More than once since mounting the step-parent tightrope, I've time-traveled back to 1987.
I'm standing in the courtyard at Mission Junior High being told by Greg that I'm the hideous monster my "friends" have been openly mocking and insulting while the delighted girls giggle in a gaggle. Not that I didn't know. I left their lunch table days before for a new one, sitting quietly, hoping to be absorbed. I was but they offer no protection when my "friends" want satisfaction. So they trap me and detonate their evil scheme using a boy. A BOY!
Being a step-parent is so similar to middle school it gives me hives. People are once again mean just to be mean. They tell lies. And that's the example they set for their children--forcing kids to be confused or covert. They like you one week and hate you the next. They can't hug you or invite you to a party because it will hurt or anger another friend (parent).
I'm a new step-mom and the hand I've been dealt? Sure it's from a divorce deck, thus stacked against me, but I have an extra special element. Their mom slipped my cards from the bottom.
I won't complain about X because I don't know her at all. When my step-daughter shows me a picture of her horsing around with her mom, I admire and comment as I would anything C shares with me.
It's my only hope to undo the lies told about me. That's my play.
What can any of us do? We use our strengths and spend the rest of the time in a crash course.
Last fall, we moved into our new house. The kids don't live with us so they share a room for now. One day our son will probably use the bed in the office but for time being, they have a futon bunk-bed, an old xbox and an older TV. This is a huge improvement from the pullout couch in the living room at the old house.
To make their bedroom special, I wanted to do something fantastic. They love HALO--both of them. Every weekend hours are lost into the video game black hole. I can't relate. I never liked video games that much. I'd rather read a book. But I'm trying. We've bought Tomb Raider and that's my intro.
Long before Christmas, I found silk Halo posters on eBay and bought several. My husband and I mounted them on black foam board and voila, very cool decor! I looked for sheets but they don't make Halo bedding.
However, I wanted something extra special. So Thanksgiving weekend we got to work.
My husband enlarged the HALO letters and made stencils--one letter per 8x11 sheet. We arranged them on the bedroom wall and I painted the logo.
I was so excited. We did this in a weekend. I refined the edges of each letter over and over until they were crisp. I painted until my eyes snapped.
Finally Wednesday arrived. I raced home, eager to hear the reaction. I didn't expect cries of "Thank you!" but I knew they would think it was cool. As is too often the case, my new family members were dispersed throughout the house glued to individual beeping gadgets.
I went in search of life, a big grin on my face. For the last several nights I'd been like a kid waiting for Santa. This was one of the best gifts I'd ever given.
I'm not sure I even got grunts. This isn't unusual but this time it hurt. It hurt as badly as anything I endured in middle school.
My husband was cooking dinner. I asked if they'd seen it. Noticed it. If they had a pulse? At least a single, collective one. As soon as the three of them got home, he showed them the painting. They said they liked it.
I, on the other hand, got dead crickets. Not crickets silent before nuclear fallout. I got dead, dried out husks that didn't even whistle in the wind.
And then I got mad.
When I was a precious teenager, I argued with my mother constantly that anger wasn't a choice. By my thirties I learned that it is possible to choose how you react.
I didn't choose. I let it explode out of me like lava.
My teeth clenched until they cracked, I tried to have a covert discussion with my husband in the kitchen. That was when the antenna powered up. The more silent they remained, the angrier I got.
My husband doesn't like confrontation. I deal with things in the moment. He went to stone as I nastily demanded some appreciation. No matter how wrong they may be, don't attack the baby bears. Papa Bear has only one reaction.
And that made me thrash like a bull seeing red. I was set to gore.
When I get mad, there are tears. Those only make me angrier because I hate those weak water leaks. I threatened to paint over the HALO, hoping for a cry of "NO!" I'm married to a bunch of stuffers.
I bucked back and forth. "Such ingratitude is intolerable!" The wilder I got, the more isolated I became. So I left. I got in my Mini Cooper and I drove. I dialed person after person, seeking some sort of humanity. When my husband's step-mother called me back, I sobbed out the whole story. And she gave me the wisdom of ages.
Children will break your heart. Even your own. She couldn't tell me how many times she did something she thought was so special only to be left dangling like a fish forgotten in the hot sun. By her children, her step children--it didn't matter.
Yes we can dictate that they always thank us for every little thing. Oh wait, we have. But I want sincerity. Demanding certain reactions will never garner genuine feelings.
J's (and now my) Smother made me feel better and I drove home. I asked everyone into the living room and I apologized for losing my temper. I owned everything I said that was mean or unfair. I left the rest alone.
This isn't middle school. I have only one recourse and that is to lead by example. To treat the children the way I want to be treated. And someday, when they reach their twenties, they'll be free to like me.
Two days later I came home to this drawing from C. It was her way of saying thank you. And sorry.
I'm framing it.