The author and her stepdaughters on vacation in Turkey.(Courtesy Jessica Steinberg)
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Great Escapes

When the challenges of joint custody become overwhelming, an Israeli stepmother of two teenagers finds vacations can bring her blended family together

Jessica Steinberg
February 17, 2011
The author and her stepdaughters on vacation in Turkey.(Courtesy Jessica Steinberg)

When I got married nearly six years ago, I was 36, and I’d taken many vacations by myself or with a few single friends. I was used to doing what I wanted, when I wanted. But with marriage, I was about to become a wife and a stepmother to my husband’s two daughters, then aged 8 and 14—my ready-made family. I was ready to put my traveling days behind me. I wanted to start my real life.

Reality, however, didn’t turn out exactly as I’d expected. When my husband and I had started dating, I’d had a gut feeling that I could handle the challenges of joint-custody step-mothering. But I wasn’t ready for the challenges to be, well, so challenging. From the pile of hummus-smeared plates sitting in the sink and the school gym T-shirt that needed to be clean for the next day to the realization that mushroom risotto wasn’t an acceptable dinner option, I just wasn’t accustomed to being pulled in so many directions. Add to that the stresses of disagreements with my stepdaughters’ mother over issues big and small; the tensions regarding the girls’ split religious lives, from our Sabbath-observant household to their mother’s stridently secular home; my older stepdaughter’s teenage strife, and my younger stepdaughter’s pre-tween tantrums—life was simply intense.

We needed an escape. We needed to go somewhere, away from the edgy existence of life in two households, a place that was a blank slate for us all, preferably out of the village-like atmosphere of Israel and our southern Jerusalem neighborhood.

We took our first trip together in 2008. It was over Hanukkah vacation, and we flew to Marmaris in southwest Turkey, a cheap charter-flight destination for Israelis. I worried that the location wouldn’t be exciting enough to sustain us for four days, that there wouldn’t be enough to eat or that the wrong topics would come up in conversation.

But just the concept of a journey seemed to suffice. From the car ride to the airport and throughout our long weekend away, we succeeded in vacationing. It didn’t matter that the cool weather prevented us from swimming in the hotel’s massive outdoor pools, that the food was mostly unappetizing as well as predominantly non-kosher, or that there weren’t many sightseeing opportunities.

What we all reminisce about was an afternoon spent in the hotel hamam, the Turkish bath, where we hopped in our bathing suits between the array of pelting showerheads, steam rooms, saunas, and the bathtub-like pool. We loved heading to the hotel lobby each day to snack on the complimentary chocolate doughnuts that seemed to have been planned for the visiting Israelis who traditionally eat sufganiyot on Hanukkah. My younger stepdaughter, then 10, was thrilled to zip down the hotel’s imposing marble corridors in her new Heely sneakers, while my older stepdaughter, 16 at the time, was mortified and maybe more than a little flattered by the waiters who flirted with her in Turkish.

We lit our Hanukkah candles each night in the hotel room, giving the girls the simple gifts we’d brought with us. The girls were intrigued to create a Shabbat atmosphere in a place that felt so far from home, and the ability to experience it together, without the tensions of splitting weekends between a secular mother and observant father, made it that much more peaceful.

It was that first initial trip that set the pattern for us, taking family vacations whenever possible, whether over Sukkot, Hanukkah, and Pesach breaks or for longer stretches during the summer. We would scrimp and save, taking on extra work to make the trips possible, such as my educator husband’s two-week gig as an amateur chazzan at a synagogue over the high holidays, an annual event for which he leaves all of us in Israel while he travels to Toronto to boost his salary.

Sure, the memories faded between vacations. The same old tensions rose and erupted, whether between me and the girls or me and my husband about the girls. Yet I had determined that time away from our regular routine worked a certain kind of magic on us all, reminding one another that although we’d been thrown together in life, we actually even like and perhaps even love each other a good chunk of the time. We have our disagreements and usual annoyances during our time away, and I hold out hope that one of these breaks will allow us to talk about the things that really matter, like the way life has been disrupted by divorce. But that hasn’t happened yet.

Some major changes have disrupted our fragile but steady arrangement. The first was the birth of our twin sons two years ago, a welcome yet significant alteration in our blended family fabric. The girls fell in love with their brothers, but then a year after they were born, both girls ended the long-standing joint custody living arrangement. My older stepdaughter was spending her gap year before the army at a mechina, a pre-army program, and so was pretty much out of both houses. My younger stepdaughter, however, decided to live full-time with her mother, a decision that caused much grief and pain for all of us.

At the time, we had been planning a special Hanukkah vacation, 10 days in South Africa, where we would be visiting good friends from the United States who were living there for six months. We had been thinking of it as a bat mitzvah present for my stepdaughter, who, due to her complicated feelings about religion, given her parents’ very different beliefs on the subject, had eschewed any kind of celebration. Now we were stymied and angry. But after much hand-wringing and discussion, we decided to go ahead with the plan.

We didn’t even know if she was going to be coming with us. Her older sister couldn’t, as she wasn’t allowed to leave the country during her mechina year. In retrospect, I now realize that my younger stepdaughter wouldn’t have considered missing the trip, as it gave her the opportunity to be with her little brothers for 10 days straight, miss some school, and allow herself to be just with us, without the complications of having to constantly consider the needs and issues of both her mother and father.

Going on that vacation turned out to be the right decision for all of us. The sense of leaving behind all the strife of the recent events was calming, even with the singular silences of things that sometimes go unsaid. And now that my stepdaughter was no longer living with us, it felt important just to live together for 10 days, remembering what it was to just be us, without the complications of her parents who live life so differently.

In many ways, that is the best part of these family vacations: the ability to be together without wondering whether the girls will be joining us for dinner, worrying about whether it’s time for them to leave, or if they’re calling their mother from the bathroom while in our phone-free Shabbat home. We can almost feel like a normal family, or our version of that unit.

The hard times aren’t over. In fact, we entered into a new and difficult phase with my older stepdaughter shortly after that Cape Town vacation. It took months to renegotiate the relationship, and it wasn’t until a four-day stint in Eilat this past Hanukkah that I felt she and I had returned to our previous camaraderie, as she took a sip of my pre-dinner beer without asking. There are certain comfort zones that can’t be overstated.

As my stepdaughters have begun to make their own choices, which, seemingly inevitably, are more aligned with their mother’s life than their father’s, we’re struggling to keep the girls attuned and involved in our life. Vacations are one good way of doing that, gently forcing us into one common place, at the same time.

Jessica Steinberg is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family.

Jessica Steinberg is a freelance writer living in Jerusalem with her family.