Q&A: toddler preference and blended families

Greeting from blazing hot San Antonio. Anon has a tough two-parter today and I hope we can help her. As painful and frustrating as this divorce process for me has been, I’ve always felt lucky that my kids’ dad is his best self with/for them. My heart really goes out to those of you with dicey father situations. I hope we can help Anon:

The talk about toddler preferences for parents really hit a nervethis week, and I wonder of some of the other single or almost-single
parents out there may be able to offer some wisdom.  I am a single
parent of an 18-month-old boy, and have been thinking about this topic
a lot lately.  My son’s dad plays with him about twice a week at my
house, but isn’t emotionally stable or organized enough to take him
anywhere alone.  We haven’t been a couple since I was three months’
pregnant, so this is all DS knows.  He LOVES his dada and is so excited
when he comes to play, and they have a great time together.  His father
doesn’t come over when he isn’t doing well, and hasn’t made an effort
to have longer or more independent visits, so DS hasn’t been exposed to
the scary temper or other issues that kept me from marrying his dad.
 As far as he knows, dada is an awesome loving wonderful presence in
his life.  Since DS was born I have worked hard to find the good in his
dad and find ways to facilitate their relationship under the
circumstances.  I know that eventually DS will become aware of some of
the problems his dad struggles with, and I can’t fully protect him from
that, but I can and do strive to keep him safe from the physically
scary stuff.  So question # 1 is, is anyone else out there in a similar
situation, and do they have any advice or thoughts about how to make
this work?  On my very best days, I can imagine that with a lot of
structure and some limits, they will have a mostly positive, joyful
relationship, and I will be somehow able to move on in my own life and
build a family around me and DS.  On my bad days, it seems impossible
to figure out how we will all get through this. 

My other, related question is about stepfathers and
how they figure into a boy toddler’s life.  I have been thinking I
would like to start dating, but I’m having trouble envisioning the role
a new man would play in my son’s life.  Another father?  An uncle?
 Does step-dad always play second fiddle when there is a bio-dad in the
picture?  My son’s father is emotionally impaired in ways that I think
will make it hard for him to have a primary care relation-giver
relationship with DS unless something drastically changes or he marries
a very stable woman who can help.  And I really feel as if DS needs
fathering his bio-dad can’t provide, but every time I try to imagine a
new boyfriend, in my mind he turns into chopped liver whenever bio-dad
shows up.  Not really a great bonding scenario for a new guy.  I am so
ready for a partner, friend and lover to share this life with, but I
keep getting stuck when I try to visualize it. Can kids really have
more than two parents?  Do they always feel like they have to choose (I
know I did)? Can step-parents be “real” parents or are they always
secondary? Is it already too late for my son to fully bond with another
parent?  If they never deeply bond, how on earth could we ever be a
real family?

Help! I want to move forward but I’m getting stuck
on this.  Can anyone out there offer me some hope for how a blended
family like this might work?

I know it doesn’t seem like it now, but you will be able to get through this. For two reasons: 1) You have to, and 2) You’re smart and resourceful and you’ll do what you need to for your son to be safe and also have as much of a relationship with his father as he can. I’m going to tell you what my mom has said to me dozens of times over the past year and a half:

“Thousands of women have done this, even when they didn’t think they could. You can do this, too, honey, and I’m so proud of you.”

I may have slightly better advice about the second half of your questions, about a hypothetical future stepdad (HFS). Kids have room in their minds and hearts and lives for all kinds of adults in all kinds of roles. Many kids grow up with two grandmothers and don’t confuse them. Some kids grow up with four or more grandmothers! Kids have room for full-time babysitters in their hearts along with moms and dads, custodial aunts and moms in jail, grandparents they never see because they live around the world, and blended families of all kinds.

As long as an adult loves your child and respects him as a person, they’ll be able to form a relationship.

HFS is going to understand that you and your son are a package, and that loving you means loving him, so you’ll be able to work it out. It may not be super-easy, but is love and forming a family ever easy? There are tons and tons of resources out there for blending families and step-parenting to help you. (I’m not there yet, but once I start dating again I’ll do some real research and report back.)

They are going to end up working out the dynamics of their own relationship, which is what you want for them to be able to have a true relationship without you as the gatekeeper, anyway.

Also, and this is merely anecdotal, I haven’t found that men (the good ones anyway) seem to shy away from a woman with a child (or two). Even long before I was even thinking about getting back out there I started getting approached by guys for whom my being a mom seemed to be part of the attraction. So don’t feel like this is going to limit the future you’re going to have.

Any advice from women who have been in either or both situation?

Adult mother responsibilities to adult daughters vs. sons

Attiton raised a super-good question in the comments of yesterday’s guest post from Num-Num:

“…I can’t help but wonder how this conversation between a mother andan extremely successful but frustrated child would be different if the
adult child in question were a man. I think it would be quite different.

How deep are the differences in emotional responsibilities between mothers and their adult daughters and sons?”

Wow. I hadn’t really thought of that, and I absolutely should have. I do think, often and intensely, about how I mother my boys now. And about my own relationship with my mother. So I really had to think about this. I tossed the question back to Num-Num first:

Good points have been made about how the boundaries between mother and
daughter appear to be looser than between mother and son. I believe
that to be true, and part of the need to have your mother not take
over your disappointment. In the playground, I’ve often seen mothers
of boys be more anxious that their children stop crying and get back
up from minor injuries quickly. I’ve also seen them tolerate more
aggressive behavior in their sons than in their daughters. I would
treat boys and girls exactly the same in these situations, as
Hillary’s mother did when her daughter was bullied. What struck me
about Dorothy was that no one protected her when she was a child. She
learned her own survival skills. Because she appears to have yielded
to her husband after her marriage may have sent mixed messages to her
daughter. (I’m not judging her at all. Her ability to raise her own
family after what she endured was no mean feat.)

It’s more difficult for me to comfort a son sometimes because I’m not
a man, obviously. I am not always sure how much anger is useful and
appropriate in a man when he’s disappointed. I would have to be
careful not to stifle his feelings and to respect his need to be
strong, a tricky tightrope. If the anger continued, I might try the
trick I’ve used with male bosses, become even angrier at opponents
than he was so that he could see himself through my behavior.

I believe there are real differences and would be interested in what
y’all think.

By the way, as I read about Dorothy Rodham’s childhood, I wondered if
Hillary’s early interest in the movement for children’s rights, for
which she’s been vilified, came from her knowledge of what happened
to her mother.

I think Nancy hits on what I came to when considering this question. In Playful Parenting, Lawrence Cohen talks about how society wants girls to be sweet and boys to be tough. So the challenge for parents is to allow their daughters to be angry and aggressive, and to allow their sons to be vulnerable and tender. Reading this gave me one of those lightning-bolt moments of “of course!” and I think it really informs how we interact as adults as well as as children.

We’re socialized to allow women to be sad, but not to be angry. So maybe mothering an adult daughter is about allowing her to be angry, aggressive, subversive, sarcastic, righteous, avenging. To balance out every other message she gets. We’re socialized to allow men to be angry, but not sad. So maybe mothering an adult son is about allowing him to be sad, disappointed, vulnerable, in need of comfort. To balance out every other message he gets.

How would that play out if we were talking about Barack or John losing the race? And what do you think about it all?

Guest post: A Daughter’s Pain, A Mother’s Strength

Num-Num wrote this for you guys, after reading all your kind comments about her post on parenting adult children:

I’ve been thinking about Dorothy Rodham lately. You know, Hillary’smom?

Dorothy Rodham was 89 years old, on June 4th, the day after
her daughter lost the Democratic nomination for president. She looks younger
than her years and centered, with a wide smile. Still…89? You’ve got to hope
that by then your children will have ceased to need you. But she’s never stopped
being a mother and, according to all reports, remains very close to her daughter
and to her granddaughter. The few times I spotted the three women together on
television, they were drawing strength from one other.

Dorothy Rodham had a dreadful childhood and a fifties-type marriage. Hugh
Rodham ruled the roost. The few descriptions of her marriage in print hint at
emotional abuse. The story of her parents’ abandonment of her, and her paternal
grandparents’ cruelty lead you to believe that life with a domineering husband,
if that’s what he was, and her children in a Chicago suburb was light years
better than her past.

So how, I wondered,  would
she deal with her daughter’s great disappointment? In my last post about how to
parent an adult child, many of you liked the idea of keeping one hand lightly on
the small of your child’s back and sending brownies. I’m not sure that would do
the trick in this instance. After reading a bit about Dorothy Howell
Rodham,  I asked some friends what
they would say to Hillary, if they were her mother.

First me:  I’d bring a
mega-box of tissues with me,  and
I’d spend a long time listening. I’d probably need more than a few tissues
myself. I’d bring some good chocolate with hot peppers in it (Whole Foods,
natch),  because Hillary loves hot
peppers and she needs chocolate. I’d tell her to go easy on the Bourbon and beer
now that she’s off the campaign trail. But if a shot of schnapps, like the one
my grandmother downed every night of her adult life, got her through the night for a while,
well, okay. After all, Hillary has a track record of extraordinary discipline.

I’d control myself and not give vent to the anger I would be feeling
because of the way she’s been treated, because she lost, and because I’d do
anything to punish the people who hurt her. I’d keep telling myself that
wouldn’t do any good, not for her, not for me. I’d tell her how proud I am
of her and I’d also tell her that the 17 million who didn’t vote for her were
plain stupid. Others could be easy on them, but I’m her mother.

A good friend, and one of Moxie’s Moms, had an important Don’t:  “Don’t tell her to suck it up, don’t
tell her it wasn’t that important, and don’t tell her she’ll be fine! Don’t tell
her your own stories of disappointment or turn the convo somehow to how her hurt
hurts you.. Help her wallow a teeny bit.”

Another friend who was passionate about Hillary told me that she should
Dump the Chump. Not really, she adds. Really, though, my friend would keep her
away from news and public appearances, she’d bring in some silly films and
comfort food. She’d encourage the tears (after all, you always stop) and she’d
take her on a vacation, bringing Chelsea along.

The women I spoke with emphasized that when Hillary was ready, Dorothy
ought to encourage her to keep on believing in herself and in the causes she
worked for. When your child, no matter how old she is and how old you are, has
processed the hurt, do what you can to help her up on the horse again. Maybe,
just do something outrageous yourself, just to set a good example.

Scheduling and allotting chores around the house

Yesterday you guys were asking about dividing up and scheduling chores around the house, so I figured we should do an entire post on that. I'm not making this a Q&A because I have little practical knowledge of how to divide up chores in a way that makes everyone feel OK about it. I know what I think should happen, but I'll leave the actual advice to those of you who have functional relationships.

What I think should happen is that each partner does their work (whether it's paid work or childcare work) and then the partners split the other chores 50/50. That doesn't mean that you keep a log and alternate who washes dishes, but that the total tasks that need to be done end up being done so each of you has an approximately equal share. So if one of you is fine with laundry and the other hates it, the person who doesn't hate it does it, and the other one does something else.

To me, the key assumption here is that child care is actual work. Which, duh, of course it is. (In Manhattan, it's work that gets paid at $15 an hour for one child.) And, yes, it's certainly possible to get a load of dishes or laundry done during the day (if you're home all day and have your own washer and dryer), just as it's possible to be a novelist or academic or other person who works full-time at home and do some chores during the day. The same way it's possible to be someone who works in an office all day and pay some bills online, schedule doctor appointments, and do some online shopping. But you can't do chores to the detriment of your primary job, whether it's writing technical manuals or trading bonds or caring for a three-year-old. That leaves most of the chores for "non-work" hours.

So, those of you who have or are working this out, what have you done? How often do you readjust and reassign? (I'm assuming that all this stuff changes as the size of the family changes, kids get older, job situations change, etc.) Those of you for whom it's not working, have you identified ways you could make it work better for everyone? (I can't really recommend divorce as a solution, although it has, technically, eliminated the problem.) Is the problem something you can change easily, like by hiring a bi-weekly cleaner? Or is this part of a bigger issue?

Q&A: Work scheduling for freelancing couple?

At the Twin Cities meet-up, Amy was wondering about scheduling. She's a SAH/WAHM who does freelancing, and her husband is a teacher. He's off for the summer, so they're both picking up extra work.

They went into it thinking it was going to be awesome–he spends time with the kids while she works, then she spends time with the kids while he works, they each get 20 hours of work done a week, it's more relaxed, the kids have so much parent time, etc. Then the first week was a disaster. Not an emotional disaster, just in terms of trying to actually get the work done. So there were good results there to modify the plan.

Amy also came up with some things she hadn't thought so much about but now realized were important, one of which was that she and her husband wanted only to work during the actual work day (for them that's 8-5).

So we were all talking through it (those of us here have a huge gamut of work schedule experience) and this is what we came up with:

1. Plan the week's work schedule in advance–who's working when. If possible, assign shifts: 8-noon, and 1-5. Vary shifts so no one gets stuck with the non-nap shift or the nap shift all the time.

2. Schedule non-work (meaning non-paid-work AND non-childcare) events the same way you do during the year, meaning use a babysitter if you need to go to the doctor or do some other errand you can't take the kids along for.

3. Keep clear in your mind that being in charge of kids is a job, and you can't double-book with your paid work. So don't even be tempted to do it, as it will only lead to confusion.

4. This kind of split schedule with a partner isn't going to work if you or your partner are averse to scheduling and sticking to a schedule when temptation is there.

I know there have to be couples out there who do fit their work around each other like this, whether they freelance, own their own businesses, are academics, etc. What do you think? Have you come up with good solutions?

….and we’re back!

Wow. Sorry about that, guys. I just blithely went off on my vacation with my laptop in my sweet new laptop bag (perfect for travel because it's big and you can cram a lot of stuff in it, but probably too big for a trip to the local coffee shop–you'd probably want the sleeve instead) thinking I'd be able to post from my grandma's. She lives in a neighborhood with a lot of college students who don't lock down their wi-fi, so I can always hop on and steal some bandwidth.

Of course, the semester ended a few weeks ago, so no one's there, and not an unprotected wi-fi signal in sight. Duh.

Then when I got back on the grid in the Twin Cities, I was running from dawn (my 3-year-old woke no later than 5:30 every single day) 'til dusk.

Lesson learned: Set posts to auto-post before I leave, even if I'm absolutely sure I'll be able to post from vacation.

But, I had a good beach meet-up with a reader in the Winona area and her sweet fat little baby and funny husband. And the Twin Cities meet-up was good at Chutes & Ladders. We made it through a flash downpour and the fact that I forgot to bring any kind of signage to indicate who I was. I recognized Rudy in Paris right away, because she looks exactly like her online voice. Amy and Julie were there, too. I hope no one else showed up and left because they couldn't figure out who we were!

I always feel a little strange when I meet people who read Ask Moxie. I'm worried that I'm not glamorous enough, and they'll somehow be disillusioned when they discover that I really am just stultifying normal (except, of course, for the laptop bag, which is glamorous). But at the same time that's the whole point, that I'm not that special, just a regular person struggling not to believe the hype. So maybe it's good that I get all red in the sun, and get a little lost in the rental car, and my kids make butt jokes all the time.

Later today I'll post a question that came up at the Twin Cities meet-up.

Q&A: Chopped liver?

Meggimoo writes:

“My 2-1/2 year-old son adores my husband. I’m happy about that. I’m ok with taking the back seat since the 1st year of his life he only wanted me (and my breasts). But for the past 6 months, and with no end in sight, it’s not just that he prefers my husband. He actively does not want me to have anything to do with him if my DH is within 500 feet. I can’t put him to bed, I can’t sing him songs at night, I can’t change his clothes, ad infinitum. Of course, I still do these things when necessary, but they’re met with the utmost protest. If my DH is not around, my DS will grudgingly allow me to be in his presence

I’m trying to be mature about this (ahem) and not feel hurt. That works most of the time. But sometimes I just wonder when/if this stage will end. Is this it? Am I just not going to be a preferred member of his posse forever more? I had always heard that boys adored their mothers. Has anyone out there gone through this and come out the other end? Did their sons (or daughters) begin to gravitate toward them again? I guess I’m just thrown by the suddenness of how this all occured. I feel like the new wife my DH just married, trying to win over his toddler. But, hello! I pushed you out with no drugs, dammit. (Hmm, I’m beginning to sound like MY mother.)

<sigh&gt 

So you know it’s normal, but it still hurts. I remember it vividly, and it hurt me, too. Heck, it still hurts now when they see their dad and run off to him and leave me hanging. (Of course that may also have something to do with the inherent weirdness of our co-parenting in a completely different–and probably healthier–way than we did while we were still together.)

And it really feels like you spent so much of your life giving and giving and giving and now he doesn’t want anything to do with you. It would be one thing if he was ready to go out of the nest completely, but the switching alliances to his dad while you’re still there just stings.

Two thoughts (and then I’m leaving for the airport):

1. I think it’s a biological thing. At this age, many mothers are having another child, so it makes total sense for the child to be programmed to prefer the dad at this point, so the mother can focus on the new baby. Even though there’s no new baby, his developmental stuff is still going on as programmed. Maybe you could get a cat, or take up a new hobby to keep yourself busy until he comes out of this phase.

2. It does change. At some point in the future he’ll want you again, and may even tell your husband, “No, I want Mom!” and refuse to let anyone else touch him.

I don’t want to miss my flight, so I’ll turn this over to the readers. Anyone else feels just hurt and insulted by this phase? When did it end?

Not really a vengeance

I promised you guys "a vengeance," but I don't know that I have avengeance in me. Instead, I have a cautionary tale. Or maybe a
bildungsroman. Or maybe a voyage of self-discovery. Or maybe a story of
grace. How about a work in progress?

This whole process (of being underground and unhappy for so many
years, then of coming out of that, then of trying to get divorced and
become myself at the same time) has been all about finally
understanding that I am not, nor do I have to be, a Good Girl. That's
an entire dissertation, so let me give you just one little piece for
today.

I was having a bad 36 hours of feeling not very attractive, and that
made me think about how my own sense of attractiveness has changed over
the years. For a long, long time all I thought about was how I was
perceived, whether others thought I was beautiful, sexy, thin,
alluring. Even when I was at a woman's college reading John Berger and
steeping myself in the idea that I could be the gazer instead of the
object, I still didn't internalize it.

Looking back on the decisions I  made, the relationships I had, it was
never about me or how I felt. it was about wondering how I would fit
in, how the other person felt about me. Which may have been why I
wasn't a long-term relationship kind of girl–I wanted to please, but
then couldn't stick around because something was wrong. I just couldn't
be all in, because I'd made my decision on what the other person wanted
instead of how I felt. I didn't even let myself think about what I
really wanted, because that would have been too scary and dangerous.

Even when I got married, it wasn't about what I wanted, what I needed,
how it made me feel. It was about picking the person who looked right,
and who seemed like a decent bet. It was "time to get married." So I
did. No one has a soul mate. No one can see to the real me, and no one
would want to anyway. Play the hand you're dealt.

But then, somehow, I started feeling like what if I was enough, just as
I was. What if there was something inside me that was reaching out,
that needed connection, that needed more? I started getting almost
obsessed with Jorge Ben music, the sexually romantic melodies and
lyrics

Procura-se uma noiva
Que goste de fazer carinho
Encostando a cabeça no meu peito
E ouvir meu coração dizer baixinho
Eu te amo, eu te amo, eu te amo

and with "my cowboy singer" Josh Turner and his cowboy ethic about love
and relationships. The idea of connecting so intimately because it
would give me pleasure was something new and scary to me, but I
couldn't stop exploring it. It felt like everything I had been was
coming apart at the seams, but I couldn't not know anymore.

The period right after I told my kids' father that I needed to get out
of the marriage was one of the most bizarre times of my life. On one
hand I was feeling guilty and sad but on the other hand I felt so free
and almost deliriously joyful. I started feeling sexy in a way I'd
never felt before–powerful. I was lush, ripe, on the verge. I started
buying clothes that showed myself off, and sexy shoes not suitable for
pushing a stroller. I looked at men with new eyes, wondering who they
were and what they were like, if I'd want to be with them or whether
they'd bore me.

And this feeling flowed out of me so other people could pick up on it.
My friends (old and new) told me how beautiful I was suddenly. Men
stopped me on the street to compliment me or hand me their cards. I
felt like Janie with Tea-Cake, able to wear my hair down, long and
thick and wanton.

At the same time I was going through this period of blossoming, I was
the only woman in my office, and the guys there were retraining me for
the world of men. What was reasonable, what was right, what was
expected on both sides. They're a hugely disparate group, but all are
chivalrous, kind, funny, and real. Most are married, and seeing how
they interacted with and about their wives (and one husband) was
eye-opening. I felt like my whole life had been about punching holes in
important documents, only to find that I'd misjudged by half an inch,
so none of the holes lined up with the other pages to go into the
binder. Instead of making a core so the pages could be held together,
the pages were preventing each other from being fastened.

How could I process all of this? The private sexy me, the public sexy
me, the private and public Good Girl who'd accepted and asked for far
less than she was worth? The PTA mom, Moxie, church committee
chairperson? The woman who was undergoing a huge spiritual renewal of
being claimed by a God who loved her even, especially, broken and
failed?

I'm still processing it. I still struggle at times with the idea of
"Will I be loved? Will someone find me attractive?" But knowing what
it's like to be in the wrong relationship, I now know that it's not
just about being desired, it really is about desiring and being
desired. I wonder if, once I'm free, I'll go through a selfish phase or
truly not caring how I'm thought of, or if the emotional work I've done
on myself will render that unnecessary.

How do you process it? This figuring out that you are not who you
thought you were? Who you'd been programmed to be? That mothering has
changed your core or allowed you to start to shed the layers that hid
who you are supposed to be? How do you know your own worth?

I know I'm not the only one has gone through this, who is going through
this right now. Even if you chose the right partner, there is still the
crucible of motherhood that hones you if you let it, but boils you down
if you resist. How do we go through it and come out on the other side
knowing we're not the Good Girl anymore, but allowing ourselves to be
all the angles of ourselves–good, bad, angry, joyful, sexy, inspiring,
powerful, vulnerable?

You're watching me write my story. How do you write yours?

Superfoods checklist

One of the support groups on the T-Tapp web forums is challenging ourselves to eat more "superfoods" for the next six weeks. We took a couple of the superfoods lists and mashed them together and reorganized them, then I turned them into a PDF. The challenge is to eat two servings from each of the categories every week. If you want to play along, download the list and jump in.

Download superfoods_chart.pdf

(If you want to mess around with the chart and add your own columns, here's the Excel version.)

Download superfoods_chart.xls