An Open Letter…

This week while I was eating lunch at my desk (distracted eating is bad, I know), I stumbled across a blog piece on HuffPo titled “An Open Letter to My Ex-Husband’s New Girlfriend.” It was, in many ways, a really lovely letter from one woman welcoming another woman into her life and into the lives of her children. Throughout the piece, the ex-wife explained the nature of her continued relationship with her ex-husband in the service of raising their boys and drew clear lines around that relationship in a way that I hope the new girlfriend received as reassuring. She also acknowledged that they were all fumbling through this and that it would be awkward at times. I appreciated the authenticity of the letter and the kind spirit in which it was offered. I also appreciated that it must have taken a great deal of courage for the ex-wife to formulate these thoughts and to articulate them so clearly (and in such a public forum).

As lovely as all of those things are, there were also parts of this letter that I found myself reacting to. Strongly. Like this:

You may find yourself sitting through conversations between him and me. Please understand that we need to communicate in order to run our successful “business” of raising amazing humans. Sometimes we need to do it often. And along with the trust I mentioned in the former paragraph, there is trust that you will know when it’s appropriate to chime in. Should you ever feel uncomfortable or insignificant during times like this, I ask that you look at the bigger picture…

My bristling is of course projection. I cannot read things like this and not put myself in the position of being on the receiving end – even though I know, logically, that this letter isn’t to me. Nonetheless, this is where I went: Really? After just acknowledging that everyone is fumbling through this and doing their best, you ask that this new person – who maybe has done none of any of this before – will “know when it’s appropriate to chime in” and that she “look at the bigger picture”?! How on earth could she (I) possibly know when it’s appropriate to chime in? It never feels like it’s appropriate to chime in. Ever. And your excluding her (me) during such conversations with your ex-husband/her (my) partner doesn’t make the guesswork any easier. And look at the bigger picture?! I spend my entire existence looking at the bigger picture and magnifying the needs of everyone else in this situation – including yours – far above my own. All. The. Time.

And in the midst of this reaction, I came to my own Open Letter, if you will. This is, mostly, to the Ex. But it is also to all of you, and to our culture (myself included) who so easily see the position of the bio mom but may not consider what it’s like to be Not the Mama. And for those who may intuitively marginalize, if not also vilify, that role. While there are certainly lots of stepmonsters out there, there are also lots of us who are just doing our very best not to mess everything up for your kids and to try to keep our own heads above water in the process…

It must be scary. Knowing that your kids are not only spending 1/2 of their time away from you but also spending a good chunk of that time with me, someone you barely know. You probably have a lot of questions about me that perhaps you don’t know how or whether to ask. Like me, you probably struggle with what’s appropriate – to do, to say, to ask for – in this new landscape of your blended family. When you were a little girl and imagined what your life would be like now, I’m guessing this wasn’t part of those dreams. It wasn’t for me either. But here we are – trying to find our way in territory that few navigate well and that even fewer talk about. I don’t know where you are in all of this. Nor do you have to tell me. My hope is that by sharing where I am in this blending, we can both be a little closer to finding our way.

I am not here to take your place. You are the Littles’ Mom. You always will be. I want your time with them to be positive and full of wonderful memories. I enjoy hearing the excitement in their voices when they are going to your place. I want to see the joy on their faces as they talk about something they did with you or something you taught them or something they remember doing when your family was you and S and them. And in that I will sometimes feel the sting of not having shared in those memories, while celebrating that I will get to share in others.

I will love your children. Not in the same way that you do. But I will love them. And I will look out for them, and I will be their champion. Not in the same way that you do. But I will. I will listen intently about their school days and swim practices and art projects. I will sit with them to work on homework and talk about the things they’re thinking about. I will laugh with them, play with them, make sure they go to bed on time and sometimes tell them “no.” Not in the same way that you do. But I will.

I will love your children’s father. Not in the same way that you have (or that you will). But I will love him. Not based on the same history and experiences that you have shared and that you will continue to share through your children. But I will love him. Not because he is perfect but because he is perfectly who he is. And because loving him is one of many ways that I will love your children.

I will do my best, and I will mess up. I feel the weight of the responsibility that S is – and to a certain extent you are – entrusting me with. I do not take any of this lightly. This is something I inflict on myself (I suspect you might know a thing or two about how that happens), and it is also something that society inflicts on me. I’m sure it doesn’t feel like it most days, but the world is waiting to come to your defense. You are the Mother. The Real Mother. From Snow White to Stepmom, we are taught in a million different ways that your role in this is bigger. Better. And I am at best a bumbling fool and at worst evil. Over time, I hope to earn your trust, so that when I mess up, you know that I will learn from that mistake, that I am not too full of myself to apologize and that I will do better next time. For now, I ask that you extend to me a measure of grace.

When you are tempted to think the worst of me, know that I’m doing my level best.

When you are frustrated with how I’ve handled something, I probably know it – and am probably also frustrated with how I’ve handled the situation.

When you think to yourself “Who does she think she is,” chances are I’m still trying to figure it out.

I will try to extend the same to you, knowing that we are both just trying to find our way.

Not the Mama!

Sometime in the late 80s or early 90s there was a sitcom about a dinosaur family – Dad, Mom, Brother, Sister, Baby. The Baby always called the Dad “Not the Mama” – which was cute and funny and almost always followed by that canned audience laughter typical of TV in those days. But the Dad Dino was always bothered by being called “Not the Mama.” On some fundamental level he knew that that conveyed being less. And nobody – even Dad Dinos – wants to be less.

There are very few things in life about which I have no opinion. There are even fewer aspects of my own life that have occurred by chance. I am an intentional person. I plan. Nearly everything. But I have long been ambivalent about whether I wanted to have children. I am still unsure – though as I am mere weeks from my 40th birthday, I inch ever closer to time and biology making that decision for me (I know women have children well into their 40s; I just don’t know that I want to be putting a child through college when I’m a few years from retirement – personal choice on my part). It’s not that I hate kids. I don’t. But I am also not prone to gushing over small humans or uttering an endless series (or even a single) “Awwww” when I find myself in the children’s department in a store. It is an interesting experience to be that rare breed of woman who doesn’t know if she wants children. When I say this out loud to other people, they often look at me like I have 3 heads. And I can almost hear the stream of judgments running through their minds (“Babyhater” is often at the top of the list).

Any good stepparent – and any good book on step-parenting – will acknowledge that being a step-parent is not the same as being a biological parent. I haven’t read a lot on or from Stepdads, but I feel like that message pervades all blogs, books and other commentaries on Step-motherhood. Totally get it. And because I haven’t been someone who always dreamed of having children, that’s in many ways easier for me to accept than I suspect it is for others who very much want their own children. The Littles have a Mom. She has known them since before birth. I will never take her place – nor do I wish to. I am “Not the Mama.” But then what am I to the Littles? It’s a moving target. It changes all the time – sometimes in minutes. There are many things I really love about being Not the Mama. I get to have a relationship with the Littles that is different from their Mom (and, frankly, different from their Dad). I get to be in the middle space of friend and parent-like person. I can do the friend part relatively effortlessly. N and V are interesting people. I like hearing about their days – what N is reading, what V is drawing, N’s thoughts on food and being a fellow introvert, V’s latest collection of sticks, rocks, tree bark and feathers from the park near S’s house… The parent-like part is harder. For many reasons. Just typing the phrase “parent-like” raises my heart rate. I have never self-identified as a parent. I feel weird identifying in that space. It is hard for me to resolve being “Not the Mama” and also “parent-like.” And parent-like carries with it a weight of responsibility that is, well, terrifying. I also feel – I don’t know, guilty? – when the four of us are out together and someone refers to me as the kids’ Mom. I feel like an imposter (kind of like when I was in grad school and my students would call me Dr. P). But it also feels weird to correct the assumption. So – beyond the identity crisis for me – I find myself stuck between not wanting the Littles to think I am trying to squeeze in on the Mom role (by not correcting the reference to me as “Mom”) but also not wanting them to think that I am horrified to be associated with them (by correcting it). This was so not in my How to Be An Adult guide…

I am also really very lucky. Because S is such an amazing cheerleader in all of this. And I feel free to be honest with him when I am struggling – like the time I had the Littles on my own while he was at work, and they were being Al Qaeda West. I texted him that when he came home I would be huddled in a closet, clutching a bottle of wine. We both got to laugh about it when he got home (I can report that I was not found huddled in a closet, and I was clutching a mere glass of wine – as opposed to the whole bottle). And he reassures me regularly that I’m doing a good job with this balancing act (he even uses the M word sometimes – which freaks me out even more than parent-like). I don’t usually need much validation in other areas of my life, but I feel so in over my head with this so much of the time… His encouragement is invaluable, and something I don’t take for granted. I know that he struggles with parenting stuff too. I hope that he feels as encouraged, supported and validated by me as I do by him.

Not the Mama_Text 1 Not The Mama_Text2

Cool as a…

I’m back! It’s been a hectic Fall, including a job change and lots of new adventures with my Guy and the Littles. So… where were we? Ah, yes, I have yet to introduce you all to the Ex, aka The Cucumber.

In The Single Girl’s Guide, the author describes 5 archetypal ex-wives. I will admit that when I read the author’s bold declaration that almost everyone can find the Ex that is in their lives in one of these descriptions, I was a bit skeptical – especially after reading through the first 3 descriptions, which sounded nothing like the Ex (for which I was grateful – one of these archetypes is the PEW (Psycho Ex Wife), and I am very thankful not to be dealing with that; I know others aren’t so fortunate). And then there was the Cool Cucumber description:

The cool-as-a-cucumber ex-wife wants nothing to do with you or your guy. If it weren’t for the children she spawned with her ex, she would have no reason to speak to him, or to you for that matter. With her new existence, her life is pretty perfect as long as she keeps the blemish of divorce tucked safely away… 

It’s All Business: She’s not mean; she’s not nice; she’s all business. She rarely looks at you and directs most of her curt phone calls and conversations to her ex-husbands. She has no time for niceties or shared discussions of child-rearing…

Ms. Inflexibility: She is very black-and-white with things such as money, schedules and vacations. She is unlikely to be flexible when it comes to extended holidays, weekend swapping or payment schedules.

Her Family Takes Precedence: …She requires that special arrangements be made when she has family in town or when there is a family celebration. She does not grant you and your guy the same flexibility of priority when it comes to sharing the children with your families.

Dad? What Dad? She does not give much child-rearing credit to you or your guy. She rarely elicits feedback on things such as education, summer camp or extracurricular programs. She is the voice of the family when it comes to teachers, coaches and parents. If you and your guy want to be included in these decisions or relationships, you will need to physically insert yourself into your children’s lives outside of your home… 

This wife is most annoying because she doesn’t respect you. She’s high-and-mighty and actually looks down her nose at you when she decides to look at you at all. She considers herself above your husband, which by association means that you’re somewhere down there below her standards.

Ding, ding, ding! We have a winner, folks! Now, to be fair, this description is by necessity a bit extreme. Over time, the Cucumber has become a bit less cool and occasionally borders on friendly – though there were many times early on when she would have lengthy in-person conversations with S while I was there and not so much as glance at me. I didn’t need to insert myself in the conversation, but it was a bit awkward. And I generally don’t like being treated as if I am invisible. On the whole the Ex is generally pretty benign. Sometimes some neuron fires, and she goes on the warpath. It can be hard to predict when that will happen or what will set that off. Fortunately I have not (yet) been on the receiving end of that, but it is hard to watch her go off on S. She knows how to push his buttons and will often pull out something about his involvement with the kids – like the time she said something along the lines of “Well, this is just one of the ways in which you have chosen not to be involved in the kids’ lives.” Yes, the guy who was at swim meets every Saturday this summer, who often picks the kids up or drops them off when the Ex can’t, who has the kids with him at least 50% of the time, who goes to parent-teacher conferences, who knows all of their coaches and teachers for the various activities the Littles are involved in, who packs their lunches and makes dinner for them (from scratch) nearly every night… Yes, clearly there’s a lot that this Dad has chosen not to be part of in his kids’ lives. Grrr…

One of the tricky balancing acts to play in this world is being sure that S knows that I’m on his team in all things – while not cultivating animosity toward the Ex. I don’t have the luxury of hating the Ex (not that I’m prone to hatred, but you know what I mean). She is the Littles’ Mom. And as long as I am in S’s life, I am in the Littles’ lives and therefore I need to be able to get along with the Ex. Now, this is not to say that I have delusions – or desire – for us to be BFFs. I need her to trust me enough to be with her Littles – ideally not viewing me as a glorified babysitter, but that may take some time to get to. And we need to be able to be reasonably pleasant with each other and navigate things like kid exchanges, dropping off of violins and ballet things that got forgotten at S’s house, and seeing each other at important Littles events like swim meets and ballet recitals. I have also come to see that N (Boy Little) is very aware of and sensitive to the dynamics between people. He can sniff out even covert tension like a bloodhound. So it is important to me that he knows that I am a-OK with his Mom and that we can be in the same room together.

Now, this isn’t to say that the Ex never gets under my skin. There are times… She can be incredibly self-absorbed and often makes arrangements for the kids without consulting S that end up affecting all of us. And if S suggests a different course, she can get defensive. Sometimes mean. So, S is very careful about anything that could even hint at pushing back. In many cases, I think this is just good judgment. In all relationships, we have to choose our battles. And I am incredibly grateful that S and the Ex are generally amicable when it comes to things with the kids – and really generally in their interactions with each other. But it can also be frustrating – because there are times to stand your ground. Around the beginning of the school year this year, the Ex had made some request to rearrange schedules with S and he agreed. He was telling me about this change in plans over breakfast and then wondered aloud: “I don’t know why I agreed to that.” Before I could stop the words from spilling out, I said: “Because you don’t want to rock the boat with her and you would rather agree to something than disagree and create tension with her.” I think we were both pretty stunned by that declaration, but then S smiled and nodded. That is their dynamic. They are still negotiating their post-split relationship contract. It will take time for both of them to adjust patterns they have maintained for 15+ years. But that’s the Ex. Now you know a little about her – from my perspective, anyway…

Day 30 (aka “the grand finale” for this “official” 30-day challenge): Please tell me – What do you love?

1. Breakfast tacos – You can take the girl out of Texas…

2. My legs. Not because they look awesome (which, I will say, they do) but because of what they do. That 6 year old little girl who noticed her legs were bigger than everyone else’s had no idea what greatness these mean running machines were destined for.

3. My juicer. It has changed my life. This morning’s concoction is a set of “hairy greens” (kale and some chard-y stuff), pineapple, blueberries, banana and Greek yogurt.

4. That a bus driver at the subway this morning was wishing everyone a good day while he was taking his break.

5. Reconnecting with old friends.

6. The capacity to cultivate self-awareness. It’s ugly sometimes but oh so much better than wandering the world in oblivion, leaking my own flavor of crazy all over others.

7. Scarves and boots. I am not a fan of the bitter cold but Fall and Winter bring out the opportunity for some great accessories.

8. The opportunity to share with all of you the things that I love over the past 30 days. And the opportunity to hear about what you love.

Namaste, Friends – I come to you in the place where we are equals.The light that is in me honors the light that is in you.

Day 29: Please tell me – What do you love?

This is from Monday. Forgot to post here. Oops! 🙂

1. The Quiet Car on Amtrak. I dread the day they allow people to talk on cell phones on flights.

2. Sunset. And sunrise. And that some of you are now singing that song from Fiddler on the Roof (you know who you are).

3. How this 30-day challenge to myself to focus on the little and big things that I love has shaped the way I see the world and each day.