Or, Empty Nesting with One Husband, Two Shelter Dogs, and the Occasional 12-Year-Old

by Jill Sherer Murray

Best Behavior
I’m sitting in my office hoping my 12-year-old stepdaughter will behave badly. That way, I’ll have something juicy to write about as a lead-in to this article. How great if I can show you in real time how complicated it can be to have both an empty nest and the occasional hormonal pre-teen all at the same time? (Hold on, there’s an explanation coming.)

And usually, when it comes to her behaving badly, I don’t have to wait too too long. Maybe one or two hours, before she (innocently?) does something to make me feel like I’m not all that important. You know, you’re-not-my-mom sort of stuff: perhaps a hearty “good morning” to the dogs and her father and a smirk in my direction that says “I’m ignoring you.”

Or, an exasperated eye roll when I suggest she put her dirty cereal bowl in the dishwasher.

Or, her grabbing the little dog from my lap and declaring that, by rights, he’s really hers. She actually said that to me once: “You can have [our ridiculously adorable cocker spaniel–sheltie mutt] when I’m not here, but when I am here, he’s MINE.”

When she’s here. Those are the key words: when she swoops into my otherwise empty nest every other or third week (since she lives full time with her mother two states away) to visit her father and, as a byproduct, gets me—a 47-year-old perimenopausal woman with endocrine and self-esteem issues—and two shelter dogs as part of the deal.

Now, I don’t want to paint an extreme picture. “Steppy” and I do have our good moments—sometimes even great. And they’ve gotten better and more regular over the past five years—since her father and I met and married. (Why, some days I truly believe she not only likes me, but loves me. And those are really good days.)

But it didn’t start out that way. We’ve both had to make accommodations. Her to my single-girl-for-too-long tendencies—like needing my throw pillows just so on the sofa, a kitchen free of Pop-Tart debris and dirty juice glasses, fewer pairs of SpongeBob Squarepants socks and slippers, well, everywhere, and dear lord, less Nickelodeon. (Please, I beg of you.)

And me, to having somebody else’s child come every once in a while and set up camp in my house, my kitchen, my bathroom, my beloved family room and office. Sit on my side of the leather sofa or in my chair at the kitchen table. Leave her little-girl mark (think half-drunken cups of tea and hot chocolate, purses shaped like stuffed bears, half-peeled sunflower stickers, bubble gum wrappers, and now Twilight books, middle-school report cards, a rotation of multicolored inhalers) all over my clean counters and tables.

Now before you think less of me, consider that, unlike the traditional empty nester—somebody who raised children, his or her own children, and then sent them off to college, rehab, or simply to live their own lives—I spent most of my life living solo. The only birdies in my nest were a couple of clay statues I bought during a writer’s retreat in Taos, New Mexico, when I was in my early 30s. Until, that is, I met my husband in my early 40s. He came with a garage full of tools, a basement full of guitars, an ex-wife (sadly, full of insecurities), and a confused seven-year-old full of, well, attitude.

I should have known right from the start that Steppy would be a challenge. After all, the first time I met her, she stood low at my door with arms crossed, lips turned down, and a facial expression that said, “Who are you and what do you want with my daddy?” When I think about that now, it makes me both shudder and smile.

Just a little.

Stepping Out
Sometimes I wonder how it’s going for other stepparents who, like me, get to interact with their stepchildren only intermittently. After all, there are a lot of us. According to the National Stepfamily Resource Center, about 43 percent of all marriages are remarriages for at least one of the adults—and about 65 percent of those involve children from a prior marriage. (These are 1990 figures, since the U.S. Census Bureau has given up on keeping track of our drama.)

How many, like me, are going from empty nest to instant parent sort of (since we steps typically have no real parental rights—especially when one of the bio-parents feels threatened) and then back again on a regular basis, like an overused tennis ball. For my part, it can be exhausting, this constant traveling to alternate sides of the demographic landscape.

One side is really simple and easy—just me and my husband. No wistful feeling that comes from missing children you’ve been used to having around for almost decades. No wondering what they’re up to, whether they like their classes, the youth hostel, the new job in accounting, or Disney World. No worrying about where we went wrong or how we got so lucky. No thinking, “Gosh, I should get that for [insert kid’s name],” when at, say, the mall or traveling somewhere exotic on vacation.

The other side, well, it’s organically more complicated. When, every 14 or 21 days, this child you’re not sure what to do with—whether to get closer or farther away—comes into your home and makes it her own. Concessions need to be made on all parts. Rules need to be agreed on and lived by. (Kindness at all times, no cursing, we all pick up after ourselves, there’s nothing we can’t say to each other as long as we are respectful, and for heaven’s sakes, no dirty hands on my yellow walls . . .) I need to give up my side of the sofa, my seat at the table, my role as number one in my husband’s life, although, to his credit (and to mine for picking him), I never ever move down—just aside.

It’s weird and yes, sometimes, even wonderful. And yes again, even confounding.

Princess Charming
When I was a little girl, I always thought I’d have my own children. Then, as circumstance and fate and important years wasted on one boyfriend for way too long (11, to be exact) would have it, I didn’t. And so, I made the most of my empty nest. I had big jobs, bad boyfriends, close girlfriends, long nights out on the town and on the job, my fair share of weekend adventures. Nobody else to worry about. No kids to stick around for. No restrictions.

But now, in the peak of mid-life, I find myself planning for retirement, going to middle-school plays, buying frames for Miley Cyrus posters, and empty nesting simultaneously. And I must say, it’s never boring, always unpredictable, and for sure has its moments. Which brings me full circle to this one:

Today, while I waited for Steppy to provide me with some fresh fodder for this article—with some bad behavior that’d make for good story—she did something almost completely surprising instead. She declined my offer of a piece of a chocolate chip cookie (something we both love and she knows I eat only once every other fiscal quarter).

She said, “No thanks, Jill. I know you really want that and you’re so good to me all the time.” (I swear on the 13 pairs of sandals I just bought that, praise be Nordstroms, always fit, unlike most of my blue jeans, I am NOT making this up.) “And I meant to tell you, those flip flops you got me? Oh my gosh, my friend Taylor keeps trying to steal them. It’s awesome!”

On some days, I’m convinced that Cinderella’s evil stepmother started out as a protégé to Mother Teresa and then got married and was driven to total personality breakdown by an aberrant stepchild.

But not today. Today, I think otherwise.

Jill Sherer Murray, president of Streetcar Communications, Inc., is an award-winning journalist, freelance writer, marketer, corporate communicator, consultant, and blogger. She uses her higher education and 20 years of professional experience in publishing and communications to service a wide range of clients and projects. To learn more about Jill, visit her website and her blog Diary of a Writer in Midlife Crisis.

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