On the Sidelines–Life As a Step-Parent

You may have noticed a lack of blogging going on here.  It’s true. I have been a sporadic blogger, at best. Not the best thing to be if you are trying to build an audience, and definitely not the best thing for me since blogging is how I release my pent up creative energy. Perhaps that’s why I have been feeling more than my usual stress.

Or not. Actually, perhaps why I have been so stressed lately has also something to do with why I have not been blogging. There has been a lot going on in my family right now. Most of what has been going on is not mine to share, so I won’t. But, let’s just say it has been emotionally draining and has required every bit of my attention. The past couple of months of our blended family life has been consumed with teen drama. I mean real life drama–not the made-up stuff. The drama seems to be leveling off now, at least long enough for me to come up for air and take a look around at what’s been happening on my blog–nothing. Truth be told I have been wanting to write about the hard stuff going on at home, but since so much of my “material” is the stuff of other family members, I am really conflicted about whether I should blog about it at all.  But, this is still my blog, so I feel like I can write a bit about it from my perspective, as a step-mom and a mom.

Parenting during the teen years is difficult, and step-parenting during the teen years is really difficult. I have bio sons and two step-dauthers, so I get to experience both, and lately, it has been really hard to be a step-parent of teenagers. When things happen to my girls-and they are my girls even if I didn’t birth them–I want to to step in and help Juan solve the problem. That is not my job as a step-mom. Too often I have to sit on the sidelines and watch as Juan and his ex-wife try to resolve issues with the girls, sometimes in ways with which I don’t agree. Too often I have to support Juan in his parenting even though there are many times I feel like I would have done it differently. Like the Monday morning quarterback, in my mind, and sometimes out loud I catch myself re-playing his moves, criticising his attempts which appear to cause us to lose ground, and the Hail Mary passes which seem to me like acts of desperation. I am a great Monday morning quarterback, and even though I cheer Juan from the sidelines, I am sure my unsolicitied advice to him is as annoying as that player harping ,”Put me in coach.” The truth is often Juan does listen to my Monday morning quarterbacking, and that in itself is not always a good thing. In fact, with all the challenges we’ve been dealing with lately, Juan does not need to hear me yelling plays from the sidelines. He needs to know that I am here cheering him on, but not telling him what to do. This has been quite a test for me, because I’ve come to find out that I am somewhat controlling, and very opinionated. Shocking, I know.

My challenge is that I am trying to overcome my propensity for offering advice, and learning to keep my parenting thoughts to myself, as our family therapist recommended I do. Even though Juan and I are partners in every sense of the word, step-parenting, right now, requires me to be a silent partner. I can listen to his concerns, and support him in his ideas and approach. Even though I am still struggling with this, I learned that if I leave it alone, it can free me from feeling like I am responsible for helping resolve the drama in our house right now. I can’t fix it–it’s not my job.  That’s creating quite a bit of conflict for me right now, since I often feel powerless and sometimes hopeless.

It’s a difficult place to be in. I’m sure I am not alone, as a step-mom or a parent of teens. In the meanwhile I am waiting, on the sidelines, for it to get better.

Do you ever feel like you have to parent from the sidelines?

Inspiring Beauty

Today I am participating in Dove Inspired, a campaign to promote self-esteem in young girls. Dove believes that beauty should be a source of confidence in young girls, not a source of anxiety, and that a simple act like starting a conversation about beauty can promote self-esteem in girls. Research shows that 72% of girls between the ages of 10 and 17 feel tremendous pressure to be beautiful, and only 11% feel comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves. While these numbers seem shocking, I guess I shouldn’t have been too surprised because I have two teen girls who are both beautiful in many and varied ways, but who don’t feel comfortable using that word to describe themselves. The statistics shouldn’t have surprised me either because I still remember my teen years when I felt like the ugly brown duckling waiting to bloom into the the elegant white swan, complete with blond, flowing locks a la Farah Fawcett. (Remember, it was the early 1980’s.)

Needless to say, I never got the long, blond, flowing Farah hair, but it was not for lack of trying. One disastrous perm and several curling irons later, I resigned myself to the fact that my long straight, dark brown Latina locks would have to do. You can imagine how ironic it was for me when I found myself one day speaking to my younger step-daughter, Erica about the fact that her long, brown, wavy hair was just as beautiful as her older sister Olivia’s long straight, black hair.

Olivia and Erica, have always had a relationship fraught with rivalry. Their early bickering about Bratz dolls has grown into full out yelling matches about clothes, and yes, even hair straighteners. One day Erica was comparing herself to her sister and began characterizing the differences as shortcomings. Olivia, sensing Erica’s vulnerability, moved in for the kill, taunting Erica with a hair straightener and saying her hair looked like Hagrid’s from Harry Potter. Erica was understandably upset. I pulled her aside and we looked in the mirror together. I pointed out the many features she possessed which were beautiful. Her long, wavy hair, her thick eyelashes which frame her deep brown eyes. Then we talked about those other attributes, which are less superficial, but even more important, her energy, her quick wit, her loving affectionate ways. We spoke how beautiful she is on the inside and outside. These things which may seem insignificant or unimportant now, but which she will grow to appreciate. Then I told her about the standard of beauty with which I grew up. The blond, blue-eyed surfer girl, and my feelings of awkwardness as a dark hair, brown eyed Latina. Now, my ethnic appearance makes me feel special, unique. I don’t know if it really sunk in but at least we started the conversation. I hope that it won’t take long before it resonates with her. I hope that it at least will make her to think twice before she gets into an all out yelling match with her sister over a hair straightener.

How do you talk about beauty?

This is a compensated post in collaboration with Latina Bloggers Connect and Dove.

Ending the School Year with Parenting Highs and Lows

The school year is just about over. With that comes all the year-end ceremonies, recitals, and our first ever prom. This year, the year-end festivities were filled with highs and lows. First, the highs:

The graduating 8th graders at Nico and Erica’s school were assigned to write an essay on Mary and what she means to them. (They go to Catholic school). The top 10 essay writers are selected to be readers as a special mass honoring Mary. Nico’s essay was selected and he did me proud reading from the church pulpit.

 

Doing a reading in front of a packed house.

 

On the day of the special Mary event, the 8th graders process into church all dressed up, and the girls wear crowns of flowers in their hair. Erica looked beautiful and Nico looked great.  They both looked so grown up.

 

 

Nico and Erica’s 8th grade graduating class performed a salsa dance at their Spring recital. The 8th graders rocked the house. 

Olivia was presented three awards at her high school awards night. As a top student in three subjects, she took home awards in Theology, Art History, and U.S. History.

Olivia with certificates in Art History, U.S. History and Theology

 

Olivia attended her junior prom. Not only is she bright, but she’s beautiful.

Ready for the prom.

 

Diego got his own chance to shine in his school’s musical production of Annie, Junior.

 

Diego in his school musical, Annie, Jr.

 

Diego’s open house at school gave us the chance to see how much progress he’s made reading. It made me feel good about our decision to retain him, since he is now right on track with reading and writing fluency.

 

Diego shows off some of his school work at his open house.

 

With all these highs, it’s hard to believe that I could still experience lows. But, I’m keeping it real on this blog, and that’s why I’m telling you that raising kids is no picnic. Sure the rewards can be great. (See above). Especially, when you see your kids accomplishing things, growing into interesting, bright, people, or when I witness how they interact with their teachers, other adults and even their peers. But, often when they interact with us, the parents, we experience the brunt of the downside of raising teens.

Our teens with their demanding school schedules, extra curricular activities and social lives keep us running around non-stop. Add to this crazy schedule, the feelings of entitlement that my teens can exhibit and it’s enough to make me feel resentful. When their schedules make them less than willing to help out around the house, my resentment gets fueled to the point of anger. It is not pretty. Anger and impatience led to some pretty heated discussions throughout these last couple of weeks. So, coupled with the highs, I had some pretty low lows.

It was enough to make me want to turn in my parenting card. And it was enough to make me forget about these moments when I was so proud of them for all their accomplishments. It was enough to make me forget that once upon a time they needed me and their dad, and as their parents we were the center of their world. It was enough to make me forget how sweet and loving they used to be. As I was feeling the resentment and picking up dirty laundry (again) from the floor in the boys’ room, I spied this:

Diego's latest entry from his "secret" diary.

Transcription: Today was a great day because I got to play on Club Penguin and today I got to make a volcano out of paper mache and like every day I have to go to church. Waaaaa. But the best part of today I got to spend time with my mom and dad. 

Yes, three of my kids are teens, and I have one who is 7 years old. In addition to being a consistent source of fun and laughter he also reminds me of the joy of parenting. He reminds me that I am enough for him. I don’t need to drive him to a movie, take him to a sports practice or stay up late quizzing him for an exam. He reminds me that even though I am in the midst of teen turmoil with the older kids, I also get a front row seat to watching them grow up. He reminds me to stop and enjoy those moments when the kids make me proud or show kindness and consideration.

Soon, as they find their own way, they will find their way back to me and their dad. When they do find their way back it will not as the dependent children they were, or the sometimes entitled teens they are, but as the independent, mature people adults they will become. In the meantime, I will try to stay focused on the prouder moments they give me, and when I feel like I am about to engage in a rant against their self-centered behavior, I will remember them when they looked like this:

Once upon a time...

Reading The Hunger Games With My Son

  My son Nico is not an avid reader. Sure, he reads, but like many 13 year-old boys, when given a choice between X-Box, AirSoft, or a book, he’ll take shoot ‘em up games– live, or virtual– any day. This used to distress me because I was such a huge reader when I was his age. But, then I realized it isn’t so much that he dislikes reading, as much as it is he needs to find the right book, a book which appeals to his age and interests. He found such books when he discovered the fantasy world of the Madeleine L’Engle and Greek mythology in the Percy Jackson series. His fondness for fantasy has grown and he now enjoys reading science fiction. In fact, he was so thoroughly engrossed in his most recent literature assignment, Fahrenheit 451, he couldn’t put it down and he would read well past the day’s reading assignment. I was thrilled to see him enjoying the book, even if I never really appreciated science fiction myself.

Why then wasn’t I equally thrilled when I saw him devour the entire Hunger Games triology over Christmas break? Perhaps it had something to do with the subject matter. The series is set in the future, in post war country called Panem, where people living in areas called Districts, are starving and oppressed by the people living in the wealthy region called the Capitol. Each year, one boy and one girl from the ages of 12-18 are randomly selected from the Districts to be Tributes, and participate in the Hunger Games. The games require that the Tributes hunt down and kill each other. All the citizens of Panem think this is fine sport, and the games are broadcast throughout the Districts and the Capitol.

Can you see how I would be less than thrilled about the subject matter? Well, apparently I may be just about the only one who isn’t excited about this book series, since the Hunger Games series’ popularity is parallel to all the Twilight hype and Harry Potter hysteria of recent years. And as most popular series go, the books have been turned into a movie, which opens this Friday. Nico has been so anxious to see the movie he asked if he could go to the midnight show. There is no school for him on Friday, so I relented and said he could go with a few of his friends who are also fans of the series. There is just one catch, I have to go with them. That’s right, late Thursday night until early Friday morning I will be in a sold-out movie theater with Nico and a few of his friends watching The Hunger Games.

I decided I should at least find out for myself what all the hoopla is about so I am reading the books myself. I am halfway through the first one, and I am enjoying it. It’s a gripping, easy read. I can understand why it’s so popular, even if the subject matter is so dark I find it disturbing. Still, I wanted to see what Nico found so appealing about the series, so the other day while we were alone in the car I asked him.

Me: I am halfway done with the book and I am enjoying it. What is it you like about it?

Nico:    I like the action and the fact that it takes place in the future.

Not satisfied with such a simplistic answer, I decided to delve a little deeper into Nico’s thinking.

Me:      What do you think the author is trying to say with the message of the Hunger Games? Do you think he is making a commentary current society, about the way first world countries oppress other less developed nations? Maybe it’s a commentary about the way first world countries or those in positions of power dehumanize others who live in poverty, or third world countries, making it easier to turn a blind eye to the starvation, war, and violence?

Silence.

But, that did not stop me. I pressed on.

Me:      How do you compare the fantasy world that exists in Panem to the world that existed in Fahrenheit 451?

The empty silence reverberated through the car. Nico just stared at me. His eyes glazed over and then rolled into the back of his head. He seemed exasperated, but he began to answer my question anyway, even if it was in a tone I usually reserve for my kids when I scold them for leaving their dish in the sink.

Nico:      First of all, Mom, the author is a woman, not a man. Her name is Suzanne Collins. Panem is not a different country. It’s the USA, in the future, after a nuclear holocaust. The Districts are not other countries. They are part of the same country. See, my friend created a map based upon his reading of the books.” Then, he proceeded to show me on his iPod Touch, a map which depicted the country of Panem and its Districts, and the Capitol.

I had no response since I couldn’t help but feel chastised and impressed at the same time. He pressed on.

Nico:      I liked Fahrenheit 451, and I guess you might say that they are similar because they both take place in the future, and the culture is pretty violent too. Only in that book, people weren’t starving. They just couldn’t have books. And there didn’t seem to be any rules on the road. That’s how one of the characters in the book dies, by getting hit by a car when the car’s driver is going fast and loses control.

Okay then. I haven’t read Fahrenheit 451 before so I didn’t even try to respond. It struck me, as he “analyzed” the stories, that perhaps I was reaching too deeply, trying to find the message in these stories are violent, and still entertaining. Maybe, I should just let him enjoy the books, and be satisfied he is so willing to accept them as fantasy and not as commentary. Right now, he is content to read them, think about the characters and lose himself in the story. Oh, and wait for the movie to come out on Friday.

 

When Being the Mother Isn’t Enough

I was 35 years-old when I became a mother. By that age, I had gone to college, finished  law school and started my second career as a litigation attorney. I was was at a point in life where I was ready to assume the responsibliities of motherhood. I was ready. After enduring 36 hours of labor and an unplanned c-section, I was anxious to leave the hospital and be with my baby.  I wanted to get home get my “mothering on.” My husband at the time, was a a part-time musician, and had a regular Saturday night gig at a not-too-local nightclub. It was noon Saturday when we arrived home with our precious bundle, Nicolas.  I had decided to breastfeed my baby, but after three days my milk had not come in and Nico was still only getting the nourishing colostrum. The lactation consultant visited me before I left the hospital and sent off with words of encouragement. I thought I had everything under control, so why should my husband miss his regular Saturday night gig. “Go,”  I said. “I got this.” Besides, since I was Nico’s only source of food, I could handle it.  So, my husband went off to his gig and I was all alone. With a newborn.

Around 9:00 p.m. all hell broke loose. The colostrum which had so far satisfied Nico, was no longer enough. He wanted to eat. I wanted to sleep. He needed a diaper change. I needed a shower.  He needed to sleep. I needed to eat.  Then, it happened, my milk came in. I had heard stories of this experience but nothing prepared me for the feeling. Suddenly, I was in so much pain as my breasts filled with milk. I had not thought to buy or rent a breast pump, because things had been going so well at the hosptial.  All of a sudden with the milk filling my breasts my baby could nor get his little mouth to properly latch on. He became more frustrated. I became more uncomfortable. He cried. I cried.  It was midnight and I was exhausted.  Nico wailed and I became desperate.  I got in the hot shower. The warm water helped me to relax and the milk flowed, and the pressure in my breasts eased. Nico was able to latch on again and nurse a bit, but we still struggled. And struggled. It was 2:30 a.m. by the time my husband came home.  He seemed shocked to see me and the baby still up. The look on my face must have said it all, because he immediately asked what I needed. I think I cried. So much for getting my mothering on.

I bring this up now because whenever the parenting road gets a little bumpy I think of that first night. How I felt so confident that I could handle it all. How, in my certainty that I was all my baby needed,  I thought I could manage. That first night home was an eye opener. It made me realize that even though Nico needed me to be his source of food and comfort, I needed help too. Nico would need more than just me alone.

Thirteen years later that little baby has grown into a loving, mostly responsible teen.  I have managed so far to get through the toddler years, survive the awkward tween years and am currently muddling through the moody teen years.  I have learned a lot along the way and I realize that I have to learn more, especially when it comes to parenting a teen boy.  Obviously our anatomy is not the same, and his experience as an adolescent boy is not something I can even remotely relate to. Right now I am in uncharted waters. Waters that involve realizing that my son, is growing into a young man, perhaps sooner than I am ready for. His younger brother noticed it too the other day. Diego told Nico, “Hey, it looks like you have a mustache.” Not quite but it was there. That unmistakable shadow on his upper lip. I have grown used to hearing Nico’s voice crack and now settle into a deeper sounding register. I see how he’s given up playing Legos with his younger brother, preferring instead to play video games with his buddies up the street. And girls. Although, he won’t admit it to me, there are girls. At least one. I have tried couseling him on “age appropriate relationships” but I fear he may be hearing “blah, blah, blah,”  instead of  my words of womanly wisdom. Perhaps this is where I need to let go a bit more. Let him know that I am always available to talk to him,  but encourage him to seek the wisdom of his father and step-father’s experience. Maybe, like that first night home, I have to  allow others to help me, and that will help my son. Maybe, getting my mothering on, means allowing others to fill in those spaces where mothering isn’t enough.