I was driving to the grocery store with my husband’s daughter one morning. He wasn’t actually my husband then, and she was a squeaky-voiced elementary school girl who was with us for her weekend visitation. It was summer in Kansas City, but early enough in the morning that the heat and humidity hadn’t completely sapped us of our energy and forced us indoors to the relief of an over-worked air conditioner. We had sent her dad off to work already and so we had a day ahead of us to fill – just the two of us girls, out running some weekend errands with maybe enough time to grab a cherry-lime aid from Sonic and to poke our heads into a bookstore. We were driving up the street where trees and cars lined both sides and the sun and shadows danced across the dashboard. The windows were rolled down and my car smelled like summer and sunscreen.
What should I call you? she asked from the back seat, her blond ponytail blowing from the open window.
What do you mean? I asked her, confused.
I mean, should I call you Aunt Heather?
Nope. I’m not your Aunt, Abby, you know that. You can just call me Heather.
I’m not going to sugar-coat it: blending families is incredibly difficult. We had to figure out, though a lot of trial and error, what the rules were at her mom’s house because co-parenting was not going to be a thing for us. And then we had to figure out what the rules were going to be at our house; what traditions we were going to have, how we were going to raise this girl. And then, after all that deciding, we had to teach her the rules of our house, which turned out to be very different from the way that she’d been raised. It was a lot like that saying, “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks.” Only in our case, the dog was a small girl and the tricks were the rules and ways that we lived in our house.
Shortly after Abigail came to live with us, she was required to do something, I can’t even remember now what it was – brush her teeth, maybe? I don’t know, but we went toe to toe about whatever it was she was supposed to do. After a lot of back and forth “discussion,” (me firmly telling her what she had to do, her stubbornly refusing), she sat down on the couch, crossed her arms tight over her chest and all but spat out with a pinched, angry face, “I am an American and I have rights!”
She was eight.
My hands shook. My heart was racing. I had absolutely no idea what to do in that situation. I couldn’t force her to do whatever it was I needed her to do. Her dad was at work. I felt like the control had shifted and I had no authority, in spite of the fact that I was in my own house and I was the adult in the situation.
That was the first time I really experienced how difficult a road we had chosen. None of my friends had blended families; there weren’t really any books that I could find that helped and even a lot of the blogs and websites that I searched didn’t seem to address the issues that I was experiencing. Add to that the fact that my parents, my aunts and uncles, all have been married forever, so I didn’t even have any personal experience in what a blended family looks like – how to navigate sharing time and holidays and birthdays. And being “just the girlfriend” at that time, I struggled a lot with what authority I had, what rules I could really implement. Luckily my husband and I were able to discuss all the typical (and non-typical) parenting issues we were having and much of the time, we were on the same page with how we were going to raise her.
But the fact remained that I had an elementary school girl that I had no idea what to do with and no real resources to help me along my way. It was a lonely time.
And then, as life is apt to do, curve balls get thrown and we’re forced to adapt. Having barely gotten used to living together and being every-other-weekend parents, it wasn’t long before we were tossed into a world of full-time parents. Suddenly we had to find a pediatrician, a dentist, a therapist, enroll her in school and get her into an afterschool program. We had to supplement a wardrobe and buy shoes and a backpack and a school uniform. We had to figure out our work schedules and who would get her to school and who would pick her up and how would we budget the addition of private school tuition and lawyer fees.
In spite of the spin our lives took, we tried to find a way to make the transition for our girl as easy as we could; we constantly took the temperature of our relationship, of our parenting skills, of Abby’s overall wellbeing. We discussed constantly how to raise her together in the same way and with the same rules that we’d raise any potential kids we’d have together.
The hardest, ugliest part of parenting in a blended family, for me, was the struggle to not throw my hands up in frustration and fall back on the, “Well she didn’t get that from me!” When things got hard with her, and if you’ve ever raised a teenage girl, I think you can relate to just how hard those years can be; I struggled with not totally washing my hands of the situation and letting her be my husband’s “problem” because she’s not my blood.
I’m not proud of that, but it’s the reality of my story. There were a lot of days that I had to choose to love her, regardless of the circumstances or the fight or the attitude. When the going got tough, I didn’t have the magical “baby bonding” to fall back on or memories of a sweet toddler face squishing my cheeks and telling me I’m her best friend to get me through the eye rolls and the door slams; I had to choose to stay, choose to love through the hard, choose to see the good, kind girl lost in a surly teenager. And while I know I will have the same sort of issues with the two humans that I gave birth to, it’s a different sort of choice. Yes, I do still have to choose to love them in the hard stuff, but it’s almost like it is just sort of happens naturally, I don’t have to try as hard when the parenting is difficult.
And then last year, in the midst of the hard teenage stuff, our now 17 year old daughter moved out of our house, leaving a cloud of anger and hurt and heartache in her wake. I felt like a complete parenting failure.
I spent the rest of the winter and most of the spring in a funk. I couldn’t pull myself up out of the trench that we seemed to find ourselves in as parents. Our world was suddenly not at all what we’d imagined it to be when we were awarded full custody. Back then we celebrated with champagne in our living room while a little girl slept down the hall surrounded by stuffed animals and dolls and oblivious as to how all of our lives had changed with one judge’s signature.
The antidepressant that I started taking last winter took some of the edge off, but I didn’t want to celebrate anything; particularly not a holiday that is all about love and loving those you’re with. There was no Valentine’s date for me and my husband last year, and truthfully, I don’t even think there was a Valentine’s shirt for the two remaining small humans in our house, but I can’t remember for sure. Those months are still a bit blurry.
We’ve come a long way in a year. We’ve learned to fight through the tough stuff – both my husband and me together, and the two of us with our daughter. It’s not easy – heaven knows that there are still days I wonder if we’ll ever be fully whole and trusting again. But I feel better this winter than I did last winter. I remind myself that we have an adult daughter now and she’s part of our lives and she calls us and she’s in college learning things and she stops by the house to see her brother and sister. I have to take a step back sometimes and remember that she is going to make her own decisions and our job as her parents is to support her and be honest with her and, if she asks, give her advice. She’s going to do things that we don’t like; we surely did many things our parents didn’t like, but that’s part of the launching process – the letting go of our humans and hoping that we did all we can to prepare them for whatever path they choose to take, even if that path looks hard and full of potholes from our perspective.
Sometimes people hear our story and they say to me, “Yeah, but love conquers all!”
And I tell them that choosing to love is important, surely, but that is only part of parenting a blended family. Choosing persistence, consistency, therapy, openness, and grace are also a big part of making our relationship a success.