Divorce is final and clean on paper. But when there are kids involved, no judge in the world has the power to sever the bonds between two people who have entwined DNA walking around as a constant reminder that, despite the formality of the notarized seal on the decree, they will never really be divorced from each other
“Blended” is the fictitious term we use to describe families created out of the ragged stump of divorce.
When you make a cake, you “blend” the ingredients. It’s such a gentle process that you can do it easily with the rounded edges of a wooden spoon. Methodical, harmonious, smooth strokes of the spoon combine the disparate elements into a tranquil, pliable batter.
Yet, in the statistics surrounding “blended” families, it’s clear that blending is not what’s happening. One study suggests that less than half of blended families are successfully co-parenting and another places the number at closer to 25 percent.
If you google “successful coparenting” you’ll discover 670,000 results from publications as varied as Psychology Today to the Today Show. Their best advice (usually in the form of top ten lists) can be boiled down to this, “Act like a grown up, and whatever you do, don’t drag the kids into the middle of it.”
This is not helpful.
The very nature of divorce is irreconcilable differences. If the two people divorcing could peacefully work out those differences, would they be getting divorced? And yet, “work out your differences like a grown up” is the best advice we offer these families.
So the “blending” of a family is a euphemistic term. ”Blenderizing” is probably more appropriate. The blender takes solid objects, and with mindless force, its sharp blades chop and slice them together. There’s ripping and cutting. It’s a painful, brutal process. I know it was for us.
When my husband and I met, he was finalizing his divorce from his first wife, Heather. I had never been married. And at age 33, I was beginning to wonder if I ever would.
We met at work. A friend mentioned to me that she thought the new English teacher was cute. Since she was happily married, I knew that her casual sharing of this information was all for my benefit, and it put me on single-girl alert when I headed to an English department meeting later on that afternoon.
He walked into the room wearing a pair of khaki shorts that reached to his knees, a golf shirt, and a pair of athletic sandals. His hair was freshly cut and he was clean shaven. He quietly took a seat across the room and settled in, waiting for the meeting to start.
He was cute. And it was no surprise that a couple of weeks later I was sitting across from him at a Friday Afternoon Club, listening raptly as he told me about himself. He mentioned that he was divorcing, was still living an hour away from work, and had two daughters.
Contained in those three details were the catalyst of 13 years worth of anger, irritation, fury, passive-aggressive rage, self-righteousness, stupidity, hurt, victimization, and victimizing. Three small pieces of information that were so densely packed with emotional plutonium that they could have fueled a dozen atomic bombs. And yet, like Marie Curie, I played with the fire—completely unaware of its toxic consequences.
Consider the first encounter. Fresh after the divorce, we took our friendship to the next level and let people know we were “dating.” And by fresh, I mean within two weeks I drove the hour distance up to Greeley, Colorado, a university/farming community about 50 miles northeast of Denver. It was a mild autumn day at the beginning of October.
I knocked on the door to his apartment, and he swung the door wide so that I could see all the way to the kitchen where his five-year-old daughter, Giselle, stood. She was small, with thick blonde hair cut in a page boy style. Uncertain at first, she relaxed when her Dad introduced me as “his friend.” She gave me a big grin and rushed to greet me with a huge hug.
The meeting with his older daughter didn’t go as well. She’d spent the night at a friend’s house, and after we three piled in the car to go pick her up, I stayed in the car with Giselle while Brent went in to get Persephone. She bounced out to the car, but the spring left her step when she got close enough to see me in the car. As she realized there was a strange woman in the front seat, the smile faded and was replaced by a look of confused suspicion.
She got in the car. Her dad again introduced me as “his friend,” but at nine-years-old she was more experienced and, I would later learn, especially bright. She did not greet me with a grin or a hug. She knew who I was and what I meant for her family.
Determined to win over these girls, I had brought a bag full of crafts and a small toy for each of them. It was out-and-out bribery but still a time-tested solution to winning over children. Giselle was delighted. Nothing would shake Persephone from her suspicion.
We headed to the store to pick up food for dinner. In an attempt to connect with Persephone, I suggested she come with me to look for biscuits in a tube which we’d need for the child friendly menu of pigs-in-a-blanket I had planned for dinner.
As we meandered down the aisles of the supermarket, I began asking Persephone questions about what she liked, hoping to draw her out. My questions were politely, if sullenly, answered. At the first pause in my questioning, she leveled one at me: “Why are your teeth so yellow?”
She was nine. Was she being intentionally rude? Was this the kind of thing that nine-year-old girls routinely wondered about? Or was this some kind of mean girl sneak attack?
I guess it doesn’t matter what motivated the question, because in spite of my careful preparations and hopes to get off on the right foot with his daughters, she’d knocked me squarely in the gut. I felt that I had been treated rudely. I felt her animosity. I felt rejected.
This is the part where people who have never been in the situation say unhelpful, trite things like, “She’s just a child, remember that.” Or “You’re the adult here, try to act like it.”
But neither of those responses gets at the bone deep hurt that comes when someone you are desperately hoping will like you makes it quite clear that they don’t and most probably won’t…ever.
I took comfort in the unabashed and unreserved affection that Giselle would show me. She loved to be with me, to be hugged, to play games. We were hitting it off and it felt great.
We sat on the floor, our backs up against the couch talking and giggling. I asked her if she wanted to know a secret. Because she was five, she absolutely wanted to know a secret. I leaned over close and whispered in her ear, “The moon is made of green cheese.” She burst out laughing and immediately went running off to tell her Dad that she had a secret. He smiled indulgently, pleased that we were hitting it off so well.
It was an innocent, silly little game. Can we all agree that it was playful fun?
Later on when the girls’ mom came to pick them up to take them to see a Saturday matinee, I stayed in the apartment while Brent walked the girls out to the car. He felt like it was too early for Heather and me to meet. I agreed.
He’d barely made it back into the apartment and closed the door when his phone rang. He answered the call from Heather thinking the girls had forgotten something.
Instead, he was treated to an outraged mother performing an operatic tragedy entitled, “How Dare Your New Girlfriend Be Telling My Child to Keep Secrets from Me.” She sang three increasingly paranoid arias feverishly, one after another. “Don’t You Know How Dangerous Secrets Are?” warped majestically into “You Know, The First Thing Child Predators Do Is Tell Children Not to Tell Their Parents About What Goes On Between Them” and was followed by the triumphant finish of, “What Kind Of Abusive Monster Are You Bringing to Meet Our Children?”
And that, gentle reader, was just the opening scene.
Nine years later, we were still at it. Nine years is a long time. It’s 3285 days. It’s 78,840 hours. It’s practically a decade. And yet nine years post-blenderizing of our family, we were still fighting about ridiculous things in ridiculous ways. Like Palestine and Israel, we existed in a state of détente, never at peace. But thankfully the skirmishes were happening further and further apart.
And then some tiny incident would set it all off.
Something meaningless meant we’d assemble the suicide bombers and strap the shrapnel and explosive-filled vests to our chests and sally forth into a meaningless conflagration that would brutalize us all but essentially change nothing.
So meaningless, that I can’t even remember now why I got it into my head in year nine that I should block calls to Brent’s cell phone from Heather’s number. Why in the world I thought that was not only a rational step to take but a good move, I can’t tell you. But at the time it made perfect sense.
I knew Brent wouldn’t agree to it. So I simply didn’t tell him. I just went online and clicked a few buttons and—voila—no more phone calls from Heather.
In my defense (and it’s meager), after nine years of war I was sick to death of the drama. When that distinct ringtone sang out, breaching the safety and sanctity of our home with its unwelcome announcement that SHE was calling, my stomach would clench and I could feel the adrenaline surge through my body. I had become Pavlov’s dog, the ring tone was the bell, and my autonomic fight reflexes prepped me for the coming conflict.
Is it any wonder that I just wanted some peace?
So I blocked the number.
It did not end well.
That was year nine. Today we’ve passed the 13 year mark. Persephone is launched, living in Chicago. Giselle is finishing up her senior year in high school. And we are counting down the days (200 to be precise) until she turns 19 and the parenting agreement that has functioned more as a battering ram than a painfully negotiated truce expires.
When I step back from it all, I see four educated, empathetic, rational people. Two couples: Brent and I, and Heather and her husband, Brian, who in other circumstances have so much in common that we could be good friends, yet put us together and ask us to jointly solve the simplest of parenting issues, and we can’t solve our way out of a paper bag.
Blenderizing has forced us into an unnatural mix. The brute forcefulness of the joining turns us into an unappetizing, pulpy soup that is incapable of sustenance or satisfaction. We are a chunky smoothie supplemented with jealousy, loss, fear of alienation, unhealthy competition, powerlessness, and rage. Who wants to drink that?