Holiday Road….

I am a step-mother….YIKES, right?

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I’ve previously made casual references to the fact that I bear this title….but I’ve debated whether or not I should share or post anything more related to the topic.

The step-mother label has the power to conjure such a wide variety of images and emotions….especially among women….but, eh, what the heck.

When the lives of my step-children and I first collided, brought together by the only common denominator we all shared….their father/my boyfriend at the time….I had what I felt to be reasonable expectations regarding blended family dynamics.

Having grown-up with step-parents of my own….and as part of an extended family system that was a hodge-podge of step-grandparents, step-aunts, uncles, cousins and siblings….I was no stranger to the various relationship complexities and their potential pitfalls. I didn’t expect to fall immediately in-love or even immediately in-like with my step-children or vice versa.  I didn’t expect the EX and I would form any kind of a relationship beyond acquaintance status at best. I expected the blending of our lives would be complicated, dramatic and messy at times.

All of these things were safe assumptions to make. What I didn’t expect were the feelings of jealousy, resentment, competitiveness, isolation, being ganged-up-on and being misunderstood that would occasionally take hold of my psyche.

In the beginning, I turned to the internet for advice and tips on navigating the rapidly churning, blended family waters.  I found hundreds of blogs devoted to the subject.  Their posts ran the gamut from flowery accounts of blissful domesticity with their “bonus babies,” to raging battles between the involved adults….both sides batting the children back and forth like tennis balls….all while proclaiming to be acting in the “best interest of the kids” and accusing one another of “damaging the children” and everything in-between.

Other than the extremes, it was comforting to know there were a lot of step-parents out there struggling with similar issues…. and that a community of sorts existed where step-parents could discuss their ups and downs and seek support and a bit of camaraderie….which is hard to find….rarely does anyone without the title feel compassion or sympathy for the step-parent….I blame Disney.

In addition to the internet, I turned to books.  I was surprised to find, despite the fact more than 30% of all weddings create a blended family these days, there were very few self-help books devoted to the topic.  Those I did find helped to validate a lot of my feelings….even the really ugly one’s….and framed them using words that weren’t dripping with emotion and expletives in the heat of an enraged argument with my husband. I highlighted and tagged passages I found relevant and asked my husband to read what I had discovered.  Not being much for self-help books, he never did.

So, I withdrew a little bit more and a little bit more as we continued to struggle until I became almost non-existent whenever the kids were around. When it became clear that we were fast approaching a breaking point and not wanting to be one of the 67% of blended marriages that ends in divorce, my husband and I decided to seek counseling.

Here again, I was surprised to learn how difficult it was to find a therapist who truly specialized in blended family dynamics. There were dozens of family therapists in our area with backgrounds in traditional family counseling and experienced in getting those families through a divorce….not so much with how best to manage the process of starting over with a new partner or spouse….a family system that is vastly different than a traditional nuclear one.

Therapy wasn’t a total failure though, my husband and I learned to communicate more effectively through our growing pains.  For the most part, we still don’t know how to solve those pains, but we take our bumps as they come….which leads me to the original purpose of this post….a little commentary on our upcoming family vacation.

We are soon heading off to explore Washington DC.  I’m looking forward to the trip….but I’m also dreading it a little.  Thus far, we have never had a family vacation that didn’t involve some degree of drama and angst.  Here is a run down of our family vacation history….

Silence Isn’t So Golden….OR….If Looks Could Kill

Our first vacation together had a promising start.  It began with the kids first ever plane ride and I was glad to be a part of one of their “firsts” in life.  The start of the trip was uneventful as dramatics go….we enjoyed touring the local sites and filling in our evening hours with a swim in the hotel pool, board games and whatever was on the Disney evening line-up.

Then, just when I thought we had potentially turned a pivotal corner in the blending process, my step-daughter decided she was no longer speaking to me. This had become a common occurrence in our relationship.

Occasionally and with seemingly no provocation, she would simply dismiss me.  In a split second her face would transform from a genuine smile to a death stare that was shockingly hateful.  If I tried to speak to her, she would roll her eyes and turn her head away from me to stare at her father, her brother, a wall….anything but me.  If I persisted in attempting to communicate with her, she would occasionally acquiesce by blinking.  One blink for yes, two blinks for no….and thus was how the remainder of our first vacation went.

I couldn’t wait to go home, send her packing and go back to work.

It Wasn’t Me!

Vacation #2 started much the way vacation #1 had….with a false sense of progress.  This time we were staying in a small community of cabins.  We were also vacationing with my husband’s family, which made for an easy transition into the week as the kids played together, with their grandparents and us.

This was my first vacation with my husbands family and I was a little nervous and unsure of my overall place within the group, but the trip was shaping up to be a pleasant and relaxing getaway….and then….the shit hit the fan….or rather, an Aerobie Flying Ring hit my step-daughter.

It happened as the two of us, step-daughter and I, were practically skipping our way to a swing set at the opposite end of a large yard that stretched out from the front of our cabin.  My husband and step-son were tossing the Aerobie back and forth when it took a slice and nicked my step-daughter in the head. Immediately, she erupted in a frenzy of sobs.  I took a quick look and seeing no blood, no scrapes, no forming bruises or red marks, scooped her up and headed toward my husband, the thrower of the Flying Death Ring, as he made his way toward us.

When we met, I passed my wailing step-daughter over to her father and the three of us headed toward our cabin to assess the wound as she continued to shriek as though she had just been struck by a 90mph fastball.

Once inside, I was surprised to see….well, nothing.  Five minutes later, as we inspected the area for any signs of damage as she continued to wail, I was shocked to find….well, nothing.  Twenty minutes later, as the wails subsided to tiny sobs, I was worried by the fact that….well nothing….except the possibility of freezer burn caused by the baggie of ice pressed to the area.

Here’s the thing, I’m sure it hurt….probably stung a bit….and given the unexpectedness of the moment, likely scared her more than anything….and while I did my best to hang on the periphery of the moment as a caring, slightly better than a stranger, presence….I also wanted to suggest she shake it off and move on.

Both kids tend to have overly dramatic reactions to the most minute of injuries or illnesses.  Tiny scrapes the size of a pin-head, have the potential for amputation and require tylenol, ice packs and wound care requiring a medical license to apply.  A minor cold….death bed. For weeks after any injury/illness, both kids continue to dwell on it….drawing the worst possible conclusions in the event of a recurrence and the elaborate steps that must be taken to avoid it….“I’m never going to play outside at that park again.”  “I’ll never be able to look at that sidewalk in the same way.”

I recognize it’s not unusual for children to be overly dramatic about these things and that often other feelings are happening….a desire for attention, specifically….however, in our blended family, I also know that it’s typically in these moments an otherwise pleasant event will change course.  I am almost always inadvertently or directly to blame for whatever happened.

So, I must be targeted, isolated and pushed from the fold like an injured animal booted from the herd. In this particular instance, once the tears had subsided and my husband announced he was heading back outside, I took the opportunity to ask my step-daughter if she would like to try and head back to the swings.

She replied by shooting me her well practiced stink-eye as she averted her gaze to her father…refusing to acknowledge me….and so it began.

For the remainder of our vacation, she scowled and sulked any time I dared to be in her presence. Once again….home….and the telltale beep that means their mother has come to collect them….couldn’t come quick enough.

Gandhi-Like

Vacation #3 started with no promise of success, so at least the expectations were thoroughly established before pulling out of the driveway. We were taking a family road trip to a kid-centric resort for the kids spring break.

This was our first vacation as a family of five, my first vacation with a child of my own and my first vacation post cancer treatment.  I was looking forward to the break, making a nice memory and just focusing on being relatively normal again….my step-daughter had other plans. It started the morning before we departed.

While my husband finished loading up the car, the kids and I sat at our kitchen table “eating” breakfast….except my step-daughter wasn’t eating…she was staring at it. I encouraged her to eat….tried to crack jokes….but she just stared at me….expressionless….and I half expected her to say….”Que?  No comprende.”

Then she began to cry….so I went to find her father. He spoke with her privately, trying to ascertain what was happening to no avail.  She returned to the table and after what seemed like 427 hours later, she had eaten a thimbleful of food and we were on our way.

At every meal stop, the hunger strike continued….mixed with more tears and blank stares….she would push her food around on her plate attempting to create the illusion of progress….hide food in her napkin….or disguise it in her hand and then throw it on the floor when she thought no one was watching. When asked what was going on, she would say her head hurt….her finger hurt….the toe she stubbed seven months ago hurt.

It was a pattern that continued throughout the entire vacation, eventually matriculating into every activity as well and she sulked, pouted and whined her way through the remainder of the week.

Her behavior was worrisome and scary for her dad and I both.  It was clear she was struggling, but unable or unwilling to share whatever was happening….but it didn’t take a child psychologist to figure out what was happening….it was what always happened….her mother had successfully infected yet another vacation.

Tell Me How Much You’ll Miss Me! 

While I don’t believe the EX, who I refer to as Leeroy Massengill….Leeroy, because she resembles a 12-year-old boy and Massengill because….well, I’m sure you can solve that one….intends to cause her children any hurt, I do believe she’s blinded by her own insecurities and a specific agenda, which includes a desperate need to be seen as some kind of martyr.

She peppers the kids with passive aggressive statements that manipulate their feelings and create a sense of guilt if they express joy at spending time with us….instead of encouraging them to enjoy their time with their dad and allowing them the emotional freedom to say so. Crazy Ex It’s a sad burden they shouldn’t have to carry and for that I feel genuine sympathy for the kids….but I also wish it wasn’t a burden that had to implode at some point during every….single….vacation.

As a mom myself….a mom with a job outside of the home….my vacation time is really important to me.  It’s my opportunity to disconnect from the stressors of work, relax, enjoy some free time and devote my full attention to my family while building happy memories.

My husband and I collectively work really hard to provide nice trips and opportunities for the kids and I want to be able to enjoy it….desperately. We head out soon….maybe this will be the year it actually happens.

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