The Scariest Day

K likes to ask very thought-provoking questions of me on occasion.  Usually, they are head scratchers…what was your best day?  What music influences you? What’s your favorite memory from high school?  What are you most proud of?  I don’t know where she gets them, but it seems like she has a new one every weekend.  This week was “What was your scariest day?”

I don’t know what she was expecting, but “the day I took you guys to the squishy playground” was not it.

The “squishy playground,” as the kids have always called it, is situated in Buffalo Harbor State Park, about five minutes from my house.  They call it such because instead of woodchips or gravels, the playground floor is a squishy material that cushions falls.  One would assume this would provide an added level of safety and comfort for the worrisome parent.  One would be wrong.

It so happened, one day, that Mark had to work on a Saturday when we had the kids.  He tries not to pick up such hours, but it was mandatory, so he went in and I was alone with the kiddos.  M wanted to go to the park.  All the others chimed in, begging for me to take them.

What they did not realize is that I had never taken them anywhere before, alone.  Mark was always there, often also boosted by my parents or aunts or sister.  I figured there would be no harm…after all, it is the squishy playground.  So, I loaded them into the car and off we went.

When we got there, I perched on a bench with a book and let them do their thing.  All was well until I hear someone call my name and find M atop a climbing structure that had to be 15 feet off the ground.  That was the first instance of panic.  He was so proud of himself, and I smiled and gave him a thumbs up, but inside I was screaming.  “GET DOWN.  GET THE FUCK DOWN.”  He did, safely, and I told him he did a good job even though I wanted to throttle him for scaring me like that. 

E says “let’s go for a walk.”  There’s a path that goes along the water, for walking and biking and such, so I figure there’s nothing wrong with a little stroll and let her lead the way.  Again, all was well until I hear “Brig!  Look!” and turn to find L climbing on the rock wall that separated the path and the lake.  Naturally, the other three kids scramble to join him.  Again, I smile and give a thumbs up, but inside…”OMGOMGOMG…the girls can’t swim.  It’s too deep.  There’s no way out.  I’m going to have to jump in.  What if they crack their head on a rock?  Should I take my shoes off?  Should I yell at them to get off the rocks?  They’re having fun…I don’t want to be the evil stepmother. OMGOMGOMG someone’s going to die…”

There was a big hill across from the rocks, so I remembered the old childcare trick of redirection, and suggested that it would be fun to roll down.  All four kids agreed, and raced to the top of the hill.  They rolled a few times.  I smiled and thumbs upped and secretly prayed no one would snap a bone on the descent.  But at least they were no longer by the water.

Afterwards, we went back to the car so we could go pick up Mark.  I thought to myself that I had survived the scary day, where I was on edge the whole time while they were having a ball.  Then, E.  “I’m itchy.”  The darling girl is always pointing out anything that bothers her, from a miniscule paper cut to a big bruise, so I shrugged it off at first.  Then, K agrees.  Then L.  Then M.

By the time we get home they have rashes.  My best guess is that they recently sprayed that hill with pesticide.  I made all the kids shower, freaking out because I broke my one rule “You will be returned to your mother in the condition in which you were delivered.”

When I told K this story, she didn’t find it particularly scary.  Well, you’re not a parent, kid.  Worse, you’re not a step-parent, which brings with it a whole host of possible faux pas.  It’s like walking a minefield, at least it was in the early days.  Now, I’m a little more attune at seeing the traps.  But then, I was terrified.  The only time I had been alone with the kids at that point was in the safety of our house.  Taking them out into the world was a whole other ordeal.  I started to wonder if birth parents feel the same, constantly worried about worst case scenarios befalling their children.  Nope, not for me…another nail in the coffin of reproduction, as far as I’m concerned. 

It’s a few years later and I have spent time outside the house with all the kiddos, and I don’t worry like I did that day.  But to say I wasn’t on the edge of my seat the whole time is a lie.  I was terrified.

So no, K, I don’t have a scary ghost story, or some terrifying trauma that I can call my scariest day.  Just a day at the park with my kiddos, that I was certain would end with a trip to the ER.  It didn’t, and I was grateful, but that fear remained.  I think a lot of step-parents share these fears.  It wasn’t like it is when I nanny…I do not fear the loss of children who don’t belong to me in the way I do the kiddos.  That’s not to say I haven’t had some scary moments with other people’s kids…I certainly have.  I just seem to know how to deal with them, on instinct.  Like a job, because it is one.  But your own children are different.  Would I jump in front of a car to save a charge?  Yes.  But would I beat the shit out of the driver after, should I still be able to walk?  No.  That’s just for my kiddos.

Anyway, I love them.  They have terrified me on occasion, but I love them so much that this terror is a result of that.  K and her questions intrigue me, but this particular one really gave me an almost visceral flashback.  I really don’t think I can illustrate to you the sheer terror and worry I felt that day.  You’re just going to have to take my word for it.

The Scariest Day

Kiddo Christmas

When I was young and I thought of the few kids I knew whose parents were split, I often felt a little bad for them at Christmastime.  I had it in my head that their Christmases couldn’t be as good as mine because they didn’t have both parents with them on the day.  I grew up thinking the nuclear family was “normal,” thus assuming any differential was “bad.”

Kids, right?

Anyway, it wasn’t until I was a fully formed adult that I saw this from an entirely different perspective.  I started dating a man who had four kids.  We moved in together, and for the first year his kids would be getting two Christmases.  I was terrified about everything.  What if they saw though those cheap knockoff toys we could barely afford?  What if they didn’t like my cooking?  What if they felt weird around my parents?  What if they missed their mom?  None of my fears were warranted.  They loved the toys and the food and my family.  No one asked for mom, likely in the same way no one asked for dad three days later when they were back home.  If they have taught me nothing else these past 9 years, it is this: live in the moment.  Love the person you’re with as hard as you can, and don’t worry about tomorrow.  

M tells me he doesn’t really recall much of Hubs and their mother being together.  He was only 5 when they split.  The others remember almost nothing, especially K who was only 10 months when we first met.  So, for them, two Christmases is “normal.”  It makes me think back on my preconceived notions of childhood.  It makes me reevaluate the idea of family that was ingrained in me from birth. 

This weekend was Kiddo Christmas.  My parents and sister came over and we had a little party.  We had snacks and drinks and presents galore.  My theme for Christmas this year was “take a freaking shower.”  Everybody got a towel, body wash, loofah, deodorant, and body spray.  We got four kids in the throes of puberty and I will not tolerate a stinky child.  They also got tablets from the aunts and uncles, cases for them from Bern, and headphones from their father, amongst other goodies.  I’ve heard no complaints. 

This morning the boys are playing Call of Duty on the PlayStation.  E is listening to music on her tablet and K is coloring wither new gel pens.  Everyone is happy and getting along, and it makes me glad that this is the way I start my Christmas season every year.  It also makes me chuckle at my former naiveté, when I was little and thought that a family came off an assembly lime like one of Santa’s toys.  The new “normal” is beautiful according to me.

Merry Christmas.

An Ode to my Kiddos

I have sat at my computer every day this week, pecking out my novel.  It has been the main focus of my life for the past 11 days, and nearly every thought I think when alone has been related to it.  So of course, I sit down to write my blog and all I want to do is go back to work on the book, or write about how I’m doing on it.  But, that’s for Thursdays, not Mondays, so now I am at a loss.

I ask E what I should write about, and she suggests a dozen topics that have already graced my fingertips.  I ask K and get more of the same.  They are clever little girls who have great ideas, but sadly they are ideas I have already had.  E suggests I write about the kiddos, but I don’t, really.  I mean, they appear in my blogs, but I like to keep a certain air of privacy around them (hence the initials.)  But I will bend that rule a little, today.

I remember the day I met them.  First, there was M, five years old and playing Transformers on his father’s PlayStation.  He explained the difference between autobots and decepticons, and then started talking about different kinds of dinosaurs, and I was confused but also impressed by his ability to retain knowledge.  L, who was three, was sitting at the kitchen table eating a hot dog.  I sat beside him and commented on the cartoon character on his shirt.  I taught him a secret handshake.  He told me a knock-knock joke that made no sense.

E was only two and very shy, clutching a small toy duck and peeking at me from behind the arm of the sofa.  Eventually she came forward, placed the duck in my lap, and ran off again.  She wasn’t very good at hiding though, so I always saw her peering around corners, watching my every move.  K was furious, screaming and crying and refusing her bottle, only 10 months old.  I picked her up and put her in the middle of Mark’s bed.  I sang her Too Ra Loo Ra, an Irish lullaby my mother always sang to me.  She fell asleep, and I fell in love…with these kiddos, before I even loved their father.

Now.

Now, we have all grown.  M can still be found on his electronics talking about Transformers or Godzilla, but not all the time.  When he comes here after school, he may retreat into the world of screens for a half an hour or so, but then he emerges and engages me in conversation or joins me in whatever activity I’m doing.  He is fourteen now, and becoming this amazing young man that makes me proud.

L is twelve going on twenty, and now all of his jokes make sense.  Sometimes he crosses a line, and I shoot him a look and receive a prompt apology in return, but for the most part he keeps us laughing.  And his heart…his heart is enormous.  Definitely the politest kids I’ve ever met, he has a well of compassion in him that I don’t think has a limit.  Everyday with him is a jovial surprise.

E just turned eleven, and is blowing my mind.  No longer shy and timid, she is a talkative and engaging girl who is maturing into this lovely young woman.  She’s clever and funny and helpful, and long gone are the days when she would tattle on her siblings or fib to me about nonsense I could prove.  Her smile brightens my day, and her actions make my heart swell with joy.  I am so looking forward to everything she will become.

K is ten now, no longer a crying baby.  She knows no life without me in it, no life where mom and dad were together, and sometimes I wonder if that’s why our connection is so strong.  To her, all of this is perfectly normal, not a careful configuration of parenting that took a decade to sort out.  Her personality has always been strong, but as she ages, she is finding herself, her cleverness and compassion being her strongest traits.  Saturday night, we celebrated her entry into the double-digits club.  No more babies in this house.

Being a step-parent is a peculiar thing.  We have a stereotype to battle, for one…everyone knows the story of the evil stepmother.  We are often looked at as “less than,” because we did not give birth to the child.  It’s frequently difficult for me because I feel like odd woman out a lot…I neither created the children (like their parents did) or live with them most of the time (like their stepfather does.)  Still, when I am with my kiddos, none of it matters.  I don’t think about anything except what’s best for them.  I love them more than I thought was possible, if I’m honest.  They have changed my life in a way that no one has, save perhaps their father.  Mark has even made me swear that should our relationship fail for whatever reason, I will not desert the kids.  He made me promise, when we got married, that I will always be their stepmother, even if I’m not his wife.  He, in turn, promised that should that tragedy ever happen, he would continue to encourage the kids to have a relationship with me.
It’s not many men that would put their kids feeling before their own like that.  Of course, I hope that never comes to pass, but it makes my heart happy to know that he would want me in the kids lives no matter what.  After all, like I said, I loved them first.

Being a step-parent can be hard, but there are blessings.  I see it when E surprises me with a fresh cup of coffee, or when K tells me to get in the office and start writing.  I see it when M takes an interest in what I’m doing, or L sneaks up and gives me an unexpected hug.  These kids were not always in my life, and I wasn’t always in theirs…but they don’t remember that.  They only remember how much I have loved them, and they return that love to me in spades.  

Being a step-parent is hard.  But I wouldn’t change it.  I wouldn’t give it up.  I am grateful every day for my kiddos, and I love them more than they will ever know. Their ability to inspire and encourage is astronomical, and they are growing into amazing little humans.  I never wanted kids of my own, but I am eternally grateful for the little hearts that found their way to me and opened my life up in the process.

Mother’s Day/Week

Yesterday was Mother’s Day.  I spent the day with the kiddos and had breakfast with them and my mom.  It was nice.  The girls made me cards; the boys gave me hugs. 
This week I am going to experience full-time motherhood for the first time.  M is staying with us for the next week, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t a little nervous.  He’s 14 and fairly self-sufficient, but I am concerned that myself or Mark will encounter a situation we do not usually deal with and as a result may make some kind of parenting faux pas.  I know logically that there is no one handbook for parenting and that I have 20 years of child care experience to lean on.  I am, despite not having any kids of my own, more prepared to raise a child than my husband who has four of them.  This however does not comfort me, because when they’re your own it’s different.  M isn’t some kid at a school or daycare that I care for from the hours of nine to five.  He’s my little buddy, the boy that I admire more and more as I watch him grow into an amazing young man.  When I’m working I can make decisions easily.  I can tell a parent about their child’s day and then walk away.  This time around I will be the one that can’t walk away, the one that takes that kid home with them, and those decisions become more difficult.  Part of me says it will be easy and I have nothing to worry about.  He’s a teenager not a toddler, and giving him some freedom to walk home from school or up to the store is natural.  Still, I sit here fearing the worst because for once I am on the other side of the coin.  What if something happens at school?   Or on the walk home?  Or at any time in the next week?   Mark has been nervous for weeks and I keep telling him to relax, relying on my past to provide all the knowledge and preparation I need.  Now the moment is here, he’s coming tonight, and I am freaking out a tad.  What if I’m not attentive enough?   What if there’s a problem at school?   What if he gets lost or hurt on the way home?  All these thoughts are seeping into my brain and I don’t care for it.  I sit here and tell myself that I am great at kids, because I am.  I don’t brag about much but I’ll brag about that.  I’m the kid-whisperer and always have been, but do these talents still work on teenagers?  Do they work on the kids that come home to you at the end of the day?

M is very much looking forward to his visit. In fact, he wanted to come a day early. I am excited, too, but I have these little worries that gnaw at my brain.  It reminds me of yet another reason I’m not planning to have children: the constant worry. I am already constantly worried; I don’t need some kiddo adding to it.  Yet here we are. 
I love this kid and am so glad he gets to spends some time with us.  I am hoping that this week is fun and productive for everybody.  In fact, I’m sure it will be.  Mark is ecstatic about having his eldest around, despite his worries.  I need to tap into that, because I remain a nervous wreck, terrified that I will mess up somehow.  I don’t feel this way when the kids are here on the weekends, which is interesting as there are many of them and they are far more likely to riot. One kid should be no problem, right? 

This is what I’m telling myself, at least.

Choose Your Own Adventure

Recently, Hubs and I watched Black Mirror: Bandersnatch on Netflix.  (Yes, I am aware that this is the second post in a row referencing our Netflix addiction.)  If you don’t know, it is a show where you choose options for the character throughout.  This type of thing was tried before in a Final Destination movie that I recall being highly disappointed in despite the hype.  The buildup was real for Bandersnatch, though, and I was waiting for this for some time, as I have loved Choose Your Own Adventure (CYOA) books since I was a kid.  I still have a couple somewhere, their covers long torn away and possibly missing perfectly good endings as well.  I would read them over and over, trying to find my way to every possible ending before putting the book down.  So, when I heard Netflix was going to try this format, I was excited.  Even more so because their first foray into it would be with a Black Mirror episode, one of my favorite shows.  Hubs and I popped popcorn and grabbed our PlayStation remote and settled in for a good time, and boy did we have it.  It was everything I wanted it to be and more.  We watched it three or four times.  M is here today (for once the sole child in the house) and I was considering going back for a rewatch with him.  That’s how good it was.

But this post isn’t about Netflix formatting or Black Mirror or even CYOA books.  It’s about parenting.

My sister, who is thirteen years my junior, often says things you would expect out of the mouth of some wise old owl.  Just the other day, she says, apropos of nothing, that it seems to her that parenting is a lot like a CYOA book.  It was as though something slid into place, clicking into its spot.  Hubs eyes grew wide as he realized that every single question your child asks every day is another option for a different storyline.  Just then K entered the room and asked to use the laptop.  We honestly had to think about it for a second.  What if we say no, and she resents us? Or doesn’t at all and just goes and finds something else to do, but misses out on something that could have proved useful in life elsewhere?  What if we say yes and she spends all her time watching videos and becomes addicted to screens and ends up homeless on the street?  Or she learns some new information or skill that she didn’t have in her arsenal before?  In the end we said yes and a fight broke out between the girls, not remotely one of the planned-for scenarios, only cementing the obvious: you don’t know how the story is going to go.

M is staying with us for a couple days and also again for a week in May.  In May he will have to go to school, and he wants to walk.  Now, if I were 13 and it was 1996, I would have happily allowed such things, but HE is 13 and it is 2019 and times have changed, buddy.  Mark is less comfortable with this than I am, and that is saying something from a man who has walked everywhere since he was ten years old.  Mark is worried about older kids, cars driving onto sidewalks, cars plowing through stop signs, kid-snatchers, drug pushers, and M falling over his own two feet.  Choose your own adventure:  Let the boy walk home from school and learn independence and responsibility, or let the boy walk home from school and get snatched by methheads?  Don’t let the boy walk home from school so that he never learns to be independent or don’t let the boy walk home from school so he doesn’t DIE?

Obviously, we will let the boy walk home from school for the independence and responsibility bit, and pray all the rest is just the pipe dreams of parents who worry too much.  But you never know, from the smallest decisions, to the big ones, what effect they will have on the lives of your children, and your life by default.  You make a million little decisions for your child everyday without even knowing it, and then you have to hold on for the ride and hope to God the story doesn’t send you back to page 5.

Now I’m going to go hang out with M, probably debate Godzilla vs. King Kong, discuss new Mortal Kombat characters, and try to get some teachable moments in there somewhere.  Maybe watch Bandersnatch.  Maybe go for a walk.

So many options.

black and white decision doors opportunity
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