It’s easy to respect single fathers for everything they do, but harder to commit to one, because it’s really two commitments.
In college, for a hot second fueled by hormones and other things that fuel 19-year-olds, I dated a single dad. Many nights, he put his daughter to bed via Skype, reading stories into the camera and melting away my lingering reservations. I found him irresistible, not in small part due to the combination of his devoted parenting and roguish, floppy-haired charm. Compared to his beer-swilling peers pulling Red Bull-soaked all-nighters, he seemed to possess an unusual maturity.
Alas, 19-year-olds are dumb, and the hot second during which he seemed like a good idea was quickly ushered out with a storm of humiliating tears. So it goes, right? The seed was planted, however, and the question remains: were the right guy to come along with a toddler or two in tow, would I give him a chance? Or is stepparenting, however temporary, something I’m just not ready for, regardless of how much Prince Charming has to offer?
I’m no stranger to the unique joys and challenges of stepparenting, though my previous experience comes from the other side of the coin. I’m from what I call a “creative family.” You might call it broken, or split, or blended, or some other adjective that describes families that are hodge-podged together from the remnants of other families, but I prefer “creative.” My brother and I spent most of our childhood and all of our adolescence shuttling between two such families a mere fifteen minutes apart. Two addresses, two bedrooms, and two stepparents.
From the vantage point between these households, we got a front row seat into the struggles and challenges of the most thankless role in the modern family: the stepparent. They suffer all of the most trying aspects of parenthood, the carpools, endless sixth-grade baseball games, temper tantrums, and bratty teenaged self-indulgence, with none of the authority of biological parenthood. Their opinions count less than the parent’s, might be respected less by the children, and are potentially resented by the ex. Talk about a rock and a couple of hard places. For a decade, I watched my stepparents navigate this murky gray area with aplomb, but I can’t say I envy them the ambiguity and uncertainty of their role.
A few weeks ago, Emily Maynard, current tabloid queen and star of The Bachelorette, booted contestant Kalon when he referred to her daughter as “baggage.” Kalon deserved the boot for an endless litany of slights, but I can’t help but sympathize with him, just a tiny bit. Someone else’s child is baggage, in the sense that the integration of a new parent into an existing family is no easy hurdle. To my mind, baggage is anything from your past that’s going to impede the success of this new coupling. It might be a lingering former fling, familial drama, mental health struggles, or alcoholism. We all have some of it, it just comes in a variety of exciting shapes and sizes.
But what about a child-sized piece of luggage? What does that entail exactly? There’s your relationship with your stepkid, of course, precariously balanced on your tenuous adult authority, but undermined by the fundamental fact that you are not their parent. There’s your relationship with your partner, and the tricky tap dance of co-parenting, offering your support without accidentally offending with your well-meaning advice. And then, don’t forget, your relationship with the ex, the other parent, if he or she is in the picture. This piece of baggage might be the most awkward and unwieldy of all, tied as it is to the break-up of the original family unit, and a fertile breeding ground for resentment. Yikes.
I’m not saying it’s untenable, or that thousands of families don’t handle these challenges with grace and understanding. They most certainly do, but even most of them would tell you that it’s no small undertaking. Is this really the kind of drama I’d willingly invite into my life at 24? At this stage, I date for the most selfish of reasons, to meet new people, to expand my social circle, to sharpen my conversational skills, and to get laid on the regular. I’m not in the market for a life partner, and consequently, I don’t pay too much attention to baggage. That’s a bridge I’ll cross when I start looking for someone who wants to explore some of my baggage.
Then again, you can’t control with whom you fall in love, or when that person walks into your life. And you can’t control what rich history they may be bringing into your relationship. In this day and age, with so many out of wedlock pregnancies and divorces, the older I get the more likely it is that potential partners will arrive with “creative families” attached. How much am I willing to limit my options?
I’m a product of creative family-making and I believe from the bottom of my heart in our collective ability to mold healthy, happy families in unconventional shapes and ways. It’s extremely likely (likelier than we all probably admit) that we will one day be part of a creative family of some kind. I don’t feel prepared for it quite yet, but since when does life offer you the exact thing you’ve prepared for the exact moment you’re ready for it? Live boldly, live openly, and grab good things when they come your way. They may not be what you thought you wanted, but how do you know until you try?
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