Step parents

There must be 65 ways to thank your mother...

Today is my mom’s 65th birthday. And because I am too old to make a picture for the fridge, and too far away to take her to lunch, I thought I would write her a blog post. At first I thought I could make a list of 65 things I’ve learned from her over the years. And while I am sure there are 65 things, I quickly decided that might go on a bit much… so instead, I am going to just focus on the big things.

My mom taught me that everyone is welcome at the party. My entire childhood was a lesson in radical inclusiveness. And I don’t mean in the sense of race or gender or orientation, although certainly no one would have ever been excluded for those reasons. But it was more than that. It was more specific. Being welcoming isn’t an academic exercise in tolerance. It isn’t supporting the right causes. It is accepting people for who they are and letting them in no matter what. I wrote a blog post in 2017 about our complicated family tree and how in our family, every ex was always welcome. You can read that here.

But beyond just stepfamilies, the lesson my mom modeled was that even after someone made a mistake, even after they might have given you a reason to give up on them, all they had to do was show back up and knock on the door, and it would be opened. My extended family are made up of people. And like all people, they are not perfect. Some struggled with addiction. Some made really poor life choices. And my mom supported them when and how she could and welcomed them back to the potluck when they were ready. Every time. She took in other people’s children and gave them homes when they needed it. She let a family member on parole be released into her care. She gave him a home and a second chance.

My mom taught me that however you are able, you serve. You answer the call. Growing up my mom was assistant troop leader for Girl Scouts, she was a Youth Group Leader, she chaperoned school trips, she volunteered at every opportunity to help our school, and I don’t think there is an event that has taken place at Eastview United Methodist Church in the past 35 years that my mom hasn’t played some part in. And you might think from this description that she was a stay-at-home mom. She wasn’t. She worked full time as a secretary as long as I can remember. And her health was not always the greatest. She was hospitalized many times for chronic asthma and other issues. But I can honestly say I don’t remember a day ever where tiredness, pain or poor health stopped her from volunteering when asked. She never made excuses for why she couldn’t do something. Even when there were good excuses to be made.

We didn’t have a lot of extra money growing up, so my mom gave of what she had- her time and energy. And because she served, we showed up. My sister and I had every opportunity that money could never buy. Through my mom’s service, she gave us community. For which I am forever grateful. You can read more about that community in a post I wrote in 2014 about Whitehall, Ohio here.

I am proud of the wider community I grew up in and thankful for the way my mom modeled how you do family. But in addition to helping our community and family, my mom has great friends. And her friends were there for me countless times growing up. I remember vividly one day when I was in university and having some personal trouble. Funnily enough, I don’t remember what the trouble was. But I remember being at work at the Great American Cookie Company and feeling sorry for myself. And I remember trying to conjure up God’s love that I had been taught about for solace. I remember thinking how if God was always with me, how come I couldn’t feel him inside me. Why did I feel so alone? And then people from my mom’s church, my mom’s friends, started reaching out with offers to help. And that was in the days before the internet, so reaching out took some effort. And I remember in that moment understanding a core truth- that was where God was. I felt God’s love envelop me through the friends and community my mom built for us. And I know to this day, if I called on my mom’s friends, they would help me. My mom loves them. They love us. That is where God lives- in the love.

In personality and temperament, I am more like my Dad. And unlike me who goes on and on about what I believe and think to my children, my mom never really discussed her beliefs with us. But after thinking about this today, I now realize something I’ve never acknowledged to myself before. Through all my travels, despite all my questioning and searching, all the philosophies I’ve read, religious teachings I’ve examined, and soul searching I’ve done, at the end of the day, my core belief, who I am as a person comes from what my mom has always modeled for me. The purpose of life is to grow community, to serve and to love. Thank you mom. Happy Birthday.

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My Complicated Family Tree: Story of a Grateful Stepchild

Not too long after I separated from their father, my oldest daughter joked around saying she hoped if I ever got remarried the man wouldn't have kids. She said she didn't want to have any step siblings. When I asked why not, she replied, "Haven't you ever seen a fairy tale?" I laughed. Then I pointed out that if I did get remarried, I would be the stepmom of the story. Which would make her and her sister the evil stepsisters. That blew her mind a little bit! Then she said perhaps the truest statement ever, "Yes, but you're not wicked. You're just overwhelming..." Fast forward a while and now this summer my girls will be getting a stepsister (they are no longer concerned she might be evil!) and I will become a stepmom.

And so not wanting to be too overwhelming, I decided to do a little research.  As I skimmed through descriptions of books written by experts and stepparents with all kinds of advice, it occurred to me. I already know quite a lot about best practices in stepfamilies. In fact, my childhood was kind of like a Master's level course on the subject. Both my parents had stepparents. I had stepparents. Even my stepparent had stepparents.

Now like everyone, I have some issues stemming from my upbringing. Because the adults in my life, like all other adults, had their faults. (I could list both my issues and their faults over a drink some time if you like) But I promise you that none of my issues stem from my parents' divorce or being part of a stepfamily. Because when it came to modeling the right way to blend families, the adults in my life were the very best. Here's some of what I learned: 

It is much easier for a child when all the important adults in their life seem to like each other. No one ever made me feel like there were sides to choose. They didn't even make it look hard to get along. A fact that now as an adult looking back, I can appreciate how difficult that must have been at times. But I have no memories of either of my parents ever saying anything bad about the other. My stepfather and father would go play basketball together. And while I had friends with divorced parents who had to have two of everything because their parents couldn't be in the same room together, in my family, we spent holidays and birthdays with anyone in town to celebrate: ex-husbands, new wives, grandparents from all sides with their 2nd (or 4th!) spouses. My uncle lived in a trailer in his ex-wife and her husband's yard for years to be close to my cousins. My father's mother and her 2nd husband were so close with my mom and my stepdad, you would have assumed they were one of their parents. And in a way, they were. 

The adults in my life growing up taught me that commitment makes a family. Not blood relationships. And once you've made a commitment to someone, you can change the marital status, but they are still your family. And their family is your family. And everyone is always welcome at the party. Crazy ex or not. And even when someone messes up in a big way, if they come back knocking on the door, then you let them in like the prodigal son. And this open, accepting family policy helped me to grow into an open, accepting human being. And I am grateful to my complicated family tree for that. 

As much as I appreciate and learned from all sides of my messy family tree, I am most thankful for the lessons taught to me by my stepfather and his family. Or rather my family on my stepfather's side. My mother married my stepfather when I was 7 years old and suddenly I was part of a huge family. He had 5 brothers and sisters, and they all had kids. My sister and I were the only stepchildren. And yet no one ever made us feel like we were any different from any other child in that family. My grandparents and aunts and uncles treated us the same way they treated all of their biological grandchildren and nieces and nephews. That sense of belonging was a blessing. 

My stepfather was only 20 years old when he married my mom. And my sister and I already had a dad. One who was a part of our lives. And yet for most of the year, we lived with our stepfather and our mom. Again, now as an adult, and future stepparent, I am beginning to appreciate the complexity and difficulty of his position. But as a child, I never sensed there was an issue. 

Because even though he didn't replace my dad, he was absolutely one of my parents. When I fell off my bike and needed stitches, he carried me to get help. He taught me how to drive. And  when I ran out of gas, he brought me some on the side of the road. When I got lost (which happened all too frequently!) I called him for directions. He coached my t-ball team and never seemed to mind that I spent all the games picking dandelions. He grounded me when I came home a few minutes past curfew. He came to every school event and band concert. He took me bowling. He read me stories. He played with me. Sometimes he yelled at me. But always he loved me. And he never asked for anything in return. Just like a real parent. 

And yet as much as he was absolutely a parent to my sister and me, we did not call him dad. Even as we called his parents grandma and grandpa, and his brothers and sisters aunt and uncle, we always called him by his name. If that bothered him, he never let it show. He certainly never made me feel guilty about it. But I always thought he deserved his own title. 17 years ago when my first niece was born, he got one. Papaw. And now my girls have 6 grandparents (soon to be 8) and yet they only have one Papaw. A papaw we all love. 

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

Grandma and Papaw with their grandchildren

I am a grateful stepchild. Thankful for the lessons being a stepdaughter taught me. That family is a living, growing organism. And children need to feel the important adults in their lives like and respect one another. And there is room in the heart for so many. And when we add new members, we never need to replace or push out the old ones. Maybe just do some rearranging. Love is not a competition. And neither is parenting...