Someone should write a manual for dating a man with children. I would offer to write it myself, but I’m simply not qualified, even though I dated a man with children for years, and even married that man. But while we were dating, I maneuvered through the process like a teenage boy with greasy popcorn hands, trying to get to second base in a crowded movie theater. Let’s just say it was a pretty awkward time.
When I began dating my husband Tim years ago, his children were very young, shell-shocked by their parent’s divorce. I handled the situation by setting expectations early: I was not applying to be a substitute mother. My goal was to make it clear to the kids that they had, and would always have, a mother and a father who loved them, and I was simply an extra adult that would be there to support and protect them if they needed it.
My early relationship with my stepdaughter Stephanie was challenging to say the least. When I came onto the scene, Stephanie was in preschool, and she wasn't up for a new woman in her life. For starters, she was confused about her parent’s situation, and, like all other normal kids, wanted her parents to get back together. I was confused as well. When I was around Stephanie, she would usually greet me with a dark-eyed scowl. But sometimes, she would invite me to play Barbies, or help serve her ice cream. Because it was all over the place, I was always slightly on edge around Stephanie. I worried that we would never connect. I wondered if she would smother me in my sleep. I had nightmares that she was chasing me with a butcher knife with ice cream dripping off of it. As ridiculous as it sounds, even though she was just a little girl, Stephanie terrified me.
When Stephanie was in first grade, she became a Girl Scout Daisy. One weekend when the kids were at Tim's, the Girl Scout troop meeting was a nature hike at a local park. Tim, always encouraging my relationship with both of his children, suggested that I take Stephanie. At the time, I would have rather eaten live earthworms. I had never attended a Girl Scout meeting in my life, and wasn't sure I wanted to start by going with a kid who barely tolerated my presence. But I was eager to work on my relationship with Stephanie, so I accepted the challenge.
Sensing that losing my Girl Scout meeting virginity would leave me in no shape to drive, Tim decided to drop us off at the park. As he drove off, I considered running full-force, chasing his car like Birdee in “Hope Floats,” throwing my shoes at the back windshield in a wild effort to get his attention. Instead, I held back my natural inclination to panic, and followed a much more confident Stephanie to the space where the mothers and daughters were gathering.
I quickly assessed the scene. The warm and friendly troop leader was absent, leaving another, somewhat sullen parent volunteer in charge. The other parent that I knew from work was also not there. This left me with a group of women that I didn’t know at all, so I stood on the outskirts of the group, picking at my nail polish as Stephanie and the other Daisies frolicked around.
The mother who volunteered to lead the meeting gathered the group together. I could tell right away she meant business. She stood with confidence and held three fingers up in the air. Immediately, the wild first grade mayhem stopped. The girls all stood at attention, holding three fingers in the air, facing their temporary leader. I’d been there less than half an hour and they were already busting out secret hand symbols!
“Now girls,” the mother said to the group of hypnotized Daisies, “This is a very, very dangerous trail. There are steep areas where you can fall and get hurt.”
The girls, transfixed at the thought of plunging to their deaths in Daisy vests, hung on to her every word. I resisted the urge to roll my eyes and groan, knowing that this park’s tallest peak was a smidgen over three feet tall. I decided to stay positive, imagining in my play-pretend mind that after the hike, the sullen substitute troop leader would award me with a hiking pin to attach to my imaginary adult-sized Daisy vest.
“Because we want you to be safe, I need you to listen to the rules,” the mother said, “Please get in line in groups of two. We’re going to use the Buddy System. Each girl needs to stand by their mommy..”
She paused, looked at Stephanie, looked at me, then frowned, unsure of what to say. She looked in the air, mentally scanning the Girl Scout Leader guidebook for how to appropriately address non-mommy types.
“Or…..,” she said, carefully, waving her hand in a grand, dismissive gesture, “The girlfriend of your father, whatever the case may be.”
And with that, her pale skin turned crimson as she began nervously shuffling girls and mommies into a two-by-two line.
I was paralyzed with shock. Several of the more compassionate mothers smiled at me and shrugged. Some just grabbed their girls and got in line. Knowing I didn't have the luxury of a getaway car, I stood there, fighting back the desire to laugh hysterically and sob with embarrassment all at the same time. I’ve been through thousands of awkward moments in my life, but that one definitely ranks up there with second grade when I laughed so hard I peed a puddle on the cafeteria floor after Trey Stephens told an off-colored joke.
What’s funny is that Stephanie handled it like a pro. I honestly think she felt sorry for me. Kids are awesome that way. She grabbed my hand and led me to the line like nothing had ever happened. We started our hike, did some obligatory leaf rubbings, and returned with zero broken bones and one mildly bruised ego (mine). I had a couple of conversations with the compassionate mothers. All in all, we had a nice time.
Today Stephanie turns 17. We made it through the bumpy times and I'm so thankful that we did. She’s a beautiful person, her face a lovely combination of both of her good-looking parents. She’s ridiculously intelligent and humble about it. She’s mad about Justin Bieber and trampolines. She likes road trips because she gets to watch the scenery. Because of her appreciation for the beauty in the world, she’s an excellent photographer. She does goofy, hilarious dances when we’re in the grocery store. She helps people in need, just like her father. She can do a perfect Russian accent that makes us grip our sides with laughter. She stays up way too late, baking the best cupcakes I've ever eaten, singing beautifully to terrible pop radio songs. She’s still figuring out what she wants to be when she grows up, which is fine, because she has time to work it out. When I see her smile, I still see the same cute girl who stood by me as my maid of honor when I married her father. Of the relationships in my life, my relationship with Stephanie is one of the most important.
So while someone else begins writing the manual on dating a man with children, I’ll celebrate the fact that I made it through with very few scars. And when I do get my adult-sized Daisy vest, I’ll have lots of pins. I’ll get a Naive Cookie Mom pin. I’ll have one for Patience, and it will be a rendering of the hours I spent bribing a homesick child at the Girl Scout sleepover with dark chocolate, convincing her that sleeping on an air mattress was actually worth it. But the pin I’ll put in the most prominent position will be for sticking with it despite my insecurities of dating a man with children. That one will be the “Whatever the Case May Be” pin, and I’ll wear it with pride.