Friday, August 21, 2009

Book Report

Now that I’ve been officially bestowed with the envious title of “stepmother,” and given my previous – and still current – status as “mother,” I’ve found myself reading up on parenting.

You know, in an effort to be a better parent.

I know what you’re going to say. You’re going to say, “Sarah, you can’t improve on perfection.” And as flattering as that is (Dad), I’m smart enough to know I’ve still have miles to go before I sleep.

When my daughters were young, going all the way back to in-utero young, I read so many parenting books, I could have been Dr. Phil’s parenting-expert sidekick. My Bible was Natural Family Living by Peggy O’Mara. I was a baby-wearing, prolonged breast-feeding, family bedding, attachment parenting, natural consequence imposing, mothering POWERHOUSE. I devoted all of my spare time to learning how to be the best parent I could to these two little squirts the Universe had miraculously placed in my care. And I loved every minute of it.

Then I got divorced and I read a lot of books about that. Not as uplifting and optimistic as books about how baby-wearing and the family bed would ultimately transform my daughters into self-confident, healthy, generous young adults. But practical. And necessary. Unfortunately. I needed books to help transform ME into a self-confident, healthy, generous young adult.

And then I decided to spend some time focusing on my career. So I read a bunch of books about that. Books about the abortion debate, family planning, health care management, insurance billing, and reproductive health care pushed “Natural Family Living” and its companions to the dusty, less often utilized sections of my bookshelf. A few books, like Nighttime Parenting and Mothering Your Nursing Toddler got boxed up and put to bed in the back of my closet.

And then I decided to indulge my hobbies. I gobbled up How To Rock Climb, How To Ice Climb, Leading Out, The Cake Bible, Dream Work, The French Laundry Cookbook, The Elegant Universe, Good Morning Midnight, Letters To A Young Poet, Consider The Oyster, and Deep Survival. Books about parenthood seemed… well… boring.

And it had been years and years – 7 at least – since my first kid was born. I was no doubt by now a parenting expert. My daughters and I were like THAT, I co-parented well with my former husband and his sweet new wife, and I had all of my core parenting values, goals and principles all figured out.

Or so I thought.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from my life thus far it’s that as soon as you think you’ve got something all figured out, the Universe taps you on the shoulder (or drops a piano on your head) to remind you that, in fact, you do not.

My life changed, as lives tend to do, and all of a sudden, parenting feels like a priority again.

I met a man who has two kids. I fell in love with this man and his two kids. We got married. I became a stepmother. The kids have new siblings. And horror of all horrors, they’re all getting older and there’s nothing I can do to slow it down.

I don’t know how to be a step-mother.

I don’t know how to parent tweens and teens.

I don’t know how to foster healthy relationships between step-siblings.

I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.

So, I’m reading books about parenting again. I pulled out my old copy of Siblings Without Rivalry. I read it once, years ago, but it wasn’t very relevant at the time since the only rivalry my daughters were engaged in was over whether or not 2 year old Eleanor should have access to 4 year old Sophia’s favorite stuffed dog.

“Siblings Without Rivalry” is suddenly, beautifully, drastically and eerily relevant now. Wondering how you can help your children learn to express their emotions appropriately (i.e without cruelty, tantrums and pettiness)? It’s in here. Stymied by your children’s expectation that you treat them all equally? Never mind that! With this book, you learn to treat your children uniquely, which is actually better than equally. Sick of mediating your children’s inter-personal battles? Well don’t. It’s better for your children – and your family – if you let them muddle through it on their own. Ever wonder if you and your partner are contributing to sibling rivalry? You probably are. And this book is teaching me how to cut it out.

Our kids are 8, 10, 10 & 12. We’re barreling headlong into about 10 years of raising tweens and teens. I remember being a teen and it sucked. I had pimples, really bad hair, not a single thread of trendy clothes, and a marked lack of aptitude in anything that would have made me even remotely popular. I had 4 little brothers and sisters who were pains in my ass. I had parents who I perceived didn’t understand me, got angry over stupid stuff, didn’t love me as much as they loved the little kids, and who, without a doubt, didn’t let me borrow the car nearly enough. In short, I was a moody little pisser who was probably not very fun to be around.

Here’s the thing, I don’t want to live with 4 moody little pissers for the next 10 years, so I’m reading WHY Do They Act That Way?: A Survival Guide to the Adolescent Brain for You and Your Teen. This book is guiding me to be a more compassionate, understanding parent. When you understand WHY adolescents act they way they do, it’s much easier to summon the empathy necessary to calmly cope with all the baloney they’re going to feed you. Did you know that your child’s brain takes a little break between toddler-hood and adolescence and then growth reactivates at an alarming pace when your little angel reaches puberty? Why is your teen grumpy? Why does she sleep all the time? Why does he eat so much? Why does she take stupid risks? Why is he territorial and how come you no longer speak his language or understand his wardrobe? It’s all about the changes in the brain. This book is showing me that while parenting teens can certainly be challenging, it can also be the most rewarding time for children and parents alike.

I’ve always thought I was a pretty good mother. In fact, it’s always been one of the things I think I do best. I even pat myself on the back from time to time.

Here’s a newsflash: being a step-mother is NOTHING like being a mother. It takes a whole different set of skills, a whole new level of understanding, a completely unique brand of patience and an unfamiliar but necessary willingness to “just let it go” that I never experience as a biological mother.

I’m reading Stepmonster: A New Look at Why Real Stepmothers Think, Feel, and Act the Way We Do. It’s delightful and beautifully validating. I can now rest assured that I’m not the petty, heartless, nagging jerk that stepmothers are made out to be in literature, culture and even in the minds of the people we love and sometimes even in our own minds. It’s refreshing to see an expert validating my hunch that yes, it’s a whole different ball of wax when a woman chooses to marry a man with children. And you know what? Despite what I’ve come to believe since entering the stepmother role, I am not solely responsible for the challenges I encounter. I’m learning to love in new ways, to stop relentlessly pushing my own agenda, to watch the kids for cues, to forgive myself and my husband for our past mistakes in partnering and parenting, and to be an excellent mother AND stepmother.

1 comment:

Cecily Baldwin said...
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