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 Mommy Is Sick

When Mommy Is Sick, from hdydi.com. Sadia reflects on how different it is to be a sick single parent with big kids than infants.Remember how my little M came home from her Christmas vacation feverish and pathetic? I caught her virus and became equally feverish and pathetic.

It started with a cough and quickly blossomed into what I suspect is this year’s flu. When I realized I might be contagious, I elected to work from home rather than bringing my germs into the office. That afternoon, my cough worsened and I was certain I was about to be very ill. I begged off work to stock up on easy foods and medication.

Let me tell you that it’s far easier to be a sick single mother of 7-year-olds than of infants.

When Mommy Is Sick with Infants

The last time I was this sick, my daughters were babies. I had a blog, but wasn’t blogging with any regularity and I certainly wasn’t recording how hard those first few months were. I have vague memories of those days of fever and pain.

On the worst day, my fever around 103°F, I remember thinking there was no way I could carry the babies and their car seats to the car to take them to daycare, so I kept them home with me. I was so weak that I remember crawling into the nursery and feeding my babies, one at a time, holding the bottles through the slats of the cribs as I lay on the floor. I changed their diapers through the slats, too. I was too weak to lift them out of their cribs. They stayed in there all day.

My husband was in Iraq and I was too proud/worried to ask the neighbours for help. The only close friends I had nearby had babies younger than mine–we had 5 little ones born on the block within a 12 month period–or were elderly. I wasn’t going to risk passing on what I had to them. Our families were thousands of miles away.

I was well enough to take the babies back to daycare the next day. One of the teachers didn’t live too far from me. She told me to call her if I were ever in the same situation again. She would be happy to bring the babies into school for me. It hadn’t occurred to me to reach out to my daycare community. I’ve never made that mistake again. I also make sure that my friends and my daughters’ friends’ parents know that I’ll be there for them in a crisis.

When Mommy Is Sick with 7-Year-Olds

When I was at the store last week, I focused on picking up food that my kids could prepare themselves: a fresh gallon of milk for cereal, hummus and pita chips, pre-sliced apples and baby cut carrots, sandwich fixings. For myself, I picked up generic multi-symptom flu meds, bananas, chamomile tea, and the few frozen meals available with sane quantities of salt.

That night, I took my acetaminophen-laced meds before driving out to get my girls from after school care. I explained to them that mommy was very sick and that I needed them to be very grown up. It turned out that M had eaten dinner at the Y, but J had skipped it. I showed them their self-service options and told the girls to clean up after themselves.

I didn’t feel like my temperature was falling even an hour later. I came out from my room and asked the girls to prepare for bed, telling them I didn’t feel good. J asked if she could take my temperature. I asked her to open the box of thermometer probe covers, applied one to our thermometer–we still use the two the NICU sent home with us 7.5 years ago–and popped it in my mouth.

102°F. Great.

M and J had changed into their pajamas and brushed their teeth. I reminded them to put their dirty clothes in the laundry and sent them off to bed after J brought me a wet washcloth to try to cool my neck and forehead. I kissed them on the top of their heads instead of nose and cheek as I usually do.

J asked me how to set the alarm clock because she was going to check on me every two hours. I told her that I appreciated the thought, but needed her to get plenty of rest to maximize her chances of staying healthy. She wasn’t pleased.

I posted my fever on Facebook and asked for advice. Several friends recommended taking ibuprofen, but I discovered that the only bottle I had had expired. I figured I’d try to push through.

I dozed feverishly until 9:00. On the hour, my two sweet girls scuffed into my room, each in a bathrobe and slippers and holding her nightlight. They wanted to see how I was. Since they were up anyway, I asked them to load up in the car so Mommy could pick up medicine. They were unable to help me at the 24-hour drive through at CVS Pharmacy, so we had to all go inside to pick up a bottle of ibuprofen.

I ordered pizza delivered a couple of times during the week I was most unwell. The girls’ Girl Scout leader took them to their scout meeting and their teacher dropped them home. I loaded and ran the dishwasher as my daughters made their way through plates and cups, and I disinfected around the house as best I could to keep my virus to myself. I also cleaned the cat litter and took out the trash.

Otherwise, though, my daughters have been pretty self-sufficient. I’ve reserved my energy to spend with my girls, talking to them about their days, talking about the things they find interesting, picking up after them, especially dirty dishes, dirty clothes, and dirty floors. They’ve helped out by making their own meals, putting away clean dishes and clothes, and taking care of their own basic physical needs. I’ve dropped them at school and picked them up, run their baths, and checked their homework.

Poor M felt terribly guilty for having passed on her virus to me, so she needed extra affection to help her understand that I had chosen to risk getting sick because I loved her … just as she was doing in caring for me. J tired of working to get along with her sister and needed me to intervene a few times.

There’s been a lot more TV at our house than I’d usually allow, but given that eating a meal wore me out so much that I slept for two blocks of 8 hours the following day, I feel like we’ve been doing really well.

Ever wonder if it gets easier? It does!

How do you manage care for your children when you’re sick?

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.

Stuck to Mommy

My daughters returned home to me in Texas on Friday after a glorious 3 weeks enjoying the holidays with extended family in Washington and Oregon. Poor M caught the virus her father and grandmother suffered before her and came home with a fever. Things were looking a little worrying for twin sister J, but she’s managed to avoid the coughing, runny nose, fever and exhaustion.

Both girls insisted that they absolutely had to have Mommy snuggles all night Friday. Mommy could not sleep in her own bed. With M still feverish, I didn’t protest and took advantage of the opportunity to monitor her throughout the night. I just need to give up on keeping the girls in their room. If I’m giving in on their request that I sleep with them, I might as well do it a non-lofted bigger-than-twin bed. We are getting seriously squished as these girls of mine grow!

Saturday came and went, all the while M refusing to leave my side. If I sat, she sat next to me, thigh to thigh, arm to ribs, head to breast. If I stood, she hooked her hand in my pants waist and came with me. J wanted to be in the same room as me but she, usually the snugglier of my pair, wanted a typical amount of physical contact: the occasional hug, the odd moment tracing the lines on my palms, asking me to brush her hair a couple of times.

I thought that M might be needy because she didn’t feel well, or just because she’d missed me. After she let me release her for the period of her bath time, it occurred to me that at 7, she might know why she was so acting so needy.

“What’s up, M? Why such a snuggle bug?”
“I didn’t get enough snuggles while I was gone.”
“Oh? You know, you can always ask for snuggles. Grammy and Grampy and Daddy and Auntie love you as much as I do.”
“I know. I had four grownups for snuggles, but I snuggle you every day and them, it was more like every other day. And then I got sick and didn’t want to share my germs.”

I imagined my 7-year-old trying to emulate her grandmother and father in self-imposed isolation, protecting those around her from her germs, sacrificing the comfort of hugs to behave like a grownup. I was proud of her and yet it made it that much harder to know that my little girl had been sick without me there to care for her. A sick little girl needs her Mommy or at the very least her custodial parent. However you categorize it, M needed me.

As she fell asleep that Saturday night, one arm under me and one arm over me, breathing in my face and occasionally coughing, I was glad to know that my mature little girl thought me immune to her germs, able to give her all those missing snuggles while she still felt poorly. Usually, she gives a sleepytime squeeze before seeking personal space.

Sunday, and Monday too, she remained glued to me. By Monday, she allowed her sister in my lap, but only as long as I kept a hand on her head and a leg where she could rest hers. I had made a halfhearted effort to find childcare for the day, since school wouldn’t open until Tuesday, but the YMCA has been inconsistent in their full day care, M begged to stay home, and I wasn’t convinced J wasn’t still incubating the virus. I elected to work from home. Thank goodness that I have that option!
Snuggle bunnies from hdydi.com

This photo was taken with my iPad resting on my stomach. M is the farther child, but her legs are hooked over mine. She insisted that I type one-handed, allowing her sister next to me only as long as I kept a hand on her head.

How do your children seek comfort when they don’t feel well? Do they seek out one parent over the other?
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 diabetes 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.

Toddler Thursday: Anatomy of a Tantrum

When my twin daughters were 3, I tried to capture in words the horror and glory of toddler tantrums at our house. I’ve reworked that post for How Do You Do It? for this week’s Toddler Thursday.

Anatomy of a Tantrum: What a tantrum really looks like and how to handle it

Full-Body Tantrum (J)

J’s tantrums started when she lost her temper, felt frustrated, or felt that she had been treated unjustly. They could happen anywhere: at home, in the car, at daycare, at the grocery store, at the theatre.

She usually started by sitting hard on the floor or lying on the floor. Early on, she’d throw herself backwards, but learned the hard way that our tile was too hard for that. She refused to get up or move. Her response to my physical attempts to set her upright was to arch her back and twist away.

Next, she started to whine, louder and louder, repeating whatever her complaint was. For a few months, she started prefaced all this by growling. She’d swat with her hand at whatever she could reach: me, the floor, the wall, her sister, her teacher. If she happened to have something in her hand, she’d throw it.

If I hadn’t talked her down by the time we’d reached the swatting stage, J would start to scream. The child was loud. Very, very loud. Finally, tears would pour down her face, she’d accept a hug, and beg for her blankie. She’d sniffle into her blankie and ultimately apologize.

Verbal Tantrum (M)

M’s tantrums usually stemmed from feeling misunderstood. Often, if I said no, she thought it was because I didn’t understand what she was asking for, and then things got ugly. I found it effective to avoid tantrums with M by stating my negative responses like so: “I understand that you want [some completely ridiculous thing] and I am telling you no.”

M tended to start crying first, then escalated to screaming if I couldn’t understand what she was saying through her tears, or thought I couldn’t. She stomped her foot on the ground. She wasn’t as likely to lie (collapse) on the floor as her sister, but she did resort to name-calling, “Mommyhead” being a favourite. She didn’t hit, but she did push at me if I tried to hug her. If I caught it early, distracting her with a snuggle and book worked well. After the snuggle we could discuss her unacceptable behaviour and its source.

M was much less likely to stay in time out during a tantrum than her sister, and it took her much longer (think hours rather than minutes) to calm down once she was fully engaged.

Terrible Twos or Terrible Threes?

Age two wasn’t so bad with my daughters. The threes, on the other hand, were quite horrific at times, although the rewards have been as great. As I’ve mentioned before, age three was, hands down, my least favourite age. My friend April has a theory about why the “terrible” stage increasingly waits until age three. It comes down to parenting styles. Her explanation is that our parents’ generation was less permissive to us at an early age, and less tuned into kids’ pre- and non-verbal communication. By age two, we were ready to explode because we felt misunderstood. Our generation of parents’ responsiveness to infants and toddlers causes our kids to put off acting out until later, when they really begin to realize how powerless they are.

Parental Survival

How did I handle these tantrums without another parent present to back me up, my now ex-husband so often deployed overseas? Obviously, I often didn’t.

I tried to use the same techniques I’ve taught the kids. I did (and do) a lot of deep breathing. I sometimes removed myself from the situation after I’d made sure the culprit is in a safe place. Sometimes, a glass of water and small piece of chocolate helped. Sometimes I cried. Sometimes I sat in my room for 2-3 minutes until I felt ready to tackle it again.

My daughters and I often talk about the need to take a break when we start to feel overwhelmed, in order to avoid a tantrum, and all three of us practice this. M reads a book or draws, often putting completely hilarious signs on her door announcing her need for privacy. Jessica snuggles her blankie, and I lie down quietly on my bed, wash dishes or fold laundry, or take a shower.

M and J’s preschool teacher used similar techniques in the classroom. When a child started to “throw a fit”, they were removed from the situation and asked to sit away from the group until they had calmed down. Once they were calm, the teacher discussed whatever the conflict was with them, and made sure that the child understands why their behaviour was unacceptable.

In truly horrendous cases, the director or assistant director would be called in to remove the child from the classroom and had a serious discussion with them. Most tantrums were not reported to the parents, but a pattern of an unusual number of tantrums from any one child resulted in an informal conversation with the parent or a note home if the parents’ schedule and the teacher’s don’t coincide.

What do tantrums look like at your house? How do you handle them? How do you avoid them?

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.