Step-mothering for newbies

Today I'm thrilled to be hosting a terrific guest post from Andrea L. Golding, a friend and recent mid-stage stepmother who generously agreed to share her thoughts about gaining an instant mid-stage step-crew of four boys, 7-17, all at once. I love her insights and honesty as she talks about her experiences in negotiating her new life that suddenly included lots of gym socks on the floor, merit badges, eye rolling, and fifty percent custody. Thanks, Andrea!

In November of 2011, I had a pretty great life. I had a job in the federal government that I mostly liked and I lived in Alexandria, Virginia – a great community full of interesting things to do – and next door to Washington, D.C. – an even greater city with even more interesting things to do.  I owned a home in a funky, but slightly down-trodden little neighborhood completely full of interesting people.  (Those stories would be an entirely different, but fascinating blog post.)  I was fully integrated into my neighborhood, church congregation, and work environment. 

Later that month, I “met” (online) a man who had real potential.  Actually, compared with the dregs of society I generally found in the world of online dating, he had tremendous potential.  We shared membership in the same church, he was good and kind, he had a good job, and he could use who and whom correctly.  (His correct grammar is, honestly, why I continued talking to him after our initial communication.)  Scott also had four sons (17, 14, 11, and 7 at the time), lived in Jacksonville, Florida, and couldn’t relocate because of custody agreements.  Now there was a dilemma.  To complicate matters further, at the same time I was trying to figure out whether this relationship was for real, I received a job offer that would allow me to live in Copenhagen.  Denmark.  For two years. I know!

However, I felt in the deepest parts of my heart that I would never be happier with anyone other than Scott.  I decided that, after many false starts and lots of waiting, this was my chance for love.  I took a great big breath and …. jumped!  In late July of 2012, we packed up my house in Alexandria and drove our not-quite-big-enough U-Haul to Fernandina Beach, Florida.  The morning after we arrived, we closed on a house and moved in later that day.  The next day, I drove Scott and the boys to the airport so they could fly to the Northwest to see parents/grandparents before the wedding.  I flew out the next day to spend some time with my family in Utah.

Driving Scott and the boys to the airport that day was a revelation to me.  The boys were super-excited about air travel and seeing the grandparents.  They were bouncing all over the back seat, torturing each other as you do in small, enclosed spaces moving at high speeds.  By the time we got through the 30-minute drive to the airport, I was a wreck.  I said goodbye to Scott through sobs and scrambled back into the car.  I spent the drive back plus a few more hours trying to figure out if there was any way I could get out of this gracefully.  It didn’t take long to determine that grace would have nothing to do with an exit.  We had purchased a home together, I no longer had a job, and I had a tenant living in my home in Virginia.  Oh, and then there was that wedding planned to happen in less than a week.  After a few more hours of snort-sobbing and a good night’s sleep, I came to the conclusion that I had come this far and I might as well give this marriage/step-mother thing a shot. I could re-think it later when it might not be quite as embarrassing since I had given it the old college try.  How’s that for a marriage strategy?  Inspiring, no?

Once we got down to regular life, things were better than I thought they would be.  The boys and I got along fairly well and things poked along through the fall.  I actively avoided spending time alone with them because, honestly, the prospect terrified me.  Looking back, I think I was afraid they would see through the Carol Brady role I was acting the heck out of and discover me for the fraud I was. However, they are very good boys and really wanted the situation to work so they kindly did not take down the adult who was obviously the weakest in the herd.  Besides that, we only had them fifty percent of the time. 

When that first December rolled around, Scott and I took them to buy their Christmas gifts for each other.  It was horrifying.  Foot-stomping, can-I-haves, and disappointment at empty shelves in a packed Super WalMart were all part of the experience.  I shudder in memory.  When their mom came to get them at 2:00 pm on Christmas Day per the custody agreement, I’d had them ready and waiting for an hour.

Things improved from there.  For my birthday in February I received some handmade planters for the deck and a cake with “We (heart) U” on it spelled out with chocolate chips.  I started to see that they really cared for me that day and weren’t just tolerating the situation.  I also received a hand-made Mother’s Day card in May because he couldn’t find a step-mother card in the store.  He’s very literal, that one.

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So, after this long exposition you probably want to know what I’ve learned about entering kids’ lives as their step-mother when they are part-grown. There is nothing earth-shattering here, but here they are:

  • They are each their own person and able to exercise a great deal of influence within a family, both good and bad.  Dealing with others’ moods and personalities in an intimate space is not something I’ve done in the last 25 years or so.  Lots of adjusting there.
  • Fifty-fifty custody is the BEST!  There is enough time to enjoy them, but just when they start to get truly irritating . . . Behold!  It is time to send them to their mother.
  • It is incredibly rewarding to make a difference in the way kids develop their personalities, values, and ethics.  For example, since joining the family I’ve consistently taught the boys about (harped upon?) the need for women to have strong roles in the community, workplace, church, and home and that only good things will result.  I’ve also expanded their political awareness.  Since I have lived in rural Florida, I have not been to one public place with a television that plays any news channel other than the most conservative one available.  Not that there is any reason why it shouldn’t be playing, but seriously?  That’s that only valid source of news available?  Hopefully, the  boys are starting to ask some of those questions themselves.
  • I enjoy talking with them and being their friend.  In the interest of brutal honesty, I have to admit that it has only been during the last two months that I have been able to say that, but it is true.  We often really enjoy being together.  Actually, I should probably survey the studio audience since I’m not sure the boys enjoy spending time with me, but at least I enjoy spending time with them.
  • It is okay to want to spend time by myself or as a couple.  Since Scott has spent the last few years focusing exclusively on the boys, once in a while I have to drag him out the door to spend time with just us, but generally we are on the same page.  In my world, that fifty-fifty custody agreement has been vital to a healthy new marriage in the context of a step-family.
  • It is a challenge not to speak negatively about the ex-spouse.  The boys say and do things from time to time that make both Scott and me raise our eyebrows, but we work very hard not to say anything negative about their mom EVER.  We let her rules apply at her house and ours at ours.  Values are different in each home and so activities differ.  As challenging as this is for us, I can’t imagine how the boys must feel having two different regimes to answer to.  They are brave souls.
  • This is not news to parents of kids these ages, but the pre-teen eye rolls, sulks, and persecution complexes make me cuh-razy.  I wish they could easily understand that the world (and especially your step-mother) is not out to get you and that someone, somewhere on the face of the earth has had it harder than you.  I certainly haven’t figure out how to deal with this one yet except to grit my teeth and talk quietly, but passionately to the cantaloupe I am slicing for dinner.

We still all have a long way to go, but the second year has been considerably easier than the first.  I am starting to see light at the end of the tunnel and am no longer just hanging on until they leave for college or a church mission. Although we’ve had some ups and downs (hello summer vacation), things have been progressively better through the year.  This year, when we took them Christmas shopping again it was abundantly clear that we have all changed and perhaps progressed a great deal.  We actually had fun this year including laughing and gentle teasing and part of the driving done by a driver with only a permit.  (I have developed nerves of steel, I tell you.)  The older ones provided advice to me about presents for the younger brother and they were all pretty good sports about budget limitations.  It was great!

Lest you be confused, things certainly aren’t all rosy.  One of the highlights of our recent family conversations was a wish expressed to his dad by the now eight year-old.  “I wish you and mom would get back together.  Andrea could live with us too; she could cook for us.”  All of a sudden, I was Alice.  That took my breath away.  Since then, both Scott and I have taken pains to ensure that they see us as a couple and make clear that I am not just the cook.  I still cannot get over the hurdle of referring to “our family” or telling them that I love them.  I have faith that it will happen someday, though. 

Andrea has lived in northern Utah, Seoul, Philadelphia, northern Virginia and currently resides in North Florida.  She is a daughter to an amazingly tough mother, sister to three hilarious women, wife to a truly great man, and step-parent to three really good boys.  After leaving a 12 year career at the U.S. Department of State, Andrea now devotes her free time to the local Friends of the Library organization, quilt guild, Boy Scouts, her church, and an early morning religion course for high school students.