When I was first divorced, I knew that I would likely end up dating men who had children. I thought that I was prepared for this eventuality, even though the first few men that I was involved with did not actually have children. I thought that I knew what I was in for.
Statistics tell us that step-children are the primary stressor on second marriages and the biggest reported contributor to the deterioration of those marriages. I am not here to dispute that. Between my kids and James’ kids, we accumulated some pretty good examples of children acting out against the interloper in their family. And some of my worst arguments with James — including the last one — stemmed from disagreements about the children.
But that didn’t stop me from falling in love with his kids.
Sure, his son Jay’s teasing of me ventured into the disrespectful realm sometimes, and yes his teenage daughter, Taylor, once spent an hour pretending like I wasn’t in the room. His two youngest girls, devoid of guile, would sometimes ask me directly what I was doing there and how long I was staying, with the clear implication being that I was somehow interrupting. But the moments that stuck in my heart were preciously sweet.. Like how, when we were all lying on the sofa watching a movie, Jay would allow me to put my arm around him, and he would ever so subtly snuggle against me. Or the times when 9-year-old Chelsea would beg me to stay and hang out with them. Or how little 5-year-old Chloe insisted on carrying my purse to the car for me, just to be “helpful.” So many tender, small moments that I cherish.
I last saw them 10 days ago, when I went to his house to say goodbye. I couldn’t believe how sad it made me, how many tears fell on my solitary drive home over children that are not even my own.
I knew, from my own childhood experience, that when you date a single parent, you also date their children. What I hadn’t fully appreciated is that when you break up with that single parent, you also break up with those children. And it hurts. A lot.
I have spent some time recently remembering my own experience on the other side. I remember many of the men my mom dated, but none so clearly or so fondly as Van. Van and my mom dated off and on from the time I was roughly two until I was 12. They had a passionate, tempestuous relationship, and I learned early on that when they broke up, it was never forever. Other men didn’t get a second chance, but Van kept coming back.
Van was as much of a father as I had in those early years. On Sunday mornings, I’d curl up on his lap and he’d read me the comics, changing his voice for each of the Peanuts characters. He took me hiking in the Shenandoahs, and built me snowmen in the yard, and taught me to ride a two-wheel bike. He was the one who told me that my grandfather had died. He was tall and handsome and funny and one of my best friends.
But one day he was gone. The last time they broke up, I remember asking my mom what had happened. She pursed her lips and said tersely, “We broke up.” I shrugged, certain that it didn’t mean anything and certain that he’d be back. But I never saw him again. The weeks melted into months and the months turned into a year and my mom met and married the man who became my stepfather. I loved my stepfather, but I never forgot about Van.
When I was 27, I finally tracked Van down and wrote him a long letter, telling him of my educational and professional achievements, my budding relationship with my now ex-husband, and updating him on all my friends and family he’d known. I enclosed a photo of myself and my boyfriend. I had no idea what to expect when I mailed the letter, but what I got back was no less than wonderful: a lengthy missive telling me how often he’d thought of me over the years and how much he’d missed me. He told me how he’d always regretted not having the opportunity to say good-bye to me, but my mother wouldn’t allow it. He’d remarried and later retired, and he sent me a photo of him and his wife.
How I wish I could talk to Van now. Not only must I get over James (damn hard on its own), but I must also let go of his children. I can still see Chelsea’s smile and feel Chloe’s small hand in my own and laugh at Jay’s constant tickling or rib-poking. I was not in their lives long enough to have made more than a passing impression on them; but I’ll remember them, and the weeks we spent together, always. I protected my heart mightily with regard to James — walls and buttresses surrounding it lest I should fall completely in love with him and end up broken beyond repair. But I had no such ramparts in place to protect my sorry heart from his kids.
There is so much about dating this time around that surprises me…. so much for which I am woefully unprepared. Breaking up is brutal. Around every corner is another reminder of James that cuts me quickly and cleanly and makes me wonder again how we ended up here. Then, just when I catch my breath again, I round another corner and smack squarely into a reminder of his kids. It’s bruising, I tell you.
I have found myself sinking into my own children for solace. Their hugs and kisses ease my sense of loss. Like the jilted lover who takes a new partner to bed to forget the smell and taste and touch of the one just lost, I am burying myself in my own children to block out memories of time spent in that other family.
I wonder what will happen the next time I date a man with children…. I suspect that I will not be so unguarded, so open to his children. I suspect that I will begin — maybe already have begun? — to construct the walls that protect us from future grief.
And I wonder if I will ever see them again. Possibly, but probably not. Maybe for me they will remain frozen in time… captured in my photos from this hot summer that we spent together. Locked in my heart forever.