Entries in divorce (3)


Stepfamilies: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly


 When I got married, at twenty-three, I became a stepmother to a seven year old boy. I’d known Jonah since he was four, and his parents had divorced when he was still a baby, so he’d never really known what it was like to live together with his family under one roof. Which was the same experience I’d had – my own parents divorced when I was a baby and I grew up with a complicated web of step parents and step and half-siblings, all of whom I resented to varying degrees.

You’d think I would have felt sympathy for this little boy, a boy who got shuttled between Washington, DC and Manhattan every third weekend, whose Dad lived in another state. You’d think that I would know intimately his discomfort, and try to help him in whatever way I could.

At first, when I was twenty and just dating his Dad, I thought Jonah was cute. It was a novelty for me to be in a mom-role of any kind, and I’d had plenty of teenage babysitting experience, so how hard could this be? I read to him, tickled him, made him chicken nuggets, gave him baths.

And then, as Peter and I got more serious, and decided to get married, the relationship with Jonah got more complicated. I grew aware that my role would always be peripheral, that this kid had his own mother, and family customs, that had nothing to do with me. That I would never have any decision-making role, that I’d always be in the back seat.  I realized I would want children of my own one day soon, and then came the regret that I could never be Peter’s first experience of pregnancy, and labor, and delivery, that we could never share a completely beginner’s experience of parenthood. Of course we couldn’t, because Jonah had been there first.

I got pregnant on our honeymoon and we were both delighted, but it had that slight sting – how would Jonah feel? Would he resent the baby? Would it be hard for him? And then for me there was the always slightly nagging feeling of  “this is my first time at this and my husband’s done it all before.” Not the worst thing, but a tiny, disappointing pull. The tug of the young and naïve, selfish and childish.

As those early years of marriage wore on, the disparity between “our” family (me, Peter, and our new daughter) and “his” family (Peter, Jonah, the ex-wife) grew, however much of it was in my head. Because actually, the ex-wife was easy, as far as these things go, but she was still my precursor, and she had still established her own maternal culture, and I was still the second wife.  And the more it sunk in that Jonah came first in a way that I never would, the harder it became for me to deal with him. That he, this innocent child, had the unconditional love of his father, made me sometimes feel extraneous, out in the cold.

I was jealous on two fronts: the first, the more obvious, was that I wanted that unconditional devotion from my husband, and I quickly became aware that I could test that love, and that I could lose. Our fights were volatile, and Peter turned his back on me easily. There were no guarantees for me here. The second, even more primal jealousy, was that Jonah was getting the kind of unconditional fatherlove that I’d never gotten from my own father, and staring that loss in the face -- my own loss -- admitting that lack, was too painful for me. Much easier to look outside and resent the child.

So that’s what I did. It was never child abuse, but I was cold. I never loved Jonah, and we all felt it. Sometimes he made me really angry, like when he would come for visits and just hole up on the computer, sullen, unwilling or unable to empty the dishwasher, or change his sheets, or engage in a conversation. I didn’t think he was cute, or clever, or take pleasure in him in any way, the way we usually do with the children in our midst.

I look back on this piece of my history with mortification; without a doubt, my relationship with Jonah is the one in my life I most regret. To explain it, much less justify it, I can try to point to my youth, my inexperience, my unresolved childhood pain, my lack of sophistication, or I can just throw up my hands and say I’m a horrible person.

But it’s not quite that simple, not quite one thing or the other. For years my husband, now my ex, silently made me feel like I was Cruella de Ville, like my behavior was inexplicably unjust. But the truth is, we were both inept at handling the feelings  – we didn’t talk about it well, he always told me I didn’t need to have a relationship with his son, that that was just fine with him, when it clearly wasn’t.

Now, in my 40s and divorced, I have a serious boyfriend, Joe, and Joe has a teenage daughter, Emily. So I have to forge a relationship with Emily and Joe’s got to find his way with my now four children. Watching us all fumble along through this process, I realize how inherently fraught the step relationship is, how impossible it’s got to feel to almost everyone, even the most therapized among us.

Having made such a mess of it the first time around, I’m much more careful now. I try to see Emily as her own person and not react to her based on what she represents, or at least, if I do feel myself reacting to those old issues, I’m better at keeping it to myself. Being all together can be pleasant, and even fun at times, but I’m not sure it’ll ever feel totally natural. Sometimes out of the corner of my eye, I catch Emily looking at me like a deer in the headlights, as if I come from another planet, and I realize, that to her, I do!  She’s being raised differently from the way I raise my kids; with divergent rules and expectations, and when she’s at my house she’s in foreign domestic territory. We eat differently, we talk differently, we probably even smell different! Our mothers shape the way we see the world, and this, here in my domain, is not her mother’s culture. To be a kid plunged into another mother’s universe has got to make everything feel upside down.

One of my kids “hates” Joe right now, and it’s so obviously not about Joe, but about the divorce and jealousy over me, and about rage at things not being what they “should” be. But it’s hard on Joe, hard to be confronted by a hostile teen, day in and day out. It can be difficult to like that child, I’m sure. Joe and I have a relationship, and that relationship encompasses our previous marriages, our children, all the various homes we all live in, the past, the failures, the unknown future. It’s complicated.

Even Peter, who was so hurt by my indifference (at best) to his son, has now had his own experience of dating someone and not liking her kids. It happens to other people! You have no idea what a relief that was to me.

The truth is, that each and every family, no matter how short-lived, how dysfunctional, how splintered, has its own culture. A mother, a father, and their kids, they are a unit, connected by DNA and by a code of communication and rituals and understanding – by threads of something almost impossible to articulate – that no outsider can probably ever fully penetrate. By that logic, the blended family thing is  always, to some extent, going to be like wedging the wrong shapes into a puzzle.

I see this now when I sit down with my father for our annual lunch. We both live in New York City, but we’ve had a painful, difficult relationship my whole life, and since my mid-twenties I’ve really stepped away. We now talk on the phone a few times a year, and he calls me every summer and asks to take me out to lunch for my birthday. I go, and it always hurts a bit, because we’re not close, because I lost so much not having a father in my life. But what really kills me, every time, is that no matter how infrequently I see him, no matter how neglected I may feel, there is an undeniable understanding there, a deep recognition of each other. He’s my father. There’s a shorthand in the way I experience his voice and gestures and sense of humor, in the way he’s as familiar to me as my own body is. I could never in a million years have that sort of visceral connection with a stepfather or a stepchild, and that’s the crux of it.



Some Thoughts on Jealousy


When women talk about the current romantic lives of their ex-husbands, it's common to hear refrains along the lines of "I couldn't care less who he's with. What a nightmare, she can have him, good riddance." And they usually add "As long as she's nice to my kids, that's all I care about."

Really? You don't care at all? No twinges of jealousy? You're not curious? What if she's prettier than you? Younger? Wildly successful? Or maybe she's just nicer, a more balanced person, a better fit, someone who can make him happy where you couldn't? None of this stings at all? I don't believe you.

I want my ex-husband to be happy, I do. He deserves to have a life, right? I have one, after all. It's better for the kids to see him settled and partnered than sitting home alone every night, like he did for ages. And we're very much through, over four years divorced at this point. But I can always tell when he's dating someone new with whom he might be serious, because he gets ever so slightly hostile to me for a brief period of time. Almost like an adolescent, it feels as though he needs to push me away in order to connect afresh.

So two or three months ago, I realized that there was a new woman on the scene, and now, for the time being at least, she seems to be a fixture. And she's about my age, pretty enough but not threateningly so, seems to be smart, has a couple of young kids. My children say she's totally nice, and when we scoped her out on Facebook, I was left with a perfectly likeable, if innocuous, impression. All good.

So why do I feel uncomfortable -- slightly bereft, like I've lost my footing -- when her name comes up? Why does my knowledge of her existence give me any pause whatsoever? Do I want Peter anymore? No, definitely not. Do I miss him sexually? No again, even though I liked him sexually. Do I suspect she's getting something I want? No, I know for sure, surer than I know anything, that he can't give me what I want.

Is it about my kids? Am I worried they'll like her more than they like me? No. I think that's a fear that you get over soon after you get divorced. Once you see a few boyfriends and girlfriends come and go on both sides, you realize pretty quickly that what matters to kids are their parents. Unless the new step-figure is a monster, which is obviously disastrous for everyone, these people are rarely going to become figures of monumental importance in your kids' life. Particularly once they are teenagers, which mine are.

But there is something about the kids, something about the idea of Peter and his girlfriend being with my children and hers, acting like a family, that can sting. The physical intimacy, that my kids might see this woman naked, or see her making out with their dad, that feels weird. In those moments I just have to pinch myself and remember what it's like when I'm with my boyfriend Joe's daughter, or my kids are with Joe. Is it threatening? Would anything about it be objectively unacceptable to Peter? No, not remotely. It's just life, everyone trying to fit slightly awkward puzzle pieces together. Never quite right, but not bad.

Another helpful mind-game is for me to visualize being in the shoes of the new girlfriend -- being there on that vacation, at that dinner table, by his side romantically wherever -- and it takes about three seconds of recalling what I know so well for me to think "whew, there but for the grace of God, go I."

Here's what it is, what the jealousy boils down to: this guy was my lover, my husband, my father figure (sorry, it's true), for sixteen years, the bulk of my adult life. Since we split up, he hasn't yet "replaced" me. He had one rebound relationship with a woman I couldn't stand, and then I think lots of adventures with women he'd never bring home to meet the kids. I've still been the only woman, aside from his mother, who really looms large in his life, for better or worse. And now that's changing. So it tugs at the wound. It makes me feel a little more alone; it's a reminder of the loss.

That's the crux of it: even though we've been separated for years, and we've both "moved on," the process of disentangling continues. My complicated feelings about a serious new girlfriend are about me being replaced (as opposed to no one filling that position), someone taking over the emotional slot I long held, about us all taking yet another step apart. It's not about her in particular; she could be anyone. It's about the sadness of divorce, of one family unit ending and morphing into something else.

Which is what it needs to do. This is inevitable, and healthy! And these twinges won't kill me, not by a long shot. But I do hope they go away soon. Hopefully I'll meet the new girlfriend before long. I imagine I'll like her well enough, and in the flesh we'll both realize how human (and thus flawed) we all are. And that will further break down any of the curiosity we both must have, and make it all that much easier to bear.


Should I Stay or Should I Go?

The other day I had lunch with a long married girlfriend who was bemoaning the fact that, for fifteen years, she and her husband hardly ever fought, and now, in the last five, they frequently do, which she mostly attributes to the strain of having young children. I've always thought of Miranda and Felix as one of the very few, truly happily married couples I know, so I was pretty surprised when she came out and asked "is the best part of being divorced that you get to stop endlessly contemplating gettingdivorced?" She was sort of joking, but not really. Even though she thinks her marriage is still pretty solid, the possibility of divorce occurs to Miranda with increasing frequency these days, and she wonders what it might take to get them to the breaking point.

To answer her question, yes, that is one of the best parts of being divorced! Our conversation brought me back to those days (years, actually) when I spent an inordinate amount of time thinking about leaving, wondering if I could muster the strength, if it would kill my children, if I was a fool to do it, and mostly, more often than not, if I was justified. Did I have enough of a reason?

My husband didn't drink too much or have a gambling addiction. He was faithful, I think. He worked hard, paid the bills, came home most nights in time for dinner with me and the kids. He was (and still is) a loving and devoted father. Regular sex was definitely not a problem. He didn't even smoke pot obsessively the way so many middle-aged men do.

But even without any of the conditions under which most people would be forgiven, or at least understood, for leaving a marriage, I can assure you that we were very unhappy. We fought frequently (and what's worse, it was always the same fight), and we each felt lonely, unloved, unappreciated, and disconnected.

At some point I went out and bought a helpful book with the brilliant title "Too Good to Leave, Too Bad to Stay," by Mira Kirshenbaum, and it was while reading this book that I came up with the germs of my personal measurements, or maxims, nurtured over the years since, about why one might have to leave a marriage that, while it might appear otherwise to the outside, just isn't working. So here they are, a few reliable, if not hard and fast, rules about how to figure out if you should stay or if you should go:

On one of the days that I now think of as a breaking point moment, I was sitting in a Brooklyn Starbucks nursing a soy decaf latte and it dawned on me that if I stayed married to X, I could easily predict what the rest of my life would be like. Not the events of my life as they might play out, which no one of us knows, but the emotional tenor. I knew what was in store -- how I would feel day in and day out, because I'd been feeling it for years -- and it wasn't pretty. But I didn't know, couldn't possibly know, what might happen if I left, and I realized that if I left, at the very least I'd have the possibility of something better, the hope that I could feel happier, feel loved, actually like myself again. This I think of as The Dare to Hope For a Better Life Rule. If you already like your life enough, this jumping off a cliff notion won't appeal to you, and perhaps you should stay.

Are you getting enough of what you need? A subjective, but effective, measurement that always seems to work. Marriage and relationships are never perfect and rarely easy, but in the good ones you generally should feel like the trade-offs are worth it. He hates your mother, but he makes you laugh like no one ever has. He has revolting table manners, but you love his three sisters as if they were your own. The sex may have been hotter with your last boyfriend, but this one offers up the perfect amount of affection and always just when you need it. And so on. Trouble comes when the list of what's wrong starts to noticeably outweigh the list of what's right.

The Joy Issue. My last and final test. How much joy do you experience together? Or are you at least capable of experiencing together? When you go away alone, just the two of you, is it fun? Do you try new tricks in bed and laugh a lot? Can you talk about interesting things other than your children? Do you appreciate beauty in the same way, or want to ride bikes together, or ski, all without the kids? Or do you wind up using the romantic weekend at an inn to rehash the same old fight, precious babysitting hours gobbled up by age-old resentments? My theory is, that if you can still genuinely enjoy each other, there's still a lot of possibility between you. But if you can't, if that ability to see each other like you once did is gone, it may well be too late.

The truth is, my conversation with Miranda was not the first one like that I've had. It's not even the tenth, or the fifteenth. Marriage is a tough business and the old saw remains: that no one outside a marriage can ever really understand what goes on between the two people inside one, and everyone has issues. Whether it works or doesn't work, whether one is better off jumping ship, who knows? But these measures make sense to me and I hope they offer some guidance.