The Men

One woman’s prince is another child’s neglectful father

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On Thursday, Jenna’s post “One woman’s frog is another’s woman’s prince” lit up our blog and Facebook page with massive hits and fascinating feedback. She really struck a nerve.

Most of the feedback was from stepmoms, but her post was important for moms to read too.

We often forget that the men we divorced can indeed change, grow and actually be BETTER -- with someone else.

I take no issue with that point.

Many stepmoms agreed that their husbands are 2.0 versions of their former selves -- and that’s a happy thing for all parties involved.

I know my own ex is a much better match with Carol, the co-author of our book. They’ve even “passed up” the number of years he and I were married, and seem equally committed to each other.

But I did want to highlight one significant aspect of this Frog/Prince dialogue that I suspect some stepmoms may not realize.

In combing through the tangled conflict between stepmoms and divorced moms, it may look to you like there are scores of divorced moms out there who are simply holding on to old issues from the past -- and that’s why they’re angry.

She just can’t let go. She’s emotionally stunted. She doesn’t have the maturity to release her judgments and resentments.

Maybe it’s even assumed that’s she’s still in love with her ex.

But in many cases, there’s actually something very different going on.

Not all, of course, but in many.

Jenna mentioned how, in a healthy marriage or relationship, the partners are happy to be “doing for each other.” This is why so many stepmoms step forward and do a lot of the parenting stuff for the dads.

Because they’re better at it. Because they love their husbands and are trying to make his life easier.

But let me tell you, there’s a very common refrain I hear among the majority of my divorced mom friends: the father’s involvement with his kids often drops dramatically when he remarries -- especially if he has more children with his new partner.

He sees his children less.

He calls less.

He may not be able to “squeeze them in” to his busy calendar.

Outings or gatherings have to be compromised to accommodate new siblings or his wife’s preferences.

Meetings and get-togethers have to be changed, then changed again, then eventually forgotten.

The moms are the ones witnessing the fallout from this with their children.

They see and hear the child’s hurt feelings.

The children feel ignored, unloved, invisible.

And THAT is where a lot of the anger comes from in the moms.

It’s fresh anger.

It comes from new experiences of rejection for their child, piled on top of each other.

They are angry with their children’s fathers for not stepping up, for not even noticing that his children are hurt and feel neglected by him.

They see the negative impact upon their child’s self-esteem.

They fear for their daughter’s future romantic relationships, with the most important man in her life imprinting messages of emotional unavailability upon the child’s impressionable psyche.

Or dooming their sons to a lifetime of trying to “prove themselves” to a man who is forever facing the other direction.

Do the moms also have judgments and anger, their own resolved issues with their ex that are their responsibility to handle?

Of course!

But that still doesn’t negate my point about how so many dads seem to be falling short.

Now, to clarify...

In Jenna’s post -- and in this one -- we’re talking about several “slices” of the pie, several sub-populations:

  1. There are the dads who divorced and haven’t changed. They were disinterested, uninvolved fathers before and they still are.
  2. There are the dads who have become better partners and yet still practice a kind of hands-off approach to fatherhood.
  3. There are the dads who have become better partners AND better fathers.

I’m talking about the second group in this post.

As women, we often step up to the plate without even being asked.

And the stepmoms in this second group who fulfill some of the parenting duties for their husbands out of love and partnership are actually enabling some pretty unhealthy behavior - for the children’s sake -- and for themselves.

And that’s why, when you do things for him as his partner, as moms we reject your kindnesses, your earnest involvement.

It may sound crazy and counter-productive to reject parenting help for our kids wherever we can get it, but moms are thinking, Don’t enable him. Don’t make it okay for him to continue to slack off!

Now, I know there are plenty of stepmoms out there who are trying to get their partners to be more involved as dads.

They’re doing what we moms used to do: cajole, bargain, inform, educate, “set up successes” to happen....

Sometimes, your efforts really do make a difference. Breakthroughs happen between a father and his kids and we thank you for doing this, out of love for your stepkids.

Seriously.

Thank you!

But in other ways, too many fathers get to kick back and let the women -- both women -- do all the grunt work of parenting. We hear from plenty of stepmoms out there in this kind of situation too. Sounds like it sucks.

Just had to get this off my chest.

I’m surrounded by so many single and remarried moms saying the same thing, it breaks my heart. And yet this scenario of "forgotten children" has become so commonplace that I’m not even surprised by it anymore.

When a dad does it differently, it really stands out.

So before you assume that the mom is once again harping on the past for some crazy, illogical reason, consider whether some of her anger is directed at the father of her children -- for a valid reason.

Think of how you might feel if the children you now have with your husband became an afterthought in the future.....

Yes. These dual-families relationships are incredibly complicated, with so many demands on our time, attention and affection that it's sometimes mind-boggling.

But an uninvolved father is a dad that is hurting his child’s feelings and harming their self-esteem and self-worth.

That’s what we’re mad about.

Thanks for reading.

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

(Update: After seeing some of the comments on Facebook in response, I just wanted to add two points.

My intent here is not to "slam" men or the many fathers out there who are doing a great job. In addition to the kids, I'm also concerned about all the stepmoms out there who are putting their marriages at risk by continuing to fulfill roles that are leaving them depleted and resentful. They started out giving from the heart, but now they are expected to continue being the hands-on parent while the dad "coasts." After a while, the stepmom feels trapped. Bad for everyone!

I also think there are gender issues that feed into this issue. As women, we're "givers," and we love jumping in and doing for others before they even ask! It can be a slippery slope....)

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine    All Rights Reserved

What to expect when you weren't expecting... a stepmom

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Maybe you experienced a long, slow slide towards divorce. The communication dwindled. The awesome sex became lost in the tidal wave of daily life demands. It was always one thing after another with the kids. Or perhaps you were unlucky enough to be blind-sided by the sting of infidelity.

However you found yourself in the Land of Divorce, putting your life back together, reveling in the opportunity to occasionally eat cereal for dinner when the kids were at Dad’s house, I bet you never saw this one coming: another woman in your kids’ lives.

A woman you didn’t know either.

Remember what it was like after a break-up, when you were younger? Maybe you dumped him. Maybe he dumped you. But you bump into him with his hot, new girl on the street, with that air of intimacy about them, and part of your stomach goes, “Wrenk!” It’s just human nature, whether you still want him or not.

Now take that feeling and magnify it by ten when a new woman arrives on the scene with your ex-husband.

Because THIS is the man who fathered your children. THIS is the man who shared your pregnancies, who you spent countless hours talking to about what was going on with the kids. THIS man was supposed to be your future. Your partner stretching out into the years of your family’s history. One half of the foundation, the nest for these vulnerable little beings.

But no more.... It’s done. Over.

And now you’re just a statistic.

And so are your kids.

But hey, people do this all the time now, right? What’s the big deal?!

This may be hard for stepmoms to really, really understand, even when they have their own kids: but when a new woman comes into your children’s lives, it’s just plain weird.

Like someone you’ve never met before plopping down at your table of friends. Like someone getting into your car at a stop light. Like a perfect stranger joining you in the hospital waiting room during a crisis, their brows furrowed with worry.

You look at them and think: Who are YOU?

And why are you now a part of my children’s world?!

Sure, on a logical, practical level, we get it. You’re dating him. He’s dating you. If he’s integrated you into his life enough for you to meet his kids, then he’s probably in love with you and Lord knows, it’s always best when both people love each other.

But it’s the emotional stuff that throws us for a loop, as moms. It’s the automatic “jurisdiction” we don’t get - that sense that you now have a right to have input on how things should be done with our kids, when they made it this far in life just fine without you. (It makes sense for that to eventually happen, but sometimes it comes wayyyyy too early.)

It’s knowing that our children are creating their own bonds and connections with you “off stage,” as it were, outside our view. It’s wondering if you truly want them there, or if you’d rather have him all to yourselves -- if you resent them, just don’t like them or are irritated by the same behavior that irritates us.

It's the fear that yes, there is love there between you. We want that -- but we also don't. Our own experiences as mothers are often so much more conflicted that the cookie-cutter version of motherhood. Our children's love with someone we don't know can cast a spotlight on our shortcomings as a parent. We can feel guilty and anxious, fearful and confused.

It’s the vulnerability that we feel, knowing that a natural part of romantic attachment with new couples is a dissection of past mistakes and mishaps, and this likely includes stories about us that we’d rather have you not know....

In writing about this subject for years now, I think I finally understand how painful and heart-wrenching it must be for stepmoms to often feel like the perpetual outsider, to be exasperated by the ever-shifting boundaries, to be reminded over and over again that important family memories and milestones took place that had nothing to do with you.

I’m not even sure I could do it! And I have the utmost admiration for those of you who do, who keep plugging away in the face of all that pain and frustration.

Please just know that some of the difficult behavior you experience with the moms has nothing to do with YOU personally (although if you trade mutual barbs, it will eventually, sadly).

We would feel this way about any new stranger interacting with our kids, even though you may think our actions are irrational and ultimately destructive. Sometimes they are. We’re not perfect. But we’re also trying to do the best we can to do right by our children....

Think of it like this: in our minds, we are traveling down a long, flat, straight road. We can see miles and miles into the horizon. We once felt secure in the knowledge that we’d be traveling down that road with another adult by our sides: the father. The only other person in this whole world who cares about the kids just like we do.

We may have accepted that he will no longer be traveling down that road alongside us (though some moms haven’t, but that’s another story). Perhaps he’s on the right side of the road now, and we’re on the left.

It just feel jarring and strange, disorienting and illogical to be joined on that road, walking along with someone we don’t know, someone we don’t feel comfortable with, someone who may or may not be on the same parenting page whatsoever.

So please, give us time. Leave the majority of the parenting to your partner, even if you see him fumbling or out of his element. Leave the communications between houses to him. The financial negotiations. The discipline. At least initially....

Don’t take our mother tiger behavior personally. Focus on making YOUR life happy!

And moms, just realize: once you’ve seen the stepmom in your kids’ lives for a while, once you’ve seen her trying and trying, busting her ass and putting in all the same grunt work that YOU do, please, for the love of God! -- cut her some slack.

And reach out to her. She’s taking care of YOUR kids!

You WANT her on your side.

After all, isn’t that the highest sacrifice you could make as a mom? Creating room for another woman, so she can do a good job of loving your children -- with your help?

How is any other choice serving them?

 

© 2011 Jennifer Newcomb Marine   All Rights Reserved

Further reading:

Dudes and daddying

Our meeting for moms and stepmoms at BookPeople was small, but impassioned, and one of the things we kept circling back to in conversation was... the dads in the picture. We talk a lot about the friction between the moms and stepmoms on this site, and sometimes allude to conflict with the kids... but what about the menfolk? And are they wearing britches?! (A morning is not complete without menfolk and britches in the same paragraph.) A common specter looming in conversations of late:

  •  dads who don't back up the stepmom with the stepkids
  • dads who back up the stepmom, but are then seen as betraying the stepkids
  • dads who are reluctant to enforce rules and consequences because of guilt over the divorce and lack of time with the kids (sometimes even if they're the custodial parent!)
  • dads who drive the moms crazy because their words and actions are all over the place, as they struggle with feeling caught in the middle between the two women

I've written here on this site before about how my ex, David, and I had to make some big changes as parents and get on the same page to save his marriage with Carol. So it's a subject that intrigues me: How many of you would say you're happy with the way your ex or your husband parents?

  • If you're the stepmom, do you feel the two of you create a united front? Do you leave the discipline to him? If so, does that make you feel powerless, or less stressed out?
  • If you're the mom, what's parenting like now with your ex? Can you come together to meet common goals with the kids in mind? Or is the situation between you reminiscent of your struggles while married? Have things gotten even worse after the divorce?

One interesting take on the father's perspective: a dad who came into his own as a father after he and his wife split. PBS producer and NYT essayist Joel Schwartzberg has just written a book chronicling his journey and explores "how divorce reinvents relationships with kids and improves one's evolving sense of Dadhood" called The 40-Year-Old Version: Humoirs of a Divorced Dad. I've been asked to do a review of the book and have also lined up Joel for an interview.

What would you like to ask him? What would you like for him to know as far as what YOUR experience has been like as a mom or stepmom? He's remarried, so he's living this stuff too!

Send me your interview questions at marine2marine (at sign) gmail (dot com) and we'll pick his brain.... Listen to your... radio-o-o Carol and I were up late last night, sitting on the phone together in darkened rooms, miles apart at twelve-thirty at night.

No, we're not secretly starting to see each other (ha, now that would be super-weird) -- we were simply being interviewed by CJAD/CFRB, Toronto's largest talk radio station. It's kind of hard to be "up" and coherent when part of your brain doesn't understand why you're not currently wrapped around your pillow like a lamprey, but I think we pulled it off. One thing that's nice about radio interviews is the hosts usually sound (and feel) like they've had about twelve cups of coffee, so it's easy to get sucked into their energetic orbit.

I'll put a link up later so you can hear us babbling like idiots and begging to be allowed to go to bed.

In other radio news, we're very proud to be interviewing with The Social Work Podcast tomorrow -- it's the largest podcast for social workers in the country! From the site:

Although the intended audience is social workers, the information will be useful to anyone in a helping profession (including psychology, nursing, psychiatry, counseling, and education).

Then next week, we'll be going into the studio for an interview with Radical Mothers' Voice on KO-OP here in Austin.

Fun stuff!

Book Review: Keeping Kids Out of the Middle

Imagine if children young and old could speak in keen, poignant words about how parental conflict affects them - in terms that adults would not only understand, but get their attention as well. Then imagine that those words have been channeled into a book by a child psychologist who’s surely put in his years consoling those same children, as they attempt to heal from the wounds inadvertently inflicted upon their parent’s battleground.

In “Keeping Kids Out of the Middle: Child-Centered Parenting in the Midst of Conflict, Separation, and Divorce” Benjamin Garber, PhD covers some volatile territory meant for parents that are still married, but arguing; separated, or divorced — and their step-parents.

Some of the content might not sit well with readers, but in a way, that’s the point — to spur us on to honest self-assessment and modify our behavior where needed. We’ve all heard, ad nauseum, about how important it is to act cooperatively in the best interests of the children when a family splits up (or is on the verge). But aside from some vague notions about WHY this is so important, how many of us actually know HOW?

Garber shows you.

He starts with the basics of good co-parenting, then helps us understand what good and bad parenting feel like from the child’s perspective, a good incentive to change…. In the section called “Not All Co-Parents Are Created Equal,” I appreciated the fact that he broke down co-parenting issues in terms of personality differences, but also context.

For instance, as the parent-on-duty during the week, the mother or stepmom (as is the norm) is likely saddled by the need to impose more rules and consequences, due to school, homework, bedtime, etc. If the child simply visits their father’s home on weekends, the context for their relationship is necessarily looser and lighter, and so is the child’s experience in that household.

The stepmom or mom may feel like the nagging shrew. And the weekend parent might feel secretly guilty and selfish. This imbalance can subtly feed into the potential alienation of the child from one parent, or the other, over the years, and that’s where the story really starts to get sad…. From the summary:

“When co-parents conflict, their kids get caught in the middle. They become ‘adultified,’ infantilized, and alienated. They’re made into messengers and spies, implicitly forced to grow up too fast or to remain needy for much too long.”

So what to do?

There’s plenty of information on lot of information on co-creating a child-centered parenting plan. Not one centered around the children, with them in charge, but one that places the needs of a healthy child before even their own wishes.

The Introduction says it better than I can. Garber explains:

  • how to better distinguish understand and meet your child’s needs.
  • how to distinguish between your child’s needs and your child’s wants.
  • how to keep your child’s needs front and center, apart from your own.
  • how to establish and improve consistency and communications with your co-parent(s).
  • how to continue to meet your children’s needs as your family changes.
  • (and perhaps most importantly), how to take the high road every time, even if you believe that your parenting partner does not.

I can already hear a chorus of readers objecting, saying, “How in the hell am I supposed to cooperatively create a parenting plan with my ex, or the ‘other woman’ when we can barely even talk to each other in the first place?”

To which I say, read the chapter called “The Child’s Experience of Adult Conflict” and take a closer look at what ongoing tension between the parents, and the lack of a unified safety net does to a child’s inner foundation. Or skip ahead and read “How Children React.” Use this information to motivate the other parent to rise above your own problems and focus on what your child needs.

If all else fails, bolster your own familial system to provide stronger parenting support (and make sure to distinguish between what you need as a parent and what your child needs from you).

There’s much of value here. I myself plan on going back through the book again for a closer read.

I would highly recommend this book to couples in conflict, couples undergoing a separation or divorce (there’s great information on how to communicate during both of these situations) and especially, blended families struggling with parenting issues.

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine     All Rights Reserved

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And Four More Mistakes You May Be Making with Your Ex-husband

On Friday, I covered some of the biggest mistakes you can makewith your ex-husband and promised four more. Without further ado, and because I'm behind already when it comes to writing Wednesday's post, they are:

 

Denying the what-if fantasies

Picnic_mist I think these are only normal, and yet, they're squirmy for even me to talk about. Despite whatever negativity you might feel towards your ex-, there's always the chance that a strong attachment to him is still lurking somewhere in your energetic field. After all, you had children together! You shared your lives in the most intimate of ways. I remember several years after we'd split up, being occasionally haunted by dreams where my ex- and I were still together, perhaps exploring a new house we were soon to move into or taking a family trip to strange environs. Waking up from those dreams always left me disoriented and slightly embarrassed: now what was THAT all about? Did this mean I still wanted to be with him? Or that we were somehow meant to be? Even now that he was remarried, and I was content with someone else? I would always come back to the same answer: this is the life we have now, and he and I seemed happier….

It took me a while to understand that these types of dreams and even waking mental wanderings were perfectly natural, and not only that, were commonplace. What's the old saying? The more you struggle to be free of something, the more you're reinforcing the fact that there's still a need to struggle? If you've got some hallucinatory misfits bumbling around in your psyche, just know you're not alone. I think a lot of these feeling are biologically-motivated - a part of you wants to put the two halves of a circle back together. Have you ever submerged any what-if's?

 

Keeping the focus on you and your shit, instead of what's best for the kids

Snail_on_the_corn This mistake is easy to do, whether you have an ex-husband or not, since we all get caught up in our own monkey mind chatter and fall prey to myopic tunnel vision. But ex-husband's are such convenient target, especially if you're holding a grudge, competing against him, or getting all freaked out and stressed about money struggles between you two. If you find yourself falling into these behaviors too often, time to snap out of it: you're often annoyed by things your kids are trying to tell you and are only semi-listening; you wish they would just leave you alone most of the time so you can stew in your own thoughts; you're churlish and snappy when going about regular household chores, leaking your irritation and emotional angst all over everyone. We can all periodically get caught up in an inner storm of self-absorption, but just letting yourself coast along for too long is not okay! What's your current state of connection with your kids? Is there anything you need to step back from and put away in a mental drawer for a bit? 

 

Not seeing him for who he is NOW

Icicles Part and parcel of fueling conflict between you and another person is keeping them frozen in a story; an unchanging character who's only capable of doing this, this and this and no more, without chances for improvement or room to grow. Haven't your friends, co-workers or family ever surprised you? We're all changing, all of the time! You might think because you once lived with your ex- and knew him well, the mental image still holds. That may be basically true in terms of values and personality, but even then, people are often capable of sweeping transformations, or even incremental ones. This can tie back into grieving too if he's re-partnered, has other children, etc. — perhaps if you let go of who you think you knew, it might mean you are truly getting left in the dust, as far as what you meant to him, the significance of your past together, etc. See if you can step back and look at your ex- from a neutral vantage point. Maybe even a bit of curiosity will arise. Who is this person now? In what ways do you need to update your version?

 

Letting lost opportunities pass you by

Rust_bucket This ties right into the very last, common mistake people make. It's not absolutely necessary that you clear up all the other ones first, though it does help to have an open space inside of from which to work from. Even if you sometimes feel pissy towards your ex-, find yourself occasionally shrieking "argh!" after you get off the phone with him, or wish you could shake him by the shoulders… you might still able to be friends. Yes. I said friends. 'Course, it takes two people to do this and he may not be willing. But there's nothing to keep you from making little exploratory steps, from extending a few teeny olive branches here and there.

 

Believe it or not, David (my ex-) is one of the first people I turn to sometimes when I need a kind, listening ear. He knows me inside and out, he's seen the worst sides of me and still actually seems to like me (I'm late on his payment this month though. Joke.) and I get his weird sense of humor, which no one else does, so I'm obligated to continue being his friend out of pity. (See, now he would get that, but it's a fine line, isn't it?) Something we were able to do over the years that got us here was apologize. This seemed to happen in stages, over many conversations, but there no longer seems to be anything we hold against each other from the past. Only new stuff from the present (I'm on a roll, what can I say?). Seriously, the slate feels clean between us, but we had to work at it and we both took risks to get here. (Another important point: when someone apologizes, keep your mouth shut and take it in. Don't bring up other grievances you have against them!)

 

Sure, there are tons of benefits to be had by befriending the stepmom in this scenario too, but think of how much better your life might be if the other person who was responsible for bringing your children into the world was also your bud? Think it's impossible? Never to be? Too weird and harem-like (see last post)? Think again. What else are you going to do with your life, if not dump all that old baggage that holds you back from being happy, clear and in the moment? What are some of the things you still like and love about your ex-husband? In what ways could you serve as a friend to him? How might this benefit the children in your life?

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

 

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Do you make these mistakes with your ex-husband?

problems between ex-wife and ex-husband Relationships between ex-husbands and ex-wives are minefields fraught with potential explosions.

Toss a few kids, a stepmother or second husband, and plenty of strong opinions about the way "things should be" into the mix, and it’s pretty much guaranteed you’ll be doing lots of tiptoeing through the tulips.

Or cowpies….

Even in the most amicable of situations, it can still be weird.

I get along extraordinarily well with my ex, but nevertheless, have my moments.

For instance, our two families will be out to dinner, and suddenly, for no apparent reason, I’ll find myself feeling self-conscious. Do people think David has a harem? Do we just seem like relatives, hanging out? The kids all look like us, or some combination thereof. As I interact with their son (I’m an honorary aunt!), the lines begin to blur….

Who, or rather, what, are we?! I’ve even had some acquaintances ask, artfully or directly, if I still hold a torch for my ex, because I make such an effort to keep him an active part of my life.

What follows are some of the most common, damaging mistakes ex-wives make with their former partners. If you’re a stepmom, take a look and see where your mate seems to be on the scale with his ex-wife. Or hell, ask her yourself for the conversational gambit of your life!

Holding a grudge

We all have our treasured stories, our old war wounds; the ones we repeat over and over inside our heads, bitterly listing the ways we’ve been done wrong. Every time you regurgitate your tale of woe about your ex-husband, you get a little hit of self-righteousness; a flash of indignation; and the pot starts to simmer allover again.

Keeping your resentments alive can feel really good, though people are loathe to admit it. What’s even better is when a new juicy event takes place and now you KNOW the other person has been proven to be a real asshole! You get to feel superior, to pull up the warm blanket of victimhood around your neck, and hunker down.

But think about it, how is doing this REALLY helping you? How does harboring long-standing grievances and resentments ever get you anywhere? You’re the one doing the feeling, you’re the one suffering.

It’s not like I’m suggesting you instantly forgive your ex-, but ask yourself how all this spite is affecting your insides. Wouldn’t you like to do it differently?

Being at the mercy of core issues

Sure, we all love reading about sex, but the second most important volatile issue has got to be money.

When a family dissolves and becomes two separate units, one side is always going to have less. Unfortunately, given the way our culture works, that side is usually the ex-wife’s. Money gets us where it counts: in that core place of fear connected to matters of survival and our power in the world.

If you’re keeping the fires of conflict stoked over issues of money, it actually might not be worth it. Can you attach a dollar figure to your angst? Let’s say every summer you argue with your ex-husband over whether he’ll chip in some extra money for summer activities for your child, and he balks. You end up mad at him for months afterwards, getting a few headaches here and there, snapping at the kids, dreading having to interact with him over the phone. Maybe it ruins a few evenings or weekends.

Put that cumulative stress into a bucket and ask yourself: is all of this worth an argument over (insert dollar amount here_____) bucks?

Trying to win the Better Parent award

This is a close cousin to holding a grudge, but it’s more like a grudge in action, fueled by a sense of competitiveness for a contest that no one’s ever going to win.

You do whatever you can to set him up to fail.

Maybe you withhold information from him, like for sporting events, or having to do with your children’s friends. Maybe you don’t tell him about birthday parties or school events until the last minute so he can’t come (and looks like he doesn’t care, whereas, obviously, you so-o-o do).

Whatever you’re doing, you ARE doing something. You’re trying to show him up, you’re trying to seem you’re doing everything (or okay, mostly) right, and he’s flubbing it up once again. No surprise there, huh? Worst of all, you may find yourself making little digs out loud with your own children. "Well, you were ready to go, it’s your father that’s late. As usual…."

Feel like a hamster on a hamster wheel?

Refusing to mourn

There’s one big reason we’re willing to spend so much of our emotional lives stewing in animosity and it isn’t pretty. Not only does it have to do with ugly-face crying (you know the kind, your face is twisted into something only an Academy-award winning actress would allow), it’s also almost unbearable to experience. Hence, the avoidance.

I’m talking sorrow here; sadness – big, sweeping, aching voids.

I remember one day in the garage, cleaning out paper grocery bags stuffed to the brim with first squiggles; outlines of traced hands from kindergarten; brightly-colored, endearing art projects and first writings.

For some reason, I’d been avoiding this task for years and wasn’t even sure why. As I sat on the floor, sifting through one drawing of "our family" after another, I finally lost it and starting sobbing, – the wracking, snorting kind that makes you feel like you can’t breathe.

Our little family – tall dad, less tall mom, one bigger child, a toddler – we were no more. At least, not as we were in the pictures.

I’d cried about our divorce before, but this was different. No longer was my crying mixed with anger and thoughts of making my ex- wrong. It was just overwhelming grief and sadness; the deep, shredding disappointment of a course of action that was immutable and damaging to all of us.

Sure, we’re human and we’ve all adapted. But to face the truth and sharpness of my tears so fully, wow. It was grueling.

I guess it says something about me that I perhaps stupidly and impulsively called my ex-husband to talk. And it says something about him that he set aside his own habitual grievances to lend a supportive ear and ended up crying himself on the phone.

So what’s left in you to mourn? Are you afraid the pain will have no end? If you fish around inside, do you sense there’s a dam that needs unblocking?

I’ve got four more big mistakes to cover, but this article is getting pretty long as it is, so come back for Part Two, where we’ll cover:

  • Denying the what-if fantasies
  • Keeping the focus on you and your shit
  • Not seeing him for who he is NOW
  • Letting lost opportunities pass you by

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine  All Rights Reserved

Balls in the Air - Dating as a Single Mother

divorced moms and datingDating while you're a single mother can be quite the balancing act. If you've never done it before and find yourself dipping toes into dating waters for the first time, you may wonder how anyone manages to juggle it.  If dating is old hat, you know of which I speak.  You may find yourself looking back with fondness to the days "when it was just you", but honey, those days are gone.  And most likely, they're not coming back anytime soon.

So is it possible for single mothers to date with aplomb?

Yes!

Granted, you may feel like a Chinese acrobat, spinning plates on each hand, one foot ,and the tip of your nose — but it IS possible. Let's jump into the pond and see if we can warm up in the water.

One thing that's totally different is the aspect of space.

No longer are you free to just s-t-r-e-t-c-h out into your days, soaking a new partner up.  Instead of lolling around together during the week, you may instead be monitoring homework, rustling up dinner, wrestling laundry, solving a family crisis (sibling squabbling, anyone?), or just attempting to tidy up.

On the weekends, there are more fires to put out, family fun to plan, and schedules outside your control involving visits to Dad for the kids.  A Saturday or Sunday in which to do a whole lot of nothing with your new honey pie might seem as scarce as a cluster of shrinking icebergs.  You may even fear that your shortage of available time makes you a less-attractive potential mate, but honestly, what can you do about it?  It is what it is….

There's also the element of physical space, which in this case, means: privacy.  And face it, when you think of privacy, you're probably thinking… sex.  And you're right!  No matter when sex comes into the picture while you're dating (right off the bat/only after you're engaged — I make no judgments), it's probably going to happen at least ONCE more before you die, right?  So how do you handle it?  Where do you go?  And what do you do when there are small people around, a few rooms over, hopefully sleeping or plugged into their ipods?!  (This was probably the LAST thing on your mind while you were in labor.  And I don't blame you.)

But privacy issues don't end at the boudoir door.  There's also the phone.

You're probably craving the privacy to talk in intimate and hushed tones about grown-up and personal things, the privacy to talk without little ears straining for details. You may feel self-conscious mumbling like a total love-struck idiot on the phone in front of your kids (especially the teens).  If you find yourself gabbing away while standing in your walk-in closet or outside in the cold, a soundproof phone booth is probably looking really good right now.

Conjuring up the image of all those cute little ears makes me think of one other really squirmy way you have even less space as a dating single mother: there's the suspended piano; the heavy anvil hanging over your head labeled "Commitment" (note the capital "C"). Commitment comes into play awfully early in a new relationship, which seems completely out of sequence.  This can make everyone mighty uncomfortable, yourself included.

Witness:

We're all familiar with the dreaded stereotype of the floozy single mom, a parade of new partners traipsing through her bed, and by proxy, her children's home.  As a mother, you have to be careful about who you're letting into your kids' lives. If you're going to take the plunge, divvying up your free time and eventually having your wee ones meet the new guy, you have to know there's going to be some sort of constancy to this thing.

But how can you know if there's going to be anything to it, if there hasn't been an "it" long enough to tell?

Sometimes… things don't work out and the relationship ends up being more transitory than you had hoped.  Unfortunately, either way, there's a lot more pressure on the relationship to BE something that's going to GO somewhere, but you need the luxury of space to suss this out.  A true conundrum….

Then there's psychic space.  Sure, we all enter relationships with an assortment of baggage (a fuchsia, snappy overnight tote; a gray wheel-y Samsonite; perhaps a banged-up wooden trunk that's been passed down for generations).  No one expects otherwise.  What your new partner probably wasn't counting on though was being stuck interacting with all these other people.  Who are all these people!  There's your ex-.  Maybe he's remarried, so there's his wife, the stepmom.  If they have kids, they're in the picture too.  In addition to negotiating a new relationship with you, he's also got lots of other folks to process mentally; lots of stories to digest, events to take in; gossip to catch up on.  Will this whole experience end up being antagonistic for him and everyone else?  Uncharacteristically positive?  No way to know from the get-go.

And then — there's the whole reason dating is such a different animal for you in the first place: the kids!

Like the happily working mother of a young infant you fiercely miss and adore, you may feel forever torn.  You want to be there for your children, to love them and give them your time and attention, and yet, you may also your feel guilty about yearning to spend time with the one who makes you go hubba-hubba.  Free time, an already limited and valuable commodity, is now being sliced thinner to serve even more people.  Chow down!

How can you make sure to get enough moments of connection with your kids while your heart is scanning the horizon for your sweetheart?

I suggest you do at least a weekly check-in and see how everyone's doing: the kids, your new partner and don't forget - yourself.  A little negligence where the kids are concerned isn't so bad over a few days' time, but if something stays "off" for more than that, or you find yourself consistently coming back to that same nagging feeling, do something about it!

This is another thing - trying to keep everyone happy.  Forget it.  Can't be done.  Not that everyone can't end up just fine in the long run, but it's not your job to make sure everyone's always smiling and has a spring in their step.  Sure, since you're the parent, you've got to ensure that you're making the right choices for your child's security and sense of emotional safety, but if you're envisioning endless evenings of peace and harmony, you might be taken aback by the children's sullen faces, the withdrawn behavior, the lack of interest in your mate (which is not to be confused with the kids' natural reaction if you made some truly lousy choices as a parent - confusing, isnt' it?).

You can't make him entirely comfortable either.  It's not pleasant, feeling like the piece of string that's being pulled by both sides, but do your best to help the younger ones, not take on the caretaker role for your partner — and let the rest slide off your back.

(As far as guilt, think about how important it is to model what you want your child to embody or internalize for themselves later on, as adults.  Everyone has the right to happiness, to partnership, companionship.  While you may feel like crap on some level that you're divorced in the first place, it's still possible to teach your children something positive about relationships, stability and romantic love….)

You're also not in charge of the relationship between the children and (once they meet him) your beau.  You can hope they get along, but the less you try to push here, the better.  You can't make them like him, or vice-versa.  You can't make them want to do things with him, or vice-versa.  The best you can hope for is that both parties will take their own tentative steps towards connection, at their own comfortable pace, according to their own personalities, in their own time, and will start creating a foundation of trust and mutual acceptance.  It's weird to have something so important be so out of your hands, but truly, it is.

Another unalterable fact: your life is not completely open and yielding like it was when you were a single woman.  You've got fixed responsibilities that are not subject to negotiation and there are little people counting on you to do the right thing.  I read somewhere that the emphasis shouldn't be on self-esteem these days, so much as self-respect.  Are you parenting and managing your life in such a way that you can respect yourself and your actions?

This turns us back to you again and managing your own emotions.  As we all know, dating can be some pretty tumultuous territory.  Opening your heart wide to love and be loved by another adult is scary business at times — you may find yourself careening between despair and hope, exhilaration and intense insecurity.  For your kids' sake, please, do your best to moderate the highs and lows of the rollercoaster ride.  And for god's sake, spare them the gory details!  Save as much of your calmness, strength and serenity for your home life and your family and you'll thank yourself later (so will their therapist).  Plus, your relationship will likely be better off too.

Lots of plates to juggle, huh?  If you're feeling overwhelmed, just remember how good women are at multitasking.  We can keep a million things in our heads at once.  We can dab at a little one's snotty nose while talking to a friend on the phone while stirring pasta and unloading the dishwasher.  We can listen supportively to our partner while kissing the top of our child's head as they fidget in our lap while tuning into what's happening on the other side of the house and scratching the dog behind the ear with our foot.

I read somewhere once that mothers are constantly scanning for both love and danger in our families.  We're constantly on the lookout for opportunities to love and enrich, to deepen our links to each other, the ties that bind.  And conversely, we're scanning for possible threats to the health and well-being of our children and mates, both physical and emotional.  By making an earnest, sincere, heartfelt effort to keep those two forces in balance — having them at both the forefront and back of your mind, you'll be just fine.

And so will your family….

Enjoy!

© 2008 Jennifer Newcomb Marine All Rights Reserved

 

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Carol and Jen Photo Session

This is us together...

Our sunset "golden hour" was more like the gloomy gray-hour, weather-wise.  Here's what we came up with (Jennifer's on the left, Carol's on the right):

We had a lot of fun and it was nowhere near as painful as we were expecting it to be....  Thanks to David Marine for being Mr. Photographer!

 

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Just curious who is who there.

October 14, 2007 7:48 PM  

Belinda Del Pesco said...

Really nice sequence. Great to see your faces together.

October 17, 2007 8:16 AM

 

 

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The Beginning, or... A Moment of Pause in the Wind Tunnel

So half the dog and pony show would be leaving the building. Fine. I could regroup — always do. Piece of cake, no problem.

I stifled a rising sense of panic as I explained my dilemma by phone to my good friend Kim Lane (writer and publisher extraordinaire of AustinMama.com).

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.

 

 

3 comments:

Kim said...

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!!

Kim

February 19, 2007 2:34 PM  

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.

--D

February 26, 2007 7:51 PM  

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  

 

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