And Then There Were Five

In another month, J and I will celebrate our one-year wedding anniversary, but even better, it will be our tenth anniversary together. We purposely planned a wedding on a Thursday so we could keep our original anniversary and I am still grateful to everyone who gave up their weekday night(s) to help us make it happen so perfectly.

Our wedding was a gigantic milestone in the life of my family. We’d been engaged for eight years by the time we got married, together nine years, living together for six. Our lives, from the day we all first met, to the day we all stood up for the wedding, had changed significantly.

The night before the kids started to arrive for the wedding, as J and I lay in bed together, I whispered, “It’s all going to work out exactly perfectly, can you believe it?”

And that feeling, that “everything is going to work out exactly as we hoped for all of these years” was even more important to us than actually getting married. We were getting married and that was a big deal, but even more importantly, all of our kids were standing up for us.

This was important because we went through a lot of years where we didn’t know if they would.

I cannot begin to describe how hard it is to blend families, especially when your kids are older and have been through some emotional times that have resulted in a new family they may or may not have wanted. This is one of the first challenges of blending a family. To tell you all of them would require a full-sized book which you don’t need me to write because there is already a really good book called “StepCoupling”, which J and I read out loud to each other right after we became engaged, when I was having a panic attack about how we were going to make this all work because what did I know about being a stepmom?

One of the things I learned from that book, is that it takes approximately seven years for blended families to develop the bonds of blood families. SEVEN YEARS. I was already a mom, so I knew the kind of love I had for my daughter, but I have to admit, there was a part of me that wondered if I would ever be able to love someone else’s kids like I loved my own.

I remember exactly the moments that I realized I loved each of them.

Bunz, as his sister named him, was fourteen when I met him. He was really into video games, and he was friendly and outgoing and lovable. He turned into a teenager and he got into trouble and he wanted his freedom more than anything else in the world. It was during this time that J and I decided to consolidate households. By now, we’d known each other for three years and learned a lot about each other, but living together was a whole new deal. Bunz wanted out. He wanted to stop coming to his dad’s house. And in what was a heart wrenching sentiment to J and I he said he “didn’t want to be part of the new family.” It was five months before his eighteenth birthday, and he begged to just live with his mom.

It was one night, in the kitchen, just me and him, when he was crying and saying “Five months seems like forever” that I knew by the way my heart was breaking that I had fallen in love with him. I hugged him and told him it would be ok and J and I called a family meeting and we made a decision to let him go.

Bunz went wild for a while there. Howling at the moon. Falling off the grid. And then he went off to the Marines and the next time I saw him was when he graduated from boot camp. When the Marines were dismissed and able to find their families J spotted him close in the crowd and yelled our last name and Bunz hugged his dad and cried tears and I cried, too, because literally who could watch that and not?

Sem, as my stepdaughter nicknamed herself, was ten when I met her. She and Bunny were in the same grade, almost exactly a month apart in age, Sem being the “little sister”. She was cute as a button, polite and sweet, and had a funny sense of humor, even at that young age. Sem became a teenager also but first she and Bunny became middle schoolers. Lordy, I did not know if I was going to survive those years. The girls fought, and then J and I fought, and then the girls fought some more, and then J and his ex fought, and then the girls fought some more and so on. (and so on and so on)

Very early in our relationship, after a kind of difficult first weekend at the lake with all the kids, J and I made a vow that we would not let the kids break us up. We had finished the StepCoupling book. We knew the statistics for second marriages.  We felt pretty certain that a large contributor to the sixty percent divorce rate for second marriages had to do with blending families and we vowed not to be one of those statistics.

It was that vow that got us through middle school. The girls grew up some more and after we moved in together they actually started to get along. In fact, sometimes they got along really, really well and J and I would bask in those times when times got tough.

We did some things wrong, but only because we thought they were right at the time. By the time we moved in together our girls were thirteen. Our parenting styles were well established and neither one of us felt like we should have to change. One example I can think of is the topic of sleepovers on school nights. Bunny was a good kid who got good grades and who had good friends. I let her have sleepovers on school nights with the agreement that they go to bed at a decent time and they make it to school on time. J did not allow sleepovers on school nights. This was a fundamental difference in the way we did things that we failed to come to an agreement on because neither one of us thought we should have to change the rules for our kid because of the other one. It’s things like these that give kids messages you never mean to give them.

That’s not to say it was all bad, it was pretty good, actually. We had some really good times together. We went on vacations and adventures, had fun together, baked Christmas cookies and decorated new ornaments for the tree and made memories together. I recently saw “Daddy’s Home 2” and there is a part in the movie (spoiler alert) where the stepdad is happy because even though he has a knife and homeless guy’s poop on his head, it’s the first picture his stepdaughter has drawn of him where he isn’t already dead. I could totally relate.  You celebrate the smallest accomplishments when you’re trying to make a family out of pieces.

When Sem got to high school, she didn’t want to come to our house anymore either, and in a rapid turn of events she abruptly stopped coming over and along with that stopped talking to us altogether. J was worried that he was never going to see his daughter again, but I could not live with that. I was not willing to give up hope. I wanted her to know that we still loved her and cared about her and that even though she wasn’t living with us, it didn’t mean we didn’t love her anymore. I checked the high school soccer schedule, and I went to one of her games.

It wasn’t until she came out onto the soccer field, and I saw her again after not seeing her for a while, and my eyes welled up with tears, that I knew, by the way my heart was breaking, that I had fallen in love with her, too. I never stopped trying after that day, and eventually, we put the pieces back together. Not the old pieces. We left those behind, and put together new, different and better pieces. Sem and I have a better relationship now than we did when we lived together, and she still has a funny sense of humor.

So, the answer is yes, you can love someone else’s kids the same way you love your own.

We asked all the kids to stand up for us when we started planning a wedding and held our breath until every one of them said yes. Even now Bunz is a fly by the seat of his pants kind of guy and we had a gnawing anxiety throughout the wedding planning that he would not make it back.

But two nights before, when the airport rides were arranged and the dresses bought and hair appointments made, it felt like it was all coming together exactly perfectly. Like everything we ever wanted and hoped and dreamed for our family was finally coming to fruition, putting years of worry to bed.

Not long after we returned home from our honeymoon, our official marriage certificate arrived in the mail. It’s all typed up and fancy, but its not the one that’s most important to us. The one we love, that we hung on the fridge where it remains today, is the one that our kids signed, right after the ceremony, after they stood up for us. That’s the one that will always mean the most. It was a wedding, and we are now married, but it was a million times more than that to us. It was a rite of passage. A commitment. A celebration.

We made it.

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