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.
I’m in plank position, toes flexed, torso rotated open, arm reaching for the sky when I hear her.
“Breathe. Don’t forget to breathe,” the trainer whispers.
I haven’t forgotten.
I’m holding my breath on purpose. I’ve been to enough pre-dawn punishing gym sessions to know that breathing makes it worse.
Breathing removes resistance. It forces my body to settle into the excruciating pain of a position that is totally unnatural and wildly uncomfortable.
Breathing brings me into the present moment; it allows no distraction. I can’t avoid the heavy sensation of my full body weight balancing on one hand or the tension packed into my post-three-pregnancies midsection. Breathing makes the time crawl.
I held my breath as he sobbed last night.
Deep, wracking sobs I haven’t heard from him in years. The kind of sobbing only interrupted by coughing fits and gasping for air and stuttering, starts again. He’s trapped, that child of mine. Trapped in a spot between his values and other’s expectations.
It’s not a simple problem. It’s middle school, after all.
He’s not handling his half of it well: digging in and avoiding and minimizing when he’s confronted. He’s laughing it off for fear of what others might think if he starts to cry.
It tumbles out of him: the whispered teasing, the fear that everyone is watching, the frustrating prison of wanting to do something but fearing what might happen if he speaks his truth out loud.
I’m holding my breath, looking for a solution. Looking for the conversation that does seem possible, the bearable compromise between his values and the expectations of his classmates, the easy way to fix this.
I want to fix this.
I’m holding my breath so I don’t feel his pain. So I am not paralyzed by the bewildering paradox he’s facing: find a happy medium between your personal values and social expectations. I am holding my breath so I’m not overwhelmed by the courage of this stubborn kid at thirteen, nestled in the crook of my arm begging me to find him a way out of this.
I’m holding my breath so I don’t feel my pain. The pain of wanting to help this miracle of a kid and also wanting him to learn how to solve his own problems. The pain of the balancing act between doing and teaching, acting and holding space.
I’m holding my breath so I can hold it together long enough to calm him and tuck him in and check his sister’s homework and tell his brother to get off the phone. I’m holding my breath as I rub his back until his breath finally deepens and slows and I can leave his room.
I’ve held my breath each and every time this world shocks and disappoints me. Each time I wonder how the Earth is big enough to hold all of this pain and anger and loss. When the news seems too impossible to be true, when I can’t read the headlines for fear of being immobilized by the pain summarized succinctly in Times New Roman 24 point font, I hold my breath.
Holding my breath means it won’t be this way forever. Waiting to exhale means acknowledging a time in the future where the air will escape my aching lungs. When it will be over, better, different. Sometimes, holding my breath is an act of defiant of hope.
This will pass. This won’t be forever. This isn’t real.
She nudges me gently.
“Still not breathing,” she chides.
I give in. I exhale and fill my lungs again, and feel the ache of the present. My toes cramping as the seconds tick by. Shoulder shaking, eyes blurring, I let it go. I breathe.
It’s not until I am driving home and see the moon hanging low in the pink early morning sky that I start to cry.
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.
It was a year ago today that I hit the green “Publish” button on the very first post on This Life in Progress and held my breath.
Like so many things in this divorced and blended journey, I had absolutely no idea what would come next. And, again like so many other things in this life, what actually came next far, far exceeded the wildest, most hopped-up fantastic scenario I could have imagined.
Brene Brown says, “”[C]onnection is why we’re here; it is what gives purpose and meaning to our lives.” It was connection that was missing for me as a newly divorced mom. Connection to people who had lived what I was living. Connection to others who understood the bittersweet reality of ending something that wasn’t serving you and missing it at the same time. Connection to other parents working through the complicated, sticky coparenting mess I faced.
Connection was missing again for me when I married Gabe and found myself in the role of a modern Mrs. Brady. Where were the other stepmoms? Where was my instruction manual? Where was the life I thought I signed up for?
One year ago, on the recommendation of a counselor and with the somewhat reluctant support of my husband, I began to write about our life together. And I found the connection I needed.
One year later, I am looking back in total wonder and amazement at this journey. Today, I’m sharing with you some of my favorite fun facts about our little corner of the interwebs.
On this site alone, these three posts have been viewed more than 30,000 times. Each was also published widely by other outlets, including Today Parenting Team, The Huffington Post and Scary Mommy.
But my favorite thing about these top three? They each represent a story you’ve told me you are also living. The community here at This Life in Progress is made up of divorced parents, stepparents, and blended families, and the top three posts reflect that.
People love their SUVs. LOVE them. I got more nasty comments about talking trash about my Yukon XL than I did about nearly anything else. Oh, and I got some snarky birth control references too on that one (“She just ended up with six kids? Doesn’t she know how that works?”).
Also, sometimes people only read the titles and comment. Actually, lots of times they do that based on the stepchildren article.
I think these are great and yet each has less than 500 views.
I don’t get it. Do they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe? Spinach in their teeth? What gives?
Where We’ve Been Featured
This just BLOWS.MY.MIND. I have no other words.
If you’d told me one year ago I’d have a personal relationship with editors, speak to morning show producers and be a featured guest on podcasts in the next several months, I’d have told you that sniffing glue is dangerous.
Blogging By The Numbers
Annual Page Views: 285,049
Peak Day: 5,020 (almost beat that yesterday!)
Hours I spend on each post: 2.5
Total Published Posts: 115
Average words written per week: 3650 (I’m a Talky McTalkerson)
First FB Live Topic: the gardenia plant in my bathroom
Average Reader Messages Per Day: 22
Monthly Hours Spent on TLIP Content and Responses: 80+
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.
This house is a constant, wild cacophony of dart gun wars, impromptu karaoke and teenage meltdowns. Gabe and I sometimes forget that most “normal” families don’t have a matched set of Bigs, Middles and Littles, three boys and three girls in nearly perfect stair-stepped order. Most families don’t consume three gallons of milk a week or get cartons of toilet paper shipped to the house.
We are often so busy with the care and feeding and driving of the troops, that the truth is, often we forget we’re not most families.
Because the children are all generally tall and sport varying shades of brown hair, casual observers often assume we always planned to be a family of eight. Once, our seatmate on a plane asked if Gabe and I minded if she ordered a cocktail. When we assured her we thought everyone on board should be ordering drinks before a five-hour flight with our crew, and asked what prompted her question, she paused, and after a pointed glance at our six, explained she thought we “might be religious.”
I think the main reason people often assume this six-pack has been together all their lives is because of how they interact. To be clear, they do not exude love and kindness to each other every waking minute. These are not the siblings of matching holiday pajama ads. But, after years together, a hefty dose of luck and a bit of coordination, the six children in our family get along in the same way siblings in a first family do. These six often enjoy and generally tolerate each other, much to our collective relief as their parents.
Thinking back, I think our relative success in this area is due to five conscious decisions we made to foster sibling relationships in our blended family.
We don’t force full-family time.
Except for our daily dinner together and the occasional mandated holiday appearance, we don’t require every kid to participate in every planned family. Apple picking this weekend sounded like fun to five and the sixth felt differently. Time on the water in the summer generally appeals to everyone, but early mornings at the farmers’ market don’t.
Our kids have say in how and when they participate, even when it is not particularly comfortable. Caden often chooses not to participate in extended family gatherings with Gabe’s family. He’s overwhelmed by the number of people and unfamiliar with some of their most closely held traditions. Simon chose to work this summer as a camp counselor during the week we planned our family camping trip; he wasn’t particularly excited by the idea of eight of us and the dog in the RV for the week, and at sixteen, wants to be in constant contact with his friends.
In both of these examples, I wish our situation were different. I love for our family of eight to be together. But, I’ve learned the hard way, more than once, that forcing a kid to participate in a blended family activity he isn’t comfortable with usually ends in disaster. For me, for the kid in question, and for everyone else.
We structure time apart.
Each of our sets of children is on a week-on, week-off schedule with their other parent, and we intentionally structure access to ensure that kids aren’t overlapping with step-siblings 100% of the time. Our children typically overlap half the time they’re at home.
Our schedule allows kid together time to be something that kids look forward to in the best case, and know is coming to an end in the worst. Gabe’s children don’t compete with mine for his attention every day they’re here, and can experience me as a stepparent rather than a mom. The same is true for my three.
Our planned time apart goes beyond our custody schedule. We often naturally spend time together in separate, smaller groups. Simon, Jack and Gabe might attend Jack’s soccer game on Saturday morning while Caden and the girls and I run errands.
The groups vary, but the effects do not. Time spent away with one part of our family and coming home to another allows us all grace.
We honor privacy.
The children each have a space to retreat when this swirling life in progress gets to be too much. We respect that, and allow kids to be in their rooms without their siblings whenever they like. Much to his chagrin, Jack can’t enter Caden’s room unless he is invited, and vice versa. That rule applies to everyone else in the house too.
Toys in the playroom are fair game, but no one is expected to share his or her personal favorites. Pictures can’t be taken or posted without permission. Boundaries between siblings are clear around here, and that matters.
Again, safety trumps privacy. Gabe and I enter rooms and check phones and drawers just like every other parent on the planet. We simply don’t extend that parental privilege to the under-18 set.
We don’t allow back-channeling.
Have a problem with your step-sibling? The kids around here know that you’ll be asked to talk about with that person first, and then both parents.
Gabe and I now take a team approach to conflict-resolution. During our early years, we huddled in corners with our respective children and tried to work it out between the two of us adults. That was disastrous. We ended those discussions feeling defensive and angry, and no closer to a solution.
Now, kids in conflict have to come to both of us and talk through the situation in front of each other. This team approach works much better, and (surprise!) often yields the truth much faster.
We try not to overthink it.
We want very much for our family to be strong and bonded and full of love. Sometimes I wonder if I want that more now, after the painful end to our first family. It can be hard not to take every fight or unkind word to heart, and believe we’re miles from our goal. But the truth is, first families have their share of sibling squabbles and hurt feelings. When we’re concerned about how bonded our group is or who is opting out of what, we remember that no group of six children gets along all the time. We focus on what’s working well and move forward.
Tell me, how do you foster strong sibling relationships in your blended family?
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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Yesterday, during that witching hour between dinner and bedtime, I walked out the back door and into our yard. I sat in an old faded plastic lawn chair, stared out into our too-long grass littered with foam arrows and bubble wands and wet sidewalk chalk, and thought about running away.
I thought about what would happen if we weren’t a family of eight. I thought about what my life would be like if I’d never married Gabe. I thought about what might have happened if I’d stayed married to my children’s father.
I played all the hits on my Anxious Questions album.
“How on God’s green earth did I get here?”
“What possessed me to leave my small, tidy life as a single mom to join this circus?”
“Why did we ever think this would get easier?”
“Are the kids okay? Really okay?”
My dark thoughts and nagging questions tumbled in my head like sneakers in a dryer.
The last three months feel like six years. Our six children might as well be a dozen. We’re mired in the messy middle of this blended and coparenting gig and I am low on energy and emotional reserves.
It’s not the first time.
The truth is that this life in progress is so complicated and busy and wonderful and messy that sometimes I love it and loathe it equally. I worry and plan and celebrate and worry some more.
Some days I am sitting next to Gabe at the head of our dining table marveling at the miracle that brought our family together and some days I am hiding in the yard plotting my escape.
Time and experience have taught me six lessons to remember before bringing the suitcase down from the attic.
Don’t take action.
“Do something…fix this.”
That’s always the urge. Because this coparenting blended family life is so often itchy and scratchy and complicated, my first inclination is often to change it. I’m a take charge kind of gal, and if something is wrong, I take action to make it right.
But how might I make our family “right”?
It’s not wrong. We’re not screwing up. By most measures, the kids are thriving and Gabe and I are good partners. It’s just sometimes wildly uncomfortable. I just don’t like it sometimes.
Get curious about negative grumblings.
I’m often tempted to ignore or resist negative thoughts like the ones swirling in my head last night. I talk sternly to myself about positive thinking and present carefully articulate counter-arguments to my grumpy position. I tell myself those feelings aren’t valid, and blame them on lack of sleep or too many carbs.
But I’ve learned suppressing thoughts is futile. Those bad boys pop up like over-analyzed rodents in Whack-a-Mole, stronger each time they emerge.
Today, I am filled with negative, dark chatter. I’ve spent the morning getting curious about it, turning over rocks in my mind to see what lies underneath. What am I really worried about? What is in my control? What’s really bothering me?
There’s no way around what’s in your head. There is only a way through. And the way through is to get comfortable with how you’re feeling. Sit right down next to the feeling and introduce yourself. Get curious about what you’re really grumbling about. Think carefully about what triggered the sudden urge to buy a one-way bus ticket to anywhere. Own it.
Don’t take thoughts too seriously.
I’ve thought about cutting off all my hair and perming the top. I’ve thought about going to circus college. I’ve thought about vandalizing cars and throwing surprise birthday parties and writing old boyfriends. I haven’t done all of those things.
Wanting to run away and hide in the playhouse for a week or dreaming about your life before all this happened isn’t harmful or wrong.
I don’t criticize myself for the thoughts I’m having. Thoughts are just thoughts.
Notice your state of mind, and adjust.
Because my default setting seems to be grumbly today, I’m spending time outside and not overloading my schedule. Cleaning the closets and sorting the playroom will happen another day. So will any sticky conversations I have on my to-do list with my children’s father.
Today isn’t a day for hard things.
Dwell in possibility.
Today, I’m not planning to run away. But I briefly allowed for that possibility yesterday in the back yard. The truth is, I may do something differently based on how I am feeling today. Thoughts do often drive action, after all. But I want any action I take to be well-founded and balanced.
I allow all answers to the question of what I want or what might improve our situation to stay on the table today. There’s no wrong answer. Today isn’t a day for eliminating options or limiting possibility, it’s a brainstorming day.
What are the 20, 30, 50 things that would make this feel better? What’s really possible? I remember I’m not trapped and I have choices.
I remember I’m not alone, and this will pass.
It often feels that way. Even Gabe’s experience of our family is vastly different from mine. Most of my friends don’t have blended families. No one else in my family is divorced.
But the truth is, I have a committed and engaged partner. I have a support community that lifts me up. I know I have a plan that puts my train back on track.
Today, I’m working this plan. I’m confident tomorrow will be brighter. Until then, you’ll find me out back.
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