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My stepson Jack asks, “What is Grandma Berry to me?”

He’s referring to my mom.  We’ll see her this weekend, in Chicago, for her 81st birthday.

Jack, six, has been wrestling with the complicated terminology of a stepfamily.  The last time we visited family on my side, he asked me what, exactly, my nieces and nephews were to him. 

Rachel and I are conscious, perhaps overly so, of not artificially forcing any instant relationships on the kids as a result of our marriage two years ago.  In line with this policy, we referred to my nieces and nephews as “the” cousins when speaking to Jack and Michael, not as “your” cousins.  We hoped that Rachel’s boys will develop cousin-like relationships with my brother and sisters’ kids, but didn’t want to force anything that would make the boys uncomfortable.

When we visited “the” cousins, over the holidays, Jack quizzed me repeatedly on the correct terminology. “Are Thomas and Rachel and Hannah my ‘STEP’-cousins?” he asked. The qualifier bothered me, but I told him yes, that was right. 

This week, when Jack asked me what Grandma Berry was to him, I dutifully told him that she was his “step-grandma”.

Jack mulled this over.  “I think I’m just going to call her, “Grandma’,” he said.

I told him that would be fine.

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When my stepson Jack was four, and I first spent time with him, I was a big hit. 

 “I want you to be my dad, like”  he told me. 

I told him that he already had a dad who loved him very much, but I was his step-dad.  Still, I basked in the glow of that “I want you to be my dad.”

When he was five, the shuttling between two houses began to bother him.  Jack asked his mom and I why we couldn’t all live together in one big house: me, Rachel, Rachel’s ex-husband, Rachel’s ex-husband’s girlfriend, and the kids – Jack, Michael, and Alani. It seemed like a fine solution to him.

He’s six now.  Last week he told his mom, out of my earshot, that he wished she and his dad weren’t divorced. 

That’s the thing about kids who are little when their parents split.  The parents get divorced once, and move on (ideally).  The kid, though, has to get divorced again and again, grappling with the separation at each developmental stage. 

When he was little, Jack was more attached to his mom than his dad, and it made sense for him to cast his lot with his mom and I.  But as he becomes a boy, his relationship with his dad is deepening.  Last week, after Rachel picked him up from his dad, Jack spent the first half hour at our home singing an improv song that went something like this: 

 “I miss my DAD, I miss my dad so MUCH. I miss my DAD, I miss my dad so MUCH!” 

The lyrics were repetitious and the melody uninspired, but it was heartfelt. In a sense, Jack is now experiencing the effect of the divorce for the first time.

But modern divorced parents have a therapeutic tool they didn’t have in the olden days of divorce: the cell phone.  Our policy is immediate cell phone access to any parent upon request.  The absent parent can tell bedtime stories and get immediate notification of the loss of front tooth.  It’s not The Parent Trap, but it’s something.

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I berated my six-year-old stepson during a back yard football game on Saturday. 

It was Jack and I against his mom and older brother, Michael.  They’d just kicked off to us.  It was time for our first play from scrimmage,  I noticed that Michael and his mom were talking, with their backs turned. 

It was an opportunity for a trick play: the quick snap.  We’d score before they knew what hit them. 

But we’d  have to move fast.  I bent over and murmured in Jack’s ear:  “I’m going to  hike the ball to you, right now.  You run.”

“No.” Jack said.

No?

“I want to tell you a play,” Jack said.

This was not the time for Jack’s famed stubborness.  I glanced over at Rachel and Michael.  They’re still distracted.

“You can tell me next time,” I said. 

Jack’s face clouds.  “No!” he said.  “I have a good IDEA!”

His mom and brother glanced in our direction.  It’s now or never.

“We can score a touchdown!” I told Jack through gritted teeth.  “I’ll hike…”

“No!” Jack said. 

“Jack…”  I try again, but it’s too late.  Rachel and Michael have wandered back to the line of scrimmage.

“Great!” I said to Jack, exasperated.  “You blew our chance!”

Rachel took me aside.  She tried out some of that “it’s just a game” stuff on me, and, when that didn’t make a dent, she tried some “he’s only six“.  I think she even suggested that her boys just wanted to have fun, and didn’t care so much about winning.

I’m not having any of that crap.  Rachel’s a wonderful mother, but what I’m thinking at that moment is that she’s not doing her boys any favor by babying them on the football field.

Some Buddhist teachers can trace their lineage, teacher by teacher, back to the Buddha.  I can do the same with my hyper-competitiveness in back yard football.  In 1928, Knute Rockne yelled at one of his players, a lineman named Frank Leahy.  Leahy later became head coach at Notre Dame and, in 1948, berated a one of his players, a skinny farmboy from Denison, Iowa –  my dad.  

My Dad didn’t berate me or my four brothers when we played backyard football, but he did carry forward the no-excuses approach he learned on the practice field in South Bend, Indiana.  When I failed to catch a football after diving for it and having it skid across my outstretched fingertips, there was no pat on the head, no “Nice try!”. 

Instead, my Dad said:  “If you can touch it, you can catch it.” 

When he heard someone taking solace in a tie game:  “I tie,” he said, “is like kissing your sister.” 

I called Rachel later last Saturday, after my game-time adrenaline subsided

“Sorry,” I said. 

Maybe the hard-nosed Rockne/Leahy approach isn’t right for a first-grade boy.  Maybe.

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My stepsons are fighting in the back seat.  Jack is six, Michael 11.  Their mom is at Northwest baggage claim.  We’re picking her up.

This gives me an opportunity, as stepdad-in-charge, to apply my theory that any misbehavior by children can be modified by 1) clear commands and 2) certain consequences.    Because I’m rarely alone with the boys, my theory has not yet been tested on my stepsons.

Jack threatens to beat Michael up.  When Michael sneers at this threat, Jack says he’ll get his friend Ben to help him.  Michael can barely contain his contempt at the notion of two first-graders beating up him, a sixth-grader. 

“That’s ridiculous,” he tells Jack.  “One sixth grader is worth . . .” Michael pauses to calculate.   “. . . six first graders.”

Jack, bested verbally, leans out of his car seat and hits his brother. 

It’s my moment. 

“ALL RIGHT,” I say, in a commanding tone,   “Don’t talk to each other anymore, or else . . .” 

I hesitate here, since I hadn’t figured out the “or else” yet.  I improvise, telling them there will be an unspecified “consequence” when they get home.

The boys quiet immediately. 

See?  Not complicated.  Clear instructions, certain consequence.  That’s how you handle children.  I look forward to explaining this to Rachel.

Seven seconds later, Michael picks up Jack’s dragon book, which lay on the seat between the boys.  He opens it and turns in his seat so that Jack can’t see the pages.

“Wow,” Michael murmurs, pretending to be fascinated by what he sees.  “Cool!”

I check Jack’s reaction in the rear view mirror.  He’s looking across the seat at his brother, frowning. 

Michael turns a page.

“Look at that!” he says.

“Stop it!” Jack says.

Michael, aglow with innocence, says, “What?  I’m not even talking to you.”

He turns another page.  “Ooh!” he marvels.

“Stop it!” Jack yells.  “STOP READING MY BOOK!”

I have no indictable offense.  Technically, Michael is not talking to his brother, so he has not violated my order.  (As a stepfather, my paperwork has to be completely in order before I take any prosecutorial action.)  And I can’t blame Jack, since he was provoked.

I close this loophole by asking Michael stop talking entirely.  Please.  He shrugs and puts the dragon book down.

There.  Sometimes it takes a follow-up.

A full ten seconds of silence ensues.  Then I hear the slightest whisper from the backseat, faint as a hummingbird’s breath.

Jack immediately erupts, claiming that Michael taunted him. 

“What are you talking about?” Michael says, in a tone of earnest puzzlement.  “I didn’t say anything.”

“You did TO!” Jack shouts.   He swivels in his car seat, flings his legs across the seat, and rains kicks on his brother.  Michael turns away, absorbing the blows stoically.

I’m stymied.  Michael’s whisper – his alleged whisper – was so soft I couldn’t make out what he said.  Jack’s the only witness.  It’s he said, he said.

I call Rachel.

“Are your bags in yet?”

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I took Jack to the zoo Sunday.  I told him he’s only allowed to see four animals. 

Sound mean?

Too bad. 

The zoo is Jack’s great passion in life, but I hate it.  Please, all adults, join with me in admitting that the zoo is boring:  the lions doze; the bears, made autistic by captivity, pace the same figure-eight over and over; and the chimps and apes, who actually are interesting, hide.  

Jack’s lucky to have a stepdad nice enough to take him to the zoo at all.  Four animals, I tell him: in and out. 

He accepts the rules.

He invites his friend Patrick to come with us. 

I know his game, and head him off quickly:  “That means you both get to pick only two animals” I tell him. 

Jack accepts this grim math without complaint. 

As we walk toward the zoo entrance, three pigeons scuttle in front of us.  The boys run at them, scattering the birds.

“That counts as one animal,” I say.

“Wha…..!”  Jack is shocked. 

Just kidding, I tell him. 

Inside, after we get the zoo map, I ask him what two animals he chooses. 

“Rhinoceros,” he says, “. . . . .and . . . the wild hogs.”

The wild hogs?   Wild hogs over baboons, or asian horses?  It seems a poor use of his two picks.  I lose some respect for Jack as a zoo connoisseur.  

When I crouch down and open the map to plot our route, I realize that I’ve been outwitted by a six year old.   The zoo is laid out on a long, straight, half-mile boulevard, with animal exhibits stretched on either side.   The wild hogs are at the furthest end of the zoo – we have to walk past every other animal to get there and back. 

Jack is a worthy adversary.

I fold up the map.

“Mike,” Jack asks casually as we begin our stroll,  “Does it count as one of my animals if I look at another animal?”

“Nope” I say –  he’s beaten me fair and square.  “Unless you stop.  If you stop, it counts.”

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I’m standing in the kitchen.  Rachel’s out running errands.  Jack asks me if he can have a piece of candy.  No, I tell him, it’s too close to dinner. 

It is rare but exhilarating, this exercise of stepfather authority.  It does not go unchallenged.

“Can I call my mom?” Jack asks immediately.

When I’m with my stepsons, I’m like a U.N. peacekeeper (the “soldiers” in the decidedly un-intimidating powder blue helmets):  I’m only issued light weapons, and I have to go through proper administrative channels before I can fire them.

But no to a piece of candy before dinner?  I think I’ve got at least that much authority.

“Sure,” I say.  I punch in Rachel’s number and put the cell to my ear.

“No, let me talk to her” Jack says.

“I will,” I say.  “Just a second”  I want to make sure Rachel understands that I’ve already said no.

Rachel answers.  “Hey,” I say.  I tell her that Jack asked if he could have a piece of candy, and that I told him  it was too close to dinner.  “He wanted to call you,” I say.

“Ok, let me talk to him,” Rachel says.  

I start to hand Jack the cell phone, but as I do I hear Rachel add, “I’ll find out how much candy he’s had today.”

Wait.  What? 

My intent in calling was not for Rachel to conduct an investigation and overrule me.  I thought she would tell Jack that when she was gone, his stepdad was in charge.  Plain and simple.  The same authority we might give a thirteen-year-old babysitter.  Named Amber.

I put the cell back to my ear.

“Honey?”

“Yeah?”

“Don’t undercut me,” I say.  It doesn’t sound like that, though, because Jack is standing right next to me and I’m talking with my teeth clenched to distort my voice, so he can’t tell what I’m saying to his mom.  It comes out like this:

“Deeent eeeunnercaanht meaaah.”

“What?” Rachel says.

I talk louder, but keep my teeth tight.

“Deeent eeeeunnerceeeaant meaaah!”

What?”

I walk away from Jack.  “Don’t undercut me,” I say into the phone.

“Oh,” Rachel says.  “Ok”.  She delivers the bad news to Jack.

Had it gone otherwise, there would be hell to pay next time I was left “in charge”.  My every directive – “Jack, quit swinging the cat by the tail!” would be met with an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court of Mom.

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I’m explaining barbed wire to Jack, who is six. 

We’re driving in Detroit after dropping Alani off at theater practice.  

Jack opted to go with us rather than with his mom to Michael’s soccer game.  Of the five of us in this house, Jack is the most likely to disregard the two-tribe stepfamily divide.  Out of habit, Rachel would generally take Jack, and I would take my daughter to theater practice.  I decided to shake things up, and invited Jack to come with Alani and I.  Jack considered, questioning his mom closely about the playground equipment at the soccer field, before casting his lot with Alani and I.

We drive through a decrepit part of Detroit after dropping Alani off, past lots fenced with barbed wire.  Jack asks why they have barbed wire.  I tell him to keep out people who might steal something.

“Then why don’t we have barbed wire around our house?” he asks.

We live in a tidy, tiny suburb.  I tell Jack it’s because we have a police station right at the end of the corner.  We drive, and Jack continues to survey the desolate landscape.

“Mike,” he says, “Is there a lot of barbed wire in Detroit?”

“Yes.”

“How come?”

“Because they don’t have enough police to protect everything,”  I say. 

Jack moves on to related crime topics.

“How do guns kill people?” he asks.

“With bullets,” I say.  I explain that bullets are hard pieces of metal that go into a person’s body and wreck something important, like their heart.

“And then they die?”

“Sometimes.” 

He accepts the authority of my answers until he asks if bullets can go through teeth, and I say they can.  He disagrees, insisting that teeth are the strongest part of the body, stronger than bones, so there is no way that a bullet can break them. 

“A bullet can knock teeth out,” Jack says, “but it’ can’t go through them.” 

I admit that he may be right, and take the ramp onto I-75 north.  Jack asks what we’re going to do now.  I tell him we’ll go home, that I have some work to do.   This disappoints him.  He’d hoped for more adventure.

“I should have gone with my mom,” Jack says. 

 “Or, ” I say, “we could go to the library.”   I refuse to have my small victory over the two-tribe divide sullied by buyer’s remorse.

Jack perks up.  He wants to know which library, the good one or the boring one.  I tell him the good library, with the kids’ books and the wishing fountain outside.  

We park outside the library and approach the fountain.  Seven years ago, when Alani was Jack’s age, she stood by the same fountain and asked how long it took for wishes to come true.  I said it depended on the wish.  Alani told me that she’d wished many times to become a polar bear, but she never did become one.

I hand Jack a penny.  When we reach the fountain we see that it’s been drained.  Only a thin puddle of water remains. Not much more than a damp spot.

“Oh, no!” Jack says.

I assure him that if the penny gets wet, the wish counts.  Jack tosses his, and it plinks into the puddle. 

“Good throw,” I say. 

Jack takes my hand.  We walk toward the library.

“Mike,” he says, “My wishes never come true.”

“Keep wishing,” I say.  “They will.”

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