Sunday, June 20, 2010

Bite Me.

In this stepmom journey, the hardest thing I've learned so far, is that good intentions are not enough. I used to think that if I could only explain Dad's perspective to Biomom, that she'd see his point of view - esp because I'm always trying to see her side of things. Sadly, nowadays I simply fail to see her side of the story.

This past week, Dad and Bonus Daughter had a seemingly pleasant conversation over the phone about summer camp. Bonus Daughter is visiting us for 5 weeks and going to Summer Day Camp. Dad explained that the day camp would provide lunches everyday and that it was included in camp costs. Now typically any kid would get excited about the prospect of camp food like pizza and hot dogs. Bonus Daughter however, decided to consult her own personal lobbyist, Biomom. Biomom subsequently sent Dad an email asking to discuss her concerns about lunch.

What concerns, we wondered. They're certainly not concerns about being served unhealthy foods at camp, because Bonus Daughter has had a steady unhealthy diet of white foods, slimfast bars, pancakes, frappucinos and frozen yoghurt over the years. Usually, I try to gently educate Bonus Daughter about the benefits of wheat bread vs white bread, cultures in yoghurt,eating veggies, and so on, without any success whatsoever.

Dad explained to Biomom that we have not yet received camp menus, and that there wasn't really much to do at this point, two weeks prior to summer camp starting. Dad said we'd work out the lunch situations with Bonus Daughter once she got here. Now, a rational person might accept Dad's explanation. A rational person might also pick their battles, and let Dad feed his Daughter without interfering. But not Biomom. Biomom wrote an email saying she would strongly prefer that we don't have issues such as packing lunches, and that she needed to figure out if she needed to pack lunches for Bonus Daughter to send along for the Summer. I'd love to know what kind of earthquake emergency food bars she was going to supply for 5 weeks to sustain Bonus Daughter.

Dad and I stressed for a little bit, as our every move is always under microscope. I so badly wanted to tell her to let us be, leave us alone, and just let us be parents for 5 weeks, without feeling like the Big Brother is constantly watching us and interfering! But we decided to ignore her email in the end. The other lesson in my stepmom journey, is to pick those battles... Biomom eventually called up summer camp herself , and they said they did not have lunch menus available yet. Go figure.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Always Blame Dad

There was a time when Dad and I thought Bonus Daughter's toddler tantrums were behind us and that we had only rosy days of happy nuclear familydom ahead of us. No more "I want mommy not my daddy" fits, or teary phone calls with the Biomom every night. We were looking forward to having a rational little person around who would be excited to spend time with Dad. Funny enough, now that Bonus Daughter is old enough to reason, Dad and I have finally realized that maybe that day of appreciation and gratitude may not be for another ten or twenty odd years.

Those teary phone calls with Biomom during her toddler years were the worst. We were still living on the East-Coast and Biomom on the other side of the Continent in the crazy city Las Vegas. Every night at 7:30 pm Biomom would call and too frequently those calls made little Bonus Daughter cry uncontrollably. I thought of my own parents, miles away on the African Continent, and how I usually ended our telephone conversations in tears missing them, so I couldn't blame anyone for the tears. Naturally, Biomom wanted to make sure babygirl is ok, and Bonus Daughter was adjusting to the time difference and missing her primary caregiver. No-one was to blame for the all-round heartbreaking situation.

But of course, Biomom blamed Dad. Of course he had to be doing something wrong to cause Bonus Daughter to cry! Sometimes my poor husband would field calls from the grandma and Biomom, both probing. Naturally, any small child tends to cry at the end of a long day of fun and sun. We'd leave a theme park and there would be tears. No dessert and there would be tears. I'd put sunscreen on her face and there would be tears. Tired small kids cry I easily, don't they? I eventually learned the devious art of distraction, and I would engage Bonus Daughter in some kind of fun activity just before that 7:30 pm call. It worked. She'd either babble on and on about how much fun she was having or she'd be thoroughly preoccupied.

Those early years were joyful and painful all at once. When Bonus Daughter was only 4, she would flat out refuse to hold her Dad's hand. She would only hold my hand, as a way to punish him. It wasn't that she loved me more, she was simply using me as a weapon against her Dad, who took her away from her Mom. I must admit, I was and still am in awe of a small child's intuitive ability to manipulate grown-up emotions. When other adults were around, she would hold their hands and ignore us both. How could such a tiny and pretty little girl have that much power over my husband and I? We'd both be longing for acceptance and love and affection and by gosh, if you think a boyfriend or girlfriend can break your heart, try feeling rejected by a child when you are giving it your all. Heartbreak for life. My husband kept reminding himself that in the long run she would appreciate his efforts to be a real father to her. Now, she was missing her mom and her home, but one day sooner than later, she'd be grateful for a Daddy would fought to be a part of her life.

With the decrease in tantrums, we enjoyed the bliss of feeling like happy nuclear family for a couple of great years when Bonus Daughter was 7-9. And then one day I realized we had a pre-teen under our roof and I had no idea how to parent a girl growing up with a flat iron and a sophisticated cell phone. So as Dad and Daughter's bond grew stronger, I noticed how everything started getting more difficult for me. I'm good with fun, and mostly confused about boundaries and house rules. Initially my role as Dad's girlfriend was easy, I was an adult fun friend to Bonus Daughter and we'd play dress-up. I built houses for Bratz and Barbies and I'd put essential oils in her bath.

But then I transitioned from fun friend to Step Mother in their hair 24/7. I would try to coax information out of her, esp in terms of dinners and lunches at home. What to cook for a kid that eats no vegetables or fruits, only mostly white foods (Mash potatoes, rice, white bread and luckily also chicken tenders.) I also tried to figure out why 9 year old girls shave their legs, and how come she knows more programs on TV than I do. Aren't you supposed to curb the amount of TV a child watches? I also realized how easily it is for me to act like a child myself, I'm definitely very good at giving my loved ones the sulky silent treatment.

So I realized that the hardest part of embracing Step Motherhood, is to do the work that is not so fun. To make sure Bonus Daughter goes to bed on time, so that she can function the next day, when its easier to let her stay up all night and keep her happy. To become consistent in the rules of my house and my own personal boundaries. No yelling is my rule, and I intend on holding everyone to it. I thought of banning sarcasm and the word "whatever" this Summer, as its used too often in a very uncaring and disrespectful way. I decided that if I think a 12-year old should not be watching a particular movie for whatever reason, then I'm not going to give in - even if Biomom says yes. Most importantly, I have realized that it's easy to give up and to let Dad handle the hard stuff. It's easy to say, this isn't really my battle to fight. Why should I try so hard for us all to enjoy a family outing, if Bonus Daughter seems intend on ruining it? Last year, I gave up for a few weeks. Instead I buried myself in my work, and I let Bonus Daughter stay in her room watching TV all day. I let Dad make chicken tenders every night. This Summer, I plan to put in the work. I don't think its going to be easy, but I intend to put in the effort to set those rules, and to have some fun. And how hard can it be to have family fun together?

Friday, May 21, 2010

Don't Throw Stones at Glass Houses

My Bonus Daughter lives with her Biomom and her grandparents in a neighboring state, so we are effectively holiday and summer parents. Every Summer my Bonus Daughter lives with us for 5 weeks. Typically we enroll her in Summer Day Camp for three weeks and for the remaining two weeks she gets to lounge at home with Dad, who works from home. We see these Day Camps as an opportunity for her to socialize and meet friends in our area, participate in activities, and of course camp provides much needed daycare for my husband and I. Unfortunately, we've been met with opposition to Day Camp the last couple of years. Bonus Daughter would like to stay at home with Dad for the entire 5 weeks, and she's backed up by Biomom. We've tried to explain that just because Dad works from home doesn't mean he is able to entertain Bonus Daughter all day long. But alas. We received yet another email from Biomom insisting that Bonus Daughter gets to have a say in the matter. Dad responded that he did not think it was productive for Bonus Daughter to stay at home and watch TV all day long. This resulted in a livid Biomom who immediately assumed he was criticizing her parenting skills. "Don't throw stones at glass houses," her tirade ended. I had a good laugh. To date, this is Biomom's most quotable line.

Last Spring I tried to explain our rationale to Bonus Daughter. She was 10 years old at the time. "What would you do at home all day long when Dad is working?" I asked, knowing very well that TV and books can only sustain her attention for so long.
"I'd go to the Mall," she said.
"You can't go the Mall alone, you're 10," I laughed.
"Well then I'd go for walks," she tried.
"And no, you can't go for walks by yourself, you're 10."

Somehow, whenever Bonus Daughter and I end up in some sort of debate, its about her wanting to do things on her own that I won't let her. Once she turned 11, I'd nip most arguments in the butt with "No, you can't. You're only 11."

The irony is that every year my Bonus Daughter thoroughly enjoys camp. We don't know anyone in our social circle with kids her age, so at least she meets friends in the area. Last year she begged to go for an extra week. Every year we remind her how much she ends up loving the camp, and every year she refuses to go and we end up having an argument with Biomom.

Last year our Summer visitation started with a rough patch. Biomom insisted on receiving the measurements for Bonus Daughter's bed, apparently the bed was not long enough. We explained that my even my 6'4 brother can comfortably stretch out on it. This evolved into a request for all measurements of the bed, including the depth and width of the matress. Dad and I, trying to avoid a confrontation, dutifully obliged. Next, Biomom requested a picture and then to asked to see our apartment. I think I am an incredibly rational person who usually tries to put myself in someone else's shoes and view things from their point of view. So we agreed to everything, but firmly said we would buy a new bed when it suited our budget and not under Biomom's pressure. Then Biomom decided that Bonus Daughter would bring an air matress to sleep on for the duration of the Summer. Even for me, this tested my lack of boundaries and pushed me over the edge.

When Bonus Daughter arrived with said air mattress, sheets and a comforter for it, I put my foot down. Afterall, it is my house too, and I was not going to be imposed upon and insulted like this any longer. "What is the problem with this bed?" I asked Bonus Daughter very calmly. She said that "I just like sleeping on a double bed. It's nice to stretch out." I explained that the room is too small for a double bed. I said no to the air matress then, and continued to say no three days later, when Biomom texted her asking if she was sleeping on the air matress yet. I'm not having any kid sleep on an air matress under my roof for 5 weeks when there's a perfectly good bed around. I could just picture Biomom down the road telling the court and/or girlfriends that we weren't providing a proper bed and that Bonus Daughter had to sleep on an air matress for 5 weeks.

I won that battle in the end. But I bit my tongue about everything else that Biomom stirred up prior to the Summer visitation. She dished up the past, and Dad's supposed lack of catering to his daughter's needs since birth. She went as far as saying he never wanted his daughter. All for a bed. I realized then that there are times when you just can't reason with someone because then you are assuming that they are rational, and you are discounting years of emotional baggage. Even rational me cannot reason my way around irrationality. So I restrained myself from picking up the phone and reminding Biomom that Dad had to sue her just to see his baby. He had to sue her for the right to be a Dad to his Daughter. My dear husband didn't entertain her arguments any further, he just stepped away. He said he realized that the past is still very much present in their interactions with each other. That's what I love about my husband, his ability to be a real grown-up in times like these.

I also bit my tongue when Bonus Daughter arrived for the Summer with what looked like emergency war supplies. Everything from her own band-aids to her own washing powder, and her mom wrote out instructions for how she was going to do all her own laundry. She had a bunch of snacks, of which I still have the caramel apple dip sitting in my cupboard. Apparently we don't give her enough desert. She brought an array of facial products and scented body wash that she never used and instead helped herself to mine. Now I don't mind her using my stuff at all, but the implication that we couldn't take care of her hurt me most. Biomom will probably never know how she loves my vanilla or almond body wash, and how my paraben-free carrot shampoo appealed to this little 11-year old. "Why aren't you using this strawberry body wash?" I asked her one day after noticing how quickly my stuff was running out. The strawberry stuff even made me feel 11 and jealous that I didn't have body wash growing up - it smelt so good I was tempted to eat it. "I don't like it," she said.

At the end of the summer, we caught Bonus Daughter pouring some product into the drain to make it look like she used it during the Summer. I said nothing to her or to Biomom. One has to pick your battles, right?

PS. When we dropped Bonus Daughter off after the Summer, I was invited to see Bonus Daughter's bedroom, in exchange for Biomom coming into our apartment. Bonus Daughter does not have a double bed at home, just a regular single bed.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Mother's Day Coda

I spent hours on Mother's Day thinking about my role in my stepdaughter's life. I was wondering why us stepmoms even put ourselves through the nervous anticipation of this day on our annual calendar. Finally I came to the conclusion that i am ok with being an afterthought on Mother's Day, because I can't possibly expect my bonus daughter to value me as much as she values her Biomom.

And then I read through other stepmom posts recounting their Mother's Days. One thing that stood out for me, is the deep gratitude for every friendly word and for every small gesture of appreciation that came our way on Mother's Day - from our spouses, the bonus kids, and some even from the Biomoms! We didn't all get appreciated by all three of the above parties -but we'll take as little as we can get.

Most of us stepmoms, we just want a kernel of recognition for our efforts and our good intentions. Mother's Day offers us this little glimmer of hope that we might be shown some tangible token of appreciation, much like Valentine's Day for couples. We just want to be recognized for our efforts and love and sweat equity and the restraint that we so often have to show in dealing with Biomoms, stepkids and our spouses.

On Monday evening,the day after Mother's Day, I arrived home from work. I didn't have any expectations, but there it was, a card that came in the mail. A Happy Mother's Day card.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

The Awkwardness of Mother’s Day.

The first year after I married her Dad, my Bonus Daughter sent me a lovely
Handmade card for Mother’s Day. I had not anticipated a card at all, and I felt teary and giddy all at once. The next year a Hallmark card arrived, this time I assume her Biomom bought it for her and made sure it arrived via mail on time for Mother’s Day. I appreciated the joint effort from them both to ensure that I felt welcome and appreciated in her life. As she got older, the Mother’s day and birthday cards turned into email greeting cards, and finally into somewhat awkward phone calls. I really don’t take the lack of cards personally - Biomom is probably no longer buying me cards or reminding Bonus Daughter of my birthday. This year, my Bonus Daughter actually forgot my birthday. I think she actually felt as bad as I initially did, but you can’t hold that against an 11-year old - she's only 11 afterall.

So this year I waited in anticipation of the awkwardness of Mother’s Day.

Mother's Day is the day when I want to assure my Bonus Daughter that she doesn’t owe me anything, and that she doesn’t have any obligation to me. Personally I don’t really think I need to be thanked or appreciated, and I also don’t really think I need to intrude on this day that my bonus daughter shares with her Biomom. Yet, I have no idea how to approach the conversation. We have NEVER had the “mother” conversation. She’s never ever told me “You’re not my mom.” I’ve never tried to act like her mom, and I make it a point to never criticize her mom. We both silently refuse to acknowledge the word Stepmom or Stepdaughter in our vocabulary. I often wonder how she refers to me when she’s around her friends, but I don’t dare ask her. They’re at most awkward conversations to have, and we just don’t go there. But Mother’s Day is one of those days that you cannot ignore or forget as its everywhere.

Bonus Daughter’s call came at around 11 AM today. We chatted for a while, without a mention of Mother’s Day. When it came time to say goodbye, we exchanged I love you’s, and that was it. We ignored Mother’s Day. I felt very happy that she called me, but still somewhat weird, as I always do around Mother’s Day.

Truthfully, I feel awkward as I don’t think of myself as a Mother everyday because I don’t have my Bonus Daughter around me everyday. For the most part my daily life is vastly different from every other mom that I know - I’m consumed by my career ambitions, fitness goals, and daily calorie intake, while they sort out carpools and go to soccer games. Bonus Daughter lives with her mom in a neighboring state, and spends holidays, long weekends and a large chunk of her summer vacation with us.

When she is living with us, or when I speak to her on the phone once a week, I feel like a Bonus Mom. Usually people say when you have kids it changes your daily routine, well, ours only changes during these long weekends or over the long Summer break, when Dad and I become real parents. We organize fun weekend activities and plan meals, we watch less horror movies and rent more PG 13 fare. During this time, I concern myself with house rules and this is usually when I search the internet for the equivalent of “time outs” for tweens. This is also when I realize how little I know about kids today and parenthood in general. That’s when I fall back on how I was brought up by my own firm but loving mom. Thanks to my mother, at least I have a moral compass to guide me when it comes to my Bonus Daughter.

I spoke with my mom on the phone earlier, and she reminded me that she has a new daughter in her life, as my brother recently got married. This new daughter has no idea yet of whom my mother really is, and no idea of the amount of prayers my mother has said for me in her lifetime. This new daughter can’t possibly appreciate my mother as much as I do. This got me thinking about how easy and dangerous it can be to impose on the existing bond between a mom and her daughter. A mother raises her daughter with her own rules, love and values, almost as an extension of herself. As a daughter, you internalize your mom's moral compass - then you rebel against it - and finally you come to appreciate it like I do today. A day like Mother’s Day is exactly that, a day to honor and celebrate this person that has made your bed until the day that you could make your own.

I want my Bonus Daughter to be thankful to her Biomom for everything that I haven’t and can’t possibly do for her. I want her to celebrate and focus on her Biomom today. Forging new family ties is part of opening ourselves up to love, but we can’t do so without being in awe of, and with respect for these deeper, older, and more developed bonds. With this in mind I called my mother-in-law today, and thanked her for what’s she’s done for my husband throughout his life.

While I was on the phone talking to her, my Bonus Daughter sms'd me, about an hour after her initial call. “Sorry I totally forgot to say…HAPPY MOTHER’S DAY :-)”

I’m a mom of sorts, if only by affiliation with this little girl, so I feel very grateful and honored to be an afterthought today, and I truly mean this.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Stages of emotional development

My bonus daughter turned 12 today. When I asked how she felt about her age, she said, "Its so awkward when you're 11 or 12, people think you're a child until you're 13 or 14-ish. People think I look like a teen anyway." I secretly chuckled, and told her that she was very mature for her age. And I meant it, honestly.

Bonus Daughter is a very smart girl and I often have to remind myself that she is younger than she sounds. I've always thought of her like a little mini-adult. She has a very developed sense of personalized style and opinions, and she is also the queen of wit. I think I only discovered sarcasm during my university years, and she mastered it at age 7. With ipods and mytouches and the witty Disney dialogue, all kids sound less like kids to me anyway. That is probably the most pronounced difference between my stepdaughter and I - she is much more sophisticated at 12 than I am right now as an adult. My guess is that I have actually happened upon one of the hardest realities of parenthood: accepting that your kids are more intellectually stimulated and bound to surpass you sooner than later in overall competence and intelligence.

Some of these technological advances really challenge me as a bonus parent. Usually by the time one of those ever-changing devices like Wii's or whatever-else arrive in my home, their use is endorsed by biomom and anything Dad and I decide will be contentious. This summer, we have to figure out how to handle the new mytouch cell phone with 24-hour internet access. A few years ago I felt very uncomfortable when bonus daughter at age 7 arrived with a flat iron. I got one when I was 24 and burned a hole in my husband's faux leather chair. Remembering my terrible first burn, I had a tough time trusting even a very mature 7- year old with this tool of torture. And just by the way - how will your hair look after 20 years of straightening?

Maybe because she doesn't live with us year-round, and I have no exposure to other parents with 12-year olds, I just feel overall more clueless when it comes to the emotional development of a pre-teen in this technologically advanced world that is so different from how I grew up in Africa. I ran around in the streets and imagined little mini-computerized devices and secret passages and crooks. We improvized walkie-talkies, today my bonus daughter has several mini computerized devices. Who needs walkie-talkies anyway when you can text! I actually typed "female 12 year old emotional development" into my browser today. It's a little sad.

And in hindsight, I should have googled "presents for 12 year old girls." How was I supposed to know there is some designer actually designing jewelry for girls age 12 using crystals and gemstones and the Cheshire cat from Alice in Wonderland? Her Biomom brought her this exquisite necklace for her birthday. "You probably haven't heard of this designer, have you?" she asked me. Sadly, no. The jewelry that I own are typically made by women from rural villages of South Africa with beads or copperwire. I kind of wish I bought my bonus daughter some sustainable jewelry to celebrate this 12th milestone. Maybe if I'd given her a lovely beaded necklace from an employment project for disadvantaged women, I could have taught her something in the process about responsible purchases.

My parents never bought us whatever we wanted whenever we wanted it, and today I'm the same. Instead, we treasured the birthday and Christmas gifts that they picked out for us and we attached sentimental value to them. I still remember what I got for Christmas when I was 12, it was a lovely silver signet necklace and signet ring. It got stolen years later when our house was broken into, and it broke my heart.

My best friend had an abundance of silver jewelry, dangling silver bangles, a silver ring on each finger and a number of silver chains around her neck. My mom did not want me looking like a Christmas tree, she said, but I loved how my friend sparkled when she wore the silver against her tanned skin. So I wore my classy silver Christmas gift set every day and it made me feel gorgeous. Now, I'm am not particularly concerned about external appearances. But my bonus daughter is. So I need to tap into those feelings of having been 12 once. I raided my dad's closet for army jerseys and my mom's for big buckle belts, all in the quest to develop my own style and sense of self. I need to do so for my little bonus daughter, because right now, the Alice in Wonderland one-of-a-kind designer necklace really shows that Biomom is thinking of her needs and her sense of identity. And I need to be more attuned to it.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Confessions of A Bonus Mom

I am officially on the wrong side of 30 now and I am still very much in denial about my age. When TWILIGHT hit the theaters in 2008, the latent 13-year old girl inside me reared her pimply head and I totally GOT the phenomenon. Robert Pattinson stared into the souls of tweens and teenage girls around the world, and I could still identify with those girls. My bonus daughter, 10 at the time, was sitting in the movie theater with her little hand shielding her face from Dad and me. I saw the waves of infatuation and anticipation wash across her features, and with a shock I realized how fast she was growing up. I also felt slightly jealous of her youth, because 30somethings like myself can't exactly put up Robert Pattinson posters in the marital chamber. When we walked out of the theater she said to me "I knew you would love it. I knew Dad would hate the movie!"

The bond with my bonus daughter came fairly easily, we were both just little girls when I met her for the first time, she had just turned 4 and I was only 23. Playing dress-up, painting our toenails, doing makeup and hair, shopping, and playing with Bratz and Barbies solidified our friendship early on. I secretly think she never saw me as Dad's girlfriend or a potential stepmom, only as a friend for her to play with - until the day when Dad said he was planning to marry me. He consulted her before he proposed to me, and she said she did not want a stepmother. Stepmothers implied all things ugly and evil, and her little 6-year old self did not want that.

My feelings were a little hurt at first, but I decided not to take it personally - she liked me, she just didn't like the IDEA of a potentially evil stepmom. I decided I would be committed to being a BONUS in her life, just another person who would love her and support her for the rest of her life.

When I think back to my twenties, I rarely thought about what motherhood actually entails. Bonusdaughter would come to visit and we'd do fun things together. The older we both got, the more I started wondering, do Biomoms have instincts I don't have? Do they naturally know when you're old enough to shave your legs or use deodorant? Do biomoms intuitively know things I don't?

And that's why I need to confess today. I am scared. My bonus daughter is turning 12 in a week's time. She is no longer a little girl and I'm no longer a little girl either, I have reluctantly embraced adulthood and its concerns with things like health insurance and cholestrol. The BonusGirl is in the final stages of tweenhood, and if this phase is any indication of what is to come during the teen years, I'm terrified of my own role in all of this. I don't really feel equipped. When does she become old enough to stay at home alone? At what age can she go for walks by herself? How much time should she spend on the internet? (Oh wait - she has a mytouch, and can go on the internet at ALL times!)

So that's why I'm starting this blog. I'm reaching out to other BonusMoms who can identify with my good intentions and insecurities.