Raising the Bar

I was never the sort of supervisor anyone wanted to work for when I worked in the corporate world. I had a reputation for being demanding and “all business”, as if that’s a negative quality in a manager. Given the choice, most people would prefer to work for someone who expects little and who is content to be perceived as “one of the gang.” I was never that boss, and I’m not that parent. Neither is my husband.

People will generally achieve whatever expectations you set for them, so you might as well set the bar high.

As both a supervisor and a parent, I have always subscribed to the philosophy that people will generally achieve whatever expectations you set for them. Whether you set the bar high or set it low, your staff or your kids will consistently be right on target; so you might as well set the bar high. There are always exceptions, of course. There will be the occasional overachiever who will consistently surpass your expectations. Likewise, there will be the odd underachiever who will rarely be on target. I have some ideas about how to deal with those exceptions, but that’s a topic for another post and another day.

I received a very interesting phone call from my daughter’s 6th grade math teacher this morning. Apparently my daughter’s name came up in the core education team’s weekly meeting, and the team agreed that my daughter should be bumped up to the advanced placement curriculum for all of her core courses. The chairman of the team just wanted to clear the move with us before they went ahead and placed her on the AP track.

When I replayed the voice message for my daughter, her eyes grew wide with amazement. She didn’t really know what to expect when I told her I’d received an interesting message from her math teacher, but a promotion to the AP track was clearly not on her radar.

The discussion that followed went something like this:

Me: Are you interested in moving up to all advanced courses?

Dear Daughter: Yes.

Me: You realize that this is going to mean more work, right? The classes are going to be more difficult, and you’re probably going to have more homework.

DD: That’s okay. I’m up for the challenge.

I’m up for the challenge.

Those words are sweet, sweet music to this mom’s ears, and here’s why: Two years ago, shortly after we got married, my husband and I discovered that our little girl was struggling in math. At the time, my husband didn’t have primary custody, so we only had her every other weekend. We know our daughter to be very bright, so we had no reason to suspect that she was struggling in school. As we began to test her understanding of math with simple problems involving money or distance, however, we realized that she didn’t have a solid understanding of basic math functions. And so began our quest to gain primary custody so we could have more control over her education.

We were incredibly lucky. Not all custody cases work out in the best interests of the child(ren), and so many dads face an uphill battle when it comes to convincing a court that they are the stronger custodial parent. If I had any doubts about the existence of God prior to our custody case, those doubts would have been obliterated by the time our case was settled because everything worked in our favor. From the timing and circumstances to the random assignment of a district judge, it all flowed seamlessly, as if guided through divine intervention.

And all the while, we were working overtime to get our daughter caught up academically. We had her tested through Sylvan Learning  in the middle of her 4th grade year. At that time, her math skills were somewhere in the 3rd grade range, while her language skills were a little above her current grade level.

She spent the summer between her 4th and 5th grade years learning her multiplication tables inside out and backwards. During her 5th grade year, she discovered the payoff for all that effort when her friends started referring to her as “the calculator”. We had her re-assessed at the end of her 5th grade year, and (not surprisingly) she tested well above grade level in both math and language skills. Today, she readily admits that she’s glad we forced her to memorize her multiplication tables, which brings me back to my original point that kids will hit whatever target you set for them.

What’s most rewarding for me after all the tears and frustration over the past two years of working to fill the gaps in our daughter’s education are the tremendous leaps she’s made in terms of her overall willingness to take risks and the ferocity with which she rises to a challenge. The growth in her academic performance, as remarkable as it is, pales in comparison to the growth we’ve seen in her self-confidence and her work ethic. School is fun for her again, and she’s back on track to achieving her full potential.

We don’t do our kids any favors by setting low to no expectations for them. Too many parents are disengaged and disinterested in their child’s education. As a society, we all complain about the quality of our education system, and we’re quick to blame teachers when our kids fail to be prepared for the next phase of their lives upon their high school graduation.

What my daughter has clearly demonstrated for me, however, is that it’s not the school’s fault that she was falling behind in the 4th grade. It was clearly our fault as parents. The Ex is the sort of parent who was never fully engaged in her daughter’s education while my husband and I took it for granted that our very bright child was breezing her way through elementary school. Once we took a more active role in her education (and once we set some very clear expectations) our daughter went from struggling to keep up in 4th grade to leading the pack in the 5th and 6th grades.

Whether you’re a supervisor or a parent, set your expectations high, and establish clear standards. It’s the greatest thing you’ll ever do for your organization or your children. They may grumble about it in the beginning, but there will undoubtedly come a time when they’ll be grateful that you cared enough to raise the bar.

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Change Management

The only constant any of us can really count on these days is change. We Reamys have been in a state of flux since last July when my husband’s ex-wife was suddenly struck with a serious medical condition. We had to scramble to move my stepdaughter into our home and enroll her in a new school in our local district. Virtually overnight I went from being a weekend warrior to a full-time mom.

Luckily, my stepdaughter is an easy kid to love. She’s wickedly smart and funny, just like her father. She has a sunny disposition, and as an only child, she’s mature for her age. And the icing on the cake? She’s every bit as horse crazy as I am. I truly hit the stepchild jackpot—I couldn’t ask for a better daughter. Still, it’s taken every bit of the past nine months for me to get a handle on this new parenting gig.

Being a wife is easy. Being a stepmom is perhaps the biggest challenge I’ve ever faced. When I look back on my life, though, it’s easy to see that I’m exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’ve been preparing for this role for most of my life.

None of us grow up in a perfect environment. If even a small percentage of us did, I suspect the world would be a very different place. The environment in which I was raised was volatile, to say the least. My father is a violent alcoholic with an explosive temper and a hair trigger. My mom did her best to take care of us, and against all odds, she managed surprisingly well. I am continually amazed by her determination and resilience, but even the strongest among us can’t endure sustained abuse for long without becoming permanently scarred.

My most significant advantage in life is the fact that I am the youngest member of my family. My two siblings are five and six years older than me. Our age difference gave me the opportunity to watch and learn in ways that I never fully appreciated until I became a parent. I learned to see how my family members interacted, for better or worse, and I carefully observed the choices my parents and siblings made. By witnessing the consequences of their actions, I was able to make better choices for myself. I was mostly spared the trouble of learning things the hard way, though I’ve had my share of hard knocks.

Basically, I learned to navigate the world by observing others for examples of what not to do. How not to behave. Which choices not to make. Which company not to keep. Negative examples were pretty much all I had to work with, but rather than emulating those examples, I sought out more positive alternatives. And that has made all the difference.

It’s been over two months since I’ve published a blog post. I’ve had so much to say during that hiatus, and I’ve drafted more than a few unpublished posts. You see, the biggest change we Reamys have experienced in these past few months is that my husband and I were awarded permanent custody of our daughter after what was possibly the shortest, if not the least contentious, custody battle in the history of Colorado. It took just 45 days from initial motion to signed court order, but it’s taking much longer than that to fully process my emotions. For my daughter’s sake, I’ve chosen to keep my thoughts about how all of this went down private. All she really needs to know is that she is dearly loved, safe, and secure. She’s a very perceptive child, though. I suspect she’s fully aware of so much more than that.

We’ve all been on an emotional rollercoaster for the past several weeks. I am at once elated that we won full custody of our daughter and heartbroken that we had to enter that battle in the first place. I’ve struggled to overcome my prejudices toward her mother only to learn new information that reaffirms them.

I’ve held my tongue while enduring unsolicited advice from people who know nothing of our situation. My sister tried to shame me for suggesting that my daughter is better off with my husband and me than with her mom. She’s never even met my daughter or my husband’s ex-wife. She’s only met my husband on two very brief occasions, for that matter, but that didn’t stop her from sticking her nose into our business.

My mother-in-law, bless her heart, wants everyone to simply get along and resolve things amicably. She still thinks of The Ex as family. I don’t. Frankly, I resent the suggestion that I should embrace and befriend someone who openly and blatantly disrespects my husband. Part of the reason we sought custody in the first place is because The Ex was manipulating our daughter’s feelings about everything from her school to my husband and me in very destructive and dangerous ways. I’ve worked hard to free myself from the emotional abusers and manipulators of my past, so I’m not about to invite another one into my life, give her free rein to challenge my husband’s authority in his own household and to chip away at our daughter’s self-esteem.

All of this has put my change management skills to the ultimate test. I’ve had to scrape up every ounce of tact and diplomacy I could muster to deal with the unsolicited and unhelpful opinions of others. Empathizing with my daughter is easy because I remember clearly what it’s like to be a child with no real control or autonomy. Standing by my husband and fully supporting the decision to fight for custody was easy because it was so clearly the right choice. Figuring out how to finance that fight was another significant test of my change management skills, but I effectively pulled that off, too. Who knew that all those years of being a corporate drone would ultimately pay off in such a strange and unexpected way? A lifetime of dysfunctional family dynamics and couple of decades of experience in the business world turned out to be the perfect training ground for becoming an empathetic wife and mother.

My daughter is too young to fully understand the significance of this year, but her ability to think critically grows daily. Someday she’ll look back on this year and realize that it’s the year she reclaimed her childhood. Perhaps more importantly, I think she’ll recognize that this was the year in which she finally started getting the sort of parental support and guidance necessary to achieve her full potential. She already has bigger dreams today than she had a year ago, and I look forward to watching her dreams continue to expand and evolve.

Change is good. It’s not always easy, but nothing grows without it. The past couple of months have been both mentally and emotionally exhausting for all three of us, but I am so very grateful for this experience because it’s opened the door to some fabulous opportunities for our little family.

Change is inevitable. Embrace it. And if someone you know is going through a significant life change, allow them to embrace it–even if you can’t. Navigating change is difficult enough without some well-meaning (or perhaps not-so-well-meaning) friend or relative trying to keep you bound to a person, place, or thing from which you are ready to break free.

Change is benevolent. I haven’t always believed that to be true, but the events of this past year have convinced me, once and for all, that things really do have a way of working out for the greatest good.

Stepping Up to Step-parenting

I suck at parenting. I admit it, I’m a bad mom. I could make a million excuses for my failure. After all, I didn’t give birth to my daughter. She came into my life as a bright and bubbly 9-year-old fourth grader with a fully formed personality and a real mom to whom she is profoundly attached.

I always wanted to be a mom, and because I like kids, I always believed I’d be good at it. Imagine my surprise, then, when I realized that I suck at parenting. Fortunately (or perhaps unfortunately, depending on the way you look at it), I’m not alone. The truth of the matter is that most parents suck at parenting. I know very few parents who are actually good at it. Most of us are just winging it.

We manage to feed and clothe our kiddos, and we try to make good choices in terms of their education. When it comes to the hard stuff, though, we all pretty much stumble around blindly. What separates those of us with the potential to become good parents from those who will perpetually suck at parenting is our ability to accept that our children are unique individuals, separate from us, with their own lives to live. They’re not extensions of us. Our own identities should not be inextricably tied to our kids, yet I see that in so many parents. I see it in my daughter’s mother.

I’ve often joked that my past reads more as a cautionary tale than a fairy tale. My recent foray into parenting is proving to be no exception in that regard. I read a wonderful blog post recently, An Open Letter to My Daughter’s Stepmom, that made me realize how far my daughter’s mother and I are from being a good co-parenting team. Unlike the Mom/Stepmom pair in that letter, our relationship was adversarial from the beginning, and it’s grown progressively worse in the months since our daughter came to live with her dad and me.

I don’t want to be the enemy. I don’t want to be the demon who has stolen a mother’s daughter. All I want—all I’ve ever wanted—is what’s best for a bright little girl who was unfairly dealt a bad hand. If that makes me the enemy, so be it. If teaching our daughter to be independent and to think critically about the things that people (including those she loves most) say and do makes me a demon, so be it. If the fact that our daughter has thrived in the months she’s lived under our roof makes me the source of all evil, I can accept that.

I may very well suck at parenting. But if my willingness to put an innocent little girl’s needs above my own and my ability to distinguish between her identity and mine are any indication, at least I can take comfort in the fact that I have the potential to become a good parent. Someday.

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.