Stepmonster – A Book Review

Stepmonster

Angela talked about one aspect of children and marriage in her post this morning. When you and your spouse have children together, it becomes far more challenging to balance your priorities and give your marriage the attention it needs. There’s another place where children and marriage intersect: step-parenting. When you fall in love with someone who is already a parent, or when you’re a parent who falls in love anew, the stepparent role is a difficult one to navigate.

About Stepmonster

Review of Stepmonster from a mom trying to help her kids with their father's remarriageWednesday Martin’s book Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do can help. As you can tell, this book is targeted at women. There’s a real reason for that. While being a stepfather is no walk in the park, stepmothers are burdened with impossible cultural expectations and tropes. Our children grow up thinking of Snow White’s as the archetype of a stepchild, the witch-queen as the model of a stepmother. That’s a hard narrative to overcome. The title of the book is a reference to this perception of stepmothers. When we hear “stepmonster” we often can’t help but envision a stepmonster.

Martin is herself the stepmother of two who has managed to make it work, although it hasn’t been easy. As she writes in the introduction to Stepmonster, “Step-hell was for stepmonsters, and I wasn’t going there. Until I was.” She talks about how integrating a stepmother and stepchildren is inherently disruptive. The husband/father will get caught in the middle, especially if the children had been accustomed to having his time and attention to themselves.

Martin points out that most research and writing on integrating existing children into a new marriage focuses on the children. The effort to make things work is expected to come from the stepmother. Little heed is paid to the stepmother’s needs and challenges. Any failure in a stepmother/stepchild relationship is blamed on the stepmother, although I think all of us know that our children are not always angels. A stepmother is not a mother. Yes, there are occasions in which a stepmother fills the role of adoptive mother, but these are rare compared to the stepmother who doesn’t quite have the right to discipline the children, the stepmother who is expected to love her stepkids as her own even though there’s no expectation that they should love her in the way their love their own mother.

Possibly my favourite passage from the book is this one. It captures so well the unrelenting complexity of divorce, children and remarriage.

Though well-intentioned, the increasingly widespread belief that remarriage with children should be child-centric and change-free as possible can lead to stress for everyone involved. It is easy to see how it might be stressful for the woman with stepchildren. But research also shows that high levels of closeness and involvement between exes are as confusing and counterproductive for children as are high levels of conflict. Children are likely to wonder, “If you like each other so much and get along so well, why did you get a divorce?” and feel profoundly perplexed about what exactly makes a good relationship.

Why I Read Stepmonster

I wasn’t the target audience of this book. It is intended for stepmothers and stepmothers-to-be. I picked it up, however, for insight into how I could ease my daughters’ relationship with their father’s new (and now ex-) wife.

My kids hadn’t really even begun processing the reality of my divorce when their father remarried. We divorced in June of 2012, he moved in with his new girlfriend in September, and they were married in February of 2013. I needed to make this okay for my kids. I had reached out to my ex’s then-girlfriend, mother to mother, she having two young daughters of her own. We needed to put all four children first in this messy family reorganization. She was wonderfully receptive, but I didn’t feel like I could talk to her about my kids’ treatment of her without disrespecting my ex’s boundaries. So, I did what I do, looked for blogs and books that would help me understand the other side of this story. Stepmonster was the answer.

What I Learned from Stepmonster

Stepmonster has a lot of lessons for the brand new stepmother or the woman considering getting serious with a partner who already has children. A stepmother is not the stepchild’s mother. It’s okay not to have the unconditional adoration of a mother. A stepchild is not a stepmother’s child. It’s okay for the child not to have the love and trust in his stepmother that he has in his mother. The father/husband has a role to play. It’s not fair or appropriate to expect stepmother and stepchild to figure out where the boundaries lie. A father/husband has an active responsibility in making things work, respecting his new wife’s need for respect and boundaries, understanding his child’s misgivings about this replacement of her mother.

What I took away from this book was the role I could play. Martin didn’t really spell it out, but reading between the lines, I could see that I needed to do everything in my power to avoid feeding the stepmonster image of stepmotherhood.

I talked to my ex’s girlfriend, letting her know that I recognized that she would be an important part of my children’s lives, asking how I could help. I thanked her for every gesture she made to bring my children within her family, and she made many. She even went toe-to-toe with my children’s father, insisting that they needed to feel like they always had a place in their home, even if they were there only rarely. She insisted that they be allowed to have toothbrushes at their apartment. She set up a second bunk bed in her daughters’ room with my daughters’ names on it. She took my daughters to visit her parents at Thanksgiving, and her mom treated them no differently from her own granddaughters.

I’m not a jealous type, so that came easily. I know that some mothers fear that a close bond between children and their stepmothers threatens the mother-child bond. I just don’t see it that way. My kids have plenty of love for both each other and me. Why couldn’t they love their stepmother too?

In part, I’d learned from my own experience as a stepchild. Well, I’ve never knowingly met my stepmother of 20ish years, so perhaps it’s overstating it to call myself a stepchild. But I do know that the bitterness and venom that my mother spewed about my father’s girlfriends and the woman he eventually married did nothing but make me resent my mother and perceive her as being petty and selfish. It certainly didn’t make me love or trust her more.

I promised myself that I would not allow myself to feed into what Martin calls the “typical stepmother conundrum”: “the husband’s ex who wants it both way, giving us responsibility but not granting authority.” It was easy to keep boundaries with my ex; I was accustomed to taking care of business without his help, since he’d been deployed overseas for half our marriage. I was always the one who fixed plumbing issues and sealed the countertops, so I didn’t look to him for that stuff, although there was one time while we were waiting out the 90 days for our divorce to be finalized that he helped me look for my keys. (The cat had decided that they were toys and shoved them under a stool.) Our boundaries weren’t without issue, however. Our elderly neighbours were irate on observing me packing up my house to move without my ex helping watch the kids or lift some of the heavier boxes. I didn’t know 80-year-old Hispanic women possessed the colourful language I heard on that subject!

When There’s Another Divorce

Martin cites the following statistics: the divorce rate for couples in which one partner comes in with a child or children is 65%. When both partners already have children, it’s a depressing 70%. Only 5% of survey respondents considered stepchildren to be an asset to their marriages.

Stepmonster gives some advice on beating those odds. Just as in our post Finding Time for Romance When You Have Kids this morning, she argues that the marriage has to come first. Time alone is essential. Convincing your partner of this isn’t easy, but it’s critical. Having a child together is a wonderful thing, but it won’t decrease tension at all. It will increase it. A stepchild might adore his half-sibling, but that doesn’t mean he won’t resent what that sibling represents.

Unfortunately for me and my daughters, there wasn’t much in Stepmonster to help guide me on how to handle Daddy’s second divorce in less than 2 years with my kids. When J expressed her disappointment at the loss of her stepmother and stepsisters, Daddy told her, “You just need to forget them.” I knew that wasn’t the answer. I didn’t need a book for that! I reached out to my ex’s new ex and asked her if she’d be willing to maintain casual contact between her daughters and mine. She agreed.

On the bright side, post-divorce isn’t nearly as much work as a good marriage!

Any stepmothers out there? Does this book sound like something you’d want to read?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

When the Kids Are Away, Mom Will… Think?

My daughters spent Christmas with their father and his extended family in Washington and Oregon. All told, they were away for 21 days. They’ve spent time with their Dad since he and I split up, even overnight, but never anything so long as this, and never far enough away that he couldn’t bring them home early, which he frequently did.

This was the first time in four years–the very first time since I’ve officially been a single mother–that I wasn’t on call. It just so happened that this time coincided with my annual vacation, when the university at which I work was closed. For all but two of the days that my daughters were away, I was off work, my time to be spent as I wished.

As you might imagine, I had grand plans for my 19 days home alone. I would finally unpack the last of the boxes from my move nearly a year and a half ago. Maybe I would even find my swimsuit! I would replace some of the plumbing in my bathroom and wash all the carpet in my home. I would get caught up on laundry and bake in preparation for our annual cookie decorating party and Girl Scout troop gingerbread house event. I would get a massage and reorganize my kitchen. I would clean the children’s room from top to bottom and restore our spare room to a guest room from the little boy room it would no longer be, my attempt to adopt having failed earlier in the year.

I sat down to write out a schedule for my vacation and began to feel stress creeping into my shoulder muscles. Vacation, a staycation especially, should feel stress-free, right? I put away my notebook and decided to wing it. The only things on my schedule would be physical therapy, the daily phone call to the girls, a visit with extended family who would be in town, and returning to work and picking up the kids. (And I managed to miss going back to work. I completely missed my first day back, instead sleeping in and washing my carpets. Big oops!)

I spent the first two days cleaning like a crazy person. My living room became a pleasure to be in rather than a reminder that I was behind on laundry. My kitchen counters returned to a functional state. I baked for fun, rather than under the gun. I sat by the fireplace and read by firelight with a cat in my lap.

Gingerbread houses under construction at hdydi.com

After the first frenzy of cleaning, I found myself doing a lot of reading and writing on parenting and other matters, processing getting dumped (in March 2012) and my ex-husband’s rapid remarriage, the end of my army wife career, and the genuine preference I have for romance-free life. It was therapeutic, thinking, without my daughters’ everyday physical and emotional needs front and centre.

Don’t get me wrong. I feel plenty guilty for all that I failed to accomplish during my 19 days of liberty/missing my kids. I feel guilty despite knowing that I needed the time to grieve the demise of my mother-father-and-two-kids family, grieve the loss of my relationship with my former in-laws, and accept the knowledge that I have only myself to rely on.

After the highly scheduled life of a single working mother of schoolchildren, it was foreign, but necessary, to ignore the clock and calendar and just be. I think I have more of a sense of self now than I’ve had in years. I think I’ll be a better mother for taking this time to just be.

When was the last time you took a moment for yourself, to just be?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Long-Distance Parenting

My kids are spending the holidays with their father at their paternal grandparents’ house. Without me.

This is just one of the realities of parenting after divorce. This year, I’m home in Texas while my girls are in Washington state, their father getting a little break from North Carolina to visit his childhood home with the kids.

I’m the custodial parent. I don’t pretend that my 3 weeks of long-distance parenting makes me an expert on the subject. I get to be there for the day-to-day realities of homework, dance lessons and play dates. I get to meet all the kids’ friends, attend school performances, and nurture friendships with my girls’ mentors. I get to go to church with them and witness their arguments. I get to play Tooth Fairy and nutritional consultant. I get to do the bulk of parenting, simply by virtue of physical proximity. I get to be the one to raise our children. That can’t be easy for my ex-husband.

Nevertheless, this 21 day separation has granted me some insight into the reality of parenting when you don’t live near your kids

  1. Communicate with your children every day. Every. Single. Day. If you can’t telephone, write to them. If you don’t know their address or they’re too young to read, fill notebook after notebook and write to them for the day they’re able to read your letters. That day will come, and you will want to have been a parent every day of their lives.
  2. Foster individual relationships. Your kids have different needs and interests. Resist the urge to talk at them or to have the same conversation with all your kids. Listen to what each of them has to tell you. Remember what they’re interested in and who their friends are. My girls made friends with a couple of their grandparents’ neighbourhood dogs. You can be sure that I’ll be asking my babies whether they run into their new puppy friends again.
  3. Maintain discipline. Yes, I’m 2000 miles away. My kids still don’t get to get away with bad manners. I overheard my daughter M yell to her sister to, “Stop that noise!” I wouldn’t let it go until she amended her request to “Please be a little quieter.”
  4. Be honest. Yes, it’s tempting to present only your best self to your children, especially if you only get a few minutes each day. They can detect inauthenticity. I promise they love you despite your imperfections, just as you love them.
  5. Resist the urge to lecture. Your time is limited and alienating your children doesn’t gain you anything. Confirm that they want your help before offering it. They may simply want to tell you about a difficult moment or challenge they’ve overcome without asking you for a solution. I’ve noticed that this listening without offering solutions can be especially difficult for male parents talking to female children. That may be just my family, though.
  6. Don’t share information with others without your child’s permission. My daughter J needed help with a holiday homework assignment but was insistent that she didn’t want to ask her father for help. Being far away, it was very tempting to just ask Daddy to help her out, but all that would have accomplished would have been losing my daughter’s trust. Instead, I helped her as best I could over the phone, locating age-appropriate websites she could use for her research on the city of Seattle. I encouraged her to ask Daddy for help, but promised that I wouldn’t do that for her.
  7. Be sensitive to their schedule. The fact is that you’re not there and your kids have things to do other than talk to you. When it was obvious to me that my conversation with my daughters was keeping them from going out in the snow, I cut our conversation short with a commitment that they’re tell me all about their snow adventures.

Have your children ever been away from you? How do you parent them at a distance?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

The Magic of Santa: All in the Details

The Magic of Santa from hdydi.com

Image modified from original by kevin dooley

Starting Out: Misgivings

I used to feel torn about whether to bring the magic of Santa Claus into our family. After all, I’d committed to raising our children Christian. I worried that the focus on Santa and gifts at Christmas detracted from the celebration of the birth of Jesus.

As an atheist myself, I found it hard to fathom setting up two fantastical myths for the kids to believe in, only to ask them to stop believing one when they were old enough. Santa and God, to my mind, were both white guys with beards who judged the goodness and badness of our behaviour and intentions, one rewarding us with gifts or coal, the other with Heaven or Hell. It didn’t make sense to me that my kids would continue to believe in God when they inevitably would discover that Santa was a communal practical joke.

I raised my concerns with my husband, who was Catholic and the reason we were raising our daughters Christian. He poopooed my concerns. After all, he’d figured out that Santa wasn’t real and his religious faith was none the worse for it. Santa and God were nothing alike. I halfheartedly agreed to “do Santa.”

As with many of the joys of the world, my twin daughters eventually won me over.

The Magic of Christmas from hdydi.com

Suspicious

At age 2.5, J and M were rather suspicious of this strange man who could break into our house at will on Christmas Eve. Here’s what I wrote about that Christmas:

M and J weren’t too sure about Santa Claus. J declared rather early in December that she didn’t want Santa coming to her house. In fact, when we were discussing the girls’ need for new pajamas, [Daddy] suggested that Santa might bring us some. J’s response: “No, Mama Daddy buy it, please.” On Christmas Eve, J finally gave into the idea of presents and begrudgingly said that Santa could visit. M suddenly decided that she no longer wanted Santa around. By bedtime Christmas Eve, though, the idea of setting out muffins and milk for Santa was too exciting to skip. (I was barred from any additional cookie baking, so I, I mean he, got mincemeat mini-muffins with his milk.)

Santa brought the girls two movies (Mary Poppins and a Backyardigans DVD) and the ultimate gift: a bicycle each. Given what a hit the bikes were, I figured that Santa was now a beloved addition to our family.

Not so. This morning, when M couldn’t find one of her dolls, J’s immediate suggestion was that Santa had taken it. We found the doll under M’s covers, but J still considers Santa to be a highly suspicious character.

Children Bring Magic

Every Christmas, my twin daughters, M and J, would receive gifts from both Mommy and Daddy and Santa. We didn’t bother with having Santa have his own wrapping paper or gift tags. The kids loved Christmas and that’s what mattered.

When the girls were about 4, I think, they figured out what was going on. Mommy and Daddy were actually Santa. I confessed, but asked the girls to remember that Santa was the idea of generosity at Christmas. They needed to play Santa too, and keep quiet about their discovery so that their friends could continue to believe in Santa. They did pretty well, but my friend Amanda told me that J had tried to burst her son’s bubble. We had quite the talk.

The following year, M and J had had enough of reality. “I choose to believe in Santa,” M told me, holding my eyes with hers with even more intensity than usual. I got the message loud and clear.The Magic of Christmas from hdydi.com

Keeping Santa Real

Now that I have marching orders from my girls to keep Santa real, I go at it with full gusto.

It seems to be working. The other day, now 7-year-old M told me, “Santa brought us presents even the year we didn’t believe in him. I think it’s because Grammy and Grampy are personal friends.”

It’s all in the details. My daughters are bright and want to believe. Together, we’ve come up with some pretty good rationalizations of Santa.

  • Santa’s gifts are the goody bags from Jesus’ birthday party.
  • Santa doesn’t use his own stationery or gift wrap. His sleigh is intended for gifts only. He uses whatever supplies are provided at the host home.
  • For homes that lack fireplaces and chimneys, Santa has a skeleton key that works only on Christmas Eve. He cannot let himself in any other day, and non-Santa entities can’t make the key work.
  • For divorced families in which kids celebrate Christmas twice, once on Christmas Day and once on another arbitrary date, Santa can make a special visit on a date other than Christmas Eve. He came to our house on December 14 and will be showing up to Grammy and Grampy’s house again on Christmas Eve. To make this work, the parent celebrating the non-traditional Christmas date must write to Santa.

There’s also some behind-the-scenes work I have to do, as well as the occasion for quick thinking.

  • Santa’s correspondence, whether in the kids’ school journals, is consistently in the same ink (brown permanent marker at our house) and in all caps to disguise my handwriting.
  • I make note of at least one toy, book or movie that each child has requested when we’re out and about that I’ve had to deny because of time or budgetary constraints. I make sure that Santa brings one of those things to each child.
  • I do my Christmas shopping online, since there’s no way for me to sneak out to the store without the kids. I don’t have anyone else to watch them without hiring a sitter or arranging a playdate. I suppose I could skip out during work, but my leave hours are rather limited after all the time I take off to attend school events and other extracurriculars.
  • I buy myself a Christmas gift from Santa. This year I/he got myself an Otterbox cover for my iPad. It was something I wanted, needed and saved for, but I could wait a few days to open it alongside the girls’ Christmas gifts.
  • I fill my own stocking. I got myself a book of crosswords from the dollar store, a candy bar and two Christmas DVDs the kids have been dying to see. They don’t need to know that the DVDs are really for them. They get joy from the magic of Mommy getting her own “surprises”.
  • I found a great trampoline for $200 off in October or November and bought it as Santa’s gift to the kids. I didn’t have a great place to hide the massive box, so I just stored it in the garage with the label side turned out of view. After over a month of it hiding in plain sight, M noticed it on December 14, the day before we were to celebrate Christmas. I thought very fast. Santa, I told her, had asked me store it for him because it was taking up too much room in his sleigh. He would come by and put it under the tree that night. J was shocked. “Did you see him?!” No, I told her, he’d just left a note.
  • On the subject of hiding gifts, your car trunk is a great place if you have kids who search for hidden presents. Their own closets are also remarkably effective hiding places.

Do your kids believe in Santa? What are your tricks to keeping the magic alive?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

I Almost Missed My Child’s Call for Help

I predicted that M would explode into emotion at some point after her therapist’s death. When it actually happened after she heard about her Dad’s impending second divorce, I nearly missed the opportunity to talk to her about how she was feeling.

help

My 7-year-olds share a room and each has her own lofted bed. Still, they sleep in the same bed most nights. Last night, after prayers, when they should have been settling in to sleep, they were still bickering.

“M kicked me!” J informed me.
“Only ’cause J punched me first.”
“There is no hitting or kicking in the family,” I reminded them.
“Sorry,” J apologized, almost convincingly.
“She punched me first!” countered M.
I stood firm. “You owe her an apology.”
“But…”
“No ‘but’. No hitting”
“But it was because…,” M kept trying to defend herself.
“No because. No hitting. No excuses.”
“But Mom!”
“No ‘but’,” I  insisted. “No excuses. We do not hit in this family for any reason. Use words or get help.”
“I hate this family!” M yelled.
“I’m sorry to hear that,” I told her. “I love you.”
She’d escalated to a full-throated scream by this point. She turned on her sister. “Get. Out. Of. My. Bed.”
“But I’m already settled,” J tried to argue.
“GET OUT!”
I tried to restore peace. “J, go ahead and go to your own bed. I can sleep with you.”
M was horrified. “Who’s going to sleep with me?”
“No one. You asked J to leave.”
“That’s not fair!” M took the default child position. “I want you to snuggle with me!”
“J may have been inappropriate at the start, but you’re the one making poor choices right now,” I explained. “This is a consequence.”
“I don’t feel loved,” M cried. “I don’t feel part of this family. I want to find another family.”
“Good luck finding a family that allows hitting and kicking and is still loving and safe,” I retorted. “I have these rules because I love you.”

I kissed both children good night and sat down on the couch to clear out the spam comments on this site before I tackled the Neverending Laundry Story. M’s words were echoing in my ears.

I don’t feel part of this family.
Family…
Family…

Realization hit all at once. She was upset about family. She was upset about Daddy’s divorce and confused about her standing with her stepmother and stepsisters. Her anger wasn’t directed at her sister, or even me, at all. We were the safe people in her life; she could act out with us. The family she didn’t feel part of was the bigger family, outside the safety of Mommy and Sissy.

I know that this is how M processes big emotions, with a massive explosion that makes way for her readiness to process things. Even knowing this, I almost missed it in the rush to bedtime, in my focus on M’s lack of self-discipline, in my quest for just treatment of my daughters.

I quite literally ran across the living room, down the hall, and into the girls’ room. They were both still awake.

“What?” J asked.
“I have to talk to M,” I told her. “I just realized something. Go to sleep, J Bear.”
I climbed into M’s bed and lowered my voice to speak to her.
“I’m so sorry, M. You’re upset about Daddy and Melissa’s divorce. Am I right?”
She nodded.

We talked and talked and talked. She told me about her confusion, her sadness, her anger. She told me that she was disappointed in her daddy. She told me she was embarrassed to tell her friends that she had two divorces. She told me that she didn’t think they gave their marriage enough time. She wondered why her stepmother hadn’t realized what Daddy’s being a soldier would mean before they got married. She wondered if her stepsisters would still love her. She wished her relatives weren’t all so far away. She wished people she loved who weren’t her relatives weren’t all so far away.

Maybe if people were allowed to marry 3 wives, she pondered, there wouldn’t need to be divorce. That way, Daddy could be married to me and Melissa and another person and would never have to be divorced. That way, she could still have a mom and stepmom and never have to know the word “divorce.”

She has more insight than she realizes.

Our discussion on her feelings of divorce slipped seamlessly into the other subject that’s been bothering her.

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “This is all too much sadness for a little 7-year-old to deal with.”
“I’m not little!” she told me, offended.
“Giant 7-year-old?”
“No, Mommy! I’m a normal 7-year-old girl, despite my looks.” (What? Your 7-year-old doesn’t use the word “despite” in regular conversation? Mine does.)
“What do you mean, ‘despite your looks’?” I asked, knowing full well what she meant.
My kissy nose.”
“Are people still making rude comments?”
“Yes, but Mrs. H is reading Wonder to our class. It’s only for 5th graders and 4th graders and 3rd graders but Mrs. C [the principal] said Mrs. H could read it to our class.”
“I’ve heard great things about it.”
“It’s so good! The character has a funny face like me…”

We talked more. Auggie, M thought, would understand her if only her weren’t fictional. I suggested that perhaps the author understood her, but M wasn’t interested in pursuing that train of thought. Auggie had a big sister who beat people up when they teased him, “kind of like J! Daddy told me she beat someone up at Chick-Fil-A for laughing at me.” (They were 2 years old. A big kid pushed M off the slide in the playscape and J let him have it with all of her 18 lbs.)

“I’m not exactly like him, though,” M mused.
“No?”
“He wishes he looked ordinary. I don’t want a different nose. I just want people not to tease me.”
“I’m sorry.”
“Some people scream when they see the character,” M told me.
“No one would do that to you.” I was relieved to have something positive to offer.
“But they scream with laughter.”
“That’s terrible. What should they do instead?”
“That should ask me! And I’ll tell them I was born this way! That’s all. That’s it. I’ll tell them it’s my kissy nose.”

M is adorable.

I almost missed M’s call for help in the midst of the daily grind.

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Another Divorce

Silly me. I thought that if I made my life as stable as humanly possible, I would be able to maintain my daughters’ sense of security despite my abrupt divorce nearly a year and a half ago. I thought I had parenting through divorce figured out.

I don’t control my daughters’ world, though. My job as a mother is to give them the tools they need to navigate life’s challenges, not to keep them from experiencing them. It’s so tempting, though, to want to keep them away from heartache, that it’s a good thing that hiding my babies away isn’t a real option.

On the night before Thanksgiving, J and M learned that their father was getting divorced again, this time from the stepmother they’d come to love in the year and a half since she entered their lives. He told M and J that their stepsisters were no longer their sisters. When J countered that we’d already bought their Christmas presents, he told her to tell me to return them. I quickly told her that she and her former stepsisters could continue their relationship regardless of their parents’ marital status. My ex-husband texted me his ex-wife’s address as soon as he got off the phone and we’ll be dropping their gifts in the mail.

As J told me once she was done sobbing, “I feel like Melissa [her stepmother] has one arm and Daddy has one arm and you have one leg and Dustin [a friend of mine J is very close to] has one leg and I’m being pulled apart.”

M had an open conversation with her grandmother. “I don’t get it. Why wouldn’t Melissa want a long-distance relationship? Daddy’s in the army. I have a long-distance relationship with him too. I have a long-distance relationship with you! Mommy and Daddy had a relationship for lots of years!”

I can’t say I agree with my ex’s choice to explain the entirety of his second divorce as being his ex-wife’s choice. While he was the one to leave me, I felt that it was important that my daughters see me take responsibility for my own shortcomings. To each their own, though. Our daughters are smart and observant, and I imagine that it was very hard for him to answer their questions. I’m used to talking to them openly and honestly and it still took a year before J did finally got me to admit that I had agreed to our divorce, but not wanted it.

The girls had practical questions. What had happened to the bunk bed with their names on it at their stepmom’s house? Were stepmom and stepsisters still living in the apartment they’d visited? Would they ever see them again? Why had this happened?

Children always want to know why, and they always think it’s their fault. I reminded my daughters of the book Was It the Chocolate Pudding? and that divorce is never a child’s fault. I didn’t hear them blaming themselves, but I wanted to be sure.

Both girls told me that they didn’t want to tell anyone about Daddy’s second divorce because they were embarrassed. They were both especially concerned about Divorce Club, the school support group for kids of divorce. They wanted to be honest but didn’t want to talk about it and felt torn.

I asked J whether she’d be willing to tell her teacher and she said yes. I called Mrs. H right away, as she celebrated Thanksgiving Eve at her parents’ house. J came away from that conversation feeling much more safe and closer to being ready to talk about the divorce with others. We were all reminded that people don’t have to officially or legally be our mothers to love us as if we were their daughters.

My little girls are 7 and they have been through things that would have broken adults. Their resilience puts me to shame. The day after they had their hearts broken yet again, they threw themselves into a joyous Thanksgiving. We had a genuinely happy day, although Daddy’s most recent divorce did come up in conversation a couple of times.

At bedtime, I reminded the girls to say their prayers.

“Thank you, Lord,” J said, her hands pressed together and her eyes closed, “for my family who loves me. Thank you for all my nice things and for all my yummy food and making the world and everything. I am very grateful.”

“Hey, J,” I prompted, “don’t you want to ask for help during a rough time? Like maybe for understanding or peace or feeling better?”

“Nope,” she responded. “I get that stuff from you.”

I know there will be a day when my child no longer needs me, and the teen years before that when she no longer wants me. For now, though, I’ll fill my role as her stability, strength and guide to the best of my ability. My sweet M doesn’t quite have her sister’s emotional awareness or talent for heart-melting one-liners, but I know she shares J’s strength and sunny outlook. I hope that she also feels that I give her strength and understanding. I do my best, as every mother does.

Have you ever had to discuss someone else’s divorce with your children? How did you approach it?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Holidays After Divorce

Mandy’s post about her Advent traditions made me realize how much our holiday practices vary from year to year. This year, I’m going to be experiencing an altogether new aspect of the holidays after divorce: My daughters and I won’t be together on Christmas Day. They’ll be in Washington State with their Dad celebrating Christmas with his family while I stay home in Texas, baking up a storm.

How one family tweaks family traditions in light of divorce and custody issues.

Holiday Custody

The custody arrangement in our divorce decree is pretty standard, from what I understand. The girls live with me full-time. Our daughters are to alternate between me and their father for Christmas and Thanksgiving. Technically, Daddy is supposed to have the kids for Christmas in even-numbered years and Thanksgiving in odd-numbered years as well as Fathers’ Day every year. However, given that he can’t always (or, so far, ever) adjust his work schedule to make that work, he spends the holidays with M and J whenever he can.  This year, he was able to secure some time off around Christmas and will be taking our daughters to stay with his parents for a few weeks.

Celebrating at Mommy’s House

J, M and I talked about how we wanted to celebrate Christmas together, and they decided that they wanted to have our standard Christmas, complete with gift-opening, Christmas dinner, family baking time, carol singing and watching The Snowman together.

Furthermore, they wanted to celebrate before they left with Daddy. We’ll be celebrating Christmas on December 15, while school is still in session. We had a quick discussion as to how Santa handles this sort of situation. The girls agreed that he can adjust his scheduled chimney descents to accommodate early Christmases with Mommy. He’s due at our house the night of the 14th.

Atypical Holiday Dates

Oddball holiday dates are no new thing for our family. My ex-father-in-law is a firefighter and my ex-husband a soldier. One or both them worked on holidays more often than not. With me and the girls in Texas, my in-laws in Washington state, my parents in the UK and Bangladesh and the girls’ dad all over the world, holidays were celebrated whenever we could achieve a modicum of colocation. For several years, I made a habit of flying out to Washington or Oregon between Thanksgiving and Christmas to attend the Christmas parade in my ex-grandmother-in-law’s hometown and celebrate a bunch of holidays and birthdays with the extended family.

Being away from J and M, though, is new for me. What has always been consistent is that we’re together, thinking about family and enjoying our love for each other. When I decided on a whim to get the girls’ boring old chocolate Advent calendars, I did think about whether they’d fit easily in their suitcase to go to Grammy’s house where M and J would spend the last few days in the run-up to Christmas. We’ll have to hit our traditional Christmas lights earlier than usual this year.

Blended/Broken Family Gifts

I also had to think about presents for my former relatives. I elected to get my ex-in-laws an enlarged photo of the girls, nominally from the twins themselves. M and J decided that we should get their stepsisters night lights to match the ones they have in their room at my house.

I give each child a $25 budget for her own shopping and she can choose to include whomever she wishes on that list, although it must include Daddy and Sister. If she wishes to make handmade gifts and bank the cash, that’s up to her. Since my ex was deployed so often, we’d established a routine that we’ve kept up of having the girls’ godmother or other family friend take them shopping for gifts for me. I skip out of work a little early a couple of days in December to take the girls shopping one by one for a gift for Sister. We do the same thing for birthdays.

What About Mom?

My family isn’t Christian and therefore doesn’t celebrate Christmas except in the most secular way, and that only when we’re living in a Christian country. In other words, the only gifts I get are the ones from my girls. I do allow myself to splurge on a gift “from Santa” at Christmas since I’ve been single. Last year, Santa got me the new camera I desperately needed. This year, he will be replacing my badly cracked iPad. No one ever said Santa couldn’t exercise an Apple warranty!

On the Subject of Santa

M and J know the story of Saint Nicholas, and we make a point of giving anonymous gifts to the needy during the holidays. When they were 4, J figured out that parents were very active in Santa’s stead. I told both my daughters that Santa was really an idea, the idea of holiday generosity, inspired by Saint Nicholas’ acts during his life.

Last year, however, M informed me that she chooses to believe in Santa. The message was clear. She wanted me to continue to keep the myth of his magical Christmas powers alive in our home. She had examined the option of looking at Christmas gift giving from a purely pragmatic perspective and rejected it. J agreed to keep the story alive, reluctantly at first, then with great gusto. She insisted that I buy a home with a fireplace, just to allow Santa to work his magic.

I get myself a little end-of-year treat. If crediting it to Santa brings joy into my daughters’ Christmas, so be it. And if Santa visits Grammy’s house too, I don’t think anyone will examine that too closely. What matters is family, even if it’s been broken up and reconstructed.

How do you deal with splitting yourself or your kids between families at Christmas? Do your kids believe in Santa?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

How to Afford Twins: Reviewing My Finances

To me, money is a tool I use to accomplish my goals, not a goal itself. There’s nothing wrong with money accumulation being a goal. Nothing at all. It’s just not a goal of mine. My life goal is joy accumulation. Money matters to me in that it helps me and my children find our joy through fulfilling relationships and activities.

I needed to review my finances after I got divorced. I don’t create a monthly budget as many families do. Instead, I have a general idea of where my money is going and where I want it to go.

I pride myself on being financially independent, as does my ex-husband. When we split up in March of last year, we didn’t see any need to bring lawyers into the mix. We just split our shared savings down the middle and each walked away with our own retirement savings. He took the house. I took the furniture. He took the cat. I took the kids. We agreed to a child support payment based on the difference between rents on a house for three and an apartment for one, plus half the kids’ groceries.

Reviewing My Finances from hdydi.com

Photo Credit: photosteve101

The split was amiable. My ex is prompt with his child support payments. I was the primary breadwinner in our marriage. Our 7-year-olds attend public school. Despite all these marks favouring my financial health, there simply wasn’t going to be as much money coming into our family as there had been before. I couldn’t just tighten my belt for a while until things got back to normal, because my income plus child support is now our normal. I took some major steps in adjusting my expenditures to make things work.

My ex-husband and I had purchased supplementary life insurance from Primerica and reviewed our finances when we were married, and I was happy with the experience. Once the initial whirlwind was over–my ex moving out, signing the divorce papers, my buying a new house and moving back to Central Texas from El Paso, the kids getting settled at their new school–I met with a rep from Primerica and took a serious (but free) look at what my finances looked like. I could always follow up with a real financial planner later if I needed. I looked at what was coming in, what was going out, what I had saved, and where I could cut. I was already in the market for additional life insurance. If something were to happen to me, I wanted money not to be a concern for my ex, since he would likely have to change careers to raise the children.

I highly recommend meeting with a financial planner, but aware that not all planners are made equal. Choose carefully. Look for someone who is ethically bound to put your interests first (a fiduciary), not someone who earns a commission for selling you something, unless you’re fully prepared not to buy and have the wherewithal to see through self-serving advice. I wasn’t looking for a new job, so I knew I’d stand firm against the whole recruitment aspect of the Primerica experience.

The most important short-term goal I had for my finances was for my children not to see a major change in their lifestyle. Divorce is hard enough on them without the girls picking up on the financial challenges that come with it. My ex-husband and I have kept our discussions during and after our divorce focused on the kids’ well-being. Co-parenting, for us, just is not about money.

Here’s how I go about being financially responsible as a divorced single mom:

  1. Know how much money is coming in and how much is going out

    This is hard and painful and ugly. It makes me twitchy thinking about it. I wrote out all my monthly expenses: bills, groceries, entertainment, clothes, pet care, school costs, childcare, healthcare, gas, parking. I looked at what comes into my bank account in the form of my salary and child support. I decided that I could afford to keep my lawn service, but that I needed to stop eating out with the kids. The girls could take dance lessons, but piano would have to wait. Now that I had closed on my house and paid off my college and car loans, I could afford to put the annual maximum in my Roth IRA again. I’d reduced my contributions when my ex informed me that he would be leaving.

  2. Prioritize retirement

    This is a little counterintuitive. You might think that saving for college would be the most urgent focus. I think of my retirement investments as a gift to my children, in that supporting me financially in my old age won’t be their problem. The more I put into retirement now, the more I’m earning interest on for longer. I looked at my current health, my lifestyle choices, how old I’d like to continue working and how much I’d like to have to live on, and mapped out how much I’ll need squirreled away for age 70 and on.

  3. Expect the best, but plan for the worst

    I don’t expect things to go wrong. I seem to keep landing on my feet, thanks to amazing friends, exceptional daughters, and years of therapy. I try to plan for the worst. I have a will that specifies who would take custody of my children if something were to happen to me while they were still little. (Their dad first, of course, but if something happened to him, his parents. If something happened to them, it would be close family friends.) I have life insurance that would cover the girls’ needs through college tuition in the event that someone else did have to raise them without my income coming in. I may let my policy lapse once they’re done with the college. They won’t need my financial support any more at that point, most likely.

    I have health insurance and go to all my scheduled check ups. I upped my car insurance, paying an extra $5 monthly for a $500 reduction in my deductible. I don’t plan to get in any accidents, but I’m willing to pay for the peace of mind that comes with knowing that I could manage if I did.

  4. Set priorities on all other expenses

    I want my kids to grow up to be happy, healthy, wholesome, productive adults. I invest in the things that contribute to that goal. I don’t need to pay for anything else. It’s a challenge for me, but I choose to prioritize for my family, not keeping up with the Joneses. My daughters take tap and ballet lessons because it fulfills them and brings them joy. They’re not longer taking soccer, which is Daddy’s passion, or piano lessons, which is mine.

    Do I need to buy as many books as I like to? No, I can check them out of the library and move my margin scribbles to a notebook. Do I need to hire a babysitter once a week so I can go to choir practice? That’s a hard one, but I really just can’t afford it.

    I’m celebrating my birthday tomorrow night with friends. My birthday was in May, but this weekend happens the girls’ paternal grandparents are in town. It’s not just a matter of being able to afford a babysitter or cashing in on a babysitting favour. It’s also that I enjoy the time I have with my children, which is limited since I work outside the home. I don’t particularly feel like leaving them to go out without them. This weekend, though, they’re brilliantly happy to be spending time with their Grammy and Grampy, so it’s time for me to hang out with my friends for a bit. Budgeting isn’t just for money. I also budget my time.

  5. Make wise investments

    I could have rented a home after I moved, but I knew that I wanted the money I spent on housing to be an investment. I swallowed my pride and accepted a gift from my mother to help with the down payment. It helped that I had near-perfect credit. In order to keep it that way, I avoided anything that could negatively affect my credit until after I closed on the house. I didn’t apply for anything that might involve someone checking my credit. I kept my credit card balance at zero. I had paid every bill on time for the previous decade or more. My mortgage payment came out to $450 less per month than rent for comparable homes in my neighborhood, per month.

    Do I miss the granite countertops and tile floors of the first home I owned? Absolutely. Given my current financial reality, though, I can’t afford something like the house I had when I was married. If you already own your home, look into refinancing. Yes, rates are going up, but they may very well be less than what you already have. It doesn’t cost you anything to look, and costs surprisingly little to complete.

    I also take advantage of the flexible spending accounts offered by my employer. I can put tax-free money aside for childcare and medical expenses, up to $5000 per year. I max out my daycare allotment, since I’ll spend significantly more than that on after school care and summer camp. I just have to send in my receipts on a monthly basis to get reimbursed. I put less aside for medical expenses, enough to cover our prescriptions, my glasses and contact lenses, our dental co-pays and my medical co-pays. Thanks to the army, the girls don’t have co-pays or deductibles.

  6. Pay off debt

    I’ve generally avoided credit cards, using them only to build up my credit and paying off the balance in full every month. Last year, though, I allowed myself to go into debt immediately after I got divorced. Moving from El Paso to Central Texas wasn’t cheap, and I had to pay for help moving, since I knew hardly anyone there. Even with the gift from my mother, paying for all the little things that go into setting up a new home added up, and I felt that it was very important to buffer my children from the financial fallout from the divorce. (Perhaps that was wrong. I just didn’t want to pass on the type of bitterness I’d seen during the unravelling of my parents’ marriage.)

    Now, I’m really focusing on paying off my debt. I’m choosing to pay extra on both my mortgage and the card that is costing me the most in interest in any given month. Of course, that requires me to think and review my balances and interest rates monthly. Some people advise to just put extra against your debt with the lowest balance. When that’s paid off, shift all the money you were paying into that debt into the next highest debt until you’re debt-free. There’s something to be said for paying money for convenience or simplicity. There’s no one right way to get out of debt beyond making the effort and prioritizing it.

  7. Minimize debt accrual

    I’m not putting anything new on credit cards or taking out any new loans. I want to be getting out of debt, not getting deeper. Some people cut up their credit cards. I’ve even heard of freezing a card in a block of ice to keep from using it on a whim, but having it around for an emergency. Fortunately, I have the self-control to carry my cards and not use them.

  8. Know when it’s worth paying more

    Saving money is not my highest priority. Joy is. There are some things that are worth paying for, slowing the march towards my financial goals, to maximize joy. My lawncare service and pest control company fall in that category. So do my chocolate habit, my love of baking for friends, our annual cookie decorating party, the occasional theatrical production. There are luxuries worth spending on. I hope to never be in a financial position to have to cut every one of our wants out of our budget.It really boils down to wants and needs, that simple dichotomy I keep preaching to my children. We fulfill our needs first: love, housing, nutrition, safety, kindness, education. Then, with what’s left, we choose carefully between our wants to decide where we want to spend what time, money and energy is left.

Do you plan out your finances?

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school and also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Children of Military Divorce

My ex-husband deployed to Iraq when our babies were 5 months old.

My ex-husband deployed to Iraq when our military babies were 5 months old.

Early in my pregnancy, I made the mistake of referring to our twins as “military brats.” Their dad told me that he would not accept that term. Our children, M and J, would never be allowed to use our family’s military connections as an excuse for brattiness or other poor behaviour. His point has stayed with me. It extends to our divorce too. Divorce has been hard on the children, but does not furnish them with a free pass to be badly behaved.

Military life is hard on kids. The moving, the extended absences of a parent and the fear associated with having a parent in combat are no small things. We’ve honestly had it pretty easy. Instead of having to move to a different part of the country or world every few years, we were able to stay in the Austin area for 8 of the 9 years that I was engaged or married. That gave us the time to build a solid steel support network. Although I got to stay put, during the time I was a military fiancée/wife, my husband went to Iraq twice, Afghanistan once, Korea once and was activated for hurricane relief. He missed every one of our daughters’ odd birthdays.

My ex is currently stationed in North Carolina. We live in Texas. This absence is much harder for my girls than the ones in the past have been. Perhaps it’s that now, at age 7, their memories are long enough to know what they’re missing. Perhaps this absence, where Daddy is stateside and in garrison, not overseas or in training, feels different to the girls.

My ex got to master the two baby hold before he was needed in Iraq.

My ex got to master the two baby hold before he was needed in Iraq. He was also a champion diaper changer and baby burper. He did not cut nails or breastfeed, but he was otherwise as present as I was to our babies.

I don’t have much patience for excuses. Instead, I believe in acknowledging our mistakes and identifying their sources to prevent similar mistakes in the future. When my daughters try to pull the army or divorce cards to explain away poor decisions, I acknowledge that it is difficult to be military children and have gone through our divorce. I then remind them that those things are no excuse for bad behaviour.

On Monday, my daughter M couldn’t find the shoes she wanted to wear to summer camp. I was less than sympathetic. I reminded her that she was responsible for her things. If she couldn’t be bothered to store her favourite shoes somewhere she could find them, that was too bad. She could wear another pair. I was not going to help her look for her shoes beyond double checking the shoe rack where they should have been.

There were a lot of tears, but when I ushered the children into the car, M was not barefoot. She had, however, left a pair of shoes in the middle of the hallways. These shoes were neither the pair she was wearing nor the pair she wanted to be wearing. I made her get out of the car and put them away.

She was not happy about that. She cried and cried and cried. Finally…

Dress greens with daughter http://hdydi.comM: It’s because you and Daddy got divorced!
Me: What is?
M: That’s my sadness. That’s why I have tears.
Me: Uh, no. Your sadness is that you’re dealing with the consequences of not putting your shoes away.
M: But I miss my Daddy.
Me: And so you should. Would you like to call him? You can talk to him. You cannot blame him or me for you not putting your shoes where they go.
J: There is a big hole in my heart. Around the center of my heart is a empty part. The center of my heart is M. The empty part is of missing Daddy.
Me: Sweetheart, I know. I think I understand. Remember, my parents are also divorced. I know that there’s a pain that feels like it would go away if Daddy and I hadn’t split up. But if we hadn’t gotten divorced, you wouldn’t have such a great step-mom and step-sisters. And this is one of those really really difficult things that is part of our lives that we accept.
M: My sadness is because I’m not used to Daddy being so far.
Me: I don’t understand that part. I totally understand that you miss him. What I don’t understand is why you think he’s away more now than he was before. He was gone a lot even when we were married.
J: It feels more away. Because he doesn’t get to visit so often.
Me: He didn’t get to visit much from Iraq or Korea or Afghanistan.
J: This is different.
Me: You’re right. It is different. And your feelings are normal. I wish you didn’t have this sadness. Do you want to call him on my phone?
J: No! I want to see him.
Me: Let’s figure out a way to see him, then! He’s going to pick you up for Christmas. Maybe we can find a way for you to fly to North Carolina for a few days.
M: So you’ll take us and fly home and come back to get us.
Me: No, you’d probably fly by yourselves. It’s called “unaccompanied minor”. You’d be with Sissy, of course, but the airplane people would be responsible for your safety until Daddy picked you up, or I picked you up.
M: That’s a good idea.
Me: He’s going to expect you to put your shoes away, you know.
M: Moooooooom!

In Which I Find My Limits

Army Wife to Single Mom

When my now ex-husband left me last March, there were plenty of things I worried about, but my capacity to be a single mom wasn’t one of them.

I’d been an Army wife during wartime during my entire career as a mother. Our soldier had deployed to Iraq when our daughters were 5 months old for a total of 15 months. He left for Korea for 12 months a year after he’d returned from Iraq. His subsequent tour to Afghanistan was a nice short 9 months. That didn’t even account for his stateside training-related absences, which could stretch to three months. We divorced when the girls were 6; Daddy had been living at home for under 3 years of their lives. While I would have loved to have had a meaningful co-parenting relationship despite the distances involved, we frequently went weeks or months without being able to communicate, so parenting decisions fell to me alone.

I was fully capable of managing our home and children without another parent around to help. I worried how our daughters would cope with the trauma of their parents divorcing, not living with Daddy even when we was stateside, Daddy’s remarriage and associated step-mom and step-sisters. I worried about how I would manage on a single income. I didn’t worry about whether I could parent my daughters “without help.”

I Have Help

“Do you have help?” people ask me, all the time. What they mean, of course, is do I have family members in the area who will watch my children or perform house maintenance or pick them up from school in a pinch. I don’t have family help, but I don’t consider myself to be lacking in help in raising my children and managing our lives. I usually answer, “We don’t have family nearby, but we have a great community network.”

My help comes in the form of daycare providers, camp counselors, and babysitters whom I trust as partners in raising my girls. Do I pay them in money (and sometimes theatre tickets)? Sure, but that doesn’t make their help any less meaningful. My help comes in the form of J and M’s friends’ parents, their teachers and counselors, and their Girl Scout leader. They give me the context of what is age appropriate and help my girls build their social skills and academic skills. My help comes in the form of supportive co-workers and managers, who make my kids welcome at work social events, who let me telecommute to give me an extra hour or two with my kids every week, who treat my kids like their own nieces. My help comes in the form of the company I pay to maintain my lawn. My help comes in the form of the neighbours who will trade a few hours with my kids one weekend for me taking theirs another. My help comes in the form of the HDYDI community.

I Have Limits

Photo Credit: elcamino73

Photo Credit: elcamino73

I started feeling overwhelmed over the last few months. My home, always messy, began to feel dirty too, something I usually do not stand for. My shoulders and hands began to ache without reason, an early warning sign I’ve learned to recognize as a bellwether of a resurgence of depression. I suddenly started fighting dandruff, despite having made no change to my shampoo or diet. I started dropping the ball on work assignments. I found myself avoiding picking up my telephone messages, a sure sign that  depression was looming. Last weekend, I was so clumsy in the kitchen that, after breaking two plates, I avoided any food preparation that might involve knives or fire.

On Monday last week, the weight of life felt too much to bear. I asked my boss whether I could take the rest of the day and all of Tuesday off. With the kids at summer camp, I spent those hours cleaning my house, going to the gym, getting my eyebrows waxed, napping and reading. I talked to a couple of close friends about how I was doing. When I returned to work on Wednesday, my shoulder pain was gone. The dandruff had cleared. I found myself humming on way to my office. When I received an email inviting me to perform in a local venue that would have been on my bucket list (if I had one), I was excited, not panicked at the thought of adding the rehearsals to my schedule.

The 15 Month Cycle

It didn’t take much to set things to rights. I just needed some “me” time. At first, I thought my losing my Zen was a result of the post-adrenalin slump following the completion of a multi-year project at work, but it wasn’t work that had been feeling overwhelming. It was Life that was bothering me, the weight of the entirety of M and J’s well-being falling on my shoulders.

I had an epiphany. This was the longest I’d ever gone being a single parent. While I worried about whether my ex would come home from combat alive, I always believed that after at most 15 months, my partner would be home. I wasn’t alone always going to alone in raising M and J.

Don’t get me wrong. The girls’ father has seen them since we got divorced, but it’s hard for him since we don’t live in the same state. He’s seen them 3 times since last August, when the girls and I moved back home to Central Texas, leaving Daddy behind in El Paso. (He’s since moved to North Carolina.) Much as I love my kids, I did enjoy the childless days and the opportunity to pick up around the house and to go out for dinners and game nights with friends. I didn’t quite feel like I was off the clock, though. Daddy brought the girls home ahead of schedule 2 out of the 3 times he had them, so I can’t completely turn off mommy mode when he has them, unlike when we were married and he’d take a few days off after deployments to be with the kids. Then, it was important that I did stop being Mom to avoid the temptation to try to teach him how to be Dad. Daddy and the girls needed space to get to know each other again. That just isn’t our dynamic any more.

I had hoped and worked for an ongoing co-parenting relationship with my ex, but it hasn’t panned out. He’s just not a phone and email guy and has a hard time making “theoretical” parenting decisions. He needs to be present in the moment to make child-rearing calls, and he’s just not around. J broke my heart a while back, observing, “Daddy spoils us. He’s more like a grandpa than a parent.”

The 15-month respites I could rely on as an Army wife are no longer available to me as a single mom. So now, I need to use my help, in this case summer camp and an understanding boss, to find my own respite.

I have my mojo back and a much better understanding of where my limits are.

Sadia (rhymes with Nadia) has been coordinating How Do You Do It? since late 2012. She is the divorced mother of 7-year-old monozygotic twins, M and J. She lives with them and their 3 cats in the Austin, TX suburbs and works full time as a business analyst. She retired her personal blog, Double the Fun, when the girls entered elementary school in order to better protect their privacy and was delighted to have the opportunity to keep a foot in the blogosphere through HDYDI. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.