I did not realize during my dating years that I was not only learning how to have a successful relationship, but learning how to be a good step-parent. You can’t be single as long as I was and not date guys with kids. I vividly recall the moment I learned that a guy I was dating in college had a 2-year old. I was shocked because he seemed way too young to be a divorced dad. I never met the child, and we quickly broke up. I knew that I was too immature to handle seeing someone who was living in the grown-up world.
Eventually I learned that dating someone with a kid could be a good thing, if you are smart about it. While many parents wisely refrain from introducing the child to a new sweetie until they know there is some relationship potential, some guys will introduce you right off the bat. This one guy let me and his daughter Christine hang out together from the get-go. Christine and I were silly and had fun, doing things like building tents out of blankets and chairs, creating a little village in her small room. The relationship with her Dad was short-lived and I was told that the she cried when it ended. I am sure they were the same kind of tears one cries when their ice cream drops to the ground, but I was still touched. I realized that this type of break-up is more difficult, because you essentially have to let go of two people you love. I call it the double-break-up.
My next double-break-up was far more significant and tragic. The boyfriend, although he was a good person in general, was inclined toward excessive drinking. At one point in the rocky five-year relationship we even discussed marriage, which I know now would have been a disaster. While I am grateful I was able to escape, I regret that it was an ugly break-up, one where I found myself sneaking in to his apartment while he was at work, heart pounding as I grabbed as much of my stuff as I could. I jammed clothes and household items into pillowcases, praying that he didn’t come home. Needless to say, I didn’t get to say good-bye to his son Matthew, whom I adored.
Matthew and I spent a lot of time together when his Dad was drinking or sleeping it off. We threw the baseball and frisbee, fed the ducks, watched music videos and played board games. Matthew and I became fans of the band Linkin Park when we saw their “In the End” video. Sadder memories include the night his Dad left for the store, and didn’t come back for 9 hours. At one point during that night, Matthew and I drove through parking lots in an attempt to find his Dad’s car, which we eventually did -at Ruby Tuesday’s. Once I knew his Dad was in a bar with a girl, and not dying in a ditch, I took Matthew back home and put him to bed. I waited for his Dad to stumble home, about 3 am. I pretended to be asleep, and when he went into the bathroom, I snuck out and went home, refusing his calls. I’m ashamed to admit that this was not the time that I left for good.
There are more stories like that, times when I watched out for Matthew’s best interests while his Dad was distracted with his own pain. There were also fun times with the three of us. I learned a great deal from watching Matthew with his Dad, who was good about telling his son he loved him, and making sure he ate well and did his homework. I learned about sacrifice, since Matthew’s Dad hated living in Augusta but stayed here to be close to him. Matthew’s parents divorced when he was a baby, so it was the only life he ever knew. Neither parent re-married through those childhood years, and it made my departure seem even sadder, since Matthew didn’t having a chance to see what a healthy relationship looked like while he grew up.
Matthew was in the 7-12 year old range when I dated his Dad, so I was familiar with that phase of raising boys when I started dating Kevin, whose son Forrest was 11 at the time. I waited many months before I agreed to meet him, not wanting to go through another double-breakup heartache. But things were going well with Kevin, and it was time to be brave. I was thrilled that Forrest was, like Matthew, a happy and fun kid, and we hit it off immediately. I wore a Linkin Park t-shirt the day we met, and we instantly bonded over music and movies. We had fun that first day, decorating a Christmas tree at Kevin’s place, listening to CD’s and talking up a storm.
Kevin, Forrest and I had a lot of fun during the dating years, when Forrest referred to me as “step-mom-in-training” and I referred to him as the “Sprout”. We enjoyed First Fridays, tattoo expos, trips to Atlanta and Savannah, and times with both of our families. I have been so blessed with this relationship, because Forrest is like his Dad. He is kind, easy-going, and has a great sense of humor. There have been many times riding in the car that Forrest says something from the back seat and Kevin and I burst out laughing. He has his Dad’s comedic instincts, which, when coupled with an adolescent’s lack of filter, can be doubly hilarious.
On top of these blessings, Forrest has always been respectful to me. He has never yelled, or sassed back, or copped an attitude with me. The only times I have truly been upset with him have been the times he has not shown his parents their due respect. They have the tough job, though, the true parental responsibility. I know that every step-parent situation is unique, but mine is one that works best in a supporting role.
Forrest is fortunate to have two amazing, involved and dedicated parents. Kevin and Melissa seem to get along better than Matthew’s parents did, and for the most part agree on how to give Forrest a good foundation for the future. Their divorce agreement decreed that Forrest would spend alternate weeks with each of them, allowing for equal parenting duties. This seemed to work well, once Forrest learned that though the rules were slightly different in each home, the ultimate goal of communication and respect stayed consistent.
It took me a few years to find my niche within this structure. I wanted to be supportive to this family and help Kevin during his weeks with the Sprout. At first I was a little too zealous, becoming overly passionate about how Forrest should be managed during the tricky middle school years. At one point, the school headmistress stared hard at me during a parent conference and declared that “Forrest already has enough parents”. I found I could help with areas like homework and transportation, throw in small tidbits of advice to Forrest when needed, and be there for fun and for guidance. That seemed to be the best level of involvement for all concerned, and works well to this day.
My ultimate goal with Forrest has always been and will always be the same, and is identical to the goal I have with my niece Mary Catherine: I want them to feel that they can come to me anytime they need help, support or friendship, no matter what may be going on in their lives. In fairness, I still feel that way about Matthew-if he ever needed me, I would want to be there for him. Once you nurture that seed of caring for a young person, it stays with you, and the best that you can hope and pray is that they know it, and will act on it in a time of need. It would absolutely break my heart if I thought for one second that I could somehow support Forrest or Mary Catherine, but they didn’t feel comfortable asking me for help. I have that kind of protective love for each of them.
Thankfully, this week I learned that Forrest knows he can lean on me. He was going through a difficult time and reached out for me to pick him up so that we could go eat and talk. Melissa called me the next day and we had a nice talk about the matter, reinforcing a true sense of partnership which has blossomed through the years. Kevin, Melissa and I all love Forrest dearly, and want for him the absolute best. Although my role is a supporting one, and I step back to allow his parents make the big decisions, it is my choice to do so. I know that the Sprout has a balanced perspective which comes from seeing that we may have different parenting styles, but we work well together to make decisions in his best interest, and support one another as Forrest shares his time between the two homes. Perhaps my training has paid off, after all.