I already had two teenage girls when I met my husband — and my four bonus kids — and began to build the big, beautiful blended family I never imagined.
My tally: two mostly sane, completely lovely daughters; one divorce decree I still couldn’t bear to look at; one well-used Netflix account (minus the “and-chill” option). My girls were already fluffing their fledgling feathers and planning futures that did not include me (beyond phone calls and visits, that is). This was a fact that made me both proud and heartbreakingly lonely at the prospect of an empty nest. It meant I had done my job as a mama — but divorce wasn’t supposed to be part of my life equation.
I wanted to grow old with someone who would be kind, even if the years were not. I wanted to share a Netflix account. I wanted to buy appallingly cheesy Valentine’s Day cards in the “husband” section — reaching for them with my shaky, mottled 90-year-old hands.
But it seemed unlikely to happen. In 2015, after a string of unsatisfying post-divorce relationships (a generous word to describe the utterly mismatched pairings I attempted), I gave up on dating. I tried to focus on the perks of my soon-to-be empty nest as a single mom. Soon enough, I would be free to leave the tiny, maddeningly gossipy town in Massachusetts where I couldn’t shake the Scarlet D (“divorcée”) branded on my forehead. There was no one else to consider. I could do as I pleased. I was unlikely to be a cat lady, but a dog lady was entirely possible — wherever I wished to be.
I signed up for real estate listings: small, dilapidated cabins in Maine (where I would work at a newspaper in a tiny coastal town, naturally) or overlooked scraps of land in Montana (a tiny house with a homemade fence and a rescue horse). Why not? I did not need a man, would not need a man. I would be my own valentine — permanently. I would never lack for Champagne or chocolate or heart-shaped knickknacks mined from the detritus of T.J. Maxx. I made Pinterest boards of how to build pens for goats and donkeys, how to hang shelves without finding a stud, wall or otherwise.
And that was the plan — until I somehow enlisted for a second tour of motherhood duty.
In 2016, after a year away from dating, from any thought of a partner, I met my second husband online. We met on a dating app based on elaborate value-matching algorithms. It had worked for a dear friend. “Just give it a try,” she pleaded. “Don’t give up yet.”
My friend knew the dream for me had always included a partner, that elusive best friend-lover combination. So basic, my daughters would say. But I am basically basic at heart. I’d tried other dating sites: PlentyOfFish, OkCupid, Match. Oh, the snark! The games! The false bravado! What was one more dating app in the grander scheme of life humiliations?
The dating site in question decided that my perfect match was a strong-jawed, sweet-eyed oncologist in Wisconsin. He was so pretty it hurt my eyes (and my thighs) to look at his pictures. He was just too pretty for me. There was no way in hell this guy would talk to me at a bar in real life. Each day for a week, my finger hovered over the delete button when I revisited his profile. He skied. He swam. He ran marathons. He had completed an Ironman in excellent time. Surely this guy could find a sexy spandex-clad gazelle in his state. Surely this dude had no use for a quirky, often depressed, sports-bra-loathing writer and single mom in New England. After all, he hadn’t reached out yet either.
Then I saw it on his profile, something I had missed: a photo of him standing in front of what was presumably his 40th birthday cake. He was wearing out-of-fashion 1990s glasses and a comic book T-shirt. He was losing his hair. And he was beaming down at two little boys who were beaming right back at him.
I melted. Jaw guy was confusing, but this guy? This guy I could fall for. I did the equivalent of dropping a lace handkerchief in Jane Austen’s day; I sent him a winky face. An “icebreaker,” the site called it.
The ice broke. He wrote me back almost instantly.
I will spare you the details of our long-distance courtship, my ongoing nagging worry about the scarcity of athletic-wear in my closet and the vast differences in how we process information (he once pointed out an “auxiliary area for bowls” in the dishwasher, good lord). But I was quickly in love with his goodness, his honesty, his gentleness, his complete lack of dating mojo (dude had queen-size Star Wars sheets when he first took me to bed) and his obvious delight in being a father. His center-midfielder soccer legs weren’t half bad either. This love could be big, I thought. I could feel my heart swelling with each phone call, each Skype session, each visit. I could feel his heart unfolding too.
But this big love came with an even bigger catch: He also had a divorce decree in his back pocket — and four children from his first marriage. Four.
They were younger than mine. He had many, many days of fathering ahead of him, with kids aged 10, 8, 6 and 5. The elder three were boys. I knew nothing about boys. His youngest was a girl, almost exactly a decade younger than my firstborn. And his ex-wife and current co-parent — a Prada-clad yoga instructor who still wrote pining haiku on Twitter that may or may not have been about him — lived on the same road two houses down. To say this was a lot to process would be a hilarious understatement.
Was I up for this kind of valentine — for this complicated life — if it came with the love I’d wanted for so long?
We wasted little time with small talk. After our first face-to-face time together, we decided we had to meet each other’s families. Everything for us required a big talk. There were six kids tangled up in whatever we chose to do or not do. Prolonging a long-distance relationship without a sense of each other’s children, each other’s parenting… it made no sense. This was either going to be a big, quick, nice-meeting-y’all fail or a long, slow, committed success. There weren’t any other options — not for us. We weren’t about to put our kids through another divorce or let our kids bond with a new partner who might bolt.
I had already ended several relationships post-divorce because — while my own ability to swallow bullshit and crap behavior was pathologically strong — I refused to continue with anyone who might ever direct that bullshit toward my kids. I did not expect anyone to have instant love for my babies, but I needed to see that it was possible in another soul: that they understood children, that they understood my fierce kind of mama bear love.
When my now-husband first visited me, my daughters, and my mother in Massachusetts, we decided to try a new and very busy Italian restaurant. As I studied his kind profile and watched him joking with my girl posse, pessimist brain took over. Surely this won’t work, I thought. There’s too much working against us for a love like this to take root — too many souls involved. A relationship between two people is difficult enough; this one was a Venn diagram, and every compartment required finesse and patience and time.
Then he reached out to gently touch our server’s arm. He gestured to my younger daughter, who was ready to eat the tablecloth after a day of dance.
“Could we get some bread or rolls?” he asked the server warmly while gesturing to Hannah. “She’s been dancing all day and really needs to eat.”
My daughters and my mother had liked him already; this quick reflex of his to get food into a hungry kid sealed the deal for them. In retrospect, I see, it sealed the deal for me, although I didn’t know it yet.
When it was my turn to meet his four kids, I tried to channel my inner Julie Andrews by singing in the shower. “An oncologist and four children / What’s so fearsome about that?” Our first dinner with his babies happened at their Wisconsin dining room table. I had never doubted I was good with kids, but would I be good enough for these kids?
His firstborn is a kindly diplomat. As an awkward silence settled over the table, the 10-year-old turned to me and asked me what my favorite color was. Blue-green, I told him. He said that was a great color. My not-yet-husband smiled at me as the other kids began chattering about favorite colors, favorite animals, favorite sports. I exhaled very slowly, relieved. This was not the lifetime valentine this ever-single mom had expected, but suddenly, it was the only valentine I wanted.
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It has not been an easy journey, blending this family. I have traveled between my girls, who needed to stay in Massachusetts for school, and my husband and his family, lugging my writing work back and forth. Even now, we have not managed to find a way to live together full-time as a married couple. But we inch closer to it with each month — tweaking this, tweaking that, making plans.
We may be slightly insane, but we are happy. We look like the Brady Bunch: three adorable girls, three handsome boys. We asked each other’s children for permission to marry — permission was granted by all offspring — but our valentine Venn diagram includes co-parents. Thankfully, our ex-spouses have come around to accepting (and even approving of) our love adventure three years in the making. His ex-wife knows my daughters well (and even took one salsa dancing and to a Brandi Carlile concert). My ex-husband joined us in our Massachusetts backyard for a Memorial Day barbecue.
We do not parent the same way. My husband is permissive, doting even. He can roll with a lot of chaos, admirably; I tend to need order to keep my raging anxiety at bay. Our expectations for our respective offspring are very different. Often, I need to retreat, repeating my silent mantra: Not exactly my circus, not exactly my monkeys. I can love the heck out of his kids, but he’s in charge of that particular circus — just like I’m in charge of my own two-daughter tightrope act.
Part of this love has been learning to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone involved all the time. It’s not an easy lesson to swallow. That learning curve is steep, brutally so. When we took a cross-country road trip with all the kids this summer in a rented RV that smelled like old hot dogs and geriatric urine, I nearly had a breakdown — much to my husband’s shock and frustration. Why couldn’t I roll with it — just relax?
But each hurdle, each obstacle, has only served to make us better, stronger. Will I get that remote tiny house in Montana, that rescue pony? Doubtful. Is this a pretty good trade? Definitely.
This Christmas — a year and a half into life with me as his stepmom — my eldest stepson gave me sparkling blue-green earrings, exactly my favorite color. “I love you, Jenn,” he said, hugging me hard, even now that he’s reached the awkward age of 13.
“I love you too,” I said, holding him tight.
I love them all, even when I do not like what they do — even when they do not like what I do or what their stepsisters do. The “I do” my husband and I said to each other during our marriage ceremony applies to every one of our shared six children. I do. I will. I will stay, no matter what. You are stuck with me, and I am here for you. I know you were in my love’s life before I was, and I honor that.
I know my stepsons and my stepdaughter are not “mine” (ah, that funny word when applied to people). There is sometimes grief in this for me, of loving a partner with whom I will never have a biological child.
But this here “for better or for worse” is so much better than I could have ever imagined — so much so, that I believe I can handle any of the “worse” that comes along with it. This big, blended love is an origami paper valentine heart that keeps opening wider and bigger and brighter — with no end in sight.