takes very seriously.
Daniela choked back a bigger sob and with tears now rolling freely, whispered “Because I’m a bad person!” My heart broke.
Daniela has never been very good at accepting criticism. It’s one of the things we’re working on. As soon as I heard her sad words though, I instantly knew how she got to that dramatic conclusion.
Daniela has a hard time separating her behavior from who she is at her core. If I were to tell her that she did something bad, she hears that she is bad. That drastically changed my parenting style, but occasionally something will slip out that I didn’t catch. Such was the case here.
A few days ago I posted some pictures of Marco and Daniela training for the various competitions. Marco is amazing with her. He coaches her with love and compassion, but she is hard on herself and gets easily frustrated. I just want to swoop in and remind her that it’s more important to be a kind athlete than to be the best, but Marco turns her discouragement into motivation to do better. Daniela can be fierce; she doesn’t like to lose and Marco’s competitive nature loves that spark. Meanwhile, I worry that Daniela will be so focused on winning, that a defeat will crumple her.
Daniela is what you would call a sore loser. Competition is highly emotional for her and when she’s ahead, her laughs and silly dances are infectious. But when she falls behind, her shoulders slump, her face falls, and her frustration is evident through her scowls and body language. She feels everything intensely, and that’s a beautiful part of who she is – a part I am still learning to understand every day. But I also feel strongly that she should be taught how to lose. Try as he might, Marco just doesn’t quite grasp this the way I do. His attempts come across more as “On the off chance you happen to not be in first place, (wink wink), be proud that you did your best. (Wink, wink)” While it’s good advice, it’s not exactly what I was going for :)
After they came in the house the other day bragging about a particular long jump measurement, I called a family meeting. I’m totally the downer, I know. Well, Daniela doesn’t respond well to criticism. Even the most innocuous remark can wither her in a flash. We talked about what a kind and compassionate person she is and how that should transfer to sports. I told her what a great winner she is, always proud, but never cocky. Then it slipped. I segued into the criticism with a smooth “One thing you could work on though, is being a good loser. Because let’s face it (insert giggle) you’re a sore loser!” Then Marco told a funny family story about a game she lost when she little. Which normally makes her laugh, but I had already done the damage.
Sore loser –> bad action –> bad person.
Of course I immediately pulled her onto my lap and rocked her as if she were still a toddler. All I could say at the moment was “No, no sweet baby. No.” I apologized a thousand times and tried to help her grasp the idea that her behavior is entirely separate from who she is, but I’m not sure she really believes it. I tell her constantly, and I told her again that I would give anything for her to see herself the way I see her. Compassionate, smart, clever, and so very loving. She smiled that adorable half smile of hers and life went on, but it got me thinking about how fragile a child’s self esteem can be.
Alvin Price, author of several parenting books including 101 Ways to Boost Your Child’s Self Esteem, said “Parents need to fill a child’s bucket of self-esteem so high that the rest of the world can’t poke enough holes in it to drain it dry.”
What scares me is that often its the adults poking the holes.
I recently volunteered as a Guardian Ad Litem and am representing the best interests of 7 (seven!) siblings. These children have been through a lot, and for obvious reasons don’t trust the adults involved in the removal from their home. My heart just breaks for them. I’ve made it a priority to spend a few minutes with each child just speaking life into them individually, praising their characteristics and encouraging their abilities. It’s our one-on-one time, and their caregivers tell me they look forward to it. One young girl in particular has really come out of her shell. She used to shrink away when I told her how brave she is, but now she lights up. She quipped, “I told my teacher I was brave!”
Kids believe what we tell them. When we believe in them, they bloom! They watch for our reactions and adjust accordingly. This is showcased beautifully in one of my favorite books, To Kill A Mockingbird:
Smoke was rolling off our house and Miss Rachel’s house like fog off a riverbank, and men were pulling hoses toward them. Behind us, the fire truck from Abbottsville screamed around the curve and stopped in front of our house…
“Don’t worry, Scout, it ain’t time to worry yet,” said Jem. He pointed. “Looka yonder.”
In a group of neighbors, Atticus was standing with his hands in his overcoat pockets. He might have been watching a football game.
“See there, he’s not worried yet,” said Jem.
Kids look to us to form their opinions of themselves and their worlds! That’s a mighty responsibility to shoulder carelessly. They rely on the adults around them to keep them safe and let them know that everything will be okay. That they are okay. As adults, we need to be conscientious about the words and ideas we speak over our children! I read on Pinterest somewhere that the way we talk to children becomes their inner voice. I think that is accurate to the -enth degree. I have a fabulous inner voice. For real. My mom was very vocal growing up about raising me to be confident and independent. She instilled in me a self assurance that absolutely shaped my personality. In some respects I may be overly confident (ha!). But I credit her with building up the qualities in me that helped me slide into marriage and stepmotherhood without batting an eye. I wasn’t perfect at it, but I wasn’t second guessing my every move either. I was confident that I could add another dimension to Marco and Daniela’s lives and that we would blend as a beautiful family. And we did.
But how different my story would read if I had grown up with constant ridicule and jeering. The life and Light she spoke into me propelled me upward.
As life is wont to do, the cycle now repeats itself and I am responsible for the life I speak into Daniela. One of the things we have adopted in this empowerment journey is reading little quotes while lying in bed at night. Right now it’s this one by Jada Pinkett Smith on the backlash of why she would let her daughter cut/dye/shave her hair.
The question why I LET Willow cut her hair. First the LET must be challenged. This is a world where women, girls are constantly reminded that they don’t belong to themselves; that their bodies are not their own, nor their power or self determination. Willow cut her hair because her beauty, her value, her worth is not measured by the length of her hair…even little girls have the RIGHT to own themselves and should not be a slave to even their mother’s deepest insecurities, hopes and desires.
This blew me away. While I believe that ultimately Daniela belongs to God, I agree that there is no person on this earth who should be making Daniela’s decisions for her. As parents, we are to teach our children to think for themselves, empowering them to be their own advocates. This has a boomerang effect too, for when kids do have a problem they can’t face alone, they turn to the people who have supported their independence all along. They’ve been taught by example that they can trust and depend on their parents.
I want Daniela to be confident enough in her self worth that she could dye her hair blue. Or green. Or even fuscia. I don’t want society to dictate what is “pretty” for her. If she feels good in leopard velour hotpants, I want her to rock those hideous things. Of course I will be taking pictures for future blackmail, but that’s beside the point :)
Another way we empower Daniela is recognizing guilt trips. She was very young when Marco started doing this, maybe 5 or 6 years old. He taught her what a guilt trip was, showed her how people use them to manipulate, and how to deflect them. She’s a pro. Every so often he’ll say something with even the slightest hint of guilt dripping off it and she’s all over that sucker. “Papi! Don’t guilt trip!” I can’t tell you how that warms my heart. People will try to use her, to take advantage of her generous heart, but if her life reflects all the value her adults have poured into her, she will not only recognize it for what it is, but she won’t let the ugly make her bitter.
Constructive criticism is a necessary learning tool in life, but should be used with caution on children, if at all. There are so many other, more meaningful ways to teach children and I don’t want to be the parent that resorts to criticism. I pray constantly that Daniela’s spirit is so wrapped up in kindness and love and compassion that mean spirited people wouldn’t even make a dent. The life we speak into our children ultimately becomes them. It’s imperative to make sure it’s nurturing their spirits.
“Criticism, like rain, should be gentle enough to nourish a man’s growth without destroying his roots” — Frank A. Clark
I’ve been amazed at the emails I’ve gotten asking about the travel document I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Instead of replying to each, I thought I’d just address it here and Q&A the few that aren’t touched.
First of all, I am no blended family expert. I’ve mentioned this before, but we are a traditional family when Daniela is at home and I suspect it’s the same at her mom’s house. We’ve never had to deal with a lot of the problems that the majority of blended families face so I can’t speak for everyone when I tell our story. Daniela doesn’t remember a time without me or her stepdad in her life so there was never a real transition period for her. She considers her stepdad and myself to be just as much her parents as her mom and dad are, and I am constantly in awe of that honor and responsibility.
When Daniela’s mom first approached Marco about taking Daniela on this cruise, they both knew that an international travel document would likely be required. When a child leaves their home country without both parents, the non traveling parent’s consent must be provided. This could be something as simple as a notarized letter, or something more complex like our travel document. You can find a lot of travel document templates online, but Marco is a cautious person and prefers to have all his bases covered personally. Lucky for him, he married a writer and I am often at his disposal for one written thing or another :)
I’ve facilitated travel documents in family mediations a few times so I was comfortable with what he was looking for. I used the same format that I would use for any Record of Agreement because that’s what I’m comfortable with, but it’s certainly not mandated, and parents my choose to write it however they wish. Here’s my format:
Marco also wanted to make sure that they had covered anything that might come up later. In simple, numbered paragraphs our travel document covered:
Both parents signed and notarized it, and Dani was all set for a fun filled Spring Break cruise!
One thing that made the trip preparation much smoother was that it was a closed circuit cruise, meaning that it left and returned to the same US port. US citizens do not need passports to travel on a closed circuit cruise, so there was not the issue of a passport to address.
Though it did not come into play with her cruise, I do want to mention that whenever you are traveling with your child (or consenting to your child traveling) internationally, it’s always wise to check with the US Department of State concerning the laws and travel requirements and/or travel advisories for your destination. I can’t emphasize this enough for blended families. The US Dept of State website has wonderful resources concerning traveling with children and an entire program geared toward the prevention of international parental child abductions. It’s called the Children’s Passport Issuance Alert Program. As scary as it is to think about, there are families who are living through horrendous ordeals of parental kidnapping. Safety plans are there for when they are needed. Additionally, there is a treaty called the 1980 Hague Convention on the Civil Aspects of International Child Abduction (Hague Convention) that ensures, should you find yourself in that nightmare of a situation, the signatory country will uphold the most recent custody order in the US and return your child to you. Because sovereign nations can’t interfere with each other’s legal systems, US family court orders are generally not recognized in other countries. The Dept of State website also lists the countries that have signed the Hague Convention so that you can make an informed decision concerning your child’s international travel.
Ok, enough with the heavy.
Traveling with, or allowing your child to travel, internationally is a privilege not many are gifted with in childhood. I was fortunate enough as a child to experience just about every state in the continental US and being able to pull on those memories as an adult with the incredible lifestyle diversity I saw right here in the US, has made me a vocal proponent for exposing children to the many lifestyles and cultures and religions that can be found all over the world. That’s the whole concept behind being a world citizen. I identify with world citizenship and try to instill in Daniela the concept of being at home in the world. But as parents, we have the responsibility to be smart about the decisions we make that directly effect our children. If your family situation does not allow for world wide travel, bring the world to them! One of my favorite websites for exploring the world with kids is Kid World Citizen. The world in your living room!
There were a few other questions that I couldn’t quite fit into this, so here they are in Q&A format. A few of the questions were not really related to international travel, but I liked them so I’m sharing them :) #bloggersperogative
Q: Was there an emergency contact plan included in your travel document?
A: No. If an emergency where to arise on the trip, Marco and I have no doubt that her mom or stepdad would be quick to notify us. Additionally, were an emergency to come up that incapacitated them, I’m sure the powers that be would be looking at emergency contacts from the cruise line’s paperwork, not our own individual travel document.
Q: Does the travel document need to be signed by a judge?
A: Nope! It’s a very simple way of showing immigration that the child has permission to leave the country without mom (or dad, or guardian) traveling with them. Ours was written in the format of a legal document because that’s what I’m most comfortable with, but it’s not necessary at all. The only thing it must have is travel dates, names, and notarized signatures for mom and dad.
Q: Did you sign her travel document too?
A: No. As a step parent, my rights are very limited. The travel document is strictly between mom and dad, and those are the only two signatures necessary. Of course, legal guardians may also sign if mom and/or dad are unable.
Q: As a stepmom, do you have a final say in your step daughter’s activities? Like playdates, trips, and sports? Could you have said “no” to this trip?
A: Hmmm, that one’s a bit tricky! First of all, no, I could not have put the kibosh on this trip. That decision is strictly between her mom and dad. If I, for whatever reason, felt it was a bad idea, I would have shared that with Marco but ultimately the decision is between the two of them. For the first part of your question, if it’s something that is strictly taking place at our home (like a playdate with a friend) I’ll schedule it without consulting the other parents (provided it’s during our timesharing and whatnot). Trips and sports are generally agreed upon between Mom and Dad specifically and my input is shared with Marco if I feel so inclined.
And for my favorite question!
Q: Is it hard for you to love a child as much as you do and not really be her mom?
A: Noooo!!!!! I know a lot of step moms struggle with genuinely loving their step children as their own, which is completely natural and okay. I loved Daniela from day one and I got super lucky that she totally loved me back. We’re kismet. As far as being her real mom goes, I guess it depends on your definition of “mom”. For years I struggled with how I identified as a mother and I finally had to come to the conclusion that a mom is many different things to many different people. There are people who will never see me as a mom, and that’s fine. There are also people (myself included, sometimes!) that forget that I didn’t actually give birth to Daniela. Maybe it’s because I don’t know how to be any other kind of mom, but being a step mom came very naturally to me. That’s not to say I’ve always done everything right. Good lord, no. I’ve stumbled across emails I sent her mom in the very beginning that make me cringe! I was out to prove that I was good for the whole family and I came off like an ass, at best. I like to think the worst of my pride is behind me. But no, the love I have for this child makes it very easy for me to be whatever kind of mom she needs me to be.
I tried to answer as many questions as I could, but if I missed yours (or you thought of another one!) leave me a comment or shoot me an email and I’ll do my absolute best to get you an answer. And remember, I’m not an attorney. If you have qualms about your own blended family/international travel issues, it’s best to find a spectacular attorney who can guide you through your questions. That’s just not going to be me :)
You can find me over at Nomad Parents today sharing one of my favorite stories about step parenting. While you’re there, check out Lynn’s writing too — she’s phenomenal! One of my favorites of her posts is Me Time: Why It’s Important. Every mom needs to remember that.
Click on the photo below to take you to my story!
Note: I did not write this post. Lisa, of Barefootbarn was kind enough to let me reblog it because, well, I think it’s fabulous. Especially #2. Whoamama #2 could change so much. See Lisa’s bio at the end of the essay to learn more about her spectacular practice and connect with her blog, Gems of Delight. Thanks Lisa!
We’ve all been there – tired, stressed, juggling a million things in our arms and heads, and not in the mood for protests. But protests we get in the form of a tantrum or a slammed door. In an instant, we get hijacked by our “reptilian brains” and we say, “You’re in time out!” or “Go to your room!”
Screaming and crying, our children sit alone and isolated from the rest of the family. Maybe we feel a sense of relief – we can finally get dinner made or go to the bathroom. Maybe we are still seething and glad we didn’t do something worse. We may feel a mixed bag of emotions. But do we feel connected to ourselves and our children? Most often, the answer to that is “no.’”
When our children go screaming to time-out, we lose a sense of connection because isolation, punishment, and fear don’t work. They don’t encourage our children to be compassionate and confident. They don’t connect us to our children. In the long run, they don’t curb defiant behavior. And they just don’t feel good.
Why do we do it then? Maybe we experienced punitive punishment growing up. Maybe we are tired and already at a “boiling point.” Maybe no one ever told us there are simple alternatives that not only connect us to our children but also can prevent these stressed-out times from happening. Here’s where mindfulness and mindful parenting can help.
Jon Kabat-Zinn offers a beautiful definition of mindfulness: “Mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” As the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh says, “mindfulness is knowing when you are breathing in and knowing when you are breathing out.”
Mindful parenting is about bringing that intentional, nonjudgmental, moment-to-moment awareness into the relationship we have with our children. It’s about bringing acceptance and compassion into a stressful situation. It creates a pause, giving us an opportunity to wake up, see more clearly, and make a more informed choice about how we want to respond. On the days that you want to try something other than sending your child to time-out, here are some mindful parenting alternatives:
1. Get a hold of yourself first. The number one way to defuse a situation is to manage your own emotions first. When you are mindful of what’s going on inside of you, you are better able to respond to your child instead of react. The instant you realize that you are going into “stress mode” and the part of your brain that prepares you for “fight or flight” is starting to take over, put one hand on your belly and exhale to a count of six. Don’t worry about getting a deep inhale. Your exhales and inhales will synchronize. This sends a signal to your brain to stop sending out all those stress hormones and move out of “fight or flight.” Once you calm down, you have access to the part of your brain that is used for rational decision-making.
2. Offer a hug. This one often raises a few eyebrows, “But my child is acting up! Why would I hug them?” Offering a hug doesn’t reward your child’s behavior. It acknowledges that you and your child are not connected in that moment and it communicates that you want to reconnect. When your child is acting out, just ask, “Ahh, do you want a hug?”
3. Do something funny. Laughter is a release, gets us out of “fight or flight,” and reconnects us. It’s not about making fun of your child or using sarcasm. It’s about being silly, taking yourself less seriously, and de-stressing a tense situation. Try laying down on the floor and just start rolling around. Or sit down and start “pretend” meditating, chanting “Om”. Or even just start making animal noises. It’s hilarious and can get the two of you laughing…together.
4. Take a parent time-out. Instead of sending away your child, you walk away. Say, “I’m really upset right now and I need to cool down.” Go into the bathroom or your room. Besides the bonus of calming you down, taking your own time-out models self-regulation and appropriate self-care to your child.
5. Call a re-do. The second you become mindful that things are going south, say, “Wait a second. I see we aren’t connecting. Let’s start over.” This takes the blame off of any one person and focuses on the two of you reconnecting. Teaching your child to call for a re-do empowers them to be mindful of when they need to reconnect to you.
6. Give lots of time-in. Little doses of focused, undivided attention with loving eye contact and a caring tone of voice throughout the day fill your child’s need for your presence, embrace, and unconditional love. When you are feeding your toddler, pause for a moment, look her in the eyes, and say, “I love you.” When your young child gets home from school, stop what you are doing, look him in the eyes, and say, “Hi son. It’s good to see you.” No toy, activity, or privilege is worth more to a child than a parent’s loving regard.
These simple mindful techniques can reconnect you to your child, lighten up stressful situations, and curb defiant behavior. See how they can support the sweet, nourishing relationship you have with your child. Notice how they can wake you up, ground you, and connect you to your own heart and to your child.
I’ve received a lot of questions about how I got the title Mama Christi, and since names can be such a source of conflict within blended families, I wanted to give you our story. Families are a living, breathing and ever evolving entity, so what works for one family may not work for another, but this fits us perfectly.
Daniela has been very blessed in that both of her step parents came into her life when she was very young. She doesn’t remember a time without her stepdad or me and I think that’s just fantastic. I love it.
Daniela was three years old the first time she called me Mommy. I was completely taken aback. Half of my heart swelled with pride while the other half flinched. You see, I had made up my mind when Marco and I got married that I would be Christi. Just Christi. A few months earlier I had been with Marco while he was dropping Daniela off at her mom’s house. Daniela’s stepdad answered the door and Daniela greeted him with a big hug and a “Hi Daddy!” It was like someone had sucker punched Marco. I felt his hand tremble in mine and his steps were heavy walking back to the car. My heart just hurt for him. He put on a brave face and we talked all the way home about how lucky Dani was to have stepparents that loved her. And he meant it — every word — but the initial reaction was still painful. Even though Daniela has always called him Papi, it was a blow to hear his little girl call someone else Daddy and I swore to myself that I wouldn’t put Daniela’s mom in that position.
Well, that was easier said than done. Daniela quickly began referring to me as Mommy and each time I would explain to her that she had “one mami, one papi, one Christi, and one (stepdad)”. I would repeat it so often that it actually became a little jingle she would sing :) It didn’t, however, keep her from from calling me mommy. Marco encouraged me to let it go, holding to the belief that Daniela should refer to her stepparents however she chose. I admired his viewpoint, and the wisdom it took to get there, but I couldn’t do it. For months I sounded like a parrot, “You have one mami, one papi, one Christi, and one (stepdad)” which left Daniela in a fit of giggles every time. It was pretty clear that my method was not working.
Around this time Marco’s family came to visit. It is a total immersion into Peruvian culture when they visit; the language, the food, the 10pm dinners, the cultural characteristics. One thing I noticed on this visit in particular was that the women in his family are all referred to as Mama-whoever. Mama ChiChi, (Marco’s mom). Mama Concho, (ChiChi’s aunt, who raised her). Mama Queta, (Concho’s older sister). I loved how these women took on more than just their familial roles, crossing over into mothering the children and grandchildren, all the while sharing friendships with each other and the 4 daughters in law. The love and affection Marco and his brothers have for the women in their family is like an aura enveloping the whole clan. It’s palpable. With this heritage in mind, I decided to try on Mama Christi for size; wear it around a little bit and see how it felt. Daniela took to it immediately. It wasn’t even something we discussed, Marco just referred to me as Mama Christi once over dinner and Dani ran with it. Even though I am not Daniela’s mother, I do a whole lot of mothering on that little girl and just like the women in Marco’s family, I cross over traditional roles to be a part of the village that raises this child.
As Daniela gets older, she tends to call me Mama when she’s speaking to me, but its always Mama Christi when she talks about me. I’m pretty sure it’s the same with her step dad as well. I’ve noticed through the years that she calls him Daddy when speaking to him on the phone and Daddy (name) when speaking about him. She just makes my heart smile. I told her once that she could call me just Christi whenever it feels right, but she scrunched up her little nose and shook her head vehemently. It seems she’s pretty partial to the name (and so am I) :)
I have avoided doing a nitty gritty step mom post because, quite frankly, it intimidates me. But with step parenting being such a big part of my life, I felt like I would be remiss not to write about it specifically. I love being a stepmom. I really, truly do. I understand that 99% of step parenting situations are not like mine and while I hurt for those who struggle in their step parenting journey, I also feel ever so blessed to have such a strong relationship with Daniela. Disclaimer: Nothing here is a “how to” guide for having a great step relationship because I know next to nothing about it. Daniela was 2 years old when I met her and we clicked from day 1 — I never really had to build a relationship because 2 year olds are pretty accepting of anyone who smiles. To me, being a step mom is broken down into 3 parts. 1) Daniela and me. 2) Marco and me. and 3) Other parents and me.
1) Daniela & Me
Daniela and I share a special bond that I could never justify in mere words. I always waited for that “He’s MY papi!” moment but it never came. Instead, the opposite happened. One night when Daniela was 3, Marco and I were in our tiny apartment kitchen slow dancing while dinner cooked. Daniela was at the table coloring. As soon as she saw our googley eyes, she ran over and wedged her little body in between us. We laughed and Marco picked her up, but she reached for me and said “MY mommy!” I was shocked. While it wasn’t the first time she called me mommy, it was the first time she expressed jealousy over Marco’s and my relationship — and it wasn’t jealousy over Marco’s attentions; it was jealousy over mine! The stepmom! That has yet to change either. Marco can do as he pleases, but Mama Christi is hers. Oh to know what goes on inside that little mind of hers. As Daniela gets older, one of my near constant worries is that she sees me as too much of a mom. She has a wonderful mom with whom she shares that sacred mother/daughter relationship and she certainly doesn’t need another one. However, it’s so easy to fall into that mom character because in our house, that’s my role. Not to impugn her own mom’s role in her life of course, but in our home I pick her up from school and check her homework and sign her forms and pack her lunches and bathe her and read to her and on (and on!) the list goes. Marco has the traditional dad role. He plays with her and distracts her from studying and makes up games and teaches her to ride her bike and throws her fully clothed into the pool. We are a traditional family when she’s at home and I suspect it’s the same at her moms house. However, I worry that because she sees me as another mom, I won’t be in that privileged “extra information” group reserved for older friends and cool aunts. I’m afraid I will be kept from all the things that daughters keep from their mothers because my role is so very similar to her moms. So far that has not been the case, and I thank God for it. Marco smiles that patient smile of his every time I bring it up and just says “Christi, she adores you. Not because you’re her stepmom, but because you listen and understand her.” And the truth of the matter is, nothing makes my heart leap more than when Daniela comes to me with questions and says “I was thinking about … and knew you would help” or “I don’t want anyone else to know, but…” That’s when I breathe a sigh of relief. That’s when I know I’ve entered the holy ground of step parenting.
2) Marco & Me
Marco and I are best friends. We balance each other out ridiculously well and despite coming from two very different countries and very different backgrounds, we share the same core values and morals. Marco encouraged my individual relationship with Daniela from the very get go and never pulled the “she’s my daughter” card. Never. Not once. I will forever love and admire him for that. We have always had this knowledge that him + me = forever & always. Next month we will celebrate our 7th anniversary and that blows my mind. BLOWS MY MIND! At the risk of sounding cheesy, I love him more now than I did on October 10, 2005 when we said to hell with tradition and eloped. When I look back on our whirlwind romance, I don’t know how it lasted. We we’re crazy and impulsive and so very much in love. But we have that x factor, that essence as Marco calls it, which still gives me butterflies when I unexpectedly see him. I can’t stress how important a strong marriage is to me. To Marco and me, that is the ultimate gift we can give to Daniela; the chance to grow up learning what a healthy marriage looks like. [Side note: Sometimes we role play disagreements just so she can see how to properly work through them. She may or may not know we're staging them. It's hard to tell.] We don’t have regular date nights, we don’t follow the 12 steps to a successful re-marriage. We go in spurts that include dancing every other weekend and then spend a month staying at home and going to bed early. We laugh, we tease, we flirt. We have an ongoing game of alternately hiding a water balloon around the house but never actually talking about it. Alas, we’ve read the statistics. We know that the likelihood of divorce for second marriages is astounding, but the thing is, we don’t care. We’re pretty damn pleased with the life we’ve built and the people in it. Please don’t get the impression that life’s just roses and we never disagree. We fight. Heavens, we fight. We say things we don’t mean. We act like spoiled children. We are human and marriage is hard, but we both knew that going into it. We expected the problems, handled them as they came, and we’ll just continue to do so because it’s worked for us. Although… right now he’s on the couch snoring like nobody’s business and I may just smother him. But if he lives through tonight, he’ll be my best friend in the morning. All joking aside, every night I lay down and find my spot snuggled up on his chest — the one where I can hear his heartbeat without feeling his hot breath in my ear. Without fail I sigh and thank God for bringing him into my life. Sometimes the prayer of thanks is longer, but most of the time it’s just those words. Marco will never truly grasp how radically he changed my life, but I am forever grateful for his love.
3) Other Parents & Me
To me, this is the hardest part about being a step mom. This is where the middle school girl inside me starts fine tuning insecurities and self doubts. Because let’s get real, I’m totally faking it. I’m a 27 year old step mom with a 10 year old daughter in a school where it seems like all the parents are older, sophisticated, and totally living their dream lives. Now, I know these parents well enough to know that this isn’t actually the case and I even count several of them among my closest friends. But there is nothing more nerve wracking than to be the step mom (with no children of her own, mind you) walking into a parent meeting at school. I feel like a fraud. It’s almost always the same conversation in the car on the way to these things too — Me: Why do I always get so nervous? Marco: I can’t believe you get nervous! You’re a social butterfly and you know these people! Me: I know, but still, I feel like I need to make a good impression for all the step parents out there. Marco: Christi, you’ve known these people for 6 years. YOU’RE FINE. [cut to parking lot where group of parents are walking out after meeting] Me: OMG that was so much FUN! So and So said that her daughter is going to do XYZ and we’re meeting for lunch tomorrow and blah blah blah!!! Marco: [holds my hand and smiles smugly]
As irrational as the insecurities are (which most insecurities are irrational anyway) they have a way of gripping me in this particular role of stepmom and not releasing their slimy little claws until that event’s first interaction with another parent. Very rarely am I judged unfairly strictly for being a stepmom. It’s happened once, but it gave Daniela and I the chance to have an incredible conversation about stereotypes and why this particular person assumed that Dani and I didn’t get along or even like each other. A conversation I never would have thought to have with Daniela without this person sparking it. Most parents are impressed with my love for Daniela (which always stings a little. Are step parents typically that cold?) Being a step mom has given me so many opportunities. I have been able to help girlfriends adjust when their own children may soon have a stepmom in their lives. I have seen the other side of that coin when friends become stepmoms themselves and I can be an experienced support for them. Being a stepmom is challenging in it’s own way and yet exponentially rewarding. It’s scraped knees and runny noses. Playing dress up, braiding hair and painting nails. It’s the choice to put another person’s needs ahead of your own. But that’s really just all of parenting, now isn’t it?
It had been a very long day. A day full of rain and cancelled plans and two whiny girls. A day where we made the best out of a frustrating situation but I was still feeling disgruntled. Oh, I pretended to be a good example and go with the flow, but inside I was terribly aggravated. I may have also been PMS’ing. That doesn’t help. In spite of all that, I did so well faking cheer all day long — so well! Then came bed time. Normally Daniela is a great bed time, on time kind of kid. Never tries to pull all the crap I did when I was her age. But not this particular night. Of course, on the night when I most needed them to fall asleep quickly and give me a little time with a book and a glass of wine, they take advantage. That was the phrase of bed time — taking advantage.
First, they needed to pee. Fine.
Then they needed water. Fine.
Then it was too hot. Fine.
Then it was too dark.
I marched into that bedroom and lectured the girls on taking advantage of me. I proceeded to list every transgression they committed AFTER I had already let them stay up past bedtime. I felt my composure slipping so I told them I would come back in 5 minutes. Well, 5 minutes later I felt terrible. I hate getting after them — especially before bedtime. Bedtime is such a special time in our home filled with love and whispers and dreams. I went upstairs ready to apologize, but they beat me too it. They were so remorseful and sad and really owned their mistakes. I kissed my little angels and told them all was well and forgiven.
Then they asked for a snack.
omg. you can’t be serious.
They got their snack, and ate in silence while I lectured again.
Ten minutes later I went back upstairs and shamefully apologized. It was so humbling. The girls went to sleep that night with God only knows what flitting around in their little heads and I went to sleep feeling like an awful mother.
The next morning I woke up to the girls laying something next to me. They scooted out of the room quickly as I stirred, shutting the door behind them. I opened my eyes remembering the bedtime fail and vowed to do better today. Well, the guilt I felt the night before was nothing compared to the guilt I felt after finding this:
Truth be told, I keep this particular card — the first of the five — on my bathroom counter as a daily reminder not to be that parent. Kids; they teach us so much.
I slept in this morning! Like, really slept in! When I woke up this morning the girls had already been up for over an hour watching a movie — it was lovely. While I made pancakes they worked on the props they wanted for their Memorial Day video (it was one of this perfect Americana mornings). I was a little worried that they wouldn’t know the words to the songs we practiced but of course they blew me away! Kids are so amazing. So, without further ado, our little video to honor all the military men and women, but especially our own Daniel and Jeremy.
In continuing a tradition my mom started when I was a kid, we picked up some little flags and drove to a cemetery to place flags on the graves of veterans. It was an amazing experience with the girls. They asked questions and we talked about death and how extraordinary a soldier must be to risk death so that total strangers can have freedom. We thanked each soldier with a flag and I felt tears pricking my eyes as they took their task to heart.
As it usually does, the conversation on death led to some pretty deep talk in the car. Daniela wanted to know if the exact words are important when inviting Jesus into one’s heart. Marina wanted to know if God could choose to be evil. Daniela came back with “If there’s no evil in heaven, how did Satan choose pride and jealousy and anger?” I was totally unprepared for these questions. And I’ll be honest, I get nervous as a stepmom answering questions that I know may contradict what Daniela hears at her moms house, and even her Christian school (which we love!). Not to mention her little aunt, who isn’t my child at all. But I respect these girls too much to skirt around the issue or try to pass their questions off. I want them to know that I will always tell them the truth and that they can ask me anything. Because let’s face it. If they have questions, they will get their answers — and I’d rather they ask me than friends or google. Same goes for questions about drugs or sex (which are frequent and open topics in our home) — I’d rather be giving correct and honest information than wondering what she’s getting elsewhere. So, I bravo’ed on. As the conversation went on, the questions got tougher and tougher until I had to call a recess! I have my work cut out for me, that’s for sure, and I am going to do my homework and be better prepared. The Bible and salvation can look like an amazing gift when you come from a good little Christian family. But when you have several (very) different faiths represented in one blended family, sunday school verses aren’t going to cut it. I’m looking forward to seeing how God shows love — it’s usually much different than I imagine.