I’ve never told beginning of this story before, the one about how I became the custodial stepmom to five literally overnight.
I don’t talk about this stuff on my own blog. At the time I started my blog, I needed an ex-free zone. I needed a place of humor, positivity, and light. I was not clear what part of the story was mine to tell, and what part belonged to the children, for them to tell or keep locked up inside. There’s been a lot of secrecy around our start as a thrown-together family. I have a better perspective on things today and my story might be valuable for someone facing a similar situation.
My boyfriend and I had carried on a long distance relationship for some time. We both worked as stagehands on the road and I had not even kept an apartment anywhere for five years– there was no need. When I finally had a show landing in New York, he was already living in the city. I got an apartment in Hoboken and we decided to see if we still wanted to be together once we were living in the same place at the same time. It’s a very different thing than having a relationship with your phone.
Then he went out of town for a few months to open a new show.
Then I went out of town for a couple months for another gig.
Then we were back in the same place again and I suddenly realized he didn’t have his own apartment anymore and was crashing on my couch. This was NOT the conscious start to the being-in-the-same-place part of the relationship that I was after. I didn’t want to live together by default. I’d done that before (more than once) and it was Guaranteed Romance Death.
So I kicked him out.
He got his own place several towns away, based on the school system. “Just in case something happens,” he said.
What had been going on in the background for a few years was a lot of drama surrounding his ex-wife and their five children who lived with her. At some point during all the road gigs and moving around, the court granted her permission to move everyone about 1200 miles away. It was no longer possible for him to drive on the day off to see the kids, and he was a wreck about it. But even more unsettling were the bits of information that started filtering in from the kids’ new location. First from the kids themselves, then concerned neighbors, then the police and finally Child Protective Services.
His divorce was not simple, nor was it inexpensive. It was as if his ex-wife got a book on how to make divorce easier on children, took every bullet point, and did the exact opposite. I’ve had a lot of rage and bad feelings for many years over her treatment of the kids, but I am finally at a place of semi-peace with it because I know now that she is mentally ill. To a large degree, many of her actions are beyond her control.
When a mentally ill person is also angry with you, it’s very difficult to understand what’s going on. You start to second-guess your own sanity. You wonder if it’s your fault. When the mentally ill person doesn’t believe there’s anything wrong with them and are incapable of being truthful, it’s honest-to-God crazy-making for everyone around them.
These things happened in the new town:
- The five-year-old took her two-year-old brother to the park all by herself. She called Chris (from 1200 miles away) when they got lost.
- The two-year-old was found playing naked in a busy intersection in 40-degree weather. When he was returned, no one had noticed he was missing.
- The five-year-old wandered off again and was returned home by the police, after she called Chris (again, 1200 miles away) because she didn’t know her address.
- The 12-year-old was left in charge of the 9-, 7-, and 2-year-old while the mom and the 5-year-old away went away for an entire weekend to another state (1600 miles away, in the other direction).
Things like this happen and even as the girlfriend on the sidelines, you get angry. You think horrible, rage-filled thoughts about the person who is supposed to be taking care of them and you judge her mercilessly. Then you get afraid because you start to see that she’s not making good decisions. This is more than some defect of character; she never used to be dangerous. You wonder how much more is going on that you don’t know about, and you feel helpless. Your boyfriend can’t eat or sleep or concentrate at work.
There was more, but that last one was the straw for CPS and in an off-the-record call they laid it out for him: Make a play for custody, or they’re looking at foster care.
The casual observer may wonder why didn’t he try to get custody prior to this. If you can ask that question honestly, count your blessings that you have never had to deal first hand with the near impossibility of a father getting custody of his children in this country.
When that call came, I had to ask myself one simple question: Do I want to be in this relationship?
Simple, not easy.
It came down to love. I loved Chris, but the answer to this question was larger than just that. I believed what I had learned long ago that the opposite of love isn’t hate, it’s fear. Every day, you’re making a choice to operate out of either love or fear. What’s my choice to be? I was making every effort to operate from a place of love.
Would love be enough? I understood deeply that I didn’t know what I didn’t know yet. I knew there were a billion variables I wouldn’t know ahead of time. I was so tired of living in fear, but when each variable arose over time, would I be able to keep operating from a place of love?
I owned that I had played some part in the way the situation currently was between Chris and his ex and the kids, though not as large a part as others sometimes wanted to assign to me. Stepping fully into the lives of these children, whom we knew were hurting in ways we couldn’t fully assess yet, felt like the right thing to do. They desperately needed someone to treat them with love and help pick up the pieces. I was available. I couldn’t in good conscience live with myself peacefully knowing that they were in foster care. I also couldn’t stand by why Chris tried to do all this himself.
When I answered that simple-not-easy question for myself, it was an even stronger commitment than getting married because it was a true commitment in my mind and my heart. Back then my life wasn’t overrun with good examples of strong marriages. Chris and I didn’t actually get married for a couple more years, by which point my understanding of marriage was greatly expanded. But in 2006, when I decided I did want to be in this relationship and everything that went along with it, I was as fully committed as I could be.
I think that’s the place you have to be before agreeing to become a step-parent. I try to avoid “musts” as a general rule in my life, but I found the exceptions here.
- Above all else, the relationship with your partner must come first, and you both have to be on the same page with that.
- You must make a commitment in your heart not just to your new partner, but also to any children they’re bringing in to the mix. The kids have already been through one great loss. Promise yourself you’re not going to add to that.
- If you think “Well, I love him, so naturally I’ll love them too. I’ll do this all for him.” –that’s a recipe for disaster. What if you don’t love them?
- It is not a requirement to love someone in order to treat them with love. It is, however, essential that you treat the kids as the individuals they are, not just as little auxiliary bits of your chosen partner.
If you’re facing a decision about entering into a ready-made family, don’t ever delude yourself that you have it all figured out. It’s a decision made with your soul, not your head. However you think it’s going to go, it won’t. It’s a lot like having babies yourself, from what I gather. The best you can do is keep your eyes open and maybe work on your reflexes a little. Like kickboxing maybe, or Krav-Maga. I’d say “Be ready for anything!” but that’s bullshit. Nobody’s ready for everything.
But you can handle the next thing in front of you when you choose to operate from a place of love. It is, after all, a choice.
JM Randolph became a step-mom in 2006, when her boyfriend at the time got temporary emergency custody of his five (yes, five!) children and she moved in to help out. Temporary turned permanent when they were married in 2008. She and her husband both work as stagehands and enjoy (most days) with their houseful of teen girls, one 11-year-old boy and two Puggles. She blogs at accidentalstepmom.com. Follow her on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/jmrandolph.writer and Twitter: @JM_Randolph