It's been 3 months since my special someone and I moved in together, along with his two sons (ages 10 and 13), two dogs, and two reptiles. Even without the kids here, we have a full house; Dear Kitty is not so thrilled with the dogs, but she has mostly gotten used to the kids aside from an occasional gentle warning hiss, and she's fascinated by the usually sedentary but sometimes comically active reptiles. In the past year, even before we combined households, things have felt different. There were troubles with one of the kids, which I couldn't help but agonize over despite my general role as an empathetic bystander. Then, we took a trip together as a family to visit more family for Christmas, straight out of a movie. The kids hung out at my house a few times and even slept over once, welcome strangers intruding on my turf. And now we all live together, a real family, and we took a 2-week vacation together, family-style. It feels nice and weird and foreign and frustrating and cozy and settling and many other conflicting feelings that come with being a parent. Except I'm not a parent, I'm a step-parent. I used to be a single girl who only had to pay attention to my own life and could get lost in my thoughts and leave my clothes on the floor for days. What I had was my small world, inconsequential to others and beholden to no one, and I felt free every day.
Now, I must pick up my clothes while others' messes lay strewn about. Do I pick up these socks, foam bullets, candy wrappers, shoes, plastic blocks, blankets, etc., or do I struggle with getting the kids to pick them up so that the house feels a little more put-together? Now, I must plan plain meals that the children will eat, which they usually don't anyway, instead of sitting on the floor in front of the coffee table, eating fresh, crusty bread with salty olive spread and sardines and a glass of wine, indulging in reality TV. Now, I must listen to stories from Scouts and soccer practice and paintball fights and nod along and mmmm-hmmm to descriptions of warfare tactics and think of questions to ask about things I'm not the least bit interested in, instead of escaping to read in bed with Dear Kitty for hours. Now, I grit my teeth when the entitlement act gets old and I want to yell at them to stop being so spoiled and just listen to us for once, instead of rolling my eyes at other people's entitled kids. Now, I wince and sigh and try to relax during the especially rowdy moments when they can't, just cannot, stop screaming and running around and shooting things at each other and blasting the music, instead of reveling in the silence and the chirping birds while scented candles flicker.
But also now, I giggle along with the silly things the boys do and say. Now, I read about how to raise kids right, and I worry that everything I do is wrong and will screw them up for good. Now, I want to have snuggly moments on the couch, and watch movies together, and make holiday crafts at the table together, and show the kids off to my friends and family, and talk about them like we all belong to each other. Now, I want to be a part of their lives and help them change and grow into men, and go out there in the world, and be as fully themselves as they are now. Now, I feel warm when they include me in their adventures, when they want me to know all about what they care about.
But it's hard to get out of my head and focus on them. I enjoy them but I don't crave them. I'm ashamed to admit that sometimes I look forward to our last day together for the week, and I dread the day they come over two weeks later. Not dread, just...feel sad for my temporary loss of freedom, and for the fact that I must share my special someone with them. I embrace this challenge, and I am thrilled to have these boys in my life, for they are simple and lovely and exuberant and still excited about the world, but sometimes, it might be nice to not have them so much in my life.
I know that step-parents feel this way. We wonder whether perhaps it would be different with our own kids. In some ways, maybe yes, but in many ways, parenting is parenting. But I'll never be a parent. I'm surrounded by other people's kids, including my nephew and my friend's kids, and I will bond with them and love them and be a member of their village and give them whatever I have to spare. But I will have no children to call my own, and that's a selfish feeling but also a natural feeling. So I will go on pinning kids' activity ideas and parenting advice and home decor on Pinterest, as if these children were my own, as if we belong to each other. Because now I am no longer lonely, and I have people to live a life for, and even when it's tough, it's still better than eating sardines alone on the floor and watching other people's lives. And maybe someday, for all my hard work, I will get a hug or an acknowledgement that I mean something to them, and it will all be worth it.