***Check me out over at The Washington Post. I wrote an essay about a day when I was a super grown-up.***
I was once told that I was the reason that stepmothers get such a bad rap in Disney movies. My crime? I’d written an essay about my complicated relationship with a divorced father of three, and in it I’d admitted to the occasional bout of jealousy in the beginning of our relationship. I wrote that sometimes, I couldn’t help but feel a little left out of the things I wasn’t allowed to participate in yet: vacations, the kids’ sports games, birthday dinners.
In the comments section, one reader said that if jealousy was a problem for me, then I was responsible for all the bad PR stepmothers get. Then she used some very colorful language to tell me to grow up.
I was just trying to be honest: As someone in her mid-30s who never planned on having kids, being the girlfriend of an older man with three teenagers is a challenging place to be. And in the beginning, it could be a lonely place.
Then last month — three years into our relationship — my boyfriend Kevin received a text from his ex-wife: I’d like to have coffee with Dani.
Oh what I wouldn’t give for the days when I felt left out.
My relationship with a divorced father of three has been one of the most grueling, maddening, fulfilling, self-revealing things I’ve ever done, and it has taken me a ton of wrong moves and bad fights to find my way. Here are a few things I’ve learned along the way:
It’s not personal. Despite wanting to smack someone whenever this is said to me, the fact is that it’s true. His kids dislike you only as a concept, not as a person — they’re just looking for that same safety and stability we all are, and you just happen to be the embodiment of all that threatens that.
It’s not personal except when it is. While it’s true that his kids wouldn’t like anyone with their father, it isn’t anyone — it’s you. You’re the one who’s there, feeling resented, in the way, and often pushed to the margins of his life. You’re entitled to your feelings about that, and you get some space to make it about you too. Because some of it is.
And while I can proudly report that I told both those people (very nicely) that I thought they were wrong–that it wasn’t just women who judged people without kids–I also have a confession. The piece in question was originally a blog post of mine called Why You Should Stop Feeling Sorry For Me, and that blog post of mine was originally called Why WOMEN Should Stop Feeling Sorry For Me.
So yeah, until recently, I also bought into the idea that it’s really just women who have problems with childless people. I wrote the piece in October, and before I published it I read it to my best friend for feedback (read: for her to tell me that I’m a literary genius and the piece was perfect). But she couldn’t get past the sentence: “And women have a hard time understanding that.” We talked for a while and she made some good points, namely that women are probably only more likely to voice their opinion on the matter, not necessarily more likely to have it in the first place.I changed the title of my post but wasn’t entirely convinced until a few months later, when something else happened.
I posted a hilarious meme that said “The best part of kids is that I am not responsible for any of them.” I know, right? Told you it was hilarious. Also happens to be true–despite the fact that I love (some) kids, I don’t have any myself because I’m not ready to give up the freedom that one loses upon procreation. And someone said this:
Such a sad, sad commentary by someone who has never experienced the pure joy and love a child brings to the heart and soul of one who IS responsible for them.
I’d only been on Facebook for a short while at the time, and wasn’t able to let trolls’ comments slide off my back with the same ease that I am now. (Ha.) It made me so angry that I took to Facebook to write the one and only rant that I’ve ever posted. And let me tell you, it was a pretty good one. I said that it most certainly was not a sad commentary, that a woman doesn’t need kids to be fulfilled, that blah blah blah, insert feminist rant here. And I could totally feel both men and women near and far giving me a feminist salute as they liked and commented and shared my post. I was basically saving civilization in general, and feminism in particular.
But here’s what was interesting. Everyone assumed that the comment was made by a woman. It wasn’t.
I wasn’t trying to trick anyone, it just never occurred to me to mention that it was actually a closed-minded man who said what he did about my “sad” commentary. (Unsurprisingly, he had a lot of hunting pictures up on his page–a lot of standing triumphantly over enormous dead animals, his eyes glistening with pride that he was able to outsmart an animal and then turn a weapon on it.)
So my question is–why? Why are we (myself included) so quick to assume that it’s only women who care about the status of women’s wombs? The idea of a happy marriage with 2.5 happy children is the great American Dream, is it not? Isn’t it a societal standard that both men and women designate as the arbiter of what’s important and what isn’t?
I don’t have any definitive answers, but I do know that these questions merit some serious thought. As women, I think we’re especially hard on other women. Both of those comments portray women as catty and competitive, but there’s something much more aggressive–almost vitriolic–about the woman’s comment. There was a resentment there–that I was part of a group of people who were consciously trying to perpetuate a notion that I knew to be false. That I was afraid to tell the ugly truth about who women really are.
A friend told me that he did think women care more than men about who has kids, and when I asked him why, he couldn’t cite any specific examples. Just a general feeling. We have been trained to think certain things about each gender, and then to attribute those differences to “nature.” And if we really want things to change, we need to start examining those ideas and questioning where they have actually come from.
I’ve been working on this one for 25 years, and finally I was able to find the words for it. Here’s the first part of it, make sure to click the link at the bottom to read the whole thing.
My father has never made it easy to love him, mostly because it was never easy for him to love the life he fell into. Marriage, children, a medical career—all things he was told to want, and so he tried to believe that he did. And you could almost see the weight of all that responsibility bearing down on him, pressing him into shapes that were so unnatural to him that even when he wasn’t fighting against them, you could see how much effort it took for him to stay in them.
Whether the soft spot that he had for me was a cause or an effect of the love we shared for the New York Knicks, I can’t really say. What I can say is that my relationship with my Dad was never more right than when we were watching or discussing Pat Riley’s rugged Knicks of the mid-90s. Those were the teams I grew up on. Ewing, Starks, Oakley, Mason—those were my heroes, the first great sports loves of mine. And those assholes were constantly toying with me.
They were always dangling a championship in front of my face like meat in front of a cub, dragging it closer and closer until it was inches from my face and I was in a trance, watching its juices drip to the ground, absolutely certain that the next drop was mine. And then Reggie Miller would happen, or John Starks, or a missed finger roll, or a playoff brawl, or a head-butt, or Michael Jordan or any of the thousand other things that snatched that meat right back. I grew accustomed to starving.
This, some people say, was deserved. The wider world saw those Knicks as a pack of thugs muddying up a beautiful sport, either of their own volition or Riley’s. Maybe they were. Truth is, my father and I wouldn’t have loved them as much as we did if everyone else hadn’t hated them so much–how else would they have shown us what not giving a shit looked like? He rooted for them because they did what he never could; they became something other than what they were told to be. Rooting for Starks and Oakley and Mason was, for my father, a chance to fight back against the inevitability of the life he was living. It was a strange search for redemption by proxy, but because it was also his way of reaching for me, it brought him even closer to the life he was trying to escape.
Sometimes, the only way out is back in.
To read the rest and find out how the Knicks taught me to love my father, check out the full piece at The Classical.