The Family I Thought We Would Be
Figuring out the expectations and realities of merging two families.
I’ve been married to Brian for fourteen years and 24 days. We were both 2 years out of our first marriages. The joke we told for ages was that he had a mildly pleasant marriage and a dreadful divorce, while I had a dreadful marriage and a mildly pleasant divorce. There was a kind of buoyancy to our early relationship, as if we weren’t only newly in love, but also recently released from prison. I might have taken that as a sign that we weren’t ready if I wasn’t so delighted to be with him.
In the summer of 2000, when we married, we had between us three children. My son Jacob was 6 and my daughter Abbie was 4. Brian’s son Spencer was 3. They were bright, charming, delightful children, and Brian and I knew just the kind of family we would make together.
Ay de mi, can I even bear to tell you about us and how we thought it would be?
Our family, we decided, would be just like a traditional nuclear family, except our children would spend some of their time with their other parents. Brian and I would love all the children the same, and treat them the same, but we would never make the mistake of expecting the same from them. We would never put any of them in a position to feel torn between mother and stepmother, or father and stepfather. We would hold ourselves to a very high standard, and expect nothing of the children except a moderate level of respect.
It was all a very Dr. Phil-esque kind of self-abnegation that began to implode almost immediately. Our plans and expectations contained no acknowledgement that we were human, and newlywed. We failed to predict the deep influence our children’s other parents and our extended families would have on our fledgling familial unit and all the complex relationships therein. We were so blinded by early love and outrageous optimism that we scarcely registered we parented orthogonally to one another and our children would notice that.
But love! Oh, love!
Brian and Spencer moved into the house that my ex-husband and I had bought a year before we divorced and we started being a family together. It took us about 4.2 minutes to run into the first wall, which was sleep for the kids. I was very strict about bedtime and naps, and Brian and his ex-wife had always been a bit flummoxed about how to get Spencer to bed so they usually bribed him with food. Actually, my strictness and Brian’s laxity were the sparks that ignited dozens of arguments. I expected he would see the superiority of my methods and change. Brian thought his son was just fine and I should lighten up. Spencer couldn’t understand why this strange woman in his life was being so mean and making him go to bed when it wasn’t even dark out yet.
We went on like that, five sets of expectations banging against each other and the walls, all of us hoping to have our needs met, and neither Brian nor I precisely sure how to make that happen.
In the meantime, other people had expectations, too. Brian’s ex-wife seemed to take his remarriage personally and my involvement in Spencer’s life as a personal insult. My ex-husband didn’t seem especially bothered but he stopped paying child support almost immediately. My parents and Brian’s parents had pre-existing relationships with their grandchildren and we couldn’t seem to communicate in any gentle way that none of them could lavish gifts on one or two children and leave another out. My in-laws didn’t much like me, and my parents didn’t really understand my husband, and the messier it all got, the more defensive and unpleasant Brian and I were with each other, the children, and everyone.
I could draw a map of all the expectations, resentments, and hurts that travelled among us but it would be nothing but an unintelligible tangle of lines before I was half finished. I was happy to resent my father-in-law, and miserably ashamed to find that I resented my stepson. It felt hopeless and ugly and I couldn’t imagine we’d ever find our way our. It almost finished our family, except for once Brian’s and my mutual stubbornness worked for good instead of ill and we hung on.
We’d been married for about four years and I was reading a memoir by a woman who had several sisters, and she confessed that while she loved all of them, she really only liked one sister. I had an epiphany. “Brian,” I said, “I don’t love Spencer the same way I love my kids.”
These would have been fighting words in the first year of our marriage, but Brian responded, “No, I don’t love Jacob and Abbie the same way I love Spencer.”
We stayed up most of the night that night, discussing what this meant for us, and how this revelation (it really seemed like a revelation, though now it all appears very simple and obvious) would change our family, and what we might do differently to make life better. That night was mostly about relieving one another of responsibilities and expectations. We determined that we would stop trying to parent each other’s children and act more like friendly aunts or uncles: we would stop negotiating with each other’s ex-spouses and parents; we would, basically, retreat to our corners and hush up, except we would keep talking to each other.
When I was a little girl, my parents used to take my sister and me backpacking, and I loved the feeling I had when I took off my heavy backpack. The release of pressure made me feel like I was floating just above the ground, and the feeling I had in the weeks after Brian and I admitted our family wasn’t working out quite like we’d expected was psychically similar. I was so relieved I was nearly giddy.
We’d done a fair amount of damage in our floundering and confusion, and there have been more (and much bigger) roadblocks on the journey than blending our families turned out to be, but damn, I’m glad I’m not on this scary road without Brian and Spencer. We had to start from scratch and define for ourselves how our relationships would work, but I’ve decided in the meantime that relationships work better that way anyhow.