I am 31 years old and waiting nervously in a Jamba Juice about to meet my boyfriend’s daughter for the first time. We had briefly talked on Skype, but this was the first time face to face. Her age worried me the most; at thirteen I remember being an absolute terror. A real little shit. The hormones. The boys. The sibling rivalry between my sister and I for stealing her clothes, including underwear, and enduring beatings from my older brothers. I think there were serious discussions about sending me away to boarding school. I prayed she was nothing like me. She walked in with a huge smile and big brown eyes just like her dad. “You’re really pretty. My dad scored with you!” she said while giving me a huge hug. I have no idea how I got here, but in this moment I realize that life as I know it is about to change.
Before Maddox and I started dating long distance, I was riding an epic wave of self-indulgence. I had just ended a five year relationship and moved into my own apartment downtown. My lifestyle was spontaneous and chaotic, and that’s how I liked it. Many of my friends were settling down, but I had no desire to have children – I’d never felt the maternal pull, except for raising my cat.
I thought our relationship was was perfect for my non-committal tendencies. We flew to see each other in a new location nearly every month. Then the unthinkable happened. I fell in love with him. When Christmas time came around, I asked what he wanted most. He replied that his dream was for me to visit him in Hawaii to see him cross the finish line of his last marathon. And so I did.
Divorced from his wife of 12 years, he was proud dad to a sixteen-year old son and thirteen year old daughter. The prospect of me dating a man with kids was met with fear and trepidation by some of my friends and family. To make things worse, I had no one to give me advice. No one had experience with an older (11 years) divorced guy with not just little children, but teenagers. Full fledged young adults filled with their own opinions, judgments, and attitudes. Not helping the situation was the fact that I look really young. Like getting carded at R rated movies young.
“I think you’re really brave.”’ said my friend. The only thing she’d previously seen me take responsibility for was which bar we should go to for a night out, and I often got that wrong. In any case, I thought, what’s the big deal about dating a dad? I imagined a loose scenario of every other weekend watching movies, having pillow fights, riding bikes, and eating pepperoni pizza. The reality, of course, turned out to be much more complex.
I was lucky, though. Maddox’s daughter, Izzy and and I bonded fast when I visited the first time. We stayed at a hotel in Waikiki to be close to the race starting line. The night before, we decorated posters while listening to Justin Bieber and ordered take out. We woke up early and had breakfast before spending the day watching racers, making silly videos while patiently waiting for him to finish. After, his friends came to spend the afternoon with us at the pool sipping margaritas. I took her to the bar and taught her how to order a virgin pina colada so she wouldn’t feel left out. I gave him a massage to loosen out his legs, and followed by rubbing her feet. It was about now that she told her dad I was a keeper, and I was thrilled.
Meeting his son was even easier. Our first conversation centered around a girl he liked at school while he stood in the kitchen shoving a sandwich in his face. He ran out the door when his friend honked his horn, giving me a high five on the way.
My whole world changed a month later when I moved to Hawaii. Before I arrived, it was important for me to ask their permission so there were no freak outs when dad’s random girlfriend from Minnesota showed up with suitcases and her cat. Luckily, they approved.
On the island, I was referred to as aunty. Not necessarily in a blood-related way but in a way that’s more a sign of respect toward someone who is older than you. This was way better than having to say “dad’s girlfriend” which for whatever reason, grossed me out. My lifestyle of freedom and girl’s night wine and sushi was replaced with a house filled with the struggles of family dynamics. I felt like an outsider for a long time. Gradually, trust was built through a routine that became comfortable; with the occasional ups and downs of course.
When you think about the time and energy you have to expend for little or no return when dating a man with kids long term, I understand why many women choose that it’s not for them.
I have my hesitations about ever attempting it again.
If you find yourself curious, consider the following:
1. It takes a woman secure with herself and her relationship to understand that you will always come second, and if he is a good father, this will be true. This isn’t to say that it’s ok for your needs to go unmet. Rather, recognizing that a parent’s love for their children is paramount, or should be. Trying to compete with children for affection is a catastrophic strategy that will end in tears – yours. If you require a significant amount of alone time, as I do, this could be a win situation for you. Finding a balance of time together, and respecting their alone time is key. A guy who is serious about having a relationship will find the time to fulfill his role as a father and be an enthusiastic partner as well.
2. You fall somewhere between a role model and friend, never a mother figure. Which actually, is a lot of fun. There is responsibility, just less of it.
3. Ex-mama drama. It will always exist in some way, shape, or form. If you disagree, just give it time. If you can’t bear the thought of another woman being a part of your man’s life at one point, or respect that sharing a child is a big deal- save yourself the trouble and walk away. There are endless scenarios and different dynamics. A healthy situation, where there are boundaries and everyone is respected, is the best you can hope for. It’s up to you to decide if you can handle it or not.
Not every ex couple has drama, but I rode that train to crazy town and let me tell you, it tested me. The story of me selling their old dining room set on Craigslist for $5 when they bickered about who had to deal with it when moving comes to mind. My involvement with his ex was minimal, and the only time I saw her in person, she didn’t want anything to do with me. Although it hurt, I respected it. Later, she wrote me a letter thanking me for taking such good care of her kids. Only then did I officially feel like I was doing something right.
4. Have the energy to do it right (and it will take energy). If you date the dad, date his child (children) as well. Be involved in their sports, activities, homework, and routine as much as they will allow. One day when you least expect it, you will realize how much you personally mature by doing so.
5. If they are older, then expect to get looks. People would gawk when I picked his son up from school, mistaking me for a student. Once, in line to pick up race gear, a woman ushered me to go stand by my dad (Maddox) and thought his daughter was his girlfriend. Super fucking weird. Learn to laugh it off. People will always have judgments and opinions.
6. No one tells you that when you fall in love with a man with kids, you fall in love with their kids too. And if the relationship ends and your heart breaks, as in my case, it will break over them too.
To be honest, some days I loved being a step girlfriend, and other days (when they tried to kill each other) I wished they would disappear. I’m an introvert. I’m human. I messed up. But I always tried. Looking back, I don’t regret taking the chance on one of the greatest lessons that I learned from my mom when I asked her how a mother can love more than one child:
“Love is infinite, and there is always room for more.”