Monday, June 20, 2005

Digging Thru My Mental Archives

I've been going through my blog archives a lot in the past few days for multiple reasons. At first I was prompted to start rummaging around in the digitized dust because my friend Chuck asked me to be a guest blogger on his blog and I opted for the easy way out - I found something I wrote a couple of years ago which I had been reminded of by a recent post and I updated it slightly and zipped it off to Chuck. I'm lazy, what can I say?

Also - as I have mentioned repeatedly - I have been tinkering with the inner workings of the blog which has required me to go through some months post by post to restore old comments or to make the archived posts work properly with Firefox. I didn't know my very old entries didn't show up right in Firefox until Chuck made his request of me so again I can blame him for my recent wallowing in tedium. This by the way could prove to be a growing movement: when in doubt....blame Chuck. It's a short enough credo to fit on a bumper sticker or tee shirt which seems to be a necessity for many a belief system these days.

Okay, I'm starting to ramble...personally I think that's probably Chuck's fault too.

None of this has much to do with much of anything, except this is Father's day and Amy not so subtly reminded me to keep my phone nearby, presuming our children will call me. Whether they call or not is not really a critical thing to me, I have a pretty healthy confidence in my relationship with our kids, so much so I'll likely take a nap soon and turn off the phone.

I wasn't always confident in my relationships with the kids though (I don't blame Chuck for that only because I didn't know him then). That is what got me thinking about something I wrote nearly 5 years ago, before I had a blog.

A few moments ago I reread it and I decided to post it here today as a reminder - primarily to me - of how perspective changes with time. Some of the thoughts I had when I originally wrote this piece are hard for me to even imagine today...some of them are a little painful and embarrassing. Yet they were honest feelings of mine at the time and writing them down proved helpful. It took a long time after I wrote it for me to include the piece in the writings section of my main web site.

My relationship with my kids - okay my stepchildren - has shifted and grown, ebbed and flowed, bubbled and blossomed in all sorts of ways since I put those thoughts into writing. Many of those changes were dictated by circumstance - their Mom went through a series of health crises as did our budget - some were simply the result of the inevitable and relentless rampage of time.

Our children are all now adults...obviously we deal with them at a different level.

Anyway this is what I wrote back then - caveats included - again I wrote this nearly five years ago, but back then I called it:

Step Lightly Stepdad

I hesitated posting this. I wrote the first part of this a couple of years ago in a fit of self pity. I'm glad I eventually came back to it with the wisdom God gives us through the passage of time. I look at it now as simply another step in being a stepfather.

The ongoing saga of a stepfather without a clue.

I touched my 16-year old stepdaughter's butt yesterday. It was a harmless gesture, nothing sexual about it, but it prompted a response from her you might expect, and it triggered a reaction in me I didnt really anticipate.

My wife, Amy, my stepdaughter Lisa and I were in line at the movie theatre, waiting to buy tickets when, as I stared up at the marquee of 16 avenues of theatrical escape, I reached down and gave the posterior in front of me a pat. It was a gentle double-tap and it was meant to call my wife's attention to the fact that the line had moved and we should be like the cinema seeking cattle we were and move ahead. Unfortunately the tookus in front of me was not my wife's, it was my stepdaughter's. My gentle pat was met with a look of horror perfected by 16 year olds everywhere that said," Are you nuts?" and an audible response laden with the same attitude of "EXCUSE ME???"

I, of course, apologized immediately and said it was a case of mistaken identity. Posterior confusion. Gluteus embarassus. Amy was also quick to fervently put forth the same defense there amid the crowd of dozens of eager reality escapists and add to it with the exculpation, "Its not like your stepfather is touching you all the time!" A few seconds of that type of awkward, at times mortifying and yet oddly amusing, banter took place before Lisa pronounced rather forcefully, "I dont want to talk about this any more-EVER! I think I may be sick."

In fact, what I recognized at that moment is that I dont touch my stepdaughters at all. We dont have that type of relationship. I'm not talking about weird, evil stepfather type touching referred to in sordid gossip, on psychologist couches, or all too often in courtrooms. I'm talking about simple affection. We don't hug. We keep our distance physically and emotionally. I am to blame.
My stepchildren have a close relationship with their father, stepmother, and their mom and so simply by the order of the draw I'm going to be low man on the list of parents. This is not the kid's fault, it's a position that I have fostered more than fought.

I lost my parents when I was a teenager and moved in with my Aunt and Uncle. I never established much of a relationship with them during those years in part I think because I for some reason felt they were trying to be my parents. I had parents...they died, but I had them. I always wanted my stepkids to know their Dad is their only Dad, and that I am another resource for them. I love them, but I tried to be careful, especially when they were much younger, to never steal away those once in a lifetime childhood moments meant for fathers and their children. I've always thought it was a pretty noble attitude, but admittedly it also allowed me to remain distant.

I grew up in an odd familial setting; I felt at the time that I was having a family forced upon me. I know what that feels like and I decided early on in our marriage that my relationship with my kids would come naturally; I wouldn't try to win them over or compete with their other parents. I would play the role God laid out for me, as best I could, even if it meant minimal involvement. That was the path of least resistance - now I know it's also the path of least returns.

My oldest stepdaughter, Tiffany, was the first to endure my parental experimentation. Tiffany had a hard time with her parent's break-up. She can at times seem aloof, though I don't think that's purposeful, I think it's more a result of her inherent independence and self-reflection. Tiffany has always been intelligent beyond her years and not one to be smooth talked, coddled, or conned. She's introspective and logical by nature, and I think that makes her quick to sum up others. When we first met she eyed me with the trust deserving of a door-to-door snake oil salesman, and I'm not fully convinced there isn't an inkling of that disdain still lingering back there. Some of it probably deserved. I decided right off, I wouldn't try to win her over, I wouldn't bribe her, con her, push my love on her, I'd let her come to me when she was ready. Surely, some day she would need me. Now that she is nearly 21 our relationship has improved greatly though I don't know if we'll ever be as close as I would have hoped. I don't think she feels she needs me still.

We laugh together much more often than in the early years. I doubt she'd admit it, but I think we share a similar sense of humor. I gave her, her first driving lessons. I played the silent chauffeur for her junior prom out of worry about her safety, and conversations between us come much more easily these days. However there is still a distance that is tangible, and telling. Once, 6 or so years ago, when we were in church, the family was sitting in a row and I put my arm around Amy and stretched my other arm out the other way, around Tiffany. It wasn't really meant as a sign of affection. Honestly I felt cramped and needed to stretch, but Tiffany quickly asked me to move my arm. She did it with all politeness and no over-reaction. There were explanations; it was crowded, she couldn't lean back comfortably; but I saw, or at least felt, a bit of that repel the snake-oil salesman attitude and I knew in my heart that stretching my arm around my stepdaughter symbolized a relationship we didn't have, or worse that I never earned.

Until recent years, with the exception of poses for family pictures, I could literally count the times Tiffany and I have hugged. Three times when she was at our home with her first real boyfriend and leaving to go back to college Tiffany hugged me. She was hugging everyone, and I was in the room. Each time she hugged me too. The first time it happened, it probably meant nothing to her, to me it was enormous. We had conquered that small bit of physical space. The fourth time was in July of 2001, the family was about to drive off on our annual trip to Ohio, and that year for the first time, Tiffany wasn't coming along. Before we drove away, I walked up to her and hugged her. I am ashamed to say that was the first time I initiated a hug of my eldest stepdaughter.

Now, it comes easier, but it's still associated with leaving or arriving....We don't hug spontaneously; something that I suppose is the culmination of my hands off strategy early on and my inherent defense mechanism of not allowing people too close to me, for fear they'll leave me.

Joey, my stepson, has always been a different story. Joey and I hit it off pretty well immediately and it was with him that I had the hardest time making sure I wasn't robbing his true father of moments. There were times when I failed at that. I selfishly allowed myself to play the hero, do the cool stuff; say, "Yes" when I should have said, "No." Joey is the only one of our kids to break the hug barrier. Before Amy and I were married, but when we were engaged, Joey would come to my house and at one point he suddenly decided he would hug me each time he arrived or left. I'm not sure what prompted it and I admit I was a little befuddled by it. Each time he did it, his sisters gave him a look probably seen before by war time traitors, but it never deterred him. Since those early days I've become used to Joey befuddling me.

Joey is creative, and unconfined by societal dictates. Unlike most kids, he doesn't embarrass easily, he has a tremendous sense of self-esteem, a sense of humor that won't quit, and a hoard of sarcasm that I guiltily admit contributing towards. Mercifully it's not steeped in cynicism, a trait I am forever thankful he somehow rejected from me. He has great talents and is blessed with little self-doubt. I've come to a position where I simply watch him with wonder thinking how far can he go and I thank God I resisted the temptation to try to douse his many dreams in hopes of saving him from future pain. He's achieving his dreams, unfettered by my needlessly cautious nature. Joey doesn't hug me anymore, but not many 19 year old boys hug and opportunities for closeness are few and far between with him away in college. I have no problem putting my arm around him and we can talk openly about most things and the list of topics is growing daily. Whether he listens....who knows.

With Lisa it started out differently, she is the youngest and at first seemed to adjust to oddities of parents and stepparents with a certain amount of ease. As the years went by Lisa's loyalties shifted some and she seemed to waiver. Lisa is the most social of all our children, which can be misrepresented as being self absorbed at times. I don't think that's the case. I think Lisa is just being a normal girl. She's concerned about clothes, being stylish, not being embarrassed and all that usual stuff. I'm so thankful for that. She's a normal kid, despite a broken home as they say.

Lisa and I had a fun relationship when she was little; we'd take walks with the dogs, I'd teach her how to play poker, or other games. As she grew a bit older, she distanced herself from me. I remember how hurt I felt when she asked Amy to, "tell Michael not to swat me when I walk by." Swatting her gently as she passed by my recliner had been a game between only us since we first met. Oftentimes she'd approach, give me that look and then giggle as she tried to sidestep by me. Then one day, she said "enough!" Tiffany was there, adding to the drama with the intensity of a defense lawyer saying something like, "Yeah, he's always trying to touch us!" It cut to the bone and sounded evil and once again Amy said, in what in my mind back then was an almost questioning manner, "Well he's not touching you in a bad way.....right?"

That day I felt like I had no relationship with the girls at all. I was a weird stranger that they didn't trust, or really even like to be around and part of me wondered if they literally feared I was some creepy guy.

I didn't touch the girls in any way, not a hug, or a pat for years after that. I made a purposeful decision not to. I had lost all confidence in our relationship. I obviously thought I was something more in their minds than I was, and I didn't want to risk making it worse.

That was the hardest day of being a step dad...I thought no matter what I did, no matter how many years I spent with these kids, I was not family. I would never really have a relationship with them where they even trusted me completely, much less loved me. These days I'm certain I was wrong about that, but boy that day I accidentally touched a tush brought it all rushing back.

Today I don't think my relationship with the girls has ever been better. I love them like my own daughters. I accept that there is only so much room in their lives for me. Now, however, it's a comfy room.

I still hope one day they'll give some thought to my role in their lives. They will see my failings and flaws, but hopefully they'll also see a man of honor and faith who loves them deeply and only wants what is best for them.

I also hope one day I'll be able to tell them that.

Back to today: In a couple of weeks all of the kids will join us at our favorite summer retreat in Ohio and it will be wonderful. I've posted this picture at least three times on this blog, but it seems appropriate to post it once more. In a few weeks I'll have a new picture with which to replace it...that's how family life is welcome the new experiences but appreciate them all the more because of the old ones.

Click to enlarge