Tag Archives: Family

Oh, You’re the STEPmom

Summertime at our house means softball. At least two of our kids always play in a rec league. This year, Shortstop and Snowflake played, which means we were at the ballfields at least two times a week, if not generally more.

At one Saturday away game, I was sitting in the stands with Bam Bam. Wind Tunnel was running back and forth between the stands and the playground. Smalls and Snowflake were with their other parent for the weekend. Ryan was assistant coaching on the field. Every time he walked by, Bam Bam would take a break from dipping his popcorn in leftover nacho cheese from my pretzel to point and yell, “Dada!” This adorable blonde cherub covered in dirt and cheese from head to toe caught the attention of a nearby family. The grandma was tickled and started asking the usual questions, “How old is he?” and making the usual comments, “Aw, he loves his daddy.” We engaged in polite small talk. Pretty soon Wind Tunnel made another round to the stands to ask for something else from the concession stand. “Aw, she’s pretty,” the grandma said. “She looks like you.” I chuckled quietly to myself because Wind Tunnel is not mine biologically and in fact, looks mostly like her dad. “Thank you,” I said, not really feeling the need or the want to explain.

After some time, the grandma asked, “So sister is playing out there? You have three children?”

The gig was up.

“We have five,” I explained. “He has three biological children and I have two. These are my stepchildren.”

And just like that, the laughing, the talking, the camaraderie, was over for the rest of the game, as if I had somehow deceived her. The look that came over her face was one I had seen several times before. The realization that I was the STEPmom, not the REAL mom.

Now I know she didn’t mean anything by it. In fact, I know most people do not mean anything by it when they have the same reaction. I think most people just don’t know how to react or what to say.

Being a stepmom is weird, sometimes uncomfortable, and often awkward. It is blatantly obvious at times that I am a new stepmom when I do things like fumble over what year they are born when filling out a form or if I don’t know if they are allergic to bees. There is a whole lifetime of knowledge and memories with their mom and dad before I ever entered the picture. They have a special relationship with their mom, one that we will never recreate, which is a frustration at times on both sides. I can’t pretend it doesn’t hurt my feelings when I have taken care of them all day, only to see them run excitedly to their mom when she picks them up.

On the other hand, I do all the things that a “real” mom does. During the summer, I am home with them all day. I make meals, wash laundry, pick up toys, and take kids where they need to go. I go to open house, school concerts and help with homework. I change diapers.  I break up fights and model problem solving. I am there to talk, listen, give advice, and pull their card when they need it.

So why do people act weirded out when they find out three of our five children are not biologically mine? When people ask if they are all mine, I say yes. They are all mine. I’m invested. I’m here for the long-haul. I’m part of their upbringing and their lives from now on. I get to be part of the story, make new memories and create my own relationship with each kid.

Not everyone has a negative reaction. When Wind Tunnel had her First Communion, her teacher made sure she made a gift for her mom and for me. It came in the nick of time when I was nursing hurt feelings for having to sit in the row behind Ryan and the kids’ mom, instead of up with the immediate family. When I told her teacher thank you, that it meant so much to me to be included that way, she said, “Of course! You’re a mom, too.”

I watched both of my biological parents become stepparents when I was about 18 years old. I also gained two stepparents. Even though I was off to college at that time, there were lots of times when it was a rough road. There are still times when it is challenging. I watched several friends bond with stepparents as if they were their own flesh and blood parent and other friends  battle it out with stepparents to even live under the same roof. I have lots of ideas and convictions on what I would like to, and not like to, do or be as a stepparent. Sometimes those ideas and convictions change daily. Not one of my four parents is perfect. Ryan and I are far from it. We make lots of mistakes. Sometimes when we fall into bed at the end of the night, we feel like we’ve been run over by one or all five tiny tornadoes in our house. But we are working hard. We want our home to be home base. We want it to be the safe place where our kids feel loved and valued. We also know that our home is not the only home our kids have. But it’s our home. I don’t refer to Shortstop, Wind Tunnel and Bam Bam as my step kids or bonus kids. They are just my kids. I don’t refer to myself as their stepmom. I’m just a mom. I’m another person in their corner, who has their back, who is cheering them on, all the way. I’m another person who is helping to mold them into caring, generous productive citizens who love God and love others. It’s not a competition and it’s not about labels. It’s about the kids. Because what kid couldn’t use another champion in their lives?

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All Dogs Go To Heaven

“A dog is the only thing on earth that loves you more than he loves himself.”
– Josh Billings (a.k.a. Henry Wheeler Shaw; humorist and lecturer) *Dogtime.com

 

Remember when you were a kid and you thought that being an adult would be SOOOO great? You could go to bed late, eat ice cream for breakfast, and watch whatever you wanted on TV? (All of which is great, and all of which I do…except for maybe the TV part. My battle against the army of tiny minions for control of the TV is futile.)

But then you became an adult and realized that you had to get up early to go to work, that eating ice cream started showing up on your hips and in record time, you were going to memorize every episode of The Amazing World of Gumball on Cartoon Network.

There are things that really suck about being an adult. Paying bills, working everyday, being responsible for your own hair. Recently, I would say at the top of my list of sucky adult things was making the choice to put not one, but both of our dogs to sleep in a month’s timeframe. I had taken for granted that my parents had taken care of this horrible task when I was growing up. But now we were the parents. It’s like that meme you see about looking around for an adult, then realizing you are the adult, so you look for an adult who is more adult that you are. An adultier adult. It was one of the those scenarios. Why couldn’t there be someone more adult to hold our hands and navigate these waters for us?

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When I first began dating Ryan, he introduced me to his beautiful Brittany, Rhoda. She was smart, sweet and always incredibly soft. She took to me right away (which was a relief, because if a man’s dog doesn’t like you…) Even though she was a medium-sized dog, she thought she was a lap dog. If she was inside, she would climb onto my lap or onto the couch next to us. If we were outside, she would plant herself next to me, mostly because she knew I was a sucker and I would pet her until she tired of it, which wasn’t likely, or I had to get up. If I stopped petting her, she nosed me until I started again. But she was very much Ryan’s dog. If he sat down, she abandoned me immediately, if only for a moment, to go to him. With a word, a nod or sometimes even a look, Rhoda knew what Ryan was thinking. He has told me repeatedly that she was hands down the best dog he has ever owned. I have never seen a bond like that between a dog and a person. He had her for 13 years.

Hunting trips were too much for Rhoda, but even in her retirement, she would walk the tree line on the perimeter of our property, looking for rabbits, squirrels and birds. She would follow Ryan around while he was doing yard work, or lie content on the porch. Ryan wanted to get another hunting dog soon so Rhoda could mentor her, so he put a deposit on an upcoming litter of pups. We never conceived we would lose Rhoda so soon.

Last month, Rhoda’s health declined rapidly over a couple of days. She stopped eating and drinking, her stool was tarry black and she could barely walk. It was so fast. I felt helpless, but I wanted to do whatever I could. I fed her Pedialyte with a child’s medicine dropper. I cooked her chicken and eggs. I carried her outside to go to the bathroom and cleaned her up when she messed herself. I sat next to her dog bed, covered her with a blanket and loved her.  I scoured the internet for information. I internally begged Ryan to take her to the vet, but when I mentioned it, he said he didn’t want to do that. I couldn’t push him. I did not understand his decision, and for a while, it was hard for me to not be angry with him. What if there was just a little bit of hope that we could save her? I tried hard to see where Ryan was coming from. Rhoda was 13 years old. She had a great life. She was well-loved. What if we took her to the vet and they poked and prodded her and there was still nothing they could do? What if they kept her overnight and she passed while Ryan wasn’t there?

On the last day, Rhoda would not even raise her head from the bed. She was not interested in the water or the chicken I gave her. I called Ryan. He left work early. I had to tell the kids and I knew I had to do it before Ryan came home. Four heartbroken kids took turns sitting with Rhoda, tears flowing, telling her how much they loved her and remembering their favorite memories. After they were finished, it was my turn. I laid down on the floor next to Rhoda and ugly cried. I had only known Rhoda for two years, but my heart was hurting for Ryan. I knew he was hurting and there was nothing I could do to fix that. Ryan walked in the door and Rhoda raised her head for the first time that day. She was waiting for him. Ryan made the heartbreaking decision to put her to sleep with dignity and end her suffering.

Ryan buried her out by the shop, where he could holler at her anytime he wanted.

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Last October, Ryan and I rescued a shih tzu named Bella. When Ryan was a baby, he had a shih tzu named George. As in, George was waiting for him when he came home from the hospital. There are professional baby pictures of Ryan posing with George. At the end of his life, George died in Ryan’s arms. I think Bella reminded him of his childhood dog.

Bella was a sweet-natured dog and instantly attached herself to me. She had been badly neglected. She was underweight, had fleas and worms and had matted fur all over her body. We got her fixed up. She was a wonderful addition to our family. But, she pottied on the floor, a lot. At first we thought it was just the transition into a new house. After a while, we had her treated for a UTI. Then we had her treated for another UTI. Then she seemed to be peeing all the time, even on herself and her bed. So off to the vet we went again.

We expected the vet to tell us it was another UTI and give us a better antibiotic. The vet began the exam and after feeling around for a moment on Bella’s bladder, the vet soon had a concerned look on her face. The vet explained that Bella had bladder stones. Ok, I thought, like kidney stones. Antibiotics and she can pass them, right? After answering several of our questions, the vet explained that Bella would have to have surgery and it could be between $900 and $1,200. It may not fix the issue. She may have to have surgery each time they come back. Or we might want to take her to a specialist at K-State. Our other option was to put her to sleep. She was in pain. My heart sank. I blinked back tears.

The vet asked if we wanted to work her up for surgery. Ryan and I sat uncomfortably for a moment until I said that we needed to go home and talk about finances. The vet said she would send us home with pain medication. When she left the room, Ryan turned to me. “I already know,” I said. “We can’t afford that.” That was a lot of money for a family with five kids. It was a lot of money for a surgery that might not work. It was a lot of money period. Bella sat at my feet and stared up at me with her cute little face. I felt like a terrible person. My job was to take care of her and I failed.

We took her home and I spent the rest of the day and the next loving on her. I told her she was a good dog. I told her that she was pretty. I told her I was sorry. The pain medication made her sleepy. Again, I scoured the internet for hope. Even if we could spend that type of money, how many surgeries was I willing to put her through? How many tests and x-rays? How long did I want to prolong this? What was her quality of life going to be? I couldn’t be selfish. But I was going to be a coward. The next day, after crying most of the morning, Ryan made me go to the gym. Ryan was taking her to be put to sleep. I told her goodbye and left her by the door waiting for me to return.

Ryan buried her next to Rhoda.

That was Sunday. The kids would be home on Monday and Tuesday, which meant that we had to break the news to them at different times and after she was already gone.

That night, I thought I would slip into bed, turn my back to Ryan and cry silently and privately into my pillow. I felt terrible. Terrible for not being able to take care of either dog. Terrible that my kids were going to hurt. Terrible that I made Ryan take care of it. Just terrible, like a kid who had just lost her dog. Ryan put his arm around me, which was cue for the floodgates to open. I sobbed like a baby. I apologized and sobbed some more. I was thankful for the comfort, for the non-judgement, and for the dark, so Ryan couldn’t see the snot streaked across my face.

The next few days were heavy. Empty dog beds and the absence of wagging tails were hurtful reminders. Ryan placed a decorative ring around the place where the dogs are buried and we are searching for something pretty to plant. We even considered a red fern.

Having to make the decision to put a family pet to sleep and navigate your children through it is one more thing that I need to tell my parents thank you for doing when I was growing up. It is just one more thing that I didn’t truly understand the ramifications of until I found myself confronted by it.

In another week, with still sensitive hearts and a little excitement, we will welcome Ryan’s new hunting dog, Scout, into our family. It feels too soon, but we had little to do with the timing. I am trusting that God saw all of this playing out and knows best what we need for healing.

As photographer and writer Roger Caras once said, “Dogs are not our whole life, but they make our lives whole” (Dogtime.com).

The 20-year phone call

It took him 20 years to return my phone call.

One night in August, almost two years ago, just before beginning my first year of teaching at my hometown high school, I took a break from cleaning and checked my Facebook account. I scrolled through status updates, memes, and selfies, not stopping to give much thought to any of it. Then across my screen scrolled a list of suggested friends. This list included Ryan Renfro. Ryan Renfro was the first boy I had a real, true crush on. Ryan Renfro from 8th grade drama club. Ryan Renfro, who I was dared to call during a slumber party, on the landline, and had to ask his mom permission to talk to him (A thrill and anxiety that today’s kids will never know.) Ryan Renfro, who I am pretty sure I called a snob or something to that affect during our conversation because he hung out with the “cool” kids. He was the cute redheaded boy who made me laugh. Needless to say, after insulting him, there was not a follow up phone call on either of our parts.

I was certain I had not spoken to him since high school, which was going on 20 years now. Wait, did I even talk to him in high school? No concrete memories came to mind. With a shrug and a nostalgic chuckle, I sent him a friend request. It was accepted within minutes. When it was accepted, I did what we all do; I Facebook stalked him. There was not much on his page. I would say he had recently set it up and was not much for social media (which turned out to be true). At the top of his feed was a picture of two sweet little girls, making their best “bass” faces on a front porch. Which of course I liked. After a few moments, I received a message from Ryan. We had a few minutes of the usual catching up chit chat. How have you been? Where did you go to college? What do you do for work? Where are you living? Eventually, he asked if he could call me, which was surprising and mildly creepy.

His exact words were, “I think this could be good for us.”

This is crazy, I thought. He is probably going through some weird transitional crisis and I am the first person from home on his Facebook that he is reaching out to help him find meaning in the broken pieces of his life. He probably just needs a virtual shoulder to cry on.

Still, something propelled me to say yes. He called. We talked for three hours. And we have talked every night since.

Turns out, I was right. Ryan was in transition. He was newly separated, had just moved and had three kids, his now 10-year-old daughter, aka Shortstop (think the Sticky McSchnickens scene from The Ridiculous 6, and say it with the accent), his now 8-year-old daughter, aka Wind Tunnel, and his now 2-year-old son, aka Bam Bam. (Stay tuned for explanations of nicknames in future blogs.) Trust me, the red flags went up when I learned that he was newly separated. I thought, Man, it’s going to be a few therapy sessions and I will never hear from this guy again. Not that it would matter. He was from my hometown, but was currently living two hours away. I thought, Well, maybe someone I can relate to, at least…

Life has a funny way of changing course. At this point in my life I had been divorced from an incredibly unhealthy and abusive marriage for a year and half. I had attempted dating as a means of moving on. By attempted, I mean I suffered through one disastrous monstrosity after another. It was like the bug that flies repeatedly into the window. Maybe this time…no, this time…how about this time… I am not sure how one actually dates successfully. The entire process rivals a root canal. I tried to be open-minded. I tried online and mobile dating sites, all of which felt like a waste of my time. I went on blind dates. It was all awful. The awkwardness. The forced interest. The middle-school rejection when I didn’t get a second phone call. To top it off, if you think dating is hard, dating with kids is harder. I couldn’t just think about myself anymore. I had my now 11-year-old son, aka Smalls (as in, “You’re killin’ me, Smalls” and my now 7-year-old daughter, aka Snowflake. Literally two nights before Ryan called me, I sat on my couch, deleting all traces of online attempts to find Mr. Right. I said aloud, looking at my ceiling, “God, I am done! If you want me to be with someone, you are going to have to drop him in my lap!” I was at peace with this decision. I was going to be the perpetual single girl. It would just be me and my kiddos. And maybe a few dozen cats. I knew that I could at least have a meaningful relationship with Netflix. We had moved back to my hometown. I had just been hired to work at my old high school. We were in a rental house that wasn’t great, but would do. I was surrounded by the familiar and I was at peace with settling where I was. Until someone returned a phone call after 20 years that changed my whole course of life.

Fast forward to today. Saying yes, that Ryan could call me, was unknowingly the beginning of a new chapter in our story. Saying yes, I will marry him this past Christmas and moving to a new town to combine our families is the beginning of a new adventure for us; one that does not come with directions or a map, or some days, a chance at sanity. Ryan is still a cute redhead (with less hair and a few more wrinkles) and still makes me laugh every day, which I guarantee is the secret to our relationship. I no longer think that he is a snob. More like a misunderstood introvert – like a modern-day blue-collared Mr. Darcy. Our blended family is crazy, loud, messy and, at times, full of challenges, but I wouldn’t trade a day. Ryan’s prediction was right. This did turn out to be good for both of us.