Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Custody In the Summertime

Summer planning has always been my art since becoming a stepmom. My husband was good at going to movies, bowling alleys, and parks- last minute. Otherwise, all trips, camps, etc. start with my whirlwind of thorough research, nights of staring at our calendar(s), and debating- in my head- what we should do.

Summer planning as a stepfamily with partial custody is, as you know, an insanely painful process in itself. Summers, also, are somewhat insane. Some of you have the kids all summer and have very mixed feelings about that, to say the least. Others of you see your stepkids leave for the summer, and although it is enjoyable, you do discover that you miss them. In our world, we were granted every other week with them- only in the summer- about 5 years ago.

That made every other week the only time we could shove in as much summer fun, camps, and other special things we could never do with them during the every-other-weekend-pitiful-painful-pittance schedule the rest of the year. It was this major deal for us to be able to see them morning after night after morning, at home. It was so awesome to be able to sign them up for camps for activities they always wanted to learn but were not allowed to because of their mom's (lack of) required approval (or lack of communication whatsoever). They could do VBS, or volunteer at VBS. They could go on a church trip! They could see us, we could see them, tomorrow! And two days after that!

It was a mix of stress and fitting in things plus complete, amazing joy and ease. Summer weeks were never a painful struggle of awkwardness. The only pain was wishing we could have more time, do more, have this year around. Things were sometimes so nice, it was depressing to realize we only had these special weeks a handful of times. Depending on the summer, it was about 5 weeks. It felt like 3.

Now that we have one skid 50/50 year around for the first time, I just realized how less stressful summer will be knowing that it will finally continue. I won't have to shove in doctors and dentists appointments in the summer. I won't have to feel like "our only chance is now" for the first time ever. (Although, then again, one feels that sentiment a little less when they are no longer kids and have busy teen lives...Still, there's the creeping feeling of "we only have a few years left" in there and a much, much tighter timeframe nearly gone with the elder.)

Looking back, realizing the difference of having a fair parenting schedule compared to what we used to have, and how much more logical it feels all around...It is so sad that our justice system perpetuates ridiculous parenting shared custody schedules. We had so much to offer, and we barely had the time to offer it. We were not prisoners, drug addicts, abusers. We were fully employed, capable, willing. Although I know the history, I will never understand in my heart why so many families have to endure so much pain at the mercy of a judge, mediator, or insane spouse.

viva equal custody! viva summer!

Friday, April 17, 2015

She Finds Her Strength-In You

Once upon a time, my youngest stepdaughter learned that her mother wasn't listening to her anymore. And it's not a fairy tale.

For years, I had listened to her without judging, teasing, mocking, belittling, or labeling. I may have made cardinal mistakes of interrupting when in the middle of 20 things, talking about my own experiences too soon, or questioning her- but I always tried to make it clear that I was coming back around to her. I would ask her later, if I had to interrupt for someone or something else, what the rest of her story was or about the friend she was talking about earlier (or even the other day).

I forget sometimes- to ask her about her friends or last week's drama- but I guess I remember just enough that she knows I am just forgetful. A couple of years ago, I realized she was purposefully setting up talk time. She would either find me in solitude, wait, or literally set-up me driving her- alone. She would then tell me all about her friends, her issues, her questions, or (now) "boyfriends."

I went through depressions, wondering if my stepdaughters would ever give a crap about me. I would try, and it would backfire. I would feel a closeness develop, and then they would throw me under the bus enough to hurt my husband's custody and rights.

Well, one does for sure. She's overt about it now, and she is far from her 20s or 30s when people told me "they will figure it out." (Which I will maintain to question in general, because it just doesn't always happen. Read the research in "Stepmonster.")

If your stepdaughter doesn't have a strong mom- emotionally, self-esteem, what have you- they will feel like they need to take care of her, but your stepdaughter will hopefully, maybe recognize that her needs aren't being met. One of my steps figured it out, the other has not. But the younger is already on a healing process, figuring out conscious, planned strategies to take care of herself as a young teen and "deal" with her mom. She now tells me directly that she has to talk to me, can only tell me the whole story, and I reiterate that I will not make fun of her. (A message I have told her for forever, but she finally understands.) She knows I am really interested- despite trying to cook, drive, or work while she talks- And although I have trouble following every detail of the book she's reading at the moment, I seem to catch enough that she hasn't given up on me understanding teen dystopian societies. (You totally got that, didn't you?)

We encourage her, a lot. Back in the day, our encouragement of her identity and independence was a threat to her mom and sister, and often battled by an entire-in-town-other-family. But this one has come out the other side, understanding more than we ever thought she would at this point. Then again, maybe I saw it coming. I guess we did see a lot of potential in her coming out of the fog earlier, but we didn't want to get our hopes up too high.

We have half custody of her now, but the only thing pissing me off now is that she should have been with us half time all along. She is so happy...And we're pretty sure she'll figure out that she should be with us full time one day, too. If she won't be able to follow through on that choice, we're finding out that she is literally saving all personal news, thoughts, questions, and stories for us. She has admitted to not talking about major parts of her life at her other home, due to fear of reactions, retribution, control, anger, or just being hurt by the misunderstanding or lack of listening. (Hell, if you don't believe me- At a rather young age she announced to me, very clearly and completely out of nowhere, "I think my other family doesn't like me." Does that not tell you a ton right there? Yes, I played it cool and gave excuses for them, but even as a kid she responded, without much emotion besides true thoughtfulness, "No, I'm pretty sure they just don't like me." In other words, she knew she didn't belong for fit in way back then.)

We're here. I was here. I made sure I listened. It wasn't too hard. You can do it, too, even though it hurts sometimes and you wonder what they will tell their mom about you tomorrow. And you don't have to be perfect. I wasn't perfect, and it still worked. I have thought of her as really my daughter before, and she really is. I've started claiming her traits already.

Ok, yeah, I'm not stupid- She will get pulled back into her Mom's world regularly, but she knows I really know her, and I know she really can depend on me. It's gotten past a line, and I know this isn't reversing. She's not a little kid, easily convinced of nonsense anymore- thank God! She's strong, independent, and she's decided no one will stop her now- and we're right behind her, making sure.

Passive (Step)Teen Parenting?

Teenagers. Teenagers.

They're tough for regular parents, but double the puzzle for a stepmom.

Do you leave them alone?

Do you ask?

Do you have your husband ask?

Do you ask their friends?

Do you create a false fire to make them flee their rooms once and for all?

Can you take away the car keys? Or is that sacriliege? (Unlike every other person of authority in their lives...)

Do they EVEN have a curfew!?
Are you up at night wondering where your stepkid is, while your spouse sleeps soundly?

Are you the one who asks where the teenagers went to, with who, and where?

Yeah, I feel ya.

My husband is in teen dad training. He doesn't seem to have expected teenaged girls one day. I was becoming a more hands off parent...And then they turned into teenaged girls, both, at once.
So... I'm "helping" him "remember" to ask where they are going, with whom, for how long, when they will be home...
And not accepting shrugs as responses.

Oh, so much to learn.

Why do I care? Well, usually I already had dinner planned, tickets to something or other, and chores we discussed earlier that they needed to do before setting foot out the door.

Then throw in the complication of minimal custody. Well, then you have a father who feels hurt each and every time his kids walk out the door unless he's had just a little bit of time with them. I see the sadness, I get the brunt of any repressed anger, and I watch him pretend it was all OK when they walk back in the door moody, sullen, and exhausted from friend/boyfriend drama and no-sleep-sleepovers.

Is it so bad to help your husband parent? No. You just need to help him understand and not make him look stupid in front of other people or his kids. That is hard, mind you, but there's an entire book called "Love & Respect" if you're poor in that category. It's tough, but doable. Love your husband, pray for him, and help him remember the Daddy role of protecting his young- even if they can drive now. If he's not "getting it" when it comes to his daughters- as most men don't seem to- get him the book "Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters." He will regret not being a father to them when they needed it otherwise, and they will resent him for not being there as a strong presence, even if silent but clearly noticeable.

And if he doesn't trust your advice or parenting at all, please get therapy from a therapist who has also been a stepmom- pronto. Before it's too late- as he doesn't understand you are helping a lot, yet. Make sure your marriage comes first. (Contact me if you want a discount to the FamilyLife Marriage conference, Weekend To Remember.

While at the FamilyLife conference, my husband bought a very, very short and easy-to-read book called "Interviewing Your Daughter's Date: 30 Minutes Man to Man" by Dennis Rainey. I had it on his Amazon wishlist for years, but he realized it was time- with both girls in relationships suddenly, and he could barely get their boyfriend's names! Within minutes, he was cracking up at Rainey's stories. Every dad of a daughter needs a little bit of support, guidance, or reminders- especially if it can come from wise mentors who aren't seen as a nagging wife!

All Grow-ed Up? (Helping your stepkids grow)

Trauma makes a child's brain development freeze, damaging the growth process.

Trauma can come from something as "simple" (and less recognized...) as emotional abuse.

Critical thinking, future planning, advanced decision-making are all skills that develop in the portion of the brain that goes on "freeze" in response to trauma.

Recurring trauma = partial and/or delayed development of those necessary adult skills.

If my stepkids' mom was traumatized, which caused her to be a full spectrum narcissist...
Then she emotionally abused, neglected, manipulated, and controlled my stepdaughters...

They will have developed differently than a child growing in a healthy environment.

If you are dealing with manipulated kids or teens, please check out resources that will help you understand them, talk with them, and understand what they've been through. It will be good for your sanity, understanding what in the world is going on over there in the other house.

I wish that I had been given, "Will I Ever Be Good Enough? Healing the Daughters of Narcissistic Mothers" by Dr. Karyl McBride, almost a decade ago. How much it would have helped me understand them, relate to what they are going through and have gone through, and maybe work with them. How much it has helped me understand my husband's struggle with his first marriage, albeit indirectly.

[My favorite finding from this book happens to be that narcissistic mothers of daughters are jealous of fathers, a daughter's good relationship with her father, in marriage and divorce.]

Divorce is a type of trauma for kids, so even if you don't have specific parenting abuse concerns, it may still be worthwhile to look into ways to help kids work through trauma, in general, in order to help them come out the other side with strengthened emotional capabilities and healthy patterns.

My MIL recommended a book I can't wait to get to yet called "Stop Walking On Eggshells: Taking Your Life Back When Someone You Care About Has Borderline Personality Disorder." A friend of mine recommended "The Sociopath Next Door" and made her kids read it. I strongly recommend Divorce Poison for any parent watching their kids be emotionally turned against them.

Find these resources early on, to help you understand your stepkids, their mom, and your husband's experience with his ex. I'm figuring out so know, like 9-10 years in...I would have been a better stepmom if I had read Dr. McBride's book when she first published it in 2009.

But still, it's worth it. One stepdaughter, in the midst of the beginnings of teenaged worlds, has recently figured out quite a bit about her life, her mom, and her reality. She was hurting, while also becoming strong. I wanted to help her, because she was coming to me to talk about her struggles with her mom and defining who she is. I then desperately searched for resources to help her, and I will continue to help her deal with her new, enlightened, but somewhat painful world.

My other stepdaughter needs some help with the same, but doesn't realize it yet. She is just starting a pursuit of independence, but doesn't realize the struggles she has ahead of her. We need to be very smart, and purposeful, in order to help her. It will be a longer road, which hopefully we're already halfway down.

We were brought into our stepkids' lives for a purpose. You may one day have a purpose and be the mom they never had. Or if not that, help them to become more emotionally confident, stronger women, smarter men, caring humans. It is not all your burden to bare, but you do have the opportunity to make a difference in this world by strengthening your stepkids- if they give you the chance.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Fostering System vs Stepparenting

I am taking foster licensing classes.

Wow. It is overwhelming.

Except, as a Stepmom...I feel like I already have about 70% of it down.

I have not fostered a child before. I have had friends who have fostered and adopted, and I have fostered a lot of furbabies. But honestly, the fostering system is not all that unfamiliar to those of us stepmoms who have dealt with the classiest of biomoms (and their respective families).

Similarities I have learned thus far (and feel entirely more comfortable with than the rest of the people sitting in the training classes):
  1. Court. Court court courty court. Judges. Child advocates. Social Workers. Lots o' Social Workers, with temporary jobs along the cyclical path. 
  2. Visitation. The reason is different, but the concept is the same. Making your life work around a court ordered visitation. Handing kids over to someone you fear (or know) will hurt them. Dealing with the aftermath of the visit and helping the child transition back.
  3. Kids who have been traumatized- and you're the home that will help them get over the hurdles, grow healthy, lead productive lives. (Some people don't believe that it is our obligation, but, yeah, often it is. The world will not get better if no one takes responsibility for kids living in their own household, even if they are not blood. Oh wait, did I just explain the purpose of the foster system in the first place? And connect it to stepparenting? Oh, snap!)
  4.  Trying to understand kids that are not yours.
  5. Dealing with parents, even if only indirectly, who have really screwed up and may lose their children completely. Parents whom you need to attempt to make a decent communication line to, if just to help the child (and reduce false complaints against you...)
  6. Changing your home in a major way to accommodate a stranger, court orders, state law. 
  7. Limited babysitting and travel options, as they must be approved by an outside force prior and not interfere with visitation
  8. High chance of the parent(s) filing a complaint against you
  9.  An obligation (requirement, actually) to learn more about kids, development, parenting, and emotional abuse than any regular parent would ever bother with. 
I'll think of more, I bet.

In the meantime, some other interesting observations...

I have occasionally mentioned my interest in adopting from the foster system to others, and have very rarely received this response:
<pure shock> "But, you've already been through so much. Why in the world would you want to put yourself through that, too?" 
That reaction is coming from someone who has really, really understood, seen, or experienced the pain of stepmothering themselves. (Yes, being specific to stepmothering, only.) On top of that, they also understand how hard adopting from the foster system can be. They are showing me a very emotional response. They are right.

I tell them, "Well, because, I figure it won't be worse than this."  I really do see it that way. I figure that we did this messy, split home, crazy ex, manipulated angry kids, lost in court, etc. etc. thing already, and we are stronger for it. I felt so much pain for my husband, and I watched his pain. Everybody suffered, but fostering to adopt a child from another broken home that isn't anyone's ex spouse seems easier, frankly. We also learned we have a lot to offer kids and feel like there was a big hole during the vacancy of my stepkids' lives. We often thought of how we would parent, if we could.

It does seem harder in some ways, such as getting your house officially approved. That is a bit daunting, and I see why people would never be able to foster if they couldn't afford to pay for their pool to be surrounded by a specific type of gate. You also have to, by law, stop things such as smoking. We have to figure out how to lock up certain things, and have spaces and furniture specific to the age of the potential incoming child.

But that all makes me wonder: Boy, that's a lot of requirements for a foster house, which I understand but... Why aren't some of these same requirements for a home, living situation considered in contentious divorces? Why wouldn't some of these same expectations be used for determining the safety of a child when it is unclear to the court which home is best? Some states require classes prior to divorce or family court, but beyond that, we would have had to pay for a home study (around $2-4,000 here) in order for that to be used as court-decision-making factors (which you absolutely should do, if you can afford it). And did anyone over 18 living in the residences ever get "live scanned" and TB tested when you went through family court?

If some of these standards, applied by the state and followed by the courts, were used in family court.....

Maybe my friend's stepdaughter wouldn't have lived on a couch for a couple of years, wherever her mom could crash.
Maybe less child abusers would be allowed to live in the same home or have "regular contact" with your child at his/her mom's house.
Maybe we would have been able to actually talk to the kids on a phone, and the kids would have been told by someone else that they were able to talk to us by phone. At least.