Ticking Clocks

I have probably written about this memory before, so if you’ve heard the story, just bear with me.  If not, here’s a little snapshot of me at 17.

I am sitting in the back row of Mr. Ashley’s Economics class, which I am failing miserably because I pretty much have an 8th grade math level.  So instead of paying attention, and especially because it is now April of Senior year, I am talking to my friends. 

Girl 1: I’m not sure how many kids I want when I grow up.  I’ll decide with my husband.

Girl 2: I want one or two, maybe.

Girl 3: I don’t know, I think I’d like a big family.

Their eyes turn to me.

Me:  I don’t know…what if you don’t get married and have kids, though?

Mouths literally agape, as though I had just suggested the absolute nightmare scenario.  Girl 3, bless her heart, was always kind of the naïve one in the group, and she says, indignant: “But OF COURSE we will!”

And that is the day I realized I am different from the average girl.

Yes, I played baby dolls.  Yes, I played House.  But, I preferred playing School, and I preferred books to anything.  I played those childhood games because my friends wanted to, and I thought I was supposed to.  After all, that’s what filled the aisles of girl’s stuff at Toys R Us.  I always preferred Kevin’s toys…all his action figures had superpowers or cool tricks, and they came with cars and buildings just like my dolls.  So why couldn’t I get them for Christmas?

I asked several people their opinion on being a mother, or living childfree.  I wanted to know if the moms felt they made the right choice.  I wanted to know if those without kids ever regretted it.  Some friends told me their stories, some women commented on my tweet about it, some privately messaged me.  And in nearly every single story, in the end, there was no regrets. This pleased me. It made me feel even more validated in my decisions.

I only ever considered a child though adoption, and this is not only because I was witness to my goddaughters’ birth, which was about the best prophylactic in the world.   I felt like I didn’t need a kid, but if a kid needed me, I could do it.  I would help them.  This is one of the reasons I got into working with children and teens.

But…like I said, I didn’t need one.  I knew pretty early on that kids would be difficult for me for a variety of health reasons.  Just the meds I would have to go off of was scary enough to dissuade me from any potential baby-fever.  So instead, I focused on my “kiddos.”

The constant reader knows that I refer to my stepchildren as such, but they are not the first in my life.  My kiddos are anyone younger than my sister (the queen kiddo) whom I developed a relationship with in their youth.  Bernie was first, because at the age of 13 I took on the role of “back-up mom” in her life.  At 18 came D, my other goddaughter (again, Bernie was first.)  She spent the first few years of her life here in Buffalo with me before moving to NYC for a chunk of her childhood. But I loved the crap out of that baby.  Then one day I got a new job and met…let’s call her Sunshine…I used to.  She was a wild 15 year old with a hard outer shell, but somehow we bonded and she showed me the side of her that was full of compassion and ambition and hope.  Then there were my cousins…Erin, who feels totally comfortable calling me when she is in crisis mode, and knows I can help calm her down.  And G, who, at 11 years old, I call my tiniest bestie…I mean, we play games and share interests and confide in each other…who cares how old she is?  And then one sunny day, came my kiddos.

I didn’t ask for them., they were just part of the package.  I received an anonymous insult once early on (which I’m still salty about….come say it to my face, coward.)  Person went so far as to go to Google, and type in my blog handle along with “dating a guy with four kids? get higher standards,” so that I saw it in my analytics feed.  I mean that is an impressive level of passive-aggression.

So yeah, I got some flack for picking up a whole tribe.  But prior to that, I also got crap because I didn’t have a kid.  How many times did my mother say something referencing her future grandmotherhood?  10,000 times.  And other people, both friends and strangers, had their opinions on it as well.

So, I was damned if I did and damned if I didn’t.

I think, often, of my kiddo’s mother.  I know she would die for any of them, and I would too, but she has a bond that cannot be broken with each of them.  I’m not jealous or anything, in fact, I am in awe of it.  I never wanted that for myself, but I respect the woman that does. 

I am staunchly pro-choice, again, as the regular reader should know by now, but that doesn’t just have to do with abortion.  I am pro-choice in that every woman has the right to make decisions that affect her body…and whether or not to have a child is decision number 1.  I decided a long time ago that wasn’t for me.  Some of my friends decided the same thing.  Others, they had those babies.  Girl #3 even got her big family.

Me, I got four kiddos who never leave the house without telling me they love me.

I’m all set, thanks.

Sunflower

I don’t write much about the kiddos, even though they are a huge part of my life.  I like to keep a little privacy where they are concerned, hence the initials and a lack of current photos on my blog.  But they are growing into amazing little people, and I just want to celebrate that for a moment.  

This week I spent a lot of time with E.  During the summer, we try to take each kiddo for an extended period…a few days to a week, so that they can have one-on-one time with dad.  When M is here, we hang out periodically though the day but spend the majority of it doing our own things.  When L is here, we hang a bit more, and he likes to go to places like the store or my mom’s house with me.  Still, he retreats to play his game or watch a movie while I clean house or write.  When K was here, Mark had some time off so he was with me to entertain her.  But E was a little different.

Content to do her own thing for a while, she is also ready and willing to do anything else, too.  She even came to take Mark to work with me, something none of the others have deigned to do.  On Monday, we ran errands and such.  I truly thought she would hear the itinerary and say no thanks, but she grabbed her sunglasses and her father’s shoes and got in the car. (Sidebar: she wore these shoes all week, everywhere we went, despite having her own.) 

Tuesday was more fun.  E is a budding photographer.  Nature shots are her specialty…I have included a couple of my favorites below.  I asked her how she would feel about a human subject, and would she be so kind as to photograph me for my future website?

Of course, she said yes.

So we went to the Burchfield Nature Preserve and she took my photo a few times, in different places.  When we finally got “the one,” she asked if we could go hiking.  And so, we spent about an hour wandering the trails, looking out for poison ivy, discovering cemeteries, and trying not to fall in the creek.  Afterwards, we didn’t want to go home, so she suggested we call Kevin.  For the new reader, Kevin is my brother-from-another-mother.  He’s about as close as the kiddos have to an uncle on my side of the family, and they all adore him.  Kev is very good at getting on a kid’s level, be it video games with the boys or letting the girls braid his ridiculously luxurious hair. 

We drive out there and he wants to go explore.  Of course, we are down with the plan.  Also, E desperately wants to ride in his car…she’s something of an auto enthusiast as well.  He takes us up to an overlook in East Aurora, where she takes some photos.  Then we head over to an abandoned developmental center that the county is allowing to be reclaimed by nature, supposedly.  Finally, we ended up hiking along a creek in West Seneca.  It was exhausting, but fun. 

On Wednesday, both of us were tired from Tuesday, so we were very chill.  Still, E was more than willing to help me with some housework, and when Mark got home, we spent some time together on the porch just talking.  Thursday brought with it some more errands, of which E again had no complaint and was eager to accompany me.  Then, Friday.

E mentioned on Thursday how much it sucked that Mark had to work all week.  She said she had a great time with me, but missed her dad.  So, Mark asked off for Friday and got it.  He planned a whole day for her.

She had wanted to go fishing.  This surprised me a little.  Usually when we fish, she is the first to get bored.  She will catch one and be done, or she will catch nothing and get annoyed.  Then she wanders off with my camera to take her pictures.  She is never the one to wake up on Saturday morning and say “Let’s go fishing.“  That’s K or L.  Still, she knows her father loves to fish, and she asked if we could go.  Early Friday morning found us on our way to the Bull Creek boat launch in Tonawanda.  She caught a perch.  She was pleased, but then it started getting very hot.  So, we moved along to our next destination. 

We went to Mississippi Mudd’s for lunch, a sort of funky hot dog stand along the river.  The food was delicious, but the bees were insane.  We ate quickly and then fled.  My fool self got sweet potato fries with honey on them so of course they were swarming my food. 

Afterwards, we went out to Sanborn to visit the sunflower field.  Many photos were taken, and I definitely wore the wrong shoes for the occasion.  Especially when we went out into the U-Pick field.  Mark bought six sunflowers.  A bouquet for me, and a perfect little one for E.  I love sunflowers.  They’re not only my favorite flower, but a recurring omen in my life…I’ll have to write about that at some point, too.

Afterwards, we took her home.  I was sad to see her go.  I had a lovely week with this little kiddo.  I saw truly how much she is growing every day, turning into this beautiful and kind and funny young woman.   I know she would have preferred to spend all her time with her father, but it was lovely getting to share that time together.  I don’t have kids of my own, and I don’t plan to, but I have my step-kiddos, so the motherhood thing is weird for me.  I love them and feel connected to them, but also kind of out of the loop.  So, getting to see just the little day by day things is fascinating to me.  E blew me away this week…so talented, so clever, so compassionate.  I truly love watching them grow.

Kinda like sunflowers.

The Scariest Day

K likes to ask very thought-provoking questions of me on occasion.  Usually, they are head scratchers…what was your best day?  What music influences you? What’s your favorite memory from high school?  What are you most proud of?  I don’t know where she gets them, but it seems like she has a new one every weekend.  This week was “What was your scariest day?”

I don’t know what she was expecting, but “the day I took you guys to the squishy playground” was not it.

The “squishy playground,” as the kids have always called it, is situated in Buffalo Harbor State Park, about five minutes from my house.  They call it such because instead of woodchips or gravels, the playground floor is a squishy material that cushions falls.  One would assume this would provide an added level of safety and comfort for the worrisome parent.  One would be wrong.

It so happened, one day, that Mark had to work on a Saturday when we had the kids.  He tries not to pick up such hours, but it was mandatory, so he went in and I was alone with the kiddos.  M wanted to go to the park.  All the others chimed in, begging for me to take them.

What they did not realize is that I had never taken them anywhere before, alone.  Mark was always there, often also boosted by my parents or aunts or sister.  I figured there would be no harm…after all, it is the squishy playground.  So, I loaded them into the car and off we went.

When we got there, I perched on a bench with a book and let them do their thing.  All was well until I hear someone call my name and find M atop a climbing structure that had to be 15 feet off the ground.  That was the first instance of panic.  He was so proud of himself, and I smiled and gave him a thumbs up, but inside I was screaming.  “GET DOWN.  GET THE FUCK DOWN.”  He did, safely, and I told him he did a good job even though I wanted to throttle him for scaring me like that. 

E says “let’s go for a walk.”  There’s a path that goes along the water, for walking and biking and such, so I figure there’s nothing wrong with a little stroll and let her lead the way.  Again, all was well until I hear “Brig!  Look!” and turn to find L climbing on the rock wall that separated the path and the lake.  Naturally, the other three kids scramble to join him.  Again, I smile and give a thumbs up, but inside…”OMGOMGOMG…the girls can’t swim.  It’s too deep.  There’s no way out.  I’m going to have to jump in.  What if they crack their head on a rock?  Should I take my shoes off?  Should I yell at them to get off the rocks?  They’re having fun…I don’t want to be the evil stepmother. OMGOMGOMG someone’s going to die…”

There was a big hill across from the rocks, so I remembered the old childcare trick of redirection, and suggested that it would be fun to roll down.  All four kids agreed, and raced to the top of the hill.  They rolled a few times.  I smiled and thumbs upped and secretly prayed no one would snap a bone on the descent.  But at least they were no longer by the water.

Afterwards, we went back to the car so we could go pick up Mark.  I thought to myself that I had survived the scary day, where I was on edge the whole time while they were having a ball.  Then, E.  “I’m itchy.”  The darling girl is always pointing out anything that bothers her, from a miniscule paper cut to a big bruise, so I shrugged it off at first.  Then, K agrees.  Then L.  Then M.

By the time we get home they have rashes.  My best guess is that they recently sprayed that hill with pesticide.  I made all the kids shower, freaking out because I broke my one rule “You will be returned to your mother in the condition in which you were delivered.”

When I told K this story, she didn’t find it particularly scary.  Well, you’re not a parent, kid.  Worse, you’re not a step-parent, which brings with it a whole host of possible faux pas.  It’s like walking a minefield, at least it was in the early days.  Now, I’m a little more attune at seeing the traps.  But then, I was terrified.  The only time I had been alone with the kids at that point was in the safety of our house.  Taking them out into the world was a whole other ordeal.  I started to wonder if birth parents feel the same, constantly worried about worst case scenarios befalling their children.  Nope, not for me…another nail in the coffin of reproduction, as far as I’m concerned. 

It’s a few years later and I have spent time outside the house with all the kiddos, and I don’t worry like I did that day.  But to say I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the whole time is a lie.  I was terrified.

So no, K, I don’t have a scary ghost story, or some terrifying trauma that I can call my scariest day.  Just a day at the park with my kiddos, that I was certain would end with a trip to the ER.  It didn’t, and I was grateful, but that fear remained.  I think a lot of step-parents share these fears.  It wasn’t like it is when I nanny…I do not fear the loss of children who don’t belong to me in the way I do the kiddos.  That’s not to say I haven’t had some scary moments with other people’s kids…I certainly have.  I just seem to know how to deal with them, on instinct.  Like a job, because it is one.  But your own children are different.  Would I jump in front of a car to save a charge?  Yes.  But would I beat the shit out of the driver after, should I still be able to walk?  No.  That’s just for my kiddos.

Anyway, I love them.  They have terrified me on occasion, but I love them so much that this terror is a result of that.  K and her questions intrigue me, but this particular one really gave me an almost visceral flashback.  I really don’t think I can illustrate to you the sheer terror and worry I felt that day.  You’re just going to have to take my word for it.

The Scariest Day

Kiddo Christmas

When I was young and I thought of the few kids I knew whose parents were split, I often felt a little bad for them at Christmastime.  I had it in my head that their Christmases couldn’t be as good as mine because they didn’t have both parents with them on the day.  I grew up thinking the nuclear family was “normal,” thus assuming any differential was “bad.”

Kids, right?

Anyway, it wasn’t until I was a fully formed adult that I saw this from an entirely different perspective.  I started dating a man who had four kids.  We moved in together, and for the first year his kids would be getting two Christmases.  I was terrified about everything.  What if they saw though those cheap knockoff toys we could barely afford?  What if they didn’t like my cooking?  What if they felt weird around my parents?  What if they missed their mom?  None of my fears were warranted.  They loved the toys and the food and my family.  No one asked for mom, likely in the same way no one asked for dad three days later when they were back home.  If they have taught me nothing else these past 9 years, it is this: live in the moment.  Love the person you’re with as hard as you can, and don’t worry about tomorrow.  

M tells me he doesn’t really recall much of Hubs and their mother being together.  He was only 5 when they split.  The others remember almost nothing, especially K who was only 10 months when we first met.  So, for them, two Christmases is “normal.”  It makes me think back on my preconceived notions of childhood.  It makes me reevaluate the idea of family that was ingrained in me from birth. 

This weekend was Kiddo Christmas.  My parents and sister came over and we had a little party.  We had snacks and drinks and presents galore.  My theme for Christmas this year was “take a freaking shower.”  Everybody got a towel, body wash, loofah, deodorant, and body spray.  We got four kids in the throes of puberty and I will not tolerate a stinky child.  They also got tablets from the aunts and uncles, cases for them from Bern, and headphones from their father, amongst other goodies.  I’ve heard no complaints. 

This morning the boys are playing Call of Duty on the PlayStation.  E is listening to music on her tablet and K is coloring wither new gel pens.  Everyone is happy and getting along, and it makes me glad that this is the way I start my Christmas season every year.  It also makes me chuckle at my former naiveté, when I was little and thought that a family came off an assembly lime like one of Santa’s toys.  The new “normal” is beautiful according to me.

Merry Christmas.

An Ode to my Kiddos

I have sat at my computer every day this week, pecking out my novel.  It has been the main focus of my life for the past 11 days, and nearly every thought I think when alone has been related to it.  So of course, I sit down to write my blog and all I want to do is go back to work on the book, or write about how I’m doing on it.  But, that’s for Thursdays, not Mondays, so now I am at a loss.

I ask E what I should write about, and she suggests a dozen topics that have already graced my fingertips.  I ask K and get more of the same.  They are clever little girls who have great ideas, but sadly they are ideas I have already had.  E suggests I write about the kiddos, but I don’t, really.  I mean, they appear in my blogs, but I like to keep a certain air of privacy around them (hence the initials.)  But I will bend that rule a little, today.

I remember the day I met them.  First, there was M, five years old and playing Transformers on his father’s PlayStation.  He explained the difference between autobots and decepticons, and then started talking about different kinds of dinosaurs, and I was confused but also impressed by his ability to retain knowledge.  L, who was three, was sitting at the kitchen table eating a hot dog.  I sat beside him and commented on the cartoon character on his shirt.  I taught him a secret handshake.  He told me a knock-knock joke that made no sense.

E was only two and very shy, clutching a small toy duck and peeking at me from behind the arm of the sofa.  Eventually she came forward, placed the duck in my lap, and ran off again.  She wasn’t very good at hiding though, so I always saw her peering around corners, watching my every move.  K was furious, screaming and crying and refusing her bottle, only 10 months old.  I picked her up and put her in the middle of Mark’s bed.  I sang her Too Ra Loo Ra, an Irish lullaby my mother always sang to me.  She fell asleep, and I fell in love…with these kiddos, before I even loved their father.

Now.

Now, we have all grown.  M can still be found on his electronics talking about Transformers or Godzilla, but not all the time.  When he comes here after school, he may retreat into the world of screens for a half an hour or so, but then he emerges and engages me in conversation or joins me in whatever activity I’m doing.  He is fourteen now, and becoming this amazing young man that makes me proud.

L is twelve going on twenty, and now all of his jokes make sense.  Sometimes he crosses a line, and I shoot him a look and receive a prompt apology in return, but for the most part he keeps us laughing.  And his heart…his heart is enormous.  Definitely the politest kids I’ve ever met, he has a well of compassion in him that I don’t think has a limit.  Everyday with him is a jovial surprise.

E just turned eleven, and is blowing my mind.  No longer shy and timid, she is a talkative and engaging girl who is maturing into this lovely young woman.  She’s clever and funny and helpful, and long gone are the days when she would tattle on her siblings or fib to me about nonsense I could prove.  Her smile brightens my day, and her actions make my heart swell with joy.  I am so looking forward to everything she will become.

K is ten now, no longer a crying baby.  She knows no life without me in it, no life where mom and dad were together, and sometimes I wonder if that’s why our connection is so strong.  To her, all of this is perfectly normal, not a careful configuration of parenting that took a decade to sort out.  Her personality has always been strong, but as she ages, she is finding herself, her cleverness and compassion being her strongest traits.  Saturday night, we celebrated her entry into the double-digits club.  No more babies in this house.

Being a step-parent is a peculiar thing.  We have a stereotype to battle, for one…everyone knows the story of the evil stepmother.  We are often looked at as “less than,” because we did not give birth to the child.  It’s frequently difficult for me because I feel like odd woman out a lot…I neither created the children (like their parents did) or live with them most of the time (like their stepfather does.)  Still, when I am with my kiddos, none of it matters.  I don’t think about anything except what’s best for them.  I love them more than I thought was possible, if I’m honest.  They have changed my life in a way that no one has, save perhaps their father.  Mark has even made me swear that should our relationship fail for whatever reason, I will not desert the kids.  He made me promise, when we got married, that I will always be their stepmother, even if I’m not his wife.  He, in turn, promised that should that tragedy ever happen, he would continue to encourage the kids to have a relationship with me.
It’s not many men that would put their kids feeling before their own like that.  Of course, I hope that never comes to pass, but it makes my heart happy to know that he would want me in the kids lives no matter what.  After all, like I said, I loved them first.

Being a step-parent can be hard, but there are blessings.  I see it when E surprises me with a fresh cup of coffee, or when K tells me to get in the office and start writing.  I see it when M takes an interest in what I’m doing, or L sneaks up and gives me an unexpected hug.  These kids were not always in my life, and I wasn’t always in theirs…but they don’t remember that.  They only remember how much I have loved them, and they return that love to me in spades.  

Being a step-parent is hard.  But I wouldn’t change it.  I wouldn’t give it up.  I am grateful every day for my kiddos, and I love them more than they will ever know. Their ability to inspire and encourage is astronomical, and they are growing into amazing little humans.  I never wanted kids of my own, but I am eternally grateful for the little hearts that found their way to me and opened my life up in the process.