Childless step-parenting not an easy job

Step-parenting can make you crazy, especially if you have never had your own children. You want your partner’s offspring to fill that baby-yearning hole in your life, but they have their own mother and father and you are neither one.

To them you’re a stranger who showed up late and wants to claim a family connection. You’re a lot like the substitute teacher who knows nothing about what they were doing with their regular teacher and whom they don’t have to obey because she’s only here for a few days. Your partner may or may not help you make the connection. He has known them longer than he has known you. They are flesh of his flesh—and you’re not. You come from a different family with different traditions and different memories. You’re the puzzle piece that doesn’t quite fit.

I’m not the only one who has called herself the Wicked Stepmother. Turns out that’s quite common. You just pray the kids laugh when you say it.

I have been looking through old files and just read through a fat one from my days when my youngest stepson lived with us, his older sister stayed with us intermittently, and his older brother lived in various places. It was tricky. I had the responsibilities of a mom, whether it was conferring with teachers, baking cookies for Boy Scouts, or taking my stepson to the doctor. We were tied down. If my husband and I wanted to go out, we couldn’t just leave him in the backyard with a bowl of water like a dog. We had to find a babysitter or stay home.

My friends insisted I claim motherhood on Mother’s Day. But to my stepson, I was just “Sue.” He resisted my attempts to hug him or to connect him with my own family.

Since my husband and his ex never officially changed the custody agreement, his real mom could reclaim him at any time. Besides, it was obvious I had no experience at being a mother and didn’t know what I was doing.

Reading my old journals makes me squirm. I sound resentful and selfish. “The kid won’t obey me.” “He wrecked my car.” “None of them remembered me on Mother’s Day.” “I’m trying to work, and I keep getting interrupted.” I’m human. I’m not Julie Andrews in “The Sound of Music,” taking in all those kids with nothing but love and selflessness. But there were moments of love, too, times when I tearfully thanked Fred for giving me this family.

When you marry someone who has been married before, he or she will probably have children. He or she may not want anymore. They want you, but they don’t want to do babies again. Been there, done that. They are happy to offer you the children they already have, but it’s not the same, is it?

Today my stepchildren are all adults. The daughter is not only a mother but a grandmother. Since Fred died, we don’t talk; we Facebook. I’m proud of their accomplishments. I don’t know what our connection is now, if any, but I hope they know I tried. I really tried.

It’s not the same as having your own babies. That’s just not possible. But it’s something. As long as people keep getting married multiple times, stepchildren will be part of the picture.

Here’s an interesting report by the PEW Research Center on marriage and remarriage.

I have received a lot of comments lately about step-parenting. Previous posts on the subject include: “Stepchildren and Holidays Always a Tricky Mix,” “Must Childless Stepmothers and Their Stepchildren Hate Each Other?” “Stepchildren Add Stress to Childless Marriages,” “Sometimes Stepchildren are All Right,” and “What Am I to My Stepchildren Now That My Husband has Died?”  There are even more. Use the search box at upper right to find more posts about stepchildren or whatever you want to read about.

Let the conversation continue. How has it been for you?

 

 

 

 

Motherhood–the Hero’s Journey I Didn’t Take

Pregnancy fascinates me. It has all the elements of great fiction: In the opening, something has changed: She is pregnant. Ups and downs follow: joyful anticipation, morning sickness, picking out a name, daydreaming about what the baby will look like, emergency room trips with break-through bleeding, baby showers, Braxton Hicks contractions, the beginning of labor. Pain mixed with euphoria, fear, and suspense. Will the baby be all right? will the mother survive? And then the happy ending. Or not. Either way, it’s a heck of a story.

In her book The Mask of Motherhood, Susan Maushart compares pregnancy and childbirth to the Hero’s Journey, the basic plot that literature teachers insist lies underneath every classic tale. Like a knight on a mission, the mother travels into a strange land on a quest. There is no turning back, and once the journey is completed, her life will be changed forever.

Childbirth is the ultimate rite of passage, Maushart says.

And I missed it. But reading about pregnancy and childbirth, at least now, when it’s too late for me, is not all too different from following the story of a team climbing Mount Everest, a couple crossing the Atlantic in a canoe, or that guy who sawed his own hand off when he got trapped alone on a mountain-climbing expedition. It’s fascinating. I want to know about every cramp and scrape. I want to read about how they were starving, how they carried on despite injuries, and how they hallucinated and thought they saw angels. Yeah, yeah, tell me more. Let me share their joy when they reached the top of the mountain or the sandy shore or when the rescuers came and he knew he was going to live. Tell me about how miraculous it felt to finally see and hold the baby that had been growing in the mother’s belly all these months.

But at this point in my life, I don’t want to actually DO IT. Of course I want the happy ending, but I’m not about to climb a mountain, row across the Atlantic or have a baby. Let’s see, nine months of being sick, fat, and out of whack–and wait, no caffeine?–followed by being torn inside out while expelling a little person who will need constant attention for the next 18 years. I’m just too old for all that. Sometimes taking care of my dog is too much.

Obviously the trick is to have children early in life, before you really understand what you’re getting into. Just like they send 18-year-olds off to war. If they were in their 40s or 50s, they might refuse to go. Hey, I might get killed, it’s 120 degrees in the Middle East, and I’m too busy doing other stuff. Maybe in a way, that’s why some of our partners who are already in their 40s hesitate to have babies with us. They see how hard it will be, especially if they’ve done it before.

I think what I feel bad about now is that almost everyone else took that baby-making hero’s journey, and I didn’t. Every day is another reunion of the I-made-a-baby club. “See, here he is. I made a life. You made a, what? A book, a quilt, a pie, a PhD? Yeah, but I made a person. My grave will say ‘beloved mother.’ Yours will just have dates.”

Good point. Even if the moms complain that their babies have turned into bratty teenagers who argue and slam the door in their faces or adults who forget to send them a card on Mother’s Day, there’s that underlying shared experience that I will never share. I didn’t climb the mountain, didn’t cross the ocean, didn’t slice off my hand to save my own life. I have no stretch marks, no episiotomy scars, and no child.

We women still have a lot in common. We can talk about work, PMS, clothes, aging parents, food, houses, etc., but sooner or later, they’ll start talking about Cub Scouts or swim team or school clothes, and all I can contribute is, well, nothing. As they make plans for play dates and sleepovers, I wander off to talk to the childless friend who has dogs or the old lady whose kids are all grown up and moved to Minnesota or the guy watching football on TV.

It’s a gigantic sorority for which I will never qualify, any more than I belong with the mountain climbers or ocean rowers. So I have to pursue other quests, take other journeys. That’s not so terrible, not from the perspective of later life. Perhaps if we’re not having babies, it’s because we’re meant to do something else. Or we’re meant to embark on the pregnancy journey later. There’s no reason you can’t pursue more than one quest in a lifetime.

If you never become a mother or father, what might your mission be?

 

Book Review: The Pregnant Pause

 

The Pregnant Pause by Jane Doucet, published by All My Words, Halifax, Nova Scotia, 2017.

Does she want to have a baby? As her 37th birthday approaches, that’s what Rose keeps asking herself. She loves children, but also loves her job. She and her husband don’t have much money, and he won’t commit until she’s sure one way or the other. He feels no pressure. He will still be fertile for many more years. Plus he’s not getting harassed by parents, co-workers and even strangers who want to know why she hasn’t reproduced yet. Nor is he the one to whom his mother gave a book of baby names for Christmas.

Readers of this blog and my Childless by Marriage book will recognize many of the situations Rose faces–the clueless remarks, the friends obsessed with their offspring, the fear of waiting too long, the spouse who won’t commit to parenthood, the wondering if you’re not cut out for motherhood.

In this enjoyable novel, Doucet hits all the familiar notes. Childless or formerly childless readers will nod in sympathy. I especially ached for Rose as she tried to get her husband to explain why he hesitated to have children. He really didn’t want to talk about it (sound familiar?). Rose asks why he doesn’t want children right now. Is it because he thinks he’d be a bad father? No. Is it the loss of sleep? No. He finally admits he doesn’t want the responsibility. What if she got pregnant by accident? Would he leave her? “No, of course not. But I wouldn’t be happy about the situation . . . are we finished with this discussion?”

This self-published book by a long-time Canadian journalist could have benefited from another run through the copy editor to deal with tense inconsistencies and add more life to the dialogue. But bravo to Doucet for offering a novel in which children are not guaranteed. I think you’ll enjoy reading it.

Doucet’s website: www.thepregnantpause.net

Full Disclosure: I received a free review copy of this book from the author.

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Have I mentioned the NotMom Summit? It’s a two-day conference happening Oct. 6 and 7 in Cleveland, Ohio. I will be one of the speakers, along with many of the most active women in the childless/childfree community. Jody Day of Gateway Women is coming all the way from the UK. We’ll have Marcia Drut-Davis, author of Confessions of a Childfree Woman; Laura Carroll, author of Families of Two and The Baby Matrix, Laurie Lisle, author of Without Child: Challenging the Stigma of Childlessness, and so many more. Think about coming. For once, you will not be surrounded by moms. For details, visit http://thenotmom.com/the-notmom-summit-2017. I would love to see you there.

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Readers, We have been getting lots of great comments on recent posts. People are talking about stepchildren, childless women’s roles, Klinefelter’s syndrome and more. Scroll back to past weeks and join the discussions. Or use the search box at right to find subjects you want to read about.

Without children, what marks the mileposts in our lives?

When my mother was 22, she got married and became a wife. At 25, she gave birth to me and became a mother. At 43, she attended my high school graduation. At 47, she attended my college graduation and my first wedding and moved into a new empty-nest phase. At 56, she attended my second wedding. At 58, she became a step-grandmother and at 60 a grandmother. At 75, she died of cancer. She did not go to college or have a career of her own. She lived in the same house all of her adult life.

The events of her children’s lives served as the markers for my mother’s life. There were other events: the year her brother was paralyzed from the neck down in a motorcycle accident. The year my father broke his leg. The year Dad retired. The years that her parents died. But for the most part, her roles as mother and grandmother marked the stages of her life. If she had a gravestone, it would likely say “loving wife and mother.”

Not so for me or for you who do not have children. In some ways, our roles never change. I’m still the daughter and the sister, never the mother or grandmother. I mark my life stages with my own weddings, graduations, jobs and book publications. I earned my bachelor’s degree at 22, my master of fine arts degree at 51. I was married at 22 and at 33. I was 38 when my first book was published. I was 44 when we moved to Oregon. I was 50 when my mother died. I was 52 when my husband was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, 59 when he died.

I attended some of my stepchildren’s graduations and both of my stepdaughter’s weddings. I was around when her children were born, but somehow these events don’t mark MY life. I was too young to really be a grandmother, and I was not the one the kids called “Mom” as they posed in caps and gowns.

Maybe that’s why I’m having a hard time reconciling who I am on the outside with who I am on the inside these days. If I had children to mark the milestones of my life, I would have felt the progression from daughter to wife to mother to grandmother to great-grandmother. I would see the gray hair in the mirror and think well of course; I’m a grandmother, instead of holy shit, what happened. Maybe I wouldn’t cling to my father so hard if there were other younger people filling out the family tree behind me.

Ideally, I think the major events of our lives should be a blend of our own and our children’s, but if we have no children, how do we mark the stages of our lives? How do we progress from one role to the next when the circle of life is a straight line? When do we finally feel grown up? Look at your own lives. What are the major events you will remember, the things that changed everything? How are we different because we haven’t had children?

Related reading:

http://www.higherawareness.com/lists/major-life-changes.html  “Major Life Changes—A List of Choices” Here’s a list of things to think about.

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/lifes-25-major-milestones-ages-5721180 “Life’s Major Milestones and the Ages You ‘Should’ Have Achieved Them” This list is just for fun. You will probably laugh at these.

http://jezebel.com/your-official-list-of-new-life-milestones-612710155 “Your Official List of New Life Milestones” from Jezebel gives us something to think about.

So what are mileposts markers for your life? I welcome your comments.

Step-parenting is No Fourth of July Picnic

Dear Readers,

I have been on the road again this week helping my father. He is 95 years old, and he broke his upper leg very badly in March. He went from the hospital to a terrible nursing home to a somewhat better one.

On Tuesday, we saw the orthopedic surgeon again. After three months, the leg still isn’t healing much, but the doctor believes the hardware he installed around the bones will hold him up. He says Dad can start walking with a walker AND he says Dad can go home. This young ortho expert doesn’t know what he’s saying. Dad lives alone. His will is strong, but his body is fragile. My brother and I both live far away. This situation is wearing us out. We’ll both be doing some commuting while we figure out how to get things organized. Moving Dad from his three-bedroom house in suburbia to some kind of senior residence would be much easier on us, but it’s Dad’s life, and he has the right to live it the way he wants to. He wants to go home.

I arrived in the middle of a heat wave. Driving Dad’s car through the horrible traffic in San Jose, sweating, tired and hungry, I told myself taking care of Dad–and my dog Annie, who just had knee surgery three weeks ago–is my job now. Perhaps I was denied motherhood so I could devote myself to caregiving for my husband and our parents. It’s not really what I want to do, but it’s the job God has given me. I would so much rather focus on my writing and music and maybe take an actual vacation. Someday.

Meanwhile, it’s that time of year when we’re forced to look at pictures of everybody’s kids in graduation gowns or on vacation. Babies seem to be everywhere. Right? And, those of us who have stepchildren may suddenly find them arriving for extended visits, disrupting our usually childless lives.

A 2012 post, “Stepchildren Add Stress to Childless Marriages,” has drawn a barrage of comments this week. You might want to read them and join the conversation. Step-parenting is tough, and folks who think they’re a perfect substitute for having your own kids are wrong. It’s the not the same.

What do you think? What’s bugging you these days? Thanks for being here.

Sue

 

 

Hey, some of us are not having babies!

A childless Facebook friend had a horrible experience at the dentist last week. Her hugely pregnant hygienist never stopped talking about her baby and she had to sit while doing the work, forcing my friend into awkward positions. But that wasn’t the worst of it. My friend was having an impression made of her teeth. The hygienist clamped a goop-filled mold onto her teeth. It was supposed to stay on for 15 minutes. The patient waited over 45 minutes while she could hear the hygienist talking to other people in the building about her baby. She knew it was too long but felt helpless to do anything about it. By the time the hygienist came back, the stuff had hardened so much it had to be painfully chipped off. The impression was ruined. I hope the hygienist was fired.

It’s not always that way. The last time I had my teeth cleaned, my hygienist was about to go on maternity leave. Once in a while her belly bumped against me, but she was completely professional and did not talk incessantly about the baby.

I know having a baby is exciting, probably the most exciting thing that can happen to a woman, but sometimes it’s hard to hear.

Another friend recently got pregnant via in vitro treatments. I’m happy for her and praying the pregnancy results in a healthy baby. But do we need a daily report of every symptom and every little doodad you have purchased for the baby? The rest of us are still back in no-baby land.

Today is my great-niece’s first birthday. She lives far away. I can’t get away to see her. My nephew posted a video of her first steps last week. So cute, but I’m missing it all. I will never get to experience the milestones of life with a little one, not my own, not a grandchild, not even my great-niece while all around me people are glorying in babies. Even at my age, that still hurts a lot.

Meanwhile, I’m torn between dog and dad. Annie got her stitches out yesterday. Her incision seems to be healing well. She is walking gingerly on her repaired leg. I’m still afraid to leave her alone for long, but this morning I slept in for the first time in weeks because she can finally take herself outside through her doggie dog. Before, the inflatable collar around her neck made her too wide to get through.

As for Dad, I’m heading back to California Monday for his next appointment with the orthopedic surgeon. Pray the doctor says he can start trying to walk. I don’t know how he’ll survive if he gets bad news again. He hates the nursing home, but we really don’t know if he’ll ever get to go back to living in his own house. Complicating matters, he was being taken to Kaiser yesterday for a bad cough. I’m still waiting to hear what the doctor said. What if it’s something worse? Sunday is Father’s Day. I won’t be there. What if it’s his last? I can’t let my mind go there.

Father’s Day. Childless male readers, I’m sorry about this stupid holiday which causes pain for everyone who isn’t a father or who doesn’t have a living father. Women get more attention for Mother’s Day, but Father’s Day is tough for men, too. As with the women, I suggest that you stay away from social media the whole weekend and get out of town if you can. Don’t expect your stepchildren to honor you. It’s probably not going to happen. Go fishing. Take a hike. Read a good book until it’s over.

So that’s what I’m thinking about this week. What’s on your minds?

 

 

Childless dog-mom takes pooch to church

IMG_20170605_120334609[1]Taking your dog to choir practice must be a lot like taking your toddler to work. By the time it’s over, you vow, “Next time, I’ll get a sitter.”

Annie, 74 pounds of Lab-pit bull love, had knee surgery a week ago today. It was done out of town, very expensive. Now she has a long incision with 13 staples that I have to keep her away from until next week. She is wearing a big blue inflatable collar that looks like a life preserver. She has so many pills I have organized them in days-of-the-week pill boxes, and I have orders to keep her from running, jumping or playing. Right. She can already put weight on her injured leg and she wants to go, go, go.

Choir starts at 7 p.m. At 4:30, we were sitting out in the yard when Annie rolled around on the grass enough to dislodge her collar. A little push with her good back leg and voila, it was off. Oh no! I jumped up and forced the collar back on before she could fight me.

Please God, let her keep it on, I prayed. We still have seven days to go. We ate dinner. I slipped one of Annie’s blankets into the back of the Element and put the seats up so she’d have room to relax. When Annie realized she was going for a ride, she went nuts. She ran, she jumped, and she nipped my arm with her sharp teeth. Unable to jump into the car, she waited for me to lift her. So heavy! I could feel my spine crumbling under her weight.

Before we got to the end of our short, one-car-wide block, Annie had shoved her head between the seats, trying to get up front. Another car was coming the other way, waiting for me to move while I was fighting back the dog. Sorry! Just as I eased around the other car with an apologetic wave, Annie eased out of her collar. Naked dog again. Damn!

I pulled into a neighbor’s driveway, climbed into the back and wrestled with my dog to get the stupid collar on. She wasn’t interested in wearing it anymore. I couldn’t blame her, but I knew she’d be licking and biting her staples as soon as I left her alone. Taking her to choir is a bad idea, I thought, as I clicked her regular collar back on and sealed the Velcro around her balloon collar. I should just stay home. But I had been home constantly since I brought Annie back from the hospital on Thursday. In addition to choir, I needed to return my library book, pick up my mail, and buy a few things at the store. “Lie down!” I ordered the dog. As I drove, I could hear her nails clicking as she walked around. Every other minute, she shoved her face up next to my arm. “Down!”

Post office. I literally ran from the car to my box, grabbed my bills, and ran back. Library. I stopped at the drive-through return, leaned way out the window and let the book thunk into the box. Grocery store. Race down the aisles, glancing constantly out the window to check on the dog. Grab strawberries, bananas, lettuce, cookies, a bag of flour, try to find frozen yogurt, can’t, no time, hurry through the checkstand. Senior discount? Yes, please. Out with my bags. Oh, thank God, she was still in the back. But footprints and nail marks on my choir book showed she had tried to get into the driver’s seat.

Okay, church. Nobody there yet. Annie was going out of her mind with excitement. I helped her to the ground. She dragged me all over the grass and pavement. She did her business. She nosed bits of garbage, chewed on weeds, sniffed at doors, shoved her head into the bushes.

The other singers arrived. “Oh, how cute,” they said, all wanting to pet my dog. Annie dragged me from person to person. They stroked her and talked baby talk to her. They praised her for being such a good dog. They thought she was healing well.

“How is Mom?” someone asked. I let my tongue drop in a sign of exhaustion. My spine was all jumbled from lifting and restraining the dog. My clothes were covered with fur. I had a wet spot on the breast of my blue shirt where Annie’s water bowl tipped over while I was moving it. My arm was bruised where she nipped me.

Annie settled down as we did the readings and started to sing. But when we decided to adjourn to the sanctuary so we could try some of the songs with the organ, Annie dragged me ahead of the others through the vestibule and across the altar to the choir loft. “Slow down! It’s church!”

She raced up the steps, trying to sniff everyone at once. As the organ sounded. “Holy, Holy, Holy!” the dog settled down below us, smiling her doggy smile and panting percussion as we sang. Finally. Peace.

That fell apart when we went back to the chapel to finish our practice. I drained my water bottle to fill a plastic container with water for Annie. She lapped it up, the sound reverberating off the skylight and stained glass window. Then she dragged me to the door. Need to pee. So did I, but I couldn’t leave Annie to go to the restroom. We walked around the yard while the singing went on. Annie and I were there, but it was all about the dog.

After choir, a friend held my stuff while I lifted the dog back into the car. Oh my back.

At home, we each had a snack before we settled on the loveseat with my tablet to watch a TV show. Annie nestled up against me and fell asleep, softly snoring. “I love you,” I whispered. And I do, but this single-parenting business is hard.

Stitches or not, she’s staying home next week. At least with a dog, you can leave them at home for an hour with a bowl of water and a doggy door.

I don’t know much about motherhood, but I have seen that for mothers, it’s all about the child. If the child needs to stay home, you stay home. If the child needs to be fed or changed, you abandon your own needs to feed or change him. If the child acts out in public, you pray everyone understands. At the age I am now, I don’t know if I could be a real mom to a little human. I don’t have the stamina or the patience.

Would I have been up for it when I was young? I’ll never know. But I do know that we need to forgive our loved ones with kids if they seem to go nuts for a few years and don’t have time for us. Forgive them and offer help. Maybe, at least for now, those of us who don’t have children are supposed to help those who do. Try it.

My niece, who is single, recently became a foster parent to a four-year-old boy with special needs. This week, she took in a baby. God bless her, I don’t know how she does it. God bless all who play the mother role in whatever form it takes.