Confusing Twins

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Some people find themselves confusing my twins. It usually doesn’t last more than a few hours of interaction, since they’re not shy when it comes to correcting people, have distinct haircuts, dress differently, and have rather different personalities.

Sure, people confuse twins from time to time. But when the twins get themselves confused, it's truly befuddling.

Last night, I discovered an altogether new level of confusion.

A friend and I were going to slip out to dinner, leaving our kids with her husband. Since my daughters are offered their evening meal at afterschool care, but don’t always eat it, I asked them whether they’d eaten. They both reported that they had, so I didn’t worry about it.

As I was pulling up to my friend’s house, M suddenly spoke up. “Oh! I didn’t eat dinner.”

“But,” I replied, confused, “you told me you did.”

“I know. I confused myself with J.”

“You thought you were J?”

“I thought I’d eaten dinner because she’d eaten dinner, but now I realize that she isn’t me.”

I can’t begin to comprehend how two people can have this degree of interconnectedness.

Have your multiples ever been similarly confused? Is this a thing, or do I simply have the oddest children ever?

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, but now also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Growth Spurt Compassion

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It’s growth spurt season at Casa Sadia. If M keeps up her current growth rate, she may even be out of toddler sizes by the time she turns 8 next week. (Yes, she’s a tiny little thing.)

J’s growth spurt occurred a couple of weeks ago. She grew so fast that she was woken by the pain in her leg muscle and my massaging did little to ease her discomfort. Yes, growing pains are a real thing.

I’ve observed that my children are particularly clumsy during these periods of rapid growth. I imagine that they aren’t quite aware of how far their arms reach and do a lot of tripping and bumping until they feel at home in their new larger bodies. During J’s last growth spurt, she spilled cat food all over the carpet and sugar all over the tile in a single day. Our broom and vacuum cleaner got quite the workout.

Now it’s M’s turn to grow. She came out of her room last night after lights out to report an injury. She’d banged her arm on the bunk bed guardrail and needed comforting. I kissed it better and offered an ice pack, which she declined. I reminded her that she was quickly growing, so she might want to be a little more careful than usual until she grew more accustomed to her 8-year-old body.

J came out to talk to me too. She was visibly upset. “Isn’t there something you can do?” she asked me. When I told her that I’d already done it in asking M to be careful, J began to tear up. “But Mom, she’s getting hurt!”

I was a little surprised at the intensity of her response. I reminded J that she’d been through the same thing herself only two weeks earlier, and hadn’t seemed nearly as concerned then as she was now.

“But Mom,” she said, “She’s my sister. I can’t stand to see her hurt.”

My wish for my girls is that each will treat herself with the same compassion they offer each 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, but now also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

How to Support an Infertile Friend… When You’re Not

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5 ideas for supporting someone infertile, when you're not

It’s hard to know what to say or do when a couple we love learns that they’re infertile. It’s especially hard for those of us who had no trouble conceiving. It can become suddenly awkward, wondering what we’re doing or saying without even thinking about it to reopen the wound on their hearts. Being supportive without going overboard, especially when I have no real idea what they are going through, is a narrow road to walk.

I’ve been in this position several times now, and I’ve learned a few general lessons about what to do.

  1. Assume nothing. This is the big one. Don’t assume that you know how your infertile friends feel, what they need, or what comes next. Infertility is, by definition, a morass of the unknown. Ask questions instead of making general statements. Find out about your friends’ individual situations.

    Some questions you can (and perhaps should) ask:

    • Who are you telling about your infertility? Should I keep it a secret?
    • How are you feeling?
    • What are your hopes and fears?
    • What do you need from me? What do you want from me?
    • Do you want to spend time with my children? Would you prefer adult-only time with me?
    • Should I keep news about my pregnancy/children to myself?
    • If your friends have been through miscarriage:
      • Do you want to talk about the experience?
      • How do you want me to refer to the baby or babies you’ve lost? By name? As “the baby”? As “the fetus”?
      • Do you want to acknowledge the date of their death?
      • Do you want to acknowledge their due date?

     

  2. Recognize that every infertile couple is different. Knowing what one infertile couple has gone through gives you no understanding about the next couple you encounter. Every journey is different, from the emotions to the process to the eventual outcome.

    One couple may start seeking fertility treatment after 6 months of trying to conceive while another doesn’t think of their situation as infertility until 5 years down the road. One couple may be drawn together by their struggles while another is ripped apart. One wife may want to pour her heart out while another has a stiff upper lip. One husband may resent their inability to conceive while another doesn’t understand why his wife isn’t ready to adopt.

    I have two friends whose first pregnancies ended in miscarriage before they each gave birth to two healthy children. One considers herself the mother of 3, the other a mother of 2.

  3. Be there. Of course, friends are there for each other. It’s not so simple, though, when you’re a mother and your friends are battling infertility. Does it hurt them to have your kids around or hear stories about them? It can feel easier to just back off and let your infertile friends take their journey solo than to have difficult conversations. Do not retreat from your friends. Let them retreat from you if they choose to, but don’t assume that they’re better off without you.

    You don’t need to live nearby to provide support. A letter, card, phone call or text can mean as much or more than a hug or hot meal.

  4. Listen. It can be tempting to try to offer comfort in the form of positivity and advice. Resist that urge and listen to your friends. Let them communicate their pain, frustration, anger, amusement, bemusement, relief or whatever they may be thinking or feeling. Unless your friends are incredibly negative people, they’ve probably told themselves every positive truism in the book already. You can choose to be the friend who listens to them instead of telling them what they should do, should feel, should think.
  5. Cry with them. Laugh with them. Infertility can be devastatingly painful. It’s hard to look it in the face and let it rip at your heart if you have the option to avoid it. But if you really love your friends, you’ll let yourself feel their loss and pain alongside them.

    I’ve cried myself to sleep for my friends’ losses. I’ve felt the burn of anger on hearing news of yet another abandoned child, pondering the lack of justice that my friends, who would be such great parents, haven’t had the chance. And I’ve felt the flush of embarrassment and silly laughter hearing about the shenanigans that go on when the medical community gets involved in my friends’ private parts.

  6. Don’t say, “You can always adopt.” Trust me, they already know that adoption exists. Your friends will consider it when and if it suits them. Yes, we’re all well aware that there are many, many children in the world who need loving homes. But right now, we’re focused on your friends, and they’re focused on trying to conceive. If they choose to adopt, you can support them through that too. But it’s not your place to remind them about the adoption option.

    If they’re unaware of it, and the experience of pregnancy is their focus over genetic relationship to their children, you can mention embryo adoption. But do not say, “There’s always adoption.”

I’ve been in the unique position to offer two other kinds of support.

  1. Couples starting to use assisted reproductive technologies are often very concerned about the risk of conceiving multiples because of they know that there’s an increased risk of complications in a multiple pregnancy. My twin daughters serve to remind my friends that prematurity isn’t a life sentence, and I’m also sure to point out all the full-term multiples I know. Our family also demonstrates that having multiples doesn’t have to be overwhelming. Having several kids all the same age has its own special magic.
  2. I have offered to be a gestational surrogate to 3 couples I’m close to. None of them has taken me up on my offer, but I am fully prepared to host their babies in my womb for 9 months if that would help them achieve their dreams. I take prenatal vitamins regularly. I’ve talked to my doctor about it. My daughters and I have talked about what surrogacy would mean, and they understand that the baby would not be their sibling, that I would be the “belly mom”, standing in for the real mom during the pregnancy only.

If you’ve contended with infertility yourself, please share your story with your friends. Listen, first, but also let them know that they’re not alone. You can support them in ways I never can.

Simple steps to support an infertile friend.

What advice do you have on how to best support couples facing infertility?


Infertility TalesThis post is part of Infertility Tales 2014, How Do You Do It?‘s series to raise awareness about infertility and its impact on families. Please take a moment to read through some of the personal stories of loss, pain, fertility treatments, and success.

4 Questions to Connect with My Children

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My daughters and I are very close. They’re talkers. I’m a talker. That makes it pretty easy for us to stay connected. We do a lot together, but talking is the big point of connection we share.

At 7 years old, M and J are starting to realize that I’m not quite as omniscient and all-powerful as they once thought, but I’m not yet uncool enough in their eyes for them to reject me. For the most part, they volunteer news from the day and keep me informed of the things that are important to them. They tell me about their schoolwork, their friends, and particularly delicious or gross food.

Why It Gets Harder to Connect with My Children

I haven’t spent the whole day with my kids for more than a long weekend and rare vacation since I returned to work when they were 11 weeks old. When they were in daycare, I got a note from school each day telling me about their feeding, diaper changes, and daily activities. I had a decent idea of what they’d been up to from those notes and conversations with the teacher. Once they entered kindergarten, though, I was reliant on my kids for news about their day.

I know that over time my children will naturally put more of a distance between us. While that is a normal part of growth, I always want them to know that I’m here for them, and I want to keep tabs on what they’re up to. I recognize that adolescence will be a time when my girls are moving towards adulthood and wanting adult-like privacy and say over the details of their own lives. I hope to be able to respect their desires for more adult-like treatment while providing them with the structure and support these teen children still need.

One Easy Way to Connect with My Children

Elementary school is a perfect time to establish habits to stay connected that will work for us when the children are older and venturing farther afield.

Every day, at some point, I ask each of my children the following questions:

  • What was the best thing that happened today?
  • What was the worst thing that happened?
  • What have you read today?
  • What was one thing you learned?

In addition to helping me know what’s been going on, these questions also encourage J and M to evaluate their experiences critically. Depending on how much else is we have to get done, any one of these questions can prompt a discussion lasting an hour or more.

One simple idea for keeping in touch with your kids. Just ask these 4 questions.

Examples of Connecting with My Children

The worst thing in J’s day yesterday was my need to work from home in the evening. I had some last minute responsibilities that had to be taken care of then and there. Over 10 of us were pulling overtime to make it work.

I only ended up having 15 minutes available to spend with the children apart from the few minutes we spent together in the car. We talked about prioritization and how sometimes being the person one group of people can rely on means letting down another group. I explained to J that she and her sister were the most important part of my life, but that there were times when I had to trust them to tend to themselves while I took care of other business. She wasn’t any happier with me after we’d talked, but she felt heard and knew that I understood how disappointed she was in me.

On days when M can’t come up with a “best thing” that happened, I know it’s been a rough day and that she needs extra attention from me while her sister is occupied with something else. On days when she comes up with a list of “best things” and no “worst thing”, I know that any arguing I hear between my daughters will easily resolve itself and I leave them be to work things out. J usually sees both aspects of her day, but M sees the world in black and white.

When my children are away, usually staying with grandparents thousands of miles from here, I use these questions during our daily phone call if the conversations starts to stall. I don’t usually need them any more, since my 7-year-olds are usually bursting with news to tell me. When they were younger, age 4 or so, having specific questions to answer was helpful to them, since they kept wanting to show me things over the phone, which didn’t work particularly well.

How do you stay connected to your kids when you’re not together all day?

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. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

My Kids’ Peers

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My kids have some really great friends. I get to hang out with a bunch of insightful, kind, thoughtful, civic-minded 7- and 8-year-olds every week. There’s the little girl who approached the “bad” kid in her class to tell him that she thought that he was lonely, not bad, and that she was going to be his friend. There’s another girl who spent her entire day between early school release and our Girl Scout meeting raising over $300 for cancer research by selling baked goods and T-shirts. And my own daughters asked friends, when they were turning 5, to bring canned goods for the food pantry to their birthday party instead of gifts.

I encourage these friendships. These girls’ parents and I have made an effort to get to know each other, and were lucky to find great compatibility. We’ve all become good friends. We arrange play dates. We let each other know when there’s a fun kid-friendly activity available in town. We watch each others’ kids and encourage them to develop relationships with the adults as well as the kids. We ask after how these friends, in particular, are doing on a nearly daily basis, since they see each other at school.

Here’s why I think having deep friendships with exemplary children is important for my kids. Ultimately, it’s their peers who will shape how my children turn out. I can do my best to drill my values into my kids, but if these values are completely foreign to the social interactions they have out of my view, out of my control, they won’t stick.

For parents, the idea that peers have a greater influence on how kids turn out is an uncomfortable one. I’ve certainly met people who flat out refuse to entertain the thought. We put so much into our children that we need to believe that what comes out will be proportional to our effort.

I believe, very deeply, that my job as a mother is to give my children the tools they need to not need me any more. I hope that J and M will choose to spend time with me, to confide in me, when they’re adults, but I hope that they don’t need me. I know that adolescence is, by definition, a tearing away of the individual from the parent. This separation has to happen for child to become adult. I want my daughters to have the right peers and mentors around them to turn to when it is developmentally appropriate for them to turn away from me.

I think of the immigrant experience and how seamlessly first generation children blend into their peer groups. Children don’t adopt their parents’ accents if there’s a peer accent to be emulated instead. I’ve rarely seen adults keep their parents’ religion unless there’s some interaction with other children with similar beliefs in childhood. Both my children and I are examples. My parents grew up in Bangladesh, I in the UK and Bangladesh and my children in the US. People who don’t know our biographies just assume we’re American through and through. We learned these things from our peers.

In some ways, I feel that my greatest responsibility to my children, beyond meeting their physical needs, is providing them with the right peer group. I didn’t handpick M and J’s best friends. I did, however, make an effort to get to know their parents, as their parents did with me. I did handpick their school, a public school that would allow my kids to meet a cross-section of our community, an academically strong one that would have high expectations for children’s self-discipline. I advocated for my children to be in the selective dual language program, putting them side-by-side with other children whose parents advocated for Spanish immersion as well as children who speak Spanish at home and require English immersion. I chose the neighbourhood to be a culturally and politically diverse one that has, by necessity, a great tolerance for diversity. I’ve chosen a church where my kids’ peers and mentors will provide for them what I cannot.

Picking Peers for My Kids

Thus far, I haven’t contended with my children picking friends who consistently make choices with which I disagree. I have helped them navigate conflict within their friendships, but I have yet to deal with “bad influences.” I may very well discover that I have a lot less to do with who my children’s elementary school friends are than I think. I know that come middle and high school, I will have completely lost any such control.

I just hope that while I still have a say in the matter, I’ve shown my kids how to choose great friends to spend time with and to emulate. That may be the greatest gift this mother can give her daughters.

What relationship do you have with your children’s friends?

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. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Talk to Your Children About What You Read

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I’ve been reading The 5 Love Languages: The Secret to Love That Lasts. I really should be reading the version for dealing with children, since I’m single with no intention of changing that. However, it doesn’t take much to see how the simple premise of the book relates to parenting and sibling relationships.

As you have probably gleaned from others discussing this book, the message boils down to this: people usually give and receive affection in one or two of five ways, or “love languages”. Identify your loved one’s primary love languages, seeking to display your love (and accept theirs) in a way that brings them joy, and they will be able to recognize your affection.

The five love languages are:

  • Words of affirmation
  • Acts of service
  • Receiving gifts
  • Quality time
  • Physical touch

Me? I tend to show love and appreciation through quality time and words of affirmation. I am most touched by acts of service and words of affirmation.

My daughter J, my snuggle bunny, needs physical touch and quality time.

M is glutton for words of affirmation and physical touch. Until her dad I divorced, her secondary love language was actually receiving gifts or treats..

The basics of applying the 5 love languages to parenting. Recognize what your child needs to feel loved and validated.

I’d heard about this idea before, but it really rang true for me. As I was chatting with my daughters after school, getting that quality time in, I told them about what I’d been reading. J, in particular, was fascinated. We went to the book series website so that they could examine the list of love languages at their leisure.

“That makes sense!” she told me. “I need snuggles more than M. And she is always talking! What’s your love language?”

I told her that spending time with her and M was what really filled my heart, and hearing “I love you” made it overflow. So, quality time and words of affirmation were mine.

Next, she wanted to know what her teacher’s was. I told her I wasn’t sure, but that her teacher and I had a lot of other character traits in common, so we might have love languages in common too. I knew that she volunteered at the local food pantry and was always going the extra mile to help us out, so I suspected acts of service were up there for her.

The conversation eventually wound down to a logical end, and I didn’t think too much more about it.

The next day, J and M’s teacher texted me a photo of a letter she had found on her desk.

A 7-year-old wrote this to her teacher after learning about the 5 love languages. From hdydi.com

J had taken away from our discussion the idea of words of affirmation and put it into practice. Instead of just hugging her teacher or trying to perform her best on schoolwork to show her appreciation, she put it into words.

I was reminded of the bigger lesson. In order to build their literacy, it’s critical to talk to your children about what you read. It’s amazing what they can understand. By letting them know that you are a reader, you’re showing them that reading is a pleasure, not simply something one does because an adult orders them to do so. By discussing what you’ve taken away from your book, you demonstrate basic critical thinking skills, how to identify key points, and self-reflection. It’s also helpful, once they’re reading silently, to develop the habit of discussing what each of you has read to confirm that each child’s reading comprehension is keeping up with their reading fluency.

I may have taken this a little far. I used to hold extended monologues on literature with the girls when they were infants. There wasn’t much I could do while breastfeeding besides reading. They were my very passive and rather greedy book club.

Encourage your kids to read, but let them see you read too. Show them how you think critically, and they will copy you.

Do you and your children discuss what you (and they) 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. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Friends of Twins

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When my daughters were in daycare, they had all their friends in common, but J was especially close to one little girl in her class. There was never any conflict or jealousy over their relationship.

Since then, my daughters have shared the same degree of closeness with their friends. There hasn’t yet been any “your friend/my friend” talk. Right now, there are three girls in their grade that they’re especially close to. They have individual friendships with each one and are also close as a group. Each of the girls has an active social life outside this circle, but these three friends are unquestionably my daughters’ closest.

On the wall of the hallway outside my daughters’ classroom are displayed poems written by the kids in the class. One of them is an acrostic poem on the subject of my daughter M by one of the quintet of friends. The first line is, “My best friend.” Another line reads, “Loves her sister.”

The whole thing is just so sweet. They all know that there’s plenty of love to go around.

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. She also blogs at Adoption.com and Multicultural Mothering.

Wishing for a Twin

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On Sunday, a new friend at church told me that her younger son, after meeting my daughters the week before, asked her to provide him with a twin. When she asked him why, he just said that it seemed cool.

When I conveyed this information to my girls, J simply responded, “It’s too late.”

M, on the other hand, demonstrated her typical garrulousness. “Of course he wishes he has a twin. Having a twin is the best. You never have to play alone! You’re never alone in new places. I get it.”

I get it too, this wishing for a twin. When I was a little girl, I used to imagine that I had a long lost twin sister, someone who would understand me and be there for me. We would bump into each other in the street, my fantasy went, and instantly recognize each other. We would read and play together, always laughing, always agreeing. Her parents would turn out to be my real parents and we would live happily ever after in her perfect room with a four poster bed.

I found my happily ever after in twinship after all, just not quite as I imagined as a young child.

Did you ever wish you were a multiple? If you are one, ever wish you were a singleton instead?

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.

 

Making a Difference: Ollie Cantos

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Throughts on the Storycorps conversations between Ollie Cantos and Leo, Nick and Steven Argel

Every so often, I come across a story that stops me in my tracks. Such stories remind me that what seems like a small gesture can change the path of a person’s life for the better. They remind me that it’s okay to accept help as well as to offer it. They make me proud to be human.

The story of triplet brothers Leo, Nick and Steven Argel, and their mentor, Ollie Cantos, is one of those reminders. Go on, listen to it. I’ll be here when you get back. If you’re not able to listen to it right now, perhaps the transcript will work better for you.

Ollie Cantos with his soon-to-be adoptive sons

Done wiping your tears? I told you I’d be here.

This story touches me on so many levels. Yes, there’s the obvious triplets thing. Thanks to my sweet twin daughters, M and J, as well as their triplet cousins, I’m a sucker for happy stories about multiples. That’s not all, though.

I have the privilege to know an extremely well-adjusted, smart, sweet, highly energetic little girl who happens to be blind. She’s 9 years old and a role model to my daughters, both academically and socially. She recently took first place at our regional Braille Challenge. Several months ago, one of my daughters was driving a scooter on the sidewalk and not paying attention. Her blind friend reached out for the handles from behind her and turned quickly to keep both girls out of the street, then lectured my daughter on street safety.

This little girl’s mother is one of the few NICU moms I know in real life. The grace with which she navigates single motherhood and encourages her daughter’s independence and self-advocacy is an inspiration to me in my newfound single mom life. The matter of fact way in which she faces her daughter’s disability has been a model for the way I discuss my own daughter M’s birth defect with her.

I’m fortunate to be in a position where I can provide for my children. However, I don’t do it alone. While I am well-equipped to feed, clothe and educate J and M, I lean on my church community for their spiritual formation. I know that Nick, Steven and Leo’s mom did her very best, but simply wasn’t in a position to know what her sons were capable of. I can’t imagine it was easy for her to let Ollie into her sons’ lives, putting in relief all the ways in which she hadn’t been able to nurture them alone.

This is a story of love. It’s a reminder that family isn’t just a group that you’re born into, but one built on love and chance meetings. I am newly invigourated to not only to continue to deepen my relationships with children in my community who, for whatever reason, have crossed my path and been drawn to me, but to accept help from others in raising my own two daughters.

Thank you, Mr. Cantos.

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.

Transcript of the Storycorps interview of Ollie Cantos and Leo, Nick and Steven Argel

Ollie Cantos: I had a lot of trouble growing up because I didn’t have any friends really. I was made fun of a lot. There would be people who would put their hands in front of my face and say, “How many fingers am I holding up?”
Leo Argel: Same thing.
Ollie Cantos: Same thing with you guys, right?
Leo Argel: Yes.
Ollie Cantos: So, what were things like growing up?
Leo Argel: Well, every day was like wake up, go to school, come back home, and then you stay there for the rest of the day. There were certain things that I wish I could do like go out and play in the snow like everyone else. ‘Cause I’ve heard kids through the window… we could hear that they were having fun. The only thing I remember when I was seven, we went to McDonald’s, and we went to the park. We rarely went outside.
Nick Argel: It was getting so bad that I wanted to die. But it was one of the decisions I’m glad I did not make because I would have missed out on everything.
Ollie Cantos: Do you remember that night when I first arrived?
Nick Argel: Oh yeah, I do. Because I… I certainly didn’t know that there were other blind people except me and my brothers.
Ollie Cantos: You didn’t believe me that I’m really blind. So, I’m like, “Well yeah, here’s my cane.” And then you left and came back with a book, and you put my hand on it, and it was the Bible. You couldn’t believe that I actually read Braille.
Nick Argel: It just made me feel like I had a person that I could trust, because I didn’t trust anyone.
Ollie Cantos: I took you guys individually to learn how to use your canes better, and we’d just go to the corner store, and I remember, Leo, one day the store clerk, she said, “Is that your son?” And, you know, before I could answer, you put your arm around me, and you said, “Yeah, it’s my dad.” And I said, “Do you know what that means?” You said, “Well, you take us places, you protect us, you help us with our homework. Sounds like a dad to me.” Whenever I hear you call me “Dad,” it’s the highest compliment to me. You three used to be in the same situation that I was, and to see you come out of that and to be the way you guys are now, it’s impossible to describe how grateful I am that I get to be your dad.

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Stepmonster – A Book Review

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Categories Book Review Theme Week, Book Reviews, Co-parenting, Divorce, Family, Marriage, Parenting, Single Parenting, Step-parentingLeave a comment

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.