I know things are better now. I know it’s not like the old days, when women would shun divorcées, assuming they were out to steal their husbands, or keep their children from playing with the children of divorced parents. Blended families, gay couples with kids, it’s all the new normal, right?
But where I am, it’s complicated. I am a divorced parent, a single parent dating. I have this idea that it would be easier if I remarried, because there are terms for that: blended family, stepparent. Right now we’re all in limbo and nobody knows what to make of us or what to call us, and we don’t always know what to do with ourselves.
I started dating Leon not long after my ex and I separated. I relied heavily on my therapist’s advice in this brave new world, not entirely trusting myself to know what the rules should be. I hadn’t dated since I was 23, when I had no children and the stakes felt a lot lower. More than ten years, a thousand battle scars, and three children later, the prospect of finding a mate sounded a lot more challenging. I had less confidence in my ability to tell the difference between regular people’s little failings and a terrible match’s red flags.
Being a divorcé with no children, Leon was either perfect or completely wrong for me. He had never even dated a mom before. I reassured myself with the fact that he worked with children, but I also reminded myself that he worked with older children. When I’m stirring the spaghetti sauce the kids won’t want to eat, and there’s a three-foot-tall person crying and holding onto my skirt, I look at him and wonder what he’s thinking.
Leon spent years as a single adult. Sometimes I imagine the kinds of dates he used to go on.
He’s sitting across the table from her. She’s pretty and young. They’re in a warm, dimly lit restaurant, laughing and talking. She’s telling him about her trip to Europe. They’re eating something exotic, maybe something spicy, maybe something with chopsticks.
He looks across the table at me and smirks a little when my daughter examines the Thai menu and asks hopefully, “Do they have macaroni and cheese here?” I haven’t verbally spoken to him since we were seated, because I’m trying to explain the rules and the menu to the two children on my side of the table, and he’s trying to entertain the one on his side. But we make a lot of eye contact, sending secret amused or exasperated messages.
They’re talking about sports. He likes baseball, football. She doesn’t watch sports, but she plays on a recreational soccer team.
I look at him, sitting on the sidelines, watching eight-year-old girls playing soccer. The five-year-old is on his lap. I can’t see his face; he is too far away. I am over by the fence. There’s poop on my hands. I didn’t tell the three-year-old that he can only pee on the ground, not poop. He tried to poop by the fence at the soccer game. I don’t have any wipes. I don’t have a change of clothes. I don’t have a plastic bag. Those things are all in my car, which is at the shop. We brought his car. His car does not have wipes and Ziploc bags of 2T/3T underpants in the seat pockets. I wonder if Leon ever saw this kind of date coming in his future.
He’s an artist, a photographer. She tells him that’s interesting, but she says everything is interesting because she thinks he’s cute.
Maybe the problem with those dates is that they were all the same. “Hell, I’m different!” I think. I say things like this to him. I laugh heartily and wonder if I should worry instead, but who has the energy? I still have to pack the lunches, do dishes, and finish that email.
Lots of people in my life have accepted Leon. I was afraid they wouldn’t. When she runs into me alone at church, a lovely octogenarian asks, “Where is your gentleman friend?” When I share a picture of Leon lying on the rug, reading to the children, amid the likes, a sort of gruff honorary uncle of mine comments, “Sounds like someone you should marry.” But when I’m mid-story, explaining to a man at church why we both smell like smoke after the fireplace malfunctioned last night at my house, I stutter a little, wondering if I should not reveal the fact that Leon spent the night before he came with us to church in the morning.
The kindergarten teacher sees me in the staff room. She starts her story with, “We’re making clay families on couches, and your son is making two.” My daughter only had to make one clay couch in kindergarten, because she had only one home then. I wonder briefly if any other kids in my son’s class have two households to make couches for. “He kept coming up with six people for his couch, and I was asking who the sixth person was. He kept counting and getting confused, and then he figured it out and said it was Leon. He had been making that one for Dad’s house, so I had him change tack.” We laugh at the awkwardness of sending a clay couch with a figure of Mom’s boyfriend on it to Dad’s house, and I appreciate her sensitivity. “Leon is really special to him,” she says. “It’s really good for him to have another loving adult in his life. I tell myself that, as a stepmom, I can be just an additional positive adult.” She’s an extra clay figure on a different child’s couch.
Leon is special in my kindergartener’s life, in all three kids’ lives. He helps with homework, brings people to the park, helps them negotiate through arguments, offers the kindergartener incentives for behaving well and listening. They love him. They climb on top of him when he’s sleeping and fail to give him privacy when he’s trying to take a shower. He has a lot of responsibility for a boyfriend. Probably too much, I worry. But he’s not just a boyfriend. He’s dating all of us, and he has had to commit to all of us. We couldn’t get him emotionally involved with them until we had already committed to this course. If I’m angry, I can’t toy with the idea of breaking up with him. That would break my children’s hearts, because they automatically commit to those they love, with that frightening, undying childhood loyalty. And I cannot mess with my children’s hearts that were already broken just a few years ago.
Thankfully, despite the times I have become terrified in the face of our tremendous situational imbalance, it seems like it’s working out. Because he wants to understand children, is learning to understand children—even young, crying ones. He wants to understand me, too. As a single mom of three with my own business, I don’t think I would have it in me to become involved with some whole other set of challenging children. And I don’t have to work out how to parent alongside someone with a whole different set of parenting ideals. And though I’ve been around long enough to know that sometimes being single is the easier route, it still feels worth it to try to find someone to share my life with, to partner with. I could sure use the help—there’s a lot on my plate, and it feels so very heavy at times—but maybe even more, I want someone to hike with and to laugh with when the three-year-old blurts out another one-liner. The children love me, share with me, even encourage me; they are often more than enough. But a true partner will want to know me in a way that they will never know I could be known.
I imagine that step-parenting is in Leon’s future. I think we would be a good parent-stepparent team. But right now, when he’s not a stepparent yet, sometimes it’s hard for either of us to say what he’s supposed to do for whom and when. I appreciate that he has helped the three-year-old out of his wet underwear without calling for me to take over. But I know that he would have every right to call for me to take over. And sometimes it’s hard for my children to explain who he is. People who don’t know us think he’s their dad, and it’s weird. I feel embarrassed, awkward, like I need to explain, and I can see my awkwardness reflected in Leon’s eyes. The mistaken stranger doesn’t even care. They don’t need an explanation. I realize that I don’t know if my children care or not, or if this seems normal to them now. My daughter drew a picture of her and her siblings, me, their father, and two other figures, labeled, “My maybe future step-mother,” and “My maybe future step-father.” I thought it was cute. I thought it was sad. I thought it was hard to have such a major factor be so far out of your control. And sometimes it’s hard for me to explain who he is too. “Boyfriend” just sounds so casual, so juvenile. He buys groceries, walks my son to the neighbors’, and reads bedtime stories. But he’s not my spouse. He has a separate home, and he retreats there now and then. Sometimes I feel angry that I don’t get to retreat, too. He’s not the children’s father. Sometimes my younger children accidentally call him daddy. Sometimes I say things about “our” house, but only my name is on the bills. The boundaries are confusing.
My five year old doesn’t understand why his dad doesn’t want to hang out with Leon. He likes both of them; why can’t they be good friends and then we could all spend time together, all the people whom he loves? When he talks about his dad this way, Leon looks at me, and I look at him, and I look at my son again and I wish the world were as simple as my he thinks it is. But when I look back at my…boyfriend…I know Leon understands these wishes I have for my children. And he understands my grief for their broken family. Sometimes I can see in his eyes that he has his own wishes for them, independent of mine. I see the children reflected there, and, perhaps surprisingly, I don’t see any sign of that pretty young woman from the restaurant. Leon has very expressive blue eyes. I hope when he looks at me, mine still look pretty through the fatigue, through the slightly smudged mascara. I hope mine still have enough to offer.
But he looks at me like maybe they do. And at the end of the day, I think that’s enough.