Friday, May 10, 2013

Adjusting to a New Normal - Family Life

Mother's Day approacheth. The first one I've encountered since taking on a maternal role, even a hyphenated one. As a new step-mother to teens, I'm a backup assistant parent at best. But I work at home and my husband has a busy and unpredictable schedule, one that seldom allows him to keep any consistent family commitments. So I'm also a default housewife. That's added plenty of chauffeuring and planning and shopping and cooking and cleaning to my life, especially during the weeks D. is with us. Yes, I know, I have it much easier than most "real" moms. And I'm still able to get my work done and keep up with my grad school classes.

This combination, though, leaves little or no margin for any interests of my own. I've virtually stopped reading and writing for pleasure (both lifelong habits), and I seem to have given up maintaining my friendships or developing new ones as well, a significant loss. My husband is just as surprised as I am to see those things go, and worried. He didn't want to see our marriage cost me like this, and he wonders how much my wounds are self-inflicted. I'm not sure, myself. It's good to stop and remember that even though the wife, stepmother, and housekeeper roles are the newest ones I've taken on, I made the decision myself not to quit my job or drop out of school (and not to sacrifice family life to make ongoing spiritual or relational commitments at this time, as much as I mess them). If my plate is too full, I can take responsibility for that and not treat it as something that was done =to= me.

It's also been a relief just to let go of what expectations I can and accept the new normal. While it lasts. There will be another new normal after D. leaves for college, after C. finishes seminary, and we'll probably be moving away in a few years. While this is a challenging season, it's also a gift. We haven't lost any parents yet. We still have the kids around. In years to come that is going to change.

The depth of my cross-cultural know-how and experience has been very helpful. I know what it is to lay down my identity, to become, at best 75% of who I thought I was, and maybe much less to start with. But to discover, with surprise, ways to become a new person who may even fit into the new culture at nearly that 75% level - in time, a 150%, bi-cultural person. Joining a family seems much like moving to a new country.

There is something to be said for starting marriage before tackling parenting. I can see the wisdom in waiting a while. Yet marrying into motherhood, and with kids not yet full-grown, also has its benefits, and it's good to stop and reflect on them. For example it's much easier for me to enjoy and relate to D. as a real person than as an extension of myself, as so many parents do. Things are simpler, cleaner, than if he were my biological child. We're "family," but I can be a friend in a way that his parents cannot, not yet... even if the complex, intimate connection he has with them is not something I can experience.

A sincere affection for D. has grown up within me. I desire to do anything I can for him, to enjoy and protect and provide for him, to cheer him on. I don't feel anxious or need to pressure him to turn into a certain kind of person. I want him to be who he is, to become who he needs to become. I actually find it easier to give him my loyalty and expect the best from him than I do with his father, my husband -- whom I can't seem to avoid treating as "an extension of myself," a man whose values, preferences, and choices feel like a threat when they clash with my own.

So how are we celebrating mother's day weekend? By sending D. back to his mom for the next couple weeks. It's appropriate that he be there for mother's day, and it will be nice to have a breather, after. This two-week period included the adjustment to D's recent decision to stop eating meat. It's been hard enough budgeting, shopping, and cooking for our conflicting needs and preferences without this additional restriction, and I did not take the change very well. I think I'm OK with it now. When D. returns, we'll have a few weeks of getting up at 5am to get him to water polo practice (after which, thankfully, he'll be on summer schedule, which runs a bit later. Practice will be on the other side of town then, but he plans to bike it when he can).

It's a relief to be traveling on my birthday (coming up on four years in a row). In the same way, it's a relief not to have the kids around on mother's day. Dispels ambiguity. I don't need to think about the day being about me in any way. I can look forward to a good chat with my mom, probably touch base with my stepmom as well - I have a new appreciation! - and enjoy a day with my mother-in-law.

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