This weekend our family joined friends for a movie and ice cream. Everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves except for my 9 year-old stepdaughter who would go off by herself and sulk. “Now whatever could be the matter with her?” I thought. It’s moments like this when I slide up close to my kids and start acting goofy in a borderline annoying way that lets me gauge if there’s really a problem or if they are just feeling sorry for themselves. (Laughing means it’s the former, crying the latter—that or I scare them.)
My little tactic resulted in some laughs from my stepdaughter (as well as some odd looks from fellow ice cream patrons—my “Brining Sexy Back” dance routine is a tad rusty these days). All was well again. However, by the time we got ready to leave, Stepdaughter 1 had made a U-turn to Pouty-ville.
As my wife stood talking with our friends, I casually remarked that something was wrong with her oldest child. “She’s being all moody.” I said, rolling my eyes. I mean, come on here—a movie, ice cream. Gee, life sure is rough. Actually, it kind of was.
“Yeah, she’s just going through that time of the month,” my wife commented in that same casual, matter-of-fact tone one uses when letting you in on the answer to something that’s general knowledge.
I chuckled, thinking she was being sarcastic. My wife and her daughter are one in the same, and when they butt heads it’s like an Amazonian gladiator fight to the death only with longer periods of glaring and more passive-aggressive, comments spoken under their breath.
Then our friend jumped in. “Yeah, all of this down here might not be going on,” she said, motioning with her hand in the vicinity below her abdomen. “But all that hormonal stuff is starting to kick in.”
I looked at my wife, and she nodded in confirmation.
The sound you heard next was my jaw smashing through the concrete. I’m not ready for this.
Now, I realize that after reading that last line a million suddenly irritated women just cracked their knuckles wondering why I would take their discomfort and make it all about me. You might be thinking, “Oh, so YOU’RE not ready to deal with this—that’s great. One more thing for us to make men feel okay about.” But hear me out first.
Aside from a few of the finer points (and of course the actual pain), I understand what happens during a woman’s cycle, and I wouldn’t dare belittle it. I grew up the lone boy among three younger sisters who at one point were all in sync under the same roof, and they didn’t appreciate smart-ass comments from their older brother, nor did my mother who once hurled a 5-pound, skinned potato at my head in response to an insensitive remark. Another time, she made me clean my sister’s underwear as punishment for the same kind of jackass-behavior. Creepy? Yeah, a little. Effective? Very. I got the point.
Now, however, I’m in a different position as, not just a dad, but a step-dad, and a stay-at-home one on top of it. Being in these roles, I already have to exercise an added layer of judgment in how I act and in what I say around my stepdaughters. They know that I love them; however, there’s an unspoken element, in that loving a stepchild isn’t necessarily an inherent feeling the way it is with your biological children, and so showing your love through actions becomes that much more important to foster their security.
My stepdaughters are delicate, sensitive creatures who cannot keep a bedroom clean to save their lives. They notice how I act, and even if my behavior has nothing to do with them, they still interpret it through a perspective of how they might be responsible. Sadly this is a result of their previous experiences, and for Stepdaughter 1 it’s especially bad. Sometimes I wonder if she’s waiting to be rejected. So now toss in the biological circumstances involved with her impending journey to womanhood, and you’ve got the makings for any number of emotionally-charged situations that could be misinterpreted and carry lasting effects.
This I am aware of. This I am prepared for. What I’m not ready to deal with, though, is accepting that my children will be adults, and standing there with my jaw on the ground reminded me it’s more a reality than it is some far off eventuality. My stepdaughter’s body is changing in order to bring new life into the world. My oldest son is losing his boyish features, and within a few years will be able to fight wars, and vote, and even be a father himself. Their brothers and sisters aren’t far behind.
The idea of my children contending with the same complexities that season our lives as adults brings a lump to my throat, partly because I want their innocence to remain intact forever, and partly because I’m worried I won’t teach them enough. I’m worried that I’ll miss something—something important, something they will come back to me and ask why I didn’t tell them about it.
Yet, at the same time, there is so much in this damn world we don’t control regardless of how hard we try, and so, even if we could tell our children everything they needed to know, it’s still an inevitability that they will experience, pain, hurt, and tragedy. That may be the harder concept for me to accept, and what loving parent is really ever prepared for that?
Photo courtesy the author