In 2005, I wrote this essay about Keith & his kids:
I’m in love with a man who has children. The one non-negotiable piece of my yahoo personal ad: no kids. Mounting debt, a gambling addiction, a 70-hour work week at McDonald’s, purple boils on his face – all were preferable to children.
This isn’t a new aversion. Dolls seemed like a complete waste of time to me as a girl. They weren’t real (which, now that I think about it, is a bonus), but why would you pretend they were real when you could read a book and pretend you walked through the closet door into Narnia? In high school home ec, girls carried around eggs wrapped in baby blankets for a week so they could see what motherhood would be like. I never heard of one of those eggs screaming at 3 a.m. or vomiting up the strained peas you just got down its throat all over your $75 white silk shirt. If you did drop the egg, you only broke an egg. CPS wouldn’t come. Your mother wouldn’t shame you for the next dozen years about your irresponsibility. If you forgot your egg in your locker, it would still be there in the morning, in the exact same shape as when you left it. Not like motherhood at all. At work, women would bring in their newborns and their breast pumps and expect that every female on the floor would hold the baby. I hid in the bathroom as much as possible, but if there was no escaping holding it, I held it as far away from my body as I could – this child and I staring at each other – asking each other, “Are we from the same species?”
In my mid-twenties, I stopped feeling guilty over not goo-gooing over ga-gaaing tiny people and surrendered to the inevitability that if I lived in the wild, I would be the aberration who ate her young. I would be the exception that proves the rule. I’m an English teacher, after all, so exceptions to rules are really no issue for me. I am finally old enough to where very few people expect one of those tiny creatures to come crawling out of my body. I freely admit that I don’t get it. I don’t understand the love a parent has for a child. I don’t understand why it is supposed to be superior to the love I feel for myself, my friends, my cats or my planet. I don’t think it is. But I’ve learned many clever responses over the years to the inevitable question, “When are you going to have children?” The best and most effective shut down seems to be the most honest one. I don’t like children, at which point the mother who asked the question promptly shepherds her flock of drooling sticky people out of arm’s reach, as if she thought I would devour them on the spot as a final emphasis to my comment.
It’s still true. I don’t like children. I don’t regret not experiencing childbirth, or nursing, or first days of kindergarten. But, as things go, I met this man, and he had two children, but he also had a cat, and men who prefer cats to dogs are rare enough, and Prescott is small enough that I thought he was worth talking to. We kept talking, and of course, the time came next when I had to meet the children.
I met them on a sleety Sunday in March at the Dinner Bell. They were very blonde. I had no idea what to say to them. They brought a gift of bath salts for taking care of their cat while they were away on spring break to San Diego. I’d been sick during spring break, missing this man, worrying about meeting his children. When I met the man my mother married after my father died, I was furious. How could my mother love someone else? I was 22 then. These children are 8 and 11. Maybe divorce is different. After all, they’ve still got both parents. During breakfast I watched this man with these children. I watched them hold on to him, kiss him, share their food with him. I saw them love him and I saw a side of him I hadn’t seen before.
They spit their gum out in his hands. He and the boy recited parts of Jabberwocky to each other. He and the girl worked on math problems in crayon on the children’s menu paper place mat. He wanted them to like me. I wanted them to like me. I wanted them to not be threatened by me or feel like I was going to try and be their mother.
The most intelligent thing I could think of to say was, “What was your favorite memory from San Diego?” I am a stupid adult, I thought. I suddenly realized why adults had always commented on how much I had grown or asked me what school was like – but how to explain to a grown up what middle school was like? I shuddered at the memory and swore never to let that question cross my lips. But it did, in a slightly more or less egregious way. “What is your favorite subject in school?” English for the girl. Science for the boy. Ask open ended questions. I didn’t know what to say. The girl asked if she could eat my toast. The boy asked to see my ring. The man told me they liked me. How could he tell? I knew they wanted their mom and dad back together. What kid wouldn’t? I knew I was in the way of that. I didn’t even know this man very well yet. I just knew, then, that he had something I hadn’t seen in a long time – the capacity to open his heart.
It’s been awhile now. I spent a day last summer sweating at the water park in Phoenix because the children wanted to go. I watched them wade through a creek on slippery rocks (which, had I been their mother, I’d have never let them do) until the girl found a candleholder shaped like a sunflower and brought it back to me for a gift. The girl wrote poems about me. The boy stole my sandal one night while I was in bed with the man and hid it under the sink. The boy hit me in the eye by accident with a ball he was hitting in the house. He really likes you, said the man.
So the relationship with the man became more than a relationship with him. I realized I loved his kids. One night the boy cried and told me what divorce felt like. He said it felt like the north pole became the south pole, and I didn’t know what to say, but I felt like whatever I said suddenly had infinitely more weight than anything I’d ever said before. I said his mom loved him and his dad loved him and that meeting him and the girl was one of the best things that ever happened to me. When we came out of the bedroom, the boy and I, I saw the man making nachos in the kitchen and the girl grating cheese and I saw what I never thought I’d see in my life. A family.
Last weekend all four of us crawled in bed. The boy wanted to listen to Simon & Garfunkel. His favorite was Bridge over Troubled Water. Her favorite was Scarborough Fair, although none of us could explain to her what it meant. The man and I were in the middle of the bed. The girl was holding on to me and the boy was holding on to the man.
I remembered listening to Simon & Garfunkel in high school, wearing all black with heavy kohl eyeliner and combat boots. We smoked dope and drank cheap wine coolers and lamented the decline of the intellectual. We needed an Ayn Rand for our generation. We thought the 60’s held all the answers. The 80’s were, in our words, tragic.
Two years before my father died, Simon & Garfunkel meant the end of everything, the end of my family. I sat in the circle of the other National Honor Society nerds choking on the pot smoke I never could inhale embracing embracing embracing the sorrow that was coming just around the next corner. Sorrow so close I could smell its rotten teeth.
The comfort I pretended I could have through sad folk songs worked. I didn’t forget the sorrow, but I did forget the deeper thing I was pretending until this moment. I was pretending I didn’t want a family again, pretending that when that sorrow hit that was inches inches from the door, that from that moment on it didn’t matter that I would never have a family.
The man shifted beside me, pressed his head against my neck. “I love you,” I said to the top of his head. He is the man I love in part because of these children, and I feel for the first time in my life that I can close my eyes and rest with my family: this man, this girl, and this boy.
Tonight, in July of 2008, after over three and a half years together, we told his children that we were making a commitment to each other. The girl is 14 now, starting high school in two weeks. The boy is almost 12, about to begin the adventure that is middle school. When we told them, they shrieked, leapt off the floor and hugged each other, tears forming in both kids' eyes. They went to their dad, then to me, hugging, hugging, hugging.
"I've got a new step-mom!" said the girl, (something usually not shouted with glee) and somehow everything felt much more real than it had over the weekend when Keith and I made a commitment to each other in Jerome. She immediately went to text message everybody.
"Thank you, Dad," said the boy, hugging his father. "Are you happy?"
"I am," said Keith.
I don't know what I expected. I knew they liked me. I knew I loved them. I knew I'd heard all my life it's different when you make a commitment, but I didn't really believe it -- I guess because I never have made a commitment before to anything but writing. I felt another crack separate and break off and dissolve in my heart. I would be seeing these children graduate from high school, get married (or not), go to college, have lives. I could really let myself love them.
The girl wants to make the invitations. The boy wants to play the wedding song on his new electric guitar. They want us to dance to "Jessie's Girl", the song we danced to on i-tunes on the first New Year's Eve the four of us spent together. The girl's boyfriend texts back his congratulations.
Keith and I sit outside while the girl shops for shoes on Zappos (yeah, I've been teaching her), and the boy takes a shower. We can see Jupiter from the porch. We had a bit of rain today, and the air is damp and cooler. We talk about what the ceremony will look like. We talk about what to call each other (there really is no word ... if you're not husband/wife, what are you?) We decide to be husband/wife anyway. We need to figure out what legal paperwork to draw up for power of attorney. We talk about a party. Writing things to say to each other.
When I first moved to Prescott, I went out to Goldwater Lake and walked around its edges. There's a small footbridge off to one side, and I sat there for a long time enjoying the sound of real water making noises. Phoenix had no such talking water. I sat on the bridge in January in the sun. The lake was full. Patches of snow were on the trail. And I wished for Keith. I didn't know I wished for Keith, but I told the universe that I was ready to do the work of relationship. I asked for a companion. I met Keith a few weeks later.
We think maybe we'll do the ceremony at Goldwater Lake by that footbridge. I say good-night to the boy and the girl. "We love you!" they say, and then return to their cell phones or books.
"Love you, too," I say.
And it's true. And I didn't have to go through childbirth, or diapers, or vomiting, or sleepless nights with infants. Someone else did that for me. When I met them they were already people. They could eat on their own. They could walk. They could sleep alone. Now they seem to be almost grown. They say some of the wisest things I've ever heard. I had nowhere near their depth at their age. How cool that I'm going to get to spend my life with them.
"That was weird," I say to Keith when we get to the car. I'm still working with "step-mom" in my head. I'm realizing that it's very hard to not move forward now that we've told everyone. I don't want to not move forward, but I'm realizing, yes, mom was right, it is different when you make a commitment.
"I choose you," says Keith.
"I choose you, too," I say.
And I do.