Monday, February 29, 2016

Family Night In with Netflix #StreamTeam

In the real life hustle and bustle of having four kids---toddler to teenager---with activities most nights of the week for someone and only having one car, making sure we have family nights in, is a very important part of our family.

Friday nights used to be an easy choice for our family-- homemade pizza, a movie, and kids falling asleep early snuggled up on the couch.  A couple of years ago when Andrew joined marching band Friday nights returned to a life of Friday Night Lights.

Now, due to our crazy schedule of band, choir, dance, volleyball, science club, swim lessons, parent meetings, open houses, and a million other activities in a week, we can't really have a set specific day for family night in, so we have to plan it. It's the season of our lives right now and I try to embrace it!

Family nights in always include lots of "movie snacks" --Lily is the coordinator of what we have to eat. She sets up a table and organizes all the snacks. She gives everyone their snack bowls so we can choose what we want individually. I love that she's so joyful about it! Lots of blankets, sometimes even forts.  It's a special time.

Lately, we've been watching Home. A lot! Violet loveloveloves it, so it's on several times a week. Our first viewing was as a family on Netflix.

When I was growing up, we watched Full House as a family. So much nostalgia was wrapped up in that show for me. My dad was still alive, so the memories are comforting and connected.  When word that Fuller House was coming to Netflix, I wasn't so sure about it, but definitely excited to see what it was all about.

We started watching--immediately my eyes filled with tears as the original opening began. I spent the first 10 minutes grinning. I laughed a lot and it was everything I had hoped it would be. The end of the first episode was perfect. Nostalgic.  What I love about it is the same "hokey" humor that reminds me of simpler times.

Violet kept yelling "Baby cute! Baby cute!" and both girls were dancing every time there was singing and music playing. Lily kept asking me why I was crying. haha

We're looking forward to watching more and as always we love how Netflix is a huge part of our family nights in.

Next time your family is gathering around the TV, look to TV Time for the Fam and other Fuller House-inspired title collections to find something everyone can agree on:

What does Family Night In look like in your house?

Watch Together Titles on Netflix

While you wait for the full season of Fuller House, check out these other titles the entire family will enjoy.
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Ferris Bueller's Day Off
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Dragons: Race to the Edge, Season 2
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Once Upon a Time
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Nanny McPhee
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All Hail King Julien
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New on Netflix for Kids, Tweens, Teens and Families

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Turbo FAST: Season 3 
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Care Bears & Cousins: Season 2 
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Fuller House

Disclosure: As a member of the Netflix #StreamTeam I was provided subscription to Netflix and also exclusive insights or other products. All opinions are my 100% my own and I was already a proud Netflix subscriber prior to this opportunity. Please see my full disclosure.

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Peek Inside the Blended Family: Extended Family

There are a handful of challenging moments throughout our early days in Pittsburgh that are etched into my memory, but none moreso than my son saying,
"Mom, I know why Granny doesn't like us. Because we're not [last name]s and I will never be."

I will never forget where we were  and how I could literally feel my heart break in that moment.

He was 8.

I grew up in a very loving and community oriented family. My parents were active in our education and activities and my dad was the president of the local baseball/softball league that my brothers and I played in for years.  When I was married the first time, my in-laws embraced me just as my family did my ex-husband and his two children. Even after I divorced, my former in laws were still good to me. They are to this day, 17 years later.

Given my previous experiences, that love and acceptance was my expectation when George and I started our relationship. I quickly learned that not everyone was as willing to embrace myself or my son unfortunately.

I'm not certain what the crux of the issue ultimately was, but my now mother in law is simply not my biggest fan.

In the beginning, she and I had a decent enough relationship and would talk daily. George and I recognized early on that she would try to stir the pot with each of us. Thankfully, he and I have always had honest and open communication, so it just didn't work. Dealing with such high stress of our court and custody situation with Reagan at that time was so stressful without having another negative force trying to knock us down as well.

In April of 2009, I went on a trip to AZ and California. That distance, amidst the custody stuff going on, allowed me to recognize that I needed to eliminate some of the negativity that was consuming my life.  When I returned from that trip, I discussed my revelation with George and shared that a part of the negativity that I needed to step back from was his mom. He didn't entirely understand at the time, but was supportive.
Later that same summer, we miscarried a baby which was absolutely devastating to us. Somehow his mother made that experience about her and my subsequent reactions to the miscarriage embarrassed her. She slung some words at me that mostly rolled off my back because that was her pattern, not mine.  There were two things she yelled at me that I didn't just ignore. I responded to her factually and that was it.   I was done.  I had tried years of talking, crying, writing, even her way and nothing worked. I realized that no matter how happy I made her son, she would never accept me or my son.

I cannot imagine how incredulous it must have felt to my husband to hear things from his parents like, "You and Reagan are welcome, but Stephanie and Andrew are not" and "Andrew is not my grandson" (in Andrew's presence). Who actually says things like that?!

Thankfully I found a man who would, without question, lay down his life for me. Even though we were not yet married when that was said, his response was simply, "They are my family. Either we're all welcome or none of us are."   I love that he just won't let anyone divide us.   We worked very hard early on with Andrew and Reagan to eliminate "us versus them" in our house to create a family.

During that time in 2009, I truly learned about setting boundaries in life and did just that.

I still always include my in laws when we're discussing our holiday plans and will support my husband in whatever choices are made. I think that there have just been too many missed birthdays, forgotten babies, ugly words, and favorites played---he is simply very protective of his wife and his children. My heart swells with pride when I think about who this man I married is.  We work very hard on our marriage and too hard raising our children to allow others to sabotage what we're trying to achieve.

On the flip side, my family embraced George and Reagan even living across the country.  They are never forgotten on birthdays, holidays. Reagan is treated just the same as the rest of my children are where my family is concerned. It's just who they are. It's the way it should be.  My husband is so grateful for that and embarrassed that it's not that way here.  It's just not his fault...or his issue. He doesn't treat my son as anything else but his child. Even his language has always reflected his child when speaking... "our son," "my son."  Always.  

I hate for him that our children barely know their grandparents who live 10 minutes away. Though I am honored and so appreciative that he strongly values what our children are exposed to.

Nothing will change the things that have been said and done, but I certainly don't hold onto them angrily. I have learned to accept her as she is and unfortunately that means the role she has in my life isn't how I wished it could be. I miss having a relationship with a mother-in-law --I was so lucky the first time around.

At the end of the day, one of my greatest wishes is that it were different. She and I spoke briefly last summer after a death in the family about some things. Among them, I told her that I felt like I had, in fact, tried with her for years and it was always met with hatefulness.

I told her I wished it were different.

She said the same.

What is your experience with extended family in your blended family?

In case you missed...

Week 1: Schedules     Week 2: Birthdays

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Peek Inside the Blended Family: Birthdays

When I posted last week about our custody schedule, I had originally started it as a single post that I felt it important to share, but had so much background to fill in just to get to the present and what I wanted to say.  Thus, as I was writing the idea of continuing as a series came. I have a few more ideas swirling around that I hope will develop as well, but for now I'm proud to continue an authentic, real life look at life in a blended family.

George and I have been discussing Reagan's upcoming 12th birthday which led to reflection of previous birthdays and other family birthdays within our house. I wish I could say that this has always been an easy and positive aspect of our blended family.  As with most things in our blended family and trying to coparent, the push pull struggle is definitely prevalent in birthdays.  

Way back in the early days before shared custody, we'd plan celebrations on our every other weekend with our family. That started out easily enough then soon enough we'd have to deal with things like, "Reagan is sick and won't be coming to your house this weekend." knowing we'd be celebrating Andrew's birthday that same weekend.  I remember that being so stressful, disheartening, and really just unnecessary as we were still trying to navigate a life together in our own house.  Legally, her mom violated a custody order by not allowing George to get Reagan on his time. We will never know if she was actually sick that weekend or not because by the time we got to see her two weeks later, of course she was better. We clearly didn't have the kind of relationship to discuss what was best or what course of action to take together. Mom took liberties as the custodial parent and made decisions where our hands were tied. 

George had a birthday during this time where he only spoke with his daughter instead of spending time with her like he legally should have. It was the first time in 6 weeks he had been able to speak with her as she was alienated and withheld from him during that time without any consequence. 

Reagan's 5th birthday was the worst ever. Her birthday fell  during the custody trial that year and a slew of false accusations were made in an effort to keep primary custody with her mom. Instead of celebrating, she spent her 5th birthday talking with social workers and police officers. 

We managed to get to a point where we simply celebrated her birthday when we had her and did the best we could trying to avoid the drama that inevitably surrounded. We celebrated Andrew when it worked for our family and sometimes Reagan was there and sometimes she wasn't. George's birthday has always had a legal protection. In 8 years, Reagan has never been with us on my birthday.    When Lily was born, she had a summer birthday where we had more flexibility to ensure there wasn't a time issue. Though on Lily's 3rd birthday, Reagan decided she didn't want to be at our house and wanted to go back to her mom's and miss Lily's party.  George was really hurt, I was angry, and Lily still remembers.  Reagan had learned in her short life that we were unimportant, so it wasn't a big deal to miss in her mind. Over the years, her participation has grown to be valuable to her, thankfully. 

After a lot of work and time, together with her mom and stepdad, we were able to have a birthday party for Reagan with friends when she turned 9.

The handful of years that we have only had weekday custody of Reagan, we figured out that celebrating her birthday consisted of a special treat where we'd of course have candles and sing happy birthday and we'd also go out for supper with our family which is not something we do with everyone in our family. Typically, the birthday person chooses their favorite meal and we eat at home. But because of Reagan's schedule and us not having any weekend time, we haven't been able to have a party with our friends. We wish it weren't that way, but being constrained with the Monday-Friday custody schedule didn't lend itself to making that work with everyone.  

This past fall, the birthdays all came to a head.  After asking for Reagan to be able to be with us for Violet's 2nd birthday party on a Saturday when we had weekday only time, we tried to work out something with her mom.  Trying to negotiate times with her mom is always a lengthy process. Rarely is it simple. Lots of back and forth, different scenarios and multiple conversations occur. Ultimately, her mom wanted George to leave Violet's party early to bring Reagan back to her house.  
I had spent a very long time of being considerate of her mom's time, family, commitments and tip toed on what I would say to ensure we'd be able to make things work without poking the bear, this time I was absolutely floored. I was standing in Party City with Violet getting party supplies when that text came in to bring her home during the party. I wrote back and said that I couldn't believe she would ask that of us and I would never ask her to leave one of her children's parties to pick Reagan up.  

I was in utter disbelief and plain and simply, angry.  

While I truly, truly understand her mom being protective of her time being short and only weekends, I couldn't help but feel resentful at the same time. She chose the schedule to be this way, so why is there no flexibility on important times like birthdays? For a kid who already feels like she's missing out on the "fun stuff" at our house all the time to have to miss a family member's birthday is unacceptable. 

In the end, negotiating went like this. We agreed to give up Reagan being at Andrew's birthday party over Thanksgiving weekend, so her mom could have her 5 day weekend "unbroken."  Basically choose one of our kids over another.  I absolutely regret that we did that.  I have expressed that on more than on occasion to her mom that I regret it. It was wrong and it will never happen again.  Her mom also said that we just need to do what they do and plan birthday parties on our time like they do. It's easy to do that when "your" time is all weekend time.  

All of the conversation surrounding Violet's birthday last fall continue to scream out to us that we needed a schedule change.  

Reagan was able to attend Violet's birthday party and was picked up during the party. George didn't have to leave.  While not ideal, her mom did bend a bit about it and as I said before, we gave up something in order for her to be here.  

I just can't imagine missing out on my siblings birthdays or that even being ok to consider. We just would never even consider having Reagan miss out on her siblings birthdays at her mom's. I still cannot fathom where that is acceptable. 

Last year, Reagan's birthday was on a school day which given our schedule, she was with us, so we started out the day with a traditional birthday doughnut with candles before school. After school, George and his mom took Reagan shopping and they went out for supper together. She opened gifts and we had cupcakes and sang happy birthday again that night with our family. It was a nice day!

Come to find out much, much later (like 2 months ago) that Reagan shared with her mom that we had a "lame birthday donut" and said we didn't get her any presents.  

I wasn't angry at all. 

Honestly, I was hurt.

We work hard to make sure that she is included in traditions regardless of her time here because she is our child.  

Throughout conversations with her about this, we learned that she was upset that she doesn't have a birthday party with our friends like "everyone else does."  We discussed how she thought that would work given our schedule as weekdays with us/weekends with her mom. We talked about the ways we do celebrate her and have made it important to us that we go out for supper where she chooses and we don't do that with anyone else. We asked her why she said a birthday donut was lame as we do it for Lily and Violet as well and talked about traditions we have in our family. We asked if badmouthing and lying was the way to get anything to change or could she have done something differently.

The whole thing left me feeling like we work so hard to ensure we do the best we can given what we've had and it's all for nothing.  Nothing is good enough. 

As an isolated event, the birthday donut isn't a big issue, but as a part of the bigger picture, it's a piece of the struggle we have with her about honesty, her back and forth pot stirring, and communicating her feelings to the parent where the concern actually is.  

Birthdays should just be able to be celebrated, happy joyous occasions! I lovelovelove party planning and the last time I truly loved planning for hers was when she was turning 4. I made one of my favorite cakes I've made ever and there was little to no drama. Just it should be. I hope we get back to that some day.

How do you handle birthdays when dealing with your blended family?

Monday, February 8, 2016

A Peek Inside the Blended Family: Schedules

I have mentioned briefly here that we are making some significant changes in our lives this year.  One of those changes is our custody schedule with Reagan, my stepdaughter.  Seven years ago this month, we went through a trial in family court trying to get shared custody of her after a year and a half of motions, mediation, conciliation, and more accusations than you'd believe.  Ultimately, George was awarded shared custody in April 2009.  We breathed a huge sigh of relief that we were finally done!

It turned out that breath was very premature as just a month later we received notification that Reagan's mom appealed the decision to Superior Court.  Nearly 8 months after the original decision, we were notified that the lower court/s decision was upheld and shared custody it was.

We had more encounters with authorities during these few years than I could have ever imagined in my lifetime. Children's Services social workers, the police department, court judges, attorneys. You name it, I'm sure we encountered them. We miscarried a baby who would have turned 6 last month. We did everything humanly possible to shield my son from all of this, but at the end of the day, he certainly did not get my best all the time.  My greatest regret.

Reagan's mom fought so vehemently against Reagan being at our house for so many years.

For a couple years after the trial, we had Reagan for half the week --Wednesday through Saturday. For kindergarten and first grade, she lived in her mom's school district and we traveled the 30-40 minutes to take her and pick her up from school each week during our time.  When she was in 2nd grade, her mom moved to a new house and we were back in court asking for Reagan to go to school in our school district as her mom's move put them in a significantly less favorable district.  At that time, her mom decided that now having to drive Reagan her half of the week was a hardship and wasn't willing to travel the 30-40 minutes to take her to school near our house.

As a result, we ended up with a new schedule of Reagan living with us Monday through Friday and with her mom on the weekends. The new judge ordered any Monday or Friday off from school would be spent with her mom to keep the time as even as possible during the school year. We quickly began to recognize that as much as we loved the extra time with Reagan, having it be all "work" time was tough. We made the best of it at that year.  The following year for 3rd grade, we all agreed to continue the summer schedule of week on/week off into the school year.  It made life a little easier to be able to have a more normal life together.

Shortly before starting 4th grade, Reagan's mom decided that it was too much of hardship to drive that much and back to that M-F schedule we went. As Reagan continued to get older, in both 4th and 5th grades, and wanted to be more involved with activities and friends she went to school with, not being at our house on the weekends became increasingly more difficult.  Her mom was protective of "her" time on the weekends and also didn't want to drive back and forth for a party or a sleepover or event.  As a tween, this was pretty devastating to always miss. It was hard to continually ask her mom to let us have her for a birthday party or pumpkin patch visit or every other family thing we do on the weekends where she was always missing.

Those are just the logistics.  The emotions and missing out have affected her as well. There has always been manipulation and back and forth trouble stirring on her end mainly between her mom and myself. None of that helped foster positive relationships.

As 5th grade continued, it became increasingly evident that this schedule of all school week with us and weekends with mom just wasn't working.  All the work and none of the down time.
Reagan exhibited poor behavior that was enabled to continue. I felt like everything we did was  undermined, our marriage was strained, I was not the best mom to the rest of my kids, and resentment began to creep in.

George and I knew our solution was that Reagan's schedule needed to change to be more balanced. The thought of going back to court disgusted us, however.  We attempted to talk with Reagan's mom about possible changes for the 6th grade school year. We presented numerous varieties of schedules to make time more balanced for Reagan. All were rejected for various reasons.  Driving is always the main issue.

So after fighting at every single turn to keep Reagan from our house for years, she resisted having a more balanced schedule and have equal time instead of us having full-time that we'd had for years.  Ironic, no?

Our summer schedule of week on/week off came and went. Reagan started the school year for the first time ever with her mom this current year and back we went to our school schedule of M-F with us and weekends with her mom. After more attempts to work with Reagan's mom to have a more balanced schedule and reaching no agreement at all, George and I decided on our time frame to begin working on going back to court and requesting a schedule change. We always hope to be able to come to an agreement with Reagan's mom and avoid court.

Being accountable and held responsible is not something Reagan has consistently had to deal with in her life, unfortunately. That makes for a lot of blame on other people for actions, words, choices. Thus, I'm always the "bad guy." For years, I have been that bad guy. Expectations in our house are high.  We work very hard to raise all of our children to be good, kind people who are successful in school as well as in the world.  Reagan is a model student. She excels, thrives, and has the potential to do something great with her life!

This past December, Reagan at 11 1/2 years old, knew she would be having to deal with some consequences for her actions at the end of a school day. Instead of facing her dad when she got home, she opted to tell her teacher and guidance counselor that she was afraid to come home that day because I had been abusive. Yes, you're reading this correctly.  Reagan thought if she said that and called her mom, she'd get to go home with her mom that day instead of coming home.  Her mom drove on a random Tuesday to school to pick Reagan up.  George was called and was on speaker phone with the principal, the guidance counselor, and Reagan's mom (at school) and told the information that Reagan had shared at school.   George said on the phone all of it was nuts and Reagan was to come home on the bus as normal.  That court order that states we have Reagan M-F, of course the school had to follow and send her home and her mother unable to take her.  She came home on the bus.

After she got home, George, Reagan, and I had a conversation about what happened, why she said what she said, explained the seriousness {again} of false accusations.  George went to sleep before getting up for all of us to go to Andrew's band concert while I made supper. While the kids were eating, there was a knock on the door.  I answered and two police officers were there.  They needed to speak with George and Reagan after a phone call from Reagan's mother that I had abused Reagan.  The police confirmed that I had not abused her and Reagan told them she lied at school.

Simply put, we were back 8 years with accusations flying. Only this time Reagan wasn't a three, four, or five year old who could be convinced to say whatever. This time she is an almost 12 year old willing to lie and manipulate to get what she wants, no matter the cost.  That is dangerous. Dangerous.

While I wholeheartedly believe Reagan's intention that day was to just get to go home with her mom---not bring the police into our home again, Reagan is still responsible for her actions and those she made that day have been damaging.  Lily is afraid when someone knocks on the door it's the police. Andrew missed out on his entire family watching his band concert.

As a result of all of this, we were left trying to figure out where to go from there.  How do we handle Reagan, her behavior, choices, manipulation.  One piece we knew for was absolutely evident that her schedule needed to change for the betterment of all.

After a lot of discussion, back and forth, and up and down, we all agreed for the remainder of the 6th grade school year, Reagan will be on a week at our house and a week at her mom's house just like the summer schedule.

While all things are not resolved, the current balance of schedule started about a month ago, and so far things have been good. It's brought back a sense of normality into our house, positivity, the kids have down time without school and although Reagan hasn't yet worked out her friend stuff--the opportunity is now there.

We're not sure how things will be schedule wise as Reagan starts middle school next Fall, but we know we can't go back to us having all the school week again. It just doesn't work.

It's never easy to talk about the tough stuff and blended families is definitely a very taboo subject, but the older I get the more I recognize that it's important to talk about it.  I have decided to share more of our story and what real life looks like in a blended family---the good, the bad, the ugly.  I hope you'll stick around!