Ex-wives

I never met my husband’s ex-wife. I always thought this was very unusual but just the other day I met another stepmom at the pool who told me that she too had never met her husband’s ex.

How is that possible? Well, Josh always picked his kids up from their mom’s house and drove them back. His ex doesn’t drive. So I never met her during the weekly “transfers”. The only other time we might have possibly met was at Jack’s Bar Mitzvah celebration. When it came time for that,  his mom refused to have a joint event and decided to make her own separate one – much to Jack’s disappointment. He so desperately wanted one big normal Bar Mitzvah with both his parents present. He even went so far as to politely ask me if I would mind not showing up so that maybe his mom would be more likely to come.

So there really haven’t been any occasions for us to meet. In the first years of our marriage, she occasionally called our house to speak to the kids. The most we ever said to each other was “hello”. Once cell-phones became more popular, she stopped calling the kids at our house and only called their cell phones.

I have to admit that this fact is both very weird for me as well as somewhat of a relief. I find it weird because I imagine that if I were divorced and my ex was remarried, I would certainly want to know who was spending all of that time with my kids when they were over at their father’s house. I think I would also want to foster some kind of limited but positive relationship with her for my kids’ benefit as well as my own. Of course, you never really know how you will feel until you are actually in a given situation, but that is what I imagine.

As to why it is a relief – this may sound strange but I feel a bit scared of her. Not exactly scared,  but more like she is someone who would hurt me if I came in contact with her.  Now I know this isn’t rational and I know that this feeling is only intensified by the fact that we have never actually met and she remains an image in my mind. It is not too difficult to figure out where at least part of these negative feelings comes from.  Although Josh rarely talks about his ex these days and even when he did interact with her, he limited how much he told me, I understood that, in his mind, she was someone who had made his life very difficult.  Having only his say so on the matter, I adopted it as my own.

I think though, there is another, deeper reason why I fear her. I realized this one day while I was sitting in my stepmom group. We had  stumbled onto the topic of exes, and I noticed that every one of the ex-wives was portrayed as an irrational, unreasonable, and selfish person who was also incompetent in some significant way as a mother. I asked myself – is this statistically possible? That all 5 of the exes are so awful as people and as parents?  I started turning this over in my mind and I found myself imagining a parallel support group of all the ex-wives. What were they sitting around and saying about us? What things did we do or say that they were now using as proof of how disturbed we were? What behavior of our husbands were they pointing out that proved they should never have been granted joint custody of the kids? I began thinking that part of my demonization of my husband’s ex came from a protective place within me. It is easier to think that the failure of my husband’s first marriage was all due to his ex-wife. That makes me feel assured that he can get it right with me in this new marriage.  But if his ex-wife was not the only one at fault, then that paints a much more complicated picture of why it didn’t work out for them and it means that my husband had a role in it as well.  Now my rational side recognizes that it takes two to tango (or not) but nevertheless, going in to a second marriage knowing that the first one failed is scary and demonizing the ex-wife somehow reassures us that we have a better chance than the first marriage did.

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Dirty Laundry (and other sundry tasks)

During junior high and high school, Jack and Jill came over twice a week and every other weekend. My husband would pick them up from school and bring them to our house and take them back the next day. He would wash their laundry at night and make their sandwiches in the morning. This was something he was used to doing from his divorced days and he continued this routine after we got married. Basically, my only job when they were over was to make dinner which I did nightly in any case.

The fact that my husband did these things for his kids – rather than me – might not seem that earthshattering or noteworthy. But it is. One of the things that I found out in my stepmom group was that not all dads did this. Some dads, once remarried, fell into old patterns where they naturally assumed their wife would take on the “maternal” role and be in charge of entertaining their kids, dropping them off at school, or doing their laundry. Now I’m not saying this arrangement might not be fine for some couples. But I think many stepmoms harbor added resentment toward their stepkids and even their spouse when the day to day responsibilities for their stepkids fall on their shoulders.

I recall Sara, one of the stepmoms in my support group, describing how her seven year- old stepson, Mark, came to her house at three in the afternoon after school for his weekly visit while her husband, Joe, only got home from work after 7:00 p.m..  While she understood that it was important for Joe to maintain a relationship with Mark and that Mark feel comfortable in their new house, she was annoyed that she was the one in charge of Mark’s weekly visits. “How is my spending time with Mark enhancing Joe and Mark’s relationship?” she complained, “And besides, I have other things that I want to do with my afternoon rather than entertain Joe’s son. He should be there-not me!”

And once again, I was happy to read in Harriet Lerner’s “The Marriage Rules” that she too strongly advises fathers to take care of their kids needs when they visit rather than let the responsibility fall to their spouses.

Of course, things change over time, Personally, I have found that since having my own kids, the division of labor in the house between my husband and myself has been renegotiated several times. I am now doing the laundry and dishes and driving carpools for my own kids. So I don’t mind including my stepkids in the jobs I am already doing. Of course, they are older now, so that changes things as well – but that’s for another blog.


location, location, location

We got married in March, smack in the middle of the school year. Josh didn’t think it was realistic to move apartments while Jack and Jill were in school. Also, he thought it would be an easier adjustment for them if we initially stayed in his house. I was not thrilled with the arrangement because I really did not like his house or its location. I especially did not like the fact that this was the last home he shared with his ex – I’m all for recycling but this was going a bit far. But I did understand his concerns.

We did end up moving in to his house. The hardest thing for me was the feeling that I was moving into “their” space (Josh, Jack and Jill that is) – which is exactly what I was doing! This was their house with their shared history and memories. I was the outsider. Everything was already set up and routines were in place. Take the kitchen for example, Josh already had dishes, silverware, pots and pans. So much for going shopping to choose what we liked together. When it came to sitting at the dinner table, those places were assigned too. Jack sat on one side of Josh, Jill on the other. Luckily, where I sat at the table wasn’t a big deal for me. I grew up in a house where my parents sat opposite one another and that was fine for me.

But I really couldn’t stand the house. I dreaded coming home from work each night. The only comfort was the fact that my husband would usually be standing at the door ( literally) holding it open when I came in and he’d greet me with a big  “welcome home”. That made me feel somehow wanted. But on the days that Jack and Jill were over, I felt a bit like a visitor.  As I write this, just thinking back to that house and those initial months gives me a bit of a sinking feeling in my stomach.

Interestingly enough, most of the stepmoms in my group had made a similar transition to their husbands’ homes and they could identify with my feelings of being the outsider or the intruder. That helped a lot.

Josh knew I was unhappy and we agreed that come the summer, we would move to a rental in a new neighborhood and sell his house. Knowing that I would be moving in a few months helped me stick it out.

When we moved in August, things changed dramatically for me. In our new apartment, I finally felt that we had a joint space. Jack and Jill each had their own rooms and we had our room with a master bathroom (oh, did I forget to mention that in his old house, we all shared one bathroom!). In packing up his old house, I insisted on selling all of the furniture – I wanted us to start out fresh, without too many reminders of his previous home and marriage. By setting up each of the rooms in our rented apartment- the bathroom, the kitchen, the bedrooms –  I felt I staked out my territory.

I know that while I was thrilled with the move, Jack and Jill had to adjust to yet another major change in their lives. This inversion characterized so many aspects of our lives – choices that were good for me often meant more hardship for Jack and Jill and vice versa. At the same time, I reminded myself that things are never black and white. While I’m sure in many ways, staying in their old house was a comfort for Jack and Jill, it was also a painful reminder that there mother was no longer there. In moving into a new home, we were  expressing that something new was beginning, not a replacement or second-rate version of something they once had.  You might be thinking I’m just rationalizing. I might be – but I also think there’s some truth to it.


They’re not my kids

In talking to other stepmoms, I think a lot of us struggle with what we think we are supposed to feel toward our stepkids. Should we love them as if they were our own kids? If we don’t, have we somehow fallen short? Failed? Turned out to be the evilstepmothers of fairytale infamy?

I think those stepmoms who love their stepkids are lucky. But I also think you are probably the exception rather than the rule. Having my own kids, I can see how much of my love for them comes from the fact that they are a part of me – I carried them for nine months, I gave birth to them, they carry my genes, they give me relatively unconditional love, they are excited to see me (okay, so they are all still under ten). I have watched them grow and develop from adorable babies into cute little people. And they return the love that I have for them – they bring me pictures they drew and handmade crafts they make that say “I love you mommy”. They love to snuggle and hug and kiss me. They tell me every so often “mommy, I love you!”. The feelings are very mutual

When I think about my stepkids and my relationship with them, it is very different. I have not known them when they were adorably cute babies. I have not followed their earliest development and been a part of that process. I did not bond with them when they would have been open to hugs and kisses. Instead, I joined their lives as they began pre-adolescence – not exactly an easy stage to deal with even with one’s own kids, let alone someone else’s. They too were quite ambivalent about my joining their lives and their family. Jill made it quite clear that she was upset about our marriage. Jack was much more hopeful, wanting me to be the mother that he wished he’d had.

Because I love my husband and his children are a part of him, I do have feelings for Jack and Jill… but I cannot put the feelings in the same category as what I feel for my own kids. I would have a hard time defining them. I know that I worry about them and that I am concerned about their welfare. I also know that sometimes when they are around, I feel intruded upon and yearn for space.

I don’t think it is natural or reasonable for us to expect to love our stepchildren as we love our own children. I also think there are many kinds of love.  For some, love will come with time and a shared history. For others it will not come at all.  I remind myself that they do have a mother who loves them in the same unconditional way that I love my own kids. And that’s the way it should be.


Money: Yours, mine and ours

ImageI got married at 35. I was already established professionally and quite independent- minded, especially when it came to money. I have basically been financially independent since age 21 and I take great pride in that. While some people think about what to make for dinner while driving home from work, or listen to music, I balance my budget in my head.

So, when it was time for me to get married, it never occurred to me to open a joint bank account with my husband, Josh. Apparently, it never occurred to him either because I don’t remember ever discussing it explicitly. (I’m not sure what we did with the wedding money that we got. I don’t think it was that significant a sum but I don’t remember into whose account we put it).

In looking back, I think the separate bank accounts (and credit cards) proved to be a very wise step. For me, it’s given me a sense of independence and freedom in managing my money. I still feel like I get to decide what I do with the money I earn without having to consult someone else.

Josh and I fell into a natural division of household costs. I buy most of the groceries, shop (and pay) for our kids’ clothes, pay property taxes and the water bill, put aside savings for our kids, and give charity to the organizations that I choose to support. Josh pays the mortgage and some of the big household bills including the gas and electric. He also sets aside money each month for his kids’ savings and chooses his own charities to support.  Not surprisingly, we each have our own cars (with which we came into the marriage) and take care of the payments and repairs independently. This financial arrangement may seem weird to some couples, but it works for Josh and me. We have agreed that any purchases over $300 should be discussed jointly before being made.  We also sit down from time to time to talk about our larger financial goals and plans. Neither of us is stingy when it comes to money so we don’t nitpick about whose paid more for what. Ultimately, we acknowledge that our finances our joint.

Another major reason that separate accounts have been important for me is child-support payments. Josh stopped making these payments several years ago when Jack and Jill turned 18. But, at the time, it was a huge chunk of his income. By having separate accounts, I felt that I wasn’t the one supporting his ex-wife and kids. The money came from Josh’s earnings and not from mine. Now you might be thinking that this is all semantic or just a mind game since any less money that Josh has is obviously less money for us. You are right, but nevertheless, it was effective for me. The same is true today for any other money Josh gives his kids – it comes out of his account and I don’t feel resentful. The fact that Josh and I are doing okay financially and are not under financial stress has also helped lower any frustration or resentment that I might have had about such a large portion of Josh’s earnings going to his kids and not to our joint family.

I just read a great book about getting along as a couple called “The Marriage Rules” by Harriet Lerner. I loved it! In it, she has a short section on step-families and I seem to recall that she also recommended that couples in a stepfamily have separate accounts in addition to a joint account for some of the reasons that I mentioned.


Marriage: Something old, something new

One of the hardest things for me about getting married to a man with kids was never starting out as a twosome. If   two’s company and three’s a crowd, four is downright claustrophobic.

The lack of privacy began with the wedding itself. Do I  have my step-children come to the wedding or not? Obviously, one significant factor I  considered was whether my new stepchildren wanted to be at the wedding.  As it happened, they did.  I  don’t remember having strong feelings one way or the other  but the hard truth was that I really didn’t get to decide. When it came time for our wedding, my step-kids definitely wanted to come and my husband, Josh, felt strongly that he wanted them there.

What I do recall, though, were the discussions about who would drive them home after the wedding. I certainly did not want us to be doing that. My vision of riding off into the sunset with my newly married beloved definitely did not include a quick stop along the way to drop his kids off at his ex.  In the end, my sister-in-law came to the rescue and volunteered to bring them home.

I  remember vividly that at different points in the wedding, Josh was busy speaking to his kids and checking how they were doing. They had also prepared a song for us, a very cute one,  that they sang at the wedding. Things went off without a hitch, but I was very conscious of the fact that, even at the wedding, I had to share his attention. Not the end of the world, but definitely different than how I had always pictured my wedding.

For me, the first real married challenge being a step mom came on the following day. My husband  Josh felt it was important that we meet with his kids as soon after the wedding as possible. He was concerned with how they were managing with this enormous change  and he did not want them to feel left out. I, on the other hand, would have been very  happy to go away for a few days without checking in with them. In my mind I wanted to hold on the illusion for just a little bit longer that it was just us starting off married life together. This was the first of his many struggles with divided loyalty. He definitely wanted to make me happy but he also wanted his kids to be happy with him as well

We ended up meeting them for lunch.

A week later, we went away for a few days for a brief honeymoon. Josh was on the phone daily to his kids (one of the things I loved about him before we were married, but that I resented afterward).  Jill had a very hard time with the thought of him away with just me and she let him feel it. He would get off the phone after these conversations in quite a bad mood. I was so angry that they were intruding on our time alone and I took it out on my husband whom  I felt was allowing it to happen.

I think those first weeks of marriage were a pretty good preview of the many fights to come that centered around this central issue of “couple time”. I wanted a lot of it and while I think Josh did too, he definitely felt conflicted between his loyalty to me and his loyalty, love and concern for his kids.


Clueless

I have to admit that I was clueless about stepfamilies when I decided to marry my husband. Looking back, it amazes me just how clueless I was given the fact that I am a clinical psychologist. But all of my training and theoretical knowledge seemed to fly out the window as it frequently does when it involves my own life and decisions.

First off, I had almost no friends who were stepmothers so I had no one to give me the heads up. Second, I barely knew my stepchildren going into the marriage so I had little sense of how they would impact my life and marriage. How is that possible after dating my husband for three years, you may ask incredulously. I only met Jack and Jill relatively late in the game when my husband and I were pretty sure that we were heading toward marriage. My husband did not want to involve them too early in the process so that they wouldn’t get hurt if things did not work out. And lastly, my stepkids WANTED us to get married or so they said. So I thought it was going to be relatively easy. I had no idea…

I remember two weeks before my wedding, a friend invited me to come to a stepmom group she had joined not too long ago. She was my only step-mom friend and she had only been married for a year at the time so she was pretty new to the stepfamily business herself. The group decided to go around and share their experiences of step-motherhood as a way of initiating me into “the club”. Each described the hardships of being in a step-family. One woman even went so far as to say “I wish I would have fallen in love with a man who didn’t have kids.” And what, you ask, am I thinking as I listen to all this? Am I getting scared? Wising up? Noooooo.  I’m sitting there smugly thinking “that’s really too bad for them. I guess they just got a raw deal. But it’s different for us. My future step-kids want us to get married and are all for it. It’s going to be totally different for us than it is for these unlucky women.”

It only took one week of marriage before I was back in the group, tail between my legs, grateful to have a place to cry and vent about how hard it was just one week into it. In looking back, I take comfort in the fact that many women who entered their first marriages with stepkids reported that they did not know what they were taking on. Even when they speak to other stepmoms, for many, it just doesn’t seem to penetrate. Maybe it’s the excitement of getting married. Maybe it’s just a very heavy dose of denial. Maybe it’s a lack of imagination. But, whatever it is, most of us seem to go into this blindly. And that’s probably a good thing cuz’ I don’t know how many of us would go into the whole thing knowingly, with our eyes wide open!