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Archive for May, 2009

coffeecup 001Rachel and I are not going to have a baby.

We decided this weekend, on our honeymoon, eighteen months after our wedding. (We already had three kids between us when we got married, so we had to take our honeymoon where we could find it.)

Early on, Rachel had talked a lot about having a child together. I loved the idea, but the reality made no sense. We already had plenty of kids, and dogs, and cats, and no time. And it would create an odd stepfamily dynamic. We’d have her kids, my kid, and our kid? Weird.

Rachel’s theory had been that an “our” kid was necessary for marital bonding. She told me that in the animal kingdom the only animals that mate for life were those that have offspring together, and that the same was probably true of us. I suggested that as human beings, we might not be subject to the same rules as desert quail. Rachel was doubtful. “I just don’t think human beings are that evolved,” she said.

I pointed out that most divorced people had previously had children together, so pooling genes in an infant didn’t seem a good predictor of marital longevity. This seemed to make sense to her. Also, she knew it shouldn’t be a baby’s purpose cement a marriage.

A baby shouldn’t have a job,” she said this weekend.

For the first time, poolside at the Marriott, she was sure: No baby. I was surprised at my reaction to her certainty: Disappointment. I didn’t really want a baby either, but I liked it when she did.

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stagedad 001Rachel and I stand in line at Starbucks on Sunday morning. The kids are in the car, all three of them. I complain to Rachel that Alani won’t listen to my advice about her theater performance that afternoon. There is sympathy in the smile Rachel gives me, but also something unsaid, which I think is this: “Of course she’s not listening to you. You’re her father.”

Today is the last performance of an eight-show run, and Alani will perform one of the main roles for the first time. She’ll play Becky, the fauning best friend of Claudia, a snooty, mean, rich girl. Alani’s been the understudy for the role, which means that she memorized the lines, but never actually practiced the role on the main stage, in costume, with the other actors.

Alani scratches at her head when she’s nervous. She’s scratching.

Earlier that morning she asked me to help her rehearse, in the back yard. I sat on a bench in the sunshine and read the lines for Claudia, the snooty girl. Alani mapped out the lawn into stage up-left, up-right, center-left, etc. She told me to check the notations in the script as she moved and make sure she’s at the right place on the lawn at each moment.

Alani knows the lines, but I see that she needs help with one crucial scene. It is the Becky character’s big moment, at the end of the play, when she declares her independence from Claudia. I’d seen the play four times, so I knew how the other Becky handled this moment: When Claudia calls Becky to follow her, Becky automatically starts walking toward her. But then she stops suddenly, straightens out of the subservient crouch she’s been in the entire play, and says. “No, Claudia. I’m not coming.”

When Alani delivers this line in the back yard Sunday morning, it’s not quite right. I’m hesitant to offer any criticism this close to the performance, especially with all the staging and lines Alani has to master, but I decide it’s worth it. This is the big moment for Alani’s character, and I’d hate to see her performance fall flat because I held back.

“Honey,” I say. “When you walk toward Claudia, don’t just walk up and stop like you’re stopping on a mark. Stop suddenly, like you hit a wall. Like you suddenly realize …”

Alani holds up her hand. “Dad,” she says. “Don’t try to direct me.”

“… that you don’t have to follow Claudia….”

“Dad, I’m listening to my directors. Not you.”

I sigh. At the Starbucks later, waiting for our coffee, I tell Rachel how frustrated I am. I understand that Alani doesn’t want me to coach her, and I have never tried to before. But this is different. The stakes are high – without my help, Alani’s big scene will fall flat. I’ve seen the play four times. I know how the scene is supposed to be done.

“I can actually help her,” I tell Rachel.

Rachel’s smile doesn’t change.

Five hours later we’re sitting in the eleventh row at the theater. It’s the end of the last act. Becky’s moment.

“Becky,” Claudia says onstage, “Let’s go.” Claudia points commandingly to the floor next to her.

Alani/Becky, in a yellow plastic wig, yellow dress, and heavy black eyeliner, steps out of a cluster of other actors. She walks toward Claudia. I hold my breath, wondering if she’ll remember my coaching.

She doesn’t. She makes the moment her own by doing something entirely different. It works. The audience hoots, and applauds.

Rachel leans toward me. “She was right not to listen to you,” she whispers.

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godandcoffee 001On Tuesday Rachel  told me that she’s not going to church on Sundays anymore.    This development was not unexpected.  Raised Catholic like me, she has many objections to church doctrine – the ban on women priests, the position against stem-cell research , the fact that you can’t bring a latte to Mass. 

We don’t disagree on these matters, it’s just that I enjoy the familiar ritual and ignore objectionable teachings, and she cannot.  I usually meditate during the sermon.  Rachel listens, and doesn’t like what she hears.

Her decision will be greeted with alleluias by her sons, Michael and Jack.  They seldom went to church before their mom married me, and hate the Sunday tradition we adopted as part of our plan to forge a stepfamily.  “It makes my legs hurt,” Michael complained, referring to the relentless standing, kneeling, sitting.  He monitors the time remaining in each service,  repeatedly asking how much time till his agony will end. 

Rachel said she will begin some sort of Sunday spiritual practice with the boys.  I ask her what she’s going to do.  “Maybe meditation,” she says. “Maybe I’ll even do some nature stuff.”   She told the boys that if they didn’t take her Sunday spirituality program seriously, they’ll have to go back to church.  “We’re not just going to sit at home and watch videos,” she said. 

Alani dislikes church as much as Michael, but because she is under my jurisdiction, she’ll continue to suffer.  It is a stepfamily divide.  Alani and I will get up on Sunday morning and go to church, Rachel and her boys will not.  A year ago I would have been much more apprehensive about this split.  Without these joint traditions, it’s hard to tell what we are, exactly.  A family?  A husband and wife raising their respective kids separately under the same roof?

Don’t know.  But I’m now content to let it all happen organically, without imposing a traditional family structure.  And I have to admit, I’m envious of Rachel’s spiritual home-schooling plan.  It’s liberating, the idea of teaching the kids what you believe, instead of trying to navigate them around medieval religious doctrines.  Plus, the lattes.

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badstepchild3 001

A May 1 post by thesmirkingcat took on the experts who warn stepmothers not to discipline their stepchildren. 

See www.thesmirkingcat.blogspot.com/2009/05/discipline-and-stepmom/html.  

This is a frequent theme in stepmother blogs – throwing off the yoke of the “experts” whose advice doesn’t square with their reality.  In comments to the post, other stepmothers leapt to Smirkingcat’s side, banners flying. One said, “I’m not a bank account, chauffeur, cook, and laundress.  I’m a parent, and it’s my bloody house, too.”

Rachel and I recently went in exactly the opposite direction. We’d already agreed that we won’t discipline the other’s biological children. Two weeks ago we agreed that we won’t even make helpful child-rearing suggestions.  

We reached this agreement in a coin-operated laundromat on a Sunday afternoon. We were in the  laundromat because our plumbing wasn’t working.  Neither was our marriage.  For the previous two weeks our conversations, no matter how benign the topic,  had veered quickly into argument. 

The fault line between us was the kids. Most of the arguments started with one of us offering unsolicited parenting advice.  We  began circling  each other warily.  Then we avoided conversation entirely.   I watched a lot of cable.   Rachel seemed particularly eager for her six p.m. glass of chardonnay.  We slept back-to-back. 

“I’m at the end of my rope,” Rachel said as she folded the kid’s shirts that Sunday afternoon in the laundromat.  We’d just had another bicker.

Not to be outdone, I said,  “I’m at the end of my rope.”

And finally it occurred to me – what if we both just shut up?   Rachel’s done a fine job raising her two boys, and I my daughter.  They are wonderful kids. 

The kids aren’t the problem, I realized. Were are.

“How about this?” I said.  “You raise your kids, and I’ll raise my kid.  If we want advice, we’ll ask for it.” 

Rachel agreed. 

Clouds parted. Flowers bloomed.  Lovemaking resumed.   And though Rachel is now deprived of my guidance, there has been no noticeable breakdown in the morals or behavior of her boys. 

This was not what we’d envisioned when we got married in front of our fireplace eighteen months ago.  We thought that we would co-parent our stepfamily: we’d consult each other and make mutual parenting decisions based on shared values.

Blah, blah, blah.  The fact is, the new hands-off approach works for us.  Which brings me back to Smirkingcat’s post.  I think I know the answer to “Should a stepparent discipline a stepchild?” 

Are you a stepmother who is the primary caregiver for a four-year-old stepdaughter?  Does she throw her bowl of Lucky Charms against the wall as soon as your husband leaves for work? 

Discipline away.

Are you a brand new stepfather, infected with the New-Sheriff-in-Town Syndrome, who has decided that it will build character in your teenage step-son if he is required to make his bed with hospital corners every morning, despite the fact that both his biological parents disagree?

Back off!

Something in between those extremes?  You decide.

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iloverachel 001Rachel’s in the kitchen, complaining that my blog posts don’t make clear that I love her. She says that she read an essay in Oprah magazine by a man about how much he loved his wife, and it moved her to tears.

Goddamn Oprah, I think.

“Really?” I say. “You don’t think people can tell how much I love you?”

“No,” she says. “I think it’s clear that I entertain you, but not that you love me.” She stuffs some garbage down the sink drain and turns on the garbage disposal. “Rachel’s an atheist, Rachel’s lazy, Rachel’s a whore,” she says. She’s describing the content of previous posts, but I actually didn’t say any of those things. See:

(Atheist) www.jacobatthewell.wordpress.com/2009/03/30/if-only-jesus-…nt-such-a-geek/

(Lazy) www.jacobatthewell.wordpress.com/2009/04/24/rachel-takes-on-june-cleaver/

(Whore) www.jacobatthewell.wordpress.com/2009/04/20/rachel-teen-aged-adulterer 

For the record, I love Rachel like crazy.  Here’s one of many reasons:

Monday morning I was barricading Max (70 lb. mixed breed) in the back hallway. He can’t be trusted loose while we’re gone, even for the twenty minutes it takes for Rachel to drop off Michael at school.  The back hallway is perfect for containing him – two tension gates braced against the opposite walls of the  hallway imprison him in a four-by-six foot cell. It takes two gates because he’ll knock one down. Two discourages him.

I struggle with the first gate, trying to set the tension bar tight enough for firm pressure against the walls, but not so tight that I break the gate.

“Mike?”

It’s Rachel, in the kitchen. Her voice barely registers. I’m intent on getting Max penned behind the gates. I lock the first gate into place.

“Mike?”

I hear her this time, and I’m mildly annoyed.  Can’t she see I’ m busy?  I reach for the second gate.

“Honey?”

There is a gentleness in Rachel’s tone that finally gets my attention.
I look up.  She’s smiling.  Max is standing next to her. In the kitchen. Not  behind the gate I just wrestled into position. I just penned up his rug.

I am notoriously absentminded.  An ordinary woman would find my forgetfulness: 1) endearing; then 2) mildly exasperating; and then 3) teeth-grindingly irritating.  But not Rachel. Her reaction – eighteen months after our wedding vows – is still amusement. Not even an eye roll.

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scriptreading 001Rachel and I are laying in bed on Mothers’ Day morning. Her dad made reservations for brunch at 12:30. Over on the window seat sits a yellow gardening basket Rachel will give her mom at the brunch. Rachel’s brother will be there with his wife, Cathy, also a mother.

I ask Rachel whether this is a brunch in honor of all the moms – Rachel’s mom and Cathy and Rachel. Rachel says no, it’s really a brunch for her mom. I wonder about this: At what point in a woman’s life does the central celebration on Mother’s Day become her own motherhood, rather than her mother’s? I ask Rachel why the scheduled brunch is just her mom’s brunch.

“Because her husband arranged it,” Rachel says.

Uh-oh.

My dad doesn’t get my mom Mother’s Day presents. “She’s not my mom,” he always said. I found this harsh – she was the mother of his seven children, after all. But I’ve unconsciously adopted a similar rationale: Since Rachel did not bear me any children, I didn’t view this day as my responsibility.

“It’s ok,” Rachel says, reading my mind. “It’s sort of a lost day for me.”
She means that: 1) Her boys are too young to put a Mother’s Day celebration together; 2) the boys’ dad doesn’t make sure they have a card or present for her; 3) she’s not my mother; 4) she’s not my daughter’s mother.

I’m not totally clueless. I suggested to Michael the day before that he make a Mother’s Day card. He did, on a sheet of white paper, and scotch-taped to it spring flowers he picked in the backyard. Jack didn’t need any prompting to get out the colored markers and make his own card. I picked up a pot of pink mums for the boys to give their mom, and Jack and I made her an omelet-and-toast breakfast in bed.

True, Rachel is not my daughter’s mom. I don’t even like the terms “stepmom” and “stepdad” (see previous post). But last Sunday, when I was busy in the house, she sat on the patio with my daughter, holding the script for Alani’s upcoming play in her hand, reading cue lines. She does stuff like that a lot.

Ceremonial brunches aren’t Rachel’s thing, anyway. But she probably would appreciate a Mother’s Day martini.

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Here’s the deal: A stepdad is not a dad. They don’t tell you that going in. When I got married I assumed that when Rachel’s boys were with us I would be a “dad” to them. Step-“dad”, get it? I’d read warm and fuzzy accounts by stepchildren who called their stepdad “dad”, and saw them that way. I realized later that in every such case, the actual dad was dead, or gone. (A friend of Alani’s for example, calls her stepfather “dad”. Her biological father is deceased. Same with Carol Brady’s first husband, right?) There is only room for one dad.

I probably would have realized this a lot sooner, if my daughter’s mom had remarried before me. The idea that her mom’s (new, hypothetical) husband would in any sense claim the title of “dad” would have raised my hackles. I occupy that chair, buddy. Completely. Permanently.

That doesn’t mean you can’t have a deep, meaningful relationship with your spouse’s kids. It just means that: 1) you and the kid will define your relationship by your actions – not by trying to live up to an imposed title, or claiming authority under that title, and 2) if the real dad is in the picture, you ain’t a dad. Here’s the difference: I play catch with Michael in the backyard. His dad taught him to catch. And throw.

The automatically conferred title “stepdad” is the problem. It creates false expectations, and probably confuses kids. I suggested to Rachel that we need a new term. I proposed “Non-Parent Spousal Caregiver”.

“NPSC,” Rachel said. “That’s cold.”

Maybe. But better to set the bar low and clear it by a mile than set it too high and crash.

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