***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.
This past fall had its way with me. I struggled with a lot of questions on a very primal level about who I am. How do I adjust to the unexpected? Where do I turn when my legs are taken out from under me? Am I really capable of taking care of myself? In the face of profound hurt, do I harden and close off or do I find the courage to remain vulnerable? What does it take to change? When it comes down to it, how do I define my sense of self?
I sought answers to those questions by writing this, and I could not be happier to have made my Huffington Post debut with it.
Here’s how change typically works in my life: It’s like I’m standing at the top of a mountain and I begin to realize that it’s time to climb down. Maybe the weather’s turning or I see a lion charging up. Maybe it’s just the vaguest of realizations that fear has accumulated all around me, and it’s making me uncomfortable. So I get out my telescope and my tape measure, and I try to calculate whatever I can: the angle of the slopes, the height of the mountain, the rate at which I think I can climb down. I think about the imminent trek downward constantly, and I massage those thoughts obsessively like silly putty—molding and re-molding—sculpting my thoughts into all kinds of scary shapes. I peer down and contemplate all the work I’ll have to do and how much it might hurt and how scared I am—and I wait. I want to get down but I’m too afraid of the trip.
So the Universe kicks me in the ass and sends me tumbling down the mountain, head over heels, ready or not. And when I finally reach the bottom I’ve got a mouthful of dirt, I’m bruised and bloodied and dehydrated, and I’m not sure where I am.
I am now in enough pain to make my way to the nearest triage.
A few months ago my boyfriend of two years came back from a weekend away with his kids, walked into our apartment, and told me that I distracted him from his responsibilities and that he was worried he was failing his kids by being with me. He was re-considering everything that had happened since his divorce (especially me) and was thinking about trying to put his family back together. He just wanted to go home, he said, but didn’t know where that was or if there was room for me there. And he couldn’t figure any of it out with me around.
And there was my kick down the mountain.
To find out how that trip went for me, click here.
the other day, my blonde-haired blue-eyed 7 year-old charge looked at me and said, “what do you wanna be when you…” and there he stopped, an impish grin forming across his sun-splashed summer face. he knew i was already a grown-up, but he also understood that being a nanny isn’t a response to the question of what you want to be when you grow up. babysitting is something you do, not something you are. and though he didn’t want to offend me, he did want an answer to his question. he thought about it for a moment and then said, “well, besides this, what do you want to be when you grow up? i wanna be an engineer—so i can make roller coasters.”
my answer is a little more complicated. i’m still not entirely sure.
here are some of the things that i am: 34, a recent college grad, a struggling writer, a nanny. i’m someone whose sister once qualified my introduction by saying: “this is my sister–she’s not married and doesn’t have any kids.” i’m a girlfriend to an older man with three adolescent kids who wouldn’t be too disappointed if i accidentally stumbled in front of a truck, or decided that i did actually want kids of my own and thus had to leave their father, who has explicitly and repeatedly told me from the very start that he is done having kids. i am also a jew while said older man is irish catholic, so my parents are thrilled.
surely not where i thought i’d be almost halfway through my fourth decade.
and when I searched for blogs that spoke to a life like mine, i couldn’t exactly find one. what i found were lots that spoke to my different parts—blogs about women without kids, blogs for stepmothers and blended families (holy shit—am I really basically a stepmother?), blogs about nannies, about educated nannies, those for writers, for Jews, and I’m sure there are those intended as a support group for women in long-term relationships with irish men.
what I haven’t found is something that speaks to more than my pieces. yes, i’m an aunt and a sister and a daughter, trying to figure out how to be good at those things while still taking care of myself. and yes, i’m a woman in the middle of the very complicated relationship between a divorced dad and his kids, wanting so badly for them to like me and trying not to take it personally when, upon noticing my presence, they look at me like i just ruined their christmas. no, i mean literally—when i came to christmas dessert last year, they looked at me as if i’d taken a knife and gutted the bearded fat man himself. who invited the jew to christmas?
but i’m also just another profoundly flawed person, desperately homesick for a sense that i belong—a feeling that i often mistake for a familiar one, one that i used to be filled wi
th and have since lost. for so long i assumed that that sense of not being alone that i craved so desperately was something i had to look back for, instead of forward. but here it is, the piece of information that i had to go through so many false gods to find: it’s not something that’s given, it’s something you have to create. took me a long time to figure that one out and only recently have i begun my creation. so here I am, trying to “find” myself in my 30s when it feels like everyone else did that in their 20s.
so where’s the blog for all that? for someone looking to live an authentic life in a superficial world of selfies and insta-fame? who doesn’t want to conform to what her parents want her life to look like? for someone who makes really bad choices when she’s afraid, but doesn’t always know how to walk through the fear with grace and dignity? for someone who’s still grappling with things that should have been worked out a long time ago? like what kind of person she wants to be, and how she wants to spend her time on this planet.