I remember when my stepson moved in with us. It was 1999 and he was 4. (Yep, that makes him 17 now as I write this; good for you all you math whizzes out there.) I didn’t think it was a big deal. Not having children of my own didn’t strike me as a particularly challenging hurdle; I, like many women, just assume when kids are around you will magically tap into your maternal instinct and everything will just “work”. As I soon realized, it doesn’t really pan out that way. So, months in, after I realized my husband and I had very different parenting styles, different discipline measures, different expectations, I went on the grand search for help. Not many books on stepparenting, not much on the Internet. What I did find all had to do with “blended families”; the Mom already has kids and the Dad already has kids. All the situations did not apply. I wasn’t in the situation of choosing my kid over his; I was in the situation of a kid – just ONE kid – suddenly living in my home. Unlike a dog, you can’t just put out food and expect him to eat it. A dog doesn’t pout or throw tantrums, and a dog CERTAINLY doesn’t manipulate. Oh, and grandparents don’t stop by the house and offer advice on how to raise the dog. Being the left-brained creature that I am, I immediately decided what was logical for me to do and what was really not my scope. This situation was akin to a stranger moving into my house, whether he was a child or not. I was doing most of the cooking so I would continue doing so; I was doing most of the cleaning so that would continue also. I was not used to cleaning up the throw-up, poop, urine, spit, toys, and clothes of a stranger and flatly refused to do those things. I was not used to bathing a stranger, dressing a stranger or cajoling a stranger to eat oatmeal but was suddenly expected to do those things. Hmmm. Maternal instinct is either a fictitious crock or I was an odd person. None of those “OMG-Is that feces on the wall” moments struck me as cute or cuddly. I expected my husband to hire a babysitter on an occasional Friday night so we could go do something – anything that didn’t involve a kid. And no, grandparents and biological Mom didn’t count as a babysitter. I expected him to HIRE (as in PAY) a sitter, goddammit. Why? Who knows… Maybe I had/have territorial issues? I felt it was not my job to wash the kid’s clothes,to clean his room, to make his bed, to teach him to brush his teeth, or to teach him the physical boundaries of the edge of the toilet (how can someone so short find it so difficult to get the urine in the toilet when his peanut is practically IN the toilet?) I wasn’t sure whose job, exactly, it was to do these things, only that it wasn’t my job because I was not this kid’s mom. My husband, who by the way, wrote a book to help men understand their female partners (My Wife, on Amazon), did not get my adamancy on these issues. In fact, we clashed on so many issues we ended up in couples counseling to try to find some middle ground. Seems the psychological counselors out there know all about these conflicts but they don’t seem to be sharing publicly the secrets to resolving them (job security?). Our counselor explained BOUNDERIES to us. I was allowed to have boundaries, which meant if I was around, there would be no spitting of food across the table, no rummaging through any old handbag found lying around, toys would be picked up occasionally, bed made each morning, teeth brushed at least once a day, and no tantrums. These things could occur when I wasn’t around but that would be up to my husband. She also explained that since I was not the kid’s mom, I couldn’t be expected to clean up after this kid. The rosy picture my husband had in his mind was of us living in a quiet little house with a white picket fence happily ever after. The counselor explained to him that his expectation of my instantly falling in love with this child was entirely futile, that sometimes stepparents do learn to love thier stepchildren but the best he could hope for was mutual respect between his child and me. She also told him to tell his parents and other busybodies to butt out. Tensions eased quite a bit after the counseling but I still can’t tell you whether or not the “child-rearing experiment” (as I have come to think of it) has been a success or not. My husband and I have been through some tough times and every day brings new chaos. I guess, no matter the situation, one can get used to certain things while never letting go of others. An occasional meltdown is almost inevitable. Just the other day I went on an hour’s rant over the fact that the china set I’ve had for 20 years (and had thought I’d have forever) has been all but destroyed in the last 4 years by this child in the house. Women with no children can become as brittle as formica about certain things. I have no children by choice but even women who biologically cannot have children quickly become accustomed to the sharp edged fragile delicateness of a childless home. Finding a chip on the china or even peanut butter smeared on the underside of the kitchen countertop can set them off. The child may live with you but that doesn’t mean you have ever become well-equipped to deal with a child in the house.
My husband told me of a guy friend yesterday who is thinking of moving in with his girlfriend and her young child. This guy is a disciplinarian and the girlfriend is not. Honestly, my first instinct was to tell him to run as far away as possible. Pretty sad on my part, I know, since you’d think that after we have collected so much information on how to make this work that we’d proudly share all the ins and outs. Maybe I’m not ready to counsel people yet on how to make it work. Even after 10 years the hurt is still too fresh. My husband then mentioned that this guy wants his girlfriend to hire (as in PAY) a babysitter, not just use grandparents, when they need a break. Wow, I’m not that psycho ornery anti-kid lady after all.