The more I research, study, and educate myself on the behaviors of teens, the more I think a boarding school directly to college route makes sense. Ship them off to a far away land until they’re maybe twenty-five. I fantasize a marriage without teens. What would that be like? I say this as my husband and I are now into hour I-have-no-idea-but-it’s-at-the-second-day of fairly constant arguing about the hard one. It’s okay. We’re allowed to admit to some of our children being a breeze and some of them being a tornado. We’re allowed to admit that they switch roles on occasion – a tactic, no doubt, to keep we parents on guard. We’re allowed to admit that sometimes, we, the parents bicker. We all live in the same world that typically does not include rainbows and unicorns every stinking day but especially not in 2020? It’s fine. This is life sometimes. Our typical status is a blend of laughing, intelligent conversation, nagging, a win here or there, and, oh yes, moments when the shit just slams its little turd head right into the fan.

It’s been one heckle of a week. The kind with very lucid flashes where I think Man, I really wish I didn’t love my bed so much because I’d for sure rather be sleeping solo in the room next door than lying here feeling the ooze of disgruntlement creep across the covers. But I do love my bed. And, even when I’m frustrated to the point of being reportedly bitchy, I will still sneak my feet over to steal some of the warmth from Rich’s side of the bed after he goes to sleep. I don’t want to do it while he’s awake, lest he thinks my I don’t need anyone attitude isn’t real. These are the arguments I hate most. The ones where we go through our check list of me saying X and him saying Y and following a pre-determined path of escalation. I’ve often thought Bingo Boards would make this more entertaining – and, probably, quick. At the realization that we are heading down that path, we could whip out our clip boards and a random assortment of squares, hiding our check marks until one of us gets it BINGO! and then, maybe, that’s it – the winner gets to claim the title of Tiff Champion.

Yes, I hate these arguments. No, I never expected that marriage would be 24/7/365 bliss. I just prefer the easy disagreements. Not the ones where you lie in bed clickity-clackity-ing because you don’t know what else to do. You want to at least get some of the swirling thoughts out of your head but you cannot see yet where or when the swirling will resolve. Even the day of the week matters. If we are mid-argument while rounding the corner to Friday, there is a slight rush to wrap it up lest we land on a weekend full of tension. I hate wasting my weekend by orbiting around each other. I always hope I get Bingo before then.

We have recently started back at the counselor’s office. Not because we are in any real danger as a couple, but because we have come to recognize that some arguments are better left for a referee. I mean judge. I mean someone who will agree with everything I say. I mean someone who can blow a whistle and force us both to take a second to breathe and listen. This is something we’ve done regularly since the second I showed up in the Ville – regular visits to a counselor. First, it was at my insistence, having never been married nor having ever had children. I knew all about the crashes and burns of Rich’s last go round – and we wanted to do everything we could to avoid anything nearing that ballpark. For years, we saw a female counselor who was able to focus on my extremely slow maternal awakening as well as all the accompanying anxiety. Many of our sessions were spent listening to her interpret my emotional and frustrated words into something that Rich’s engineering brain could make sense of. As we grew further into our marriage – and as my parenting chops started coming in – she helped us to parent together, often taking both our hands (but not really, that’d be weird) and drawing us to whatever middle ground was between our very opposite ideas on child rearing. A fairly common occurrence, I suppose, when two adults with two completely different childhoods try to pull pieces from those completely different childhoods into their own parenting styles. Rich had years more experience, but I had that new-parent-smell – which meant we both just knew we were the most right.

This year, we moved onto another counselor. I really needed the original Sherpa all to myself because, well, 2020, plus we wanted to shift to a male counselor who might be able to help Rich through some of his dad-guilt/anxiety/fear of failure (oh, hey, Rich, I forgot to tell you why we switched to a male counselor). It has been going smoothly – the counselor really getting an easy hour with us for weeks as we threw out stories of ‘this is our life, so blissful!’ He was likely a little taken aback last week when we showed up in the middle of this days-long argument. We’ve learned to hit the pause button when things are heated – stepping back until things are less fiery or until our next session. We know it’s best – but that doesn’t mean we always do it – an absence that usually signals us that it is time to go in for a booster. Long story short, we hit the pause button on a round of disagreements regarding our college child and then hit play button the second we strolled into see the counselor. All the memories he’d had of us being a fun and hip couple from our first half-dozen sessions were tossed as we arrived armed with every piece of baggage we could fit in the car.

No. No one said marriage was going to be easy. Add in kids and that’s an even bigger guaranty.

This round actually whittled down to all the girl feels. The ones that I hate to admit having so I often hide them underneath a cloud of run for your lives!!!. I’m learning that, as a stepparent, your child may subconsciously force you to tag out of their life. Yes, I know. I rarely use the word ‘stepparent.’ It’s not my favorite word as the immediate implication is that this person is the less-than parent. And, in most cases, we’re not less anything. In most cases we are, in fact, the additional parent – the one who chose to be present. After spending years parenting our eldest – I have not handled the disappearance of her from my mom radar very well. I have not handled it well and the piggy back to that is that she has not disappeared from her (birth)mother’s radar. Or her father’s. Or her grandmother’s. Or her brother’s. I suppose I should have seen it coming – and I promise this isn’t written with a pejorative tone – as she is smack dab in the crux of figuring out who ‘On My Own Zoe’ is – and one of the first she would naturally set aside would be me. We stepmothers do carry the burden of fault. Which means that no amount of roses, unicorns, ice cream, rainbows, shopping trips, or safety nets will eliminate the very real possibility that we remain at fault.

For what? Name it.

Kids innately want their parents together. The arrival of a stepparent, even Mary Poppins herself, cancels that possibility out. Which means a (probably) subconscious tally of all bad things in the kids’ lives pointing directly to the arrival of that stepparent. As adults, we can look at this very logically and go yeah, but that shouldn’t land at my doorstep. Bad grades? Not my fault. Friends don’t like you? Not it. Didn’t get that job? Nope. Electronics not allowed in your bedroom? Sorry. Parents never got back together? I didn’t actually know you were banking on that. And, again, as adults, we can repeat it to ourselves til the cows come home – Divorce is so hard; That makes sense; That must be a terrible feeling; Kid-brains think kid-thoughts; I know it will be years before the blame is lifted from me, if at all – but the repetition doesn’t make the dismissal hurt less. I’m sure the irony here is that half of you are reading this, raising your hands and saying, Oh hey, over here! I’m a biological parent and the same thing is happening to me! Total ice! Part of the process, I guess.

This week’s argument was sponsored by that feeling of loss. It’s an emotional drain knowing that your child is still investing in relationships with the people you live with or near while not investing in a relationship with you. Digging through the anger and betrayal to just feel another punch in the gut. Feeling that sadness while trying to be supportive of those who are still getting the texts or the phone calls or the invites or the emails. Yes, misery loves company, but sometimes the fair thing to do is get a table for one. I hate these kinds of arguments. The ones where you think your anger is justified but in the end realize it’s really just a cover in lieu of an admittance of hurt. And, my sweet husband, who rides these waves with me – good grief, I hope whomever presents the awards for husbanding gives him a good one (wait, is that supposed to be me? )

Tomorrow, the prodigal (to me) child returns. Home from college for a time-yet-to-be-determined winter break. Organization is my thing – not knowing how long she’ll be here or what her plans are is already giving me a bit of anxiety. I’m sure I’m feeling all the things that all parents feel – step or otherwise. Will it feel like the gang’s back together? Will we have family dinners? Will it be like old times? Will it be better than old times? Will she have a new edge to her? Will she have changed too much? Will I have to ask her to clean up after herself? Will we all enjoy each other’s company? Will the three to one feeling creep in again? Will she still want to run my errands? Will I feel left out? Will re-acclamation be impossible? Will I say something so stupid that she’ll pack right back up and leave again? Will I cook the right things? Will I ask the right things? Will I use the right tone? Will I be the right person?

Will I be needed again?


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