She was three years old when she asked me that.
She is Natalie, my step-daughter and the preceding eighteen months, and the following year or so were tough. Tough for me, but I am a grown man and can deal with it. Tougher on three small children who had "lost" their Dad, and now had this new guy to get used to, and what was worse, he talked funny!
Second families, and how to survive them. It's a common situation filled with pitfalls and pleasures. Here is my story. I tell it with no ambition other than to give hope to those struggling, and smiles to those who have lived through the pain and emerged, happy, on the other side.
A number of different titles for this piece went through my mind. First was "Bitchy, Whiny and Messy", which was how my wife referred to her kids in the Internet Forum in which we originally met. They didn't like that, the self-righteous, all-knowing judgmentalists who felt it inappropriate to refer to children that way. For them I offer the evidence above to at least justify the "Messy".
Bitchy was six years old, Whiny was three and Messy was barely twenty months.
My head was all over the place. I was trying to cope with the separation from my own two boys who lived with their Mum in England. I had a new partner, and we were still, are still, getting to know each other. I was in a strange, but strangely familiar land sharing 1100 square feet with three children who didn't know me from Adam.
Now granted this situation is not typically the way second families form, if there is a "typical". Nonetheless, there does come a point where you, your new partner and a combination of children do all end up under the same roof for the first time, and relationships have to form. The quality of those bonds is simply a function of how well the adults manage the transition.
I was about forty five at the time. I had raised, at least part way, my own boys, and had spent many years working with emotionally disturbed children in various residential settings. I knew something about transition. It's not the same though. These were not someone else's "looked after" kids, however much care and skill I brought to helping them. These were my future, and I was theirs. There are no practise attempts, no re-runs. You have one chance to get this right, so don't blow it.
Those were the thoughts running through my head now more than seven years ago. I feel fairly confident that many people find themselves thinking the same thing, and sadly, if they haven't yet they may well in the future. Separation and divorce are just a fact of life, and re-marriage generally follows.
This family that I joined had adapted to their single-parent status. Bitchy was six, and she was well described. Let me hasten to add that she is now Mackenzie, a delightful thirteen year old girl with a great future. She is an honors student with a successful Band career in front of her and she loves to be tickled. (Actually she made National Junior Honors Society and yeah, I'm bragging on her).
Whiny is Michael, a boy still conflicted about his Dad, who he still sees very regularly, as do they all. He struggles still with the "male role model" bits, but he is working it out alongside his equal success in school and sports. He is the one who I am still most careful about, as he is quick to tears if he feels any disapproval. He's a boy, and he is eleven, so some disapproval is part of the deal, but I ration it.
This is Messy, on the right.
She was a baby, still in diapers and she was not buying this new person. Not one little bit. She didn't say much but had a great line in grunts, every one of which told me quite clearly "I don't know who this is, but he doesn't smell right".
For my own part I happily countered with "Listen kid. I'm not the one who walks around with rocks in my pocket. Yer not so smart".
These days she carries a purse full of every imaginable shade and flavor of Chapstick, and she is indeed, very smart.
So how does it happen? How does one move from a single parent family of four, to an integrated family of five, each with their own identities, yet each also knowing that they can rely on the others. My three step-children are pretty normal. That is, they are devious little monsters who will throw every curveball they can think of, and some just for fun, in your direction. They will, consciously and otherwise test you to breaking point, and if they should ever find it they will keep pushing. They are kids, that's their job.
Your job is, my job was, to parent them. Together with their Mom, with love and with boundaries, they have to grow into a sense of security. This doesn't just happen. It especially doesn't happen when the children have a father and particularly a Grandfather who wastes no opportunity to tell the children just what a bitch their mother is. Quite what they said about me I don't know, but I understand his anger at the time, and he has, to his credit, grown beyond it. Good man!
All of the above is not unusual when families dissolve and new ones form. Yet it does have to be dealt with in a way that causes the kids the least hurt. We dealt with the Grandad situation simply by acknowledging that he was an unpleasant old man. We have never breathed a cross word about Dad. The two older kids understand the whole Dad/Stepdad thing. They can remember living with Dad in the same house. Not so for the youngest. If you ask her she will tell you quite simply that she has three parents. Mom, Steve and Dad. It's her normal and she is confident and happy with it.
They all still call me Steve, and as that is my name I am happy with it. For the youngest it's a bit odd because I live at home with her Mom. In all respects I am "Dad" to her, and I guess that when we think of our own Dads, that is what she thinks of me, but she calls me Steve. It's mixed up, but not for Natalie.
We have a very happy, and very normal home life which took a while to achieve, and you are really never done. It's a bit strange that all three kids have a different surname to the parents they live with, but that's not something that has ever been an issue.
I did understand one thing, right from the start.
I was the in-comer, the stranger. It was me who had to learn to live with them just as much as they had to cope with a new adult. The onus was on my wife and I to recognise that the family was their territory, and they would only allow me to be part of it as and when they were good and ready. This happens, by the way, at a different pace for each child.
There were many tears and even a bit of yelling along the way. There is still yelling, actually, from time to time because we are a family, and we have three kids! Right from the start we simply decided that we go at their pace. Wait, and they will come because they are children, and they need adults. It's quite easy, in a situation like that, to use your newness as an excuse for inactivity, something to be guarded against. Sure the kids have to come to you, you cannot force kids to love you, not even to like you, yet neither can you simply sit back and abdicate. Mom is not going to be the only one who carries to load yet the balance is tricky.
I simply decided to be "interested" in what they were doing. Partly because I felt that might be fruitful, and partly because I was genuinely interested in what they were doing. I rarely disciplined any of them, but I do have standards so when they were rude to me or Mom, I would tell them they were being rude and that wasn't a nice thing to do. Having told them that I would withdraw because I am not going toe-to-toe with an angry six-year-old, and I am not going to be a target for her venom. If she wants to be angry with me, she will have to come to me and then we can talk. In the event, the young Mackenzie was more angry at her Mom than she ever was at me, so I would step in and remove her. She and I spent a good deal of time talking about why she was angry with Mom; and why, however angry she was, she was not going to be allowed to abuse anyone in the family. She was the one who, in the end, settled into the new family the quickest.
It was Mackenzie, by the way, who finally gave me the Title for this Diary. We were in Walmart when she was maybe seven. I was "poking" at her, a sport I still enjoy, when she turned on her heel and in a calm, but clear and loud voice, asked me that question. She was overheard by other shoppers, some of whom turned away, grinning.
Making yourself available to children is not the same thing as simply being there. Many people grew up in families where their parents were home a lot, yet were not really available to them. Being available means more than a roof over their heads, clothes on their backs and decent meals, although those things do help. It is about listening, and hearing what they are saying, even when actually, they don't say it because they are two, and don't know how. None of us gets this right all the time. The good news is, you don't have to. What you do have to do is make the effort. Kids know when people are trying to hear them, and they have a bull shit detector that was tuned to "excellent" from the moment they emerged from the womb.
Tell them the truth in a way they can understand and they will appreciate it. If not immediately, then eventually. I guess that is no different whether you are a parent or step-parent, but too many folk think that children shouldn't be told much at all, and they live to regret it. I'm not, by the way, in favour of the "unvarnished truth all of the time", but trend towards as much as they can cope with, and they will cope with it.
The one thing that was, and sometimes still is, most difficult to deal with is the "other" family. Maybe that is not so bad if the other parent and his or her extended family are reasonable, but in our case they are not. Dad does his best, but the rest of them ....
We cannot stop this contact, however distressing it might be. We actually would have grounds to legally stop it, but that would not be in the interests of our kids. They need their Dad, and they need as healthy a relationship with him that they can have. Many families find themselves in this bind, and it can be very hard to reconcile.
For our part, we decided we couldn't. We can't control what is out of our control, all we can be is the best parents that we can be. We have never spoken ill of their Dad, because he is their Dad, and they love him. Creating that amount of conflict causes damage and we will have no part of it. We are a little less reticent about Grandad.
In the end we live our lives, manage our family by the standards we set for ourselves. When the kids grow and develop into adulthood they will make their own comparisons. We do not have to present conclusions to them, they will reach them quite independent of us. I hope Dad realises this and is able to maintain a good relationship with his children as they grow, but that is not our problem. Our job is to ensure they retain a good relationship with us.
It's the single most important thing that we have concluded thus far.
Postscript: I have discussed the immediate family that I live as part of. Clearly there are two other children, my sons. It's a bit beyond the scope of this piece but I don't want anyone thinking that they are ignored. They most certainly are not, and all five kids have good relationships with each other, despite the distance. For the record, the older boy, Tom, has just completed his first year of College in London. The younger, Joe, is about to start his Senior Year in High School. Both are doing great!