The first day I met the three children who would later become my step-children, the signs were there.
As their father stood outside at the gas pump, I made small talk with the three little strangers who sat, wide-eyed in the backseat of their dad’s car. “So, what plans do you have for summer? What do you all like to do for fun?” They did not answer my questions. Not wanting to be rude, the middle child leaned in from the back seat and whispered a warning to me, “You should be quiet in Dad’s car. It’s bugged.” Upon expansion, he offered that his mother had warned the children to not speak in their dad’s presence because their dad (my then fiance) had installed spying paraphernalia throughout the vehicle, complete with tracking devices. Apparently he had also installed spying devices throughout the bedrooms of the house the children called home.
He was just eight years old.
Imagine being an eight-year-old child and not feeling safe enough to speak in your father’s car or in the room of the house in which you call home.
A few weeks later, when I offered to drive the kids to and from school because their mother had been tied up in a meeting, the oldest child told me, “My mom will never accept any help from you or Dad. She doesn’t like you.”
A sobering observation issued by an 11-year-old on the opinion of her own mother, whom I had never met.
Eventually, I would go on to marry their father, and eventually there would be a custody battle, parenting-time court battles, false accusations hurled, and a whole myriad of messes that would sometimes bring me to the fetal position in sheer agony. I had brought my own children into this mess and was not emotionally available to them because I had been entangled in the discord that was my new life.
I went on to make some pretty serious mistakes. I dipped into my retirement savings to hire lawyers to defend us in court when the threat of losing my step-children was delivered in the form of a six-page court document. I began to doubt my choice to fall in love with a man whose baggage included a very bitter and litigious ex-wife. As time went on, I began to feel like a captive in my own home, always worrying when the other shoe would fall.
Despite the heartaches I would face as a grown woman, I was no victim. It was my step-children who dealt with the brunt of it—a fact that I would come full circle to understand almost a decade later.
I share these experiences to ground you in the part I played that made things tougher in the world in which these three children, my step-children, had to navigate. Theirs was a world filled with divorce and division, the weekly uprooting of their lives, differing parenting styles, and in which they would have to make sense of the new woman and children in their dad’s life. I am convinced that one does not know the back-breaking burden of the word “hard” until they have stepped into the shoes of a step-child.
Don’t get me wrong. I never stooped to the ex-wife’s level. I never name-called or spoke negatively about her in front of the kids. When the step-kids complained or name-called their own mother, I was the step-mother who demanded they respect their mother in our house. I made sure they wrote out Mother’s Day cards and birthday cards. Their father expected the same from them. One time, when I reminded them that their mother’s birthday was on the horizon and that they should, at the very least, write her a letter, the youngest asked, “Why do you care it’s her birthday? She doesn’t even like you.” I don’t recall what or how I answered; I just remember having a fleeting sense of hope that my step-daughter would someday see the difference in her mother and me.
Mistake #1: I balked at the notion of one-on-one time.
When a counselor suggested that my husband and I each take our own children out for separate weekends, I balked. Having separate dinner dates or outdoor excursions seemed like the antithesis of what we were trying to build: a united family. But looking back, would it have been healthy to play on that idea by having individual dates with each child? Probably. But instead, we did everything as a family unit, giving us very little individual time alone with our own children or with our step-children. I learned that sometimes doing what’s good for the order also means doing what’s best for individuals that belong to the order.
Mistake #2: I kept hoping that the ex-wife and I would one day be friends.
I mistakenly thought that one day the step-kids’ mom and I would be friends. That is how it was in my first marriage. My first husband also had an ex-wife. She was exquisite, a former model, standing at 5’11”. When I first met her, I remember thinking that she was impossibly gorgeous. We hit it off instantly. She and my then-husband also had a child together, my step-daughter, whom we shared. My former husband’s ex-wife and I loved each another so much that we went on standing dates together; at least two times a month we went out for Cosmopolitans.
So when my husband mentioned to me that his ex-wife more than likely wouldn’t welcome me with the same fervor that my former husband’s ex had, I laughed at him. Alas, he was right, although I never gave up hope. I figured one day she’d get tired of all the BS, but that day never came. I learned that I can’t wish people into wanting to play nice.
Mistake #3: I took things personally and lost perspective.
Everything that I perceived as “bad” happening to us, I took especially personally. When the court documents arrived, when she refused to communicate with us over the children’s health care, when she didn’t give us permission to take the step-kids on holiday out of town, when the kids came to our home with stories of invectives their mother spewed about us, when she demanded to know how much money I made so that she could sue me for child support—all of it, I took to heart. I cried, worried, and felt sorry for myself.
Until one day when I found myself in the office of a dear friend who spoke a magical sentence that would be with me until this very day: “…but aren’t you glad that you never have to wake up and be her?” And with that, I regained my perspective. Shit happens, ex-wives happen, but the sun still sets and rises. Denied to many, were the days I was taking for granted and wasting away with worry. I learned that sometimes it’s not what happens to us but how we react to it, that makes all the difference.
Mistake #4: I let my marriage suffer.
Many nights I went to bed angry at my spouse. Why did he not warn me about this? How could he not see this coming? Couldn’t he just cave in to all her demands and make her go away? Looking back at it, I’m glad he didn’t cave in because then it would have been another demand and then another and then another. She would have never stopped. It wasn’t more custodial time she was after. It wasn’t even about the child support. It was about her bitterness because her ex-husband had moved on. He wasn’t supposed to find his happy ending just a few years after their divorce. He was supposed to suffer longer.
But I didn’t see it then.
I developed a hard shell of blame and wasted so much time being angry at him for not protecting me from the madness that was his ex-wife. We stopped experiencing a life of growth and experiences and found ourselves in an overt state of reaction. It was nuts, and sometimes I wonder how we made it out alive, but we did. My husband has the patience of a saint, so there’s that. I let my marriage suffer needlessly. I should have trusted more and had faith that, in the end, things would be OK. I learned that a marriage is something that should be leaned into, taken care of, and nourished, especially (and even) in the darkest of times.
Mistake #5: I let myself go.
Listen, you can’t spend months and years in a state of worry and anger and NOT come out disfigured. I stopped doing all the things I enjoyed: running, lifting, reading, etc. because I didn’t have time for them. I needed to read up on the law, familiarize myself with whether his ex-wife could lay claim to my monthly salary. I did my homework on family law and could probably practice law now—that’s how much I immersed myself in the issues we faced. I stopped caring about myself and turned my concentration over to fighting the good fight.
Frank Sinatra once said, “The best revenge is massive success.” You’ve gotta love that quote. Success, for me, would have looked like staying the course on focusing on myself, being centered, and finding peace through it all. But I abandoned everything that made me feel successful and happy. I learned that at the end of the day, your health and well-being are critical; without those things, you can’t be any good to anyone, especially yourself.
If you’re reading this, chances are that you, too, have step-children. And chances are, you too will make mistakes—and that’s OK. Mistakes are how our vulnerabilities mask themselves, how those around us make sense of who we are, and how we learn and grow.
Being a step-parent isn’t easy. I made mistakes. Lots of them, fueled by the disfiguring emotions to which I relinquished control: doubt, anger, and fear. Your first reaction might be to judge me, for my loss of control, succumbing to stupid insecurities, and being weak. As a society we judge one another for our mistakes and choices incessantly. The easiest thing for you to do is to look at my mistakes as a step-parent and criticize.
The much harder thing would be for you to look at my mistakes as a step-parent and learn from them.