Step-Parenting: It’s Not for Sissies

The first nine months of our marriage were blissfully happy. We took long drives, long walks, and we talked for hours. We talked about our future. We laughed a lot. We dreamed of the places we would go and the things we would see and do. And suddenly, everything changed.

When I married my husband, I did so with my eyes wide open. I knew he had a daughter, and I knew his relationship with The Ex was… well… strained, to say the least. Truthfully, when he and I reconnected in January 2013 after a two-year hiatus, I was hesitant to get seriously involved with him because of that fact. I learned long before I met my husband that I am not mentally or emotionally suited to deal with a bitter ex-wife who uses her child as a pawn in her quest to make her ex-husband miserable.

My husband was royally screwed by the court system during his divorce, as fathers so often are. The Ex was awarded residential custody of his daughter, and he was granted visitation just every other weekend and alternating holidays. How that actually played out in reality is that The Ex would “let” him have his daughter whenever it suited her. It wasn’t long into our engagement that I learned her MO. She dictates the terms, and my husband complies, mostly because it isn’t worth the trouble to argue with her. It made me angry that The Ex lords his daughter over him like a weapon, but I let it go because I agreed it wasn’t worth fighting over a few hours here and there on the visit schedule. Shortly after we married, I began to notice that The Ex seemed to be trying to make visits particularly inconvenient for us by arranging inconsistent pick-up times. Sometimes she’d demand that we return our daughter early. Other times, she’d insist she couldn’t pick her up until Monday morning, which meant the poor kid had to get up at the crack of dawn and endure a 60-minute commute to school. This sort of passive-aggressive behavior is typical of many divorced parents, I think. It seems to be particularly evident among divorced mothers, but I’ve often wondered to what end.

Is this really the sort of interpersonal behavior we want to model for the generation that will be responsible for taking care of us in our final years?

I think not, but what do I know? I’m not a parent. I’m a step-parent, which I’ve discovered over these past several weeks is a lot like being a project manager in that you own all of the responsibility, but you have no real authority. I was a PM for most of my professional career, and that imbalance of power is the only aspect of the job that I never liked. And now that imbalance between responsibility and authority has infiltrated my personal life in ways I never imagined possible.

My step-daughter has been with us continually since July 11, 2014. She was scheduled to be with us from July 11th through the 27th, and then she was to return to her mother’s house. Since school would start shortly thereafter, we expected to resume the usual schedule of visits every other weekend following that two-week stay. Midway into the second week of that visit, however, my husband received an urgent phone call from The Ex’s sister. The Ex had been admitted to the hospital after a trip to the emergency room and was scheduled to have surgery the following day to remove a massive brain tumor. The Ex’s sister called to ask if she could take our daughter to see her mom before the surgery. We agreed, naturally. With a hasty introduction in the lobby at my husband’s workplace, I met my daughter’s aunt for the first time and reluctantly handed a scared little girl over to her care, wondering all the while what sort of terrifying hospital scene was waiting for her.

When we picked her up that evening, she was clearly shaken, but she insisted she was okay. Later, my husband pointed out to The Ex’s family that school was scheduled to start in less than three weeks while The Ex was likely to be hospitalized for a month or more. It was plainly evident that the timing of these two events hadn’t occurred to The Ex or her family amidst the chaos between the ER visit and a highly invasive medical procedure.

We offered to keep our daughter for the school year, and The Ex’s family reluctantly agreed that was the best course of action. And with that agreement, three lives were irrevocably changed. The weeks that followed the decision to move our daughter into our home for the 2014/15 school year were a blur of activity. There was paperwork to be gathered and multiple road trips to withdraw her from her old school so we could transfer her to a school in our local district. Our apartment had to be rearranged to turn what was previously a guest room into her private bedroom, and there were mountains of school clothes and supplies to be purchased. The poor kid had very little at her mom’s house that she felt she needed to bring to our house. When we took her there to gather her things, she came out with her backpack, lunchbox, her favorite fleece jacket, and a couple of Barbie dolls.

The first week of school was tough on her. It’s never fun to be the new kid, and it took her a while to make new friends. Fortunately, we were able to obtain the address of her best friend from her old school so the two of them could keep in touch. Those first few days of school, she lived for the moment she could check the mail to see if she received a letter. As the weeks marched on, however, she began to take root and thrive in her new school. She made friends. We enrolled her in dance, choir, and orchestra; and she joined the school’s news team as a camera operator. Her teacher raves about what a great student she is; and we’re finally able to spend the time needed to get her caught up in math, which has been a constant source of frustration for all three of us over this past year.

Now when I listen to her practicing the cello or singing to herself as she’s doing the dinner dishes, I worry that this new life is going to be ripped out from under her when The Ex demands that we send her back at the end of this school year. No more dance, orchestra, or news team. Another new school—this one the dreaded middle school. And no more carefully structured life that revolves wholly around her.

It’ll be back to the chaos that was her life prior to living with us. She’ll be spending most of her evenings alone at a dreary daycare facility. No one will check her homework or help her with her math homework. She’ll be eating more junk food and fewer home cooked meals. Because The Ex is likely to require regular medical observation for the rest of her life, there will be even more running from here to there, and a lot less time to simply be a kid. And I’ll have no choice but to let her go because I have no parental rights where this child of mine is concerned.

I miss the life that my husband and I enjoyed prior to July. It seems that most of the conversations we have now are about our daughter and her school. I miss the conversations about our future, but I’ll miss my daughter even more if I have to let her go back to live with The Ex next year.

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