I have been struggling over the last year or two, for my sanity, to step back from the decisions involving my step-daughter and to let my husband handle it. I read advice here about step-parents letting spouses be the ones to deal with these things and to stay out of it, and I have always responded with a "yes, but..."
On some subjects, I was fairly successful at letting go... when they were choosing a Kindergarten, I reminded myself over and over that they would make a choice that was right for her, that even if it wasn't the one I would choose it didn't matter, that this was something that didn't effect me.
On other subjects, I have fought fiercely (alongside my husband) for what I feel is right. I have helped him compose emails, met with the lawyer, raged about his ex's behavior.... and I have suffered insomnia as I stewed about something she said, worried about how he phrased an email to the lawyer, outlined arguements and counter-arguements with his ex in my head. My stress level was one with the stress level in their co-parenting relationship.
I have been trying to stop fighting. In a way I have been trying to learn not to care. For a while that meant sharing my opinion then stepping back to let him take my input and make his own decision... but I never really let go of it. Now I am trying to just let him deal with it and pass on the information I need (what day she will be arriving for summer break, for example) without spouting off my opinion about whether or not that lives up to the letter of the custody agreement or the precedent that has been set in the past. I have been successful occassionally at best, and only when other life stressors are at a minimum.
Why has it been so hard for me to let go of control, to step out of the decision-making role that really isn't my responsibility? Why is it so hard to give up an activity that is obviously causing me stress, costing me sleep, and consuming way more mental energy than I know, rationally, that it should? This morning I became suddenly aware of how our history has led me to this point.
Early in our relationship my (now)husband was going through a really messy custody situation. His girlfriend had fled to another state with their infant daughter and wouldn't let him see her. She was very controlling, very demanding. Their daughter was a pawn and she had control. My husband had a lot of guilt for his part in their break-up, was grieving the loss of his daughter's presence in his life, worried about his ex's mental health and ability to care for their daughter, and was being manipulated by someone who knew where all his buttons were. He had little money to fight with, for a lawyer or a plane ticket...
At that time, I was his strength. I was his righteous indignation. I helped him up off the floor after every fight and convinced him that he was good and strong and wonderful. I was his legal advisor as I learned the custody and child support laws, researched case law, drafted letters... I was fiercely protective of him, of his time with his daughter, and of their relationship.
This morning I saw my 18 month old trying to climb up into a "grown-up chair" at the table to reach something she wanted... I stayed nearby, but I let her find her foothold, negotiate the height, find her balance, use her own strength to pull herself up. She got up on the chair and grinned at me as she reached the toy she wanted. She couldn't find her footing on the way down and said "Mama help." I helped her find the rail with her foot, then let her make her way back down to the ground then toddle off and play.
I laid the foundation for my toddler... I protected her from harm, raised a happy baby with healthy attachments and a strong sense of self and trust in others. She is adventurous and creative in solving problems. She is not shy with her opinion. She knows I am there if she needs me and she asks for help when she wants it. I value those abilities and I let her try new things, even when there is a chance she could fall and get hurt. I am a relaxed parent, offering reassurance and support while valuing and encouraging independence in thought and action.
Watching my daughter this morning it became so clear to me that, while I am in tune with my children's changing needs, I have not let my husband "grow up," so to speak, in regard to his dealings with his ex. I am still the fiercely protective mama bear, keeping him safe from any bump or tumble... This morning I imagined how stressful it would be to try to protect my adventurous 18 month old the way I protected her as a newborn! Just as I acknowlege the changes I need to make in my own attitudes and actions toward my children as they develop new skills and gain strength, I have to do the same for my husband. For his sake and, maybe even more so, for mine.
Today, 5 years later... he has his own strength. He is fiercely protective of his daughter, his own rights, his own relationship with his eldest child. He knows he is good and strong and wonderful, and that he deserves to have his daughter in his life. He knows the law, he drafts letters, he meets with lawyers...
In the beginning he needed my strength, my protection, and my intensive care. But, just as I learned to let my toddler negotiate the world around her without hovering and controlling her every action... so, too, must I learn to allow my husband the space to negotiate his world...
I hope my epiphany this morning can help someone else who is dealing with this same internal struggle. I hope there is some bit of wisdom that rang true for someone else that will allow another step-parent to shift their perspective toward a healthier step-parenting attitude. I don't have any illusion that my awareness will magically enable me to be the Zen master of step-mothering... but I know that it is a step in the right direction.
I'll let you know how it's going when I hit the next patch of bumpy road...