Shadley Grei always knew he’d be a father, but wasn’t prepared for the particular heartbreak that comes with being an ex-stepfather
When I was young and coming to terms with being gay, I prepared for what I thought would be a series of painful experiences. However, I was incredibly lucky to find that my personal journey of coming out was much different than expected. The rejections, disappointments, loss of friendships, fights, and hatred I had believed would be part of this path simply didn’t happen. I had been picked on in school and had assumed this would follow me into adulthood. And yet, when I actually came out in my 20s, it was treated mostly as a non-issue. There were certainly flashes of darkness, but mostly I found that living in honesty brought me an abundance of light. I had planned for the struggle and experienced the ease.
However, in all of the situations I imagined, I forgot to consider the one that would become my greatest struggle—I never expected to be an ex-step-dad.
I always knew I’d be a dad. Even as I realized I was gay, it never occurred to me that this would mean giving up the idea of being a dad. I have no idea how this comfortable confidence made its way into my little insecure body, but it did. I didn’t know how I would become a father, I just knew that I would. No question. But I always just assumed that the kids would be mine. Or, if I did have them with a partner, we would share custody and live happily ever after. Regardless of how it happened, I was going to be a dad forever and always. No part of my brain processed the possibility of falling in (and then out) of love with a man who brought children in (and then out) of my life.
When I met Jay on Christmas Eve, he was trying to figure out his life as a weekend-dad to two very young boys, a three year old and a nine month old. Recently divorced, he was also trying to find his footing as an openly gay man for the first time in his life. The complications of all of this may have sent many men running in the opposite direction, but not me. He and I clicked instantly and our relationship took off at a record pace. I had always wanted to be a dad and now here was this unbelievable gift that literally arrived on Christmas. I, and my kamikaze heart, jumped right in.
The next four and half years would challenge and change everything I knew about life, love, and myself. Parties with friends were traded for Friday nights filled with frozen pizza, Disney movies, and Dr. Seuss. Jay and I juggled calendars and birthday parties and the family expectations that come when there are children in the mix. It was exhausting in the most beautiful way imaginable.
There are no words to describe how it felt to sit at the dining room table, over plates of chocolate chip pancakes, and listen to these two tiny people give serious contemplation to how they could call me “Dad” but not have it be confusing to their “Other Dad.” My own relationship with my father had been challenging and complicated, so to have these little men so comfortably embrace me was an eye-opening experience. I wasn’t “Dad’s friend” or “Uncle Shadley” or “that guy.” They didn’t see me as separate from their family, just as I had stopped seeing them as “his kids,” and I let them sink their sticky fingers into my heart as my own. I was a parent.
Everything about it was an adventure as Jay and I fumbled our way through parenthood together. We’d run just as fast as we could to get them from their mother every other weekend, excited for whatever madness might take place during our time together, and then we’d drive just as fast away, reaching for the emergency cigarettes, after we had returned them. Racing back to the world of grown-ups, cocktails, and cursing, we’d recap the weekend and crash land in bed, sometimes before the sun had completely left the sky. They might look like the sweetest of angels, but children can drain your energy level faster than the Tasmanian devil.
While surviving the exhaustion of parenthood feels like the delirious joy of running a marathon, surviving the exhaustion of a crumbling relationship feels like trudging through a battleground lined with barbed wire and quicksand. I think Jay and I both tried to pretend for a while that the storm clouds brewing between us might rattle the windows for a bit but would eventually just wash away all the indications that our love story might be coming to an end. Instead, it unleashed a tornado that smashed through everything that had originally connected us, leaving in its wake live wires of mistrust, manipulation, and cruelty. It was here, in the damage of it all, that we learned how loving someone else could feel like self-hate. We held on tight to the banister of hope, praying for the winds to die down so we could sweep up our broken pieces and tape them back together but, ultimately, the only way we were really going to survive was to let go of each other so we could safely land on our feet at opposite sides of the world.
When this realization finally crashed through our bedroom, we laid in bed, crying, holding hands, and looking at the ceiling. If I’m to be honest, I was so exhausted and angry by that point that I’m not sure I was crying for the end of the relationship, though that sting does now continue to burn in the corner of my heart, and I imagine it always will. But, in that moment that marked the beginning of goodbye, I wept mostly because I knew that this ocean of tears was going to carry me away from these little men and their humor and wonder and questions and love.
The last time I saw them they were 5 and 8. Jay brought them to the place I had moved into after the breakup. I took them each separately on a short walk and asked if they had any questions, told them I was sorry I had to move out, and that I loved them. They said it was okay and maybe I could come over for pizza sometime. It’s funny how the sweetest words can cut the deepest.
Letting them go after those final hugs felt like death. Jay and I talked about the possibility of getting together at some point so I could see them, because that’s the kind of lying you do when you love someone that you can no longer love. We both knew there was no “I’ll see you soon” in what was happening. It hurt in ways from which I will never fully recover, but I’m grateful that he gave me the lie to hold onto as they drove away.
Because the relationship with Jay was so complicated and challenging, it’s hard to think of that time in my life without regret. It’s easy for me to place the blame for the demise on Jay because his actions were more obviously destructive, however, I was far from innocent. He may have set fire to our life together, but I certainly spilled my share of gasoline on everything we’d built. Forgiveness comes easier when it doesn’t involve a mirror.
As someone who also has a deep understanding of how abandonment feels to a child, I feel guilty for leaving those boys, even if it was the healthiest decision for everyone in the long run. I wish we had taken things slower so we could have seen the signs of trouble coming and not just in the rear view mirror. I wish wanting things to work had the power to make it true. I wish hard love could evolve into easy friendship. I wish. I wish. I wish.
But, for all the wishing that things might have gone differently, I never wish that it had never happened at all. I am overwhelmed with gratitude that my story contains that extraordinary, magical, beautiful, heartbreaking chapter.
I recently had the crushing realization that both of these little boys are now teenaged men. It’s possible that they could pass by me on their bikes or skateboards, racing toward the next adventure in a life I’m not a part of, and I wouldn’t recognize them and they might not recognize me. And what would I say if they did? I have no idea. Maybe someday I’ll find out.
For now, I just hope they smile when they remember me. It might hurt like hell to think of them, but I welcome the pain because it reminds me that I once had the honor of being in their lives.
And that I will never regret.
Credit: Image—Rocky Lubbers/Flickr