Unsolicited Advice for Bitter Parents

I want to share with you what a friend of mine is struggling with in her steplife. Her story is here; court is today–I can’t even begin to guess what will happen, now that she and her husband have surrendered any hope of restoring a normal relationship with her stepkids. My heart breaks for this whole family and the years of pain that is yet to come for them, no matter the outcome today.

I am fortunate that my life has been lived in step on and off since I was about 11 years old. Now, I didn’t have a great relationship with my father and stepmother, to put it mildly. And, it does bother me tremendously, even now–and I suspect it will for the rest of my life–that I allowed myself to be so separated from my father. Whatever choices he and my mother made, and, trust me, I have some excellent stories on the matter of how not to interact with your ex (most of them do strike me funny now, if they didn’t at the time), I too much allowed those choices, arguments, and power plays to influence how I conducted myself with my father. And since he is long-since buried at sea, there is nothing to be done–the separation is now permanent. I fear this will be true for kitten’s stepkids.

I am also a stepmother, and while I don’t always know what to do with my stepsons (Turtle and Monkey–TG is my bioson), I do love them. And though they don’t usually see it, I defend their rights to appreciate both parents equally and without fear of retribution Every. Single. Day. I have held them as they cried after their mother screamed terrible things about their father; I have reminded them to call her to let her know about activities. I have pulled their father aside or talked him through how to approach an issue without turning it into “dad versus mom,” which is too easy to do if the adults can’t see past the divorce. I have encouraged him to talk to their mother, even when he tries to avoid it. I don’t do this because I’m somehow heroic or better or whatever, I do it because of the three adults in the life of these two kids, I’m the only one who is/was/whatever a stepchild, so my perspective is a bit different.

Do I always handle situations well in step? Hell no. I’ve provided each of the three kids with plenty of stories to share with their therapists when they are grown (that is the function of the parent, right?). For one, I seldom interact with their mother out of a sense of self-preservation–she is far too much like my own mother for my comfort, and I know my avoidance of her bothers all three kids. I am, hmmm…how do I put this…critical and loud (TG and I are screamers, the rest of the clan is not. Even after 6 years we are still trying to mediate this). I yell and I tell things as I see them, occasionally with a heavy dose of sarcasm. And, of course, there is that addiction piece, which has adversely affected them all, undoubtedly.

I am also the biomom, and I screw up plenty there too. I forget to call and send things to TG’s father; I am so very grateful that the schools have since started sending stuff to both addresses, so that my forgetfulness is no longer a problem there. I find myself frustrated at the ways in which TG’s father and I differ in our disciplinary tactics and approaches to parenting TG, but when the chips are down, I know damn well I can count on his father to have my back and to support TG. Why? We agreed a looong time ago, that we would work to parent the boy together, even though disagreement. Even across 500 miles. And, yeah, there’s the big one for TG’s therapist. 11 years ago, I chose to move TG 538 miles away from his father, in order to start graduate school (no, there was no local program for my coursework). That they have the kind of relationship is testament to something–tenacity, perhaps?

As frustrated as I have gotten with TG’s father, with Monkey and Turtle’s mother, with G and with myself, I can’t begin to imagine a moment where I would encourage a child to despise his or her other parents ( bio, step, foster, first, forever or otherwise). To do so is an act of cruelty that I can’t even begin to articulate. There are plenty of parents who do things that will result in such hatred from the child–those who abuse, those who abandon, the mentally unstable, and scores of others may earn the contempt of their children (rightly or wrongly) without interference from a third party. Most parents, though, are guilty only of being human and having the audacity to possess human foibles.

So, here’s a few pieces of advice:

One, avoid labeling the other parents (step or otherwise) as slut, trollop, asshole, bitch, whatever, in front of the kids. Yes, you might really believe in your heart that he is a no-account-bastard-who-hates-his-children or that she is a psycho-hose-beast-from-hell, but, please do keep that kind of opinion to yourself when around the kids. Share it with your friends if you need to get it off your chest.

Two, don’t convince your child that the other parent has hired someone to spy on you and follow you around, unless that is accurate. As a joke it rather sucks. If accurate, that’s a whole separate problem.

Three, raising the kids is not about your divorce, split up, or separation. Deal with it. It’s not even about you. The affair?–not really their concern. The abuse–yeah, it may be a concern. Very much. Ask for help in talking to the kids about it. There is nothing wrong with asking for help.

Four, waxing nostalgic about the past to the kids is seldom helpful. If your marriage or relationship was such a paradise, chances are you wouldn’t have split up. See #3–this is not about you.

Five, wanton destruction of artifacts of your relationship might feel damn good, but do try to keep such activities out of the line of sight of the kids. Again, not really helpful.

Six, if you should happen to blow it on one of the above or something like them, apologize to the kids. If you called the other parent names or lied or shared stories you shouldn’t have, you may even need to apologize to the other parent. Yes, I am serious. Humans sometimes do really dumb things; own up and don’t repeat.

Most of all, be willing to forgive your screw-ups, those of the other parents, and the kids, when those screw-ups really aren’t harmful. Don’t assume that someone else is a negative influence just because you *shudder* disagree about something, and for the love of Pete, don’t convince the kids that another parent is harmful or negative, just because you disagree. Deal with the disagreement between adults and grow up a tad… an ounce of grace and a pinch of calm will make all of our interactions better.

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