My children have a step-mother, a step-brother, a step-sister. I imagine there are many other people in their dad’s second family, but I don’t know them. I never will. When my boys were younger, I wanted to know what sort of people they were, what influence they exercised over my kids, and of course that my kids were safe, and loved, or at least treated kindly.
There were a few incidents of concern in the first few years. That was long ago. Wounds were still fresh for all of us, and my boys were young. So impressionable. So fragile.
There were years when they spoke more of what went on, tumultuous years, painful years, but they were rarely in their father’s home with his new wife and her children. I listened as they spoke, trying to be measured about what seemed fine and what raised an eyebrow. I contained the worry.
Those were challenging years. Each time they had to board a plane for two or three weeks, I bit my lip and said a little prayer that there would be no teary phone calls from one of my boys; that everything would be calm, safe, pleasant. It’s amazing how “pleasant” can become a much sought after state of affairs.
From time to time, even all these years after divorce, there is reference to a name, an event, a moment I have no knowledge of. There may be a few words of conversation overheard on the telephone from a member of this other family, this other world, this easier world than the one the three of us shared for more than a decade. There may be a picture of my boys smiling with people I don’t recognize, a picture caught on Facebook though I intentionally do not look, a picture that sets off bitterness I’d rather not feel when I realize the other family had money for vacations every year, for activities without concern as to the bills, for peace of mind.
I don’t want to live with bitterness. I don’t want contention, conflict, argument, anger. It’s all terrible, vile, damaging stuff. Inevitable, some of it, but deadening to something I can’t quite put my finger on.
And so I set aside the negative emotions and pull myself back to an island of neutrality, a sort of learned nothingness. Acceptance.
Now and then there is a mention of the step-mother by name. We’ll call her Jane. “Jane recommended I see the doctor for this. She was a nurse, so she knows.”
I let it go, and nod. It’s nothing serious, it’s something she seems to want, it’s harmless enough. But what else is she recommending or directing or influencing that I know absolutely nothing about? What if I don’t consider it harmless? How would I know?
When a bill arrives from out-of-state for some uncovered medical expense based on what “Jane recommended,” then I see red.
I take a breath and confront one of my sons.
“What is this?” I say, and he explains.
“I”m not paying for it,” I say. “I can’t pay for it, and I shouldn’t have to.”
He nods and takes the bill.
Sometimes that’s the end of it. Sometimes a bill shows up each month, addressed to me, for something I didn’t know about, something I never agreed to, something that I have no money to cover, that is a “nice to have” – based on what Jane has said. I tell my son to take care of it. Eventually he does.
I bury my anger. Jane is a nice woman. This isn’t about Jane.
Sometimes I wonder why I didn’t explicitly set out to remarry as so many of my divorced women friends have done. God knows I was lonely, I was in financial difficulty, I was overwhelmed. Those are reasons to find oneself unable to pursue a social life.
They are also reasons to set oneself a mission – to find a mate – so life isn’t so hard.
Did I purposely stay away from marriageable men because I saw the edge of discomfort that my kids felt with “the other family?” Did I not want to put them through that at home, ever, or introduce any additional potential instability? Did I want them to feel as if they were first priority – at least with me?
And now, am I so set in my ways that marriage seems a poor fit or an improbability? Was an old friend right some time ago when she said I’m not the marrying kind?
The other family is separated from me by hundreds of miles (fortunately), and by well-constructed walls: the brick and mortar of emotional survival, the necessary removal from anger, the hurt that comes from being so easily replaced.
On those rare occasions that our worlds must meet, I nod at my ex, I extend my hand to his wife and children; we keep things pleasant.
Pleasant and brief.
I leave it at that. I settle for that. I hope we have finally arrived at that.