So half the dog and pony show would be leaving the building. Fine. I could regroup — always do. Piece of cake, no problem.
Moments before, I had rewritten the marketing section of the book proposal I was working on with my daughter’s stepmother, Carol – removing her completely from any promotional involvement. Great, she would still actively participate in the creation of the content (developing a happy mother/stepmother relationship) once we got a contract, but as far as traipsing around and talking about the book before or afterwards — that was it — she was out.
I struggled with the language, alternately typing and wiping away large swaths of text, finally realizing, cursor blinking, I am totally fucked. This sore-thumb paragraph explaining Carol’s lack of participation, no matter how positively-worded, would be like poison for the entire project and any possibility of securing a contract. I called Kim looking for a reality check.
Who would want this thing now, without our “hook”? Carol was either a full part of it, or such a phantom that she really wasn't there at all. I couldn't figure it out.... We’d be like a million other hopeful author-wannabes — not a snowball’s chance in hell. Big dreams for my life over the next two years bled into the grass like chalk being hosed down on a sidewalk.
And yet, there was no denying it. I had been instrumental in Carol’s decision. Days before, I stared out at spiky, leafless trees and a rain-soaked backyard as she explained in great detail how she had recently pulled away from being an active, hands-on stepmother. You know how you can hear little snippets of someone’s life and not put all the pieces together until one startling, sharp-edged moment?
I hadn’t realized the cumulative effect of all the bits and pieces she’d been telling me, but here was the big picture: no more disciplining the kids at all. Period. That responsibility had been completely handed over to David (my ex-, her husband).
I felt terrible, hearing her describe how she’d needed to step outside the mine field for her own sanity, to put a halt to the occasional, staggering heartbreak and the incessant, unresolvable stress. She’d pulled back to bring more peace to her home and marriage, but now she had a different problem – she’d landed hard in a pit of despair and powerlessness.
She had given up.
And she didn’t want to feel like some liar, giving talks or interviews, nodding her head and having to retreat into the background so as not to parrot some party line she didn’t believe in anymore.
Big concept, little words: giving up. My heart was heavy as I considered what this must feel like for everyone in their household.
But it all came back to this: David (her husband, my ex-) and I had made a grievous error way back, from the very beginning. We’d let Carol fill a vacuum created by us.
David and I are consciously aware of the fact that we’re uneven disciplinarians. Embarrassing, but it’s the truth, and we both know it. We mean well, but are often wildly inconsistent. Over the years, we’ve had countless talks about parenting issues, brainstorming possible causes of conflict; creating plans for improvement. Sometimes our lofty intentions come to fruition, but oftentimes not.
Carol was organized, self-disciplined, eager to create order and routine when she and David got together seven years ago. She’ll also be the first to tell you that the situation was ripe for her own control-freak issues to kick in beautifully, an organizer walking into a messy living room in dire need of de-cluttering.
We set her up, unknowingly, David and I. We doomed her to conflict and resistance from our daughters, C. and M, swords and shields clanging and clashing. We put her in the intractable position of being in charge of creating change while undercurrents that maintained the status quo (that would be, uh… the rest of us) were raging strong as ever. We were lazy, unaware, it all seemed so wonderfully convenient.
So now there was another vacuum, one that had to be filled the RIGHT way. There was no getting around the hard facts: if we didn’t want to jeopardize the stability of yet another family unit, my ex- and I were going to have to step up to the plate and make some monster course corrections, whether we knew how to or not.
I could see this as clearly as I’ve ever seen anything. I scribbled five main areas of parenting I wanted to work on with the girls (12 and 16) while still on the phone with Carol:
1. Make responsible choices 2. Clean up after yourselves 3. Help out regularly around the house 4. Be respectful of others and their things 5. Value and support our connections to each other
Simple enough. It was the absence of this behavior that was wreaking all the havoc. We’re still doing a multitude of things right and we know our kids are basically good, but we struggle with the same crap as anyone else (along with pre-teen and teenage hormonal surges thrown into the mix).
But like a perpetual dieter, I can’t say I felt too much confidence in myself to pull this off. So I felt resolve, intensity, some healthy humiliation and shame, even a sense of real partnership with David. The question was, would this be enough?
Carol and I talked in person in the kitchen when I picked up M. last weekend. I’ll be endlessly grateful to my friend Kim for a perspective that saved the day: our current “dilemma” was the last chapter of our book. Matter of fact, we couldn’t write the story without it! Things were going exactly as they needed to.
David and I needed to correct an imbalance that truly existed between our two households — to right the listing ship, to put the power and responsibility right back where they belonged. (Not that Carol shouldn’t have ANY authority, obviously, but c’mon - this was ridiculous.) Time to hunker down and pull the plow ‘til the field was all done. Time to figure out how to do this and do it well.
Carol brightened noticeably when we looked at things this way. Her posture straightened, her face softened, her voice became clearer. Right – so she’d pulled herself out of the wind tunnel earlier, but it still wasn’t working. Now David and I were stepping back in where we should have been all along. Only time would tell whether she could truly breathe a sigh of relief.
I tentatively asked her how she’d feel about returning to our original plan with the early (and after) marketing parts of the book, given the freedom to present her feelings and her situation authentically. She surprised me by reacting with genuine excitement, we thought of the masses of stepmoms and moms out there were struggling with the same issues. Cool! We could help them too - we were just drilling down to the juicier stuff. So, yes, she was on board again, taking into consideration childcare issues and her need to regularly paint (just as strong in her as my need to write). We’d make it work….
We had a clearly-illustrated problem, a goal we were shooting for, a direction to aim ourselves.
Woohoo! Everybody wins!
Um… except for the fact that there are still real changes to be made... and David and I had better make them.
So that’s what we’re going to do.
Brava! Truly great directions, Jen. I've always been impressed with your and Carol's relationship, and this just makes me stand in awe anew. You two -- well your whole family really -- are laying such new and important groudwork that I know will help countless women (and men) parent better, connect better, and ultimately do the very best to remain sane and raise healthy, well-adjusted kids. It truly is the new village. (and I am honored to have helped you in this exciting stage).
Can't WAIT to read your book!!
David R. Darrow said...
Now there's a book I'd read. If not for the hunt for answers to blended-families challenges, then at the very least because you are such an engaging writer, Carol. Such talent abounds.
I totally appreciate that you are trying hard to navigate difficult waters as a team. I cannot imagine that it won't, at times, involve certain areas of great conflict, tossing the hands up and "quitting" several times.
But The world needs this book. It isn't complete yet because you aren't. The disappointments, the battles, the acid, the "what-were-we thinkings" will make the book if you don't let them break you!
You have anew fan in your corner.
Belinda Del Pesco said...
Wow. WOW. I am in speechless awe. What you have written here - your process of reflection and resourceful re-mapping of the situation, as a team - is wonderful. Every blended family should read this post, because the level of accountability and communion over it, is so inspiring. I hope it goes in the book as a raw, true, from the moment blog post excerpt. We're all in a long row to hoe, till the kids are grown, at least. You're illustrating that work-arounds are within reach, even from the deepest holes on the rainiest of days.
February 28, 2007 7:06 AM