Concrete signs of hope after parental alienation

2010. One of the worst parental alienation years.

Dan planned the clothesline installation project so he'd have a bit of extra concrete left over, just enough for each of the girls to shape a stepping stone.

"You can put your handprints in and we'll put them in the front yard! Maarit can use them in the walkway she's building!" he said, excited. My bio daughter was all over the idea; my stepdaughter hesitant.

Dan had both girls help mix and pour the concrete pad for the clothesline, then poured two lumpy dollops onto a sheet of plywood for them to go nuts on.

BD pounced lightning-quick, briskly smoothing the top of hers before jamming her hand deep, leaving a clear impression without hesitation. Satisfied, she popped up, rinsed off her hands, then looked around for more ways to spiff her creation up.

SD moved at quarter-speed, shaping and reshaping the perimeter of her concrete. Normally a meticulous artist who loved nothing more than getting messy and involved, that day SD oozed reluctance, ignoring Dan's suggestion to add her handprint. Eventually she gouged her name in with a toothpick, then poked in some random shells and rocks she had lying around in her room. There: were we happy? Could she go back to shunning us now?

It's something, I told myself. Because it would not be out of character for her to completely refuse participating at all. So even if she's acting like we're forcing her to decorate this damn thing as a punishment, she is here. We're together.

But really the entire day felt like a failure, along with the rest of that summer. Hell, the rest of 2010. BD thrilled, as always, at anything she interpreted as legitimizing us as a family; SD resistant, as always, at any implication we were one.

SD's shitty attitude bringing us all down. BD's contrasting, oblivious hope-springs-eternal vibe being equally heartbreaking for exactly opposite reasons. Dan and I wondering if anything we did would ever get through to SD. Me wondering if the word "family" would always feel like a grouchy farce.

2017. We just moved back to my hometown, where BD now lives and SD is starting her first year of college.

We thought, given the last decade of deep freeze, we'd be lucky to see SD once a week. Instead, she stops by every couple days. We feed her sometimes.

She's minoring in art; she shows me her class projects and we talk about painting techniques. SD is cheerful and chatty, the polar opposite of the sullen, monosyllabic presence I've come to associate with SD's visitation time. It's like none of the old high-conflict bullshit ever happened. Dan and I are happy to pretend it didn't.

As part of the move, Dan got all his old crap out of his buddy's backyard in Las Vegas, including those stupid concrete stepping stones.

"Ugh, I forgot about those," I say to Dan when I see them. "Do you remember what a disaster that day was? That entire summer?? SD absolutely refusing to put her handprint in, because god forbid she admit she's part of our family?”

"Haha yeah," he says, like those were good ol' days. "I'm glad I noticed them in Tom's yard when I was getting everything together. They were kind of buried in one corner."

I think they would've been better left buried and forgotten, along with the rest of 2010, but I keep that to myself.

A couple weeks later, Dan tells me that when SD saw the stepping stones sitting out, she said "Oh I remember making those! That's so weird; I wonder why I put all my favorite rocks and shells in there but not my handprint.”

"What the hell?" I say. "I thought she just grabbed a bunch of random shit out of her room to shove in there and shut us up."

"Me too," he says. "But I guess they were her special treasures."

So part of her did want to stake a claim, even a sideways roundabout claim. Even during those couple years that held the worst of the high conflict court shit, the height of the parental alienation. Even then.

And we had no fucking clue.

"Wow," I say, floored. "God, that poor kid. How mixed up she was. Hearing these stories come back out a decade later from a completely different perspective… Do you remember that time BD yelled 'Family hug!' and grabbed us and SD refused to join us? Even when we all were like 'SD, come on, come on!' "

"Yeah," he says with a sigh. “I’ve had 10 years to think about how to handle that better."

"How would you have?" I asked, curious.

"I should've laughed it off and said ‘Oh no! SD's stuck in hot lava! Quick everyone, make a bridge!' "

Out of nowhere, I start crying. “She WAS stuck in hot lava.”

But we didn't know how to make a bridge back then. We couldn't figure out how to reach her. We thought nothing we did made any positive impact on her whatsoever.

Yet now we have literal concrete evidence to the contrary, leaned right up next to our new front door.

Every effort counts. Every one. These alienated children of high-conflict divorce, these kids who are turned against one parent by their other parent— they are confused disasters who don't know which end is up. And I wish I could say that as adults, as stepparents and parents, we DO know which end is up, and can always guide them appropriately.

But I'd be lying.

What I do know is this: love is never wasted. Even if your best intentions feel spilled all over the ground, those seeds are stubborn and dig deep. They can sit there for years, throwing down deep roots, while it looks like nothing whatsoever is happening on the surface level.

Yet life is taking root under that thick frost of parental alienation. Just waiting for the thaw. Waiting till the atmosphere warms safe enough to show through.