Friday, July 23, 2010

6 Steps to Being a Successful Step-Family

When Phil and I married in 1988, I had two children from a previous marriage and then in 1992, Phil and I had our youngest daughter. Having "been there, done that", we think we did a pretty good job eliminating the word "step" from our relationship with each other. Our local newspaper in Richmond, Indiana, did two separate and full page stories on us as a step-family that works. Here are just a few ideas of what we think we did right that we thought we'd share. We have to admit that most of what we did right had nothing to do with dealing with a "step" issue's just common sense parenting!

1. Make sure your relationship is on stable ground FIRST!
When I started dating after my divorce, I was determined not have a lot of “uncles” in and out of my children’s lives. My children knew I was dating but I did not introduce them to my dates until I was comfortable with how my relationship with the guy was going. This is the time period we had lots of conversation, got to know each other’s life philosophies and viewpoints on children and child-rearing. Once he and I established we were a good match, then and only then did we add the children to the mix.

2. Once the children are introduced, you have officially become a package deal!!
My husband and I cannot understand the stepfamilies we hear about in which statements such as “I love him/her but I can’t stand the kids.” are made. We view our relationships as an “all or nothing deal”. I was a divorced woman with 2 kids. If he chose to marry me, he chose to marry my children. If I chose to marry him, I was choosing for my children to “marry” him also. We knew up front we could not have a successfully blended family by leaving out 2 of the 4 ingredients. We compare it to making a BLT with mayo. Try making a good BLT but leave out the bacon and tomato! It just doesn’t work, does it?

3. Authority comes from both of you!
We get quite a laugh from the so called experts who proclaim that only the custodial parent can tell the children what to do and only the custodial parent can have any parental authority. We don’t understand how a family unit can be nurtured and blended if you tell the kids up front “You don’t have to listen to anything he/she tells you. I’m the only one who can tell you what to do.” When parents hire the teenager next door to babysit while the parents take in a movie, the teenager is given more authority than “the experts” claim the step-parent should have!

If the step-parent is going to function as a mother/father, that function includes parental authority. That’s why those early days of discussing child rearing philosophies are so important. One is not going to extend parental authority to a person who does not share the same morals and child rearing philosophies.

We also get a good laugh from those so-called experts who say, “When the kid says ‘you’re not my dad’ how do you answer that…..because the kid is right.” Our response is “so what?” The teacher is not their mother, but the child is expected to follow the teacher’s rules. The supervisor at their first job is not their father, but the child is expected to follow his rules.

Bottom line: If you don’t trust the step-parent to properly discipline your children when the need arises, what the heck are you doing marrying them in the first place?

4. Never, Never, NEVER bad-mouth the other biological parent in front of the children.
This was my #1 rule starting the day I filed for my divorce. No matter what happened between the two of us, he was still my children’s father and they still had a relationship with him. Yes, I will admit there were too many times that I had to bite my tongue, but I did. A kid’s only job should be “being a kid”. They should never have to worry about being in the middle, about which side to take, about being careful what they can say in which house, etc. Their only concern should be to have fun, no matter which house they’re in at the moment. As we like to put it, “A kid should never be involved in the business side of divorce.”

5. “It’s OK to talk about your other biological parent.”
Soon after we married, my oldest daughter started to tell us something funny that happened while she was at her bio-dad’s house. She stopped abruptly in the middle of the story. My husband (her step-dad) said to her, “Christine, it’s ok to talk about your other dad. I know you have one! I know where you go on the weekends. You don’t have to pretend he doesn’t exist. Now, tell us what happened.”

It was like the flood gates opened. She quickly became an animated 12 year old and had us in stitches as she shared her stories of weekend swimming with her little brother and her biological dad. We realized at that point what a burden she thought she had to carry. She thought she wasn’t “allowed” to mention her other dad in our house. Once we lifted that burden from her, she was able to be “just a kid”.

6. “Same rules, same love”
I picked up this wise bit of advice from a co-worker who was also a step-mom. She had married a man who had custody of a pre-teen daughter, plus they had two kids of their own. She treated all of the kids the same. Her biological kids didn’t get any treated any differently than the step-daughter.

We did the same thing. We never referred to the children as “her children” or “my step-children”. They were always “our” children. Our third child doesn’t even know she’s a “half” sister to her older brother and sister. We never drew lines between us to differentiate ourselves into two groups. We were a family.

One family.

"Those who say it cannot be done should stop interupting those of us who are doing it." ---- Ralph Waldo Emerson

Friday, July 9, 2010

My Sister, My Hero

This story was written in September 2004 when my younger sister, who was also mentally retarded, was fighting a rare form of blood cancer. It is a story of faith, admiration and how someone with more life issues than we can imagine taught me about the real spirit of Christmas. I cry every time I re-read it.


Not many of us these days are fortunate enough to know a hero first hand. But I am. My younger sister, Vicky, who some might initially think the most unlikely candidate, is my hero.

Vicky just turned 40. Both kidneys are failing, but she’s not a candidate for a transplant because of her blood cancer. And she’s mentally only about 10-14 years old.

And she is my hero.

I am the oldest of 6 siblings. Vicky came along in slot #4, part of the middle children, always identified as “one of the middle two”.

As we were growing up, we always knew that Vicky was different, but it never mattered to us. Vicky was still our sister and our playmate. We teased and fought with her like we did with our other sisters and brother (yes, only one boy out of the six of us!) and she teased us and fought back. Our mom never allowed Vicky to be called “retarded”. While that term is politically incorrect today, back then it was the name attached to those with mental limitations. But we weren’t allowed to use it.

Vicky went to the regular school, and she worked hard in her Special Ed classes. She loved gym and sports and participated regularly in track meets and competitions.

We didn’t realize the full extend of her limitations until she was in her 20’s. Our sister, C.J., helped Vicky get enrolled in a school for the handicap for job training. After completing the training, Vicky spent the next few years living independently in her own apartment (and eventually rented a house) with a full time job and no government subsidy assistance. She was on a traveling volleyball team and went all over the country playing volleyball.

I remember her telling me a story about one of her trips. They were spending the night in a college sorority. When they arrived the sorority sisters lined up in the hall and cheered and applauded the team as they came in. To Vicky, that was the greatest thrill of her life, to have college girls applauding HER!

I was already proud of Vicky’s accomplishments. I remember we were at a baby shower and someone shared a funny story about Vicky. Vicky laughed along with the rest of us and said, “Oh, that’s ‘ole stupid me!” I stopped her and said, “Don’t say that so seriously! Vicky, do you know how to ride a city bus?” She looked at me like I was an alien and said, “Well, of course! I ride them all the time!”

I then said to Vicky, “Well, I’ve never ridden a city bus and I wouldn’t have the slightest idea on how to get somewhere on a city bus. So I guess that makes you smarter than me! So don’t you EVER say you’re stupid again, OK?”

Vicky got the biggest grin on her face and said, “OK, I won’t!”

Then a couple of years ago, Vicky went to the emergency room with a severe backache. The hospital began running test after test and finally came back with the news that Vicky’s kidneys had shut down to 10% of their capacity. More tests and still more tests were run and we were told Vicky had Multiple Myeloma, one of the rarest forms of blood cancer known. No known cause….no known cure.

Over the next year or so, we watched, waited and prayed as Vicky went through her chemotherapy. We teased her about her thinning hair and she teased us right back with things like, “At least the cost of my shampoo is down!” We watched, waited and prayed as she underwent bone marrow transplant procedures. We cried outside of her room as we realized she couldn’t quite grasp what was happening to her when she told a friend, “I’ve got a little cancer in my kidney, but it’ll be alright” with the optimism that only a 10-year old mentality could have in such a situation. We cried with appreciation when her volleyball team, who had just won a championship tourney, arrived at the hospital to give Vicky the team trophy. We cried with her as the pain got almost too much to bear and she cried out, “Just let me die, please!”

I knew Vicky was a true hero to me last Christmas. My daughter (who is a married working mom of a two year old) and I were trying to figure out how we were going to get all of our shopping done and lamenting over how much we hated the crowds and wondering why we always wait until the last minute and gosh, WHY did the holidays have to be so darn stressful?

The next day, I get an email from my sister, C.J. Vicky was in the hospital and they weren’t sure she would see Christmas at all. C.J. asked if we could come to see Vicky (we lived about 75 miles away) because Vicky had done her Christmas shopping and wanted to give us our gifts.

I instantly felt a blanket of shame rush over me. With her chemotherapy, and her medications, and her kidney dialysis to go through, Vicky still found the time and energy to do Christmas shopping for her family. She still found the energy to put the spirit of Christmas and thoughts of her family first in her mind. She wasn’t complaining about the crowds and the stress, and if anyone had a right to complain, it was Vicky.

After asking God to forgive me for forgetting the true meaning of Christmas and for focusing on my own selfishness, I immediately called my daughter and all of us made plans to see Vicky that weekend. Her hospital room was overflowing as our two families crowded in with gifts for Vicky.

It was the best Christmas I ever had.

Vicky made it through that Christmas. Her cancer is currently in remission and she is doing things she enjoys, which is mostly fishing with her friends.

Vicky will always be my hero for showing me that nothing is impossible, no matter what kind of limitations you may have. Vicky will always be my hero for reminding me that Christmas is about love and family, and about the limited time we have with them. Vicky will always be my hero for showing me how strong the human spirit is and that there is always a light at the end of the dark tunnel.

Vicky will always be my hero just because she’s my sister.


A footnote to this story. Vicky died on March 6, 2007. As we were cleaning out the room in the nursing home that had been her home for the last few months, I came across a large recipe box. My sister C.J. told me that Vicky was putting it together for me, since I was a caterer and liked to cook. C.J. told me, “Vicky would be so happy to know that you took that home with you.” I packed it up, crying with the idea that with everything Vicky was going thru in the last few months of her life, this little girl (and even though she was physically over 40 years old, she was eternally and forever a 10-year old little girl) was working on putting together a collection of recipes for her big sister, the caterer.

Vicky may be gone, but I still think of her often. And she’s still my hero

A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles. -----Christopher Reeve

Friday, July 2, 2010

There's No Place Like Home

This is a fictional piece written years and years ago as a start to a longer short-story, but never got finished. My question to you is "As it stands now, does this piece make you want more .... or does it make you want to just move to the next story?

“Are you coming or going?”

“Me? Oh, I’m going home.”

“Home? How long have you been gone?”

“7 years. It’ll be nice to get back.”

Karry smiled slightly as she stared out the window of the plane. The conversation between the two women sitting behind her faded in the background as she watched the baggage handlers throw more luggage into the plane. Home. After seven years, the woman still called it “home”. She probably had her own house, maybe a husband and a couple of kids. But she was flying to some town 3 hours away that she hadn’t seen in seven years and she referred to THAT as “home”.

Karry couldn’t imagine ever referring to the house that she grew up in as “home”. Hell, she never thought of it as home when she lived there, where she spent most of her teenage years counting the days until she could escape. There. That place. The house. Never “home”.

It’s not like there was such a place she could point to as “the place I grew up” since her parents moved every two years, or, as Karry liked to put it, “…every time the rent was due.” It wasn’t a skill she could put on her resume, but before Karry was 14, she had learned to move to a new house fast, and at night.

“Excuse me. Excuse me?”

A voice interrupted her thoughts. Karry looked up to see a woman looking at her.

“I’m in the middle seat. Is that your bag?”

Karry looked in the seat next to her and saw her canvas bag.

“Oh. I’m sorry. Yes, it’s mine,” she said, as she picked up her bag and shoved it under the seat in front of her.

“Thanks,” the woman said, as she squeezed into the row while trying to push her own canvas bag under the seat and get out of the aisle at the same time. She finally got her bag in the storage area then started lifting one hip then the other, trying to get her seat belts out from under her.

“Usually this flight isn’t this full,” she said as she finally got her seat belts adjusted and fastened.

Karry gave her a polite smile and turned quickly back to the window. The last thing she wanted was a talkative “travel buddy”. She wasn’t one of those people who liked to chit-chat with strangers while waiting on delayed planes or while standing in line at Starbucks. She often thought about what made her seemingly so different from the other folks who thought it was so normal to strike up a conversation with a perfect stranger, as if they had been friends and neighbors for years.

Maybe that was it. Karry never lived in one place long enough to make long term friends or really get to know the neighbors. She went to three different schools the year she was in the sixth grade. She had never learned how to be friends with anyone, because she knew in a few months she’d be moving to a new school. It was easier to be a loner and not connect with anyone.

A voice came over the intercom. “Ladies and gentlemen, we’d appreciate you quickly taking your seats so we can have an on-time take-off. If you are having problems finding a space for your luggage, one of our flight attendants will be happy to help you.”

Karry tuned everything out after that. She flew so often she had every speech memorized by now anyway. As one the sales reps for her company, she was gone about 10 days a month. She had moved up quickly in her company, getting 3 promotions in 4 years. Sometimes she had to pinch herself when she looked around and saw the evidence of her success. Her large house, the BMW she drove, even something as simple as getting her nails done every week. Growing up as one of the poor white trash in her small town, she never imagined she’d get to this position.

She pulled her book out of her purse and opened it to where she left off. But it soon lost her attention as her thoughts drifted back to the year she was in sixth grade….

Other things may change us, but we start and end with the family. ~Anthony Brandt