Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Choosing Wisely

I have heard and seen over the years people and kids advise divorcing parents to "Consider the kids in choosing your next spouse."

It is somewhat obvious advice, but it's a whole lot more complicated than that -and I am witnessing the baggage connected to that belief lead to many second divorces later. Here's why:

As an adult, you fall in love with who you fall in love with. Hopefully you are also wise, logical, and have some general child development or psychology knowledge in your background and carefully introduce your kids to your new girlfriend or boyfriend. Hopefully you are also sane and can tell the difference between an abuser and a well-balanced person...But we aren't all so lucky. In fact, increasingly I hear that a lot of the modern first marriages end due to some pretty major mental illness that came out post-marriage... It happens. You don't always know, and mental illness can grow stronger over time. Abuse also can materialize later and be hidden for some time.

That being said, let's focus on the more average remarriage. I also tend to focus on the father-stepmom relationships, but you could interchange some of that here. In particular though, what I will write will pertain primarily to the dad-stepmom family dynamic.

Dad is warned by family to choose his next wife wisely. The family may even argue with him, expressing concern that his fiance is not good enough for the kids. He may be advised to pick only someone that his kids "like."

This is a wholly problematic qualification that my/our situation illustrates well:

We've had some major difficulties in our family, but most of it stemmed from external pressures. My husband literally saw how much his daughters LOVED me. They absolutely did. They wanted to spend time with me, clung to me, begged me to stay, followed me around, wanted to wear my clothes, walked around in my (huge) shoes, etc. etc. I struggled a little more to adjust to kids in my life, but they did not struggle with my presence.

Every now and then, these many years later, I do remember when my oldest stepdaughter was so attached to me I was wondering if I could go to the bathroom alone. She would lean her head on me, play with my hair, and even cuddle. (Yes, they also got upset if I made vegetables or something, but those moments were rather few and far in-between pre-marriage.)

It's been so many difficult years since then that I nearly forget. But that's what my husband saw: He absolutely wanted his kids to be happy, was joyful that they loved me like he did, and he had complete faith in my ability to be a fantastic stepmom to his kids.

And then their mom learned of the wedding date.

I could probably stop writing this post right there. Many of you don't need me to go further.

It was a major turning point. There were still moments where my oldest stepdaughter would beg me to play with her, especially when we were at playgrounds. We still had some good moments, but our relationship became strained more and more as the time progressed. My husband, though, had complete faith in me (poor man) and had seen his kids love me, and figured it would pass.

I am so fortunate, though. My husband is also a very logical man who knew that his daughters were being poisoned and that they did care for me, or at least value me, despite all the junk that got in the way. He saw value in me, and knew that I added value to their lives. He figured, or hoped, or knew that we would all get through it, and he has always believed that my presence in their lives was better for it.

He also has seen me struggle in this role, and he knows that I've changed. He may not like all of the changes or things that have happened, but he understands it. He knows me, and he knows what I've been through. He knows that this has not been easy (massive understatement).

On the flipside, many of the stepmoms I read about, talk to, and hear from are now divorcing. Their husbands do not have the same outlook that my husband has, and they have decided that the kids are unhappy, so they must have made a wrong decision. If my husband had based our marriage on his kids' happiness, we would have annulled our marriage pretty quickly.

It may sound trite, but yes, many stepmoms are faced with a husband who simply gives up on her based on the logic that he must have made a wrong decision now that the kids are unhappy. The stepmom/wife argues that she has sacrificed so much, given so much, given her life, as a matter of fact. She states her case, that she loves him and them and has worked so hard to be a part of the family. Ok, well if she doesn't love the kids, she does love him, and has tried her hardest. She has tried different things, different modes, different tacts. She has worked with him, for him, and for them.

But in response, her husband says, "Well, they don't like you, so I won't keep you." And gives her a move-out date. (I am still not exaggerating.)

Divorce is horrible. The choice to give up on your second wife teaches your kids the opposite of how to be married- or be an adult. You are not making things right in your second attempt; instead you are teaching them that they decide your happiness.

Kids, especially teenagers, are in developmental stages that need consistency- not another meaningful adult thrown out of their lives. Now, THAT, is common sense...supported by research. Kids will change, their moods vary, and if you were still married to your original spouse, they wouldn't be happy all the time, either. They go through moods, years of emotional nuttiness (generally referred to as hormones), and stages of independence. Their happiness will vary, and it isn't caused by just one person in their lives. (Think of all the causes of kid/teen-unhappiness: friends, school, coaches, teachers, lack of a thing, where they live, siblings, wishing they were someone else, boyfriends, girlfriends-or the lack thereof...Come on!)

I would like to also note that the women facing this are not the women that have asked to remove themselves, stepback, and be less involved. These are women that worked their asses off to please their husbands, their stepkids, and be a true parent. Maybe they didn't do it perfectly, because they have such a weird role to fill, but they damn-well gave it their all.

But not all men know what parenting is, and unfortunately, in the second marriage with kids, they have an upper hand. They see it as they "chose" their second wife and brought her in, but usually they did very little work to actually acclimate her, or the kids, to each other. They assumed everything would work out, their new wife would automatically love the kids as much as he does, and many times more than not, the husband also assumes, for some reason, that his new wife will also be the kids' new caretaker- sans authority or proper integration.

It's beyond disheartening. I watched an amazing, strong woman breaking after nearly a decade of pouring her life (and all her money) into a family that did like her, but suddenly her husband decided they just didn't like her enough. They didn't want "her" rules anymore. Bizarre, as the husband and wife should play a mutual, cooperative role in parenting and establishment of rules. It's not "her" rules versus yours. Wait- did you have any?

IF your wife, your second (or third...) wife makes rules you don't like or parents in ways you don't like- WHERE ARE YOU? Where's your part? At what point did you step out of the parenting role and let your new spouse step in? (Usually a stepmom steps in when the chaos is suffocating her...) It takes two, no matter what your issue is. If your wife is stepparenting in a way that you disagree with, why did you let it get this far? If you're the biological parent, you should have helped her or worked with her or at least had some normal planning and parenting discussions before you got to the point of "disapproving" of her.

Many, or most, created our parenting in a void. Stepmothering is a specifically bizarre role to play, and there's a lot of literature out there about how you are automatically at a massive disadvantage if you are a stepmother versus a stepfather. It is a very complicated family role, and our modern generation of stepmoms are all working to figure it out in hundreds of blogs, many new books, and a load of online communities.

In the meantime, your own family has to work together- and the biological parent has all the power. So, step up and shape your family; don't throw out a member of it because it's not perfect. Design the role that your wife will play as a parent, making it clear what will and won't happen with and from the kids. This is a two-sided planning process, involving the integration of an adult, who is not a moron and came with their own concepts of childrearing, parenting, and family history, and kids who have their own set of underdeveloped, preconceived notions- and a choir of other family members feeding them their notions. As the husband and parent, you have to lead and guide and not just watch things crumble and then lament your failed experiment. 

If you are married, you are partners. And if this second marriage has failed your kids, you let it fail your kids. In order to achieve that, you failed your partner first.

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