Blending Families: When My Kids Met Her Kids

Blending Families: When My Kids Met Her Kids


You know those swings at the carnival that spin around in mad, sickening circles? You get going so fast that you levitate and you fear, because of some basic laws of physics, that the chains will break and you’ll be hurled off in a straight line to the next county. But you never do. You remain somehow preserved in the rush of that circle, round and round and round. This is how things are.

Summer, as it did last year and the year before it, came again. Spring, if it had a mind to, could just as well launch us into some scary and unknown season, but it, dependably, never fails to slide seamlessly into summer. And with it, summer vacation, the sun, pools and the repetition of contradictory days, boring, fun—days that last forever and end in a blink.

Before this summer, I had met my girlfriend’s kids several times and she had met mine, but this summer brought a whole new experiment. We would for 3 days become a group of 6, going to the Field Museum in Chicago, Lincoln Park Zoo, Navy Pier, and kayaking. What could go wrong except everything?

So, we all wondered in the privacy of ourselves, how is this going to work? One thing is certain. The idea, the prospect of this meeting as an event that loomed in the future, was terrible for all of us. My girlfriend and I were of course concerned about the psychic well-being of our children. I mean, we’re firmly established as crazy in love but how fair is this to the kids? We’re lovers. We’re parents. But now these roles were about to collide into some undefined something and would they be okay? Would they like each other? Are they predisposed to despise each other? Even at the zoo? And even though the kids expressed a willingness to do this, it doesn’t take a lot of imagination to surmise that, for them, this whole idea was icky and weird and confusing. The kids they were each about to meet: Who were they exactly in relation to them? I imagined them wondering Will I like them? and, of course, the question that never ceases to haunt us all: Will they like me?

But, as usual, nothing happened that resembled the hopes or fears the 6 of us brought to Chicago. It’s always something else, or maybe, in its own tricky way, it’s always all of it. Meeting new people is as predictable as the seasons. Nervous strangers slip into people with whom you are suddenly laughing and using chalk to draw pictures on the driveway.

At Navy Pier, we bought a 10-Ride Family Pass (awkward). All 6 of us rode the Ferris Wheel, around and around. From way up there, from that perspective, you can see the whole city and the very same city you spent the day walking through is now different and new. With only 4 tickets left, the kids ran toward the spinning swings. My girlfriend and I sat next to a fountain, waiting for them as they stood in the hot sun and long line. It was the first time our kids were gone, together. “I think we’re doing a pretty good job,” she said. I thought so too. The sky was so blue you might cry.

When we finally saw our kids running toward the ride, they had the option to sit in a single swing or a swing built for two. Our two young girls, 10 and 11, sat in a swing for couples. As it began its slow rotation, they looked nervous and by the time it was circling full speed, they were screaming with big frightened eyes. Their initial shrieks appeared to be genuine howls of terror but somewhere in the spinning, in that elusive seamless seam, the screams—like spring sliding into summer—became laughter, though it sounded much the same.

Photo credit: Instagram @mhook 



By Kerry Cohen

fourkidsJames and I were going to get married at city hall, so I went to the den to tell our combined four kids. Ezra, my ten-year-old autistic son, shook his head.

“No married,” he said.

“You’re coming,” I told him. “I don’t make you do a lot of things you don’t want to do, but this you’re doing. My children will be there when I get married.”

I went back upstairs, rushing around to get things together to leave. Ezra showed up in the kitchen with a blue pool noodle.

“Can you marry this?” he asked.

I laughed, but I did. I performed a quick ceremony in which the pool noodle and I became husband and wife. I never know what is going on in Ezra’s head, or rather, it can take me a while to figure it out. Ezra watched me the whole time like I was crazy, so clearly I wasn’t understanding. He followed me into my bedroom, holding the pool noodle, and he lay on the bed.

“Are you upset that I’m getting married?” I asked him.

“No married.”

I didn’t know whether he didn’t want me to get married because he wanted to stay home, playing on his computer, not having to face the uncertain world, a world he rarely understood and that too often took him by surprise, or if he didn’t want me to get married because I was marrying someone new, someone who wasn’t his father.

“I don’t want you to worry,” I told him. “Everything is going to be just the same. You’ll be here for one week, and then with Daddy the next week, back and forth like always. Nothing is changing.”

“Can James fall into a hole?” he asked.

“You want James to fall into a hole?”

“Can I ruin James?”

I sat next to him and brushed his thick blond hair away from his eyes. I understood this was a big deal for him. It was for all of us. Both James and I had two children each, and the past four years of blending our families had been immensely hard, riddled with complications and arguments and negotiations about how we could make it work. It had been a long road, and I didn’t expect it to get easier, but we had finally made it here.

“I love James,” I told him. “I don’t want him to be ruined or fall into a hole. James loves you. Daddy loves you. And I love you.”

He pointed to a laundry basket. “Can I marry that?” he asked.

“The laundry basket?”

“Can I marry that?” He pointed now to the pool noodle.

“The pool noodle?”

“Can I marry things?”

“I don’t think so,” I said. “I think you can only marry humans.”

“No humans!” he said.

I understood then what he was trying to wrap his head around. Things. They had long been important to him. It’s a classic symptom of autism: more interest in things than people. When he was little, he carried around the flat foam inset animals from a book. If he lost one of them, like the purple cow, he grew upset enough that we had to spend hours retracing our steps to find it, more often than not buried in the mud at a park. We thought we’d be smart and buy a second copy of the book with the flat foam inset animals, but then his collection included two of each animal, and there were more things to lose.

James had been listening to my conversation with Ezra. “Ezra,” he asked. “Do you want to bring the pool noodle with us to get married?”

“Yeah,” Ezra said.

So, we did. The two other boys used it to chase and hit each other, swatting one another on the back. Ezra dipped his shoes in mud, paying no attention to us or the pool noodle, and James’s daughter held all the flowers. It will forever be a part of our story. Because Ezra was right about this one. James and I are the ones doing something terribly difficult, blending our two loopy families and trying to make it work. Almost weekly, something happens in which I feel like I can’t do it, this was a mistake; I should have just married the god damned pool noodle instead. So, I get it. Things. They’re comforting. They’re uncomplicated. They make sense. If you lose one of the parts, you go find it. Usually, it can be found. Whereas we humans can hardly communicate our feelings are so complex. And then we wind up divorced, like Ezra’s dad and me did. The things you lose don’t always come back.

Kerry Cohen is the author of six books, including the memoirs Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity and Seeing Ezra: A Mother’s Story of Autism, Unconditional Love, and the Meaning of Normal. She practices psychotherapy and writes in Portland, Oregon, where she lives with the writer James Bernard Frost and their four children.

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