The Joyful Wound: Blended Families and Disneyland Dads
Sometimes, though, that’s exactly what it feels like. Being a blended family is hard. And not just because my husband’s ex-wife (the Ew) is kind of a terrible person. Even if she were the kindest, most reasonable and responsible person in the world (and let me reiterate again that she really isn’t), being a blended family would be hard. There are all kinds of assumptions about what family looks like in this culture — mom, dad, 2.8 kids, dog, white picket fence. It hurts to be so far from that stereotype that you’re almost unrecognizable.
This morning, I got an email from one of the directors of the Seattle Volunteer Naturalist program asking if Jeff and I would be able to teach for a couple hours during a weekend in early March. Jeff’s kids will be visiting for two weeks and we’ll be making airport runs for the next three weekends, juggling our schedules, with Jeff taking half-days during the week and both of us trying to work from home while the kids are here — so we had to say no to the teaching gig. It was amazingly hard to write that email.
Maybe it shouldn’t have been. It’s not like people aren’t always very understanding about just how weird our lives are. But living across the country from your kids is like always living cut in half. The wound stays pretty raw. It’s hard not to feel like you always have to justify yourself.
It was hard not to write a novel-length email reply explaining that these weeks with the kids are some of the only times we get to see them, and trying to communicate just how much guilt we feel if we put any obligations ahead of spending time with them while they’re here. And at the same time, hearing that little voice in your head accusing you of being a “Disneyland Dad” (or in my case, a Disneyland Stepmom, which is probably way worse) — spoiling the kids and treating their visits like a vacation, instead of being able to live an ordinary, day-to-day life with them. It’s hard not to worry that by putting your own life on hold whenever they come to visit, you’re teaching them to be selfish and giving them unreasonable expectations of what parenthood is like instead of setting a good example for them of what it looks like to balance parenthood with the important work of self-care and seeking a fulfilling life that doesn’t have to be lived vicariously through your children. And all the while, you’re also carrying around the guilt of knowing that when they’re not around, you have far more freedom and flexibility than “normal” parents do, even if you never stop thinking about them for one second and you’re always in a delicate process of negotiation between guilt and love. You know that plenty of people might see the twice-weekly Skype calls and child support payments as the bare minimum you should be doing, people who don’t know how the Ew actively tried to push your husband out of the kids’ lives and reduce him to the role of an endless ATM. (Or how to this day she refuses to recognize your marriage or your role in the kids’ lives as a stepmother.)
Or maybe at the family Christmas party, your uncle makes a well-intentioned joke comparing stepmotherhood to his wife babysitting the neighbor’s kids part-time, and you’re so shocked that you can’t even reply. You’re hurt, but you’re also ashamed of being hurt, because you know he didn’t mean anything by it. You’re embarrassed that you’re walking around with this wound that is always so raw that even the smallest slight stings, and you know that it’s unreasonable to expect everyone to know what it’s like. After all, you didn’t know what it was like to live in a blended family; you had no idea how hard it was to be a stepmom until you stepped into that role. And now you go through life in a strange kind of limbo: child-free by choice, but with all of the financial responsibilities and emotional commitments of a parent (except without any input into their daily well-being, and the secret worry that you’ve abandoned them); viewed by society as not really a mother because they’re not your kids, and not really an adult because a “real woman” understands motherhood, and yet painfully aware that your choice not to have kids of your own was deeply influenced by your love and sense of obligation to your husband’s kids.
You can even understand how some of your divorced friends who had to share custody with obnoxious ex-husbands might be more sympathetic with the kids’ mom and her insecurities, especially when the kids talk about how excited and eager they are to come visit you while she tells herself how she’s the one putting in the hard work every day to do all the “real” parenting. If the Ew weren’t rather awful in other ways that have nothing to do with being a divorced parent, you might even feel some sympathy for her.
As it is, you just have to get used to walking around wounded.
But it’s also totally worth it. The kids will be here this coming weekend, and I’m so excited. There are so many things out here in Seattle that Jeff and I want to share with them: our favorite places to hike, our cool and totally nerdy friends — hell, even the weather (which this week so far has been somewhat mild, somewhat sunny, full of beautiful skies and the beginnings of daffodil blossoms). I’m looking forward to hanging out with them, laughing with them, and marveling at how they’re growing up to be utterly amazing people.
Being a stepmom is like having to learn how to be bravely and joyfully wounded. How to be fiercely protective and graceful in your impotence all at the same time. It’s having to be honest about your wounds, to learn how to teach by example what it’s like to bear them courageously and lovingly — while at the same time fighting like hell to make sure the kids don’t grow up with any deep wounds of their own, if you can possibly spare them. It’s also learning to accept that they might grow up with wounds anyway, and they might think you’re full of shit no matter what explanations you give them for the choices you made… if you’re lucky enough to get them to listen at all. It’s knowing that they might even be right, and you’re making all the wrong choices. But you suck it up and have a little trust and try to practice some preemptive self-forgiveness.
And then you make sure all the extra towels and spare sheets are washed and the apartment is clean and ready, and you and your husband go out and have a nice dinner date, just the two of you, and you tell each other how in love you are, and how deeply you believe that you are both doing your best and that it’s all worth it. Because it totally is.