The clock hits noon. Time to wake the dragons. With a deep sigh, I do my best to wrap-up whatever contracting project I'm working on and close my laptop. Fortified with a big gulp of cold coffee, I start my rounds with a knock on the 15-year-old's door. Though his alarm has sounded every nine minutes for the past two hours, my knocks and gentle greetings are met with deep, moaning growls.
"Good morning," I say. "Time to get up and go have some fun."
"Grrrr, hmph. Agh."
On to the next...
This summer, I volunteered to play ringmaster to our extended brood of kids. My daughter, plus my husband's three sons. The youngest kid is eleven, the oldest fifteen. I work from home and convinced myself I could complete all required contract work by noon each day, leaving us the rest of the hours for grand adventures and happy family bonding experiences.
These are amazing kids. Smart, funny, remarkably conscientious, they arrest my attention and affection with ease. For the summer, I constructed grandiose plans. Perhaps we'll start our own reading club, or volunteer two days out of the week, or maybe decide on a subject we all find interesting and spend the summer visiting museums and experts to learn all we can about it.
We're one week in.
What a week it's been. I have learned that the boys' beautiful empathy and manners extend to everyone but each other. Two meals out with this hungry crew drained my entire entertainment budget for the week. My goal yesterday narrowed to simply getting out of the house before 3pm and to convince them to stop referring to each other as retards.
Now I review with great skepticism the activities I planned for next week. A trip to the museum. Yeah, right. Cross that one off. Wild Waves? Even if I can find the money to afford the entry and snacks, how will I possibly manage to keep them from shoving each other off one of the slide towers to splatter on the cement below in gory spectacle?
I haven't written in my novel for five days. I'm tired of explaining how deriding your brother by calling him gay diminishes us all. I'm tired of passive aggressive tactics meant to stall our departure so someone can spend just twenty minutes more on their online game campaign. I'm tired of constantly trying to find food to keep the boys full while working within the confines of their incredibly limited palettes.
Did I mention we're just one week in?
Most of my difficulties boil down to the fact that despite having lived part-time with these bonus boys for the better part of six years, I still don't know them very well. When we first started dating, their dad and I waited a full year before we started "blending" our kids for joint activities. Even when we eventually moved in together, I still treated them cautiously, with removed respect and interest.
My father shuffled through an entire deck of girlfriends. Some of them I loved, some I reviled. He even married a few of them. These women drifted in and out of my life with every passing season. I learned to keep my heart closed, guarded, least a bit of leave me as well at their hurried departure. When I first met these boys, I promised myself that I would not hurt them. I would not court their affection and loyalty when I was uncertain about the permanence of my place in their father's life. I would be a friend, and not a very close one. Yet always nice and welcoming.
While this may have been a good approach in the beginning, it doesn't work anymore. These aren't my boyfriend's kids. These are my step-sons. My family. Yet now that we've spent years establishing remote relationships, building greater trust and intimacy proves difficult.
Without trust, my disciple is timid and rare. I still worry about them "not liking me" and hold back in moments when I should be calling out bad behavior and shutting them down. These brothers act out complex power struggles every moment they're together. When I fail to intervene, these battles may become horrifying ugly and destructive.
My daughter and I are reduced to gawking. How can people treat each other so mean? As I am one of six sisters, I actually know this is normal. My daughter, an only child for many years, regards the boys as though an invading alien species.
In thinking through this post before I wrote it down, I came to the realization that not only did I remain aloof to protect the boys and spare myself the guilt of breaking young hearts, I did so to protect my own heart. Did I mention that these kids are amazing? If I love them a little, I can't help but love them truly, madly, deeply. Nothing is ever certain. If I lost my husband, I'd suffer three more losses in the same terrible moment.
The time for hesitation and reserve has past. These kids are my kids now. I open my heart. How they respond is up to them. I'm leaving the museum off the list, but I'm keeping the volunteer work, hard-labor if I can find it. We'll ask their grandma to come to Wild Waves with us. Reinforcements.
Noon tomorrow, I'm going to do the rounds once more. "Good morning," I'll say. "Get up. I can't wait to go have some fun with you."