A tale of two kids. But mostly one.

I have very different relationships with each of my kids. With one, it is as close to a mother-child relationship as can be. With the other, it is solidly camped out on the step-mother side and, according to that child, an evil one at that.

I always wonder if that’s actually normal – if all parents have unique relationships with each of their kids. Not just ‘differences,’ but truly unique.

It actually started out the exact opposite as it is now – I would have never predicted this is where we’d land over a handful of years.

I met the kids when Zack was seven and Zoe ten. We met purely on accident while I was in town helping Rich restore his house to a comfortable state of livability after be exiled from it for a year. Zoe and I had an instant bond as she jumped in to help me pull carpet staples from the floor. Zack stated within hours that I wasn’t his mom (mind you, it was only a visit here, a visit there – I wasn’t even staying with them). Thank goodness…I had no plans to sign up for that gig.

For six months, I’d see the kids on occasion, then more often, then quite often. An then it seems like we blinked and I was living with them part time, while they traveled back and forth from household to household. Another blink and that ended, too, as we were thrown together into one household.

Because of the fallout of her mother’s implosion, Zoe’s relationship with her was tenuous. And because of the fear from his mother’s implosion, Zack pulled closer to her, with the worry of an eight year old that she might disappear forever.

Zoe and I became accidental allies. For a year, Zoe wanted nothing to do with her mother – refusing to visit and passing on phone calls. I was smart enough to know that the thing Zoe and I had in common could not be a mutual dislike for their mother. Well, I was either smart enough or the therapist I’d quickly hired upon realizing I was becoming insta-mom told me.

My job in this was to encourage Zoe to rebuild. My job was to tell her that her mother was doing the best she knew how to do. That she loved her the best way she knew how. That she might not be the mother she wanted right then, but someday might be exactly who she needed. Okay, yeah, that does all sound like something a therapist would say.

It felt good to have a sidekick who let me braid her hair while sitting on the front porch. We talked about boys, school, her love for reptiles, why her brother drove her nuts and what she was going to be someday. It felt good to have someone looking up to me and who wanted to share time with me. It felt good to feel like I was starting the next version of the close relationship I’d always had with my mom.

Zack wanted very little to do with me – he had a mom, thank you. We were rocky. I wasn’t his mom nor did he want me pretending in any sense that I was, including the stepmom sense. He talked back at me, refused to eat what I cooked, refused to do what I asked, reminded me over and over who I wasn’t and threw in the occasional bite, push or slap for emphasis.

In a completely out of left field turn of events, that all changed the night Rich and I got engaged. Suddenly, I had a small boy who wanted snuggles and hugs and kisses. Suddenly, it seemed he might have room enough for an extra mother in his heart. Overnight, he asked me to move into that spot in his heart and give it a test drive.

I started volunteering at his school, driving him to doctor’s appointments, helping him with homework. We still battled on occasion. But as time pulled us forward, he began to rely on me for all the mom things. Then I’d catch him referring to me as as his mom to his friends and assuring Rich that I was his mother, too. He would cry to me and wish for me when he was sick. While watching Harry Potter, he looked and me and said, “You’re my Hagrid.” Sold.

He started calling me ‘Bear’ rather than Jyl. The therapist said that was good – that he probably associated the word ‘mom’ with some not so great stuff – this was his way of planting his flag on me. I was so enamored with this new position that I completely missed the start of Zoe going the other direction.

As she started rebuilding her relationship with her mother, she started unbuilding her relationship with me. She did get exactly what she needed (or wanted?) from her mom – someone worry free. Homework? Nah. Healthy meals? Nope. Bedtime? Pass. I became less appealing. A cloud started forming over us and began to grow.

I can’t really pinpoint when the cloud started darkening, but it began to cover Rich as well. We started noticing Zoe over-dramatizing anytime she was asked to do something or was told something she didn’t like. She would actually cower. She would apologize in a weird panic. She would stop just short of raising her hands over her face to block whatever imagined wrath was coming her way. We often wrote it off as Zoe being a sullen teenager with a get-it-done-stepmom.

This eventually faded out with Rich. For me, it has never ended. She still cringes often when I speak to her. In cycles, she lists me as the number one source of her stress. Then she says she knows how much I do for her and how much she appreciates it. She says I give her panic attacks. Then brings home baked goods just for me from work. She puts the blame of all her newly discovered anger squarely at my feet. Her friends and teachers always seem so surprised when they meet me – like I can’t possibly be the person they’d heard about.

We’re in another downward spiral. We don’t even know when it started or how. The level of Zoe’s anger is the highest we’ve ever seen it and has filled her with venom. Of course, Rich and I are doing all the parent-y things – going back through the calendar and looking for, as the kids say, triggering events. Poking our noses into her texts. Speaking with her therapist. A week in and we’re no closer to figuring this one out – so, instead, we just rotate around each other (she and I) pretending everything’s fine.

We’ve been through this enough to know where I should retreat to. I’m stripped of my parenting-Zoe duties and Rich takes the full load. It feels stupid. Telling Rich to tell Zoe to set the table. Telling Rich to tell Zoe to remember her chores. Telling Rich to tell Zoe, telling Rich to tell Zoe. It’s like living with a foreign exchange student who only communicates through a translator. We’ve been here before and, in the end, nothing changed.

This time we retreated a little further, acknowledging that, maybe just maybe, Zoe really doesn’t want a relationship with me. Maybe, with her history of weird relationships with the women in her life, adding one more weird relationship is just never going to happen. Lord knows we’ve tried to figure it out for seven years, maybe now is the time to just go on a long time out.

It’s a bit of a tough decision, to put a relationship in reverse, but one that also gives me a sense of relief. Maybe it’s the optimist in me, but I don’t think it’s forever. It’s very tough on Rich, who is in a panic to ‘fix it’ before she heads out into the real world. As the self-proclaimed emotional bus drive of the family, he is heartbroken with thoughts of failure.

But I think she needs to head out into that real world and have some real world experiences and real world relationships before she can begin to understand that I’m not really all that bad. That we’re not really all that bad. And that all the relationships on this bus are fairly normal in the land of families.

Of course we haven’t completely given up, no. There will be discussions, there will be some all-hands with her therapist. I can only imagine where those will take us, but I’ve got hope. If she wants me to be her punching bag for all the anger she’s hoisting around with her, that’s fine, too – I’m not going anywhere.

I’ll just be in the back row for a while. By the emergency exit.

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