Although we had gone to school together from 1980 to 1987, I hadn’t laid eyes on Caroline for nearly a decade. That is before I randomly bumped into her in 2004. Truth be known, I had always found her extremely attractive, even during the Carter administration when she was nothing more than a feisty little 6th grader equipped with the perfect blend of beauty and sass. And the all-grown-up version was somehow even more beautiful than I had remembered.
But in spite of our immediate chemistry, I knew a long-term relationship wasn’t in the cards.
After all, Caroline was a single mom. And as a 34 year-old professional bachelor type, I had no interest in any of that. I mean, being a parent is hard enough. But being a stepparent? It’s downright impossible, a fact I understood all too well from my childhood.
My parents each had spouses who predeceased them. After they married in 1966, both their families began living under the same roof. My dad had two little girls, my mom, a son and a daughter. I came along in 1969, the only person in my entire family related to everyone else. By no means, however, would I prove to be a common denominator. As a little boy, I saw firsthand how dicey things can get between a stepparent and a stepchild. And as a man, I wanted no part of it.
Until something funny happened. I fell in love. Twice. First with Caroline, then shortly thereafter with her daughter, Alli, who was only three when we met.
I moved in with Caroline and Alli right after our wedding in August of 2006. Despite my experiences with the tumultuous blended family of my youth, I remained confident that my new blended family would suffer from no such tumult.
And one key reason for my confidence was my emerging relationship with Alli. Thanks to it, I realized that much of the discontent which had haunted me from my late twenties and on into my thirties stemmed from a paternal yearning I never even knew I had.
So while my parents were busy refereeing various territorial battles waged by different sets of dissimilar children, I believed that I would be sailing in waters made smooth by my earnest gratitude for simply getting the chance to be a father in the first place. Even if it was prefaced by the word “step.”
Enough time has now passed for me to realize that my idealistic notion of a blended family was preposterous. It’s even harder and more complicated than I had anticipated. And if it’s complicated for me, just think what it must be like for a little girl whose parents got divorced before she was even old enough to speak in complete sentences. The one who has to share her mom with me. The one who’s got two different homes and the same number of dads.
My mom and dad may have shown me that being a stepparent was tough, but Alli has taught me that being a stepchild isn’t exactly a walk in the park, either. And I try to keep that in mind whenever our complicated dynamic leads to little phases when she’s not as respectful as she should be. I try to keep that in mind whenever she rejects me.
The toddler who loved Mommy’s friend has grown into a third grader who, though usually very sweet, sometimes acts completely indifferent toward me. But I’ll never turn my back on her. Even when she’s got hers turned to me. Because when I committed to Caroline for life, I made the exact same commitment to her daughter.
And I’m so thankful for that commitment to Alli, not to mention the relationship we share. Despite its difficulty, or possibly because of it, it’s one of the richest ones in my entire life. And this holiday season, it’s more apparent to me than ever that the gift which Alli has given me through that relationship is far bigger than any of the ones that are carefully wrapped and waiting patiently for her underneath our Christmas tree.
Photo: Beth Lankler, personal friend.