Here is the thing about being a step parent. Until you ARE one, you never actually understand what it entails. Being a co-parent is single handedly the most difficult thing I have ever done. Haaaaaands down. Even more challenging than birthing an 8lb 11oz baby without drugs.

On one end you have my ex-husband, and together we raised two kids. We have shared custody of our children, a week on/week off basis.

On the other end there is my husband and his ex, who have a son. They also follow a week on/week off schedule.

Together my husband and I have Finn, a wacky and wild, boundary pushing two year old.

My tribe

Three separate branches within one family unit, where I stand in the centre. This also means that for one week we have four kids, and then one week with just one kid.

Some days I feel like I’m being split in multiple directions. I have to focus on so many aspects of our family and keep them all intertwined and organized. I have to communicate with one ex about teacher memos, appointments, homework, illnesses, lost snowpants etc. And on the other end of the spectrum, I do my best to stay in the loop with regards to the happenings of my step son. But that in itself is hard to jump into a coparenting unit that is established and running independently on its own – and you are the outsider.

Right smack in the middle is an “ours” baby with her own appointments, and MANY illnesses, and quirks and babysitter to communicate with etc.

To top it all off, we all have different parenting styles. Together they mesh under one single roof, and it can be frustrating and confusing for parents AND kids. Some strict rules, some much more relaxed, and everything in between. Coparenting can also make it very easy to point fingers at others when problems arise as opposed to one mother and father and their kids all in one home. So when a problem presents itself, it’s easy to throw the blame on someone else and the step parents become the scapegoats.

Then you add in the “step parent” stigma… “You’re not my mom/dad! I don’t have to listen to you!” Or sometimes rules and discipline coming from a step parent (especially step-parents introduced later on in the child’s life) doesn’t feel like a lesson: it feels like a personal attack. Even if it comes from a place of love and guidance – it just doesn’t feel the same as being parented by a biological mother or father. It then translates into feelings of being mistreated, which can turn into a downward spiral. So sometimes, my husband and I have to take back seats when it comes to raising our “own” children, which further puts the divide between our family.

God…. It’s exhausting.

I feel like I have multiple personalities. I don’t WANT to separate our sides. It would be much simpler if we could all just function as a whole.

But we can’t. We are coparenting. And this is the harsh reality of it.

Coparenting really is an invisible battle. You have to love when it’s not reciprocated, and give a part of yourself – even if it doesn’t feel “natural” at first. It’s being emotionally available and trying to figure each other out. Its patience and understanding. It’s constantly questioning if you’re doing enough, and wondering if what you’re doing is the right thing. It’s a balancing act – balancing multiple wings within the unit. It’s wondering how your kids are doing when they are with their “other families” and missing them when the house is quiet. And that can quite honestly be the hardest part. The empty feeling when your kids are not home, and it’s quiet and you have three less humans to kiss goodnight.

Regardless of the challenges, I don’t know that I would change it for the world. I have more family to love in the process, and when all the kids are here, it’s chaos and laughter and love.

So. Much. Love.

And for that, I am ever so grateful.

Divorce, drugs, and a midnight escape plan

I was about 12 years old when my mom and step dad announced they were getting divorced. It hit me HARD. Being 12 is a pivotal point in one’s life – hormonal changes, body changes, mood changes, self esteem related issues, heads too small for all those adult teeth – and experimenting with thick, black eyeliner and baby blue eye shadow.

Me, my sister, and my mom in ‘97

My biological father and my mom divorced when I was a baby, so that was nothing weird to me. My step-dad, however, made an entrance into my life in the toddler years, and he married my mother when I was four. She had full-custody; he was a constant in my life. My mom and step dad had my little sister when I was 8. She is the only child from their relationship. A mom and dad, with two little girls – we were perfectly happy. Or so it appeared.

Me and my dad in ‘87 or ‘88

I remember sobbing uncontrollably into my step-dad’s chest. I felt like my heart was being ripped out. What would happen to our family? Where would we live? What do I tell my friends? It was the single most life-changing event in my life, even to this point. Everything went haywire following their divorce.

My step father continued to live in the home while the divorce took place. My mother, who had been a stay at home mom, running a home daycare, was forced to join the workforce. She started doing shift work at a local car factory. Honestly, this point in my life was blur. Maybe it was coping thing, but I don’t remember much… I remember graduating grade 8 and wearing this god-awful red dress. I remember looking at pictures of myself thinking, “My own mother is prettier and skinnier than me…”

I remember my mom moving out and getting her own apartment. I was allowed to choose my room colour – I chose a bright sunflower yellow. I put pictures up on the wall of friends and pictures of things I liked that I cut out of magazines.

My mother started seeing a guy she met at her new job. He was younger, and made her laugh. He drove a small truck, and he drove way too fast. Likely to show off, but it made me extremely uncomfortable. I wasn’t a risk-taker… I liked the comfort I felt from staying inside the lines and following the rules. Her new boyfriend seemed to be around more and I saw less of my step dad. He moved in with his parents out in the country. My sister and I had bedrooms there and we would spend time with our dad/step-dad at my grandparent’s. It was beautiful property, forests to explore and trees to climb. I was welcome, but it never really felt like “home”. Looking back on it now, it was likely a way for my mother finally be free and kidless.

Things started to change.

Her boyfriend was a drinker. He was mean and spiteful. He worked late and relied on sleeping in. If I made too much noise, he would get the vacuum out and vacuum outside my room in the middle of the night, slamming the appliance into my door to make it known that I was doing something wrong.

Some nights he would drink so much that he would start going off on emotional tangents, slurring and leaning into me, to tell me how much he loved me and that I was “the closest thing to a daughter” that he would ever have. I remember the smell of the alcohol on his breath, and the creepy vibe he’d let off when he said “I love you..” with his eyes barely open. He didn’t know what love was. He barely knew me – how could he “love” me?

He would have friends over and they would party. Some mornings I would wake up and my couches would be full of strangers. I’d get my toast, and step across them gingerly as to not wake them up, and I’d watch TV.

I remember my mother telling me she tried drugs at a bar. She didn’t mean to, but “someone offered it to her” – and she instantly regretted it. I don’t think I believed her… But it was at this moment that I realized I was no longer the child, and she was the mother. We became equals – or even more – I became the guardian, and she was the lost child taking part in re-living her youth.

One Christmas we received a charity hamper full of goodies. There were little trinkets and toys for a “teenage girl”. I knew what it meant – we were a poverty case. This was a handout. We were the family you hear about on TV and commercials. “Make a child’s Christmas this year by sponsoring a family in need!” Me. That was me. I was “in need”.

One day I came home from school and my mother pulled me aside.

“We need to pack our things. And quickly. He’s at work and I have a friend who is going to help us. But we need to be fast!”

I grabbed what I could and we loaded it into a truck, trip after trip until all of our things were moved out. I didn’t understand why, but I knew it had something to do with the boyfriend. We stayed in captivity with my mom’s friend while life seemed to spin out of control. I started working my very first job at Tim’ Horton’s and met a whole new group of friends. I felt comfortable and safe with these new people. They also came from lost and broken homes, and, they too, just needed acceptance. Together we coloured outside the lines – we weren’t alright. But we were alright together.

It wouldn’t say it was divorce that impacted me. I was a child of a divorced couple. A divorce that was messy, drawn out, and just plain awful. But I survived. I saw my biological father on the regular and we had a great relationship. My mother remarried and I survived. Divorce is a new “normal” nowadays – it doesn’t have to greatly impact the outcome of our children.

What impacted me was the loss of a family and the poor re-creation of one after the fact. When the kids get put on the back burner, and too much chaos is introduced – it becomes a problem. The new boyfriend was a problem. He was mean and unstable and an alcoholic. The very mention of his name makes me shudder to this day. He brought more problems to ones that still needed solving. I often think about how my own divorce impacted my children. It wasn’t pretty, but it’s amicable. I am constantly analyzing my every move, wondering if I’m paving the way for a meth addict, or if my kids will be content with their lives and themselves. I’m certain no single life event can change one’s course drastically, so long as they have the tools to effectively navigate the storm. Maybe that was my problem? Maybe the blame isn’t on the boyfriend, but more so on my lack of skills to handle the change?

Either way, I made it. The journey was long and not without challenges, but I made it – eventually…