I have a stepson. Our relationship is overall a good one, always has been. In the 7 years since I met him, our relationship has shifted, grown, shrunk, expanded, pushed, pulled and is a constantly moving entity. He is beyond intelligent (stepmom brag moment: he attends a gifted program at his school) and can be quite funny. He’s a good kid, obedient, generally respectful (even with the creeping frequency of puberty rearing its sassy tones and comments lately). I love him, but I won’t lie and deny that his presence in my life doesn’t add complications. I couldn’t imagine life without him, and those complications are not his fault – they are the nature of the beast when it comes to being a stepparent. Blogging about him or anything to do with him is hard – he knows how to read and he knows I have a blog. But I pride myself on being open and honest with him, so I don’t have anything to hide. I’ve always been a straight shooter with him and have always been consistent, which I believe is a key component to ANY kind of parenting, step or otherwise.
So, today my husband and I had to apologize to my stepson because we got mixed up in our understanding of what his schedule with us was over the upcoming few months. Generally, at the start of every season, we hash it out with my husband’s ex regarding upcoming holidays, vacations, PA days at school, etc and who will get what days/times with my stepson. The first few years of this were root canal-ish, but we seem to have fallen into a pattern the last year or two, depending on what we have done over the past 8 years since my husband and she split up.
Recently, my husband and I booked an upcoming Caribbean vacation for a week. With our daughter. But not my stepson. This wasn’t a decision made lightly, but we had a number of very good reasons for deciding this. Our primary concern was that he would have to be away from school for 7 days. His school program is intense and a large majority of his work is hands-on, interactive and in-class. He rarely brings home homework and when he does, much of it requires an internet connection, and there is no wi-fi available at the resort we are going to.
However, the other ugly truth about this situation and one I hope other stepparents can identify with, is our ongoing belief that we (my husband and I) should only be responsible for half of my stepson’s holidays. If his parents were still married, he would be going on a holiday once per year, if funds were available in the middle-class family that would exist. Millions of kids on this earth don’t understand what the word “holiday” means, let alone have one every year, or MORE than one, as has been the case for my stepson in some previous years. We have no say in how often he is taken on holiday with his mother, and nor should we. We only have control over how often we take him on vacation, and because we are only half of his parental team, we feel that we are only responsible to provide him with a holiday every other year. Unfortunately, the holidays he’s had outside of our family have not generally been as exciting, glamorous or fun. So every holiday my husband and I take becomes a difficult decision and a difficult discussion with my stepson, if it is not “his year” to be joining us. This year was even worse than previous ones. There were tears and anger. Sadly, a sense of entitlement has developed because like some children of divorce, my stepson receives TWO complete birthdays, TWO Christmases, TWO Easters, all complete with TWO separate celebrations and TWO separate rounds of gifts that represent what he would normally get from ONE whole family (times two!), if it was still together. He is not a spoiled brat, but he most certainly is spoiled. Divorce does not always lead to rational thought regarding what is in the best interests of the child, nor does it prevent parents from trying to win over or make it up to the kid in material gifts. This is not an admission of guilt from our side of the fence, however I’d be delusional if I didn’t admit that we are guilty of forgetting sometimes at Christmas and birthdays that he will be getting just as much (or usually more) at his other home as well, and we could have probably scaled back a bit.
So, instead of having the building anticipation of a fun and relaxing holiday, we must carefully control our comments and enthusiasm about our impending trip when my stepson is around, so as not to rub his nose in the fact that he is not coming. This is not a matter of us not wanting him there. In fact, we have already taken him on two very nice Caribbean holidays with us, and two very nice Canadian holidays as well. However, from his perspective, his sister gets to go, and he doesn’t. Which in some ways, despite his age and intelligence, translates into him thinking we don’t want him with us on vacation. Nothing could be further from the truth, but this is an emotional reality we have been dealing with since we decided to adopt a child. One of my stepson’s biggest concerns and fears regarding us adopting was his huge fear that the adopted child would be loved more than him, simply because the adopted child would be spending 100% of its time with his dad, whereas my stepson only gets to spend 50% of his time with his dad. Sad, but in the mind of a then-8 year old, a very real fear and understandable based on his 8 year old logic and emotional maturity.
From the moment he expressed that fear, my husband and I have continuously strived to attempt to ensure everything we do and say regarding our kids is equally balanced. Do we always succeed? Nope. Our first year with our daughter at home was hell. Having an 8 year old boy who was used to being the centre of attention for the full week he spent with us, and in fact, all of his time spent anywhere, suddenly have to share (and by share I mean completely relinquish 100% of) the attention he was used to getting all to himself with a very inquisitive, active, safety-ignorant, learning-to-speak 2 year old was an emotional tonne of bricks for him. He expressed his hurt and frustration often and we tried to work through it together, not always successfully and not always to my stepson’s satisfaction. Things are different now. Our daughter doesn’t require constant safety monitoring, but she certainly holds her own at the supper table when the two of them are vying for air time in conversation. My stepson seems to have accepted that he will never get 100% of our attention again and I have no doubt that this was a challenging transition for him. He has even become a very good, caring and helpful big brother, albeit with moments of normal sibling rivalry,teasing and provocation.
So, back to today’s apology. As part of the marketing package we put together to promote our decision to go on holiday without him, we decided we would host yet another fireworks party for Victoria Day, despite swearing last year that we would no longer be doing big fireworks parties (after 50 neighbours that we did not know or recognize, repeatedly rang our doorbell and handed us money to contribute to our fireworks display and showed up on our front lawn to watch them. I swear other neighbours that didn’t know about the fireworks must have thought that we had taken up the sale of drugs there were that many folks stopping by and handing over twenty or forty dollars). Unfortunately, the way that our holiday negotiations have gone with his mother, my stepson has not been with us for the past few years to attend these fireworks parties and has always been quite put out by that, so we decided to do one more party with him present to attempt to allay his disappointment about not joining us for the trip south. Well, not sure how we did this, but we mistakenly assumed that after a few years spending the Victoria Day weekend with his mother, this year he would be with us. Wrong. He is yet again scheduled to be with her, and we aren’t sure why, but the schedule is done and agreed upon and we didn’t twig that he wasn’t with us again this year for Victoria Day, so that is that. Hence, today’s apology to him for not realizing this sooner and committing to a party that he wouldn’t even be here to enjoy. We are obviously not having the party now, but the entire situation leaves me feeling unsettled. I feel bad for him that he feels excluded, but resent the fact that all the other amazing things we do for him don’t assure him of our love and committment to him as part of our family. I feel annoyed that we have to offer up a condolence prize, but then stop myself to consider that it was not him that asked for that, but us that felt we should offer it. It is us that have contributed to this overriding sense of entitlement and us that worry so much about his response to the decisions we make. Are we too kid-centred? Some experts would say not at all, some would even suggest not enough, considering we are leaving one of our children “behind” to go on holiday, but to be honest, if our daughter were a little older and a little further along in her attachment/bonding process after her adoption, we would probably be considering 2 holidays every year – one as a family, and one as a couple only. Does that make us bad parents? Or, simply parents who are seriously concerned about sanity preservation?
Stepparenting is a tough, often thankless job (as is any kind of parenting at times). I hope when he is older, my stepson will look back and realize that the sum of our actions, and not individual incidents, are a testament to how loved and wanted he really is, was and always will be.