by Kelly McQuillan
Two years ago my life as I knew it changed forever. No, I was not diagnosed with a disease, nor did I lose someone special or have a near-death experience. I actually gained some pretty amazing things: a new house, two dogs, living with my partner, and the chance to be a full-time stepmom to his two children.
But I did not initially view this change in a truly positive light.
After the dissolution of a long-term relationship, I had spent several years living alone in my cozy apartment.
“If you correct your mind, the rest of your life will fall into place.” ~Lao Tzu
I cherished my independence and, for a time, the solitude.
I came and went as I pleased. If I was seized with musical inspiration, no matter what the hour, I played and sang. I had quiet time to read and write.
My friends dropped by to hang out, I played shows with my band, and I regularly went out for meals and concerts.
Yes, life was pretty darned good—except for the fact that I was alone.
After interesting, humorous, and some downright sad attempts at dating, I met my partner, a wonderful man. He lived an hour and a half away, but we made it work, seeing each other on the weekends. His two children were then living with their mom in Quebec.
My weekends with my partner were like mini-vacations. We kayaked, went out for meals, and laughed with abandon. Relaxation was our default setting.
Fast forward two years, and traveling was beginning to lose its novelty, especially when poor weather made the roads dicey. Around this time, the kids asked to come and live with their dad. We knew the back and forth wasn’t going to cut it any more; the kids needed stability, so we buckled down and bought a house together.
This was a lot to take on all at once, and I knew it. I could see it written on the faces of my friends, colleagues, and family when I described our plans. But we loved each other, we were committed to each other, and it seemed like the most practical solution at the time.
I left my apartment, my partner left his house, and we merged our lives.
I soon found I was walking on air, but not in the elated type of way—more so that the familiar ground was disintegrating from beneath my feet piece by piece.
Even before the kids arrived, I started to feel overwhelmed with this new commitment, this new negotiation of space.
I was used to putting things where I wanted them, eating when I felt like it, and functioning according to my personal schedule, but suddenly I was accountable to someone else—and he had equal right to give input on everything from where the pots should go to whose sheets should go on the bed.
My relaxed state was replaced with the tension of constant compromise.
Doubt began to snake its tendrils into my mind—had I made the right choice?
The kids’ grandparents drove them cross-country at the beginning of that summer. The day, the week, they arrived is something of a blur, and all I really remember is the French (they are all francophone).
My partner, understandably, was so excited to see his family that sometimes he forgot to translate and I started to feel shut out, not only from the conversation, but from my life as I knew it.
Becoming a stepparent is not a job for the faint of heart, especially if you have no children of your own. Being a teacher, I know how to relate well with kids—in the classroom. The natural bond between a parent and child is one that builds from birth, and I was nine and ten years behind.
Also, the initial boundaries my partner set for the kids did not match up to those I would have set, had they been my children. Jumping on beds, screaming in the house, and crashing around upstairs, for example, were not activities I could live with. Quiet time for contemplation had virtually disappeared.
I sorely missed my musical outlet. Our basement was unfinished, and so the only place for the piano and my other instruments was in a little parlor room off the front hallway—a room without a door. My days of unfettered musical expression seemed over.
Important parts of my old life seemed to be moving out of reach, and I began to feel the bitter seed of resentment growing, growing, growing.
I felt like a stranger on the periphery of my own life and started to build up walls to protect the core of my essence, which I was terrified was the next thing to be taken away—“I” would disappear in this new role and new life.
Not wanting to upset the kids or my partner, or admit to others that I was struggling, I kept my turmoil private and tried to go through the motions of my new role.
My mindset did, of course, affect those I was living with, because I had become depressed and detached.
My withdrawal compounded my problem of connecting and made me feel more isolated and resentful and it became a vicious cycle.
I was miserable.
Somehow, gradually, through reading and much introspection, I came to realize that it was my attitude that was making things this unbearable. Yes, it was a totally different situation than I had bargained for, and yes, parts were challenging, and yes, some of the freedoms I enjoyed from my “old life” were constrained by the situation.
But, instead of dwelling on these things, I started to look at it from a different perspective: What had I gained?
In what ways had my life been enriched (or had the potential to be enriched) by my new circumstances? I started to make myself notice positive things each day and I wrote them in a gratitude journal.
Instead of painting myself as a victim on whom changes had been imposed, I became more proactive and vocal; I started to communicate my own boundaries and needs. There was some conflict at first, but we were able to find workable compromises.
Suddenly, my situation seemed a lot more livable, even enjoyable.
Last summer, my partner and I finished a room in the basement that is my music studio. Having a space of my own has helped me a lot, but the most powerful difference came from my mind shift.
Today I am fully grateful for the amazing life I am blessed with. It is different than it used to be, but I am so much richer for it. I have a loving partner, two wonderful kids, two dogs, and two cats that provide us with endless entertainment, and a beautiful home that now meets all of our needs.
Life in a family is never dull. There are still challenges (both expected and surprise), but I no longer let them overwhelm me. I now know that I have the power to choose my attitude toward my circumstances.
Change is inevitable. Change challenges us and pushes us beyond the edge of where we are comfortable.
How we respond to change is entirely up to us.
Instead of dwelling on what is different, or what is hard, we can choose to foster an attitude of openness and gratitude. With this change in mindset, we are able to see opportunities for enrichment and growth that present themselves and we can embrace them as the gifts they are.