Monday, November 2, 2009

Steps, Baby Steps

I know a woman who married a man with seven children. His first wife had up and left them all, including their little baby. This woman that I know had become established in her career as marriage and family had eluded her thus far in life. She was in her mid-thirties when she, through a series of divine interventions, found herself taking on the sudden role of wife and mother. She had no "honeymoon" period. She never grew a baby within her own body. But seven grown children now call her 'mom'. This story would have impressed me at any time. Imagine! Well, many of us can't even adequately do that. Unless, that is, you're a stepmom.

When I met this woman, I asked her insensitively if she ever wished she'd had her own children. "They are my own children," she said. Another stepmom I know told me just before I was about to take on the role myself that I would love my stepchildren the same way that I loved my own children. She said that when people ask her which are her children and which are her stepchildren, she has to stop and think about it because sometimes she just can't remember. I took on my new role with enthusiasm and the fairest of intentions. Imagine my horror, when I found that I didn't love my stepchildren, and sometimes I didn't even like them at all. My happiness throughout much of my first two years of my new marriage was arranged around whether or not they would be here. I was insanely resentful of their relationship with their father, I was accusing of every childish misstep or misdeed around the house, I was overly defensive and protective of my own children, and I was flat out miserable. My husband had similar feelings toward my children, and we found ourselves convinced that we had made a mistake. I loved my husband, but I did not love his children. I tried to cover it up in the name of motherly/martyrly service. I cooked for all of them, I read to all of them, and I supervised them all in homework and chores, but my heart was divided. I looked forward to Wednesday's, of all days, because that is the day my stepchildren go back to their mother's house. I felt free and liberated on Wednesday's! If my children were away at their dad's, and only my husband's children were home, then I often stayed locked away in my bedroom "reading" or "watching movies" or "writing". I was really being hateful and ugly. I confess to none of these things with pride in myself, but with utter horror, shame, and even a bit of disbelief. But I sure wish someone else had confessed them to me first and saved me a lot of self-loathing over these last difficult years of transition.

There were days when I felt I might actually love my stepchildren. There were days when rays of charity shone through. I wasn't completely repulsive. But I was mostly repulsive, and disgusted by myself. Mostly, these children were less worthy than my own, and in the way of my new relationship with their father. I berated myself with thoughts of how unloving I really was, and how worthless I must be. What was wrong with me that I found loving two beautiful children so excruciatingly difficult? Come to find out, nothing.

I was led to a book called "The Enlightened Stepmother" by Perdita Kirkness Norwood, and was so relieved to read the "Five Stages of Stepfamily Development" provided in Chapter 5. I like that she emphasized two facts in this chapter:
1. Forming a stepfamily is a PROCESS.
2. Forming a stepfamily takes TIME.
With that in mind, I read on. Stepfamilies are a work in progress and some professionals say that while every successful stepfamily must move through the same five stages of development, the length of time varies enormously. Some say four to seven years, and experienced stepmothers say it may be as long as ten or twelve years. Now this may be defeating to some, but to me it was OH, HAPPY DAY!!! I, once again, in my perfectionistic and idealistic ways, was expecting immediate results that simply cannot happen immediately! Here are the Five Stages:
  1. Fantasy--This is the "we'll all be one big happy family" stage, or the "I will rescue everyone" stage. We'll all love each other, and life will be bliss. This stage is also called "Illusion". Darn it.
  2. Confusion--Clearly something is wrong! The new family is not working, but nobody wants to rock the boat, so suppression is the order of the day. Fear of failure is in the air. Insufficient preparation has taken place, and stepparents and stepkids reject each other.
  3. Crazy Time--This very difficult period is inevitable. The stress and inaction of the previous stage forces matters into the open. Everyone experiences pain, anger, dissatisfaction, guilt. Stepmothers often are swept away in an avalanche of paralyzing emotions due to disappointment that their initial fantasies are failing. Self-esteem is stripped bare, resentments smolder, serious family divisions (you and yours vs. him and his). This is decision time, make-or break time. But this stage is unavoidable if progress is to be made. Oh good, we're right on track?
  4. Stability--A poignant and exhilarating time for family members who begin truly coming together. Stepmothers usually initiate this step, perservering day after day, facing challenges and resolving them. Words like "us" and "we" start to emerge, as do small signs of stabilization. The family moves to a new level.
  5. Commitment--Beginning of final stage when change is accepted as nonthreatening. Family members choose to deepen relationships. Past difficulties are put aside, and a new atmosphere of receptiveness, trust, and respect emerges.

Finding out this information has done wonders for my beaten down soul. Every mother and stepmother wants to be successful. No one tells you how hard it will be. And while I've been sitting here wallowing in how hard it has been for me I've forgotten too often how hard it has been for everyone else too. But we're doing okay. We're right on target.

Another book that has been even more helpful has been Bonds that Make Us Free by C. Terry Warner. I realize that I was living "inside the box", and was failing to treat others as people, but rather as objects in a self-betraying way. This has opened my eyes and my heart immensely toward everyone, including my stepchildren. I am trying to stop being so absorbed with how I feel all the time, and live a truer, more authentic life. When I do this, the love just seems to flow naturally and freely. In fact, just a few days ago, I took my stepchildren with me alone on the long drive to Arizona to pick up my children from their summer visit with their dad, and we had an enjoyable time. I found myself concerned for them, interested in them, and protective of them. And having all six of my children in the car on the way home felt right through and through.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Preparing a Missionary

My cousin Mark is on a mission in Paraguay. I am immensely proud of him, and because of the wonders of the internet, I get to read his letters home every single Monday. He has good weeks and bad weeks. Even some out-of-this-world terrific weeks, but more importantly, I can read between the lines and see that this experience is changing him. He is sobered, matured, humbled, and spiritually sensitive. He already was an incredible kid, and now? Well, now, I can only imagine how proud his mother is of her boy.

And of course I want the same thing for my own boys.

My sons are growing up knowing that a mission is what is expected of them, but that it is their individual responsibility to get ready and to want to go. Most Latter-day Saint boys grow up saying that they'll serve a mission when they're 19, but to actually be prepared when the time comes, and to actually put an active life on hold to dedicate two years to the Lord is no small sacrifice. It's not a decision that can be made spontaneously, and mission readiness requires careful planning years before the actual call to serve comes.

Missionaries and their families pay for their own missions. A delightful concept, really, as we value that which we have had to sweat and toil for. Currently, a mission costs approximately $12,000, which includes the monthly cost and some extra for clothing and supplies before leaving. In order to prepare several boys for missions and even more children for college, careful planning has to happen. (It's called the penny here and penny there approach, multiplied by faith.) Even if I were wealthy, I would want my boys to earn at least half of their mission money themselves. Last year, each of the boys set up a savings account and a savings goal for the year which will bring them to their target savings goal by the time he is 19 years of age.

For example:

Dylan set his goal when he was 12. So he had 7 years to put aside at least $6000 towards his mission. His plan is as follows:

age 12 $200
age 13 $400
age 14 $600
age 15 $750
age 16 $1000
age 17 $2000
age 18 $2400

He plans to go on his mission in the year 2015, and if he can meet his savings goal, he will have personally saved $7350, plus interest. (This will cover any increase in the cost of a mission by the time he serves.) He is currently ahead of schedule, and I love that he has made saving for his mission a priority. Every time he chooses to deposit money instead of spend it, he is reaffirming his commitment to serve.

Obviously, at age 13 his earning potential is not as great as it will be when he is 16 or 17. But even now, there are opportunities for the taking, if he looks.

For instance, he secured lawn care work with our neighbor. He cleans cars for a family friend, he even washes windows to earn money, and gets hired to babysit! (He's very popular with kids.) Also, I pay the kids $5 for each A on their report card, and $5 for each book they finish. They pay tithing on all money that they earn first, then they might keep a few dollars for spending, and they put the rest in the bank. It all adds up, little by little, as they work toward their goal.

Money isn't the only concern in preparing for a mission. Spiritual preparation is of the utmost importance, of course, and the boys have set goals in that area too, like reading The Book of Mormon and Bible many times, attending Church, praying daily, and being worthy to receive the priesthood when the time comes.

I have my own list of things to teach the boys too, for mission, college, and life success. This list includes things like ironing, basic hand sewing, cooking, and how to properly clean a bathroom. (Their wives will thank me, their missionary companions will just be relieved.) Obviously, there is much to do.

I have watched other families of sons send out and receive home their missionaries. I have tried to watch carefully how they prepared their boys, and what factors helped make the difference in mission success. Mostly, I get all choked up every time a boy leaves, or returns. No matter whose son it is, I'm just so darn proud of him! I see the spiritual strength and confidence that is earned through service to the Lord. I see a boy leave and a man return. Recently I was in an airport waiting for a friend's flight to arrive and a crowd was gathered at one of the gates with signs and balloons. I could tell it was a missionary welcoming party. I had to eavesdrop on their happy day. I stood off to the side filled with excitement and goosebumps, and just started to cry when that missionary walked down the ramp and through the gate to his family. It was so joyous! I sometimes can't bear the thought of saying farewell to my boys and not seeing their faces for two whole years, but then again, I know there is nothing else I'd rather see them do. Helping them to prepare and sending them off is my offering to the Lord.

From Elder Rebilas' letter home this week:

There is no greater thing that a young man can do between 19 and 21 years of age then serve a mission, none. It brings the most benefits spiritually and also temporally. To all those that are still thinking, stop, and prepare. Trust me, I have felt things that I've never felt before in my life. I now KNOW that the Holy Spirit exists, I feel it every day, and sometimes I feel it leave. I KNOW that Jesus Christ lives, for I have received a witness that I cannot deny. Follow Him, preach his gospel. The rest of your lives will be blessed. I now have a plan for my life, and I have a guide that will never fail me. So, PREPARE, read your scriptures daily, learn to rely on prayer, take advantage of the sacrament, learn of it and what it means, and REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE! My mother would never let me leave without me hearing that, and she doesn't even know how much that made an effect in my life, I'm here because of her. If I hadn't had her voice echoing in my head every time I had to make a decision, I don't know where I'd be. Remember who you are, and be the example. Make our Father in Heaven proud. I love this work, I love my Savior, I love my family. I bear my testimony that I know this church is true, in the name of our Savior Jesus Christ , Amen.

Sounds like an investment that is paying huge dividends! We've all been blessed by his service. And I thank him for his example for my own sons. Someday I hope they will pay it forward as their cousin is now. In the meantime, there is much to do!

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Birds and Bees

Now Aiden knows the Facts of Life.

Early in my parenting, I found a book by Linda and Richard Eyre, titled, How to Talk to Your Child About Sex, and their approach resonated with me. Basically, they recommend having age-appropriate talks from toddlerhood on up, with The Big Talk happening on the child's 8th birthday. They also detail other talks, that go into subjects like masturbation and pornography and STD's as the child goes through the teen years. I have followed their methods, even using their scripts, with each of my three children with great success, and I heartily recommend the book to other parents. Having both parents present for these talks is wonderful, but even in a single parent situation, the important thing is to help your child gain appropriate knowledge and perspective against which to filter out everything else that will bombard him from friends, school, and the media.

Eight is a great age. According to our Church, it's the age of accountability. It's an age budding with maturity, but still fresh with innocence. And even though I got tangled up in life and didn't let Aiden in on the 'most awesome, beautiful secret ever' until he was 9, we still reaped great rewards.

With great intentions, I had been leading up to our big talk for several months, telling Aiden that I felt he was old enough now to know about the most awesome, wonderful, beautiful secret in the whole wide world. He was intrigued beyond belief. The Eyre's recommend making a night of it, with a special parent-child date to celebrate. About a month ago, Aiden and I went out to dinner at Panda Express, one of his favorites. The other kids were out and so he and I had some alone time, and he reminded me that we still hadn't had our special talk. I knew it was time, so I fastened up my nerves.

I asked him what the most wonderful thing in the whole world was. He said me, which is a great answer, but we fished around a bit more and came up with families. (I'm still included in that answer.) We talked about the love that we feel for families and what we do for people when we love them. He gave great answers, like telling them, hugging them, and doing things for them. We talked about the different kind of love that moms and dads feel for each other and how they might show their love in a little different ways, like more hugging, and kissing on the lips. And then I told him that it was that love, between a mom and a dad that brings children into the family.


I asked him if he had ever wondered how babies got inside the mom's belly, and he said 'not really', but that he would like to know. He thought Heavenly Father put them there, which was what I told him when he was small. I asked him if he'd ever heard the word 'sex' and he said yes, but that he had no idea what it meant. I told him about a very special hug that husbands and wives can do to show their love for each other and that sometimes that hug helps a baby to start growing inside the mother's tummy, and then I had him read aloud the book Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle. It's just cartoony enough to keep things light, but with very direct and correct information about bodies and lovemaking and how it all 'works'.

It was delightful. Aiden giggled at some parts that were funny, but more than that he was completely fascinated. He wanted to look at each picture and read each caption. He'd had no idea! And he really felt like he was being let in on the biggest, best grown-up secret in the whole world, which was exactly what I wanted.

He asked some questions, and then we talked about just how special sex is and how you wouldn't want to go around giving those kind of 'big, special hugs' to just anyone. That person would have to be the person you loved so much and were committed to, and wanted to have a family with. Sex is just too special and too sacred to go giving it out for fun. We talked about dangerous things that can happen when people don't hold sex to be special and sacred, and how he would want to marry someone who felt it was as special as he did. We talked about how he would hear lots of things about sex, especially now that he knew what it was, and that he needed to remember that lots of kids don't have parents that tell them the whole truth and so some of what he might hear might not be all the way correct. He knows that whatever he hears he can come and ask me or his dad right away and we will answer him. And we talked about how some people like to make jokes about sex or say bad things about it, and that's just because they don't understand how special it is, and we shouldn't join in those conversations because we know differently. We talked about how some movies and television shows only focus on how good it feels and not how special it is, and that we needed to remember that we know better and that we should avoid the things that could make us feel uncomfortable. It's because sex is so amazing and sacred that the world and Satan want us to disregard it and not keep it special. He got it.

His little freckled face was aglow. It was a sweet time between us, as it had been with his brother and sister before. I have found it so much easier and better for your parent-child relationship, if you are the first person to explain sex to your child. When you have a clean slate to work with, there is no squirming or embarrassment. It's really not that awkward at all. And you can make sure that the child's first impression is the one you want him to have. That will be the most lasting. I have found that because I came to them with the knowledge, they continue to come to me for information about things that most kids/teens would never approach their parents about, and they know I will always give them the straight-up truth. I value this closeness with my children so dearly.