The Accidental Parent
The first time I met Rachel and Riley, they literally pickpocketed me. Affectionate and sweet kids, it was part mugging, part hug-fest, a wild tag-team frenzy that would be indicative of our relationship. After that first, exhausting encounter, both Vanessa and I thought our relationship was over. Romantic dinners and love-making are one thing, part-time parenting quite another.
For months, we pussyfooted around the issue of how the four of us would interact. Starting slowly, we spent time together on weekends, made play dates, and got to know each other in doses. Mainly, I was a human jungle gym; making deep conversation an afterthought. My role was that of play-toy--and the experience was overwhelming.
As a writer, I'm often solitary and need my space. My actual space - my home - is so un-kid friendly as to be laughable: candles and matches litter the landscape, along with pipes, alcohol, Playboys and lava lamps; this is no place for small children.
I was honest with Vanessa about my self-absorbed nature from the start. How involved was I going to get? What were her expectations? Would just the two of us ever be alone together again? Though the twins are obviously Vanessa's priority, she made it clear that our own relationship would remain an emphasis. Not just for me, but for her own sanity. Adult play time is crucial for the gig to work. The demands crept in slowly, however, and often not from my lover, but from the cutest little people you can imagine. I learned quickly the need to set boundaries.
"Can we go bug-catching?" "Will you come to gymnastics and jump in the Nerf pit? "Let's build a snowman!" (How could I refuse?) Each question was a potential minefield, not to mention an afternoon in the making. I didn't know how to "be," and was "on" like a birthday clown, until escaping to a safe and relaxed haven.
As the months rolled by, my role grew. I set boundaries (too few), and had to act like an adult, or be ruled by twin terrors with plenty of ideas about do's and don'ts. (DO make art projects out of every opportunity. DON'T worry about the clean up.)
I learned about Vanessa's way with the twins-it's different than what I experienced growing up. More in-your-face (some screaming, some door slamming), more affectionate, more spur-of-the moment. I think kids should eat everything on their plate before getting dessert (an old-school theory that may create eating disorders, I know). I'm into more time-outs, fewer chances, more structure, less free-form. Adding my comments to the mix is, well, delicate. Though Vanessa welcomes my ideas, she would also be happy to see me implement these half-baked theories.
Bottom line, we have to be a team. Rachel and Riley already almost outnumber us-we need to work together for our own preservation. Even with my limited energy, understanding or expertise, I've helped--and I've learned. I'm anal, wildly organized and can't stand clutter. When I'm at their house, I'm usually picking up games off the floor and arranging Captain Underpants by volume. I've discovered patience and learned mediation. And I'm becoming a better communicator-with both Vanessa and the twins. I can convey "Don't even think of throwing that" with just a glance (sometimes I even use it on the kids). Most importantly, I've learned to start fresh, to put grudges aside and that tomorrow's a new day.
I understand that I've got it easy. When all hell breaks loose, I can step back and say, "My goodness, all hell is breaking loose." Sometimes I feel guilty about Vanessa's workload: there's homework to grade, dinner to cook, laundry to wash, birthdays to plan, and early wake-up calls every day. Oh yeah, and a full-time job.
Still, it was her choice to have kids, and my choice to avoid them. The good news is that she's been parenting solo for eight years, and says any help from me is a happy bonus.
Willing teams have role-players--and I'm providing a missing piece. I'm a hug machine, a guy to toss the ball or share stories with, to climb on, and occasionally respect. I have a man's voice-and when I use it in a less-than-pleasant manner, it's a new octave the twins listen to. (Usually.) When one of them is being a monster (and that's rare, thank God), I'll take the other for a walk while Vanessa drags the misfit to his/her room for some down time.
Questions remain. There are no easy answers. Can you have one foot in and one foot out? The kids have asked both Vanessa and I questions that would make Dr. Phil blush. "If we all are married, will we get your last name, or you use ours?" They know there are details to be worked out; they feel the heartbeat of the relationship. I remember telling my friends who just had a (screaming, colicky) baby that what I eventually wanted was to have a kid who came out of the womb at about 10 years old. No diapers, no fits, no crying, just basketball and wrestling and a handy helper to do chores and bring in the paper. It would be a piece of cake.
Be careful what you wish for.
Michael A. Stusser is a Seattle-based freelancer and game inventor. His newest game, Hear Me Out, is available at Starbucks stores. To comment on this story, or suggest a story idea, contact editor@ParentMap.com