Mom’s House, Dad’s House – When Back and Forth Doesn’t Work for Back to School

Today I have a post up at Huffington Post. You might want to check it out by clicking here.

But, put on your earmuffs if you don’t want to hear a lot of divorce bashing from the commenters. I am tempted to respond to all the ruckus, but honestly, I agree, a little. Divorce can hurt kids. It’s difficult, for everyone. Staying married in an unhealthy situation can hurt kids too. It’s difficult, for everyone. I used to think I would never get divorced, but here I am. And I am doing the best I can, as I think we all try to do with our kids, and our families. So, read the post if you want, and leave a comment if you are so inclined.

Happy Un-Anniversary to Me

Divorce and remarriage have been on my mind more often lately. Maybe it’s because all the royal wedding buzz last week reminded me another April wedding, mine. All the talk of the royal nuptials may have reminded me that the date of what would have been my 15-year wedding anniversary to Nico’s dad was approaching. I knew it was coming, but then forgot about it until the day actually passed. I didn’t think about it, until I did.

Maybe divorce and remarriage been on my mind too because Nico, my son, our son, just got back from a wonderful week-long vacation with his dad for spring break. His dad took him to Kauai, Hawaii. That was the last place his dad and I traveled to as a family. We went the summer before Nico turned 2, when he was still a “lap child” and we didn’t have to pay for his seat. The 5 hour flight seemed to go on forever, as Nico, then 21 months preferred my cushy thighs to his dad’s bony legs. Once we landed though, we had a great time on our vacation.

Who knew that four months later our world would come crashing down and we would separate and then divorce? I was devastated. I felt like part of me died. After the initial trauma and grief I realized that eventually I would heal . For Nico, though, I wasn’t sure how he would get through it. Granted, he was only two-years old so he really couldn’t understand any of it, but his routine was upset. Even though I knew that I had given the marriage all I could, and I knew that I couldn’t do it any longer, I thought that maybe Nico deserved for us to keep trying. Was I being too selfish? I kept thinking what it would mean for him? How terrible would be for me to miss out on half his life, as he divided his time with weekly stays between two houses? I thought about how it would feel for him to have the two people who loved him the most, never be together again. What about the lost opportunity for him to have a brother or a sister?

My concerns were real then, but now that his dad and I don’t let the pain and sadness of our former marriage influence (too much) the way we treat each other; now that Nico and his dad’s relationship is closer than ever; now that I am in a happy, fulfilling marriage; now that Nico has a step-dad, siblings and an even larger circle of people who love him, I realize that while divorce can be difficult and sad, it doesn’t have to be tragic. While it is definitely the end of a marriage, the end of a familiar family structure, my divorce meant the beginning of a new way of life for me and it allowed me to create a new way of considering “family.” Nico’s dad and I have settled into an amicable co-parenting relationship, my marriage to Juan is more intimate and loving than I could ever have envisioned, and it has given Nico a brother and two sisters. This was certainly not the way I intended my marriage to Nico’s dad would go when I made those vows on an April date 15 years ago–there was no happily ever after fairy-tale ending. But, the life I am living and the family I am creating now, is its own unique story.

Another wedding

Battle Hymn of the Paper Tiger Step-Mom

Recently there was a lot of furor over the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mom. It was a memoir that featured the tyrannical parenting style of a Chinese American mom and the clash between raising kids in our permissive Western culture of  self-esteem-as-paramount, and the Eastern culture’s value of hard-work-and strict-discipline as the key to successfully raising children. I have not yet read this book, nor can I say that I personally subscribe to any of these philosophies, although I must admit I have a lot of respect for the Tiger Mom who can pull this off and not cause her child to go into therapy over it.

There is one philosophy I do value in parenting, and that is consistency.  I am not saying I can’t be flexible, or that I am perfect, but I do believe that consistency is very important in parenting.  In most two-parent households, no doubt there are parenting disagreements, but it’s usually best if the parents maintain a show of unity and consistency.  What happens when you are in a co-parenting situation with four adults, three households and four kids? Chaos sometimes reigns over consistency.

As a step-parent, I know that I have no real ability to discipline my husband’s kids. My role is chiefly to support my husband in his parenting.  And, in a case like ours, where all the parents are generally amicable, I also support the girls’ mom in raising the girls. Even though I am not supposed to be a disciplinarian, I am sometimes asked to help out with enforcing rules. But truly, it’s the bio parents who should have complete authority.  And when the girls have been grounded for misbehaving, and I am asked, along with their dad,  to carry out their punishment and back up their mother, that is also my responsibility.  Even if it means that I feel like I am being punished too because I have to keep the girls housebound over spring break, a time when they would otherwise be out with friends, at the beach or having fun.  But in the spirit of consistency we carry out the punishment over our custody period, even though we were not the ones to impose the punishment.

We try to be consistent even though it means that the girls will complain and harp endlessly about how UNFAIR life is that they are in LOCK DOWN.  And so, for several days, I turn a deaf ear to the petitions, the cries and complaints about the grounding, just to be consistent. But our girls are stars on the debate team. Their dad and I are lawyers. They know that sometimes, if you plead enough, or if you take your case to another venue, your pleas might be heard, your request might be granted. They know that chipping away has proven effective, and if they chip hard enough, they will break your will.  Today, when we woke up, one of our girls showed us a text that had come in overnight from her mother, long after we had gone to bed, and long after we told our daughter to go to bed. The text read, “Sure, you can be ungrounded.”  This, after we were expressly asked to” ground the girls through the weekend.” Now we were being told by our daughter that she was ungrounded? What happened to backing each other up? What happened to consistency?

Needless to say, I was frustrated. I was going to keep my frustrations to myself, but then my husband encouraged me to write about it. I am sure I am not the only one out there with experiences like this. I know it happens all the time in blended families, and even in nuclear families.  When I decided to write about it,  my husband suggested the title. He was frustrated too, so I knew he was not referring to me as the “Paper Tiger Mom.” But now that I have just written the post, I can see that as the step-mother with no real authority, I too am the “Paper Tiger Mom.” What about you, do you ever feel like a paper tiger parent?

My Modern Familia

Modern Family

Image via Wikipedia

One of my favorite shows on television is Modern Family.  I enjoy the fact that the family on TV is not your traditional family, just like mine.  We are  a modern family too…a modern blended family….yours, mine, his, hers, and ours.  My family seems to have a lot of similarities with Phil, Claire and the rest of the familia Dunfee. My husband Juan could be Phil’s twin when it comes to his love for the IPad, and Claire and I seem to have the control freak connection going on. Not to mention the way the teen and tween sisters relate to each other and our own girls, Olivia and Erica’s love/hate relationship. Our kids seem to appreciate the similarity because we all usually  enjoy watching the show together, except for Wednesday night’s episode.

For those of you who don’t watch the show, or haven’t yet sat down to watch your DVR version, here is your SPOILER alert.

Wednesday night’s episode involved the three kids surprising Phil and Claire with breakfast in bed in celebration of their parents’ wedding anniversary.  Phil and Claire are also celebrating their wedding anniversary in bed, but they were not sleeping, if you know what I mean. The sight of Phil and Claire frantically grabbing at the sheets and the kids dropping the breakfast tray as they shrieked in horror at the sight of their parents, had Juan and I laughing out loud.

Juan and I thought the episode was hilarious. Erica, on the other hand was, well, mortified. She just sat there, shrinking into her chair, trying to make herself invisible.  When we realized that the awkward noises in the room were coming from Erica, who was squirming in embarrassment, Juan couldn’t resist. He made all kinds of remarks, which made Erica more uncomfortable, then he tried to reassure her with this exchange:

J:   Don’t worry, this could never happen in our house because Diana and I never have sex.

Me:   Nope. Never.

Erica:   Thank God.

J:   And I haven’t had sex with your mother in over 10 years.  Don’t worry, we only did it twice. (Chuckle)

Erica:    DAD!!!!

Me:   HeeeeHeeeHeeee!

Erica left the room in embarrassment. Now, we are not prudes and sex is not taboo in our house, but to a nearly 13 year-old girl, the last thing she cares to talk about with her older than old parents is SEX! The next day when Nico and Erica came home from school, Nico, who hadn’t seen the episode, was talking about the show. He said episode was the talk of the 7th grade. Nico asked to see the episode which has been lovingly preserved on our DVR. Erica ran from the room. Juan and I stopped what we were doing, sat down to watch, and begin to torment Nico. Bwahaahaa!

Mommy Melt-Down and a Teachable Moment

One of the most important jobs I face as a mother of two boys is to help them become men. Independent, strong, sensitive, caring men, who are good, capable citizens, and can cook, clean, and do their own laundry.  One of the jobs I face as a parent in a blended family, and co-parenting with the other parents is completing and communicating the hot lunch order.

Let me explain.  Our shared full-custody with the Nico’s dad and Erica and Olivia’s mother has evolved to a week on/week off arrangement. When the kids were younger we would split the week between the two houses. Now that they are older, the kids want to stay longer periods of time at each house. Nico’s hot lunch order form is submitted to the school on my off-week. I never know if his dad has ordered it during my week. The hot lunch order for Erica falls on my week. I order it for her, and if I can remember, I email the order to Erica’s mom.  I am pretty organized but, it can sometimes feel like a Herculean task to keep the lunch orders straight.  So, on days like today when the lunch order slips through the cracks, and I am frantically trying to make breakfast, and I am making last-minute alterations on Nico’s too tight uniform pants, because he left his other ones at his Dad’s house, the atmosphere is ripe for a melt-down. A Mommy Melt-down.

Nico is a wonderful 12 year-old boy. He is loving, kind, smart and funny. He moves at his own pace, but sometimes that pace is not fast enough for me.  When, 10 minutes before we were supposed to leave the house, I realized he hadn’t gotten himself dressed, we couldn’t figure out the hot lunch order and he came back empty-handed when I asked him to get the bread out of the refrigerator, I lost it. I reverted to parenting from the 1960’s. Humiliation as a motivational tool. When Nico’s eyes filled with tears, I dug deeper. “Why are YOU crying?” Ugh. Not one of my finer parenting moments.

How many times did I hear that as a child and know that no matter how hard I tried to keep from crying, those words only turned on the water works even more. Here I was parenting in the same style I had grown up with. My parents are loving, good people. But parenting as I was growing up was  different from today. I don’t even think they used “parenting” as a verb. I think it was called disciplining. Haven’t you seen Mad Men? So, in this New Year, where I try to have more compassion, faulting him for his tears, not living up to my expectations, isn’t exactly compassionate is it? How can I expect him to always remember the hot lunch order or his uniform, when I  have trouble in the shifting between two households? If he can’t find his way around the kitchen, and assert some self-sufficiency, whose fault is that? Mine. (Well, his Dad’s too.)

I need to do a better job.  When I am in the kitchen cooking, he can help.  And if the uniform pants don’t come back from his Dad’s or the hot lunch order isn’t communicated, I need to help Nico figure out what to do to fix it. Sure I can take it on myself, but then I am not doing my job either because I fail to teach him to do things for himself.  I will be setting myself up for another mommy melt-down when he doesn’t behave like the self-sufficient, independent young man I expect him to be but have failed to help him become.

Tonight, I will sit down with Nico and tell him I’m sorry for this morning’s meltdown. I will tell him I love him and what I expect of him.  I don’t think this would have been part of the 60’s era parenting style, but it’s a new era, and for me personally it’s a new year, a year in which I try to live out compassion in all that I do.

Freaky Friday

Have you seen this movie? It’s the Disney tale of a teenage daughter and her mother in classic parent/teen conflict who experience a body switch for a day to help them understand each other. That part about the parent and teen conflict? That is my life lately, and it is not easy to write about. The past few weeks I have posted about the fun times in my life, and called those posts “Fun Fridays.” This Friday is not fun. In fact, it’s completely not fun. 

Yet, as difficult as it is a parent trying to negotiate your way through teen drama, the Freaky Friday experience let’s me catch glimpses into my own painful experiences as a young teen. That terrible trying-to-fit-in-I-want-to-hang-with-the-popular-girls-please-cute-boy-like-me-stage.  It reminds me how it felt to go home to parents who couldn’t’ possibly understand what it meant to be in middle school and feel the peer pressure and the academic pressure to keep up. How it felt to be the only one in the universe with parents who were so strict and old-fashioned that I couldn’t wait to get out of their clutches. As I am witness to all her teen anguish it pains me to see her hurt, and yet I find it hard to overcome my own resentment and impatience at her self-centered, disrespectful behavior. It’s even more troubling for me because I am only the step-mother, and my role is limited.  I am there to support my husband, her father, in raising her. My own mothering instinct kicks in and I feel the need to discipline, and intervene so that I can maintain some degree of calm in the midst of this storm, and protect the rest of the household. 

I feel badly for her, guilty about my own feelings of impatience and anger, sad for my husband who is doing the best he can, loving her in this storm, and feeling unloved in return.  I almost wish we could have that Disney moment.  A moment filled with clarity after the parent and daughter, having  switched places and after returning to their own bodies, each gain valuable insight and a deeper appreciation for each other. But our own version of this movie has just begun.  Even though her father and I have been through our own adolescence, and we should be able to understand her, in the heat of the battle we forget what it’s like. And because, she is still weathering her own adolescence, and has yet to experience the “joys” of parenthood, she cannot understand how it feels as parents to be deemed irrelevant and considered the cause of all that is wrong in life. 

In the Disney movie the mother, played by Jamie Lee Curtis, and the teen daughter, played by Lindsey Lohan, work out their differences and you are left with the impression that they will have a good relationship. But, I fear what every parent of a teen must fear, that in real life it may not always work out so happily. Look at Lindsey’s life now? I only hope that this too shall pass and my Freaky Friday experience works out like the Disney film version.