To quote my favorite parenting coach, Bonnie Harris: “Parenting is engaging in a process of self discovery so that we may develop the confidence to support and guide our children in ways that fully accept who they are.” As Christopher Robin from Winnie The Pooh fame says: “Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem and smarter than you think.”
I wasn't ready to be a husband, I wasn't ready to be a father. I was nowhere near prepared for divorce nor raising my three year old daughter virtually by myself. I was even less prepared for falling in love again and assuming I could be a suitable stepfather to four more children of varying ages, each with many layers of trauma imposed on them. I was blindsided by the grief of losing my daughter amidst all these events and I am still slightly awkward how I fit in with my new family arrangement. My name is Michael Webb. These are the circumstances that brought me to PHP, and kept me attending PHP for six years. I was married the first time in 2001. My daughter was born in 2002. My ex-wife began divorce proceedings in 2005. The primary responsibility of raising our daughter was left with me. Around this same time frame, my stepson, and two stepdaughters had a father involved in their life more off times than on. He and their mother never married. She married the father of my youngest step daughter, born in 2002 and he was removed from the household in 2006 when it was disclosed that he sexually abused the elder stepchildren. My second wife and I met in 2007 and were married in 2010. By the end of 2014, the courts granted my petition to adopt my youngest step daughter as my own. Currently my wife and I live at home with my newest daughter, 16. My eldest stepdaughter, 23, lived with us until she recently earned the financial means to live independently of our home, thereby joining the ranks of my 24 year old stepson who maintains a healthy, independent lifestyle elsewhere in New England. My biological daughter, 16, went to go live with her mother after she turned 9 as a result of my poor coping skills trying to raise a child and blend families together at the same time. For the majority of those years there was little to no contact with her. Thankfully now those years are behind us. My youngest stepdaughter, 19, who received the worst side effects of the post traumatic stress, chose to wrap up a five year placement in a residential home on her 18th birthday in 2017. Hoping to live with my wife and I she was challenged to adjust to an independent lifestyle struggling with her emotional demons as they continued to interfere with her personal progress. Having rebelled to spend a great deal of time on the streets and homeless shelters with her abusive boyfriend and because of a long series of circumstances including the birth of a child which my wife and I have guardianship over, my wife and I practice the “tough love” approach to have her realize first hand how much help she needs. We have since asked ourselves who is it tougher for, my stepdaughter or us?
It was my wife who found PHP online and made initial contact shortly before we met. She had been involved with DCF since the early 2000’s mostly on a voluntary basis to aid in the vast overwhelming nature of her household shortly before the abuse was revealed. While DCF provided a lot of direction, they weren’t really helpful in terms of personal support and my wife needed more. By marriage my daughter and I became integrated with her case too. The intensity of blending many troubled pasts turned romance into horror and ultimately our family found ourselves in a complex care and protection case. One by one our children were removed from our home.. voluntarily, but still removed with no clear indication of when they might return. Only my newest daughter remained with us the whole time. While DCF fumbled around trying to fit us with appropriate services, my wife and I found growth together at PHP as a couple participating in a forum discussing our sometimes different parenting techniques and working on solutions to be more uniform as a team and thereby a much better example for our children.
My relationship with my biological daughter did not benefit from the almost abrupt but inevitable separation and DCF couldn’t help reuniting us. In the grand scheme of things we were an extra component and more importantly bound by state probate laws. I was left to find my own resources after our portion of the case was closed following my daughter going to live with her mother.
My second wife and my daughter had an extremely difficult time getting along and thus our communication on the issue was very limited as I processed my grief in secret, trying to come up with plausible solutions towards acceptance of my daughter's placement and hope of that unknown time when or if she would ever have a positive relationship with me again.
I discovered the benefit of the PHP support hotline one morning around 2:00 AM when I couldn't take the constant anxiety attacks anymore. The person who took my call actively listened to my overwhelming situation, isolated a piece to work on (identified as my relationship with my daughter), walked me through some helpful tips of ways I could stay connected without much contact and provided enough of a confidence booster for me to walk out on that limb I was afraid of, and just do it. There was much trial and error in this process, and I took the initiative to share my highs and lows each week at regular group meetings. There were long letters, short cards, weekly unanswered or hung up on phone calls and even a miraculous six week period where my daughter and I had awesome healing dialogs before things got too intense for her and she backed off again. Many talks at PHP about how I was feeling led me to accept that I had to stop trying so hard and just let things be; to give my daughter the space she was requesting thru her silence and to give myself more time to heal, which was evident I needed.
I utilized my therapist most for coping with day to day situations at home and expensive, cumulative insurance co-pays for the whole family limited my attendance to only once or twice a month. I attended church regularly which injected some spirituality to a lot of the clinical barriers I was facing. PHP provided another outlet per week to express a lot of feelings that needed to be vocalized in an uncensored, confidential forum. Even at six years there continue to be times it’s in my PHP group where I only feel safe and truly heard.
What makes PHP unique from other support groups is the personalized attention we get, seeing how the size of the group rarely exceeds five people at one time on a drop-in basis. The facilitators I’ve had have showed much dedication to the cause even with the fluctuation in size. I attend my PHP meetings faithfully to find ways to not only survive, but to live beyond all the drama - both internal and external.....not to be told what to do, but how to take control of my own life as opposed to others and to prevent others from controlling mine. PHP aims to be an extremely supportive environment. Our facilitator works wonders not leaving anyone's story untold - for those that choose to share. The standard rule of no shame, no blame apply. Our groups are customizable to the wide age range we discuss about. The facilitator in our group is also dedicated and faithful in her attendance, even if like many times during the years I've been involved, when I've been the only attendee. This single act speaks volumes. I feel I am worth it.
Before PHP came along my resources were scarce mainly because I was looking for them in all the wrong places and through a lot of wrong means and influences. I had and still have a hard time figuring out what defines a crisis situation and what issues I can be relaxed about; which makes trust building experiences very hard to come by. The stigma of being an only child in an emotionally detached family follows me way longer than it should for effective parenting in an age where the line between discipline and nurturing is so much thinner than it used to be. That being said, I am a person with a lot of love, but not enough skills to appropriately show that love. My skin is not thick enough to ward off that which I cannot control or fully comprehend. It bothers me a great deal how overwhelmed I still feel. As more and more boundaries get put in place for my family's well-being and safety, as well as my own, the more distant toward my family I have become rather than closer. I tread the fine line of being a devoted biological parent, reliable adoptive parent and supportive step parent with being a sperm donor, legal guardian, and wicked stepfather.
A lot of my issues revolve around low self-esteem, low self-confidence and major parental burnout. I have always been a better follower than a leader which triggers the questions in my head how on earth did I ever think I would qualify as a parent and who is that person people see in me who is so strong, diligent, and rational minded. I care very much for all five of these children brought into my life. My instincts a good portion of the time are correct, but the execution leaves a lot to be desired; something I can intellectualize but not follow thru with in the heat of the moment. Before PHP I rationalized why my new family's previous therapy team really believed my deep involvement was going to do more damage to my step children rather than be of any help. On the other hand after joining PHP I put together a history of accepting much more responsibility than I am allowed as a parent which has only fueled the fire I feel towards myself and has enabled the weight of the parenting world to keep attacking me in the manner no parent really deserves. I was supportively challenged to change my perception that taking care of myself was the best parenting trait I could ever own.
I am a big advocate of setting goals in the groups I've been a part of - whether it be short term or long term. The biggest long term goal I set for myself - not so coincidentally a recurring theme in PHP - is to one day believe I am not a bad person nor am I a bad parent. I am just a person that is trying my best to work through a bad situation.
My daughter at her mother's house soars academically, is socially well adjusted and living her life to the fullest in school activities and as I found out the lead singer in a local alternative rock band. In the years following my daughter’s departure I was left constantly wondering where and how do I fit into her life; and if it's not that, it's how do I stand up to her mother with confidence, respect and calmness to humbly ask for her help to reach out to the daughter we both know needs me in her life. Many had told me that one day my daughter would come full circle and seek me out. In this regard my life had turned into a waiting game. Part of the support from my PHP group has been helping me figure out what to do while I wait other than stay in a stagnant state of despair. Part of that waiting has involved carefully analyzing the relationships I have with my stepchildren.
Day in and day out for going on eight years or so, i was a target of my eldest stepdaughter’s pent up anger and it was not pleasant for either one of us to be around each other. My wife and I had to jump through creative hoops how to keep the family together, but separate. With a lot of development of maturity my eldest stepdaughter has been coming into her own - not perfectly, but certainly a lot more tangible than before. My feelings toward her were very conflicted in part trying to love her unconditionally but still gravitating toward protecting myself from all the emotional triggers and individual pain her behavior had brought to the surface. I spent many groups unraveling in my head and actively listening to the fact that conflicts in a household are unfortunately unavoidable and part of everyday life but that did not mean I had be a victim in my own home. She has since sincerely apologized and while I sincerely forgave her, my own post traumatic stress did not allow to me to forget as hard as I tried. Good things coming out of bad, it took the birth and subsequent guardianship of her nephew that caused a dramatic turn for the good in both of us.
My youngest step daughter, who as I mentioned shares the brunt of the trauma inflicted by her first stepfather bubbled over with anger, resentment, fear, impulsiveness that is healthy for proper progression of letting her feelings out and what comes with raising a typical 19 year old independent wannabe, but it has been known to drain the positive resources I use to nurture and care for her in the manner I am accustomed. There was a time when I resisted trying to find an end to this cycle of targeting and blaming. With all the defenses I had to put up the less joy I had of being a parent. It's not very often you'd hear me say I hate being parent and it's not very often those feelings could be validated, redirected, and pushed through with such empathy, confidentiality and sensitivity except when it came to PHP. Their intervention was essential to my thought process when my stepdaughter’s relationships with the rest of the family began to deteriorate, her mother was conflicted to the point of numbness, her father was still aloof to the real situation which only left me to curb my traditional parent role into more of an advocate for the family unit as a whole as a listener, guide, role model and unbiased third party. PHP helped me identify my best trait as a person who can bring a certain amount of order to that which had been chaotic for far too long and thus a virtual second chance to redeem myself from the guilt of not being able to do this for my natural daughter when I had the chance.
My stepson, who came to live with us for a short time, pushed our boundaries to the limit, and in my case over my limit to a point where I refused having him in our house at all until he accepted responsibility for his actions that put us all on edge and virtually pitted against each other. For over a year he withdrew from the family nearly altogether – most devastating to my wife; and with my stepson at the time making it clear this was my fault, our marriage had been tested on more than one occasion. Fortunately, for my wife and her children, the time away from each other was productive for all of them and over two years ago, he emotionally returned to put the past behind and we all moved forward.
Yet there is still a gut instinct that I feel I have to stay remote, invisible or as far away as possible in order for there to be comfort and happiness. In my stepsons case I am not sure these feelings are justified or apply as much as they used to, but giving him the space to grow and acknowledging the timing was off for me to be truly beneficial to him as any kind of parent or positive male role model; unless I am otherwise invited to participate, - which I have been on occasion - I stay passive and that seems to work for both of us.
I am constantly left with a feeling that I wish I could do more. I wish I could be stronger not to take all the negative energy around me so personally. I wish I wasn't so needy for constant positive feedback. I wish I had the patience the compassion and unconditional love I used to have without feeling taken advantage of. I wish I could help without the knee jerk reaction from those I am trying to help that I am out to hurt. I hate living in the shadow of my goofball and monstrous predecessors. I long to be called “daddy” again in the same manner my natural daughter always used to greet me. I have been taught at group to hold on to the memory of her response a long time ago when I apologized to her for not being perfect and she replied back “but you’re perfect for me”.
in late 2017 I learned from my ex-wife of her divorce from a controlling ex-partner who played a significant role in keeping my natural daughter and I apart. I'm happy that there are the beginnings of normal communication again and a chance to start over, but I still need PHP to be my reminder that I am starting over and not going back to the relationship my daughter I once had. When I started out on this journey I set the parenting bar really high and that has been a key reason why I've had so many setbacks. PHP has reminded me of my limits and the limits of those whose trust and respect I seek to earn and in some cases earn back.
As time has gone on, the sobbing has weaned, but the sadness remains, and often times more challenging to cope with as I've tried to be more and more honest with myself: I bit off more than I can chew, but my work ethic and sense of responsibility to follow through to the end supersedes any doubt that we as a family can prevail. It doesn’t help that reliable 1:1 therapy has been hard to find and/or difficult to maintain. I am finding the turnover to be very high. The profession is not as dedicated as it used to be, insurance regulations and costs keep getting in the way; and sometimes my therapists lives have taken on another life of their own. Stopping and starting and having to stop abruptly for matters beyond anyone's control has left me extremely vulnerable to a lot of negativity I am desperately trying to get rid of. In a fight to stay focused, PHP has been my only constant. I stay dedicated to my PHP group to remember the five reasons I became a parent.
The fifth reason happens to be my newest daughter who deserves more attention than I give her. She is great at loving and caring, knowing right from wrong, taking everything in and is able to learn so many life skills very quickly (in some cases too quickly). Even before she turned 16 years old she had accepted the responsibility of fighting off chronic, but non-life threatening illnesses that limit her in so many practical ways. She’s passionate about her artwork and is the cutest when she dotes on her newly acquired cockatiel therapeutic pet. She recognizes how hard her mom and I try to navigate being an adult and is not hesitant to offer up a hug in the most difficult of times whether it's with one of our other children, each other, or ourselves.
It is important to reinforce that PHP does not provide all the answers. The group is not a substitute for therapy, but it is a safe place to go when seemingly there is no other place to go. In fact, part of PHP's mission is to provide hope in the form of resource suggestions to the many different scenarios including mine. Those resources more often than not come from its members as well as the facilitator. I feel PHP is best utilized as a mirror image reflecting back to one’s self. I admire the empowerment PHP has given many as they graduate from followers to leaders…
The learning and growth I have accomplished has now begun to incorporate more than just my family. I have been invited by my facilitators to occupy many leadership roles in the PHP organization as a parent leader, fill in facilitator, regular speaker at these facilitator trainings, promoting PHP at DCF staff meetings and serving on the panel at the March 2017 PHP annual forum. I also served on the PHP Board of Directors, and was chairperson of the committee to dissect and improve our community groups to further give voices to other families in need of the support that has benefited me and my family.
I am going to conclude with a quote from a book called The Rhythm of Life: Living Everyday With Passion and Purpose” that I believe best describes Parents Helping Parents: No man becomes great on his own. No woman becomes great on her own. The people around them help to make them great. We all need people in our lives who raise our standards, remind us of our essential purpose, and challenge us to become the best version of ourselves.