So I’ve been staring at this blank page for a week now, wondering why in the hell I thought it would be a good idea to request a spot as a guest blogger for Darlena. I mean, I’ve been a blogger for awhile now (my first blog post was published in May of 2009...did we even have the Internet back then?), but I’ve always written about subjects that I knew pretty well. Whether it was sales and customer service or my own journey of personal development, it was stuff I knew. But to contribute to a parenting blog? That’s a different animal entirely.
Parenting is brand new for me. I have no children of my own. Up until 2 years, 7 months, and 14 days ago, I was certain that I never would have children of my own. Recently divorced after 17 years of marriage (yeah, I’m that old), I was planning to live out my days footloose and child-free. And then it happened: I walked into my friends’ house for a birthday party, and I walked out in love with a single mom. You know what they say: “the best-laid schemes o' mice an' men gang aft agley...” Or at least that’s what Robert Burns would have said.
Anyway, the point is that I was suddenly in love with a woman who had a four-year-old son. Like really in love. Like stupid in love. And I decided that I wanted to be part of her life, kid and all. I mean, how hard could it be? I’d missed the really difficult parts (dirty diapers, random projectile vomiting, sleepless nights, crying fits, terrible twos, terrible-r threes), and everything should be a piece of cake from here on out. Right? Uh-huh...and jelly beans really *are* Easter Bunny poops.
So here, in no particular order, are some lessons I’ve learned about myself from stepping into the “step” role and living with the child I know as the Monkey:
1. I do, in fact, have a temper, and the fuse is shorter than I could have imagined. All my life, I’ve been laid-back, even-tempered, able to keep my cool in any situation. It was a badge of pride for me, like a super power; I was Guy Who Never Gets Angry. That is, I was GWNGA until a small, angry, red-faced person started shouting “NO!!!” at me at full volume. I’ll never forget the day I snapped: before I knew what had happened, the Monkey had lost every privilege for an entire weekend and, if I hadn’t had the good sense to walk away, would have probably been restricted to his room until he was 35.
This might not seem like a big deal to some folks; after all, I didn’t get physically violent or shout. To me, though, it was devastating. I felt like a major failure because, despite my outer appearance, I was *angry*. And over what? A defiant child. What kind of superhero was I? How could I go from Guy Who Never Gets Angry to Dickhead Who Takes Away Legos and X-Boxes For Life in under a minute? I have no idea, but for a split second, I wished he had more toys that I could take away.
After we both cooled down, we had a chat. I apologized for overreacting, and he apologized for yelling, and we decided on a slightly more reasonable consequence for his behavior. It’s happened a few times since, but I got some great advice from my coach (aka Mommy). She told me that when a child is upset like that, continuing the conversation is only going to fan the flames. So now, I walk away, wait until he calms down, then we talk. Don’t get me wrong: I still see red, but now I take it as my signal to stop. Ram Dass once said, “If you think you’re so enlightened, go spend a week with your parents.” I think he meant children.
2. I don’t know anything about anything. When I first met the Monkey, he was a big fan of dinosaurs. That’s actually a bit of an understatement; dinosaurs were his life. One of the first conversations we had, he asked me if I knew what the biggest dinosaur was. I confidently said, “Brontosaurus!” I don’t actually remember what the right answer is, but that certainly wasn’t it. Apparently, science has learned a lot about dinosaurs since I was a kid, and I hadn’t been keeping up. When I would read stories to him at bedtime, he usually wanted me to read from his dinosaur book; it was full of dinosaurs I’d never even heard of, in spite of collection of Michael Crichton books.
And that was only the beginning. From planets (Pluto isn’t a planet?) to primates (WTF is a bonobo?), from comics (there’s really a villain called the Abomination?) to cartoons (how did I not know about Adventuretime??), I’m kind of a dunce. Or at least I’m a dunce when it comes to things that little boys find interesting. Living child-free for so long, I had no idea that so much had changed. I’m still woefully inadequate when it comes to dinosaurs and Marvel comics, but I’m learning...mostly by pretending to be Nick Fury sending him on a mission when I drop him off at school.
3. Being a step dude is one of the coolest things ever. In the beginning, I was super reluctant to have the Monkey see me as a parental unit. He had an amazing mom and a dad who was an engaged and active participant in his life. He had no need for me to be anything other than his mom’s boyfriend. Besides, I was certain that any child who viewed me as a parent would be irrevocably damaged; I was afraid of the responsibility, afraid of the commitment, and afraid of the attachment. I was so awkward about it, in fact, that at one point he started introducing me to his classmates as his brother. I think that was even more confusing to his classmates, who always looked at me like “Seriously? That old fucker is your brother?? No way!” Kids can be so cruel.
Eventually, though, as it became more and more clear that this was a family unit I wanted to be part of, my reluctance subsided. I became comfortable with being called the Step Dude and, eventually, “my stepdad.” I certainly lucked up: I get to be an active participant in the life of an amazing child, even if he is sometimes headstrong and grumpy and yells at me. It’s all worth it when, in one of his lucid moments, he looks up from what he’s doing and says “Jerry, I love you.” Four simple words that have melted the frozen heart of a soulless, old curmudgeon to the point that I’m now looking forward to someone calling me Daddy.