The most recent focus on divorce, via Gwyneth Paltrow, reminded me once again of my own divorce that happened almost ten years ago. It's funny how easily you forget the details as time trudges on, isn't it?
I was asked a couple of months ago to appear on Huffington Post Live. When I inquired about the topic of discussion, the response was: "The moment you knew."
As in the moment I knew my first marriage was over.
I haven't written much about the demise of my first marriage, and I had forgotten that months earlier, when @HuffPostDivorce tweeted a question about how I knew it was over, I had responded with some brutal honesty:
What this tweet didn't say was that after five painful years, we had just started seeing a new marriage counsellor in a final attempt to salvage a marriage that had started to derail almost before it began. Oh, we had seen a counsellor previously, but my ex didn't like her, didn't like her exploration of his childhood or his family's impact on his adult persona. So, I searched out a male therapist to appeal to his misogynistic tendencies. The first session had gone well, or so I thought at least, and I was full of new-found hope for the survival and reconstruction of our relationship, when I had previously thought there was nothing left to hope for.
Under the illusion of this hope, I dug out some items that were symbolic of our wedding—the invitation and our "crowns" (it was a Greek wedding, but not the big, fat kind), bought a shadow box frame, and set about glue-gunning the wedding souvenirs into a sentimental display. On our five-year anniversary, I presented the gift, along with the difficult-to-find anniversary card expressing (in a nicer way) my message of "I can't stand you right now, but I'm willing to make one last effort to change that, so Happy Anniversary."
He was touched. More by the gift than the card, obviously, but he genuinely was, I could tell. He even had a tear in his eye, although I can't say for sure if it was because of my gift, or because he knew he was on the cusp of becoming a single man again.
When he looked up at me and told me he had nothing for me, it was that moment—#themomentIknew.
I began to cry. I'm not sure exactly what he said, but it was something about how he thought I was making a big deal out of nothing, because our marriage was not in any condition to be celebrating it.
Perhaps he was right—it wasn't in any condition warranting a celebration—but my gift wasn't celebrating what we had at that moment, it was a reminder of what our marriage used to be when we created it, what we had wanted it to be when we started out, and where I was hoping it could be if we were both committed to working on improving it.
I didn't want the material gain of an anniversary present or card, I wanted the sentiment. I wanted the metaphor, but not the door slammed in my face metaphor that I received, naively thinking that he was feeling all the same optimism as I had been after our counsellor's appointment.
Now, the next part I'm not proud of, and I have to say, it's the reason why I wasn't really comfortable discussing this episode in a live webcast that could potentially portray me more as a deranged psychotic than the wounded, emotionally-drained, and completely lost soul that I was when it happened.
My torrent of gigantic emotions somehow pushed me over the waterfall of rational thought momentarily. Five years of disappointment, suppressed anger, oppressed expression, repressed sexuality, depressed emotions, all rushed me like I was a dude trying to outrun the bull through Pamplona. I grabbed a hammer and proceeded to smash the shit out of the shadow box gift.
What provoked this aggressive act from a non-violent woman? Rage, obviously. Shame, at having been the fool for my romanticized delusions about the state of our union. Utter frustration that I was once again confronted with our unbridgeable differences, and, I can't deny, the quest for revenge—I knew he had liked my gift, so I wanted to hurt him back by destroying it. Perhaps I was even primal enough at that moment to be imagining my swings landing against him.
Whatever the reasons were, as I sat winding down my ugly-cry and surveying the destruction I had caused, I knew it was over. I knew that if a relationship was pushing me to act so out of character, it was time to go find peace.
A month later, as I packed up my belongings to leave both our house and our marriage for the last time, I found that brutalized shadow box where he must have put it, on a shelf in the basement workroom.
I felt more than a little embarrassed by my actions, yet I wasn't sorry I had done it, and my lack of regret confirmed for me that I had finally made the right decision to move towards a happiness that didn't require so much effort.
Thanks for reading my post! If you'd like to read more interesting stories, try this one about defining the role of stepparents, or this one about the loss of parenting power after a divorce.
On the first day, she said hello with a shy smile, and that was it. On the second, she told me her name when I asked, but didn't ask me mine. Our third day conversation was longer—she explained how she travelled by bus for over an hour to get to and from her cleaning job so that she could support her three children as a single mother. I guess her disclosure the day prior made her feel more intimate with me on the fourth day, when she asked:
"How much did you pay for her?"
"Her" was my daughter. We were staying in South Africa for four weeks after adopting her, waiting for my daughter's temporary passport to travel back to Canada. We had wanted somewhere to stay that had a kitchen, so that we didn't have to eat all of our meals in restaurants, and the cleaning service was included in the rental fee to the long-term hotel we chose.
I had known that many people misunderstood international adoption, and was prepared for this question.
She looked perplexed when I explained to her that buying a child was against the law and that the only money we paid were fees to the adoption agency for facilitating our adoption process, paperwork, and court proceedings, and travel expenses like our flights and accommodations.
"So why do you want a black baby?" she asked, with the heartbreaking earnestness that only a black woman in post-apartheid South Africa could pull off.
I told her that my husband and I wanted a child together, I wanted to be a mother, and that having a child who looked like us was not a part of why we had wanted a child. I wanted to be a mom—not have a look-a-like.
She wasn't buying it.
Her eyes narrowed and she looked at me for a long moment, as I stood waiting for her next unfathomable question.
But she surprised me. She began to ask about our life in Canada—did I have a job? Yes, but I was giving it up to stay home with my new daughter until she went to school. Who did my cooking? My husband and I shared the cooking. Who did my cleaning? I explained that this was also shared by both of us.
"You have no maid or cook or gardener?" she asked again, incredulous, because many middle-class white couples in South Africa have at least one domestic employee who cleans and does some cooking for them. I probably don't need to point out that the majority of these domestic employees are black.
I confirmed that we did not have any assistance with household chores.
A huge grin spread across her face, and her eyes widened with a sudden understanding.
"Ahhhh. That's why you want a black baby!" she stated, her voice triumphant.
It actually took a moment or two to register what she meant.
She believed we had adopted our daughter as a maid. Our daughter was eighteen months old at the time.
Nothing I said to the contrary would convince her how wrong she was, and the multiple facets of tragedy in her misunderstanding still haunt me almost five years after the conversation took place.
Hi! Thanks for reading my post. If you'd like to read more of my posts about adoption, you can try this post about what a black angel taught me, or this post, my tribute to the most profound of all South Africans outside of my daughter.
It's been some time since I wrote about step-parenting. Why, you ask? Well, it's complicated. Step-parenting, that is.
First and foremost, I have to respect my stepson's privacy. He's thirteen, on the brink of entering that terrifying world known as "high school," and he's sensitive to possible embarrassment.
What about my privacy, though? Oh sure, parents of any kind are expected to make all sorts of sacrifices on behalf of their children—it's part of the job description, right? But what about the step-parenting job description? Who defined that role? Am I even entitled to privacy? Not everybody thinks so.
Unfortunately, there exists in society an expectation that stepparents (stepmothers, in particular) should selflessly parent their stepchild "as though they were your own," defer to the preferences of the actual parents (assuming they are still in the child's life), and generally conduct themselves as empathetic saints who should sacrifice everything and put up and shut up with any conflict or challenges the role organically provides, simply because "you knew what you were getting into."
I have to tell you, when I first met and married Huzbo, I bought into this preconceived idea of step-parenting wholeheartedly. I had no idea that it was ok if I didn't act like his mother when he was around and that it didn't make me a bad stepmom if sometimes I didn't feel like doing stuff with him and my husband.
Over the years, I've come to understand that I can choose what areas, if any, of my stepson's life I want to be involved in. I don't need to be involved in his education, but I can take an interest—it's just not mandatory. I don't need to be involved in the quarterly negotiation of his scheduled time with us (although, I do take a peek simply because Huzbo doesn't always think of dates we want his son with us like, oh, our daughter's birthday, for example). I don't need to be involved in disciplining my stepson, although if I left it entirely up to Huzbo without consultation, there would be a complete absence of discipline!
Don't get me wrong, if you are a stepparent and you are involved in these aspects and others of your stepchild's life—that's great, if it works for you. I'm not here to judge or define other stepparents' roles.
I'm simply here to set the record straight—every stepparent should define his or her own role. And that is A-OK. It's not up to society, in-laws, ex-spouses, spouses, friends, or anyone else to tell a stepparent how they should or should not conduct their step-parenting relationships. Stepparents have to do what works and feels best for them, within reason.
At the bare minimum, the only two things a stepparent is obligated to provide to his/her stepchild are:
1) a physically and emotionally safe home, and
2) courteous kindness and respect.
I remember reading a book by a stepmother a few years ago that suggested stepparents don't even have to like, let alone love, their stepchild. I was aghast. Weren't those emotions part of "the package"? Didn't you have to love your partner's child if you love your partner? The truth is, you don't.
Luckily for me, I do happen to love my stepson, which makes it easier to be a stepparent. He's a great kid and we have a good relationship, but he's not perfect and nor is it headache-free to be involved in a relationship with him, his dad, and his mom.
Yet every once in a while I encounter someone who feels that because I married my husband knowing he had a child, I have absolutely no right to complain about the challenges of being a stepparent or to need support and encouragement to deal with those challenges.
Folks, this just doesn't fly.
Did you know your spouse snored before you married him or her? Probably. So, does knowing about it in advance forbid you from being able to complain about it when you've spent the night trying to stuff your ears with your pillow just to get some shut-eye? Of course not.
Did you know that children sometimes have tantrums before you became pregnant? Of COURSE you did—everybody knows that. So, when you're complaining to your co-worker or your mother or your BFF about your child's latest tantrums, how would it feel to hear "Well, you knew when you had kids that they sometimes have tantrums, so why are you complaining?"
I'm quite certain that a response like that would leave you feeling hurt, angry, and unsupported. Yet for some reason, stepparents are given responses like this on a regular basis when we seek support for the challenges we face. These challenges are often in addition to our regular parenting duties—extra gems, such as fights with ex-spouses, stepchildren disrespecting us because "you're not my parent", arguments with our own spouse over who should pay for what, stepchildren sharing private stories from our home with their other parent, and so many other issues that the average non-stepparent couldn't even imagine.
Yes, we DID know what we were getting ourselves into. Most of us, anyway. That doesn't mean we aren't allowed to ask for support and empathy. Nor does it mean we want to hear the response, "That's why I never would have gotten involved with someone who has a child." This is not the support and empathy we seek!
It's an interesting dynamic when a group of mothers gather and the conversation turns to parenting challenges. Teething babies? Everyone has a suggestion to try. Problems learning to read? The ideas fly. Bring up the last big conflict you had with your spouse's ex over who gets the child for what long weekends? The table falls silent. Then everyone begins to express their pity for the child involved. Don't get me wrong, I also feel pity for the children involved, they didn't ask to have two homes and parents who live separate from one another, but why are the stepparents immediately removed from the empathy/sympathy/support circle when they want to discuss their step-parenting challenges? Stepparents aren't looking for pity, but a little empathy and understanding helps us as much as any parent, and we don't deserve it any less, simply because we chose a life with a stepchild.
So, the next time you hear a stepparent expressing frustration about an aspect of their step-parenting life, be kind. Show the stepparent the same empathy, support, and encouragement that you would show any other kind of parent.
Thanks for reading this post! If you'd like to read more of Jackie's thoughts on step-parenting, try this post about the loss of control in blended families, or this one about the absence of blended families on TV or in movies.