Being part of a blended family can be frustrating and confusing, especially when you’re uncertain what role you fill. However, if you listen closely, a little voice might tell you the answer.
My wife, Becky, had children at a young age. When she found me in 2009, Jeremiah was 14, Tiffany was 12, and Scotty was 9. Teenage years were looming all over. I had no children of my own, making me as a novice at child rearing. Attempting to be a parental figure to step-children is difficult enough. Attempting to do so with teenagers? Difficulty level: expert.
From the start, I shunned the idea of being “Dad.” The bond between a child and a parent is sacred, and I refuse to disrupt the relationship these kids have with their real dads. More importantly, moving into a blended situation and immediately attempting to claim a parental role is rarely an effective way to endear yourself to a child. You can try to act like your ideal image of “Dad,” but in my experience, most children past the age of 5 can see right though adult pretense. They want to know you for who you are, not who you think you should be to them. For my part, I was just a male figure, and I hoped to be a positive one (whether I am is still up for debate.)
When I first moved in, I didn’t put on airs or take on some rehearsed role. I acted like myself. I took care of the kids’ needs and tried to restore order when they were out of control, but I stayed out of Becky’s way when it came to discipline. I treated all three kids as equals. They were sort of like little roommates. In time, they became little friends. When I married Becky, I became a step-father, but as years passed, the kids seemed more like siblings. To this day, they’ve never referred to me as “Dad.” I didn’t want that, and neither did they. They call me Seth.
Because that’s who I am.
Things got complicated when Miah and Tiffany, like their mother, started having children early in life. Teen pregnancies weren’t common in my own family, and seeing them happen caused me endless grief and frustration. In fact, I predicted the first one, and I blamed myself for not being able to stop it. I learned the hard way that people must make mistakes and decisions on their own, regardless of any advice you may give.
This wasn’t the way I wanted things to turn out. It was a difficult time for me, and it set a negative tone for my perspective on the growth happening around me.
Faster than I could comprehend, they came. Tiffany had Nicole when I was 36. Then, Miah fell in love with Ashleigh, who already had Annabella from a previous relationship. He and Ashleigh had Aaron. Finally, when Tiffany and Chris had Lily, a short time later, I was only a few months shy of 38.
Suddenly, there were four grandchildren.
For Becky, the frustration passed quickly, as she accepted the bounty of life and welcomed each newcomer to her family. Although she, too, was only in her late 30’s, the idea of being a grandmother appealed to her. She readily taught the wee ones call her “Grandma.” She loves playing the role, and she loves to see the her family expanding. To her, it’s a time of growth and excitement.
For me, it wasn’t so easy. I wasn’t ready for all the sudden growth. We had finally blended as a family of five; now, the kids were parents too? Becky kept trying to sell me as “Grandpa,” but I resisted. I didn’t want to be “Grandpa.” Emotionally, it didn’t make sense! I was never “Dad.” No one had ever called me that. Without being “Dad”, how could I possibly be “Grandpa?” It was madness!
For a good year-and-a-half, the whole thing tore me up psychologically, as one baby after another came into the fold. To hold onto my identity, I had to deny that I had any place in the equation. Whenever Becky referred to me as “Grandpa,” I would contradict her. I knew I was being a curmudgeonly old grump, but I was unable to accept how things had turned out. Where Annabella was concerned, it was even more confusing. My step-son’s girlfriend’s daughter; I mean, how do you reconcile something like that?
Becky: “Go to Grandpa, Bella!”
Me: “I’m not Grandpa!”
Becky: “Yes you are. Give Grandpa a hug!”
Me: “I’m not Grandpa!”
Becky: “Yes you are.”
It reminded me of that episode of Dexter’s Laboratory, in which Dexter accidentally turns himself into a bald, liver-spotted octogenarian. The family believes him to be the grandfather, and he keeps shouting, “I’m not Grandpa!”
I didn’t want to be Grandpa.
It was the simple, honest mind of a child that revealed me for the stubborn jerk that I am.
Bella is the oldest, by close to a year. I met her when she was 8 months old. From the start, we got along quite well. She would throw me little smiles, grab my hand in effort to steal my wedding ring. She paid attention when I spoke. We laughed together. But when Miah and Ashleigh got closer, it didn’t take long for Becky to start referring to herself as “Grandma.” Of course, I contested this. “They’re not even married!” I insisted, but she didn’t care. You see, she already understood the art of blending families.
As soon as Bella learned to speak, she was very liberal with the phrase, “I love you.”
“I love you, Daddy!”
“I love you, Grandma!”
“I love you!” to the waitress in the restaurant.
She learned fast, too. One day, she walked into the house, gave me a big smile, and shouted out my name… or some version of it.
Ha! I thought. She knows who I am. I love that kid. Of course, it pleased me that she knew me as I wanted to be known, not by some semantic-based title that I had done nothing to earn.
One day, I was standing in the kitchen. Bella wandered in. She seemed preoccupied, so I didn’t say anything. She puttered around for a few seconds, and then from behind my back, for no special reason, I heard the words of a two-year old, garbled but perfectly intelligible:
“I love you, Grandpa.”
I’m not… Ah, shit.
It was the first time any of the grandchildren had called me that. Even then, I could have argued semantics. “No, no,” I could have said, “I’m not Grandpa! I’m just a rotten old man. You call me by my name, damn it!” Still, I had to ask myself, Do I want to continue arguing semantics? Or does Bella have a point? Even if she does, I don’t want to want to be Grandpa! I don’t want to be Grandpa to this… this sweet, precocious child who… who recognizes me as a close member of her family… and.. and…
Oh, God, what an asshole I am.
Under the circumstances, I did the only thing that was appropriate. I said: “I love you too, Bella.”
It didn’t matter how old I was. It didn’t matter if Miah was a step-son or if Bella was Ashleigh’s from another relationship. Miah was Daddy. Becky was Grandma, and I was Grandma’s husband. But even that was just semantics. She called me Grandpa because I’m her Grandpa, just like Ashleigh’s dad, just like her granddad her bio-dad’s side. Sure, it’s confusing, but how the relationship came to be is irrelevant. A toddler doesn’t consider such things.
Maybe it doesn’t matter what I want to be. Maybe what matters is what I am to her.
So once more, a small child –infinitely wiser than the educated fool she looks up to– manages to melt some ice away from a withered old heart.
These days, I see the grandchildren as little Cohorts, running around and filling my life with new stories. Bella will be 3 soon. She knows many things, and I can almost hold a full conversation with her. Nicole, who just turned 2, is now the one toddling around with an ever-expanding vocabulary. She calls me Grandpa, too.
After all, that’s who I am.