I thought I was done raising young children. I’d been a single dad since Chet, my littlest one was just eight months old and his big sister, Ava, was three and a half. I’d blogged about it, written a book about it, congratulated myself on what a faithful parental servant I’d been to them, and now that they are of school age, I get a thrill commanding them to unload the dishwasher, take out the trash or make their beds. I had started imagining the day when I could just toss them a twenty and say, “Be home before midnight.”
And then I fell desperately in love with a woman and her eighteen-month-old heartbreaker.
Like Al Pacino in Godfather III, I suddenly said to myself: “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.” I’m telling you, before falling in love with Amanda and Maia, I could see the finish line: a time in the near future when I could go to the movies without factoring in an extra sixty bucks for a sitter, when, if my single friends from my former hipster days blew into town unannounced and invited me on some fabulous adventure that night, I could instantly say yes.
As part of our divorce mediation, my ex-wife and I had agreed to a “six-month rule.” We’d have to date someone six months and be positive that they would be a significant part of any future plans before introducing them to our kids. Amanda and I started dating around the Super Bowl, introduced the kids to each other around Father’s Day and were all living together in my New York City apartment by Labor Day.
For me, diapers were the biggest reminder that it was d’jà vu all over again. The first time Amanda asked me to change Maia she said, “Are you sure you still remember?”
Remember? Ava stayed in diapers late. With the dissolution of my marriage I wasn’t about to push her. The result was that in the first six months after my then wife moved out, I was changing both kids, often at the same time. By the end I felt like one of those master pizza-pie-throwers or circus plate-spinners, or maybe a Benihana chef. When I changed diapers I should have charged admission to watch. That was just four years ago. Of course I still remembered. And then my memory was put to the test.
“Um, is the big picture of Dora supposed to be on the back or the front?”
I’d forgotten everything. Maia just looked up at me as if saying, “Is my mommy really in love with this idiot?” Then that oddly sweet smell re-invaded my brain and suddenly my past life came bubbling back to me. I held her fat little legs together and high in the air with one hand as if she were a freshly plucked turkey and I remembered that for a girl I had to wipe front to back. A fingertip full of Desitin, Velcro the wings shut, a quick tap on the butt and she was off again, wobbly race-walking back to play with the big kids.
“Ava’s daddy,” she murmured as she careened away.
“Chet‘s daddy,” Chet corrected her, as he does dozens of times a day, to no avail.
Before Maia, Ava had been bugging me for yet another American Girl doll, but now Ava had a real one. Soon she was not only helping me change Maia but changing her herself. At the playground she helps her up the ladder to the slide and does her best to hoist her into the baby swings. Half the week Maia and her mom are off in Boston, where Amanda is getting her Ph.D., but as soon as Maia enters our apartment she runs and throws her arms around Ava’s neck.
I was initially more afraid of how Chet, the former baby of the family, would react. He, however, is perhaps the most gaga over our new little one. When he’s not pretending to be a monster, causing her to run squealing into my arms to protect her, he’s kissing her cheeks. When one of his friends called Maia a little devil (Chet’s nickname for her), he wrestled him to the ground.
Of course this is not to say that any of it is easy. We single parents grow especially territorial and sometimes a bit rigid. After the trauma of the breakup, it’s only natural that the new, smaller family binds together with a bit of a scar. At first it was hard for us to truly open up to these two new ones and they to us. Since both Amanda and I were thriving single parents, it’s been a real transition for us to again accept parental consensus.
Now that that we adults are outnumbered, Amanda and I have moved from a man-to-man defense to a zone. It didn’t help, for example, that we’d each read different parenting manuals. The family bed, for example, has been a big adjustment for me. Unlike my kids, who were out of the co-sleeper after six months, almost-three-year-old Maia still begins her evening in the toddler bed next to ours, and by the morning she’s invariably glued to her mother’s neck. Add in Amanda’s insistence that the dog also sleeps in the bed, and my nights are spent clinging to the corner. If little Maia didn’t smell so good after a bath, hug so tight, and say things like, “Turn the dark light on” when she wants the light off, if she didn’t do a million things every day to make me love her more and commit even more deeply to watching and helping her grow up, and if her beautiful mother didn’t make me happier than I’ve ever been in my adult life, then I might be mad about how little sleep I’m getting.
I came from a family of four, had created my own family of four for a little over half a year, and then for six years commanded an invincible little family of three. A family of five, for me, is unchartered territory. Now that that we adults are outnumbered, Amanda and I have moved from a man-to-man defense to a zone. We have to pull out the leaf on the dining room table when we eat, the dishwasher and the laundry should just stay on in continuous loops, and the TV shuttles between the Wonderpets, Star Wars Clone Wars and Hannah Montana. When single friends come over, they gape at our familial chaos. If we lived under a big top I’d call us Cirque de la Famille and sell tickets.
Gradually, however, I’m getting the hang of it, I think. There are extended moments when I actually think we’ve got it under control. Of course it is exactly in those moments of calm that Amanda reminds me that we’ve agreed to adopt a little girl in the next two years. Her name will be Sadie.