Your kids, from the other side

You and I were at a party, we were traveling abroad and somehow found ourselves at an intimate gathering of locals, sipping champagne in their private courtyard. It felt like a dream- a soft glow drifted out from the sconces, creating distorted shadows of the vines climbing up the stone walls surrounding us. It felt magical and unsettling at the same time. I remember feeling anxious and trapped when I should have been relaxed and happy.

I tried to get your attention to let you know how uncomfortable I was, but you were completely focused on them. I felt a twinge of jealously, like I could have disappeared and you would not have even noticed. So I did. And you didn’t.

I’m not sure what happened after that exactly, the details are blurry. I tried to find the car, but it wasn’t where I remembered. The streets were uncomfortably narrow, wedged between two stone walls that prevented me from seeing what was ahead. They all started to look the same, weaving in and out of courtyard after courtyard, splitting into several different paths that seemed to lead me back to the same place, which wasn’t where I was supposed to be. I was so far from where you were at that point, and I had no idea how to get back.

I knew it was all my fault. I could have stayed and just enjoyed the fact that you were happy. They didn’t want me there, I could tell, but I should have figured out a way to convince them to. Instead, I let them win. I was lost and own my own, and they got you all to themselves…

And then I woke up.

This is a recurring dream that I have had since I was a little girl. The scenario changes each time, but the theme is always the same. I am in a room with one or more people, usually strangers, who are threatening to take away or even kill someone I love. I either get trapped inside and have to figure out how to escape to rescue this person, or I somehow get separated from them and I can’t get back. Either way, if I don’t escape or find my way back, I will never see them again.

This time it was you I had to get back to, and the killers were not strangers. They were your children.

The single greatest predictor that a marriage will fail is the presence of children from a previous marriage or relationship. It might surprise us. But the truth is that the divorce rate is 50% higher in remarriages with children than in those without… while kids have very little say in a parent’s decision to remarry and form a new family, they do have tremendous power to break it up.”

– Wednesday Martin, Ph.D.

Your kids. They terrify me. They terrify most of us. Us, the women who are not the mother of your children. The women you have chosen to be a part of your lives, but just not that part, not yet. Our survival weighs heavily on whether or not your children deem us acceptable to be a part of your lives. There are so many factors and dynamics involved that dictate how much power they have to sway your decision one way or the other. But the reality is, we have absolutely no control over whether you have the courage, patience, and commitment to us necessary to navigate the emotions and potential turmoil that it will take to get us all to good.

Falling in love is effortless, unavoidable even. I believe it is one of the two most amazing experiences we will ever have. It is exhilarating, all-consuming, life-changing….and terrifying.

The second? Bringing a child into the world. Which I imagine would be all of those things as well. At least, that is what I’ve heard. I know the first very well. I do not and most likely never will know the second, which now seems to be the biggest deterrent to actualizing the first. I am realizing that sustaining a new relationship after a divorce or separation involving kids becomes next to impossible if you are still consumed with the residual guilt, fear, and sense of failure that is seemingly inseparable from the end of your marriage.

The reason I don’t have children is not because I didn’t want them. My life just didn’t unfold in a way that made it an option. But it never occurred to me that I would end up without my own family. This didn’t bother me until recently, because I never felt like anything was lacking. My family had never been confined to my own blood-line.

But now this has changed. I guess the reality of my divorce, and the fact that I had to let go of the only family I had, made me realize how badly I want one to call my own, even if it is not from my own blood-line.

When I started dating again, I was so pessimistic about the chances of finding someone period that whether or not he had children seemed inconsequential.

Initially, the thought of meeting someone with children seemed exciting to me. I considered it a gift, actually. I would get to love him and those whom he loves most. I just had no idea how complicated all of this would be, despite the fact that I put my own stepmom through hell when my dad remarried. I guess I thought that would never happen to me.

So here I am, reeling from 3 attempts at dating men who have kids. Only one of which seemed like it was headed towards a long-term commitment, and all of which proved to be challenging beyond what I could have ever imagined. The kid/s were not the primary reason it didn’t work in all of the scenarios, but it was an additional dynamic that made trying to learn each other and settle into our new relationship much more difficult.

In theory, being in love shouldn’t be scary. It isn’t. It’s terrifying. We have opened ourselves up to all the risks that are inherent in handing over your heart to someone. This in and of itself is an emotional roller coaster. Add the dynamic of children, it’s a fucking amusement park, and not necessarily the fun kind. I think it can be. I hope it will be, but getting to that point has not proven to be an easy ride. In fact, thus far, all things relationship and happily ever after have been completely derailed because neither one of us knows how to do this.

We now have little, or not so little, people who have been thrust into a world of pretty dramatic change- alternating weekends with one parent or the other, less time with both, a second home, maybe a new school, disrupted schedules. Most likely they feel like their world has been turned upside down. I know I did when my parents divorced.

Depending on how much time has passed since the divorce and how ‘ugly’ the ending was, introducing more change into their lives seems like insult to injury. No matter what, some serious transition and adjustments are going to have to be made if a new person is going to be integrated into their lives. And the reality is, we have very little to no say as to how and when this will happen.

Us vs. Them

I haven’t met them yet. You tell me how excited you are for me to. You tell me every last detail about them- their talents, their strengths, their quirks, their accomplishments, their triggers, their favorite foods and music and who their friends are and what they love to do in their free time. And I listen and I ask questions and I take mental notes…because I want to. I want to know every last detail, because I want to know them, I want to know these people who are a part of you and I want to fall in love with them like I did with you. But I can’t until you tell me ‘the time is right’.

And so I wait. I listen some more. I ask more questions. I take more notes. I try to be patient and believe you when you say you really are excited for them to get to know me.

But if you are honest with yourself and me, you are just as scared as I am. Regardless of how the marriage ended and who left whom, you most likely feel guilty because you ‘failed’ your family, because you don’t get to spend as much time with them, because you want them to have a stable, happy environment to grow up in, because maybe they aren’t adjusting as well as you had hoped they would.

I can only imagine all the emotions that you are going through and all the fears that you have, and for very legitimate reasons. But you don’t share them with me. Instead, you withdraw or lash out or start resenting me for even the possibility of a negative impact. Any questions I ask or perspectives I offer start to just piss you off because…

“I don’t get it. I don’t have kids.’

Wednesday Martin, author of Stepmonster, sites several longitudinal studies by psychologists focusing on remarried life with kids. These studies show that kids of all ages resent getting a stepmother more than getting a stepfather, and that they resent her for longer. In fact, a large percentage of kids were happier about their moms finding someone new than their dads. This held true regardless of how the previous marriage ended or whether or not the new girlfriend or wife was the “homewrecker”. For whatever reasons, she becomes the target of the children’s resentment, anger, or any other negative emotions they experience as a result of the divorce

This certainly is reason for concern. Obviously this isn’t always the case, but you can understand why it might feel like we are set up to fail here. If we just keep quiet and try to avoid conflict, we set ourselves up for a lifelong battle for an equal place at the table. If we speak our truth, share our frustrations and insecurities, then we ‘don’t get it’ or we are selfish or needy or unsympathetic.

So we read books, listen to podcasts, seek advice from our friends. We try not to make you worry or we minimalize how shitty it can feel when you check out on us or cancel last minute when something comes up with your kids. We practice what we might say or how we might react if we actually ever get to meet them. What would we do if they are cold or aloof or sarcastic? What if they start pushing you away? What if they just hate us and try to sabotage our relationship? Regardless, we try not to burden you with how we feel. We try to give you space and time and support.

We try. But sometimes we do anything but. Inevitably, at some point, we will fall prey to all the confusing, painful, and terrifying emotions that we are grappling with.

Because, if it has not yet become blatantly obvious, we have no idea how to do this.

And it is scary and frustrating and we get insecure and disappointed and needy. And it is always in the back of our minds that at the end of the day you might convince yourself that you have to choose, that you can’t or don’t deserve to have us in your life. The last thing we want is for you to feel like you have to choose, and we would never put you in that position. But we know, without question, if you decide that you do, it most definitely won’t be us.

Lessons Learned

I’m not sure exactly. I feel like I haven’t learned a thing other than this is so unbelievably hard and has proven to be a painful experiment for all of us.

But this is our reality. This is what we have to face when trying to navigate the world of ‘your kids’. I don’t believe this new world is insurmountable or a deal breaker. This isn’t some new phenomenon that no one has experienced and successfully figured out how to handle. But it clearly is going to take a significant amount of effort and commitment from everyone involved. I think it is worth it if it means we can be together, and I am willing to put in the effort. So I have done a little research.

Please note: I am not delving into the perspective of ‘your ex’ here, nor am I trying to represent how your kids feel or what they are experiencing. I have immersed myself in trying to understand those too, because they are very clearly crucial to the likelihood of our relationship enduring. But there is simply too much to be covered in one sitting to adequately view this from every angle. All I can do here is give you my perspective and try to share some things I have discovered that might help us do this better. But there is no black and white, tried and true approach to making all of this work. There are just too many factors and influences involved for this to be that easy. But it’s a start…

Timing

I didn’t want to buy into this. Forever the optimistic and an against-all–odds type of girl, I had convinced myself that timing was just another obstacle that we could overcome to confirm that love indeed conquers all.

But this has not proven to be the case. And waiting for the right time seems to mean that we will be waiting for an eternity. I question whether there is ever a right time, but you believe there will be. So we continue to wait.

Richard Jaramillo, author of column/blog, singledad.com, recommends for us to not even attempt starting a relationship with a single dad until he has crossed the one year mark. He feels this is enough time for most to process the various emotions (specifically guilt) that come with a divorce involving kids. At this point a man will usually decide to take one of two approaches to his life and relationships. He will either be the ‘victim man’ or the ‘make life happen man’. In other words, he will remain immersed in his guilt and fear and might never be ready or willing to be vulnerable, honest, and intimate enough to build anything real and sustainable.

Or, he will decide to choose a new direction and make a commitment to embrace this new version of what his family looks like. He will take active steps to live a life that nurtures the process of everyone working together to be happy, even if that means forging through the difficult emotions and experiences that might be involved. He will be ready and willing to be vulnerable, honest, and intimate enough to build a relationship that is real and sustainable.

I wish I would have read this a year ago.

Putting the kids first

I have heard this from a few of you who have reached out to share your experiences. You have realized that for your kids to learn what healthy relationships are, you have to put your relationship with your partner first, and this includes your new partner. This floored me. I was led to believe in my second attempt at this that I was being completely selfish and unrealistic to think that I deserved to have an equal place in his life. I understood it on some level, or tried to, and convinced myself, or he convinced me, that I was in fact selfish and unrealistic to believe any different.

Emma Johnson elaborates on this point by explaining that dads often struggle to claim their place as equally ‘good’ parents, especially if they are not awarded sole custody. There is an unspoken assumption that the father is the lesser or ‘bad’ parent and the mother is the ‘good parent’. So the dad tends to go to the extreme to prove his devotion to his kids or dismantle his guilt. I suspect that men might fall prey to this because they feel they weren’t around as much or had a harder time communicating or expressing their feelings with their kids.

Author and expert, Karen Finn, addresses a resulting phenomenon that is so true but almost never acknowledged.

Ex-wives can be bullies too.

I can speak from experience with this one. My mom was definitely the bully post- divorce. My dad wasn’t a good communicator, nor was he able to express his feelings easily. But he was still a great dad. Not perfect by any means, he made a lot of pretty substantial mistakes, but I always knew he loved me. Do I have ‘dad issues’? Most likely. And I’m sure I have ‘mom issues’ as well, and issues because I was bullied at school, or because a teacher told me I was less than. But I will say this; my mom’s behavior and actions after my parents got a divorce was very confusing and painful. And I get it. After experiencing heartbreak on a very deep level myself, I can only imagine the resentment she felt and struggle she had trying to heal and create a normal, stable environment for us. I know she did the best she could, but she most definitely chose the path of the bully.

Finn highlights some ways women bully their ex-husbands if they perhaps did not want the divorce or their marriage ended in a way that left them angry and hurt:

  1. She manipulates by withholding child visitation.
  2. She undermines and belittles her ex-husband’s parenting.
  3. She micro-manages her ex’s interactions with the kids to prove she is in control and the ‘better’ parent.

All can read her advice for dealing with this, but the gist of it is this: limit communication with her (but NOT your kids), avoid getting caught up in her drama, and stand your ground by establishing boundaries and not reacting in the moment (easier said than done).

Communication

A reoccurring them throughout everything I have read and heard is the thing that is probably the most obvious and most difficult to do.

Your kids are not ignorant to or clueless about what is going on. Whether it be the fact that there is tension between the two of you or you are in the middle of getting the divorce, your kids are in the middle of it and they know what is going on. I don’t need to tell you this. You know it, but you are still going to try to do whatever you can to protect them and keep their lives as ‘normal’ as possible. That is all they want, right? Kids just want to be normal. They want to immerse themselves in their friends and their plans for the weekend and their upcoming soccer game. They don’t want to deal with your drama. No, they don’t want you to get a divorce. They most likely want to have you both in the same house and be able to see you both before they go to bed. But I guarantee you, even if they get angry with you or are hurt by the divorce, your kids want you to be happy. Your kids just want to be kids, they want to be happy, and they want you to be happy.  I guess I shouldn’t try to speak for them, but this is what I wanted for my parents.

I heard the most heartwarming story from someone who reached out to me about this very subject. He was married for over 20 years and, although the decision to divorce was somewhat mutual, it did not end well. He, like most, tried to stay in it and work things out for the kids. He admitted that he regretted not leaving a decade earlier because both he and his ex-wife could have replaced those years of frustration and dysfunction with relationships that were fulfilling and healthy.

Both his kids clearly knew they were having problems and that divorce was most likely inevitable. His daughter was more aware and attune to the dynamics of the time he spent trying to fix things, and she finally sat him down and said this:

“Dad, you’ve really tried hard and made some very noticeable changes for over a year now. But it’s not going to make a difference to Mom. As far as me? All of my friends’ parents are divorced. Why should I be any different?”

What a brave soul. She was only 15 at the time.

He expressed so much emotion when he told me this and confessed that this was the very moment that he decided it was time to let go. She gave him ‘permission’ to end it and he felt like an ubearable weight had finally been lifted off of him.

But this is a gift that most won’t receive. And the fact is, it should not be the kids who should be initiating these conversations. I completely get it. It is uncomfortable to bring this shit up. You want to enjoy your kids or at least not make them uncomfortable. Or you feel like you are protecting them by keeping them from the drama. But you aren’t. They see it and feel it and are right in the middle of it. You HAVE to talk to them. You have to give them the opportunity to ask questions or try to empathize or at least process what is happening. I wish my dad would have done this. Even when the divorce was in the distant past, I had questions I wanted to ask. When he ended his second marriage, I wanted to ask him if he was okay and try to understand what happened, or at the very least just give him a hug and let him know he was loved. But we didn’t talk about those things.

I am sure I will get backlash by some of you because I don’t have kids and ‘I don’t get it’. I don’t, I guess. But I’m trying. And I want to.

I want to figure out how to make everything work. I want to meet your kids, to get the chance to love them. And I want them to love me. I want to establish a friendship with them and give them whatever they need to make all of this easier. And I want to make it all easier for you. I want to take away your pain and guilt and fear. I want to understand exactly how you feel and do and say exactly what you need to hear to feel supported and loved.

But I need these things from you, as well. You are not the only one going through this. They are not the only ones going through this. If you really want us to work, if you really want to make your life happen, you have to acknowledge that I am struggling just as much as all of you are. And you have to put the effort in to try to make things easier for me, too.

I do believe happy ever after is in the realm of possibilities. Not a perfect ever after, not something that is glued together for the sake of appearances, but something real, something that will slowly unfold, full of all the good and bad that will make up this new version of your family. But you will have to introduce us first.

 

 

Articles Quoted and Referenced

Why single parents should put their kids second when dating– Emma Johnson

Why single parents should put their kids second when dating

 Guess Who Has the Power in a Remarriage with Children? – Wednesday Martin

https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/stepmonster/200910/guess-who-has-the-power-in-remarriage-children

How to Date a Divorced Dad: Brave New Dating Girl- RJ Jaramillo

http://www.singledad.com/single-parent- dating/articles/how_to_date_a_divorced_dad_brave_new_dating_girl.php

Five tips that will help you thrive while dating a divorced dad –ASKIA NELSON http://www.heysaturday.co/5-tips-to-help-you-thrive-while-dating-a-divorced-dad/

3 Bullsh*t Ways WOMEN Bully Men After Divorce —P.S. Your Kids Notice- Karen Finn

http://www.yourtango.com/experts/dr-karen-finn/3-signs-your-ex-wife-serious-divorce-bully-how-stop-her-bs

 Dating with Children: Feel the Guilt and Do It Anyway– 

http://innerself.com/content/personal/relationships/parenting/5875-dating-with-children.html

Please check out my social enterprise, Briya, and help us empower women and children with education and economic advancement opportunities across the globe.

http://www.briyabags.com

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