It's all well and good to read here about our wonderful, happy blended family, or about other harmonious ex-wife/stepmother teams at equally brilliant, literate, incisive sites. But what if you really are struggling mightily with the stepmother or ex-wife in your life? What if you honestly, truly just CAN'T STAND the woman!
Is "hate" too tepid a term to describe your feelings towards her? Does the mere mention of her name give you an instant headache, or knots in your gut?
What if you find yourself going down your list of grievances against her on a daily basis, and adding more by the week? Do you rail against her ad nauseam to anyone that will listen (including, oops — the kids)? Do you avoid her as much as possible? Does a simple phone exchange or brush by the front door raise your blood pressure for hours?
If so, you're not alone.
So great, the large wooden boat is cram-packed out there - alone at sea, bobbing in the dark and the rain. Now what do you do?
Well, two things here….
1. I can talk a bit about how Carol and I went from actively disliking each other (aren't you happy to hear that!) to becoming close friends and... 2. I can also cover a few things I've learned over the years in pondering this subject.
A little story….
The very first time I met Carol was in my driveway.
It was a beautiful Spring day, but despite the searing-blue, cloudless skies and California-like temperature, I believe I had already been sweating bullets for hours in preparation for their visit: their being my ex-husband, David, and his new girlfriend. And not just his new girlfriend, but his new girlfriend FOURTEEN YEARS my junior. (Do not spend time looking closely in the mirror before a visit like this. Just sayin'….) I was also internally rolling my eyes at the fact that David just had bought a motorcycle (long since sold) and bolted outside out of superstrung nerves when I heard them pull up.
Ech. There's nothing like pure jealousy to rival the feeling of poison helplessly coursing through your veins.
Carol was pretty, in shape, and I'd already seen her art, so I knew she was talented and creative. She swung a muscular leg over the back of the motorcycle, dismounting like a gymnast, and removed her helmet, shaking out beautiful, light-brown curls. I hated her already. I felt something melting in the pit of my stomach which should have been accompanied by the smell of electrical wires about to catch fire. I wanted to turn around and go home, but -- oh.
I already was. There was nowhere to run.
The rest of the visit was a blur (one of those out-of-body experiences that’s akin to addressing thousands from notes you can't read, or bumping into a movie star in a bathroom or elevator), but I do know that I now had a target to attach my venom to — a real-live person whose voice I could remember and whom I could now imagine addressing my children. MY children!
Yes, the territorial aspects kicked in right away, true-to-form.
This would have been helpful if I were a mother tiger in the jungle and needed to protect my cubs from being carried away by a baboon or radioactive chimpanzee, but, in this case, my instincts were simply triggered in a hopeless someone's-going-to-win-and-someone's-going-to-lose-and-that-ain't-gonna-be-me kind of way.
What followed were about two years of tension. And sometimes "tension" was putting it extremely mildly.
I'd say the whole thing culminated when I slammed the phone down on my ex-husband after he'd calmly told me he thought the kids should live with him because "Carol could do a much better job taking care of them, since I always seemed so stressed out from work" and proceeded to wail on the floor, curled up in a fetal position in front of the fireplace, imagining lengthy, costly court battles which I would ultimately lose. (And before you hold that against him, know that he's since apologized profusely for one of the stupidest, most thoughtless things he's ever said.)
At first, there didn't seem to be any reason to try and make things any better with each other. If we could just minimize contact with each other for… oh… the next twelve years or so, we'd be just fine.
But it became harder and harder to "minimize contact" as Carol and David got married and their lives intertwined. There were school events, family events, holidays to negotiate.
Along the way, I hated thinking about how much more organized Carol seemed to be, how much more disciplined she was with her art. I hated knowing that there were probably plenty of cozy evenings between David and Carol, dissecting my behavior and what had went wrong with our marriage.
I hated thinking about her interacting with the girls. I was totally oblivious about what went on between them and this drove me crazy. Who was this woman anyway? She was a perfect stranger having tons of experiences with my own children and I knew nothing about her! It was like having hired a babysitter by pulling out a name from a hat and sending the whole lot off to Disneyland without having even met her. (I knew the stepmoms out there will cringe, reading that, but that's what it felt like at the time….)
So what finally changed? Why did ANYTHING change?
Well, I finally got tired of all the animosity. And so did Carol.
Simple as that.
Okay, so that was the beginning of things changing between us, but it started there.
You can say our changes were selfishly motivated, and that's partially right, but I also worried about the effect my ill will was having on the girls (our daughters are 12 and 16 now, and David and Carol also have a 3 year old son - what I'm describing took place about five years ago). Sure, I was proud of the fact that I was keeping my mouth shut when it came to saying anything "bad" about Carol, but I was also never saying anything positive or warm about her.
…As if my children wouldn't notice!
So, in some comical, frozen-arms-forward, blindfolded manner, I took a few lurching steps her way, in the hopes of thawing our relationship and creating at least a more well-oiled "business machine". We were the two hands-on parents and we were stuck with consistent, regular contact, for better or worse.
I have to admit, it's not like Carol reciprocated right away. She didn't jump for joy at my efforts to reach out, but neither did she bite my head off. (Maybe it was a bit like putting your hand into a snake's cage, with the pet store owner assuring you the snake had been recently defanged and was "perfectly harmless".)
I'd say there was a period of about a year, to a year and a half, when we both started taking baby steps towards each other. Oddly, David was the channel through which we both sometimes broadcast our good intentions. He also ended up in the middle of a few misunderstandings, when one or both of us had our feelings hurt through some perceived slight, playing the peacemaker. That must have been strange….
It wasn't easy to keep shooting for harmony. Sometimes, we'd both feel really exposed and vulnerable. And weird too. People would ask us why we were letting the other person "get away with things", like they were uncomfortable with us getting along; anticipating the drama.
We both definitely felt like we were in uncharted territory.
One thing that really helped was knowing that the other person was trying too. It made us both bite our tongues a bit more. We couldn't so easily badmouth the other person if we were going to be interacting with them again soon, like that same day or the next. Plus, there was less to feel guilty about if you hadn't just said something nasty about them!
There wasn't any one special memory for either one of us when we both realized, "We're friends!," but somehow… eventually… we were.
We had done it.
And we both realized how rare and fragile that friendship was, initially, and took pains to protect it.
Over time, as women do, we tentatively confided in each other and tried to prove to each other that the other's trust wasn't misplaced. We turned to each other for help with parenting problems and then, with problems in general. Closeness grew. And when we hit rough spots in the road, we did our best to talk about them directly, instead of venting elsewhere. Now I don't think there's anything we couldn't talk through….
And neither of us has that sense of the other one trying to undermine us, like we used to. We're working together as a team. We talk about common goals, we admit shortcomings where appropriate. Neither one has a long, secret list of grievances on a rice paper scroll we're regularly adding to in spidery handwriting, in hopes of one day finally proving to the world that this other woman is really and truly a bitch who's made our life absolutely miserable.
But we know we're lucky. And we're grateful.
For lots of folks out there, they're just counting the seconds, hours, weeks, months and years until the other woman is out of their life, like we were, and that day Can't. Come. Soon. Enough.
So what if this is where you find yourself?
On Monday, I'll finish this essay by combining the trajectory of our story with an outline of things I've learned from books and deliberate study. This will be more a more prescriptive post, but I'll reference aspects of our story to help it all make sense. You may be pulling your hair out NOW with angst, but there IS a way to create peace in the middle of chaos.
© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved