This Life in Progress | A Community for Divorced Parents & Blended Families
I’m the founder of this community of divorced parents and blended families. We’re sharing our story, tips and tricks and failures too, so that other families affected by divorce and remarriage feel less alone.
This is my all-time favorite poem, by John O’Donohue:
For a New Beginning
In out of the way places of the heart
Where your thoughts never think to wander
This beginning has been quietly forming
Waiting until you were ready to emerge.
For a long time it has watched your desire
Feeling the emptiness grow inside you
Noticing how you willed yourself on
Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.
It watched you play with the seduction of safety
And the grey promises that sameness whispered
Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent
Wondered would you always live like this.
Then the delight, when your courage kindled,
And out you stepped onto new ground,
Your eyes young again with energy and dream
A path of plenitude opening before you.
Though your destination is not clear
You can trust the promise of this opening;
Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning
That is one with your life’s desire.
Awaken your spirit to adventure
Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk
Soon you will be home in a new rhythm
For your soul senses the world that awaits you.
It’s a recurring theme in my life, beginning. Starting something new, or starting something old over again, I’m often in search of new.
I wonder sometimes if the pull for a blank page, a fresh start, comes from my childhood. We moved 18 times before I turned 18, never to the same house or friends or school. I didn’t know any other way, and I loved it.
For years, I would rearrange the furniture in the bedroom, begin training for a half-marathon, volunteer to foster puppies – anything that sounded different and interesting and new was fair game.
During those years, O’Donohue’s poem rang of adventure, calling out over the gray promises of sameness. Step out on to new ground, change, do something different!
This year, the poem holds different meaning.
Gabe and I spent an evening last week reflecting on the last year of our lives. We discovered, in quiet conversation in front of our fireplace, that the year had been much harder on each of us than we’d been able to admit in the messy middle of it.
On paper, last year looked like a banner year.
Gabe’s work allowed him terrific opportunity and great balance, something he’s never experienced. I built this little corner of my world into an award-winning space for divorced parents and blended families. My work away from here blossomed into something I’d never imagined, work that sustains and fulfills me. The kids are strong and growing and our families are healthy.
We were exhausted, stretched too thin and running on empty.
Six kids, busy jobs and a rapscallion of a dog will do that to you, of course. This year, we added graduate studies, and writing, and managing the ever-changing dynamics of our coparenting and blended family relationships, and nearly toppled over.
There were signs of things amiss: I took one tenth of the pictures I normally take of our family adventures. The garage and the attic were overrun with half-completed projects and the hastily tossed and soon forgotten stuff six kids generate. Gabe and I missed weekends away together, and friends started wondering where we’d been.
The year felt like one long reaction. We spent our days reacting to schedule changes and travel needs and the million unexpected mini-dramas that make up real life (I’m looking at you, lunches on the counter and library books under the bed).
We forgot, it seems, to start with intention; to begin with an idea of where we wanted to be at the end of it. And so, snuggled on the couch, we discovered that our year was a grab-bag of experiences, some adding up to terrific fun, and some leaving us a bit empty.
This year, O’Donohue’s poem doesn’t speak to me about adventure. It speaks to me purely as the call to a new beginning.
We’re starting fresh.
This year, we’ve got a list, written and stored in our nightstand drawer, of what dreams we’re working toward in 2018. We know what each of us wants to accomplish, and what it will take to get there.
We also know what we’re letting go of in the next twelve months. What expectations we’re dropping of ourselves and of each other, what hurt we’re putting out to pasture, and what control we’re relinquishing.
There’s nothing wildly new or exciting on my dream list.
I’m planting a garden again, and continuing to move my body in a way that means I don’t ache when I wake up in the morning. We’re traveling, of course, to places we love and to new discoveries. I will continue to grow this community, offering classes and coaching and support to families who feel forgotten.
This year’s new beginning is about deliberately shifting from reaction to choice.
If you’re a regular reader, you’ve seen some of that choice already in action.
I’ve decided to write only when I have something meaningful to say, something I haven’t shared with you before. Rather than heeding the advice of the various agents who’ve spoken with me over the last year, I will NOT be posting on social media 10-30 times per day in an effort to “grow my following.” I’ve considered my intention in my class library, and lowered the price of the classes I offer by more than half; I started this space to provide help, not to make a buck.
This year is about thinking of that list of dreams in my nightstand first, and thinking about how my choices bring those dreams closer (or delay them). It’s about commitment to myself and to Gabe and to our vision for this family we are building.
I trust the promise of this opening. The next 12 months make up a year of intention, restoration, and joy.
The baby conversation began before we walked down the aisle.
“Your kid is going to be huge,” commented Gabe’s best friend, upon meeting me, 5’10” and in heels, for the first time.
“Whatever you do, don’t have another baby,” pleaded my father, remembering my high-risk pregnancy with Lottie.
“Will you guys have a baby?” was one of the first questions our pre-teens asked when we announced our engagement.
The truth is, Gabe and I have talked about having a baby often. First, we talked about it in the dreamy someday way we talked about beach houses and chicken coops. As time went on, we talked about it more seriously, aware of the mounting pressure of my age and the gap between our Littles and our potential new addition.
By the time our friends and family joined the conversation, we’d already made our decision.
We chose not to have a child together for very practical reasons.
Seven seems like an unreasonable amount of children. Logistically, we wouldn’t fit in standard SUVs or vans. We wouldn’t fit in two taxis or two rows on most airplanes. That wouldn’t really matter though, because we couldn’t afford to travel with seven. We couldn’t even fathom weekend activities with seven, running from soccer fields to ballet studios to study groups all over town.
We were concerned about the gap in age between our children. I am nine years older than my brother, and while we’re close now, we grew up separately. We wondered about how the new baby would fit in with our existing six, and whether we were really prepared to parent for nearly thirty years straight. Going back to baby buckets and stroller systems and pureed butternut squash and diapers (good God, diapers) overwhelmed us.
We worried about displacing our six children. This, perhaps, was the reason that most guided our decision. We didn’t want a baby we created together to feel like the shiny new model, and our six current sweethearts to feel like left overs from a life that didn’t work out quite as planned.
We made our decision early, and our reasons are solid. Our answers to “Are you going to have a baby together?” roll off our tongues, well-rehearsed and nearly identical in delivery.
And still, I wonder.
I watch Gabe with his head bent over Caden’s, helping with homework and wonder what it would be like to be a part of a family that doesn’t include divided time and parents with a prefix. I listen to Gabe tell Amy the story of her birth and feel the sting of a miracle he will forever share with someone else. Late at night, I think about our family legacy and wonder what we’re really building together, and whether it will last without a child of our own. I think of the partner I am to this man I love madly, and the caring and attentive husband he is to me, and wish we had a child who could openly accept and revel in that security.
Sometimes, the wondering ends as quickly as it begins. I watch a mom in Target struggle with her tantrumming toddler, or a dad wheeling an enormous travel stroller into the family bathroom and sigh with relief. That’s not us. That will never be us.
Sometimes I am struck with relief in the middle of some other, more grown-up activity on the weekends we don’t have the children. “Imagine what it would be like to be wearing a baby carrier at the vineyard in this heat,” I think smugly. We could never lounge around under the covers late into a Sunday morning with a three year-old Calliou fan bouncing on the bed.
But sometimes the regret lingers. Last week I read a note from a stepmom who had just found out she was pregnant. Their beloved “ours baby” was a reality. The tears hit my cheeks before I finished reading her post.
I won’t know Gabe as the father to my children. I won’t share that miracle with him. We won’t rush to the hospital together or exchange video of a baby sleeping peacefully or teeter-tottering down the hall. We won’t be the oldest parents at the Kindergarten orientation together, or watch our children teach the baby the ins and outs of being a child in this blended, boisterous bunch.
I am grateful for the many miracles we will share together, and grateful for the terrific step-pops (as Caden calls him) that Gabe is to my children, but I can see the limit on our horizon. A baby isn’t part of our story.
Gabe is much more pragmatic.
I waver and he is steadfast. He rolls his eyes at diaper prices and reminds me that 3 a.m. wake up calls are brutal. He reminds me of our reasons and redirects my attention to the six miracles we have in front of us.
Last week, shortly after I found myself crying at my laptop, Gabe and his buddy (the one with height-envy) went out for a much-deserved guys night.
“How was your night?” I asked sleepily when he slipped into bed next to me.
“Great,” he responded. “We almost got tattoos.”
I was awake now.
“What? What were you going to get?” I asked.
“I was thinking about a vintage V8 symbol. It pairs my love of old cars and our family and the guy had a cool option.”
“I love that idea. What stopped you?” I asked into the dark.
“What if we’re not always eight?”
And there it is, the both-and that is ever present in our blended family life.
We are both endlessly grateful to not have a little lump-lump waking us up in the middle of the night, and also mourning that space. We are both cognizant of the risk of displacing our six love bugs and wonder how an ours baby might bring our whole family closer. We are both so sure of our reasons and confident in our decision that we can recite the “why no baby” speech in our sleep and also not ready to completely close the door on the possibility of growing our family in the future.
Our decision is the right one for our family right now. It is certainly not the right one for all blended families. It may not be our right decision for always. But for now, there is no baby carriage coming after our love and marriage. And that is both sometimes sad and exactly right for us today.
I’ve seen the Disney movies. I know stepparenting isn’t an easy gig.
But after taking the plunge and marrying Gabe, I was still shocked to come up sputtering for air and flailing wildly. In what seemed like seconds, I was drowning. My first months and years as a stepmom were nothing like I imagined. I felt overwhelmed and confused and alone.
Today, many years and frustrations later, when I meet a new stepparent, I share five stepparent secrets I wish I’d known at the start of this adventure.
Truthfully, at first the newbies aren’t always excited to hear what I have to say. My stepparent secrets don’t inspire fist-bumping and back slapping. They can be uncomfortable to hear. But I want new stepparents to know their experience, as jacked-up as it may seem at three a.m. locked in the bathroom wondering how this all went down, isn’t unique.
These are the five stepparent secrets I wish an older and wiser stepmom had shared with me at the start of my journey.
Loving anyone takes time
I know you think you get that. You’re projecting a year or two out in the future, and figuring that you can wait. That’s t-i-m-e. I mean T—-I—-M—-E.
The children didn’t choose you. They didn’t ask for you to join the family (even if they actually did, chances are it was to appease their parent #toughlove). They will view you as an interloper, a mid-season replacement to a beloved discontinued series. Even if you are not. Even if you do everything in your power to assert you are not, in fact, a replacement, you will sometimes be viewed as such. It can take years for the children to comfortably and consistently show you love.
Oh, and you may not love them at first either. That doesn’t make you a horrible person and it doesn’t mean the children are unloveable. It simply means that loving someone takes time, because it is built on a foundation of deep knowledge and acceptance. You’re a beginner.
You will be expected to do the work of a parent without the recognition
Doctor’s offices will expect you to know vaccination dates. Schools will expect you to sign folders and find library books and donate baked goods. Store clerks will make eyes at you when the six year-old touches each and every candy bar in the check out line. Strangers will comment on the number of children piling out of your SUV.
That doesn’t mean you’ll make the first draft of the “My Family” poster. You may not be invited to the Mother’s Day breakfast program at preschool. You may not vote on when a child can wear make-up, or take on more responsibility with household chores, or come off the family payroll.
Your partner and his or her ex have a history you do not share. Because you love your partner, you may be tempted to help support him or her as they navigate sticky situations with the ex. Fight the urge. Stay far away from this kind of “help.”
You don’t understand their story or what really happened. You understand your partner’s perspective. You have an inherent bias, a blind spot. You may also be triggered by more interaction with (or just more exposure to) the ex. A triggered partner isn’t helpful or supportive to your love.
Support your ex by recommending he or she seek counseling for any issues still surfacing with the ex. And then step out and focus on creating the happiest and healthiest partnership possible. Remember, those two have failed at marriage once already. Don’t let both players enter yours.
Every family dynamic ebbs and flows
Sometimes you’re the windshield, sometimes you’re the bug. Things can be great for one day, one summer, one year, and miserable the next. That’s not about you. That’s about growing kids and changing circumstances and shifting perspectives. That’s life.
Don’t over think a bad day or week and don’t grow too comfortable in the good ones. Things change.
You will miss the life you might have had, but you won’t trade this one
It’s normal and okay to daydream about a life without color-coded calendars and kids pulled between adults. It’s normal to think about what might have been, if you hadn’t fallen in love with someone who came with a mini-entourage. Maybe it would be simpler and less expensive and less heart-breaking to begin together at the start of everyone’s story.
But you’d miss this one. Every memory you make includes this broad cast of characters and their current idiosyncrasies and that partner you love madly. This life in progress is the one that was meant for you, despite its non-traditional path and sometimes-frustrating obstacles. This story, with everyone in it, is yours.
I often describe my relationship with my husband only to find myself fighting off a swarm of bees. I love that man like crazycakes, and when I write about our love story, my words often drip with sticky sweet sentiment. And that is true and genuine and an accurate reflection of how I feel about that tall,blue-eyed, piano playing, motorcycle riding man.
And we also fight.
Like all couples, Gabe and I do not get along all of the time. We have our share of disagreements, days when one or both of us are itchy and scratchy. Raising six children (three of them committed teenagers) in a tribe of six adults with independent viewpoints and differing perspectives isn’t always easy-breezy.
The first year of our marriage was ridiculously hard. Each of us had grown accustomed to our single parent routine. While we were delighted to begin our life together, trading the freedom and independence of a one-adult to three-kid ratio for something bigger and more tangled chafed.
We disagreed on parenting styles, stepparent roles and when chocolate milk was okay with dinner. We had different expectations of the children’s behavior and what constituted a clean room or a lazy Saturday. We found ourselves fighting all the time, wordlessly as the kids swirled around us in the kitchen and in angry whispers behind closed doors after bedtime.
It felt awful.
We were both worried and disconnected and exhausted. In desperation, we sought out a counselor, and sitting on her couch we began the conversation that yielded our five rules for fighting.
Rule 1: No arguing in the bedroom
The bedroom is a safe haven, and a place for connection. We can certainly talk about tough topics there, but if we find ourselves spiraling into an argument, we choose whether to stop or leave the room. More than once, we’ve ended the discussion simply because we realize whatever we’re talking about isn’t important enough to move us both out to the rest of the house.
Rule 2: We don’t fight after 10 p.m.
Fighting when we’re tired is a recipe for disaster, and in this house when 10 p.m. rolls around we are exhausted. We found that fighting late at night rarely produced a solution and often spiraled into a situation that felt much uglier than it might earlier in the day. If we’re upset or angry late, we agree to postpone the conversation. It’s okay to go to bed angry around here. Things often look brighter in the morning light.
Rule 3: Anyone can tap out, anytime
Don’t feel like answering a question? Overwhelmed by emotion? We agree that either of us can call a stop to an argument at any point. We can simply say, “I don’t want to talk about this anymore,” and the argument is over. Really. We may choose to return to the conversation later, but calling a time out is sacred and respected.
Rule 4: We don’t raise our voices
I grew up in a house where shouting happened rarely, and when voices were raised, things were very very serious. I know that for some, shouting is just expressing themselves at a different volume. Not me. Shouting is a trigger that makes me anxious and uncomfortable, and that’s not helpful in a disagreement. Avoiding triggers makes sure we keep focused on the topic we’re working through instead of slathering on additional negative emotion.
Rule 5: We stick to the script
The topic at hand is the only acceptable discussion point during the argument. No hopping over to our last argument. No bringing up that thing you do with your ex that really bothers me but I haven’t said it until now. No calling names or withholding kindness or otherwise poking or prodding the other. The goal is to come to agreement and end the argument, not land punches or win points.
Truth? We don’t always follow our own rules. Sometimes, arguments still result in hurt feelings and things we wish we hadn’t said. We’ve each experienced the lumpy living room sofa. But, for the most part, we fight within the boundaries we set.
These rules keep us each focused on the topic at hand, not distracted by triggers or emotion. We can work to find a solution to what’s in front of us, and stay on the same team while we do it.
Do you have fight club rules? Have you changed how you argue for the better? I’d love to hear how you keep the peace in the comments below!
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This has happened before, and it’s terribly inconvenient. The children are afraid of our broody Buffy because she hisses and pecks. She’s nothing like her normal sweet self. Frightened children don’t collect eggs. They whine about whose turn it is, and dawdle on the walk to the coop and generally avoid the task altogether.
That’s what sent me out to the chicken coop yesterday. Three sunny days, six chickens and frightened egg collectors meant I had a treasure trove of farm-fresh eggs waiting for me.
Let me back up, in the event my farm talk has confused you.
Our back-yard mini-farm is a usually a magnet for our six children. They all love hanging around the hens; even sixteen year-old Simon can often be found sitting with his friends in the Adirondack chairs in front of the coop as they watch the chickens peck.
The coop that Gabe built as my first Christmas gift in our married life.
We raised all six hens by hand. We chose our chicks the day after they hatched and the children took turns feeding and holding them. The result is a flock of six sweet, tame chickens. They come when they’re called, eat out of our hands, and allow kids of all ages to pick them up and tote them around the yard.
Except when they’re broody.
When a hen is broody, she sits on her eggs, hell-bent on hatching them. She won’t move at all, barely eating or drinking. She won’t peck in the yard with the rest of the flock. She won’t allow herself to be snuggled. She hisses and pecks at anyone who dares to move her.
A broody hen is stuck in a hormonal cycle that can last up to thirty days. Anxious hen owners can shorten the cycle by encouraging a hen to get some air on her chest (cooling down nature’s incubator seems to help) and enticing her with treats. Sometimes those solutions work, and sometimes they don’t.
As I tried to gently shift our sweet Buffy off her eggs yesterday, she pecked at me furiously. I offered her an apple, which she rejected, squawking in protest. All the other hens were gallivanting in the yard, merrily eating the freshly laid grass seed and scratching for bugs.
Here’s what Buffy doesn’t understand: we don’t have a rooster. The eggs aren’t fertilized. Buffy’s sacrifice will never result in a flock of fluffy chicks. She is starving herself and missing all the fun for nothing.
Sometimes I think the universe sends me broody hens as a reminder.
How often have I sat on eggs that will never hatch in this coparenting and blended family life?
Like a lunatic, I stood outside that chicken coop yesterday and talked softly to my sweet hen. Petting her head, I reminded her that we’d been here before. All her focus and energy wasn’t going to get her what she wanted. No matter how hard she worked to keep those eggs warm, they weren’t going to hatch. She could be the world’s best egg-sitter and she still wouldn’t get what she wanted. It’s just the reality of her situation.
I pushed her gently off the eggs and out into the yard with her flock. I watched her stop and ruffle her feathers in the cool breeze. I watched her scratch and peck the dirt and cluck softly with her sisters.
I watched her slowly let go of the burden of unhatchable eggs and come home to herself.
And I latched the coop, gathered the eggs, and returned inside to do the same.
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