From young-adult novels to prime-time TV dramas to movies like "Stepmom," the relationship between kids and their divorced parents' love interests is almost always presented as an occasion for neuroses, bad behavior, and that staple of the family drama, resentment issues. The implication is that no matter how responsible and loving the parents are, no matter how careful and thoughtful the new boyfriend or girlfriend is, there's something a little repugnant--and ultimately immoral--about dating someone's folks.
So, six months ago, when I began dating Paul, a single father, I expected to find myself caught in the middle of some potentially thorny "issues." Paul and his ex-wife, Sandy, have three young boys, Marcus, Henry, and Max, ages 13, 10, and 5, respectively. They are extraordinary parents who avoid squabbling, share financial responsibilities, and remain such good friends that it's not uncommon for all of them to spend a Sunday afternoon taking a walk in the country with Sandy's new husband and his kids.
Recently, I've been included in these jaunts, and, as a childless, never-married person, I'm shocked at how little this scenario resembles anything I've seen on television or read in books. In other words, the family dynamic is marked by a happy nonchalance. There's no animosity, no jealousy, no resentment. It's hardly the stuff of prime-time drama.
|My caution with Paul's sons were fueled entirely by fictional scenes in which kids storm out of restaurants screaming, "You're not my mom--just leave us alone!"|
I put off meeting the boys until I'd been dating Paul for a few months. Although they were aware of my existence, I figured that by establishing my willingness to let them spend weekends with their dad alone, I would mitigate potential feelings that I was taking him away from them. Paul insisted that they were curious about me and actually wanted to meet me, but in my imagination, which had been fueled entirely by fictional scenes in which kids storm out of restaurants screaming, "You're not my mom--just leave us alone!" the more I held back, the better.
When I finally met the boys, they were quiet and relaxed and regarded me no differently than they would any friend of their father's. For all they cared, I could have been Dad's boss, haircutter, or long-lost cousin; my girlfriend status elicited no special eye rolling or neurotic outbursts. Since then, I have attended their basketball games, gone out for pizza with them, and watched such fine video rentals as "Lake Placid" and "The Haunted."
Moreover, I have a very friendly relationship with their mother, who, unlike divorced mothers on television, neither treats me coldly when I'm around nor privately grills the kids for sordid details when I'm gone. On Christmas, Paul and I went to Sandy's house, where the kids live most of the time, and spent a delightful day opening presents and eating turkey. No one put coal in my stocking. No one sulked in the corner and whined because they wanted their parents to get back together.
Still, I find myself trying to balance friendliness with comfortable distance. When we take walks, I sometimes try to hang back a little, letting Paul have time alone with one or more of his sons. For a while, I believed that by being aloof I was doing the right thing. I was letting the kids know that their relationship with their dad was, ultimately, more important than my relationship with him. To me, this seemed like moral behavior. But kids don't interpret aloofness as respectfulness. More often, they just think you're not interested in them.
And the kids aren't the only ones who feel snubbed by my overzealous boundary awareness. When Paul puts his hand on my shoulder or sneaks a kiss around the kids, I'll often whisper, "Ka-ching," a joke referring to my stubborn suspicion that every open display of affection will result in another expensive therapy session for one of the boys when he's grown up and decides that his parents have made a mess of his life. "It's not like that," Paul tells me again and again. "They're always happy to have you along." And even though all the evidence suggests he's right, I can't shake pop culture's incessant messages to the contrary. Even though his view of child rearing comes from firsthand experience and mine comes from the movies, I'm still convinced that my version is more accurate.
Paul and I have gotten into the embarrassing habit of watching the television show "Once and Again" every Monday night. The latest dramatic series from the creators of "thirtysomething," the show is centered on a romance between two single parents whose kids are thrown into a tailspin by the fact that the adults have emotional and sexual lives beyond the household. True to "thirtysomething" form, the show is nauseatingly self-conscious, the characters indignant and whiny, and the plot lines far more dependent on inner turmoil than actual drama.
"They're traumatized," I answer. "They're trying to cope with a painful situation."
But according to Paul, there's nothing inherently painful about the situation. "The kids are screwed up because their parents are screwed up," he says. He's probably right. He and his ex-wife are not screwed up, and neither are their kids. If anyone is neurotic, whiny, and subject to inner turmoil, it's me, who uses television shows for lessons on how to behave.
As time goes by, I'm beginning to see that my efforts to respect the kids' privacy and time with their father makes me seem standoffish and indifferent. Because they're actually living their lives rather than watching television shows about their lives, they have no reason to see their family situation as anything other than healthy and normal. Their parents are happy. They're happy. And that's about as far as it goes.
|I'm beginning to see that my efforts to respect the kids' privacy makes me seem standoffish and indifferent.|
Still, one hint that I'm overstepping my boundaries, and I bolt from the room. Recently, I sat down to join 5-year-old Max as he was watching a Batman cartoon. After I made a few idle inquiries as to the whereabouts of Catwoman, Max made an abrupt announcement: "I want you to go away," he said.
"Absolutely," I said, springing from the sofa. "I'll give you your space. Sorry to intrude." I left the room in a panic, my mind reeling with guilt over the permanent psychological damage I had surely just inflicted. If this had been a scene on a television show, Max would have thrown an epic fit and then retreated to his room and begun poking pickup sticks into a voodoo doll of me that he'd built out of Legos.
In the TV version, I would have been not a reasonable, well-intentioned adult but some bimbo his aging dad had met at the gym. That's because divorced dads on TV always seem to date their massage therapists, their aerobics instructors, or their students. They date women far too young for them, women who slather insincere affection on the kids, women with grating voices and irritating laughs who just don't get it. They date whoever best completes the media's view of single parenting, which still panders to the retrograde notion that children in non-nuclear families are doomed to a life of suffering and expensive psychotherapy bills.
A few weeks after Max banished me from the room, Paul walked in on "Batman" to bring Max some juice and was told, in no uncertain terms, to leave. "He just likes to watch cartoons by himself," Paul told me. This was a revelation. Max's momentary impatience with me had less to do with abandonment issues than it did with his personal relationship with Batman.
Maybe the characters on "Once and Again" could benefit from a similar lesson. If they figured out what Paul's kids already know, that Dad's girlfriend is not a symbol of the demise of contemporary civilization but is simply Dad's girlfriend, perhaps more families would be as healthy as they are. At the very least, people like me might reconsider our thoughts about giving kids their space and actually try to get to know them. Except when "Batman" is on.