|First Birthday! Photo credit: Catfish Moore|
I didn't know him when he had his first band concert or baseball practice or sleepover.
I was late to the game.
My hope, every day, is that I wasn't too late.
I heard a story on the radio about three years ago. It was some time before the subject would become relevant to my life, but as a divorced woman with a child, my ears perked up when I heard it. The story was about blended families, and some kind of expert on the subject was making the claim that children are only likely to welcome a new parental figure until about the age of 12. After that, he said, the battle was likely to be uphill.
I'm not sure about that as an across-the-board claim; I'm certain it depends a lot upon how hungry the child in question is for a parental figure, how mature he or she is, or how open he or she is to new people and new, shared experiences, in general. There are so many variables.
But the idea was not lost on me. I can see how it would be more difficult for a child to welcome a new parent at the age of 15 than the age of three. At three, you don't have much of a clue what's going on. And you don't know the difference between knowing and not knowing. At 15, you (think you) know everything. Imagine some new person coming on to the scene of a 15-year-old with dreams of smooth-sailing!
When I first started dating again after my divorce, I wanted nothing to do with fathers. I pictured one of two possible scenarios: weekend dads who didn't really know or want the experience of parenting close-up and would therefor not understand that my priority was my young son, or dads with substantial custody of young children who were just looking for a woman to come in and do all the dirty work of parenting because they couldn't/didn't want to handle it themselves (basically, men seeking replacement moms for their children). I had my own young child to care for; I didn't need to take on someone else's.
There was a third category I hadn't imagined and which my boyfriend Kevin falls into: a full-time, hands on father whose priority is his own son, who understands the priorities of other parents, and who was looking for an equal-footing companion, not a stand-in mother.
And with him came his then 10-year-old son, who was 5 days from his 11th birthday when Kevin and I first met.
A year later I attended his 12th birthday festivities--it was a bowling party that also served as a kind of last hurrah. At that point we'd just signed the lease on a place in a new town, where we'd be moving, the four of us, when the school year ended. He'd be leaving the friends he'd known since kindergarten, going to a new city with a new school and living with a new stepmom of sorts and a little steppy brother, to boot. We imagined the transition could be rough.
To my surprise, my stepson handled it like an absolute pro. He was surprised, but pleasantly so, to hear the news of the move. And though he was initially sad about the thought of leaving his friends, he was excited and happy when he saw the new place where we'd be moving (a short bike ride away from the beach).
The school transition hasn't always been smooth; we moved to a place with ridiculously good schools (that was the point), but that meant a learning curve for sure. Plus, there's just the whole Middle School thing.
Ugh. Middle school. Who can even think about school at that age?! I moved to a new state in the middle of my 7th grade year, and I think if it hadn't been for the fact that my brother was in the same grade--there to share the pain of the transition in that already horrible mess of affairs that is 7th grade--I might have just curled up into a ball and rolled away for a few years. My stepson, facing the (new) middle school beast all on his own, has found some semi-decent ground to stand on two-thirds of the way through the school year, found a happy-ish place (which is the most I think parents can hope for at this time).
On the home front, he's been amazing. He has shown a kind of patience and ability to humor a pre-schooler that is unrivaled for a child his age. He has been accepting of and open toward me and seems (mostly) happy to have me around. He has been (mostly) understanding of the ways his Dad and I have chosen to re-enforce good school performance and discipline in the less-than-stellar moments.
He has accepted this new version of his life with grace.
I think about my stepson more than he could probably ever imagine. I wonder how he processes the events of his life and how he envisions things going forward. I wonder which of the lessons we are trying to teach are sticking. I wonder what will pique his interest as he moves into high school and begins to think about college. I wonder all the time what he thinks about my parenting style, which is a lot like that of my parents--family discussions over groundings, questions asked daily that extend the dinnertime conversation well beyond the point where he's interested. I wonder if he'll understand at any point (before he becomes a parent, when it'll be all too apparent) why his Dad and I are so curious about him.
This week, as he turned 13(!), I hope with ever-increasing intensity that my stepson can read between the frustration I may feel with him sometimes, see around my nagging him to put dishes away. I hope he can somehow x-ray vision through to what's behind all that: my desire to help raise a thoughtful and considerate and responsible person who makes his own experience while also understanding how his actions affect others. My desire to help launch an adult who is self-motivated and takes pride in what he puts out into the world. My desire to ensure he is helpful and appreciative of other people. Way, way up there on the list: my desire to help him realize that his Dad does every last thing he does with my stepson in mind...that he might be aware of his Dad's tireless effort and love and, in turn, show him respect. Also, hidden in some semi-conscious place among all that...my desire to help give him the tools to do all these same things for his own children, one day.
Now that's not too much to ask, is it?!
I think, I *think* he knows I love him. I think he knows because I tell him and I try in various ways to show him...but still I feel helpless to know for sure whether he really knows or whether it'll be something that dawns on him one day, as he looks backward to the life that led to wherever he happens to be at the moment.
Whatever the case I hope he will truly feel it and know that I believe truly in my heart that we came into each other lives because we have a lot to learn from each other.
Happy Birthday to my favorite teenager.
And whoah...wish us luck!