On Being the Step-Mom on Mothers Day

When I became a mother to my two boys, it was in the typical fashion: wanting babies, making babies, growing babies, birthing babies, loving babies. I bonded with my baby boys quickly and easily, as I nursed hem, changed their diapers, and cared for them.

When I became a step-mother to my two girls, it was in the typical fashion: dating their dad, loving their dad, marrying their dad, learning to love them. That’s right, I said learning to love them. One of the more important things I have discovered along my step-mothering journey is to allow myself time to love my girls. I don’t know that I ever experienced a crystallizing moment in my life when I knew I loved them, but I can honestly say that I have grown to love them. Yes, there are definitely days in these teen years, when they challenge my loving feelings, but I think that is pretty normal, even among fully biologically related adolescents and their parents. During these trying times I think to myself that it was a really good thing that I became a step-mother when the girls were little. It has allowed us time together when they when they were sweet and cute, before they became hormonal teens.

Juan and I started dating when the girls were 6 and 3. I can still remember the first time I saw Erica. She was in Juan’s car, perched up on her car seat holding an empty bottle. She had long since given up drinking from a bottle, but she still held onto an empty Playtex nurser as her comfort. When I asked her about it, she told me “I just like to hold it.” My heart melted a little. I’d like to say that at that moment I instantly fell in love with that little girl with a quick smile and fly away curls, but I would be perpetuating a myth that becoming a step-mother makes you love your partner’s children automatically. It doesn’t. In fact, becoming a step-mother probably has less to do with love and more to do with compassion and endurance. Step-mothering is a test of love. A test of the love you have for your partner, and the love you have for your family and the family you hope to become.

Juan and I have been married almost 9 years now. This year I will celebrate my 8th Mother’s Day as a step-mom to my girls. Every year, it’s a little awkward, and every year it get’s a little easier. On one of my earlier Mother’s Days as a step-mom, I woke to the sound of activity. Juan let me sleep in a little but I could hear the unmistakable sound of kids trying to stay quiet as they started their Sunday morning. The custodial agreement between Juan and his ex-wife stated that the girls would be with their mom on Mother’s Day. It was our weekend together but of course, they needed to be with their mom on this special day. They were excited to go and share with her the handmade gifts they created at school. When I got up I could see that Olivia had two beautifully wrapped packages waiting on the window seat in the living room. I commented on the packages and she said that the gifts were for her mom and aunt. Olivia left a few minutes later calling out to me, “Happy Mother’s Day,” taking both presents, and leaving me empty handed, and feeling hollow. Ouch.

It’s gotten better since then. I know Juan remembers the bitter sting I felt that morning when I realized that all my efforts caring for the girls went unrecognized. It was a painful lesson, that as much as I cooked their meals, washed their clothes, combed their hair and helped them with their school work, I was just the step-mom. But it was also a lesson in compassion for me, and it continues to remind me that as difficult as step-mothering can be for me, step-daughtering for them is just as difficult. Of course, they love their mother, and even through the teen conflicts we endure right now, I know they love their dad. Loving me, is a little trickier. Isn’t it a fantasy of nearly every child of divorce, no matter what age, that your parents will get back together? How do you love someone who is the obstacle from your parents ever getting remarried? How do you love someone who does the “motherly jobs” without betraying your loyalty to your “real” mother. It’s complicated and I am sure the girls felt conflicted, and still do feel conflicted at times.

That morning was a reminder to me that I needed compassion to fill in gaps as I learned to love my girls. Yes, it hurt, but they needed time to get to know me and what our relationship as step-mother/daughters would be. We needed time to grow to a place where they could love me without feeling they were disloyal to their mom. I needed time to know them, and not feel pressured to love them instantly. Different from bonding with my newborn sons, bonding with my girls is prolonged, and seems to be a more back and forth; a shared process between me and each daughter. This process is evolving still today. It is constant shift in what it means for us to be in relationship with each other, especially since now Olivia lives with us full-time and Erica spends the majority of her days with her mom. Through it all, I am loving their dad, loving my family, and I am loving them.

Happy Mother’s Day to mothers and step-mother’s everywhere.

On our wedding day, the day I officially became their step-mother.

Mothers Day morning update: Juan surprised me with this link to a video he made and posted to You Tube. Watching it made me realize that through all our years together we have really bonded as a family.  Plus, it made me really cry!!





Ring Ceremony

Not long ago Juan and I took an extended lunch hour from work to attend a ring ceremony at Olivia’s high school.  What’s a ring ceremony? Well, I am glad you asked, because I didn’t know either, until I went to one.

Olivia is a junior at an all girls  Catholic college prep school. I never went to Catholic school growing up, much less an all girls school, but if I had, I would have loved to attend this school. Her school is in a diverse, urban neighborhood. The school is over 100 years old, founded by a very progressive order of nuns. So progressive in fact, that the nuns actually defied the archdioceses directives and abandoned their habits in the 1970’s. The school’s motto is that the young women who attend are educated to be of “great heart and right conscience.” I see Olivia maturing into a woman of right conscience. Olivia too, is loving her experience at this school, and when she came home last year with the order form for her class ring, she was very excited about the idea of getting a ring for the school she loves. I was less than enthusiastic about spending so much money on a piece of sentiment that wasn’t even “real” jewelry.

The Rings

Olivia’s class ring reminded me of my own, long lost piece of tin. My class ring was pewter, and had  a blue stone, for my school color. It was probably the most expensive piece of jewelry I owned at the time,  but it was not “real” jewelry.  I ordered it from a catalog and when my class ring was delivered,  I picked it up from the student store, and proudly slipped it on my finger. I think I wore it for the next two years until I graduated high school and then took it off when I went to college. I haven’t seen it since.  My class ring was a sentimental symbol of the times, that quickly became a token of a chapter in my life that ended when I went to college. Knowing this, I tried to dissuade Olivia from spending so much money on a piece of jewelry which was sure to become cast aside once she graduated high school. She could not be dissuaded so we ordered the ring for her waited for its arrival. When the ring arrived, she told us that it would be presented to her in a ring ceremony, and invited us to attend.

The ceremony included music played by a worship band and a choir. Olivia thrilled us and her her classmates, by playing the drums as part of the band. She had been studying drums for a while, but she doesn’t like to play for us. Other than the drum banging going on in our garage, it’s hard to know she actually is making any progress drumming. There was a brief moment of panic when I saw that the dress Olivia was wearing was so short it made it difficult for her to sit behind her drum kit and not be embarrassed. Luckily, she was wearing a sweater and she took it off and draped it across her lap as she played her drums.

A girl and her drums

During the ceremony the rings were blessed, and the girls received special notes from their “ring sisters,” girls from the senior class who acted as mentors to their younger classmates.  At the designated time in the ceremony the girls received their rings returned to their seats and then placed the rings on their fingers.  This moment, they were told, officially marked them as upperclasswomen, making them leaders in the school and giving them the special responsibility to be examples to their younger classmates. It was a special moment for Olivia, and for me. While she was officially becoming an upperclasswoman, I was that much closer to having  step-daughter who would soon be leaving home for college. It was a bittersweet moment. Their are definitely days when she is in full teen mode and I think I am ready for her to leave for college,  but there are more days where I realize how quickly the years have flown and how the days we have together are coming to a close.

It was a very special day for Olivia, and as it turns out for me too.

All manicured and ready to go!



Good-Bye 2011…Don’t let the door hit you on the way out.

Generally, I don’t have much affection for New Year’s Eve. I think it’s an overrated, hyped-up holiday. I usually don’t do much on this night, other than maybe pour myself some champagne at the stroke of midnight and then go to bed.  However, this year, New Year’s is different. That’s because I am happy to see 2011 go.  I am starting off 2012 doing something different. I am setting up my karma for a good year. I hope.

2011 was not a banner year for me. Wait, that’s a drastic understatement. 2011 sucked. I think just generally a lot of stuff in my life accumulated and overwhelmed me. Probably the biggest challenge this year, was losing my grandmother and the months leading up to her death. There were blessings in being able to care for her, but there were a lot of stresses too, including watching the toll it took on my mother.  It wasn’t my grandmother’s failing health alone that was difficult. In the first few months of 2011, Juan and I spent days at three different Kaiser hospitals, and spent regular nights at urgent care for our kids.

This year also brought a change to our living arrangements. Over the summer Olivia began living with us full time and since October, Erica has been staying with her mom more often. I will spare you the details, but I am sure you can imagine that the circumstances leading up to the changed living arrangements were not pleasant. Something about teenagers and parent/child conflicts contributing to family tension.  Add the unique challenges of living in a blended family and our home was not the sanctuary for me that it has been in the past. We are working on changing that, and I hope that our shared custody living arrangements will resume in 2012.

Looking back on this year, there were other events which contributed to the malaise of 2011. Diego had a difficult time in school, I spent over three months studying for that damn exam, and I experienced more than a few challenges parenting teens in a blended family.  I intended for 2011 to be a year of compassion for me, but I don’t think I was too successful with that. I don’t like resolutions so I don’t make them, besides I have enough to do on my list of 50 Things I want to Do Before My 50th Birthday.

I want 2012 to be a better year for me and my family.  Last year I approached the beginning of 2011 differently. I was in a funk.  As is typical for me I didn’t do anything too special to end the previous year and didn’t really celebrate welcoming in the New Year. So, I am approaching 2012 with my heart, mind and arms wide open. Tonight, Juan and I are going to a special New Year’s service at our church, then we are heading out to enjoy a nice dinner.  Tomorrow, we are hosting an open house for anyone who wants to drop by and I am serving all kinds of New Year’s good luck foods.  I can’t help to hedge my bets a little.

Happy New Year. Hello 2012!

What about you? Are you happy to start a New Year? How do you celebrate?

Wrapping up Christmas

Another year, another Christmas all wrapped. up. This year we shook things up a bit by spreading out our Christmas celebrations and gathered with family on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Yeah we’re crazy like that. Usually, we do the Christmas Eve tour by going to church early, driving to my parents, where my mom hosts a Christmas Eve dinner and then heading to Juan’s sister’s house, to celebrate Colombian style, with a very late Christmas Eve dinner, and dancing into the early morning hours. Sometimes we even spend the night. Yeah, I know, we are pretty intense with all that Christmas, but that’s the way we roll. This year, we had to split up Christmas into an entire weekend event. Our Christmas Eve plate was pretty full already since Diego had to sing with his choir at the 3:00 family service, and had to be at church before 2:00 in order to robe and rehearse.

Waiting for the family service and the children's choir with my friend Julie and her daughter Ty.

It was a beautiful and fun service, very family friendly, complete with a warm-up round of carols, and an entire Christmas pageant. Every year, one of the church families with a baby, is selected to play the Holy Family. The year that Diego was born, our family was the Holy Family. Diego was just 4 months old and the girls played angels. Nico had too much stage fright to be the shepheard boy that year, but we all had a great time assuming our divine roles.

The Holy Family, Christmas 2004.

After this year’s pageant, Olivia and Erica had to acolyte at the 5:30 service, so Juan and I got to sit together and enjoy this beautiful ceremony. The church was all decked out in holiday splendor.

The church altar decorated for Christmas.

After we finally left church at 7:00 p.m. we raced home to finish packing our sleigh minivan, with overnight clothes, sleeping bags, and the posole, cheese plate, brussel sprouts, cookies and french toast casserole I had spent the morning preparing, along with all the presents we had spent the last two days frantically wapping. Santa’s sleigh had nothing on us. We were packed to the gills. I was very sad not to have Nico with us since it was his father’s year for Christmas, but I think he would have had to sit on the roof rack if he had been here.

We made it to Juan’s sister’s house by 9:00 p.m., and the party was just getting started. They like to enjoy Christmas Colombian style. Let me tell you, if you have never celebrated Navidad with the Colombians you haven’t celebrated. We graze on pan de bono, and pan de queso, delicious balls of cheese, and bread, which are fried or baked. Drinks are served, including Aguardiente, an anise flavored drink served with lime slices. It’s kind of the Colombian equivalent to tequila, both which I enjoy, although definately not at the same time! We eat really late, and then the music gets louder, the furniture and rugs get pushed aside, and the dancing and the music begins. This year, even the kids participated!

You can watch it here: Christmas Colombian Style

This year, with so many young kids in the family, we enjoyed dancing to salsa music and my brother-in-law’s own dance party mix.

Watch us getting footloose here: Footloose

The dancing didn’t even start until shortly before midnight, and somehow these little guys had the energy to keep moving.

Diego and cousin cut some rug: Diego and his cousin dancing.

Around 1:00 a.m. Diego started getting frantic. I told him it was time to quit dancing and head upstairs to bed. He was so distressed that Santa would not come because everyone was still up dancing. He tired to sleep, but between the music vibrations and all the activity he had a really hard time. This made him even more upset because he was sure Santa wouldn’t make it to his aunt’s house. I knew Diego was still a believer, but I guess I didn’t realize he was a True Believer. He made all kinds of preparations for Santa’s visit, sending Santa his wish list, setting out the milk and cookies for him, and Diego even wrapped up a couple of his old stuffed animals to give to Santa and Mrs. Claus for Christmas. While we were in church Diego asked me to write this letter for him to leave for Santa that night.

A Christmas letter to Santa.

Finally, Diego fell asleep and Santa could work her his magic.

Santa's first stop at my sister-in-law's house.

Santa even left a footprint in the fireplace after he ate the cookies and milk and fed a carrot to his reindeer.

Santa stepped here.


Santa did not disappoint.  He even left Diego a thank you note and Diego is still a believer.

Santa remembered to leave a thank you note.

After the massive gift opening, that was over in all of 30 minutes, we had a delicous breakfast and then packed up the sleigh minivan again and headed our next stop, Pasadena, via a brief stop at my parents house. This year, the girls were with us for Christmas Eve but Juan had to get them back to their mother by noon on Christmas Day. This is one of the many difficulties of having a blended family with shared custody. Over the years we have had to learn to make adjustments, and be flexible in our scheduling, but it still doesn’t make it any easier for everyone when we can’t be all together on the holidays, and our celebrations get cut short to accomodate all the different schedules. So, we made a brief stop at my my parent’s house so the girls could say hello, and then Juan drove them to meet their mom, while Diego and I stayed behind to help with Christmas day dinner preparations and wait for more cousins to arrive. A few hours later, the cousins started arriving and we were set for Round Two of Christmas.

We had our traditional Mexican American version of Christmas dinner– prime rib and tamales on the side. Every year we make tamales with the family and my grandmother supervises mixing the masa and spreading and filling the meat. This year, perhaps because it was the tirst time she wasn’t here to do it with us, or perhaps because Christmas came too quickly, we didn’t make our own tamales. Instead, my dad and mom made a trip out to La Mascota Bakery in East LA and bought tamales. They were good, but I still prefer our homemade tamales.

My parents supervise my brother carving the prime rib roast. Tamales on the side.

After dinner, when we couldn’t put off the kids any longer, we exchanged gifts. Thank goodness that we have the sense to draw names in both sides of the families, so our Christmas gift giving has been pared down. Even though we select names, with so many in my side of the family, the Christmas tree still looks like this.

...but wait, there's more! Santa's second stop, my parents' house.

I have been to Christmas celebrations where everyone opens gifts one at a time, and each person has the opportunity to ooh and ahh over each gift and thank each person individually. It is all very civilized and refined. Yeah, we don’t do that. It is more of a Christmas gift unleashing in my family. I have tried to quell the frenzy, asking my kids to tell me who gave them the gift before they open it, but I am not always successful. I guess, after I have asked Diego to sit through the entire day of Christmas day meal preparations and the meal itself, he is more than ready to get through his presents.

Just so we don’t lose the true meaning of Christmas in all the gift giving, Santa believing, and tamale eating, we do to celebrate, my family has one more ritual we do every year, singing happy birthday to Jesus. We’ve been doing it since I was little with my own cousins and grandmother.

My cousins and I singing Happy Birthday to Jesus, circa, 1969.

We did it this year, with Diego and his cousins.

Happy Birthday Jesus

So, even though we did do things a bit different this year, spreading out Christmas over two FULL days, and not sharing the holiday with all my kids in the same place at the same time, and adding the cha cha cha, to Happy Birthday to Jesus song, it was still a very good time.

Merry Christmas everyone!


Smells Like Teen (Christmas) Spirit

My kids are now 7, 13, 13 almost 14, and 16. When my teens were little Christmas was a no-brainer when it came to gift giving. The biggest challenge was restraint. When the Toys R Us Big Book would arrive with the Sunday paper, or the weekly Target ad came out, my kids would circle items on their wish lists. I think most kids from divorced parents may say that Christmas is one of the few times, where divorce and remarriage works to their advantage. With three or four sets of grandparents, multiple aunts and uncles from all sides of our extended families, and two separate parenting households,  Christmas was just a toy bonanza for my kids. Beginning in December I would start fielding calls and emails from various family members, keeping track of who I told what to buy for whom.

Now that Nico, Erica and Olivia are in their teens, Christmas gift giving is still hectic, but it’s more expensive.  Gifts on their lists range from Uggs priced at $200, to Mac laptops, priced at over $1000. I hate to disappoint, but those gifts are just not happening. Sure, I can ask for family members to contribute towards these things, but with so many different family branches and varying degrees of financial resources, I just don’t feel comfortable with this. Besides, in addition to all my responsibilities, being the manager of a gift registry is something I just don’t have in me. Christmas came way too quickly this year. This year, I am stuck reaching for ideas, cajoling my kids to give me some kind of affordable gift wish list so that I can pass along the information to family members, and save a bit for myself.  I would like for my kids’ Christmas not to be a total bust and I’d like to be able to support the many relatives who want to gift them something, and experience their own joy in giving.

So, with only 10 shopping days until Christmas, and only two affordable items on Nico’s list (Hunger Games and plaid shirts), I was happy to see him looking through a catalog the other day. The catalog was from ThinkGeek.com, a site that we purchased some items from last Christmas, and which gifts he really enjoyed. When he was done looking at the catalog and marking items he wanted, I was less than enthusiastic about his wish list. How could I tell family members to spend their hard earned money on this:

Monty Python Killer Rabbit Slippers

But,  apparently people besides my teenaged geek son like them, because the site says that they are out of stock.

Nico also asked for this:

It’s a Screaming Monkey slingshot

The last item he asked for was the  infectious disease stress ball .  I found it a bit disturbing that the stress ball comes in four varieties of disease: bubonic plague, zombie virus, smallpox and cooties.

Maybe he will get plaid shirts in every color of the rainbow instead.

As for Olivia, my 16 year-old step-daughter, when I asked her for some gift ideas she replied, ” I don’t want anything for Christmas.”  Wow, the spirit of Christmas selflessness, or a surly teen? My initial reaction was skepticism, but I should have known better. Olivia is a good student, with a keen interest in politics and foreign policy, and when I watch her interact with her peers and other adults, she is very friendly, polite and respectful. However, like many parents of teens, communicating with adolescents often involves navigating through through long periods of silence or interpreting unintelligble responses of hmm or mmm. When I suggested to Olivia that maybe her relatives want to give her something for Christmas, she  replied, “Well then, tell them to give a donation in my name to Human Rights Watch.”  In these days of Christmas spending and commercialism, and as I experience these challenging teen years,  I choose to accept her wish list at face value and see it as a gift for myself.  Maybe, all our efforts spent of teaching her to be gracious in receiving and imparting the value in giving, are paying off after all. At least she’s not asking for the Monty Python Killer Rabbit Slippers.