Monday, March 30, 2015

Laughing with the enemy: From "Real Housewives" to "Sister Wives" with my children's stepmother

Divorce is awful, no matter how you slice it.  No matter what leads to it, and no matter if the parties involved are better off apart, it's still a horrible thing to go through, especially if kids are involved. 

My divorce was no different. It happened 17 years ago, and it was awful; not just awful, but in the annals of awfulness, it was epic. However, the wounds are no longer fresh for either of us, and we've worked things out to the point that mistakes made so long ago aren't relevant to our lives today; we've both moved on to other marriages and other lives, and our kids, perhaps in spite of us (but I like to think, to some degree, because of us), are whole, functional, happy adults.

And here's something I wasn't expecting. In the least expected of all places -- in the trenches of my worst behavior and my most horrible mistakes and my most grievous failures as a human being -- I made a friend. She was right there with me the whole time, but not in the way one might expect.

She was, and is, my ex-husband's wife.

Her name is Deena, and she and my ex have been married for a good many years. When my kids were at her house, she helped to raise them; she's known them since they were little, and sometimes to this day, it surprises me to realize that she really does know them. When the kids were young, her place in their lives made me miserable and jealous. It didn't matter that my feelings were irrational; they were ever-present and they were raw, and they drove me to say the most hateful things. Deena became the target not only of my frustrations with my ex, but of my regrets and frustrations about myself.

Don't get me wrong: Deena was no Mother Teresa. She'd be the first to admit I wasn't her favorite person, either, and she pulled a dirty trick or two. But I think she would have been willing to extend the olive branch pretty early, if I had been willing to accept it. 

I don't watch Real Housewives, but from what my son and daughter-in-law tell me, the arguments the women have are petty and ridiculous and are exacerbated for dramatic effect. I guess I could have started that franchise, because I perfected the art of drama to the nth degree. There was no hair-pulling or knocking over of furniture, but there were wars of words. Sometimes I won. Sometimes I didn't. But my kids always lost, and that's the hardest thing to bear now.

Bottom line: I hated Deena, or believed I did, because I didn't like myself a whole lot. And because I didn't like myself, I was insecure about my most sacred role, that of mother to my kids, and I didn't want to feel as though that position was being challenged in any way. Looking back, what did I want? For Deena to be mean to my kids? To ignore them? Of course not. I just didn't want them to like her best.

I'd like to say a thunderbolt struck me one day and caused me to see the light, but what really occurred was the simple passage of time. As cheesy as it sounds, as I grew to become happier and more confident in my own skin, I was able to take a step back and see her as a person. And that person really wasn't out to challenge me, make me miserable, or steal my children. 

Things didn't become rosy overnight, and they're still not perfect; Deena and I are very different people. I'm a feeler; she's more a thinker. I work hard to be tactful, sometimes to a fault; she is very direct. I've always been an indulgent parent; Deena was independent early in life and expected the same of her kids and stepkids. As people and as parents, we're sometimes on opposite sides of the fence. But as is true in many relationships, we actually sort of complement one another.

I enjoy talking to her; in fact, as we plan my daughter Caroline's wedding, we tend to talk daily. My ex and I get along fine, but he enjoys talking on the phone about as much as my current husband does, so when any communication needs to happen, it's between Deena and me. And even the planning works out well; I have grand visions for the big picture, and she has knack for details. In addition, we have some personal things in common now; we've both been on a nutrition kick for a while, and we both run.

And most importantly, we have my kids in common. Oh, how it would have pained me years ago to say this, but my kids love Deena. They love her in a way that is not at all competitive with the way they love me; they know who their mother is. But they are grateful for and respect the time and resources she has committed to them, and the place she holds in their lives. Most of all, they love her because she loves their dad.

Step-relationships are endlessly tricky. From Cinderella onward, they've been fraught with competition and misunderstanding; it's easy to make a step-person a target or a scapegoat. But what I finally came to realize is this: Our shared feelings are what bond us. I once was married to the person she is married to; from that relationship came two children. When Deena married that man, it linked her not only to my children, but to me. 

I've often thought there should be a word for Deena's and my relationship: As we've joked, "sister wife" is a contender, but doesn't quite cut it. But whatever the nomenclature, evolving from "real housewives" to "sister wives," or whatever we are, was no small task. The relationship we have now benefits my kids, to be sure, but the truth is: It also benefits us.

What they say is true: Letting go of negative feelings is healthy and freeing. I'm laughing with the person who used to be my sworn enemy. It's possible for a cold, hardened heart to thaw, even when it's your own.  

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