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I was only 19 years old when I began dating my now-husband, Brian. It seemed like a disaster waiting to happen when I fell head-over-heels for a 28-year-old divorcee and father of three. Everyone around me who possessed an ounce of common sense warned me to stay away from such a complex relationship, and I can certainly understand why. But I didn’t heed their advice. The fact that he had kids from a previous marriage simultaneously scared me and drew me to him. I had barely left my own parents’ house when I moved into his little apartment and was catapulted into the role of pseudo-parent every other weekend.
I was a bundle of nerves on the way to meet my new boyfriend’s kids and pick them up for our first weekend visitation. I had very little experience with children—I was hardly more than a child myself. Having heard all the stories of evil offspring resenting the new woman for stealing their Daddy away, I was in no hurry to affix a wart to my nose and become a wicked stepmother.
Walking into his ex-wife’s home to pick up the kids was a supremely uncomfortable experience. I felt like I was the twerpy babysitter putting moves on the man of the house, even though they had been divorced for many years. I’m not sure what kind of Jerry Springer-esque encounter I was expecting, but luckily she was kind to me and didn’t seem fazed by us dating.
Brian’s almost-ten-year-old daughter, Harley, greeted us first. The awkward realization that there was almost the same age difference between me and my boyfriend as there was between me and his daughter left me unsure whether I should stand by his side or skip off with her to play Barbies in her bedroom. By contrast, Harley seemed perfectly at ease, a stark reminder that I was far from being Brian’s first post-divorce girlfriend. She probably didn’t expect to see me around by the following weekend, even though boxes of my belongings were already unpacked at her father’s house. She was a sweet little girl with long blonde hair, tan skin, and huge exotic eyes. Though I didn’t know it at the time, she was my first glimpse at the genetics that would come into play with my own future children.
A few minutes later Brian’s eight-year-old son Julian was wheeled out and my heart began to thump in my chest. Shortly after Julian’s extremely premature birth he was diagnosed with cerebral palsy, which caused an abundance of health problems that left him confined to a wheelchair and unable to communicate. His condition terrified me. I didn’t know what to do or how to act, what to say to him or whether I was supposed to say anything at all. My exposure to children may have been limited, but my experience with special needs children was downright nonexistent.
As we began to gather the necessary bags and supplies for a weekend with the kids, a tiny red-headed blur of energy ran from the back bedroom and flung herself into Brian’s arms, wrapping her itty-bitty arms and legs around him and shrieking “Daddyyyyyyyy!”
This must be Karen. Although she wasn’t Brian’s biological daughter, he had raised her as such for several years. They had become extremely close, though she was also close to her biological father who lived nearby. Brian
had previously explained to me that he lets Karen determine the boundaries of their relationship and the labels they use. Sometimes she visited, sometimes she didn’t; sometimes he was “Dad,” sometimes he was “Brian”; but he made it clear that she was always one of his kids.
He sent a silently questioning glance my direction to which I nodded emphatically, eager to get to know the little girl better. She was a doll. At nearly six years old, she was roughly the size of a four-year-old peanut. She had long auburn hair and adorable spattering of freckles across her devilish little face.
We piled the three kids into the car and headed home to begin our first official visitation as a couple. We unloaded everyone’s overnight bags, Julian’s extensive supplies, and the wheelchair from the trunk and dragged everything into our tiny basement-level apartment. Our space felt cramped with everyone in it, but, strangely, so much better—more complete.
Whatever hesitations I may have felt quickly dissolved during my first hour with the kids. Both girls were affectionate, and it wasn’t long before we became comfortable enough with one another to cuddle on the couch and laugh like old friends. Harley talked nonstop about anything she could think of and when she ran out of things to say she talked about having nothing to talk about. She had a mature air about her that hinted that she was wise beyond her years. Karen was a whirlwind of imagination; she played elaborate games complete with dramatic voices and belted out songs that she created off the top of her head. By the end of the first day it was clear to me that, genetics be damned, Brian did indeed have three children. To this day I often forget that Karen isn’t related by blood. The initial awkwardness was ebbing and I was starting to think that maybe my new station in life might not be so bad.
Then it was time for Julian to eat and Brian asked me “Want to learn how to do it?” Oh boy. Due to extreme reflux and choking issues, Julian takes a liquid diet through a g-tube, which is basically just a long clear tube that plugs into his tummy through a “button” on his side that looks exactly like the valve of an inflatable inner-tube. Although I had witnessed his feedings earlier in the day, I felt nowhere near prepared to undertake such a task. Yet somehow I found myself holding the tube with little Harley by my side, expertly directing me. She walked me through the steps with calm authority and I was immediately enamored with her obvious sense of responsibility.
I plugged in the tube with shaking hands, too scared to push it in far enough without Harley’s help, and started to slowly pour the Pediasure into the syringe at the top. Julian stared up at me with curiosity while I looked down at him without a clue in the world what to say. I had no idea how much he could understand, if anything at all. How was I ever going to be able to connect with Brian’s son? Was it even possible under the circumstances?
I exhaled in relief as I filled the tube to the top, draining the last of the can; my job was almost done. Just then, Julian took in a deep breath and let out a sharp yell that sent the Pediasure shooting out of the tube without warning, dousing my lap and spraying me square in the face. I was near tears and calling for help, unsure of what I had done wrong or how to fix it, when I realized that everyone else was laughing. Harley playfully scolded Julian as she pinched the tube closed and Brian was clearly amused as well. But it was Julian who was laughing the hardest, obviously quite pleased with himself. He did it on purpose! He looked at me again with his playful, challenging eyes—identical to his Daddy’s—and gave me the most terrific smile I have ever seen. I melted into a puddle and had no choice but to fall head over heels in love with him on the spot. Though he lacked control over his body, this little boy had clearly inherited his father’s personality, right down to his ornery sense of humor and wit. He had no trouble finding ways to tease me, just like his old man. Seeing this young version of Brian in all of his innocence and vulnerability, created the connection I had been searching for.
Ten years later these three little kids have grown into fantastic young adults. My children idolize their older siblings as if they were celebrities, mimicking their style and desperate for their approval. Harley is now the age that I was when we first met and it amazes me to look at it from my current perspective and see how young I was—and what a difficult and mature role I chose to adopt. Julian is now an adult, thriving and as ornery as ever, and Karen is still the dramatic, eccentric little peanut she was when we met. Their extensive teenage social lives keep them busy and it’s rare to get us all under one roof. But when we are all together, our family feels whole and our home gets the same feeling of completion that our little basement apartment did so many years ago.
It is an unusual feeling to love children who aren’t really mine to love. These kids carry my husband’s DNA intermingled with that of another woman, a constant reminder that I wasn’t his first love. Yet they entered into my life in the form of irresistible children with little personalities and quirks that captured my heart and triggered my earliest flickers of maternal love. The role I play in the lives of my stepchildren has evolved over the years. I continue to stru
ggle to find the balance between remaining detached enough to respect their mother’s territory but involved enough for them to know how much I love them. Being a stepparent is a hard job with indefinable boundaries, one that carries with it many uncertainties and some heartache. But in the end, however I fit into their world, I’m just happy to be a part of it.
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